Reflections on a Paradoxical Life

Václav Havel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

(The following is drawn from Karel Hvízdala’s long interview with Havel, which took place in 1986. It will be published later this month as Disturbing the Peace.
The Editors)

You’re approaching fifty now; perhaps this might be an occasion for some self-reflection as well—

It’s a diabolical task, and the first and only thing I can say right now is that my life, my work, my position, everything I’ve done, seems intertwined with a suspiciously large number of paradoxes. Take this one, for instance: I get involved in many things, yet I’m an expert in none of them. Over the years, for example, I’ve become known as a political activist, but I’ve never been a politician, never wanted to be one; I don’t have any of the necessary qualities for it. Both my opponents and my supporters see me as a political phenomenon, though nothing I do can be considered real politics. Every once in a while I philosophize—yet what kind of philosopher am I anyway? Certainly I’ve enjoyed reading philosophical books since my youth, but my philosophical education is more than shaky, and thoroughly piecemeal. I occasionally write about literature, yet, if there’s anything I most certainly am not, it’s a literary critic. There are times when I even stick my nose into music, and yet, if anything, my musicality is only a source of general amusement. Even in what I would consider my chief original vocation—theater—I’m not really an expert. I went through theater school quickly and without much interest; I don’t like reading plays or books on theater; I don’t enjoy going to most theater; I have a personal opinion, of sorts, about the kind of theater I like, and I write my plays in that spirit, but that’s all.

So I’m not at all certain that theater is my very own, unique and indispensable mission. I can easily imagine that, if an irresistible opportunity were to come my way, I could just as easily devote the same amount of energy to another discipline. I certainly don’t feel like a professional theater person, one inevitably drawn to theater, whose destiny is forever linked with the theater. And rather than be a dramaturge in any old theater just because I’ve been trained to be one, I’d prefer to go back to working in a brewery. In any case, as a dramatist I’m somewhat suspect: I can write in my own highly particular way, within the limits of my narrowly defined poetics, but if I had to write something that even slightly departed from that, I would probably be a miserable failure.

In general, then, though I have a presence in many places, I don’t really have a firm, predestined place anywhere, in terms of either my employment, or my expertise, or my education and upbringing, or my qualities and skills. I’m not saying that airborne, unrooted, disturbing existences such as mine are not necessary. But this alters nothing in the paradoxical tension between the seriousness with which…

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