LT208 The Writings of Václav Havel: Critique of Modern Society
David S. Danaher, Professor, Slavic Languages, UW-Madison
This course is a literature-in-translation course in two senses of the term “translation”. In one sense of the term, we will be reading — and critically evaluating from a literary perspective — Havel’s works in English translation. In a second sense, we will analyze the ideas in these texts by “translating” them into contemporary American terms. The course focuses on close analysis of the texts themselves (rhetorical style and technique, structure, imagery, comparison across genres) as well as on critical application of Havel’s ideas to our own personal life experiences. In this respect, we will remain faithful to Havel’s own pragmatic understanding of literature.
For Havel, life under a totalitarian, communist regime was not the simple antithesis of life in Western democracy. Communist society represented “an inflated caricature of modern life in general” and the collective experiences of Czechs, Slovaks, and others who lived under a totalitarian regime “stand as a kind of warning to the West, revealing to it its own latent tendencies.” Throughout the course, you will play the role of investigators of Havel’s hypothesis concerning the relevance of his critique of totalitarianism for a critique of modern society in general. You will familiarize yourself thoroughly with the hypothesis and the cultural context in which it arose (Havel’s life and work) and put the hypothesis to the test in attempting to think critically about our own society in the ways that Havel suggests we do.
This course has several objectives:
1. To acquaint you with the details of Havel’s thought as it developed through his various incarnations as anti-communist dissident in totalitarian Czechoslovakia (1960-1989), as a writer of plays, philosophical essays, and speeches (1990-2003), and as president of, first, post-totalitarian Czechoslovakia (from late 1989 to 1993) and then, later, of the newly independent Czech Republic (1993 to 2003).
2. To grapple with Havel’s ideas through close analysis of the texts as literature. What are Havel’s principal literary techniques? In what ways is his rhetorical style appropriate to his message? How does he communicate many of the same ideas through a number of different genres? What, for Havel, is the purpose of writing and the writer’s responsibility in society? To what extent can we consider Havel’s later presidential speeches literature?
3. To consider the relevance of Havel’s thought, and particularly his keen critique of the totalitarian system, to life in contemporary America. In other words, to what extent can we consider Havel’s statements about the relationship between totalitarianism and modern society valid? Can we critically apply Havel’s ideas to make sense of our own life experiences and the larger socio-political and moral context in which they take place?
Recurrent themes in Havel’s writings that we will examine and attempt to relate to the American context include: an understanding of an “anti-political” politics and a “life in truth”; an account of what it means to be a dissident; the fetishization of technology and its role in promoting a dehumanized and impersonal society; the connection between ideology and power; the role of rhetoric in shaping and manipulating beliefs; personal responsibility; and the intellectual’s position in society.
For the most part, we will read primary texts (Havel’s own words). Secondary literature will be used for background reading to flesh out Havel’s context as well as in the context of group projects. Other course materials will include web resources (see the course website).
Books required for the course (and available in the bookstore) are: Open Letters: Selected Writings (1992); The Garden Party and Other Plays (1993); Leaving (2008).
Havel’s 1997 book of speeches, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice, is out of print; most of his speeches are available on-line in English translation (see course ). A biography of Havel (Václav Havel: The Authorized Biography) is recommended reading, and limited copies will be available in the bookstore. Other readings will be provided, as necessary, in the form of handouts.
The following will be required for successful completion of the course:
1. Active participation in class discussions, demonstrating familiarity with the readings. To read a text means to think about it and not just process the words on the page. Preparedness and participation comprise 20% of your final course grade.
2. An individual report to the class (5-10 minutes) on an aspect of Czech(oslovak) history or politics. The report will be given in the introductory phase of the course (see below). Topics will be provided by the instructor. The report represents 10% of the course grade.
3. Regular writing in an informal journal of reactions to the readings and class discussions. The reaction journal will be collected and read by the instructor at two points during the semester. Journal work is 20% of your final grade.
4. Completion of a test covering the material in the first part of the course. The test will focus on Havel’s context as well as the readings that we have discussed in and for class and will consist of identification/references, short answers, and short essays. The test grade will make up 20% of your course grade.
5. Group presentation of extra play. Students will be broken down into groups, and each group will be given a play by Havel that we haven’t read as a class. Groups will present the plays to their colleagues during class. This presentation will represent 10% of your final grade.
6. Final individual creative project. Each student will react to the course by completing a writing project of approximately five pages in length. Since students’ particular interest in Havel will vary greatly, the nature of the final project has been purposefully left open. Some may choose to rewrite and expand upon an entry in their informal reaction journal or analyze a text by Havel that we have not explicitly treated in the course while others may write a short play in Havel’s style or a more traditional research paper that examines an issue raised during the course. The final project should reflect in some significant way what each student gained from reading and studying Havel’s writings. The final creative project represents 20% of the course grade.
As the instructor for the course, I am committed to helping you to learn as much as possible from the course and achieve the course objectives. I am available for consultations outside of class: make an appointment to visit me in my office, email me with questions or ideas, or text or email me at home with questions.
Semester Schedule at a Glance: Fall 2009
T, 1-18: Introductions and expectations. Prepping for individual reports.
Th, 1-20: Havel’s “Anti-codes”: graphic poetry.
T, 1-25: Historical/cultural reports.
Th, 1-27: More historical/cultural reports. Previewing our first reading.
T, 2-1: VH: Anatomy of a Gag.
T, 2-8: VH: Power of the Powerless.
T, 2-15: VH: Dear Dr. Husák.
T, 2-22: VH: Politics and Conscience.
T, 3-1: Journals due for the first time! VH: It Always Makes Sense to Tell the Truth.
Th, 3-3: VH: Anatomy of Reticence.
T, 3-8: VH: Thriller.
Th, 3-10: Test 1.
T, 3-22: Intro to theater in C/E Europe; a guided tour of The Garden Party.
T, 3-24: Discussion: How is politics like theater? VH: A Word about Words.
T, 3-29: VH: The Memorandum.
Th, 3-31: VH: Private View (Exhibition).
Th, 4-7: VH: Largo Desolato.
T, 4-12: Journals due for second time!
Th, 4-14: Class is cancelled, but meet for your group presentation plays?
T, 4-19: Group presentations of extra plays, day 1.
Th, 4-21: Paul Wilson visits class for a discussion; Leaving.
T, 4-26: Group presentations of extra plays, day 2.
Th, 4-28: VH speeches.
T, 5-3: VH speeches.
Th, 5-5: Last class.
havel’s biography, résumé, and other information
speeches and other texts
reviews of the keane biography
comments and articles about havel and his worksjerrie ceplina on havel’s speeches as hybrid genre
Student Reactions to Havel’s Writing: Spring 2011
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Defamiliarization and the Gag
“I think gags are sad. As much as I love satire, the idea of a comedic gag gives me a jittery feeling. The complete disconnectedness that comes with the gage leave me, as a reader, feeling lonely, isolated, confused. What is comforting about being disoriented? The idea of defamiliarizing a concept makes me laugh not out of humor – but out of unease and self-pity for being so easily duped.
The idea of taking two disconnected ideas (cross-walks and police chases) and tying them together with a logical connection (sidewalks) is incredible – it’s like seeing your mother’s face for the first time. You’ve always looked and recognized the face, but (at least for me) I didn’t really SEE my mother’s face until I was about fifteen. Had she always had that dimple? One eyebrow is slightly higher than the other. And bam – I’m seeing a familiar face in a completely new light. I find this concept engrossing, and I stare at my oldest friends looking for new and unfamiliar characteristics. It is this surprising loneliness within such familiarity that keeps me addicted.
One could say it’s seeing through the eyes of a newborn. The eternal imagination of a child, one who in such simplicity sees such profundity. It’s like religion: many of us could walk into (what we see as a conventional) church and expect to see a man in strange robes, perhaps a hat, standing at a table and somehow making those who stare at him say or sing strange words in unison (a priest at an altar with his congregation saying ‘amen’ after prayers).
Defamiliarization asks the question: ‘Has this always been like this and how come I never really noticed before?’ I laugh at my idiocy but not at the gag itself. Many gags aren’t particularly funny: the sad foolishness is rather within those bearing witness to – and becoming victims of – that defamiliarizing experience.”
Defamiliarization as Luxury
“Defamiliarization is a technique used in art to help one transcend mere acceptance of everyday conventions and potentially reach an epiphany. According to Havel, it enables a person to analyze life from a different perspective and thus question numerous aspects of the life that he or she leads. It is, however, important to note that art is not the only means by which this could be achieved; defamiliarization can also be engendered by events from our daily lives. Traumatic experience, such as the death of a family member, or simply changing one’s frame of reference – for example, moving to another country – can invoke feelings of curiosity or doubt and ultimately lead to a re-evaluation of life.
The absurdism that arises from defamiliarization can in turn spark an emotional catharsis. Defamiliarization can therefore act as both a comic agent, for example in gags, or a tragic one, notably in Ionesco’s ‘Rhinoceros’. It is both positive and negative since it intensifies sadness just as effectively as it intensifies happiness. In a world where pursuit of the new has become inevitable, defamiliarization may seem as the ideal way to attain knowledge. However, I believe it has a destructive aspect to it. Leading a life of constant questioning can be a source of distress, where automatisms may become the only things we can hold onto in order to keep ourselves from sinking into the depths of paranoia and discomfort. Existential hardships may appear a lot worse through defamiliarizing eyes. Incorporating some automatisms into one’s life can help avoid emotional and cognitive exhaustion.
Although the comfort that can be found in automatisms can be dangerous as well in the same way that conformity is dangerous, it is important to find a balance in the way we view our surroundings. We must know the extent to which we can yield to automatisms without losing part of ourselves. We must also know how much defamiliarization we can undergo before it prevents us from being productive individuals with balanced lives.”
Gags and Catharsis
“While reading ‘Gag’, I couldn’t help but think about the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert as well as the book Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.
In Heinlein’s book the main character, a man named Valentine Michael Smith who was raised by Martians, has to learn how to act and live like a human. This involves learning human emotions and, more importantly, laughter. Throughout most of the book Michael cannot laugh, or when he does, it’s merely in response to others’ laughter, and his own sounds frighteningly fake. One day, however, he is at the zoo, and he witnesses a chimp being abused and having things stolen from him by another chimp. It is at this point that Michael laughs – hysterically and genuinely. In doing so he realizes that laughter is just a way of dealing with sorrow in the world, a way of masking and dealing with pain. Or at least that’s what I remember thinking when I read the book a long while ago. But I thought of that when Havel argues that laughter, or the gag, is a form of catharsis. In Michael’s case, it’s the cathartic release from pain, and for Havel it is also a release of emotions.
I also find that this is the case with Stewart and Colbert. They point out frankly painful and absurd aspects of our society. We know well these absurdities because they form the background of our lives, but we need someone to help us laugh at them so it’s easier for us to accept them (and perhaps gain a measure of control over them). The gag, according to Havel, is funny because it is an automatism that is introduced into another automatism. The first is absurd for the situation of the second. What Stewart and Colbert do is impose a ‘normal’ automatism (sanity) on an ‘absurd’ automatism (Glenn Beck, say). It has the same effect in that we laugh, but kind of in reverse of Havel’s analysis of the gag.”
“Anatomy of the Gag”
“My favorite line from this essay is: ‘Thus everything… depends on man’s ability to recognize when the automatism ceases to serve him, and when he begins to serve the automatism’. It is this line and concept that makes this essay a positive one that expresses faith in human beings. I think many students read it in a negative light, thinking that Havel means we are all hopelessly trapped in our automatisms and that the most common reaction to a gag is defensiveness, not a potential for change.
Automatisms give us a vantage point, a place to start, and a framework to build within. They allow us to function, to not be so concerned with the trivial or to be swallowed whole by the gravity of a situation. Automatisms allow life to go on. Without them, life would be stressful and chaotic. Havel’s point here is that automatisms should conform to you, be of and by you, not the other way around. When you start to fulfill the purpose of an automatism instead of the automatism’s fulfilling your purpose, you lose your identity and purposefulness. Don’t look at automatisms as something to live up to in order to classify yourself as successful or normal. They are a tool for success, not success itself.
People make mistakes. It’s easy to think that fulfilling automatisms is what you’re supposed to do, that this is how life is lived. But humans also have the gift of humor and creativity, which are there to remind us that automatisms are not the purpose of life and that they don’t always make sense. It’s this humor and ability to create art that informs us of real purpose as well as gives us hope that we can get out of the traps that automatisms can set for us.”
Circles of Life and Language
“Different aspects of our lives define who we are – our country of origin, our friends and acquaintances, our political affiliations, etc. However, these factors do not necessarily complement each other and make us who we are: we might inhabit different circles of home or life and even have different personalities in each. Since I speak three languages (Arabic, French, and English), I can relate to this idea put forth by Havel especially when it comes to language.
Not merely because of personal preference but also due to social etiquette, it becomes more acceptable or appropriate to use on language instead of another depending on the occasion or even venue in some countries with multilingual populations. Lately, I have realized that I tend to use Arabic to express discontent or tell humorous stories whereas I always use French when I am speaking about science or literature. I also use different languages depending on who I’m speaking to even though they might understand both. Out of respect, it is a lot more common to speak to an older person in Arabic since that is Morocco’s official language and thus invokes a semblance of reverence. However, it might be easier to speak French with an adult from the higher social classes especially if that person grew up during French colonization or studied in France (as is often the case). On the other hand, one would never dare present congratulations and blessings to a bride and groom in French because Arabic is closely linked to Islam and marriage is a religious rite.
This choice of language comes about intuitively; thus, we say something about who we are by that relatively simple choice. An interesting aspect of this is code-switching (using more than one language in the context of one utterance) and what this may signify in terms of Havel’s circles. I have recently read an article which condemned code-switching as being dangerous since it teaches a person to rely partially on each language, thus leading to what they call semi-bilingualism or non-proficiency in either language. Although there is some truth in this, I feel like the benefits of code-switching are innumerable. Emotionally and intellectually, it enables a person to explore difference aspects of her or his identity simultaneously. It also enables you to express yourself better and potentially attain relative self-realization. Code-switching shows that the circles of home theory, especially when it comes to language, does not necessarily imply that there is a dichotomy in our personalities, although that might be true, but that the different facets of our lives may complement each other.”
“Dear Dr. Husák”
“I’m not entirely sure why, but something that really upset me in class was when people said that citizens gave into post-totalitarianism because it was easier to do so. This makes it sound like they were lazy. I think that they were far from lazy and that they may actually have been depressed.
Lazy is knowing you should do something and being capable of doing it, but not doing it even when the benefits obviously outweigh the cons. Depression is a survival mechanism. In a post-totalitarian system a person’s ability to pursue personal happiness is constrained. Their ability to have a larger purpose – to fulfill the human need to do good for others – is also limited. Without happiness and purpose, there is a sadness that threatens a person’s ability to function and to survive.
The same applies to fear. Havel explains that fear in these citizens was not expressed the way we often picture a person experiencing it. He says it is an underlying, continuous fear – an existential fear. I think that he is right, but in a different way. It is also not possible to survive and function in a constant state of anxiety. The citizens suppressed their feelings of fear – and therefore the ability to be courageous as well. Again, they contained their emotions in order to survive. I think that this is the only way a person could live within a post-totalitarian society, the only way they could appear to not care about the sign in the grocery-store window.
