The Danger of a Single Story

This is fanTAStic!
Filmed July 2009 at TEDGlobal 2009
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story

On Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’

This is a plain, free-write response to reading Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’. It was written in my journal on the 4th of January of 2006, and I do not claim it to be superior writing, but rather personal. Please follow the link if you would like to read O’Connor’s piece for yourself – it’s way worth it!

I absolutely loved this piece. It really spoke to me personally, and she voiced (so well) so many of the things I have either always found myself thinking or have learned through writing during my life. I have always written, and it is interesting to see the maturation process of my writing reflected by others as underdeveloped notions of what writing is. I loved her description of the many ‘mongrel’ things we come up with when our notion of story is lacking or lame somehow. I don’t think that is my perpetual state any longer, however it is easy to slip into – it takes a great deal of energy to pull myself out of it. Hehe… technique as a rigid formula… that ALWAYS amused me, as if there were a little magic answer that would right all your wrongs, a function that would simply press everything into shape! (67)

Her point that the world of the writer is full of matter is one which has been impressing itself upon me for some time. “It’s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is much less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling with emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks.” (70)

I loved Madame Bovary – the part of it that I have read, it’s not finished yet 🙂 (part of a survey) but I had a problem with my initial picture of Flaubert… I think he said that he thought the pinnacle of art was to depict the tragic and the horrific, but I don’t think so at all – he says that beautiful things are the easiest to write, but I so DISAGREE!!! The beautiful is just as complex, intricate, deep, tricky, and difficult to convey as the tragic, just slightly more rarely experienced fully (and if one does not fully, consciously experience it, one cannot gift another with and awareness of it!).

I particularly noticed O’Connor’s description of those “reformers” who “want to write because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion”, who are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of the texture of existence, of case histories and everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth.” (68) The sad spectacle she writes about – the keenly sensitive author who is simply a bore because he is unwilling to get dusty, use humble tools, is great.

I remember when I distained to use dust. When imagery, getting my work to be tangible and real in any but an emotional and moral way to my readers – I wanted my readers to be seduced by a kind of pure beauty (as if I could really portray that), or by the intense misery to be moved to compassion or sympathy. I was so far from my goal (being an effective writer), and I really didn’t know. OK, wait, I did know, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t totally get that I was holding on to what sank me… list slippers. hehehe… 🙂 genius.

c. Mary Kathryn Gough

Night *

Elie Wiesel and Theodicy

A reflection paper turned in to Professor Thompson

By Kate Huffman (Mary Kathryn Gough) / REL 131 4/12/04

This paper will respond to Elie Wiesel’s Night, The Trial of God, and his memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea, probing into why evil is allowed to exist in the world and whether we have the right to blame God for it—or at least whether we have to right to blame Him for not intervening. It will examine various methods of justifying God’s ways in this matter, as set forth by several of the characters in Wiesel’s works (most notably Berish, Mendel, Sam, and the Priest.) Finally, the paper will point out where Wiesel seems to settle, which appears to be where I settle as well, and challenges us to remember the Thou in our dialogue, not forgetting that we are in relationship with God and that our stance toward Him (whatever it is) ought to hold in heart the knowledge that it is intimate in character: a family member’s tie.

Night is the stunning account of a fifteen year old boy who tows us back in time to witness the hell of the Holocaust through his own eyes. Elie Wiesel’s powerful writing strikes terror, sorrow, remorse, and compassion by turn in readers as they encounter the unimaginably cruel and inhumane things he was forced to endure during World War II. I was as blown away by this story as I always was before; I’ve read it three or four times now, and every time it leaves me breathlessly racing with heart-felt thought. Babies thrown carelessly—even laughingly—into scorching flames, bodies of all sizes piled sky-high, crematories scattering the ashes of former friends and family like rain, cruel beatings and passionless killings without number . . . what are we to make of evil made so solidly manifest we can barely keep our food down or remember to desire Life? This terrible sickness drains me, sucks me dry somehow, and I truly feel the need to find real sackcloth and ashes to cry out to God in mourning. Obviously to mourn these horrors is not enough. But my first instinct is to shed tears of revolt and helplessness against the evil and plead with God that it be different. Brought to witness horrors like these, I find myself ever more desperately wanting to know why they are allowed to exist in a universe ruled by a supremely good and all-powerful Being!!! What is the explanation for suffering such as this? How can a supremely good ruler look it in the face and remain whole and Holy?

Theodicy is coined from a Greek word meaning ‘justice’, as well as from the word for God, and was thus originally used to designate attempts to justify God’s ways, or goodness. Now it is more common to see it used when directly speaking of evil and ways of trying to explain our undeniable experiences of it. Theodicies abound as they always have; all religions have one form or another, whether pantheistic, monotheistic, or what-have-you. This is because most everyone accedes that perceived evils must find an ordered place on the shelves of the belief system. Everyone seems to feel that they experience evil, so it must either be explained away or fit into the desired structure. Mostly it is safe to say no one fully succeeds. Christianity has a very complete picture in the end, if not entirely so, and we’ll see why even Elie Wiesel appears to allude to the key it contains for all this thought later.

In his works, Wiesel considers various common theodicies from several points of view and ends up rejecting them for one reason and another in favor of a theodicy pieced together from his past, in view of his present, and looking toward the entirely unknowable future, in which he makes room for the mysterious Being of God within his own memory-full existence while still allowing himself to wade through everything that his experience hands him. In Night, the protagonist initially wonders if all of the suffering is because of committed sins, and then alternately sees the whole experience as something which must be submitted to or as a test although he’s sort of in limbo about the whole thing by then. Near the end of his imprisonment the boy rebels inside, and what broke in him that first day when God died, comes back together with the rest of his being in deliberate defiance and protest. Many in the camps see the suffering as a test, but most of those lose heart and strength—like the one with the deep, heart-breaking voice who (essentially) volunteered for death. In The Trial of God, Berish is most definitely the central character of protest, and probably the one to whom Wiesel feels the most definitively drawn. Mendel the beggar seems to advocate a theodicy of suffering as a test/soul-making—and yet he is strongly drawn to many aspects of the theodicy of submission to the mystery of God’s sovereignty as well (which Sam will endorse, minus the awe and feeling that properly go along with such a response). This is how Mendel is brought to idolatry; his internal drive for knowledge overcomes the heart that has been growing in him, the heart Sam so easily deceives him into thinking that he possesses as well. Mendel falls into the comparative ease of rationalism, finally declaring, “Your love of God: I wish I had one measure of it. Your piety: I wish it were mine. Your faith: mine is less profound, less intact than yours. Who are you?” (p. 158, 168). In this way Mendel loses himself to the stranger, who still refuses to tell him who he is. We find in the end that the stranger is ‘intact’ because all he does is talk, and he feels no qualms about lying with truths. The Priest, on the other hand, has a very traditional (and lamentably very fallen) take on suffering as punishment for sin. Unfortunately this in no way causes him to wish to sin any less. He drinks too much, and he wants to sleep with Maria. He talks about hell, he says, because he always does, and because it’s easy to talk about (TToG, p.93). It is often to his advantage to do so as well. He seems to be internally rifling though a hand of cards every time we see him, desperately searching for the one that will help him win. A very uncourageous soul (but aren’t we all just a bit like that… isn’t it a fair representation of the Church, in a way?).

