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History of a Public Enemy

Václav Havel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

For me personally, it all began sometime in January or February 1976. I was at Hrádecek, alone, there was snow everywhere, a night blizzard was raging outside, I was writing something, and suddenly there was a pounding on the door. I opened it, and there stood a friend of mine, whom I don’t wish to name, half frozen and covered with snow. We spent the night discussing things over a bottle of cognac he’d brought with him. Almost as an aside, this friend suggested that I meet Ivan Jirous, and he even offered to set up a meeting, because he saw him frequently. I already knew Jirous; I’d met him about twice in the late 1960s, but I hadn’t seen him since then. Occasionally I would hear wild and, as I discovered later, quite distorted stories about the group of people that had gathered around him, which he called the underground, and about the Plastic People of the Universe, a nonconformist rock group that was at the center of this society. Jirous was their artistic director.

I understood from my friend the snowman that Jirous’s opinion of me was not exactly flattering either: he apparently saw me as a member of the official, and officially tolerated, opposition—in other words, a member of the establishment. But a month later, when I was in Prague, thanks to my friend the snowman, I actually did meet Jirous. His hair was down to his shoulders, other long-haired people would come and go, and he talked and talked and explained to me how everything was. He gave me his “Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival” and he played me songs by the Plastic People, DG 307, and other Czech underground groups on an old rasping tape recorder. Although I’m no expert on rock music, I immediately felt that there was something rather special radiating from these performances, that they were not just deliberately oddball or dilettantish attempts to be outlandish at any price, as what I had heard about them before might have suggested: the music was a profoundly authentic expression of the sense of life among these people, battered as they were by the misery of this world. There was disturbing magic in the music, and a kind of inner warning. Here was something serious and genuine, an internally free articulation of an existential experience that everyone who had not become completely obtuse must understand.

Jirous’s own explanations quickly dispelled the doubts I had harbored from the fragmentary and sometimes derisory information I’d heard before. Suddenly I realized that, regardless of how many vulgar words these people used or how long their hair was, truth was on their side. Somewhere in the midst of this group, their attitudes, and their creations, I sensed a strange purity, a shame, and a vulnerability; in their music was an experience of metaphysical sorrow and a longing for salvation. It seemed to me that this underground of Jirous’s was an attempt to give hope to those who had been most excluded. I was already very late for a party at Pavel Kohout’s place, and I telephoned to apologize; Pavel was annoyed, but I couldn’t very well explain over the phone why talking to Jirous was more important to me at that moment. Jirous and I went on to a pub, and we carried on almost until morning. He invited me to a concert that was supposed to take place about two weeks later somewhere just outside Prague, but the concert never took place: in the meantime, the authorities arrested Jirous and his band, along with some other singers in the underground, a total of about nineteen people.

I was at Hrádecek when I learned about this, and I came to Prague immediately, because it was obvious that something had to be done, and it was equally obvious that it was up to me to do it. I also knew it wouldn’t be easy to gain some kind of wider support for these boys. Among the people who might have helped almost no one knew them, and those who did harbored similar doubts to those I had felt before meeting Magor (that is Jirous’s nickname). I had almost nothing concrete to prove that they weren’t the layabouts, hooligans, alcoholics, and drug addicts that the regime was portraying them as, in the hope of being able simply to sweep them out of the way.

At the same time, I felt we had to do something not only on principle—because something ought to be done when someone is unjustly arrested—but also because of the special significance this case seemed to have, a meaning that seemed to transcend the details. Political prisoners from the early 1970s were gradually returning from prison. The long sentences they received had been an act of political revenge: the regime understood these people, correctly, as an opposition; it knew they would not surrender, so it settled its accounts with them as vanquished enemies who refused to behave as such. Their trials were essentially the last political trials for several years; everything seemed to indicate that prison would remain an extreme threat and that those in power had actually succeeded in developing more sophisticated ways of manipulating society. People had become somewhat used to this by now, and they were all the more inclined to treat the case of the Plastic People as a genuinely criminal affair.

