Prague: Intellectuals & Politicians

Imagine a theater critic who is suddenly hauled up from the stalls to act in the play he meant to review. What should he do then? Write the review without mentioning his own part? Appraise his own performance? This is the strange dilemma in which I find myself as I sit down to write this essay. Yet it is a dilemma curiously appropriate to the subject, as will, I trust, emerge. Let me explain.

Earlier this year I received a letter informing me that I had been elected an honorary member of Czech PEN, in gratitude for what I had done for Czech writers in the years up to 1989. I was touched by the gesture. The letter also invited me to attend the 61st World Congress of International PEN, which would be held in Prague in November.

Now there is a great deal to be said against attending any international congress of writers, anywhere, any time. But Prague is a city where writers and intellectuals, especially the numerous banned writers and intellectuals, published only in samizdat or the West, had a singular importance up to 1989. This occasion would take place five years to the month after the “revolution of the Magic Lantern,” which I described at the time in these pages.1 That had catapulted many of them quite unexpectedly into positions of power, which some retain but others have in the meantime left or lost. Those characteristic post-Communist mutations, dilemmas, and ironies are concentrated—almost as in an archetype—in the person of the writer-president Václav Havel. All this, I thought, might make this particular writers’ congress more than usually interesting.

It did.


On the plane out, I looked back through my notebooks from the heady days of November 1989 in the Magic Lantern theater, and recalled the leading actors in the play then directed by, and starring, Václav Havel. Among my visiting cards I found one given me in the Magic Lantern by someone who, at the time, had only a minor part—as an economist prized for his professional expertise by the writers, philosophers, journalists, and historians then leading the Civic Forum. I have the card before me as I write. Actually nothing more than a typewritten slip of paper, it reads: “Dr. Václav Klaus, Head of Department for Macroeconomic Analysis, Institute for Forecasting, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences.”

In Prague I soon found that the position of intellectuals was very much a live subject, and one that, like so many others in the Czech lands today, had come to be politicized around the, so to speak, magnetic polarity between the two Václavs, now better known as President Havel and Prime Minister Klaus. Havel was understood to be calling for the voice of independent intellectuals to be heard more clearly, enriching the country’s political debate. Klaus, the intellectual anti-intellectual, was heard to be skeptical of this notion, both on general grounds and because Havel was for it.

I talked briefly to the prime minister in the days before…

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