It is frightening, but easily understandable that in Night, the protagonist’s young faith, innocence and love are aborted in the midst of the shockingly personal suffering and death in the concentration camps. The scars that remain in the man to this day are obvious in his memoirs. And yet, somehow this tested faith—a faith that has wrestled with God and continually comes through still firmly opposing God’s enemies and affirming His all-powerful existence (as Wiesel attests in his memoirs, All Rivers Run To The Sea)—is fuller, deeper, and wider than most. He is faithful in as many senses of the word as one can think of, acknowledging and keeping a hold of all the things he’s experienced, not ignoring anything, and struggling to remain whole in the center of it all. It is his acceptance of two propositions especially that make this a possible quest for him: That it is alright to be angry at God, and that God is to be looked upon with compassion and pity.

The first proposition is that it is alright to be angry at God—it is, in fact, our duty to confidently protest who we think He is within the context of our relationship to Him. As Wiesel says,

But if Nietsche could cry out to the old man in the forest that God is dead, the Jew in me cannot. I have never renounced my faith in God. I have risen against His justice, protested His silence and sometimes His absence, but my anger rises up within faith and not outside it. . . Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah and Rebbe Levi-Yitzhak of Berdichev teach us that it is permissible for man to accuse God, provided it is done in the name of faith in God” (ARRttS, p.84).

We must always remember to address the real God in our defiance, however. No matter how hot the burning fire within us is, first we have to know exactly why we are angry and realize that we are defending something— standing up to God for His own creation, which he has given into our care. Then we have to purposefully extinguish our puny, limited caricatures of Who He is, to the best of our ability, and acknowledge the Unknown reaches of the mind of God. (Who has known the mind of the Lord?…) C. S. Lewis wrote a poem expressing the underlying, foundational posture we ought to adopt, acknowledging that “Where God is concerned, all is mystery” (ARRttS, p. 104).

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in Thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

We’re all in the same boat, really: without the mercy of God our voices would never be directed properly… but it’s true that we must be faithful witnesses to what we’ve been given. We have to work with the whole of our lives, because that’s what he’s given us. Sometimes that calls for keening and wailing, sometimes it calls for gritted teeth and strength, and sometimes (yes) it calls for the fiery anger and defiance of Wiesel’s innkeeper Berish from The Trial of God.

In that same play, Sam (the unknown character whom everyone seems to have seen before in places of tragedy and who turns out to be Satan in the end) asks the judges of the Purimschpiel court who are putting God on trial if they will judge without preconceived ideas. They respond in the positive. Will they judge without prejudice? Yes, they reply again. And without passion? Thoughtful Mendel immediately says “No. With passion” (TToG, p.136). I think this is extremely significant in separating one of the things that sets Sam apart from the rest of the cast. As Maria says when she first denounces him as evil, “He has no heart, no soul, no feeling! He’s Satan, I’m telling you!” (TToG, p. 116). Passion, evidently, is important to a human response to God. This is another part of what legitimates our being angry towards God.

The second proposition Wiesel accepts that allows him to strive at keeping the faith is that God is to be looked upon with compassion and pity, as the father of countless children who war with each other and sin against one another constantly. God sheds tears at the suffering of his children; He shares in their pain and grief. This seems to be something extremely significant that Christianity and Judaism have in common. Wiesel is right when he references the Zohar—“No space is devoid of God. God is everywhere, even in suffering and in the very heart of punishment” (ARRttS, p.103). Right and true, but how exactly is God present in every space? As Himself. As Life-giver, Love-source, Powerful Redeemer, and so many many other things. “Israel’s sadness,” Wiesel states, “is bound to that of the divine presence, the She’hina: together they await deliverance. The waiting of the one constitutes the other’s secret dimension. Just as the distress of the She’hina seems unbearable to the children of Israel, so Israel’s torments rend the heart of the She’hina” (ARRttS, p.103). This sounds strikingly similar to Christian thought on the matter where we are, together with God, suffering and awaiting deliverance:

“God’s work to release himself from his sufferings is his work to deliver the world from its agony; our struggle for joy and justice is out struggle to relieve God’s sorrow. . . Until justice and peace embrace, God’s dance of joy is delayed. The bells for the feast of divine joy are the bells for the shalom of the world” (LfaS, p. 91).

Christ blesses mourners in the Sermon on the Mount, saying that they will be comforted. We must realize that our anger at and protest against a seemingly disengaged, impotent, or merciless, unjust God are actually mourning which lacks a foundation to rest on, which looks Mystery in the face, sees nothing recognizable, and loses its faith that dialogue is happening. Assuming that a Mystery characterized by love would not communicate with us is just that: an assumption. From what we are given to know, God does dialogue with us, and we must rest in that with confidence—when we mourn and when we are angry (or when we communicate with Him in any other way).

Who are the mourners, really? Nicholas Wolterstorff addresses this in his moving book, Lament for a Son.

“The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence. . . mourners are aching visionaries. . . The stoics of antiquity said: Be calm. Disengage yourself. Neither laugh nor weep. Jesus says: Be open to the wounds of the world. Mourn humanity’s mourning, weep over humanity’s weeping, be wounded by humanity’s wounds, be in agony over humanity’s agony” (LfaS, p.85-86).

And why does Jesus say this? Because He Himself was open in just this way: because through Christ’s suffering on Earth, our God mourns with us! Again Wolterstorff expresses this admirably, saying “To those who mourn the absence of that day is disclosed already the heart of God. Upon entering the company of the suffering, they discern the anguish of God. . . they hear the sobs and see the tears of God. By these they are consoled” (LfaS, p.88, emphasis added).