I read both ‘Husák’ and ‘Power’ as efforts at therapy. How do you cure a depressed person or a depressed populace? convince them of existence or possible existence of happiness, purpose, and courage. Havel isn’t calling his fellow citizens lazy. He isn’t angry at them, but empathizes with them.”
How Consumerism Consumes Our Lives
“One of the major points of discussion related to ‘Letter to Husák’ is how consumerism served as a distraction during Normalization. But it could be said that consumerism also controls our lives today in a deeper way.
In my case, I feel like I have been living the life of a ‘shopaholic’ for the past five years. It’s about three months before I graduate from college and move on, and one day recently I was standing in my apartment and looking at all the things that I have ‘consumed’ in the past few years that are now piled up all over the place. I suddenly felt that all these possessions – which used to help me identity myself – have added up to so much pressure and become burdens. I started going from one thing to another, trying to decide what I should do with it all. Time has passed, and I regret my decision to purchase all of this stuff, and I regret the time I spent in buying it and that I will have to spend to get rid of it.
People treat consumerism and materialism as a solution when they are facing problems. Since my recent break-up, I’ve received so many comments from friends like ‘You should take a trip to the mall and buy tons of clothes!’. More than a few of them have suggested ‘buying’ as the solution for me to move on from my ex. Consumerism can also be a substitute for a cultural experience. For example, many European tourists in the US consider buying clothes from Abercrombie and Fitch or products from Victoria’s Secret. When I was in Europe, I came back from a weekend trip to Italy and the first thing people asked me was if I had bought any Italian leather goods.
It Normalization controlled the Czechs’ lives and blocked them from living in truth, then consumerism is what controls our lives today and keeps us from living authentically.”
Some Thoughts on Living within a Lie
“Havel writes on p. 144 of ‘Power’ that, by nature, ‘[h]uman beings are compelled to live within a lie, but they can be compelled to do so only because they are in fact capable of living this way’. On the next page, he writes of the ‘general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity’. Connecting these two arguments, I’m compelled to infer that human beings are not only capable, but perhaps predisposed, toward living in a lie.
Thought Havel speaks of living within truth as a supremely natural expression of one’s inner self, time and again he also writes of the ease with which people can lie to themselves, and how comfortable and comforting such lies can be. Thus I am left to wonder, which of the two is ‘more’ natural? They seem to represent aspects of human nature that are polar – or perhaps dichotomous is a more appropriate word. Simply put, one cannot exist without the other. Living in truth is doing and being that which makes one spiritually free; it is to express ourselves authentically and to live authentically, true to our ‘real’ selves. There is another aspect of our ‘real’ selves, however: the flawed self with its tendency toward apathy, toward quick and easy comfort. This ‘living in a lie’ seems to be as natural to us as ‘living in truth’. It would be just as ‘unnatural’ to deny the uglier parts – those tempted by the lie – as it would to not affirm ourselves and live in truth. Would not ‘living in truth’ necessarily contain an acknowledgement of our craving for lies? I am curious: would ‘living in truth’ entail abandoning participation in all lies – if that were even possible – or would it merely notice and constantly seek, but never finally manage, to undo our existence in lies?”
Science and Conscience
“Something that interests me in “Politics and Conscience’ is Havel’s discussion of modern science’s objectivity and its arrogance in the face of nature. Havel writes that ‘people thought they could explain and conquer nature – yet the outcome is that they destroyed it and disinherited themselves from it’ (225). As a history of science major who edits papers on post-modern science for a professor, this passage jumped out at me.
Since the dawn of the age of discovery in the 15th century, through the frenzy for classification and collection of nature in the 19th century, up to today’s technological information age, society has been fascinated with not just understanding nature, but gaining some sort of control over it. This pursuit is not entirely unwarranted – faced with a vast and overwhelming world, it is in our nature to try to classify and understand. Science emerged as a field in the 18th and 19th centuries as man encountered new, bewildering environments and attempted to describe them in a way that was standardized and increasingly available to the public.
Part of this standardization process in natural history, medicine, technology, etc. was the need for ‘objectivity’. Technology is certainly a generally effective way of lending objectivity to an investigation, and we now find ourselves in a society almost entirely dictated and controlled by technology. Along with this increased demand for objectivity and standardization and obsession with classifying nature came the ‘arrogance of man in the modern age’ which Havel writes about. Before we immediately write off science because of arrogance, however, we must consider the uncountable ways in which this objectivity has improved society. Classification and collection in natural history has led to virtually all of our understanding of nature today – by observing (and destroying and stealing from) nature, we now have species names, a basic understanding of the evolutionary process, and we are able to reverse some of the environmental damage that we have created. Objectivity in medicine has debunked many racist and sexist nations of illness, and countless lives have been saved through standardization and rational thought. Technological advancement has destabilized traditional social hierarchies, opened up information to people across the world, and has generally improved the standard of life for millions of people.
So what does Havel mean when he attacks scientific objectivity and humanity’s quest to explain and conquer nature? First, the notion of human objectivity is a myth. Anything processed and explained by a human is, to some degree, subjective. Scientists often work within existing paradigms, which (usually unconsciously) affects their own scientific narratives. Simply by observing data and research, scientists work subjectively. This fiction of objectivity has had devastating consequences: it has negatively influenced natural history, medicine, and technological ‘advancement’. By attempting to control nature, we have become removed from it. We live in an age of global warming, deforestation, mass environmental pollution, species extinction on a vast scale. Clearly our attempts to conquer nature by explaining it and ‘improving’ it have failed. The consequences of objectivity in the medical field are more difficult to see, but patient-physician relationships have change immensely, and subjective experiences of illness and treatment have given way to chemical suppression.
It is clear by now that we are slaves to the scientific stance. Havel notes that this has potentially dire implications for the future. Modern scientists, myself included, would do well to incorporate some empathy in our studies because it is clear that fictional objectivity and the drive to exclude human experience from science will ultimately lead to our downfall.”
Listening to Conscience
“Havel seems to have a remarkable talent for identifying negative automatisms. In ‘Politics and Conscience’, the image of the black smoke rolling out of a looming tower is disturbing in its own right, although it still lacks an urgent call to action. However, in a contemporary context, this warning by Havel represents a reality where we have reduced nature to merely a subcontext of our world. Havel saw – in this and other cases – how our technologized approach to nature was taking us toward an existential and moral crisis.
It is terribly easy for a member of my generation to look at a coal burning plant and call it a travesty. We know that the carbon released increased the ppm of carbon in the atmosphere, trapping more solar energy, altering various climates, leading to the unmaking of food-webs. We have reason to care: even in our lifetime, these changes will have dramatic economic, political, and social consequences. But at the time he wrote ‘Politics and Conscience’, Havel was facing no such immediate danger. So how did someone who was at best a scientific hobbyist manage to identify this malignant trend without any of the contemporary science or a sense of impending disaster? (My surprise grows when trying to account for the large portions of this country who don’t know or continue to deny the malignancy of current ecological trends.)
My wandering thoughts tell me that he was just right about humanity, and it is true that nearly all of his works circle around the crisis of human identity. The gravity of the shift in human identity was not recognized by all, and it was Havel who sees some of the gravest consequences. We can now say that he was painfully correct in extrapolating from his experiences. He was right in criticizing political and economic structures as well as cultures beyond the limits of the Soviet bloc. He was correct in defamiliarizing the conventional idea of a dignified human life. He was right in tracing many of the world’s ills back to the conscience of every able human.
Had my parents’ generation heeded the words of Havel, or had we really listened to the voice of conscience that we really didn’t want to hear, the state of the civilized world may not be defined by political, ecological, economic, and existential crises. The reality is that plain. Life cannot be lived outside the boundaries of nature. We have tried to cover up nature’s tell-tale heart with more and more layers of technological varnish, but still we are nearing the climax that Havel wrote so many words to sway us away from.
We are each other’s stewards. Man needs to know himself and to listen to his conscience (in the sense that Havel describes it) or else he does himself, his fellow humans, and his future a grave disservice.”
Essays and Plays
“In transitioning from Havel the essayist to Havel the playwright, it has become apparent that as a reader I need to shift, or maybe put aside, my typical approach to words. Whereas I normally peruse passages intending to almost literally ‘take’ the meaning out of them, the feeling of discomfort that I had after reading ‘The Garden Party’ told me that Havel’s plays do not ‘contain’ meaning in this sense of the word. There are profound ideas and sentiments in the plays that can’t be unlocked by a straightforward reading of them. Havel knew the weight of a word, but this changes from genre to genre. A scholar reading an essay is not the same as a member of the audience watching a performance (or someone reading a play but imagining its performance). My hunch is that the import of the plays – the weight of the playwright’s word – lies in feeling and experiencing them as though one is seat in the theater and thereby taking a part in the production.”
Fatalism and Optimism in Havel’s Plays and Essays
“Havel’s plays and essays present two ways of relating to the world. On the one hand, there is a motif of fatalism in his writings, and on the other, a potential for hope and optimism. In ‘Power of the Powerless’, Havel concludes on a rather sombre note, mentioning the presence of ‘latent tendencies’ in all people that lead us to pursue hopeless endeavors, and in ‘Audience’, the brewmaster keeps repeating that everyone is in the same boat and that it’s all a ‘bloody mess’. Another genre where the fatalistic motif seems to be strong is the anti-codes: Havel playfully exposes the world’s problems and the flaws in modern human identity without seeming to present a way out or strategies for fixing them. The circularity characteristic of most of Havel’s dramatic dialogue also implies an inability on the character’s part to break free from a circle/cycle of nonsensical repetition – or a system riddled with ideology.
In contrast, Havel does sometimes incorporate elements of hope in his writing. In ‘The Memorandum’ and ‘The Garden Party’, some of the characters escape the infernal loop that they are seemingly imprisoned in. Peter runs away to pursue intellectual endeavors (to study microbiology), leaving the rest of the Pludek family still caught up in the loop, while Marie is fired from Gross’ bureaucracy and goes to join her brother’s theater, indicating that there is not just one single ‘stage’ (and creating an interesting intersection of theater within theater).
Havel thereby suggests that there is life beyond the play and the theatrical cage that the characters (we) are trapped in: modern-day fatalism is not a hopelessly closed system.”
“Havel’s plays are weird. They incite discomfort. They make a reader step back, maybe in awe and maybe in shock. He stretches ideas and their logic toward an infinite horizon. He also will dangle a character before the audience, someone with genuine human qualities and aspirations, who we meet only briefly in the midst of his struggle just before Havel drops him into a zoo, a place that the character won’t leave at least while we know him. From here we quickly ascertain that the ideologies – formerly contained in their zoo enclosures – have escaped and now threaten to overrun the establishment. False and backwards logic begin to besiege our would-be hero. He becomes stuck in endless cycles and feels pressure from all sides. Yet, much to our confusion, the true weight of the absurdity of his situation is not felt by anyone on stage (not even him!), at least not nearly in the way it ought to be. This elephant in the theater grows in size to enormous proportions. We might cry out to the actors: ‘May we please know why this elephant is ruining our night at the theater?’. But most surely the reply would be: ‘Whatever do you mean?’.”
“The Garden Party”
“After reading ‘The Garden Party’, I am particularly impressed with Havel’s method of structuring a play. It seems that his plays are a basic outline – an anatomy – of a chosen theme.
In the case of this play, the theme is post-modern identity. I found that I could relate to Hugo’s original position because young adults are forced to struggle with society’s expectations and with what we might really want to do with our lives. An inability to reconcile the two can easily lead to the tension that we see – magnified and theatrically condensed – within Hugo as he competes against himself in chess. He wins and he loses, but in doing so he really doesn’t accomplish anything except to treat his life as a game.
We don’t really hear much from Hugo, so his ‘moment of truth’ speech at the end of the play took me by surprise. He explains that, as a person, he can never be adequately explained. Although this is something of a paradox, the Pludeks then take this explanation as ‘not bad’ because it represents the ‘healthy philosophy of the middle class’.”
“The opening scene of the play portrays Hugo playing a chess game by himself. This scene can be seen as a symbol of Hugo’s renunciation of partisanship or even the lack of clear victory or failure in life. Hugo undertakes logical steps in the game, but what is there to gain? The chess game may even be seen as Hugo’s initial uncertainty in the beginning of the play but might also serve as a microcosm of the plot of the entire play leading to Hugo’s ascension in the social order.
Chess, a paragon of logical games, is altered in such a way as to become a nonsensical trivial past-time enabling the player to rejoice in neither winning nor losing, or even both at the same time. Just as in the rest of the play, there is a build-up of ‘moments of delirium’ to give rise to a ‘moment of truth’. The chess game reminds the audience/reader of the presence of rationality in the midst of absurdity. There is a clear parallelism between truth and ideological paranoia that reminds the audience of the seriousness of the play.
When finally Hugo exclaims ‘Check-mate!’ after his illuminating speech, this triggers an immediate reevaluation of the play and forces us to reanalyze it significance. It might be interpreted in such a way as to show that Hugo finally picked a side and is able to claim a victory or merely to serve as a final scene placing reason/language portrayed through the moment of truth in a winning position – on a sort of pedestal.”
“One of the larger themes – perhaps the overarching theme – of this play is duplicity. There is a dual nature to every element. This is most explicitly represented in the literal game of chess played by Hugo against himself. Throughout the play, Hugo also plays a figurative game of chess with everyone he encounters. Duplicity is also expressed through the tragic-comic nature of the play. The ‘loss’ of Hugo’s identity, for example, seems tragic. The ‘loss’ – or ‘liquidation’ – of the bureaucratic identities of workers in the now-defunct bureaus also seems tragic.
These identities, however, were never very strong to begin with, and more to the point, not very good ones anyway. Workers had defined themselves by their meaningless job titles; when those are lost, so too is an identity that was purposeless to begin with. At the play’s start, Hugo is defined by his adolescent uncertainty, and by the end, he merely exchanges this for another kind of uncertainty, going off into a different unknown. Thus the effect is quite comic. ‘The Garden Party’ – the play itself, the space it occupies – is the tension between two poles. It is neither one side nor another. It is neither black nor white, but rather the chessboard as a whole.”
“Hugo is an interesting character. We don’t know who he is, and he doesn’t either. This idea is most clearly expressed in his last speech. He talks about how the time of the static and unchangeable is past, that A could very well be B one day and C the next, and this might be a testimony to himself. In the beginning of the play, he was in danger of being caught in the same rut as his father who talks all the time about Japan, but at the end of the play he has successfully talked his way into high places, has duped others, and has eloquently expressed his existential outlook on human identity and reality. Quite a change in a matter of just a short time!
His abrupt change reminds me of the native African stories that I read in a class on the African storyteller. They always had to do with some character realizing something important as they drew up; my professor called these types of stories the ‘coming to age’ stories and said that they are very common. A lot of literature for young people has the same common theme of the trials and tribulations that an adolescent has to face in becoming an adult. Hugo goes through a similar path as he leaves his family (the initial cleave), ventures out into the real world and faces reality (as much as can be mustered in this play), and then ultimately comes back to his family – successful and knowing who he is. But the return is where Havel defies the normative coming to age plot in that Hugo doesn’t know who he is and his family doesn’t recognize him. This could be read in a few ways. Either Hugo is joking, or Havel is trying to stress how much he has changed so that he doesn’t even recognize his old self, or that Hugo is actually just like his father and really is senseless no matter how far he travels or how many trials he faces.”
