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Uncertain Strength’: An Interview With Václav Havel

Václav Havel, Dana Emingerova, and Lubos Beniak, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

The following interview was recently conducted in Prague by Dana Emingerová and Luboš Beniak, and first published in the magazine Mladý Svet.

What have you found surprising in the world of the powerful?

I realize again and again how terribly important the personal characteristics of politicians are, their relationships and mutual animosities, what an immense political influence their good and bad qualities can have on the lives of millions of people. This, to me, is a surprising and to some extent shocking experience, and it’s true not only of our domestic political scene, but of the international scene as well. Not long ago I saw King Lear in a production by the National Theatre in London. After my experiences as president, the play spoke to me in an utterly new language. After all, one of the things King Lear is about is how a family disagreement results in the division of a kingdom.

Are you working on a play set in the presidential milieu?

By sheer coincidence I had such a play underway in 1989. After the revolution I threw the manuscript away, but perhaps one day I’ll come back to that theme. The play was about the world of the powerful, and even though at the time I knew very little about that world, because I didn’t move in those circles, it excited me in a strange way. What attracted me was the theme of leaving power, the extent to which the world of powerful people collapses when they are driven out of power. More than once, in writing plays, I have found myself pointing to something that had yet to come…which is no particular merit of mine, it comes from the very mystery of drama itself.

To what extent would your own world collapse if you were driven from power?

Not in the least.

Michael Kocáb1 told us, half-ironically, half-seriously, that the new regime had destroyed him as an artist because it had robbed him of his themes. Are you, as a playwright, in a similar situation?

As a matter of fact just a few days ago I had a meeting with my fellow playwrights and other theater people; it was the follow-up to another meeting we had before November 1989. For the whole evening, we talked on precisely that subject—about whether or not we still had anything to write about. I think the new era has opened up an immense number of new themes. I feel them importuning me, forcing themselves on me, tempting me. If only I had the time, the opportunity, and the concentration…. Colleagues who have more free time to write, however, disagreed with me and said that it’s a matter of years, that a theme must lie dormant in the spirit for some time before it can be transformed into good drama. But I have the feeling that I would know right away what to write about.

What would that be?

Today we are seeing remarkable things around us. I would particularly enjoy mapping the basic existential ground—not just fear of the future, or fear of freedom, but we’re starting to see fear of our own past. It’s a theme that surfaces in the familiar problem of “lustration”—the checking of people’s records with the secret police. All of society was caught in its nets. It has torn these nets apart and got rid of them. But now it’s afraid to reflect on its own past involvement. That, to me, is dramatically very exciting.

Could you be more specific?

Just imagine someone who was importuned all his life by the secret police, and has learned how to take evasive action, to prevaricate and equivocate. At last, he thinks he has just about escaped their clutches, that he has successfully deceived them. After the revolution, this person feels an enormous sense of relief; now he can breathe easily because they, the secret police, can no longer bother him…. And now, suddenly, there is a new fear: he hears how, one after another, people who were marked as secret collaborators swore that they had never been collaborators, that someone had put them on a list without their knowledge, that on the basis of a single meeting in a café they were entered on a list of “candidates” for secret collaboration or something worse, just so some cop could get to chalk up the credit.

A lot of people are anxious to submit to lustration in order to clear their names.

In this connection, I remember a funny story. It happened here in the Castle, during a meeting: someone handed me a big, mysterious, official-looking envelope, sealed and stamped. A piece of paper was stuck to it that said: “Václav Havel, born October 5, 1936.” And then there was a date, let’s say May 4, 1965—CANDIDATE. And then another date, for instance April 17, 1967—ACCEPTED. I felt my blood congeal. When I opened the envelope, I discovered that someone had sent me documents confirming when I had become a candidate for the Writers’ Union, and when I’d become a member. But that sensation, that congealing of the blood I felt when I saw the envelope—that’s exactly the phenomenon I’m talking about, and as one of the thousands of things we can observe around us, it’s exactly what would interest me in a play, the situation of someone who felt he’d made it through the system unscathed and suddenly is terrified that maybe he hasn’t after all.

What makes you most worried or afraid?