Wiesel seems to point to Christianity in a forgiving and positive manner in several places in his writing. For example, when the Priest is dumping on the Jewish faith, Mendel says an amazing thing. He says, “I speak not of Christ, but of those who betray Him. They invoke His teaching to justify their murderous deeds. His true disciples would behave differently; there are no more around. There are no more Christians in this Christian land” (TToG, p.99). The Priest responds, “Is it His fault? Why blame Him? If what you say is true, then feel sorry for Him. If Christ is alone and abandoned—then it’s up to you, His brethren, to comfort Him” (TToG, p.99). Mendel assures Him that one day they would.

In the foreword to Night, Wiesel speaks of another young man with hopeless eyes full of death and torment who comes to visit him, wanting to share asking for an answer to it all. Wiesel says,

“And I, who believe that God is love,… what did I say to him? Did I speak of that other Jew, his brother, who may have resembled him—the Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world? Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that the conformity between the cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished? … We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear. All is grace. If the Eternal is the Eternal, the last word for each one of us belongs to Him. This is what I should have told this Jewish child. But I could only embrace him, weeping” (Night, p.x-xi).

God has actually done both these things for us. Sadly, we miss them all too often.

Let your heart bleed for God. Recall in faith that we suffer with Him.

c. Mary Kathryn Gough, 2004

Literature’s Unifying Force

Mary Kathryn Gough
11/11/05 Project #2

The Unifying Force of Kafka’s Literature:

Drawing a Dual-Hearted World Together in Unity of Spirit

“Could not then art and literature in a very real way

offer succor to the modern world?”


Of all malicious lies, the most sprawling and successful is the one which whispers softly, compellingly, under everything that happens to us: “You are helpless, powerless in the face of it all. You can change nothing, and nothing you do will ever change.” This lie is detrimental to our created beings. It blows fate full of hot air, making it huge and menacing, and weaving other people and circumstances into a gigantic web meant to isolate us, undermine and invalidate us, and finally bring us down, hobbled by our own belief. It blinds us to the Truth: that our tools are organically part of us, and that our effect, or force in the world — each of us — is immense.

One witness to this truth, according to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is world literature, which has the effect of unifying us in sympathy of spirit across borders of nationality, distance, and disinterest. Franz Kafka’s work makes a good study in the significance of literature in Solzhenitsyn’s sense. At the same time, his life allows a look at the question of whether the value of a writer’s work is affected by the way they live out their personal lives. In Prague, Kafka’s writing has been seen as defining the city, the country, and the times – despite the fact that he wasn’t an overtly political writer, writing exclusively of familial ties and psychological trauma. The identity crises he depicts serve as an arena in which anyone can identify with the experience of Kafka’s country as it was abused by the father-figure of an oppressive regime. And yet in failing to write his way out from under the immense burden of his life, Franz Kafka appears to have delivered himself into the hands of a craftily looming lie – but how, if at all, might that fact affect the force of his contribution to world literature?

A world with two hearts…

The Largest Lie’s best tactic in convincing us of our impotence is to confuse knowledge with causal power. If we do not know what the overarching logical structure looks like, its ominous whisperings say, and if we are really so small as we (truly) are, then we cannot logically engage in the structure and therefore possess no leverage. Thus, our effect in the world is all for naught; our existential force is negated. This lie takes hold of every situation, driving home to us the simple fact that we are not in control. And if we cannot create our own greater logical structure within which to posit our own significance, then our every action must be lost to us and to everyone else. Meaningless. The complex and tragic truth, however, is that neither the deceived nor the more clear-sighted can escape making their immutable mark on the world. We do make difference. And yet the greatest potence of our being lies in sympathetic unity.

Upon his 1970 receipt of the Nobel prize, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke of the many visions of the world being so painfully diverse that, in order “to prevent discomfort, we dismiss all alien [ones] out of hand… confidently judg[ing] the whole world according to our own homegrown scale” (ASCEaDM, 563). He explains that it is because of this tendency to build our life’s vision solely from the basis of our own experience that our world, though “physically compressed,” is “restrained from merging spiritually [as] molecules of knowledge and sympathy are prevented from leaping from one half to the other” (ASCEaDM, 570,emph. add).

Solzhenitsyn saw a “torpid inability to understand someone else’s grief” afflicting the entire world, and stated that when “given six, four or even two scales of values there cannot be a unified world, a united humanity. We shall be torn apart by this difference in rhythm, the divergence in frequency of oscillation. We could not manage to survive on one Earth, just as a man with two hearts is not long for this world” (ASCEaDM, 565).

A man with two hearts. Is this our problem? Not a multiplicity of logics and systems but a multiplicity of hearts, of deceived and isolated world-ego realms? The question and the solution then become ones Solzhenitsyn himself expresses clearly for us, asking who it is with the capability of

…impress[ing] upon a sluggish and obstinate human being someone else’s far-off sorrows or joys, who could give him an insight into magnitudes of events and into delusions which he has never himself experienced? Propaganda, coercion, and scientific proof are all equally powerless here. But fortunately there does exist a means to this end in the world! It is art. It is literature (ASCEaDM, 565, emph add).

If this is true, then when we look at the writer of literature (in this case Franz Kafka) we ought to be able to trace the unifying force of his work.

Kafka’s Inner Impetus

Beyond literature’s societal impact, what can we make of the personal reasons that drive an artist to express and re-member the meaning in past events? Vaclav Havel defines art as “a distinctive way of seeking truth — … that is, chiefly the truth of the artist’s inner experience,” and based on that definition there is “only one art, whose sole criterion is the power, the authenticity, the revelatory insight, the courage and suggestiveness with which it seeks its truth, or perhaps the urgency and profundity of this truth” (LIT, 131). It would seem that authors anywhere in the world who allow those qualities to permeate their works, are either nourished and transformed by their task, or are crushed by the burden it becomes. Take Franz Kafka, native of Havel’s Prague.

Kafka’s life (1883-1924) was largely defined by the Largest Lie– that he was helpless and without impact in the world. He spent his entire life writing about vanquished sonship in a vain and unrecognized fight with his father. All his works “depict the impossibility of becoming an adult,” which was by far the most overarching feature of his life, never changing to the very end (TS, xiii). According to Mark Anderson, Kafka’s literary identity rested on his identity as a son, an identity he never surpassed. When he finally tore himself away from home to live with the woman he wanted to marry, he was forbidden to do so, and within one year had died of tuberculosis (TS, xx). Even in death Kafka is buried as a son: beneath the family tombstone, his name carved directly above his father’s (TS, xx). A single glance at his life raises innumerable questions: is it fair to see Kafka as a vanquished son? Was he too self-absorbed in his writing? Did his trapped, fatalistic lack of vision keep his writing from achieving for Czechoslovakia what, say Dostoevsky’s writing achieved for oppressed Russia? Does the fact that he never broke out of his caged child’s life make a difference to the value of his contribution to world literature?