“In ‘The Memorandum’ all of the characters are pretty ridiculous, but I ended up feeling really sorry for Mr. Gross. Throughout the play, he becomes a victim of the system and seems to realize it in brief moments of clarity, only to fall victim to the absurdity once again. We get the first glimpse of the real Gross when he laments, ‘Why can’t I be a little boy again? I’d do everything differently from the beginning’. Even though Gross participates in the madness and miscommunication that is the office under Ptydepe, we see that he is not just participating in the system but also falling victim to it.
Later on, Gross states the absurdity of the situation outright – ‘What must an employee of our organization – whoever he may be – do in order to escape this vicious, vicious circle?’. For a moment, Gross understands the absurdity in Ptydepe, and wants to escape the system. But since he has been working in the office for so long, and has been performing the same automatisms for so long, Gross quickly falls back into absurdity. Even though he is able to break the cycle for one brief moment, shouting over the Ptydepe, Gross continues on in the vicious, vicious circle after the others brush him off. The others ‘refuse to be bullied by facts’, and Gross is stripped of his title, accused of misusing company property by bringing a rubber stamp home for this children to play with.
In this instance, Gross become somewhat of a tragic character for me. He is seemingly the only one that sees the truth in the situation, and he is punished because of it. His tragic nature is complicated, though, because he is so tied up in the system himself. Every time I start to really feel sorry for Gross, he reverts back to his automatisms and accepts his place under the system. In the end, Gross becomes the star of the play and a true tragic hero to me because he concludes with the ultimate moment of truth, freeing Maria from the fate that he is already deeply entrenched in. He seems to understand the plight of modern society – he acknowledges the advances of modern science, but knows that this means that ‘our life has lost a sort of higher axle, and we are irresistibly falling apart, more and more profoundly alienated from the world, from others, from ourselves’. Gross now realizes that he is not only alienated from everyone around him, but he is alienated from himself.
At the end of the day/play, Gross is so far in that he can’t get out. He is a victim of the vicious cycle that he once mentioned, but he redeems himself by firing Maria, setting her free of the system even when she doesn’t understand what’s going on.”
“While reading this play I kept visualizing a corporate ladder, literally a ladder leaned up against some office building in New York City. All of the employees are scrambling to get to the top. They’ll go from helping each other one second to pushing and shoving the next. All they care about is getting to the top of the ladder, having the corner office with the window, and a fancy title to their name.
It doesn’t matter what the business does; in fact, the employees don’t seem to actually know. Due to everyone being so concerned with the ladder and not the business itself, the business is unsuccessful. Because of this, even when someone gets to the top, they aren’t there very long. They end up lower on the ladder again after some far-off CEO demotes them or someone pushes them off, but not even this fazes them. They just keep on trying to climb back up.
Is this what success is supposed to be like? The pursuit of an efficiently run, profitable business (perhaps like an efficient and profitable life) has become a vicious cycle of self(ish) destruction. People aren’t working together to achieve a common purpose and help each other, or to run an effective business and live a purposeful life. They inhibit each other and unknowingly themselves.
The pursuit of efficiency, when pursued for personal gain, actually results in inefficiency.”
“The play really exposes how fragile identity can be. Even more so, it shows how far we can push our friends. I really think that I have friends like Michael and Vera, but at the same time, I think that I can also be like Michael and Vera with my friends. I don’t know how many times I am excited to tell a story or show something that I recently purchased to an uninterested friend, especially when it is supposed to validate me somehow. I guess the awful thing is that no one really realizes it that they’re having an ‘unveiling’ moment until they’re too far into it. It’s always too difficult to pull yourself back and recognize it for what it is. I guess what I liked about this play so much was that it was able to lay out to pretty good framework for what it is like to try to validate an identity in a shabby (‘low-rent’) way.”
“I was most intrigued by this play. The more and more the couple spoke, the more and more I wanted to know what their story was. Vera and Michael have such a fascinating facade, but are nothing more. Today there are TV shows putting people like Michael and Vera on display for ridicule as they desperately try to fill the gaps in their lives with objects. The psychological aspect of hoarding is something that can’t be overlooked.
If I could identify with one character in the play, it would be Vanek’s wife. If I knew what these people were like, I wouldn’t have gone over there either.”
“This play is about living in truth. Michael and Vera know they are living a lie but do not know how to deal with it. Their lies are their loss of self/identity through consumerism, which is shown by their obsession with their apartment. Vanek in the play becomes a savior-like figure to them because they believe that he can somehow lead them down the right path. The audience and Vanek (as we project ourselves onto him) become like a priest in a confessional for Michael and Vera. Giving in to ideology in order to get certain privileges (like going to Switzerland and buying woodpeak) can be seen as giving up the power to be yourself for something else.
This is not just a Czech condition but a modern one. Consumerism is a sedative for some. In a Czech context, people were only allowed to freely choose ‘which washing machine or refrigerator they want to buy’ (‘Dear Dr. Husák’), and there are definite parallels to this in our lives. This modern condition is everywhere and especially present through advertising. Havel further explains in ‘Dear Dr. Husák’ that ‘[i]n the foreground, then, stands the imposing facade of grand humanistic ideals – and behind it crouches the modest family house of a socialist bourgeois. On the one side, bombastic slogans about the unprecedented increase in every sort of freedom and the unique structural variety of life; on the other, unprecedented drabness and the squalor of life to hunt for consumer goods’. This is exactly Michael and Vera, and Havel takes us from the explaining mode of ‘Dear Dr. Husák’ and really makes us understand how this consumerism and its facade of ideals comes at a high price – how this ‘spiritual and moral crisis in society’ looks like a dramatic context.”
“Once I got to the end of ‘Unveiling’, I came to this conclusion: the play is about what Havel views as Western activists’ ideas of fighting communism. Communism is this evil, dehumanizing way of life and only by showing the citizens (or rather victims) the ‘true’ and ‘right’ way of life will they ever be truly happy. But really this is simply a way for Westerners to feel good about themselves since on some level they are aware of the seeming emptiness and unhappiness (as I interpreted Michael’s and Vera’s life to be) of their own lives. They don’t take the time to listen to those that they call ‘best friends’ – their own view of the world is the only way.
As I come to this conclusion it reminds me of an article I read in frieze magazine. The article is called ‘Good Intentions’ by Negar Azimi (March 2011, issue 137: http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/good-intentions/). It’s about the connection between art and politics and whether contemporary art affects change politically or not. Azimi argues that contemporary political art ‘affirms that participation is a necessary good, and finally, it affirms that you – as the consumer of art – are, in fact, part of a community of like-minded peers’. Ultimately the article concludes with today’s political art being called ‘Easy Listening Art’ which ‘provides enough compositional sophistication to engage or titillate one’s visual sensibilities, but its impact is deliberately muted’.
I find Michael’s and Vera’s behavior and environment similar. They mean well for Vanek, but are wholly obsessed with showing off their objects and their lives – they are fully self-absorbed. They insist that Vanek is suffering terribly because he doesn’t live like they do. They represent the political views of Western activists, and in doing so they reaffirm that they are a part of the common good, that they are doing the proper thing. Because Vanek is the outsider, they desire to bring him into their ‘community of like-minded peers’ both materialistically and culturally as well as politically.
Michael and Vera probably sincerely desire what’s best for Vanek and his wife, but it’s only in terms of assuring themselves that there are others who are similar to them. Otherwise, they are extremely upset because their worldview is challenged. In ‘Good Intentions’, Azimi defines political art as the ‘art of uncomfortable knowledge’. So, really, Vanek is the true form of political art or political change – without meaning to be – because he introduces this new and unsettling worldview onto Vera and Michael when he attempts to escape from their inane babbling. While Vera and Michael attempt to impose political change onto him, Vanek instead does it to them. But their howls of protest ultimately convince him to stay, very much against his will (or so it seems).”
“This play is absolutely ridiculous. The brothel scene was really the cherry on the cake for me – the notion that caressing hair and others kinds of ‘tenderness’ were not tolerated just pushes the theme of ‘life upside-down’ that Havel presents. That is what I thought this play was like: an upside-down reality. Everything is the exact opposite of what it appears or is expected to be. I love it! It’s like living in a funhouse.
It’s not that the characters, despite their all holding despicably low occupations, are immoral, rather they are amoral. I didn’t read the play as if there was malicious intent but rather ignorance and selfishness behind most actions. Filch is truly an interesting character… the only one that has any understanding for right and wrong and is a pickpocket by his own free will (a ‘freelance’ and principled pickpocket) and yet he dies at the end? What is Havel trying to prove! To me, Filch showed how the rest of the characters acted ‘wrong’ because without his ‘right’ it wouldn’t have been possible, so what does it mean that he dies in the end? In the end, it seems as though things just go on. Is it possible to live wrong without right?
One thing is for certain: I must see this performed.”
“In small-group discussion, I disagreed with the rest of my group as to the nature of Leopold’s perception of himself. My group felt that Leopold longed for attention, recognition, and the glory of being seen as a righteous dissident. I feel quite the opposite.
Though it is mostly unknown, it seems Leopold’s life prior to his run-in with the authorities was quite normal, unremarkable, and perhaps quite pleasant. It seems he did not intend to be controversial or cause any kind of stir about himself. Now he is constantly surrounded by attention, real or imagined. He is visited by admirers, government officials, old friends and lovers, all offering various bits of advice and all demanding various things of him. It is more pressure than he can handle, and he seems to long to be taken there, to prison, to escape the spotlight, not amplify it.
It is true that he has other options. He could merely retract, distance himself from whatever damning opinions he expressed, and thus lose both his following and the interest of the secret police. That he does not wish to take this option is perhaps evidence to some that Leopold truly desires the attention and praise he receives – if not, why should it be so difficult to give up? I don’t think it’s that easy. Though Leopold does not strike me as a man of strong convictions, it does not mean he is cowardly. Whatever Leopold wrote was likely the truth for him. He is not so fearless or bold as to stand up and proclaim it unwaveringly, but he probably would not want to turn back on it and lie either.
I think it is easy for those who have never been in such a difficult and spiritually trying situation to think that not wanting to fight is equal to wanting to give up. It is a reasonable interpretation, I think, to say that Leopold may not be looking to resolve an arrogant desire for fame and a cowardly fear of persecution and consequences, but rather, that he merely wants to continue with a relatively normal, simply, pleasant life far from the eyes of anyone, and that in the absence of that option, he’d prefer the solitude and odd sense of security in prison.
As a final note, I think this last point relates somewhat to what we discussed about Havel’s prison theme and working through his own prison experience. In one interview we read, Havel talked about having kept a suitcase packed for weeks waiting to be taken to prison. This must have been maddening, and I think that, like Leopold also expected he would, perhaps Havel felt a strange relief that the inevitable had finally arrived and the constant waiting needn’t be endured any longer. I doubt that the secret police in this play truly stopped being interested in Leopold – when do the secret police ever stop being interested in someone? – but instead their gaze would now be less overt, less visible, less expected. For Leopold, perhaps the most dangerous prison was the one he already occupied, in which he moved about as a ‘free’ man, though knowingly under close and never-ending scrutiny.”
“During group discussion, my peers and I tossed around our personal feelings about Leopold. I was quite surprised to hear that most of them saw Leopold as a self-centered, egotistical wimp. They argued that he had several opportunities to break free: to leave his house, have a normal life, continue to write, go to jail, forget his past, reconnect with his wife, etc… Choosing any of these routes would have freed him from his dreary life, but yet he chose not to take any action and he sunk himself further into self-pity. They also argued that he liked the attention, however negative, that he received from living the life that he did and did not want to change because he would have no one to feed his ego and tell him how much they wanted him to write again. When he did agree to go to jail, my group said that he did this out of self-pity and to receive attention from his outside audience.
While I understand this viewpoint and could possibly agree with it on a few fronts, I don’t think Leopold’s actions were motivated by selfish ambitions. Quite the contrary, I see Leopold as an average, quiet person who was involuntarily thrown into the spotlight because of a small and provocative essay that he wrote. I think he was crushed by the demands of becoming a dissident when that was never his intention. Though I do not know his backstory, I see Leopold’s current state as a testimony to his not being ready to have the responsibility that his fame has brought him. In this stage of his life, he is pulled in two different directions: to become a dissident despite himself and to please others, or to walk away and disappoint his followers. Now that he has written one successful dissident essay, he is expected to write more and people like the Sidneys will keep badgering him to write. His essays represent those who are too afraid to stick their own necks out and say something. Going this direction, Leopold probably knows that he will be at least partly a fake because he would come to reflect other people and their needs, not his own. In becoming a dissident and fighting for other people’s freedoms and identities, he would lose his own.
If he chooses to NOT write, and thereby to disappoint others but be assured of his own freedom, then he has been promised to not be taken to jail. This decision would free him. Leopold is consumed by the thought of going to jail, it has ruined his life and his friendships because it has consumed him to a point that he cannot function. While the public may see his signing papers saying that he is not who he is as a sign of betrayal, this would gain him his freedom and would give him back his identity.
Personally, I don’t blame Leopold for wanting to a sign a paper freeing him from the role of dissident. Though some may see this as a self-centered act of self-pity, I see it as freedom from a life that Leopold never chose or was not prepared for.
In creating Leopold, I think Havel was commenting on how dissidents feel or the emotions that they experience. Like Havel mentioned in previous essays, dissidents did not choose their role, but rather they were thrust into it. Most do not seek the spotlight, have no interest in being political figures, or maybe would rather have their past life of freedom back. But if they reveal any of these wants, the public thinks that they are weak. It is a battle that every dissident has to face and many of them did become the scapegoat either because they felt like it was their moral obligation, or they wanted to be, or they just didn’t know how to say no. Leopold is really no different and in the end, when he says he is ready to go to jail, I see that as his acceptance of the dissident role and all that comes with it. In this respect, Leopold is a lot braver than me.”
“I think that, unless politicians take themselves too seriously, this play should supply some kind of emotional catharsis and a new lightness of being for them. It is rather like real transfers of office. I imagine a politician reading this and laughing not just at the play, but also at themselves. The ability to laugh at themselves is important, and this play facilitates that for them.
Some of the things that politicians naturally worry about appear ridiculous and trivial in this play. The media is what it is. Politics will be politics. People in the midst of the ‘famous’ will always commit the same infidelities, hypocrisies, and put on the same acts. The point is, these don’t matter. When you can see this, everything becomes rather humorous and much clearer. It’s time that the politicians listened to their own advice and cared about individuals, including their own individuality. What can they themselves accomplish while keeping all their individuality intact within the absurd system of politics? Those are the things that matter. Everything else is just the cyclical system, the Game, and the rules and results are the same for everyone. This applies to all professions, not just politics.
The system (the automatisms) are there for the sake of function, but they do not constitute success. If you just play the game, you haven’t done anything but serve the automatisms by merely functioning with them. A successful politician (businessman, lawyer, doctor, reporter…) will be aware of the rules (as their function demands), but will find their own way. And when they will be subject to the Game, the best they can do in that situation is just laugh.”