To tell you the truth, I’m not physically, personally, affected so much by fear that things will turn out badly for this country, that parliament and the government will collapse, that the country will fall apart, that there will be huge strikes, social crises, chaos, that dictators will elbow their way forward and things like that. If I’m afraid of anything, it’s that I won’t be able to make the proper moves in this very unsettled political scene, to accomplish the tasks I’ve taken on, to meet the expectations that cling to my sojourn in this office. It’s something that might be called stage fright. When I find myself in extremely complex situations, I worry about whether I’ll be able to sort them out. But I wouldn’t want this to sound as though I’m just a bundle of panic and misery and lack of self-confidence. On the contrary, this constant self-doubt and the constant uncertainty are what drive me to work harder and try harder. So in fact it’s a productive characteristic, in terms of its results. If I have accomplished anything good, then it’s mainly because I’ve been driven by the need to know whether I can accomplish things I’m not sure I have the capacity for.

Many of us are horrified by what is happening today in Slovakia. Do you think that Slovak calls for independence can be put off forever? After all, this question has always been tabled at decisive moments in the history of our republic.

It is not my role to thwart the ambitions of any nation. I don’t think that Slovakia is longing for full independence. Still, if it were, it would have the full right to do so. But the citizens of Slovakia would have to decide in a constitutional and democratic fashion.

Today, the values that carried you all the way to the office of president are, it would seem, far removed from everyday life. To put it graphically: while there is a visionary in the Castle, the people outside are kicking each other. Is there not too deep a gulf between your ideas and reality?

It seems to me that precisely because the situation is what it is, I must again, and perhaps far more than before, remind people of spiritual values, appeal to moral criteria. Even though it may not have any particular influence on everyday life, stone must be laid on stone. I have always rejected any comparison with Masaryk, and I don’t intend to compare myself with him now. Still, I’d like to point out one thing: the first few years after our republic was established in 1918 were, in their atmosphere, very similar to the period we are living through now. Masaryk did not allow himself to be disgusted by this, he did not retire to his professorial study. He insisted that moral ideals would, over time, come to be appreciated. In these matters, he should probably serve as an example to me.

What are you reading right now?

The Personalities and Problems of Czech History, by Josef Pekaš. I’m fascinated by his sophisticated view of the important people and events in our history.

Speaking about important events, what, in your opinion, is most misrepresented today about the events of November 17, 1989?

I don’t find any obvious lies being told, it’s more that here and there people are blowing their own horn and describing their roles as being more important than in fact they were. Once more, I’d go back to October 28, 1918, which I’ve studied more deeply. I’ve read many, many memoirs, and a huge pile of books and magazines that came out during the First Republic. As time went by, the number of authentic eyewitnesses actually increased, and gradually, more and more new heroes of the 28th of October were “revealed,” each of whom played an enormously important role in the events…which of course is all normal, and human.

We were thinking more of the much-discussed activities “behind the scenes.”

What is unclear, what the parliamentary commission has been examining for more than a year, what almost everyone speculates about, including the notorious Mr. Dolejsi,2 is the immensely seductive and exciting notion that behind the visible events there is a kind of secret background that someone will uncover. I don’t exclude the possibility that the police intervention [against the students] on November 17 concealed a power struggle inside the Communist party, that someone, by setting up the intervention, was attempting to discredit someone else. But again, it doesn’t seem to me that we have here some kind of highly suggestive detective mystery. I can easily imagine that some Party functionaries could have sent a signal down through the ranks that if the students were put down more harshly than usual, it could mean a promotion up the hierarchy of power. And I can just as easily imagine that someone lower in rank who overheard such a signal could develop a whole scenario from it. I think that it was more a matter of a number of such hints, promptings or recommendations, rather than some written instructions, making it difficult to reconstruct…something like the atmospheric and psychological moods I observe in political events even now.

Former secret policemen are not just bombarding tabloids like Expres with their version of events. Even if you don’t believe them, they still manage to sow the seeds of doubt…. Did you know anything about what was happening behind the scenes, in the seat of power, during those revolutionary days?

No more than any other citizen. I certainly didn’t have my own bugging device somewhere in the Central Committee building, or my own spies, who would tell me of their plots and plans.

In November 1989, we were proud of our “velvet” decency. Aren’t we returning to the point where decent people lose out because there are certain things they simply won’t do, whereas the demagogues and egoists who are not ashamed to shout, lie, and cheat are winning?

In earlier days, I said several times that society is a complex and mysterious creation and that it’s extremely imprudent to believe in the face it presents you with at a given moment, let alone to consider it the one and only true face. October 28, 1918, unfolded very much the way November 17, 1989, did. In 1968, we peacefully resisted the Soviet occupation. From time to time, in intensified historical moments, our society is capable of mobilizing a tradition of humanity, tolerance, and decency. But this is only one of the potentials dormant within it. However frustrating and depressing the present envy, suspicion, aggressiveness, and self-interest may be, it is a phase we must go through. A single uprising in an extreme historical situation, when everything is at stake and when people prove capable of acting in harmony, cannot, from one day to the next, wipe out a work of destruction that has gone on for forty years.