Kafka’s writing was, perhaps, his one source of self-esteem — in his letters to his first fiance, Felice, he describe his stories as his children, his progeny (TS, xv). He also admits to her that he never would have asked for her hand in marriage if he had not had The Sons published, as if he “needed the social legitimation that only a published work could confer” (TS, xv). It is easy to see that his position as ‘father’ of these ‘lads’ (his stories) gives him a basis for a powerful identity he doesn’t have elsewhere in life. In the opinion of Mark Anderson, it is “in writing down their stories of suicide, grotesque metamorphosis, and banishment to America, [that] Kafka rises above their fate, can control it with the sovereign hand of the author, can dispose of their lives like an almighty father” (TS, xiv). Solzhenitsyn describes this type of authorship as that of an artist who “imagines himself the creator of an autonomous spiritual world,” taking “total responsibility for it. But [who] collapses under the load, for no mortal genius can bear up under it, just as…, the man who declares himself the center of existence is unable to create a balanced spiritual system” (ASCEaDM, 558). Kafka’s method of (bitterly small) triumph led to his being remade in the image of the Patriarch he so despised, and thus his writing couldn’t serve its intended function of giving him free identity.

After “The Judgement,” writing became for Kafka “increasingly… a means of doing battle with his father, and patriarchal authority in general” (TS, xvi). One commentator notes something Kafka wrote “in reference to ‘The Judgement,’ [which] reads: ‘Thoughts about Freud, naturally'” (TS, viii). In fact, he combatively dedicated one work to Hermann Kafka — though his father never cracked the book open to see why, only ordering that it be placed on his bedside table. The luminous clash in the bedroom scene of “The Judgement” is not something one simply imagines, no matter how great a writer one is. It is a symbolic set up, staged precisely in order to express Kafka’s inner experience of his father’s involvement in — and destruction of — his life. The similarly codependent nature of Franz’s tie to his family and Georg’s to his are striking. Franz’s father wanted him to become a man, but would also turn on his every success and opportunity and cut him down to size. In just the same way, Georg’s aging father leaned on him and could barely make it to the bed, so tired and unable to care for himself did he seem. And then, suddenly, turning on his son in a luminous and clear-headed outburst, the father rises from the bed, belittling Georg, castigating him for remaining a child, and betraying his son by revealing that he’s been surreptitiously ruining the boy’s reputation. Rather than bestowing the traditional paternal blessing to go out into the world and wield the influence given him as wisely as he knows how, Georg’s father cuts his son’s legs out from under him, leaving him cowering in a corner of the bedroom in shell-shocked awe: a child again. Finally, Georg’s father ends his tirade by saying, “So now you know there is more in the world than just you. Till now you’ve known only about yourself! An innocent child, yes, that you were, truly, but still more you have been a devilish human being! — And therefore take note: I sentence you now to death by drowning!” (TS, 15). Georg immediately flees from his father, his ears ringing, and jumps off a bridge, proclaiming his undying love for his family.

Just when the almost-man could have crossed over into adulthood, recognizing the world beyond himself — his father plays at cruel, Judgemental God-hood instead of granting a blessing to his autonomy. Oddly, this seems to be Kafka’s own tactic with his ‘sons’– to play celestial ‘house’ in his works with an Almighty overbearing Judgement that leaves the boys mute, optionless, and submissive unto death… Is Kafka cornered into this tactic only because he knows nothing else? And were his eyes never opened to the presence of another option? The potential, perhaps, for empowering his readers with the blessing of forward-facing vision?

Kafka: Joining Two Hearts

Franz Kafka may have defined his times by giving expression to the life-long repression and imprisonment imposed upon him by both his illness and his family, but even more than the writing itself, his own relationship with his writing seems to ring with the tyrannical tones of those times, reflecting society and unable to look beyond it. Was he able to seek truth in the way Havel describes, despite the unfortunate circumstances which limit his search to an inner experience of lonely self-exile? Is there courage in Kafka’s writing? Power? Is he transformed and nourished? Did he overcome, or succumb to the whisperings of the Largest of all Lies?

Maybe we cannot know whether he was nourished or transformed by the act of writing. But I think it’s safe to say that there is courage shown in the truths and insights painted by Kafka’s candid explorations of his own psychological experience of life. And there is no denying the urgency – or the profound, universal relevance – of his art, political or no. Kafka’s ability to portray psychic crises in a way that exactly parallels political ones without being an overtly political writer is notable (TAoL, 163). His writing was felt by many as a cry against the oppressive systems that ruled both public and private life so strictly in his country. The ‘sons’ he portrays — stripped of their options and their freedom to live as they choose, blocked and manipulated at every turn, suffering in submission and suffering also in their small liberties — are inexplicably symbolic of an oppressed people unable to mature and step into adulthood, freedom, and self knowledge. Kafka’s work is seen by later writers as being definitive of the capital city itself, and it has been said that “if ever a writer almost unintentionally imprinted a fiction onto a geography and a history, it was Kafka in Prague” (TAoL, 164). In 1924 however, when he was dying, Kafka asked a friend to destroy his writing, perhaps because in the interim between the world wars, his country seemed to have achieved an independent democratic identity, and he was impressed with the truth that all is not as hopeless as it seems and battles can be won (TAoL, 164).

The Lie. It whispers to us softly, compellingly, weaving its tall-tale through every one of life’s occurrences: “You are helpless, powerless in the face of it all. You can change nothing, and nothing you do will ever change.” Even if Kafka did submit to this untruth, can we honestly say that this devalues the force, or effect, of his work? Solzhenitsyn, I think, has an answer for this as well. He says that we “confidently deem ourselves [art’s] masters” and often “adapt it toward transient political or limited social needs”— and yet, he says, art always “remains undefiled by our endeavors…: each time and in every usage it bestows upon us a portion of its mysterious inner light” (ASCEaDM, 558). Our inability to fully see the overarching structure doesn’t in any way indicate our entrance into it going unnoticed.