“In my British Art History class today we learned about Lucien Freud (grandson of Sigmund). He paints portraits, but only of people he is profoundly familiar with, otherwise he cannot paint them. He says that he must know them intimately or else they will end up posing for an idea he has – they’ll just end up as a road map or a travel book. He must understand them before he can paint them, or else the piece will end up being merely an explanation of them.
I think that expressing your identity is just as difficult as figuring out what it is. But you can only figure it out by expressing it. You can only understand yourself by breaking yourself down into it fundamental parts and then expressing those parts. But to break yourself down into those parts, you have to express yourself. It’s all about the process, it’s not about the ultimate goal, which you may never achieve.
The question for me is: what exactly is understanding? And what exactly is human identity? It’s one thing to bandy about the terms, but what do they really mean? Or is it something that means different things to different people and there is no one definitive answer: it’s simply something you have to understand but you can’t ultimately explain?”
Havel in Our Heads
“I think we all create a Havel in our head. Havel is my head is a stoic man who dares to be cautiously optimistic, yet at the same time gives us the tools to realize that we have much work to do. He makes us realize the power of being human, the power we have to look at a situation and maybe find a small piece of truth.
As I sit here in a cafe and reflect on the semester’s readings, I watch people walk by with their umbrellas just trying to get through the crappy day, and I think to myself: how do they live, in what ways do they dissent, what automatisms do they hold vital and sacred? I worry about them and the lives they lead, about how we are all subject to things that we are not even aware of. Do they rely too much on modern technology to give them too many answers, do they think that there is always an answer to every question, have they truly lost the idea of the mystic that Havel mentions on more than a few occasions?
It is at this moment that I realize what it is that a great thinker/writer does: she or he makes us think in a different way without our necessarily even being aware of it. I now think of automatisms, I now think of modern catharsis, I now think that people just bury their true selves in things that they buy and how they are in many senses not individuals. I probably always had these thoughts, but Havel brings them to the fore and can make a college kid sitting in the patio of a cafe on a rainy day grapple with them.
Great thinkers and writers and social commentators don’t give us ready-made answers, they provide us with questions. This may be infuriating for many people, but that is the way it is. It is up to us, each and every one of us, to come up with the answers. People like Havel give us the tools that we need to analyze the questions that they themselves have no concrete, ready-made answers to.”
Student Reactions to Havel’s Writing: Fall 2009
Anatomy of the Gag
“I was actually pretty happy with the way Havel did ‘Anatomy of the Gag’. At first, I did not really think the act of breaking down this kind of humor was as important as explaining the importance of it as something far greater than simple laughs. The value of de-familiarization, to me, is self-evident. It provides ‘perspective’ and therefore gives us a more complete picture of a reality we had only partially known.
What is the benefit of that new understanding of reality? If I may generalize, I would say it does one of three things: (1) Reaffirm our previous perspective, and remind us why it is that we think or act in the way that we usually do; (2) Provide a desire to think or act differently, but is followed by a return to the blinded view of familiarity because it is easier or more comfortable; (3) Provide a chillingly, or alternately, energetically powerful realization that leaves one with no other choice but to reject the acts and thoughts of the former reality.
In class we discussed catharsis briefly. My understanding was that a true cathartic moment is one that causes the third reaction listed above. Someone suggested that catharsis is not necessarily an agent of change – in other words, options (1) and (2) are also possible.
I want(ed) to believe that catharsis, in its truest form, is too powerful to ignore. That catharsis must cause a reaffirmation of truth or a movement closer to it. But if catharsis isn’t necessarily an agent of change, then maybe my approach is too practical. In that case (when catharsis does not necessarily precede change or improvement), I was obliged to question its value. If a smoker sees a particularly powerful anti-smoking advert and realizes the ill of the habit, and the importance of bodily health and its relation to mental health, yet continues to smoke, I have to ask: what good has come from it? Perhaps it can cause this person to protect others from the ills of smoking, but it does not help the individual who potentially experienced catharsis.
My desire to see that, in my mind, catharsis is of more value than that led me to think about the subject for quite some time. If catharsis is of such importance to have been argued about by Plato and Aristotle, and addressed by great thinkers for millennia, then I want(ed) to see that it meant something greater than (excuse my vulgarity) ‘thought-masturbation’ (the thinking for thinking’s sake, or thinking and emoting without action, impact, or change). So I did some research, and I believe I was wrong on several fronts.
In his book ‘Catharsis in Healing, Ritual, and Drama,’ TJ Scheff shows two very important things (among others) – namely, that cathartic moments need not be moments of change, and that they can be drawn out over a long period of time, years even. He describes the use of catharsis in therapy and healing, using examples to show that the effect of catharsis can be reverted. A man experienced a sudden contact with buried emotions and cried and laughed for months until he buried those emotions and returned to his former self. Another man demonstrated the lack of a defined time constraint for catharsis: his cathartic experience was not manifest until he released his emotions, years later, changing for good.
Yet, catharsis has value on a much simpler and temporary level. In its use in art, movies, and drama, catharsis can be a chance to brush with our soft spots through ‘thrill-seeking’. As Scheff puts it, ‘when we cry over Romeo and Juliet, we are reliving our own personal experience of overwhelming loss, but under new and less severe conditions. The experience of vicarious loss, in a properly designed drama, is sufficiently distressful to awaken the old distress. It is also sufficiently vicarious, however, so that the emotion does not feel overwhelming’ (13).
I can see the benefit of such ‘vicarious cathartic moments’. Changes need not be drastic. Lovers, after watching Romeo and Juliet, need not swear an undying, and dangerous, love. The laid-back cathartic response may be a rush of good feelings toward each other, and a closer cuddle. Though that moment may be fleeting, its memory and its content may be recalled.
It may seem that I have strayed from the subject, which is Havel. Yet it connects to him. Havel’s essay, though a bit tedious and mechanical, sent me off on a search, over 40 years later. It reaffirmed my belief in the value of shifting perspective, intentionally or not, for both its de-familiarizing and familiarizing effects, which can be cause for changes, epic and unnoticeable, big and small. Catharsis, I’ve come to decide, can’t always be identified and generalized the way I wanted to, nor should it be.”
… [A]utomatisms which are generally dehumanizing – those which alienate a person from himself – terrorize him, enslave him, turn him away from that which is natural to him, depriving him of authenticity and perspective.
The questions that are sparked in my mind when reading this passage are ‘How do we recognize the automatism when we are in it?’ and ‘How do we decide when it is bad for us and our community?’. We are surrounded by automatisms every day – the laws, government, waiting for a cup of coffee, attending parties – so when are they bad? If they work for our lives, why question them?
My new-found answer is that questioning them provides the check-and-balance for the automatism so that it does not end up controlling us. The important point here is that questioning not only breaks the continuity of the automatism, but most of all challenges the direction that it is taking us.
Imagine driving in a car and it’s dark and the road is winding through rugged hills. After hours of driving, you become somewhat inattentive and tired. You can either pull the car over and rest or continue driving and ignore your fatigue. If you fail to question whether you should continue driving or not in your current state, then you may very well be in danger of falling asleep at the wheel or making what could be a fatal driving mistake. The driving of the car and its forward momentum along the winding roads is the automatism that you end up serving – with potentially damaging consequences.
We could analogize here to the current state of American politics. Most citizens are completely unaware of the details of social and political issues, ignorant of current events and of the programs of political parties. A well-informed citizenry is democracy’s underlying glue that holds it together as a democracy. By choosing to be uninformed – by not questioning – we trust the democratic automatism and the momentum of the machine (the parties), also with potentially dangerous consequences.
So when do automatisms become bad? Automatisms create momentum in a particular direction. One must take a questioning approach to participation in them in order to guarantee that the automatism is working for the person (or the society) and that the person (or the society) is not working for the automatism. Being informed, alert, and actively participating in your life are keys to creating a proverbial better world.”
Power of the Powerless
Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. (133)
“The first element of this quote is the illusion of identity. One of the main questions of human existence is who we are, and why we are here. Whether they know it or not, people search for that answer their entire lives. We define ourselves by the people we associate with, our jobs, our clothes, our music, and so many other physical elements. Often, however, these definitions are simply not enough. Capitalism’s disease is that the people who are enraptured in its charms often have a gaping hole in their lives. They substitute material things for their need for answers about who they are. It is like drinking alcohol until one reaches oblivion: the problems will just resurge with new vengeance in the morning. How convenient that ideology gives a neat and packaged answer to that age-old and epic question. Many people fall into the traps of ideology because they are too desperate to find a place in the world, or do not know how to go about finding it themselves.
The illusion of dignity is another factor. Human dignity is the driving force behind human motivation and inspiration. Take it away, and humanity mutates into wretched creatures that will do anything to survive. Frankly, that is a terrifying concept. The idea that only dignity is what distinguishes us from the savage beasts that haunt us in the night is another driving force in the human need for some sort of ideology to prove to ourselves that we have some sway in the world. Once again, however, the dignity that ideology offers us is false. Human dignity is a very personal concept, it is not the same for everyone, and if it is offered up on a platter in a one-size-fits-all manner, it becomes meaningless.
Finally, the most devastating and dangerous concept is the illusion of morality. Thoughtless devotion to a set of principles has led to disaster for countless instances in history and in modern times. Human beings are the only creatures who have morals, we are the only beings on this planet who possess the mental capacity to decide whether an action is right or wrong, rather than just relying on instinct. However, if an individual is simply relying on some doctrine from a higher power to inform him or her what is right and wrong, it is no different than giving blindly over to animal urges. Truly, those who surrender whole-heartedly to a doctrine, without analyzing it for themselves, have literally gone mad.
The final element here is how an ideology makes the above qualities easier to part with. By giving a false answer, it makes it so much easier for an individual to lie to him or herself and claim that he or she is satisfied and has found the answer, and cease the pursuit. It is the great journey towards identity, dignity, and morality that actually gives our lives identity, dignity and morality.”
“One of the things that stood out most for me was Havel’s references to ideological gloves, which we talked about in class. When I read it, I interpreted the gloves as a pair of women’s old-fashioned white-silk gloves. As Havel said, ‘the post-totalitarian system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on,’ kind of like feeling something, but not actually making any contact with it. A pair of silk gloves, as thin as they are, almost gives the illusion of touching skin-to-skin, but there will always be that fabric in-between.
Someone in class said that they pictured the gloves as a pair of big winter gloves or work gloves, but I totally disagree. I think that the way it was written indicates that it was a delicate touch that could hardly be detected.”
As far as the economic life of society goes, I believe in the principle of self-management, which is probably the only way of achieving what all the theorists of socialism have dreamed about, that is, the genuine (ie, informal) participation of workers in economic decision-making, leading to a feeling of genuine responsibility for their collective work. The principles of control and discipline ought to be abandoned in favor of self-control and self-discipline. (211)
“This passage means a lot to me, as it reminds me of a dear friend of mine and our (sometimes) mutual struggles to achieve a more rewarding form of running a business.
My friend opened a newsstand in Seattle in 1983. His mission statement for the store called for it to have a significant place in both neighborhood and society. He felt it was very important that his business not just be about making money, but about making a positive impact on the community.
Is it achieving that goal? The answer is yes and no. He sells only fair trade, organic coffee; he tries to pay a fair wage to his employees; he has mandatory volunteerism built into people’s schedules. In those ways, it is working. However, it is not easy, and both people’s own wants/needs and the financial reality of living in an expensive city like Seattle make it difficult.
Interviews meant to weed out people who don’t believe in his mission don’t always work. The business can only pay so much, and it can’t keep up with the cost of living. People who feel they deserve more stop giving their best work efforts or poison the thoughts of other hard-working but susceptibly co-workers.
Mainly though, he tries to run the business as a co-operative, with everyone responsible for their own output. Some people, like myself, did extremely well with the idea of self-discipline, feeling invested in the business; others used the freedom from governance to push their own agendas. It was a real challenge to find people who were genuinely interested in unselfish pursuits.
So is Havel’s vision realistic in our modern society? Unfortunately, I have to say ‘no’. I wish it were different because it would be a far better world if it were. That said, my friend is not giving up, and that is equally, if not more, important.”
“Dissecting Power of the Powerless, while fascinating, shook up my perception of American politics quite… painfully. I consider myself an active participant in the political arena and have great pride in it. Yet reading this essay forced me to play with the question, ‘Am I making a positive difference, or am I a mere pawn in a much darker game?’.
Raised by bipartisan parents and a grandmother whose love for American history teeters on obsession, I have always been well-versed in both the origins of our political system and the goings-on in contemporary politics. I campaigned for Obama, dragged my friends to the voting booth, and, after begging them to let me fill in some bubbles on the ballot (sadly, my eighteenth birthday did not roll around until February), proudly sported my ‘I voted!’ sticker for the next week. While watching Obama deliver his victory speech in Grant Park, I cannot recall a time in my life when I have been so profoundly moved. The inspiration and hope I carried with me after that night has still not evaporated.
Havel, however, made me examine – uncomfortably so – my individual role in ‘the system’ and whether or not my contributions were actually helping to harvest a better future, or if they only propelled a corrupt system forward. At one point in the essay he refers to leaders who sincerely hope to reshape the political landscape and push forward an idealist agenda. Havel laments that these leaders, however, too often must conform to the system once they are initiated into it, thus compromising progress for ‘politics as usual’ and extinguishing hope in the hearts of the people. I am still praying that this will not be the case with our current administration, but it does bring forth the question of whether it is better to change the system from the inside or the outside.
History suggest that the seed for reform is always sown in the public, or the grassroots, and slowly crawls up towards the power structure. While I agree with this, I also prefer to think that real change is possible in the government with those who have the wisdom and courage to guide it. I suppose Americans have become complacent in regard to demanding change from the government, mainly because we are so accustomed to partisan bickering and the continual back and forth over policy decisions. It seems Americans have finally thrown up their hands in disgust and tuned out of Washington. Election season always re-engages the public in politics, but, as simple observation shows, many have retreated into the shadows now that the focus has shifted back to policy.”
“Havel presents, and we have discussed, ‘Power of the Powerless’ as a primarily philosophical essay. However, I think it must be noted that Havel indeed touches on some of the cogs of the Soviet Empire. In discussing the ideology, fear, and automation of the USSR, especially in the Eastern Bloc, he is in fact exposing many of the nitty-gritty parts of the regime’s operations. The policies, actions, and power of the USSR, and its philosophical, spiritual, and ideological anatomy are at the least overlapping, if not nearly synonymous.
An example: Havel goes to great lengths discussing the reasons why the propaganda ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ is placed in the store front, and it is easily understood. The concepts of automatism, ritual, and internalization of the message are certainly more esoteric ideas, but they are crucial to understanding the propaganda. Are they part of the manufacturing or distribution of the signs? No. Are they a part of the budget on government reports? No. Could propaganda function as a tool without them? Absolutely not.
The same can be said about much of what Havel discusses. The psychological, spiritual, and ideological impact of the regime is equally important as the practicalities (banalities) of weapons, militaristic and economic, when considering an ‘empire’.
What is my point? That writing and insight such as Havel’s deserves a place in history classes, political debates, military studies, and so forth. I told my friend, a fellow history major, about it while he was telling me about his CIA history class discussion of the USSR. He said that it would be of no use to their studies. I hope what he meant to say was that it wouldn’t help his grade to read it.
