THE LONELY VOICE #15: Be Aware of Your Own Ridiculousness, A Small Tribute to Václav Havel


That Václav Havel’s death was overshadowed by Kim Jong Il, that loopy coward, is a joke that might have made Havel, the writer, laugh. Idiot tyranny finally pays him back a little.

Over New Year’s (yeah, a lonely voice likes to party), I re-read one of Havel’s plays, “Largo Desolato,” a play about a dissident philosopher named Leopold who fears being sent to prison, but who also fears not being sent to prison, a beautiful Havelian situation. How fast it happens. Now Václav Havel too speaks with the sad, fearless authority of a writer from the grave. But something else, something strange, a little miraculous. This freshly dead writer began whispering to me like nothing happened. He went on talking as if the headlines were all fiction. Don’t listen to all the hollow tributes about my selfless, angelic qualities, I’m still here, and I’m still making trouble, and I’m no saint

Here’s Leopold in “Largo Desolato,” the reluctant hero everybody is waiting on. Fellow intellectuals and dissidents, as well as ordinary workers, are waiting for him to write something really juicy this time, something that will really stick it to the regime. But like any other, ordinary writer, Leopold’s having trouble knowing what to say next.

Leopold: It’s funny but when I run out of excuses for putting off writing and make up my mind to start,

I stumble over the first banality – pencil or pen? – which paper? – and then this thing starts –

Lucy: What thing?

Leopold: The cycle thing –

Lucy: What’s that?

Leopold: My thoughts just start going round in a loop –

Lucy: Hm –

Leopold: Look, do we have to talk about me?

Lucy: You love to talk about yourself!

Havel once said in an interview that of all his plays, “Largo Desolato” was the most directly autobiographical. He went on to say that if he sometimes wrote harsh portrayals of real people in his plays, he saved the roughest treatment for himself. This is a good rule of thumb for those of us who write about our families and friends. Do it. But manhandle yourself worse.

What I appreciate most about Leopold is how comically unbrave he is. How terrified he is. He spends much of the play furtively looking out the keyhole, quivering, waiting for the secret police to show up. When they do arrive, he seriously considers taking the deal the two cops offer. All he has to do is disavow “a certain essay” he has written and they won’t send him to prison. Not only does he dream, wistfully, of selling out, he’s vain as all hell. A serial philanderer, Leopold is always looking forward to the next conquest, the one that will lead, at last!, to genuine love. In short, Leopold’s a guy, a human being.

There’s a hilarious, over-the-top scene at the end of the play when a young fan named Marguerite comes to visit the renowned philosopher. She loves his work, and also believes she loves him, and Leopold, in spite of his great inner turmoil over the big questions, in spite of the fact that he may well be the conscience of his nation, lays his lonely guy routine on thick.

Leopold: Ah, my dear girl, I really don’t know if I’m capable of love –

Marguerite: Don’t tell me that you’ve never felt anything towards a woman –

Leopold: Nervousness – more with some, less with others –

Marguerite: You need love! Mad passionate true love! Didn’t
you yourself write in Phenomenology of Responsibility that a person
who doesn’t love doesn’t exist? Only love will give you the strength
to stand up to them!

Leopold: That’s easy for you to say, Marguerite, but where
would one find it?

(Marguerite takes a quick drink, winces and quietly blurts out.)

Marguerite: With me!

Leopold: What? You?

There’s a certain courageous honestly in Havel, in his plays, in his essays.  Its rare in people, writers, even harder to find in politicians. Ask any Czech and they also might tell you that Havel could be scoldy, lectury, unafraid to monologue, tedious, etc. And yet many Czechs, I think, loved him. More now than ever, of course. So it goes with love and loss. Complicated love, family love.

A Czech neighbor of mine in San Francisco, upon hearing the news and having no one to speak to who could truly understand her grief, went out to Golden Gate Park to lay a flower at the feet of the statue of another Czech writer/ president, Thomas Masaryk. Masaryk, the first Czech President, and also a philosopher, wrote many books, including a groundbreaking study of suicide.[1] You’ve got to hand it to Czechs for electing thinkers.