The fact that Kafka himself tried to destroy his work is very interesting. Perhaps when his own country proved an exception to his intense fatalism he realized his mistake. Perhaps then he saw his lack of vision uncovered: rather than breathing spirit into people, like a Czech Dostoevsky might have done, Kafka’s stories wrapped anguished life in a shroud of death. Like obituaries, his stories document the internal landscape of abused people with no hope. But then, perhaps the act of documentation itself was his brave testament to the truth he saw: it is deeply honest to his inner experience, and it is also undeniably one of only a few doors we have by which to enter the hearts of Kafka’s people.

Kafka may have succumbed and been vanquished by the lie; a brief study of his life is rather discouraging in this respect. However the consequent value of his contribution to world literature does not change in the slightest; art remains undefiled, and its mysterious inner light works upon us, no less potent for Kafka’s personal failings. His portraits of the anguished oppressed can still make us cry, binding us to a people we otherwise would not know how to feel for, opening up blocked information pathways and setting them racing with sympathy, unifying our hearts as the human race: together.


Havel, Vaclav.“Letter to Dr. Gustav Husak.” Jan Vladislav, ed. Living in Truth. England. Clays Ltd, St Ives plc. 1990. (LtDGH)

Havel, Vaclav.“Six Asides About Culture.” Jan Vladislav, ed. Living in Truth. England. Clays Ltd, St Ives plc. 1990. (LIT)

Havel, Vaclav., Paul Wilson, trans. Summer Meditations. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. 1992. (SM)

Bradbury, Malcom, ed. The Atlas of Literature. New York. Stewart, Tabori & Chang. 1998. (TAoL)

Kafka, Franz. The Sons. New York. Schocken Books Inc. 1989. (TS)

Dunlop, John B., et. al. ed. Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials. New York. Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1975. (ASCEaDM)

Art, Culture, & the Autonomous, Free Humanity of Man

1Art, Culture, and the Autonomous, Free Humanity of Man;

The Universal Applicability of Living in Truth and Accepting Responsibility as Destiny

The essence of the conflict…
is not a confrontation between two ideologies
(for instance a socialist with a liberal one) but a clash between
an anonymous, soulless, immobile and paralyzing… power,
and life, humanity, being and its mystery.

The counterpart of power in this conflict is not an alternative political idea
but the autonomous, free humanity of man
and with it necessarily also art — precisely as art!–
as one of the most important expressions of this autonomous humanity”
(LIT, 133).

Marykathryn Huffman (married: Gough)
Project #1
Vaclav Havel: Morality in Politics

October 12, 2005

Czechoslovakia was at one time the seventh most industrialized state in the world; between World War II and the 1980s it fell to seventieth. Under Soviet Communist control for only forty years, it developed one of the worst pollution problems in Europe; television advertised gas masks for children to wear on their way to school, natural resources were heavily taxed, water was murky and unusable, and one could almost say that toxic chemicals were a main export of the country (AtVR, 46). Many obvious tragedies in the physical standards of living could be named, but there was a deeper problem underlying all those surface effects — something on the level of the human soul. The rigid control placed on people’s lives deadened them to themselves, estranged them from their true spirit, for “while life ever strives to create new and ‘improbable’ structures, the post-totalitarian system contrives to force life into its most probable states” (PotP, 30). The ideology held forth by the communist regime, “in creating a bridge between the system and the individual, spans the abyss between the aims of the system and the aims of life. It pretends that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life. It is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality” (PotP, 30). Thus accustoming the citizen to living within layers of deceptive appearances, the ideology bridge assimilates them as part of the system itself, because “the moment he or she steps onto this bridge it becomes at the same time a bridge between the system and the individual and the individual as a component of the system” (PotP, 31, emph add.). The Czech people became both victims and instruments (PotP, 36). This was seen vividly in censorship, which occurred in many forms. The quality of much art changed, for example, because of artists’ desire to make a living. The effects of such Foucault-like oppression in particular are simply not measurable, because while robbing the artist’s life of “some of its naturalness and authenticity and turning it into a kind of endless dissimulation,” it also robbed culture and the entire community of innumerable sparks of life and creative inspiration (LtDGH, 8). The true enemy of the communist power structure was not another political ideology, but rather the power of art and its ability to uncover the truth. Yet the only way to live in this truth, to maintain “the autonomous, free humanity of man” that was able to challenge the system, was to accept a higher sense of responsibility than is naturally conceived of as desirable — to shoulder responsibility as destiny.

Czech playwrite and intellectual, Vaclav Havel was born in Czechoslovakia in 1936, close to the time the communists took control. Consequently he spent much of his life watching his country devolve and unravel and watching his people become demoralized. He wrote plays, was involved in absurdist theatre, and expressed his political views in endless criticisms of the communist government in Czechoslovakia during the 1960s and 70s. In 1989, an incredible bloodless revolution caused the communists to step down from power after four decades, allowing widespread systemic change throughout the country. The government was reshaped and turned over to serve the people in a democratic fashion, and Havel, ever an inspiration to his people, was caught up in the whirlwind, becoming the country’s fast-learning new president.

Havel’s literary career and experience as a dissident shaped him into a shepherd figure that his people looked up to — according to some, he was something like a cross between Mother Theresa and George Washington (AtVR, 37). Maintaining that systemic change was not a guarantee of improvement, Havel said that the main thing the revolution proved was that people have a basic openness to truth, touched upon by art and the development of culture. He remained an intellectual and a creative thinker and writer, stirring in people a desire for truth and, from his new platform, calling them to a life of conscience and responsibility.

Havel wanted to see his country remoralized, an reminded his people constantly that they must breathe spirit into the systemic changes that were occurring. He emphasized over and over again the importance of developing culture in the form of truth-revealing art, literature, and theater in order to accomplish this because such cultural art encourages authentic living in community, allowing groups to face problems, identify them, and deal with them honestly and creatively. His personal goal is to keep striving in a good cause, no matter the outlook, with as much sensitivity to his conscience as possible, recognizing that if one is committed to life, accepting responsibility is one’s destiny.

The mistake many people make when thinking of the baffling power of the communist regime lies in overestimating the importance of the individual leader, not realizing that “the social phenomenon of self-preservation is subordinated to something higher, to a kind of blind automatism which drives the system” (PotP, 30). Founded upon lies and hypocrisy as it is, the system finds it must rely on lie after lie after lie in order to preserve itself, building an unbelievably empty structure in which every citizen is expected to accept his or her place, and even the leaders become slaves to save face. Havel writes, “They must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their place within it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system” (PotP, 31).