Was there something in that “work” that is worth not losing?

Life under totalitarianism had certain advantages. These did not flow from its program, but rather from the fact that we were suffocated by the system. And that awakened certain potentials in people that would not be expressed to the same extent in a normally functioning democracy. The crisis of values in advanced European civilization is a very deep one. Because we have lacked much of what people have in free, prosperous countries, we have not succumbed to the crisis phenomena that come from a state of general prosperity. Not long ago I talked about this with the Dutch prime minister, Mr. Lubbers, who told me that the main problem in his society was the loss of a sense of the meaning of life. The young generation in particular is expressing frustration at the fact that they have everything. He talked about how support for the Green movement and concern for the environment give people a certain meaning, a goal, values that are worth struggling for.

You have a lot of contact with people from abroad now. How do they see us? Sometimes we go from one extreme to another in our self-evaluation. On the one hand, we behave as though Czechoslovakia were the navel of the world, and on the other hand, we are afraid that we may have sunk to the level of Central Asia and haven’t a hope of catching up to the rest of the world.

The people from abroad I meet are largely politicians. What is characteristic of them is cultivation, decency, politeness, taste, tact—qualities that our politicians sometimes lack. Thanks to such qualities, I scarcely ever encounter a point of view that is unambiguous one way or the other. All of them—and they are educated people, who know history—see Czechoslovakia as a country that used to be a regular part of democratic Europe and which, because of communism, was cut off from its own past, from its own traditions. They understand that we have countless problems today in finding our own identity. On the one hand, I observe respect for the dignified course of our November revolution, and on the other hand, I notice signals of a certain concern, understanding, and hope that we will resolve our difficulties, because it is in the general interests of all of Europe that we master them.

As a dissident, you wrote an essay called “Words on Words”3 in which you reflect on the great meaning words can have—after all, they used to lock people up for words here. Don’t you regret that they’ve lost the weight they used to have? That no matter what you say now, it doesn’t really mean anything?

We do indeed live in a time of strange inflation, and at the same time, devaluation, of words. We haven’t even got time to take account of them all, because so many newspapers come out, so many commentaries…. This is a confusing and uncertain period, when a thousand wise words can go completely unnoticed, and one thoughtless word can provoke an utterly nonsensical furor. Two days later, the furor is forgotten, which again is typical of our present political life.

You once expressed the opinion that anyone who takes himself too seriously risks being ridiculous. Anyone who can laugh at himself will not risk ridicule. How does that kind of wisdom sit with being president?

I haven’t lost my sense for seeing the absurd dimension of things. There is unintentional humor in many of my public moments these days, and I’m well aware of them, but I can’t admit to them too openly. The situation in our country is serious and I don’t think it would make a very good impression if the president was someone who was always making fun of himself. So I more or less have to keep it to myself, don’t I?

There are other things connected with being president, too. A colleague of ours discovered that in your favorite pub there’s a table the manager won’t let anyone else sit at

That pub, you should know, is very close to where I live, which means that I used to be a frequent guest. I’ve been friends with the manager, Mrs. Beranová, for years, and as a matter of fact she got into a lot of trouble over the fact that I was a regular: she was driven out of the restaurant by a kind of mafia that ran the restaurants for Prague 1. With the revolution, she was able to come back, and I visit her pub as I did before, although less frequently, of course. As far as that table is concerned, I’ll have to tell Mrs. Beranová to let other customers sit there. Whenever I stop by, she always finds me a place and I’d feel badly if the table stood empty for weeks on end just because I might show up.

In Disturbing the Peace you said, and I quote, “I have had various emotional relationships in my life.” Has the fact that you are president changed anything in that regard?

I’m going to give you a very cagey reply: I don’t have the feeling that the office I hold has changed anything in my spirit or my nature.

Do you have any time left these days for love?

You certainly mean love for one’s neighbor, don’t you?

How else?

Of course I do.

Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

  1. 1

    Leading rock musician and member of parliament.

  2. 2

    Mr. Dolejsi was a political prisoner in the 1950s. He has recently come out with an “analysis” of the events of November 1989, claiming that they were orchestrated by the KGB, the CIA, and Mossad for the purpose of replacing the crumbling Communist regime by a crypto-Bolshevik government led by Havel and his associates.

  3. 3

    See The New York Review, January 18, 1990.

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