One day I’ll force him to.”
Politics & Conscience
People thought they could explain and conquer nature – yet the outcome is that they destroyed it and disinherited themselves from it. (255)
“Sitting atop a sand dune on the shore of Lake Michigan is a house that has been in my family for three generations. We spend about a month of every summer bumming around the beach – all-day sailing escapades, brilliant sunsets over wine and apps with hilarious company, stargazing at late-night bonfires. The scenery could not be more beautiful, except for one eye-sore towering up from the horizon: a steel factory.
Where one should expect to see the shore meet the edge of the sky stands a smokestack, like a giant cigarette, puffing out black clouds. I once asked my mom why we continued to stay on this particular beach of Lake Michigan when others had undisturbed horizons. No other place is as phenomenal as this one, she replied – smokestacks or not. When the sun sets, it falls behind the skyline of Chicago. The silhouette of the buildings is black against the sky: a canvas streaked with orange, purple, red, and pink as the sun lazily sinks behind the lake. The water is clear, the beaches clean. So we accept the natural beauty of the area and train ourselves to ignore the poison plant four miles away.
A neighbor of ours, an environmental lawyer, once tried to fight the factory. He lost the battle – the steel lobbyists and big businessmen won. Havel, in Politics & Conscience, writes, ‘modern man… objects to the smoke from the smokestack only if the stench penetrates his apartment.’ At the Indiana Dunes, I am much more conscious of the ‘smoke from the smokestack’ because I not only see the polluter, but know how nature is affected because of its presence. I see a foggy, brown skyline when there should be only blue.
Because there is nothing we can do to shut the plant down, we work to protect the Dunes in different ways. We sail rather than motor-boat. We pick up trash when it drifts onto the shores. We learn about the environment and share our love and knowledge of the beach with others. Maybe our contribution will not make much difference in the span of time, but it allows us to feel that we are not playing the Game, that on a smaller scale, we are protecting and giving back to the land that has been an incredible gift in our lives.
Because I don’t live in a big city or an industrialized area, it took the smokestack making an appearance in my personal reality for me to see what a detriment it is to our natural surroundings. While I understand Havel’s frustration with people not concerning themselves with such issues until it touches them, what the steel factory did for me was raise my awareness – I not only care about what is in my own back yard, but now understand the importance of a world-wide green movement.
Havel seemed to argue that even when people become conscious of such problems, they will continue to remain self-concerned and only fight the injustice until it is no longer relevant to their own lives. I learned something different – it often takes something local to force people to think global.”
Layers of Home
“It’s interesting that Havel sees our layers of home as our layers of identity. Though the concept is not all that new (for how many of us act the same amongst colleagues, friends, classmates, and family?), it is the first time that I’ve heard it presented as actual layers of personalities (like the layers that make up an onion) rather than as concrete, separate things that layer upon each other (like the layers of a cake). We want to be like the center of the onion because we are our true selves there, but instead we often end up being the layer of a cake in that we create our personality to fit a given mould for a given occasion.”
“Trevunt! I tried to write this entry in Ptydepe, but alas, I cannot learn it. Gh.
What I found most intriguing about this play was the repetition of the exact same lines when Gross is trying to get his memo translated. Ballas, Stroll, Savanat, and Helena are, quite literally, trapped in a circle of their own doing. The memo can’t be translated unless it is authorized. It can’t be authorized if it doesn’t have the proper documents, and it can’t have the proper documents unless it is translated. This conversation only ends when Ballas says, ‘I’d like to know who thought up this vicious circle.’ Of course, we all know that he was the one who actually started it.
This situation kind of reminds me of gossip. Though I don’t recall ever starting a rumor, I’m sure that I did pass around gossip in middle school. Once something that was said got around and people started getting upset about it, the rumor kind of caves in on itself in a circle of ‘Well, I heard it from Billy, who heard it from Grace, who heard it from Becky,’ and so on until it wraps back around to strike Billy. Billy might not have even started it. In that situation, we should all feel bad for poor Billy. Hrulugyp!”
“I am not Vera. Not all the time, not even a lot of the time. I like to believe that at times, we are all a Michael and a Vera. We all occasionally do things just for other people, and not for ourselves.
This past weekend, I went back to my hometown to visit my boyfriend and a former teacher in my old high school. It is a rare day that I wear make-up, but I felt that such an exciting venture as going back to where I grew up required that I look good. Of course, I had to show off to everyone that I was doing wonderfully in college and I was looking fabulous. It wasn’t really the fact that I was uneasy about going back, I just wanted everyone to be impressed by the way I looked and all of the things that I have learned. I didn’t need the make-up, but if it would help other people think highly of me, I would wear it. So, all the way back up, I checked my make-up to make sure that I still looked good. This was my act.
Towards the end of my visit, I had to walk up five stairs. Of course, being the naturally clumsy person that I am, I tripped and fell going up the stairs. I should also let you know that this was no graceful fall. I fell, legs twisted, right onto my stomach. Up the stairs. In the middle of a hallway. Right at the bell that ended the day and released all of my former schoolmates into said hallway.
This was my unveiling.”
“Havel’s play ‘The Unveiling’ is about leading a life in quiet desperation. The homeowners, Vera and Michael, are obsessed with pleasing their guest, Vanek, because without the approval of others, their life is devoid of meaning. Every ludicrous piece of furniture and decoration has the sole purpose of impressing the outside – Vera and Michael have compromised so much of themselves for the sake of societal appearance that they no longer seem human at all.
Every Havel play seems to have characters of this kind – they are trapped in a circus, desperately trying to perpetuate this façade of ‘prettiness’ and organization, when they themselves are actually the freaks, distorting reality and the natural order of life. Vanek, however, threatens to dismantle the artificial sphere they have constructed by not properly fitting into it.
The final scene, when Vanek is stopped at the door, wanting to walk out but unable to turn his back on his friends, is one of the most powerful moments of all Havel’s plays. When I first read it, my heart ached for him when he returned to the table because instinctually, I read it as weakness, as a validation of everything wrong with our society. But after a second reading, he did exactly what most of us would have done.
I read it like civil disobedience in a way – refusing to participate in the silliness of it all by resisting through subtle, but nonetheless powerful, means. The behavior of Michael and Vera, although hyperbolized, reflects the behavior of too many families I know. To create conflict in these circumstances is sometimes not worth it. Like Vanek, some people recognize this, and so tolerate the cycle but attempt to live as far outside of it as possible. To call the players out in the middle of the game will only upset them, but no necessarily upset the system as a whole. There are some battles not worth fighting.
We can, however, work to end the cycle through other means. The ability to recognize its existence at all is progress. As Havel continually argues, we have a moral obligation to preserve and protect each other – including saving one another from ourselves.
The system is inescapable. Unless a person wishes to live as a recluse, out of the reach of society, we have no choice but to participate in it – therefore participate in perpetuating it as well. Hope lies in those who are able to keep their heads above the water and do their best to lend a hand to those who are drowning by pulling them up to safety, to a breath of air, to life.”
Unveiling: What Makes Us Tick
“The job of an advertising executive in modern Western society is to make a consumer believe that he or she will be better off if he or she is in possession of a certain product. ‘Drink our beverage / Drive this car / Use this hair gel… and you’ll be cooler than the next guy / feel great about yourself / get the sexy girl.’ We are inundated with words and images trying to make us feel as incomplete, unsatisfied, and worthless as possible – all in order to sell us something. I’m surprised that there’s so little uproar about it.
‘Unveiling’ is a superbly-written play: it is obvious in its message, its point is clear and concise, its redundancy is minimal and poignant. You feel pity for all the characters, even some who aren’t seen. Michael and Vera, depressed by their lackluster life, employ every trick in the book to spice things up: go on a major shopping spree, reinventing themselves; have a child, to dote on; start making exotic dishes; purposefully ratchet up their sex lives. But WHY do they do all of this? For themselves, no. It’s so they can brag to others about it all, hoping perhaps that the acclaim that others give them will validate them after all, so that they can go on. (May I just say here that poor little Peter is in for a world of hurt with parents like these!)
Still, for all of that, my heart truly goes out to Vanek. Here’s a guy, seemingly just trying to get by in life, and his ‘friends’ have been thinking about him and his non-existent ‘situation’. Their solution? ‘Be more like us, Vanek. Make your home life like ours. Make food like we do. Make love like we do. Have a kid to give yourselves a purpose.’ Yuck! That mentality really strikes a chord with me because it is to prevalent these days, especially in America. My only solution is to keep away from people like that. Fortunately, they’re pretty easy to spot.
‘Unveiling’ might just be another cautionary tale of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, but it, in my mind, is a highly effective one. It begs the question: ‘What is of utmost importance in this life, and why?’
Pay close attention to your answer!”
Shakespeare in Havel
“In ‘The Garden Party’, there is a smattering of misquoted phrases from Shakespeare. The first reference comes from Mrs. Pludek to Hugo as he is leaving for the garden party. She says, ‘I’ll drink to you only with mine eyes / for parting is such sweet sorrow / I could tomorrow and tomorrow’. This is from ‘Romeo and Juliet’. It is actually spoken by Juliet to Romeo and the real phrase is ‘Good night, good night! / Parting is such sweet sorrow / that I shall say good night till it be morrow.’ This true phrase is spoken from one forbidden lover to another, so it seems very inappropriately used by a mother to her son.
At another point in the play, there is not a direct reference to Shakespeare, however, the Clerk seems to be attempting to verbalize his own sonnet to the Secretary. He starts describing her hair, moving down to her nose, then her breasts, then back up to her eyes. A form of sonnet that Shakespeare was fond of writing was a specific type that describes someone starting at the head, and then moving slowly down her body. The Clerk also describes the Secretary’s features in relation to flowers (with the exception of her football-like breasts). This could be a vague reference to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and the well-known phrase ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’
Throughout the rest of the play, there are other snippets of misquoted well-known Shakespeare quotes from various sonnets. In these cases, the characters seem to be referencing Shakespeare for the sake of referencing Shakespeare.
In ‘The Memorandum’, the Shakespeare reference does not come until the very end of the play. Gross says to Maria, ‘Dear Maria! We’re living in a strange, complex epoch.’ As Hamlet says, our ‘time is out of joint’. I believe there is a specific purpose to using the Hamlet reference at the end of this play. Hamlet is a painstakingly long play that almost entirely focuses on Hamlet’s descent into insanity. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet ‘sees’ the ghost of his recently deceased father, telling him that his new step-father killed him in order to be King. From then on out, Hamlet is racked with difficult thoughts about killing his step-father. He shuns his lover Ophelia, who in turn goes mad and drowns herself. In the end he winds up being responsible for eight deaths, including his mother’s, his step-father’s, Ophelia’s as well as his own. The readers see Hamlet’s slow descent into insanity as well as the resulting chaos at the end. I feel that Havel purposefully put the Hamlet reference at the end of the ‘The Memorandum’ because this fate is similar to the fate of the characters in the play. The whole play is dizzyingly cyclical as Gross and Ballas switch roles completely as do Mr. P and Mr. C. And in the end, after getting rid of Ptydepe, they introduce a new language that everyone must learn that is the antithesis of Ptydepe, but will be treated in the exact same way.”
Blinders and the Absolute Horizon
“We discussed the Absolute Horizon in class, and I was really struck by the idea. Mainly, the concept of how some people live their whole lives without acknowledging its existence. People are so caught up in their day-to-day lives, the little moments that string along to eventually make up a day, to eventually make up a month and a year and a life, that they forget that there is a wider world around them. It is almost like the blinders that coachmen put on coach horses: the black leather narrows the animals’ vision to just a sliver, so they can see just enough to avoid tripping but are unaware of the rest.
For humans, blinders seem to vary. Some are natural, others imposed on us, and then there are the blinders that we place on ourselves.
Perhaps the most understandable are the natural ones. These include youth and moments of extreme stress. Either we are too young to comprehend the vastness of the world, or we must put aside the wider world in order to deal with a pressing situation. The trick with natural blinders is to know when, and to be able and willing, to take them off.
Imposed blinders are far more sinister. These are blinders we are forced into wearing, whether it be by media pressure or the persistent pressure of a strongly-viewed family. Like the poor coach horse, we are jabbed and pulled in whichever direction our master wishes us to go, without ever knowing that there is another option. The hope that is left open by imposed blinders is that they can be easily felt and often resisted.
The last type of blinders seems to be the most permanent. People can put blinders on themselves. They fill their living rooms with comforts, their minds with trivia, and they appease their conscience with a trip to church or a small donation to charity. People run through their daily lives as fast as possible, thinking that if they can simply reach the end of their shift, or buy a new car, then their lives will develop some semblance of meaning. These blinders may make us happy in the short run, but it obviously leaves us hollow and wanting during the night.
Part of the reason we wear blinders is that it is easier to deal with the world in small, manageable chunks. We fear being overwhelmed, and the blinders keep us safe.”
“My favorite character by far in Havel’s plays is Vanek, mostly because he is barely a character. Vanek always has very few lines, is constantly interrupted by the other characters, and performs very little action during the play itself. All we know about him is what his associates say about him, and even that knowledge we have to take with a grain of salt. This leaves him a blank sheet, and the audience can write what they want on that sheet – and in doing so, they reveal something critical about themselves.
For myself, I see Vanek as a watcher character. His job is to create a space for people to be. By not imposing anything on them, he allows his companions to express themselves fully and come to their own conclusions about their life. Vanek is patient, understanding, good-natured, and honest and loyal. His refusal to compromise forces other characters to come to terms with their own behaviors and beliefs.
But this is the beautiful thing about Vanek: I cannot tell if I am getting this picture of him from the plays or if I’m just imposing my own ideas about him. The latter is probably true since other people in the class seem to have different interpretations of him. Vanek offers a space not only for the characters in the plays to realize themselves and their values, but for the audience to do exactly the same thing.”
Havel as Playwright
“I’m experiencing shock and a general grinding of gears as I try to adjust to reading Havel’s plays.
His ideas, and his brilliance, are as present as ever in ‘Garden’, but it is the delivery that bothers me. Maybe it just takes time to adjust.
Perhaps I am guilty of being too efficient a reader at times, skipping over elaborations of ideas I have already captured, and resenting needless fluff. I fell in love with Havel’s essaying style, one of aesthetically pleasing efficiency. That effect he mastered, a merging of mechanical and beautiful argumentation, of unaggressive quantitative and qualitative analysis of ideas, has become an ideal form for me.
And then I read this! These plays, and all of their theatrics and formalities and waist-deep repetition on top of those same ideas he masters in his essays. To some extent I am annoyed, purely for selfish reasons of course.
I am someone who enjoys a mix of styles in my reading, learning, and talking. For Havel, however, anything other than his essays and speeches seems to grate against my preferences.
Objectively (for a rare turn), I see the immense talent Havel possesses as a whole. With the same ideas about power, the individual, history, and the future behind him, Havel the playwright, Havel the essayist, Havel the orator, and Havel the man, succeeds in reaching an incredibly broad swath of people. Some of us need different treatment, and some of us can ingest him in any way.
He gives us choices, and for that I like him even more, in spite of my distaste towards the play.”
The Beggar’s Opera
“‘The Beggar’s Opera’ now ranks among my favorite plays.