As a dissident, Vaclav Havel spoke truth as he saw it and refused to live the lie presented to him. He saw integrity, wholeness, and self-consciousness as virtues that ought to be preserved in the interest of life itself — at all costs. He tried to remain sensitive to his conscience and sought to prevent the regime from alienating him from himself by witnessing to the truth everywhere he could. This led him to criticize the government’s treatment of humanity almost constantly, for which he spent at least five years in prison. He asks:

.. What is the effect on people of a system based on fear and apathy, a system that drives each man into a foxhole of purely material existence and offers him deceit as the main firm of communication with society?…. Think what you like in private, as long as you agree in public, refrain from making difficulties, suppress your interest in truth and silence your conscience– and the doors will be wide open to you. If the principle of outward adaptation is made the keystone to success in society, what sort of human qualities will be encouraged and what sort of people, one may ask, will come to the fore? (LtDGH, 14, 9).

In upholding his own human dignity through living in truth to the best of his ability, he hoped to contribute some small bit to the survival of life. His was a life constantly accepting a higher responsibility than mere support of a material subsistence– rather his was the life-long promotion of a living, breathing social organism — able to organize itself for the addressing of its internal problems rather than relying on a leader who grovels before an ideology that purports to know the aims of life better than those who live it.

Even the systemic change which occurred in 1989 is an aside when compared to the point Havel wants to make, and some of the people involved missed that point in the end as well, calling for communists to be punished, kicked out, and banned from every place of influence. And yet, even in spite of these sentiments, the Velvet Revolution was a miraculously peaceful revolution in which an entire country banded together to protest an oppressive government that had abused them for decades. Millions of people gathered for demonstrations, and more than 80% of the work force went on strike until finally the Communist party

… held an extraordinary congress at which it change[d] its structure, abolishing the position of general secretary and replacing it with two positions, Party chairman and first chairman…. It declare[d] its support for a multi-party system and promise[d] democratization of its internal affairs. It also disband[ed] the People’s Militia, its paramilitary arm, and apologize[d] to the Czechoslovak people for events following 1968 (AtVR, 20).

By the end of December, 1989, Havel– just two months out of prison– had been unanimously elected by the newly formed Federal Assembly as the first president of the Czechoslovak Republic (AtVR, 20).

Many people called for Havel to ban communists from every position of government influence, but Havel felt a danger in that, saying that when “respect for a theoretical concept… outweighs respect for human life… this is precisely what threatens to enslave humanity all over again” (PotP, 71). Dissident movements, he explained, “understand systemic change as superficial, something secondary, something that in itself can guarantee nothing. Thus an attitude that turns away from abstract political visions of the future towards concrete human beings and ways of defending them effectively in the here and now is quite naturally accompanied by an intensified antipathy to all forms of violence carried out in the name of ‘a better future’”(PotP, 71). From the dissident perspective, violent political overthrow is not too radical a response — it is not radical enough; the problem lies too deep for any systemic change to touch – because it is a human problem, and must be met as such if we are ever to get anywhere at solving it. It is the problem of being alienated from our selves, of being too familiar with lies and hypocritical facades, and being out of touch with the substance of what makes us human. Any system worth anything must grow out of that substance, working to keep its constitution and criminal code “in perspective against the background of life as it really is. [For w]ithout keeping one’s eyes open to the real dimensions of life’s beauty and misery, and without a moral relationship to life, this struggle will sooner or later come to grief on the rocks of some self-justifying system of scholastics…. [a system] can never give life substance or meaning” (PotP, 77, emph. add.). There was something though that, as exemplified in his own and others’ experience during the decades of oppression and stagnation, Havel felt did characteristically give life substance and meaning: art.

Art’s little sparks and flares during the years of communist rule were found to be threatening simply in virtue of their existence, for the blind automatism that wielded power was not unintelligent. It knew instinctually that where there was substance and meaning, its own substancelessness and meaninglessness — its own falsity — would be uncovered. As Havel says, it knew that it would be pronounced naked, like the Emperor in his new “clothes”, by the mere existence of — not a new dogma or political cry, but the simple, penetrating truth of art which never ceases to confront the human being with its self. Art has a powerful way of drawing out truth in the lives of individuals by allowing them to identify actively with who they really are, what they really think, and where they are at — compelling them to look straight into the face of their humanity and at what is inescapably essential to their being. “If we start,” Havel says, “with the presupposition that art constitutes a distinctive way of seeking truth — truth in the broadest sense of the word, that is, chiefly the truth of the artist’s inner experience — then there is only one art, whose sole criterion is the power, the authenticity, the revelatory insight, the courage and suggestiveness with which it seeks its truth, or perhaps the urgency and profundity of this truth.” (LIT, 131) It is because of this that when the communist regime looks at art, literature, and theater, it finds that

… the degree to which politics is present or absent has no connection with the power of artistic truth… Hundreds of examples testify that the regime prosecutes most vigorously not what threatens it overtly but has little artistic power, but whatever is artistically most penetrating, even though it does not seem all that overtly ‘political’ (LIT,133).

Havel speaks of an index of names of censored works and authors, but also of a “blank index” as being “an open warrant for the arrest of anything inwardly free and, therefore, in the deepest sense, ‘cultural’”(LtDGH, 20). The arrest of culture in effect removed the societal apparatus by which people helped each other find themselves and by which they joined together to search for the best way to do things. He likens cultural works in society to vitamins in a human body, noting that fractional deficiencies in either can have far-ranging and unforeseeable results (LtDGH, 21). Because of the threat of its lie being unveiled, the regime sought to silence and placate authors by suppressing original works while at the same time handing out prizes, money, and awards. In this way it hoped to materially imprison creative souls in apathy and the desire to protect the enjoyable lifestyle offered them at the hands of their oppressors. By immobilizing culture, the regime paralyzed society’s ability to know its soul. Society, self-less then and enshrouded in lies, was easy to maneuver into the fold of falsity that supported the order and calm communism so idolized. As a result, the society was described by some as metaphorically dead, in a way: “Calm as a morgue or a grave” (LtDGH, 25).

Underneath that, however, Havel explains in an essay entitled Six Asides About Culture, he saw life struggling to surface for sustenance wherever it could be found– that there was nothing the people of Czechoslovakia wouldn’t do for a taste of culture. Young people traveled half-way across the entire country for a concert that might not happen at all. People stood in line all night for tickets to the plays for that month, and when they came the theaters were “crammed full of people grateful for every nuance of meaning, frantically applauding every knowing smile from the stage” such that it was almost a struggle to keep moving and complete the plays (SAAC, 125).