As president Havel had to make choices he may not have made as a writer. A president – even one whose post was largely ceremonial – often can’t afford the luxury of being subtle. The bombing of Serbia by NATO, which Havel backed, wasn’t subtle. I was teaching human rights on the law faculty of Charles University in 1999, and I got an earful from my students about Havel being a complete hypocrite. The man who wrote “The Power and the Powerless” favors murdering civilians to stop Milosevic? I pointed out that what Milosevic was up to in Kosovo wasn’t very subtle either and that it seemed only the gun would stop him. Needless to say, my students had a point. For a man like Václav Havel to support the use of brute force strength rather than more humane, creative means – that must have been a hard pill to swallow.

But he was a man, a writer, who was well aware of his own imperfections. Nowhere in Havel’s work is he more unguarded than in Letters to Olga, a collection of letters he wrote to his wife while he was serving his third stint in prison, a term that lasted from 1979 to 1982. Although Letters to Olga contains breathtaking writing throughout, it doesn’t always show the hero of the Velvet Revolution/ Divorce in the best light. When he was arrested that time, he was found by the police at a girlfriend’s apartment in Prague. Havel responds to Olga’s understandable coldness.

You said you were not sending me a kiss and that I know why.
I don’t know why! I do know, however, that you mustn’t write
such things to me – I felt miserable for several days. These letters
are all one has here. You read them a dozen times. Turn them over in
your mind, every detail is either a delight or a torment and makes you
aware of how helpless you are. In other words, you must write me nice
letters. And number them, put a date on them, and above all, be as
exhaustive as you can, and write legibly.

He also says she should do a better job of maintaining the country house, build up a philosophical library for when he’s released, and learn to drive. Model husband, no. Pain in the ass? Narcissistic? See under: Writer. And like Leopold, Havel too must have contemplated countless times how easy it might have been to simply sell out, to give up being a martyr in exchange for his freedom. Thus, Havel knew the price of resisting.

In “Largo Desolato,” Leopold unheroically muses about how much easier life might be if only he disavowed his words. “It was wonderful when nobody was interested in me – when nobody expected anything from me, nobody urged me to do anything – I just browsed around the second-handbookshops…”

This is the man who will lead a revolution? Why not? I’ll take my fictional heroes, as I take my presidents, flawed – or not at all. Those who believe they’ve cornered the market on all the answers are the ones to be wary of, in literature, politics, life. I’ll take the confused, the mistake-ridden, the still trying to figure it all out. Again Havel speaks from prison:

What else is there to say about my life? I’ve read a book on the
Etruscans, and I’m reading one on Carthage; I’m studying a little
English, doing a little yoga, playing some chess (though my partner is
too good and I don’t enjoy it), and trying to come to terms with the
lack of lack of light by day and the lack of darkness at night.

Part of a writer’s job is to try and shed some light on the mysterious contradictions that we human beings try and square in order to get through the day. How revolutionary peacemakers turn around and justify the bombing of civilians is only one example. I imagine that President Havel was as relentless with himself in office, with the choices he had to make, as he was in his writing, as he was with his wife when he was doing time, and ultimately, as he was with his country. I’ll take a human being over consistency any day. I’ll also take the guy who knows how to laugh. Now that this particular flawed man is dead, we should listen to him even more closely than ever.

If you don’t want to dissolve in your own seriousness to the
point where you become ridiculous to everyone, you must have a healthy
awareness of your own ridiculousness and nothingness. As a matter of
fact, the more serious what you are doing is, the more important it
becomes not to lose this awareness.[2]

[1] In Suicide and the Meaning of Civilization (1881), Masaryk argued, among other things, that sucide rates would rise with an increase in modernization. He was right.

[2] From Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Huizdala (1991).

Peter Orner is the author of two novels, two story collections (Little, Brown), and the editor of two oral histories (Voice of Witness/ McSweeney's/ Verso). His latest book is Am I Alone Here?, an essay collection published in November, 2016 by Catapult with illustrations by Eric Orner. A new book of oral history set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and co-edited with Dr. Evan Lyon, will be published by Voice of Witness/ Verso, in January, 2017. Peter Orner currently teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers as well as at San Francisco State University where he is currently chair of the Creative Writing Department. More from this author →