It is clever. It is intriguing. And it is too short. Never before have I thought this of Havel’s work. I set out with the goal of reading the play in three sittings and did so in one rather brief session.
A day later I am still trying to put all the trickery into place, make my judgements of the characters, such as the noble thief, and figure out how he did it.
I was less impressed by Macheath’s prison-cell confessions (which were incredible) than by the fact that Havel nonchalantly made prostitution a romantic, noble even, activity for both partners involved.
By calling upon the higher ideals of love and longing, he pushed aside my own distaste for meaningless contact, or in the least the shame of having to pay for affection. Maybe that is it, he brings in Love to both perspectives of the transactions at Diana’s and in doing so gives them meaning. And in an all so Havelian way, he mocks me with Diana’s sales-pitch, suggesting that I might fall for it were she to try it on me one day.”
“Hope. Every piece of writing by Havel I read celebrates it quietly. But how can he write of such disturbing circumstances and still be optimistic for the future of humanity?
I have mulled over this question all semester. Injustice, oppression, violence, the degradation of body and spirit – if we are always surrounded by this ugliness, how can we ever hope to survive? Havel writes about salvation at an existential level. He advocates the triumph of the human race through its collective recognition of spiritual consciousness. It recently dawned on me that while Havel never blatantly expresses this, his argument is grounded in the word timshel, explained in Steinbeck’s ‘East of Eden’.
In the novel, Lee, the family’s housekeeper, after years of contemplating the fourth book of Genesis, finally approaches Adam, the father, with his theory on human salvation. He explains that he and the Chinese sages with whom he took up the inquiry have found three variations of a phrase concerning man versus sin: ‘Do thou,’ ‘Thou shalt,’ and ‘Thou mayest’. The first implies humankind’s natural surrendering to obedience, the second commands the future of man predestined, but the last ‘makes a man great… for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win’.
Meaning timshel in Hebrew, ‘thou mayest’ poses a fascinating thesis: man has the opportunity to decide whether he will succumb to evil or live virtuously and uphold common goodness. He has the ability to redeem himself of past mistakes, and possesses the freedom to look forward with a renewed sense of hope.
We must forever be seeking, forever be on the look-out for those fleeting moments of grace and truth that reveal to us what Havel defines as the existential consciousness. In order to truly come to terms with ourselves and our place in the universe, we must be willing to question our hearts and minds, test our judgments, fight our fears. We must let go of the reigns in order to find them.
After sharing his revelation with Adam, Lee says, ‘I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed – because ‘Thou mayest’.’ Havel recognizes the indestructible strength of the human soul as well, and finds it a home in at least one character in each of his plays – those who are able to resist the hypnotic charm of a life-made-easy by material comfort and dormant intellect. Havel dares us to look critically at ourselves and ask a terrifying question: when we laugh at the ridiculous behavior of the characters on stage, are we really laughing at ourselves? If the answer is yes, Havel provides some comfort by offering an escape from the artificial merry-go-round imprisoning us.
Just like the word timshel, Havel maintains the sense of hope by revealing to us our power – both in the strength of our spirit and in the opportunity vested in our ability to choose.”
Havel’s Anticodes as Theatrical Shorts
The curtain rises and the stage is illuminated in a brilliant white light. There are two big doors on stage, one to the left and one to the right. The doors swing open simultaneously and from each flows a file of people wearing flowing white cloaks. Each group joins with its members on its respective side of the stage. They gather in silent huddles, whispering amongst themselves and frequently glancing over at the other group.
From someone in the group on the right: Peace.
An excited commotion runs through the group on the left and one of them responds: Peace!
Both groups erupt in excitement and a voice from the right shouts: Peace!
Two voices from the left yell back: Peace!!
Right group, in a slightly harsher tone: PEACE!!!
Left group, as if trying to outdo the other group: PEACE!!!!
The groups begin to slowly advance towards one another, exchanging cries…
Their tones change as they grow closer to one another, each shouting the same word in a more and more hostile, challenging way. Soon they are right next to one another screaming “Peace” in one another’s faces. One shoves another back as he yells “Peace!” in his face and a massive brawl ensues. “Peace!” is being screamed violently by everyone.
The sound escalates to an inaudible roar. Slowly, the brawl breaks up as person after person breaks away from it, staggering with a disoriented look on their face, mumbling “War?” in a confused kind of way. The mob disintegrates completely with everyone wandering aimlessly off stage saying “War?” over and over again in a sad, confused voice.
The lights fade out and the curtain falls.
The curtain rises and the lights illuminate the stage to show a file of uniformed men marching in an unbroken circle, each following in step with the man in front of him. They are chanting “Forward, forward, forward” with strong voices and deep conviction.
Suddenly one trips and falls down, the rest continue to fall behind him in a massive pile-up of men. The chanting stops with each man as he falls. Grunting and groaning, they pick themselves up and help one another off the ground, shaking hands in a cheery way and dusting themselves off. When they are all on their feet again, one says, “Forward?” and they all erupt in a happy cheer of “Forward!” as they begin marching in a circle again, confidently chanting the word.
As the curtain is lowering and the stage lights dimming, the audience can vaguely make out another man tripping and falling down again. The curtain settles as a loud crashing commotion behind it can be heard. There is a brief silence, and then a small voice behind the curtain says: “Forward?”.
The curtain rises and the stage glows with a dim light. Running from the back to the front of the stage is a large brick wall several feet thick, separating the left side of the stage from the right. Projected on the front of the wall is a mosaic of words, many of them scattered with no order at all.
From the right enters a person searching the stage for something. As she or he wanders around on her or his side of the wall, another person enters the left side of the stage, also searching. Both seem befuddled by the fact that they cannot find what they are looking for.
The person on the left suddenly stops, stands upright and shouts: “I?”
The person on the right jumps with excitement and shouts back: “You!”
A wave of relief rushes over both and they continue to shout back and forth, drawing nearer to the wall as they follow the sound of the other’s voice.
When they get to the wall, they become confused and begin feeling around it, trying to find a way over or under or through it.
Their shouting grows desperate as they search for a way to get closer to one another. Defeated, they eventually both slump down with their backs against the wall saying in low, sad voices: “I” and “You”.
They grow silent. Soon the person on the right lifts her or his head and slowly stands up, hesitates for a moment, glancing back at the wall, but then slowly walks off stage. After a moment the other lifts her or his head and says, “I?” but gets no response.
She or he says “I?” again, a sad tone to her or his voice. Again there is no response. She or he drops her or his head again and begins to sob softly. The lights fade and the curtain falls.
Bumping into Havel on the Street
“Maybe it is overexposure to his work that compels me to say this, but if I were to bump into Havel on the street tomorrow, first I should shake his hand (I really do admire him), then I would proceed to grab him by the collar, drag him into a café, and demand that he explain what in the hell he wants us to do about the state of the world. And I swear, if he even so much as mentions the words ‘moral responsibility’, I will rip my hair out. Maybe even his.
It is not that I do not agree — I completely subscribe to Havel’s suggestion that the only salvation for humanity is in reclaiming our responsibility for one another. However, after reading essay after essay, speech after speech proclaiming this without being able to give an example of what he actually means, I get a little frustrated. It seems there is something missing in his equation. He presents a problem (materialism, spiritual complacency, moral degradation) and a solution (re-establishing loyalty to universal consciousness), but does not present a means to reach the latter from the former.
Once I had Havel’s attention in the café, I would ask him what makes life so wonderful for him? Where does he experience moments of grace? Who or what inspires him to seek truth and shout it from the mountaintop? While a semester of studying his writing has familiarized me with Havel the thinker, who is Havel the man?”
Student Reactions to Havel’s Writing: Fall 2008
“I would like to react to the anti-code in which the man is separated from his head (the Czech word for man has its first letter chopped off and put into a box). The possibilities for Havel’s intention are numerous. I often feel as though we go through our lives as chickens with our heads cut off. The routines that we develop into our adult life are staggering. How much ‘newness’ is there truly in our lives? How much adventure? Perhaps this is a good thing, as routines give us a sense of predictability and security in an often unsettling world. But, at the same time, a reason to live life is the assumption that life is not predictable, that there are still things worthy of discovering. As soon as that sense of discovery fades, I feel as though we figuratively (and sometimes literally) die.
Let me put this another way that indirectly relates to my interpretation of the anti-code. Our society (and perhaps the greater world) has a tendency to label and generalize and to group. I am a white male, from a middle-to-upper class family, politically centrist, Christian, etc. But theses labels do not define who I am (‘label’ is just one letter away from ‘libel’), and I’m not so sure if, after reading all of those labels, you truly know me any better.”
“An anti-code that I found particularly interesting was the one with the word ‘man’ in Czech. Havel wrote out the word 15 times in a straight vertical line. However, he chopped off the first letter and placed it in a box below. The first thing that puzzles me about this anti-code is that there are about 15 of the word and 45 of the first letter of the word that have been separated off. Before I attempt to answer why this might be so, let me explain my interpretation of the anti-code.
I believe that the word without its first letter that is repeated 15 times represents man in action, and the parallel vertical arrangement is trying to show that men/people have lost their own identities and have all aligned ideologically. My reasoning is reinforced by thinking about Havel’s motives for separating off the first letter of the word. First of all, the first letter could represent a person’s head (thoughts, etc.) since the first letter of a word and a person’s head are really the most important parts of each entity – without either of these parts, the entity could not exist.
The fact that there are 3 times more heads than bodies can portray the idea that no individual has their own identity anymore. The rigid structure of the anti-code tells me that this is how Havel imagines society. People have become so afraid to break from the status quo that they all act and think alike. The next question that comes to mind is: Why are the 45 first letters (the heads) framed by a box of X’s? This tells me that Havel is trying to say that people do not only choose to think alike, but they are forced to do so by certain guidelines that are set by society or the state. The straight line of bodies represents the idea that people act alike while the box represents the idea that people also think alike.
Lastly, I ask myself what the form or structure of the anti-code tells us. The anti-code does not scream fun to me, it screams boring and straight. The fact that everything is organized so neatly and geometrically tells me that when people within society lose their individual identities, things do in fact become boring and straight.”
selfless selfless selfless selfless selfless
selfless selfless selfless selfless selfless
selfless selfless selfless less selfless
selfless selfless selfless selfless selfless
chaos chaos chaos chaos chaos chaos
chaos chaos chaos chaos chaos chaos
chaos chaos chaos chaos chaos chaos
chaos chaos chaos chaos chaos chaos
chaos chaos chaos chaos chaos chaos
g o an e
h o n e s t y
h o n e s t y
h n e s t y
h e s t y
o n e
010101010101101010111010100010110101001 0000101101011010010101101T010110101101 0110110T001011010010110100101010100101 111010010111010011011010010100101101010 10110110101101011U10010110101010010110 10101010R100010101010110100101001H110 101101011010101001010101010100101010111 101011011010010101001011010010101001010 011010101011010101001010100101101001011
“When I read Havel, I feel his sense of altruism for the people he wrote about as well as have the same sense for the people in the nation that I am a member of. His breakdown of our experience into circles of home and his uncanny ability to analyze the true nature of a society, with all its superficial hierarchies and boundaries washed away to reveal the truth, is something that has affected how I now look at my own interactions with people and at society as a whole. I have always seen the absurdity in social practices, but I believe Havel has given me some unique tools with which to dissect it.”
Automatisms and “The Matrix”
“Are all automatisms bad? We wake up, brush our teeth, take a shower, go to class, participate in extracurricular activities. Do we really need to defamiliarize all situations? Is defamiliarization always a bad thing? If you take it literally, then yes, defamiliarization can be a bad thing. When Tolstoy lost his belief in religion by finding out how ridiculous it can be, this threw his sense of reality for a loop: he may have found out the truth about his religion, but he was probably a wreck about it. Many people would rather live the lie. This reminds me of the movie ‘The Matrix’ where one guy on the ship decides to betray the others because he doesn’t want to live in the real world. He wants to continue living the lie.”
Defamiliarization and the “Gag”
“In class we tried to find examples of automatisms and defamiliarization in our lives. Many revolved around food or the daily grind. Life itself can become an automatism for some. Our work, school, chores, and activities can become so automatic that any change in schedule can throw us off. While daily activities can become so ingrained that an automatism is present, we don’t think of life itself as an automatism. Our whole being on earth is such an automatic thought that we completely take it for granted. When it is upset, the greatest defamiliarization in life occurs, death.
When a friend or family member dies, our whole idea of balance in life is disrupted. A death can cause even the most stable person to re-evaluate their own life and wonder how such a thing can happen.”
“When did my most precious moments, the ones that at one point defined me as a person, become automatisms? Today in class during a discussion of defamiliarization in relation to the ‘Gag’, I relayed a story about an event in my life as a possible example of the term. I told the story, I asked if it was a good example, and got some kind of answer. And that was that, next subject. After class I walked home, all the while feeling anxious about relaying that story, a story I had told many times before to many people on different occasions. And then, there it was: my story was an automatism! I shuffled along the sidewalk thinking about how this particular story had become a victim of ‘say one interesting thing about yourself’ in getting-to-know-you exercises. After too many times telling the story on these occasions, it had become the automatic go-to story. My example for defamiliarization had become an automatism, and my realization of this fact had actually been the most defamiliarizing event.”
Detaching Responsibility and Small-Scale Work
“When thinking about US citizens perpetuating our corporate consumerist culture and the small-scale work I could do to try and change things, I can’t help but think about the beast that is Wal-Mart. According to Wikipedia, nearly one-third of the US population shops at Wal-Mart each week! It’s truly a shame that a company that opposes worker unions, hires illegal immigrants for extremely low wages, and has been accused of sexism by favoring males over females is so successful. There was a South Park episode about Wal-Mart that really displayed the fact that society is responsible for its growth and continued success. Toward the end of the episode, the boys were on a mission to destroy the heart of Wal-Mart because Wal-Mart was destroying their town by forcing small businesses to close. But the heart ended up being just a mirror.
If people choose to shop elsewhere, it wouldn’t be quite as powerful as it is. I realize that many people shop there because of the fact that they really can’t afford to go elsewhere, but there are also many people that shop there who can afford to go somewhere else. Unfortunately, I am guilty of being one of those people. Both of my parents are teachers, and, yes, I am a broke student, but all together we could afford to make the effort to shop somewhere other than the Wal-Mart Supercenter in my hometown. Havel had made me face the fact that I am lessening my sense of responsibility, or detaching myself from it, simply to buy things cheap. Making the conscious effort not to do this is a form of ‘small-scale work’ that I could do to try and better society.”
Reacting to “Power”
“Reading about Havel’s greengrocer made complete sense to me. People sort of just do what they’re told because they don’t want to go against the crowd and then get punished, formally or informally, for it. I think this happens all the time. Even in everyday experiences like going out with friends and trying to decide where to go: sometimes the less outspoken don’t want to argue about where to go and just go along with the more opinionated people in the group because they don’t want to be perceived as creating problems. I’d even go as far to say that that’s part of the reason that people in large lecture classes don’t want to raise their hands and ask questions because, if they do, everyone else will look at them and judge them about whether their question was really worth interrupting class for.
I think that a lot of what it comes down to is that people like the greengrocer don’t want to be in the outside crowd. It’s a natural human way of thinking to want to be the one talking about someone else and not the one talked about. If this kind of behavior happens in the small situations of everyday life, then I feel like it would be impossible not to happen in a situation where everything is on the news and there are very real pressures from the government and the people in your community.”