Seeing this, Havel felt, was testament to the fact that people are fundamentally open to truth. According to him:

… Individuals can be alienated from themselves because there is something there to alienate. The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence…living a lie [on the one hand]… is a response to nothing other than the human predisposition to truth. Under the orderly surface of the life of lies… there slumbers the hidden sphere of life in its real aims, of its hidden openness to truth… living in the truth [on the other hand] takes individuals back to the solid ground of their own identities (PotP, 41, 44).

Any legitimate system ought to encourage the individual citizen’s groundedness in his or her own identity. It is only from this ground that any healthy, self-organizing principle will spring.

Vaclav Havel had been released from jail, due to serious illness, only two months before his election as president on December 29, 1989. Between World War I and World War II Czechoslovakia was lucky enough to have a president named Masaryk, “an intellectual and liberal statesman” who tended to try to “remain above the din of party politics,” and worked to keep the country out of communist hands for years (AtVR, 37). Havel has followed in his footsteps in a variety of ways, from his refusal to identify in name with either left or right party politics (he says that over-emphasis on parties… “displaces a responsible interest in the prosperity and success of the broader community”) to his mottos : “Truth prevails.” and “Do not be afraid and don’t steal”(AtVR, 42, SM, 55, AtVR, 88-89). “If we teach ourselves not to lie and steal,” he told his people in one of his first speeches as president, “things will turn out alright” (AtVR, 88-89). Such a statement may sound simple and even juvenile to us, but the experience of the Czech and Slovak people in past decades has given such advice more depth and relevance than we could perhaps imagine.

Havel tried to make it clear that he was only accepting the job of president for a time, and that he was “looking forward to returning to his writing,” but some speculated that he had found his proper profession in politics (AtVR, 42). One commentator, for example, asked whether “it [could]

be that the author, who was always as much a moral philosopher and social commentator as a playwrite, has found his true vocation?” (AtVR, 42-43). A fellow writer, Ivan Klima, expressed the sentiment that Havel’s essays were better than his plays, and it was true as well that although he’d never been trained to give speeches, when life called upon him to do the unfamiliar work, he took to it like a fish to water.

Initially, he was to be President only in the interim while the country prepared itself for its first free election; he was to help organize the new structure of the government and begin the process of addressing the many wrongs that had been done to the land and its people during the decades of communist rule. But come election time, the job was offered him again, and although he craved a different life he also expressed a strong belief that he should not abandon the battlefield. He felt a keen responsibility to finish the thing he had started. As such a prominent figure in the fight, his conscience would not allow him to step down and wait for someone else to finish the job, and in any case, it would be a demoralizing thing for the people if he retreated to the comfortable routine of his own life. He needed to be faithful to the task and see it through until circumstances made it clear that his time was done. So he accepted the responsibility.

One summer toward the end of his time in office, he wrote a compilation of thoughts entitled Summer Meditations in which he reflects on his years as president, on politics and his own involvement in it. Many people are of either the active or passive opinion that politics is a disreputable business, through and through, but Havel says that it isn’t, in essence, and that that fact ought to be remembered (SM, 10). What it is in essence is service, and that is a good thing, when carried out with spirit and in good conscience. “Those who claim that politics is chiefly the manipulation of power and public opinion, and that morality has no place in it, are just wrong,” he says emphatically (SM, 5-6). He states further that

… naturally, if you understand decency as a mere “superstructure” of the forces of production, then you can never understand political power in terms of decency…[but] Political intrigue is not really politics, and, although you can get away with superficial politics for a time, it does not bring much hope of lasting success… one can hardly improve the world that way (SM, 5-6).

Genuine politics is equated in his mind with serving the community and those who will come after us (SM, 5-6).

In his own political work, in addition to pragmatically attempting to address the problems inherited from the previous regime, Havel works to do exactly what he did as a playwrite, which is something he feels is part of the job of a politician as well. It is his identity as a writer and as a politician to attempt to wake up his people, to give them the food their souls need in order to keep living authentically, with spirit, ingenuity and a sense of meaning in the midst of life. What he’s doing amounts to more than just wrapping problems prettily and attempting to address them practically at the same time.

One could look at his idealism and his speeches and decide that he’s offering a new ideology — but he’s not. That is precisely what he is not doing. What he’s offering is much more than an ideology in that it frees people, making them ever-more aware of their autonomy and their human possibilities. He is still offering art, but art that is meant to confront his society with its very self, and to ask it to fill the emptinesses it finds there itself– “you have what it takes!” he wants to tell them. He knows his own prescriptions will fall woefully short of the vitality and complexity needed to respond to the problems in his country and around the world; he is simply pointing his finger at the way we are living, confronting us with ourselves, and asking us to take responsibility for the way life is authored. Far from offering a new ideology, an inert lie to cling to like dogma, Havel is challenging his people to walk a path fraught with demons of their own making, to look into their own souls and learn to live authentically and humanly and creatively enough to heal themselves. He is challenging them to live in truth, not another lie. And the truth makes us free.

Havel asks provocatively in a collection of writings entitled Living in Truth, “Can we separate the awakening human soul from what it always, already is — an awakening human community?” (LIT, 135). The fulfillment of community must happen in a grounded, honest way, breathing spirit and the true substance of humanity back into the way we do everything. And if the meaning of the state is human, then “it must be intellectual, spiritual, and moral,” and “in the somewhat chaotic provisional activity around the technical aspects of building the state, it will do us no harm occasionally to remind ourselves of [that]” (SM, 19). There is too much reliance on the technical as an answer, and not enough relying on — or searching in — ourselves.

It is because of this human soul, this human element to community that “no state… [is] the clever technical invention of a team of experts, like a computer or a telephone. Every state, on the contrary, grows out of specific intellectual, spiritual, and cultural traditions that breathe substance into it and give it meaning”(SM, 18-19). In the post-totalitarian system, ideology attempts to take the place of the human spirit and the result is a dead thing perpetuating itself by eating people alive, making them a part of its subsistence structure. Instead of serving them as it ought, it forces them to serve it — leaders and citizens, all become victims and instruments (PotP, 36).

According to Havel, the answer to this situation is a moral reconstitution of society, a spiritual revival in which we bring soul back into society’s technical order (PotP, 92). What needs to occur is “a reintroduction of the human order which cannot be replaced by any political order” (PotP, 92). And he says the political consequences of this reintroduction will be

… a new spirit… [the] rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, solidarity, love… [and] structures aimed not at ‘technical’ aspect of the execution of power, but at the significance of that execution… aris[ing] from below as a consequence of authentic ‘self-organization’; they should derive vital energy from a living dialogue with the genuine needs from which they arise, and when these needs are gone, the structures should also disappear (PotP, 93).