At the same time, this confrontation was, in its own way, more serious and more dangerous than those trials in the early 1970s. What was happening here was not a settling of accounts with political enemies, who to a certain extent were prepared for the risks they were taking. This case had nothing whatsoever to do with a struggle between two competing political cliques. It was something far worse: an attack by the totalitarian system on life itself, on the very essence of human freedom and integrity. The objects of this attack were not veterans of old political battles; they had no political past, or even any well-defined political positions. They were simply young people who wanted to live in their own way, to make music they liked, to sing what they wanted to sing, to live in harmony with themselves, and to express themselves in a truthful way. A judicial attack against them, especially one that went unnoticed, could become the precedent for something truly evil: the regime could well start locking up everyone who thought independently and who expressed himself independently, even if he did so only in private. So these arrests were genuinely alarming: they were an attack on the spiritual and intellectual freedom of man, camouflaged as an attack on criminality, and therefore designed to gain support from a disinformed public. Here power had unintentionally revealed its own most proper intention: to make life entirely the same, to surgically remove from it everything that was even slightly different, everything that was highly individual, everything that stood out, that was independent and unclassifiable.

My role, I saw, would be to make use of my various contacts to stir up interest in the affair and to stimulate some action for the support and the defense of these people. I knew that, some time ago, Jirí Nemec, a philosopher and psychologist and a former colleague from Tvár, had become very close to the underground, and I knew I couldn’t do anything without consulting him first. Initially our rapprochement was extremely cautious, mainly on his part because I had broken with Tvár and this still hung between us; as far as the Tvár people were concerned, I was practically like what Trotsky had been for Stalin. (To be fair, I should add that, when I was in prison after the Charter came out, the Tvár people issued a collective position paper in my support.)

Gradually Jirí and I began to get along very well, and we laughed at our old differences (in the meantime, he too had gone through some changes, and was no longer the orthodox Tvár-ist he had once been). In the months and years that followed, we became real friends—for the first time, in fact. So Jirí and I began to “direct” the campaign for the Plastics, at least for as long as it was still necessary. The work gave both of us a great deal, and in doing it we were able to give each other something as well. Up to that point, he had deliberately held back from civic, public, or political involvement; he considered his work with the underground, his inconspicuous influence in the Catholic milieu, and his stimulating participation in the independent philosophical movement more important, and he did not want to put all that at risk by coming out in public in a way that would be conspicuous and would certainly lead to conflict. Until that moment, he had been more in favor of working “internally” than “externally.” Recognizing that the Plastics could only be helped by a public campaign, he had to change his position, and I think that on this new terrain it was I—since I was more familiar with it, after all—who became his guide. And he, on the other hand, led me out of the confines of “established opposition” and helped me widen my horizon.

We really planned the campaign in detail. Beginning with modest, internal steps, it was intended to build toward more emphatic ones. We wanted to give the regime the opportunity to retreat with dignity. We didn’t want to force it to withdraw right away behind its own prestige, because then nothing could move it. So, in the initial phase, we went around to different people and tried to get their support. At first we encountered misunderstanding and even resistance, which in that state of affairs was only to be expected. But I have to say that this mistrust evaporated very quickly, far more quickly than we had expected. People in different milieus very quickly began to understand that a threat to the freedom of these young people was a threat to the freedom of us all, and that a strong defense was all the more necessary because everything was against them. They were unknown, and the nature of their nonconformity was a handicap, because even decent citizens might perceive what they were doing as a threat just as the state had.

The alacrity with which many of those whom we had not expected to have much sympathy for this kind of culture were able to throw off their original inhibitions was clearly related to the situation I’ve already talked about: this was a time when we were beginning to learn how to walk upright again, a time of “exhaustion with exhaustion,” a time when many different groups of people had had enough of their isolation and felt that, if something was going to change, they had to start looking beyond their own horizons. Thus the ground was prepared for some kind of wider, common activity. If the regime’s attack on culture had taken place two years earlier, it might have gone by unnoticed.

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