Words and Ads and Psychotherapy
“Reading A Word about Words brought me back to high school when a brilliant ad campaign was launched by Adidas. The campaign’s slogan was ‘Impossible is Nothing‘. I don’t know what it was but upon hearing that slogan, something hit my bloodstream and made my hair stand on end. The phrase seemed so powerful. Of course, when you break it down, the phrase isn’t really even grammatically correct, and it’s even a little awkward, but when you hear it, something clicks within. I think that Adidas, without knowing it, defamiliarized the idea of something being ‘impossible’. ‘Impossible’ was only something that we created in our minds to stop ourselves from trying. But in reality, it didn’t exist. It was social construct, an illusion, nothing more than a thought that kept us from attaining our goals – it was nothing.
Around this time I was attending a session with a sports psychologist. His job was to take words and actions that instilled fear or thoughts of doubt and completely defamliarize them to me so that I could be comfortable with them. Back when I was a wrestler, I sometimes had trouble with tournaments. The pressure that increased every time I won a match was overwhelming because the only way you can win a tournament is to be better than everyone else in the bracket. To me, this seemed highly improbable. I may have been good, but I could not possibly be better than everyone else. Yet, the odd thing was that I rarely ever lost individual matches against tough opponents. So my sports psychologist looked at it this way: ‘All a tournament is is one individual match after another, it’s no more and it’s no less.’ And just like that, my fear of tournaments was gone. All the pomp and circumstance trumpeted by coaches and officials was gone, and all that remained was the bare skeleton of the event which I was far more comfortable with. Tournament was just a word, a description, a veil that I had to peek behind to see that there was nothing to be afraid of after all. Once I had peeked, I didn’t lose a tournament from then on.”
Politics & Identity
“‘Westerners are addicted to ideology.’ This is a line from Anatomy of a Reticence that really struck me. It struck me in a way that was kind of relieving and frustrating at the same time. Havel goes on to describe our seemingly ‘endless, exhausting examination of this or that attitude, opinion, or person to determine whether they are rightist or leftist, left of center or right of center, right of the left or left of the right! As if the proper pigeonhole were more important than the substance of an opinion!’. It is relieving in the sense that Havel was able to articulate so well what I also feel, but the truth of his statements shed light on the flaws with the general concept of politics in the US today.
I don’t know how many times I have spent filling in charts of different ‘ideologies’ in my intro polisci courses. ‘Majoritarian: one who believes in rule by the majority; Elitist: one who believes in rule by a small, select few who adopt a paternalistic attitude, knowing what is best for the polis; Libertarian: one who believes that government’s objective is to protect and preserve individual liberties…’ What does this all mean? In my Introduction to American Government course I remember having to take an online ‘ideology quiz’ to see where I stood on the spectrum. The final spectrum was actually made up of a square, with each corner representing an ‘ideology’. I can’t remember exactly which titles they used for the different corners, but I do remember that I ended up below and to the left of the center, towards Libertarian. To be honest, though, it meant little to me since I had just answered about thirty questions that gave only about four options for each answer, and there was only a handful that even attempted to tap into my actual beliefs. Most of the time I was just trying to decide which of the answers represented the lesser of the four evils.
It’s hard to classify people into ideologies: we don’t, and shouldn’t, put on ideological glasses and try to shape the solution to a problem within a specific ideological platform. At least for me, the platform is not my true identity and I don’t want to be ‘pigeonholed’ into having it be so.”
“In class we defined the term ‘privileged moment’ as a moment of special insight into something – like when we think to ourselves somewhat unexpectedly ‘Aha, this is what Havel meant’. I had one of those privileged moments the other day in my econ course, but the content of the moment wasn’t so ‘privileged’ in the positive sense of the word.
In lecture that day we were learning about diminishing marginal returns to labor. This is the idea that if a factory, for example, were to add more and more workers to the process, then there would be a point where the workers would merely get in each other’s way, thereby causing output to actually decrease. This is obviously a hindrance to production as the factory is not able to produce as much as it would without all of the ‘excess’ labor. When describing concepts to the class, my professor uses real-life examples, which I must say do help a lot. However, on this particular day, he used an example that led to my ‘privileged moment’, which involved an illustration of Havel’s dichotomy between ‘explaining’ and ‘understanding’, a dichotomy developed in Politics and Conscience.
My professor said to think of the idea of diminishing marginal returns to labor in the same way that many economists have applied it to Africa. Those economists argued that the AIDS epidemic was actually an economic gift of sorts in the sense that it wiped out mass amounts of ‘excess’ workers and allowed the continent to become more productive by letting smaller amounts of people focus on certain tasks. I honestly didn’t know what to think when I heard that. I understood the explanation of the example, but there was no understanding of it: the objective, impersonal, analytical aspects of the question wiped out any subjective, personal, and human level of understanding that this terrible epidemic truly calls for. Those economists attempt to numb the situation by looking at it in some sort of positive light that wasn’t positive at all. They merely removed the ‘human face’ of the situation and focused entirely on economic efficiency.
By majoring in economics I am hoping to be able to equip myself with at least part of the necessary education and tools that are needed to achieve the exact opposite of that example from my class – the goal of helping my fellow human beings live full and happy lives and not just to be able to explain away those lives as mere noise in the economic engine.”
“I watched the movie Baraka last night, and the movie’s use of time-lapse and behind-the-scenes photography helped me look at the world from a different point of view or from another perspective. Baraka is a movie from 1992 that lacks any dialogue — it consists only of scenes filmed in twenty-four countries and covered by an original musical score. The movie, through its unique style, forced me to rethink human consumption, human organization, and the Earth’s elemental make-up.
Human consumption has become an automatism in many countries, especially in the US. The problem is that many of us forget where the products that we consume come from. Our meat comes from the grocery store and our electronics from Best Buy. Misunderstanding of where products are made, what is required for them to be made, and their social, economic, and environmental consequences is among the greatest crises of the modern day.
Meat doesn’t come from the grocery store; it comes from the farm. And just like with most industries, farms attempt to maximize profits — sometimes at any cost. Maximizing profits leads to mass production of meat in factory farms. Baraka showed clips of the multiple steps of chicken factory farming. First, the fluffy, yellow chicks traveling down a conveyer belt must be separated, likely by health or sex. After the chicks go through a sort of game of chutes and ladders consisting of metal tubes, funnels, and more conveyor belts, they must of course be de-beaked. De-beaking consists of grabbing the chick and placing its beak on a scalding hot iron to burn it off — otherwise, the birds would surely peck each other to death being kept in such close proximity. The movie didn’t go further into the factory farming process, but if it had, it would have shown how the chickens must be given antibiotics to combat sickness, they must be fed an unnatural diet, and either be caged or carefully sorted through to find victims of death-by-trampling. These images are certainly not on display anywhere near the grocery store where all we see are the product labels.
Factory chicken farming has its problems, but it does not adversely affect the environment the way that factory cattle farms do. In addition to the cramped living quarters and antibiotics, factory cattle farms have another problem: manure. The cattle produce so much manure that there is still much left over after fertilizing the fields used for growing feed. The excess waste is usually piled together in one area and then called a ‘lagoon’. The word lagoon attempts to make these pools of manure, up to twenty million gallons, sound less offensive, but the waste will eventually seep into the groundwater and can contaminate local water sources. In addition, houses downwind (more likely smaller farms) often lose value because of the stench.
We also forget to think about where our electronics come from. Baraka defamiliarizes the source of electronics by showing factories with people (set in foreign countries) building keyboards. These shots depict people packed tightly into a building and sitting at an assembly line. Workers wearing masks covering their mouths and noses put together thousands of keyboards – just so people in ‘developed’ countries can have a new computer every two or three years. Prior to watching the movie, I assumed that keyboards were assembled by some sort of machine or robot. The saddest part may be that many of our outdated computers tossed into the garbage end up in other countries, possibly in countries where the parts were assembled but never used in the first place.
Ant colonies appear, to humans, to be extremely ordered, but this may simply be due to our unique vantage point. We see the ants from a higher level because we are much larger than the ants. Our size allows us to see the whole colony working together, whereas the ants only see another individual in front or behind them. This is similar to how we see ourselves on a daily basis, and we are not often given the opportunity to take a step back and look at ourselves from another perspective. Baraka allowed me to see humans from another vantage point by filming a long street – busy with cars and pedestrians – from a high up (the top of a building) and in time-lapse. From this viewpoint humans appear similar to a colony of ants. We can see the relentless march just like a long line of ants doing work. The filming allowed me to see human civilization from a perspective that took away from our individuality by creating the appearance of a homogenous flow of cars and people.
To end on a more positive note, the film helped me appreciate the functioning of the Earth. It depicted the Earth as a living creature by showing many of the Earth’s processes: thermal vents and geysers, volcanoes and lava-rivers releasing heat from the Earth’s center to its atmosphere. But it wasn’t until the time-lapse manipulation of clouds and waterfalls that I was able to get a really new image of the Earth as living creature. First, clouds rolling in through the mountains were shot and sped up so one could easily see the movement of the clouds. This was interesting by itself, but then later, when slowing down an image of a waterfall, I was truly amazed. If I hadn’t known that it was a waterfall that I was looking at, I would not have been able to tell if it was water or clouds. The time-lapse effect caused me to defamiliarize what I conventionally viewed as two separate and distinct Earth functions. Clouds are slow and waterfalls fast, but if we are able to normalize the scales at which they work we can see their similarities. I’m not surprised that the Earth, with all of its ‘life’ cycles, can create similar form and function between (to us) apparently different processes, and it is also no surprise that these similarities often go unnoticed by us – we have to deal with fixed scales and fixed perspectives.”
George Carlin’s Word about Words
“Reading Havel’s Word about Words, I realized that he talked about certain sub-groups of words and their social usages: a) words that change history, b) meaning-full words (that mean more than their dictionary definitions), c) words with histories, and d) words that have controlled us. But nowhere in this word breakdown did he discuss the use of words to avoid the truth – words created to squeeze the life out of a concept, the word as red herring.
The second that I began to read Havel’s Word, I remembered late comedian George Carlin’s stand-up act on words and euphemisms, and how he declared that words are merely symbolic structures, and that it is the intention behind a word that gives it a meaning or sentiment. He calls this ‘soft language’, and he gives the example of word like ‘shell-shock’ (used to describe reaction to battle conditions during World War I and nowadays referred to as ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’), crashes as car ‘accidents’, killing as ‘neutralizing’, the measurement of nuclear radiation in ‘sunshine units’, the handicapped as ‘differently abled’ or ‘physically challenged’. Just as Havel points out the transformation of a humble message into a potentially arrogant one, so too can words lose their meaning. If there is intention, this loss of meaning is more like murder. This leads me back to Havel’s argument about the word ‘peace’ – a word that has been prostituted in the name of war for centuries, probably millennia.
I think that both Havel and Carlin would agree upon the immeasurable power of words and that we have a responsibility toward how we use the. The intellectual’s true vocation may be to “be wary of words’, but we must all step up and listen carefully to how we use them and be wary of their implications.”
Causes and Symptoms
“Do we, as Americans, deal with the symptoms or causes of things? The reason why many problems are on-going and long-lived is because we never really correct the root of them. It is like taking certain types of medication to alleviate the symptoms of an illness, but does this relief change the fact that future symptoms will present themselves upon suspension of the dosage? Does cough syrup just make you feel physically better for the time being, or does it cure the source of the cough? In fact, the former is true. We often don’t know the reason we feel certain ways, so all we can really do is cope with what we can. We take steps to make ourselves feel better now, in the present, because we don’t have time to set aside to figure out exactly what the cause is.
It’s often much easier to ignore the root cause and deal with the symptoms. It can be so much easier to just take a pill and make of the discomfort go away now so can get on with our lives the way they are and pretend that there is no real issue at hand after all.”
Grandfathers, Obama, and Havel
“My grandfather is 97 years old. He turned three as World War I tore apart Europe. He was alive to see women earn the right to vote. He was my age in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression. He was on the front lines as a marine in the Pacific during World War II (a subject that he still never discusses). He saw the creation of the state of Israel, which, as an American Jew, must have been a momentous event. He lived through the Korean War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Beatles, the Vietnam War, the invention of the computer, a human being traveling to outer space and landing on the moon, the Cold War, the Berlin Wall going up and the Berlin Wall coming down, the internet, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War. He has outlived all of his friends, including his best friend of all, my grandmother Helen. My grandfather has seen seventeen presidents come and go. He has seen change on a scale that I can only read about. He has perspective. He has an understanding of how the world works that I don’t even pretend to comprehend. He is a quiet man, contemplative, a man of very few words. It is not the scale of life that my grandfather has experienced that impresses me. My grandfather impresses me because I believe that he embodies the true spirit of what it is to be an American, and maybe the true spirit of being a responsible human being in the modern world. My grandfather has not been unwillingly shaped by the ideologies of those who have appeared and disappeared on the world stage throughout his lifetime, he has adapted. He has constantly redefined himself, keeping at his core the will to be a good person, to be kind to those he cares for, and to not be intolerant of those he doesn’t understand. If there is anything that I could venture as a guess to what my grandfather has learned in all his years, it is that understanding is not a privilege at the outset, it is earned with time.
If I have ever felt like I was living in a time that was significant, now is that time. My grandfather may have seen all of the historic events of the past century in his lifetime, but I don’t have the benefit of comprehending them in a personally meaningful way. Surely I can read about them in a book as well as the next person, perhaps gaining more perspective if I were to discuss them with someone who did live through them. But I can’t ‘live’ them. I can’t personalize them and rationalize them with my own ‘being’. Last night, listening to Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, I felt like I was a witness to a meaningful event in American History. I am not saying that I haven’t witnessed meaningful events before. How could I say that the Iraq War or the Patriot Act or the creation of Guantanamo Bay weren’t meaningful? What I mean is that I have witnessed an event in American history that, compared to those, has made me proud to be an American (something that honestly I haven’t felt in a long time). It is a defining moment in American history to be electing an African American to the highest office in the land, something perhaps inconceivable only as long ago as my parents’ generation. It felt like a defining moment for what I would argue as America living up to its true spiritual potential. I mean ‘spiritual’ in the way Havel would use it. I mean ‘spiritual’ as the collective ‘being’, the collective identity of our nation. Electing a man to the presidency who would have been brought to this country in chains 200 years ago because of the color of his skin is an example of rising to true spirit of being an American.
I fought to hold back tears during Obama’s speech. It wasn’t just the realization of what he means as far as progressing toward equality, it was also because I felt that he was truly speaking from the heart. He is a great orator. I doubt that anyone would argue that point. But what made me connect with him last night was a sense of honesty. He made me feel as if I was a part of something more than just a collective bureaucracy, insignificantly traveling through the machine in my lifetime. I can say that only reading Havel’s essays have come close to giving me that sense of responsibility and ownership of my ‘being’. I can say that no political figure has ever made me feel that way, and that has changed my perspective on the current condition of United States and on myself just a little bit. Hopefully this will happen to me again, and I will be able to adapt and change and eventually understand and gain perspective like my grandfather.”