Politics is not a technical structure, at core. It is and ought to be an organism, a social organism in which free-thinking and acting individuals work to create groups — free-radical groups, if you will — that are constantly in flux in order for the needs of the whole to be met. The peaceful events of the Velvet Revolution should make it obvious that this continually changing, organic self-organization is possible. Why can it not be sustained, its varying state and content a reflection of the aims of the creative, diversifying force of life?

What compelled Havel to change his life so dramatically? He expresses doubt in himself often, that he is not as fit for the job as he would like to be. He admits that the enjoyable parts of having power have a real draw for him as well. But he sees that danger, admits to it, and is properly afraid of it. Refusing to make excuses for himself, he tries his utmost always to separate what is really necessary for his position from what is simple luxury. Despite the dangers and difficulties involved in keeping his aim true and his motives pure, Havel feels that “guided as president by conscience, [he] cannot go far wrong,” and also calls for those alive to their consciences everywhere to participate in politics (AtVR, 79). It is not an imperative: “every moral person should be in politics because they are needed — so get out there and run for office!” No, Havel understands that people have different tasks and destiny calls to everyone in different ways and at different times. But he defines politics broadly, including all grass roots groups and political criticism. There are many ways to be involved. His plea is only stating the truth he sees: that conscience-stricken people are the very ones who are needed, for they are the ones who will do what needs to be done with real, human spirit and honesty and a true desire to serve others. It is clear to him “that intellectuals cannot forever avoid their share of responsibility in the world, hiding their distaste for politics under a supposed need for independence” (AtVR, 79). Havel is not stating an imperative that all morally awake people should be politicians; it is simply a plea that we no longer refuse to dirty our hands with something base and useless, because politics’ identity is not founded on baseness, nor is it fundamentally useless. The reason the political realm has become such a morally degenerate place is because spiritless people make it so. Who will re-infuse spirit if not the people who are aware of it? The people who see it and value it? “Science, technology, expertise, and so-called professionalism are not enough,” Havel proclaims. “Something more is necessary… It is a way of going about things, and it demands the courage to breathe moral and spiritual motivation into everything, to seek the human dimension in all things” (SM, 20). We all must listen more to our conscience in order to bring this “order of humanity” back to the political organism. Havel couldn’t be more right — no political order can ever replace the human spirit.

For all his idealism and the vitality of the hopeful pictures he paints for us, Havel recognizes utopian thinking as a danger, stating that it is important to know that one can make no promises. “Evil will remain with us,” he admits sadly (SM, 16).

…No one will ever eliminate human suffering, the political arena will always attract irresponsible and ambitious adventurers and charlatans. And man will not stop destroying the world. In this regard, I have no illusions. Neither I nor anyone else will ever win this war once and for all. . .Yet I still think it makes sense to wage this war persistently. It is an eternal, never-ending struggle waged not just by good people against evil people, by honourable people against dishonorable people, by people who think about the world and eternity against people who think only of themselves and the moment. It takes place inside of everyone. It is what makes a person a person, and life, life… There is only one thing I will not concede: that it might be meaningless to strive in a good cause (SM, 16).

There is nowhere he has made this belief more clear than in his acceptance of the role of president; he met a particularly earth-shattering instance of destiny handing him unexpectedly weighty responsibility that startling December. If “responsibility as destiny” is a good motto for Havel’s life, as Jan Vladislav says in concluding his introduction to Living in Truth, nowhere is it made manifest more boldly than in his resounding “Yes!” to the responsibility placed before him that day. He would have been happy voicing his truth anywhere, he says — had been, in fact — in prison, in theaters, in his marriage, in school, as an intellectual, in his writings, and would have gone on living in truth wherever he found himself. When faced with a new and unfamiliar — but important — arena in which to learn to do so, he did not back down, but chose to live in that new sphere with as much awareness and conscience as he was able, to do his utmost there with sincerity, integrity and vision, as who he was. He chose to shoulder the responsibility and conscientiously lived as honestly as he could, face-to-face with himself, in the place where he was put.

Responsibility as destiny is a good motto, and the amazing web-like connectedness of everything in the universe makes acknowledging our responsibility look like a wise choice. The more we know about how interconnected things are, the wiser it looks. And yet, somehow, we still manage to avoid looking straight at the truth that we have a responsibility to that world, and for it– not just a responsibility to and for ourselves (PotP, 80).

One can only hope that we will not grow callous to the ability of art and culture to uncover truth and give us reason to accept it. It is the only hope for the continuance of this amazing power Havel calls “the autonomous, free humanity of man” which so recently faced down and overthrew a totalitarian government without shedding a drop of blood.


Havel, Vaclav, et al. The Power of the Powerless; Citizens Against the State in Central Europe. Armonk, New York. M.E. Sharpe, Inc. 1990. (PotP)

Havel, Vaclav. The Art of the Impossible; Politics as Morality in Practice. New York. Fromm International Publishing Corporation. 1998. (TAotI)

Havel, Vaclav.“Six Asides About Culture.” Jan Vladislav, ed. Living in Truth. England. Clays Ltd, St Ives plc. 1990. (LIT)

Havel, Vaclav.“Letter to Dr. Gustav Husak.” Jan Vladislav, ed. Living in Truth. England. Clays Ltd, St Ives plc. 1990. (LtDGH)

Havel, Vaclav, et al., Tim D. Whipple, ed. After the Velvet Revolution; Vaclav Havel & the New Leaders of Czechoslovakia Speak Out. New York. Freedom House. 1991. (AtVR)

Havel, Vaclav. Tom Stoppard, ed. Largo Desolato. New York. Grove Press. 1987. (LD)

Havel, Vaclav. Open Letters; Selected Writings, 1965-1990. New York. Vintage Books. 1991. (OL)

Havel, Vaclav., Paul Wilson, trans. Summer Meditations. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. 1992. (SM)

Havel, Vaclav., Paul Wilson, trans. Disturbing the Peace; A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. 1990. (DtP)

Lukes, Igor. Czechoslovakia Between Stalin and Hitler; The Diplomacy of Edvard Benes in the 1930s. New York. Oxford University Press. 1996. (CBSaH)

Weber, Eugen. A Modern History of Europe; Men, Cultures, and Societies from the Renaissance to the Present. New York. W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.1970. (p. 751-1106). (AMHoE)