This War Will Be Televized
“In class we discussed Thriller and someone brought up the idea that humans are desensitized to pain, violence, death, or genocide. Joseph Stalin said it best: ‘A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.’ If he had said that a thousand years ago, I don’t think it would mean the same thing. Back in the day, war was fought man to man with swords, spears, or bare-hands. Everything was more personal – even the king or commander of the armies would sit on a hill and watch it all play out. There was no TV or mass media news to inform everyone, so it wasn’t constantly shown to the public, and the public couldn’t get used to it like we are today.
With the advancement of public knowledge and media comes redundant news. Havel wrote: ‘The announcer… is reading the news in a dry, matter-of-fact voice: Mrs. Indira Gandhi has been shot… International aid is being organized for Ethiopia, where a famine is threatening the lives of millions.’ People seem to feed off of this. They slow down to see the damage done to people in a car crash. News shows that sensationalize violence get the highest ratings. And we grow used to it.
Someone told me the other day that there had been a suicide bombing in Israel. The first thing I said was ‘Word’ (slang for ‘Cool – oh, really, ok’). I didn’t ask how many died or why it happened. I’ve heard it all so much that I don’t expect anything different.”
A Poem Defamiliarizes
“Today in class, David talked about an experience that he had with an old Russian woman he stayed with. He was showing her a picture displaying an aerial view of a typical American suburb, which she had never seen before. She thought that our suburban homes were posh summer cottages or ‘dachas’ as the Russians call them. She thought this because she had never heard of a suburb before.
This story reminded me of an experience I had in seventh grade. For English class, we read a poem where the speaker was describing an unfamiliar image. He said he could see a web of black ribbons that wound across the space he was looking at. The ribbons had white dashes on them, and there were creatures moving along them. The creatures were all different colors, shapes and sizes, and they had bright, glowing eyes. Parts of their bodies were clear, and the speaker could see their strange organs inside.
We read this poem to ourselves while sitting in class, and then we had to try to make sense of it. I remember being really excited when it clicked in my brain that this was the view of an alien visitor to earth, and that he was looking at cars on the highway.
Looking back on this experience, I see that it is another example of defamiliarization. Like the old Russian woman, the alien visitor had never seen highways and cars, and the way that he perceived them was so different from the way that I recognize them, that I almost didn’t know what he was talking about. At age thirteen, I thought it was the coolest thing to hear something so basic and recognizable described in such a different way—this was one of the first times that I remember thinking about how things make different impressions on different people. To me, that image was an everyday one of cars on the highway. But to the alien visitor, it was something completely unknown and he thought the cars were creatures, because he had never heard of or seen a car before. It obviously made a big impression on me because I still remember it vividly eight years later.
After I wrote this journal entry, I really wanted to figure out what the poem was so I could read it again. So I called my sister, because she had the same teacher and read the same poem, and somehow she tracked it down for me. Here is the link to it if you would like to read it.
Explanations of Evil – with Baboons
“Yesterday in class we talked about Thriller. In several history classes I have taken, we have talked about how atrocities such as the Holocaust and the Great Terror in the Soviet Union could occur. Somehow, despite multiple discussions, we never drew any concrete conclusions—we just talked about it a lot. I was impressed with Havel’s assessment of situations such as these. He basically says that when traditional myths and superstitions became deemed as silly and were cast off, people thought that science and reason could explain everything else in the world.
I think this is kind of why we never got anywhere in my classes when we talked about the Holocaust or the Great Terror. We just repeat that we don’t understand how something like this could have happened and how humans can commit such atrocities to one another. To draw a conclusion about how these things happened, we would have needed to let go of our belief that because these things don’t make sense (cannot be explained by reasoning) to us, we can never figure out why they occurred. Havel says about evil: ‘[It] senses that its time has come, for people have stopped believing in it altogether’. I think this captures what I am trying to say about my other classes’ discussions—because people don’t understand evil and how it works, they don’t believe that it is real. Then, things like the Holocaust happen and people wonder how they could have happened, because there is ‘no such thing as evil’. We need to remember that just because we don’t understand evil, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
I also think that sometimes when things can’t be explained by reason, we don’t necessarily say that they don’t exist at all, but we stop trying to figure them out because we don’t know any other method with which we can examine them. Another reason I think we sometimes refrain from trying to explain scary things like evil is because we are afraid that if we look at it too closely, we might see something in it that we recognize—some evidence that we do understand evil because there is a tiny bit of it in everyone. It is easier to say that we have no idea how evil develops because we have removed ourselves from it. I think this is what Havel means when he says that man has ‘something of the baboon within him’. And that, when the baboon is ignored by people who want to pretend he is not there, he goes on a rampage. In order to control evil, we need to acknowledge its existence.”
Of Snipers and Pulleys
“In Anatomy of a Reticence, Havel mentions how we in effect use ‘pulleys’ to rationalize deeds. This reminds me of a book I read in high school about World War I. The name of the book escapes me but one part sticks in my mind. The main character of the story notices a sniper sitting up on his lookout keeping tally of how many people he has killed. The soldiers he is killing are so far away that the sniper becomes desensitized to their deaths.
The soldier who was watching the sniper could not understand how death could become a game because all the fighting he saw was face-to-face. This correlates to the pulley system because if what we see is directly in front of us, we take responsibility for that action. When it is far away, the action becomes almost indirect, and we can more easily shut it out of our minds. With that indirect action, we almost plead ignorance as to what was occurring beyond our control.
It is easy to go past our normal threshold with the pulley system. There are certain actions that could cause emotional or physical harm in any other circumstance we would never even dream about, but when that pulley is put into place, and it is easy for us to use, we can go that extra distance claiming ignorance. It’s almost like putting on a blindfold, twirling around in a circle, and pulling the trigger. That person would have no idea what the consequences were of that action and would probably be able to keep going on. Obviously there would be some questioning, but the truth would never want to be uncovered. Now take off that blindfold, and that same person could not (we hope) pull the trigger. The psychological damage would be too great.
Knowing causes a person to take responsibility, and responsibility takes away the pulleys.”
Quantification and Remastering Music
“In the last class, the idea was brought up that quantification causes obscuring, and I’ve been thinking about how that can be. By definition quantification enumerates things and boils them down into easily digestible units, and by that it would seem that quantification does not actually obscure, but instead sharpens an otherwise blurry picture. For the sake of illustration, I’d like to compare it to the remastering of some albums – because I think that’s a good metaphor for what happens with quantification that I also have some personal experience with.
Consider a recording from some young upstart band with a shoestring budget from an independent label. Regardless of the musicianship of the members, the recording will likely sound poorly mixed and of low sound quality. Now say ten or twenty years down the line, after the band has made it big, the albums from their earlier years are remastered. The sound quality is undeniably better, but the raw feeling of the poor-quality, original recording is lost. The youthful exuberance and inexperience were a part of its overall sound, and a part of the effect that it had in its own era. I personally have noticed this with an album I had listened to the remastered version of first. I listened to that album to death, and when I finally heard the original recording, I was blown away by how different the same songs sounded. There was an imperfect energy and liveliness that was stripped from the recordings due to the antiseptic nature of modern mastering methods (replacing the recorded drums with sampled ones helped remove some life as well, but that’s beside the point).
I feel that quantification of life events or whatever has a similar effect. The grimy, outer layer that gives that event or person or thing character is burned away by categorization and enumeration. I feel clichéd in writing that, but it seems to be quite true. Another way to look at it would be like trying to fit different ideas (imagining that ideas are physical objects into differently shaped slots. We find an idea that roughly fits into a slot, realize it doesn’t exactly fit, then cut it to shape, tossing out the excess material. This is probably a better analogy than my music remastering one, but in either case the point still stands that you sacrifice complete meaning for the sake of definition and clarity.
Now, we’ve discussed this sort of idea in class as well, so I’d like to expand by saying that I understand the importance of categorization and quantification. Of course in some cases, you can legitimately quantify things and grasp the whole of its meaning, like in many scientific experiments. And even in things that aren’t so clear cut, there is some worth to quantification. There are times when you’ll want to convey some complex idea in a medium that can’t encompass the full understanding of a concept – for example, writing a dictionary. A more realistic example would be explaining things to a child that can’t be understood without real experience, like love or death. The full understanding will come to them with experience, but in the meantime the ‘quantified’ answer you can directly tell them will lay the groundwork for true understanding of the concept.”
Rapid-Fire Reading of and in The Garden Party
“I’ve been thinking about what we were talking about last Thursday: the special potency some words have. I’ve also been thinking of how the delivery of a word can flavor its meaning in different ways. For example, when I was reading The Garden Party, I just got the feeling that through the entire play, the characters were rapid-fire shooting their lines at one another in a frantic but organized manner, and as such that ended up being subconsciously how I read it. I noticed as I was reading that I was ripping through the words faster because, thanks to how it was written, I felt that I was in some sort of hurry while reading it. What intrigued me most about this was that I got this feeling through simply reading text.
A long time ago we talked in class about the difficulty there sometimes is in accurately conveying what you mean over the internet. You can’t really send inflection or emotion along with text in an IM. There are little things like typing in all caps to signify that you’re screaming or adding a smiley face to show that you’re not trying to be overly serious, but you can’t really convey the same range of emotions that you of course can in actual verbal communication (or in the nonverbal communication that comes with it). So I’m wondering now why I was able to get the feeling of frantic urgency from reading words.
After looking at the text a bit more, I’m noticing that, largely, the sentences are very short. If the lines are not short, the sentences are. If they’re not short, the sentences that surround them are, or they’re cut off with a hyphen and another character quickly firing something back at the original speaker. Also, in the chats about the liquidation office, it seems necessary that they rip through the lines as quickly as possible, based on the sheer number of times they have to say liquidation.
This is, of course, not the first time I’ve felt compelled by the text itself to read the lines in my head quickly. I can’t think of any specific examples right now, but I think they probably had that similar sentence construction. Basically, the point I’m trying to get across in this entry is that I was intrigued by the mechanisms Havel used to convey the frenetic atmosphere of the line delivery, without using any specific directorial notes that would necessarily dictate that. I was glad that you told me that the lines were, indeed, so rapid fire. There were times where it seemed hard to follow, but I think it was just because I was trying to read through it too quickly. Text eliciting such subconscious responses in the reader is remarkable, to say the least.”
The Garden Party
“When I first read The Garden Party, I mistook Havel’s criticism of governmental regimes. From what I could gather, it was a piece aimed squarely at the consequences of communist society, one that marginalizes the intellectual, the lover, and the artist. This kind of society pushes them out, it makes way for the kind of people who want to become ‘chief liquidator’ of the liquidation office. I now think that Havel’s play is not only a criticism of bureaucratic, communist regimes but a critique of any society that sees life as Hugo does – as a game of chess where there is a winner and a loser. I see that the The Garden Party is a criticism of our society as well because of our fascination with the ‘best’.
I discovered that Havel’s play could serve as a critique of capitalist society after a recent conversation with a friend who is looking for a job come graduation. He told me that he was looking at jobs with a certain title and anything else was undesirable to him. Instantly, I could visualize him as Hugo the chess player, working the system to his perceived advantage. The title was important to him because not only did it sit well with his parents, but also because he thought that this position was certain to make way for better titles in the future.
The friend I was talking to was really me. I want to be both Peter and Hugo. Quite often, especially since I am almost finished with college, I contemplate which brother I want to be. I find it easier to be Hugo, and I assume that most others will agree. For me, it is easier to get up and go to my part time job than it is to write a song or plan a date with that special someone. It’s hard to win against yourself!”
Putting the Absolute Horizon Into Words
“The Absolute Horizon has been described as supra-rational and supra-verbal. For a concept as abstract as an AH, the intellectual has a dangerous task. By nature, the intellectual is a super-verbal person. But even this rare and developed talent cannot conquer something about words. But what if we, as intellectuals, were to go against our instinct to communicate the AH to modern man and adopt a minimalist view of our discipline?
For modern man to understand the AH, the few words we choose to use should not be devoted to explaining what the ‘Absolute Horizon of Being’ is, but where to find it. Perhaps the efficiency of this method could best be described in an analogy. Say I am writing a paper and am too preoccupied to cook myself dinner. I yell to my roommate to throw in a pre-cooked meal sitting in the freezer. My roommate has a lot to do, too, and doesn’t have the time to hear me drone on about what meal I want from the freezer. So I have two options. I could tell him I want him to take out the box sitting all the way on the top shelf of the freezer on the left, or I could go into intricate detail about what kind of meal it is, how big the box that contains it is, what brand it is, etc. I find that it is easier for me to tell him the coordinates of the meal rather than its attributes.
I have already shared with the class one example of the AH in my group presentation – nature. But as I have read more of Havel’s plays and essays, I have thought up a few more locations where I find the AH. I find it when I admire a painting and then look at a blank canvas standing next to it. I find the AH on a recording of Ted Kennedy’s voice delivering a eulogy for his assassinated brother, Bobby, in 1968. I can also find the AH in my hands during the hour I play the guitar alone in my room before I go to sleep. I find the AH in experiences that give me a certain feeling or vibe that is distinct from what I feel on an everyday existential level.”
Student Reactions to Havel’s Writing: Fall 2007
An Online Reaction Journal
“What is an anti-code? This is saying something without actually saying it. It is almost like leaving a secret message. I found this to be intriguing: the fact that you can shorten a whole sentence into one or two words. Another intriguing fact about the anti-codes that we looked at in class was that they were things in life that people don’t really pay attention to.”
“The anti-code representing ‘forward’ in a circle got me thinking about the nature of progress and change. It’s as if progress is just constantly moving but not actually getting anywhere. I feel like this can be interpreted in a few different ways.
One way is to say that progress is not actually (necessarily) progress. For example, what is the point of progress for the sake of progress? In striving for a goal, at which point can we relax or are we in a never-ending race against ourselves? On that subject, do we actually have a goal in mind that we are ‘supposed’ to be striving for? Progress can’t simply mean constant, mindless upgrading. Are we only trying to get bigger and better without ever addressing why?
Another idea is that we are trying to progress in a positive direction to escape from a relatively bad one. In that case, the anti-code might symbolize how we are actually being held back. So this is like the circle is being forced on us, and we are made to think that we are progressing but really we aren’t.
Personally, I think we do need to progress and advance. We need goals and we need hope. I think the worst thing ever is when traditional views of normality get in the way of scientific or social progress. People can be afraid of change, but if they impose their fear on others, everyone will suffer. It’s not right to be afraid of things we don’t understand because we can’t be scared by the unknown if we hope to achieve anything. But this is breaking out of Havel’s endless circle.”
“I really enjoyed ‘Anatomy of the Gag’ even though I struggled to understand it all. But it reminded me of my high-school sociology class (quite possibly one of the best classes that I’ve ever taken). The class started out with an article entitled ‘Nacirema’. The article went through the daily rituals of the Nacirema tribe. Some people catch on right away, while others never do, that the article is really describing the American lifestyle (Nacirema is American spelled backwards), but it depicts it in the simplest of terms and expressions. It defamiliarizes the activities that typical Americans engage in, and they seem ludicrous until we realize that it is us that do them everyday.
I think this is what Havel was getting at. To look at life in real terms – that is how one can stay grounded. To see how trivial many of our automatisms are is truly a great skill to have, and I don’t think that I looked at the world the same once I really grasped the concept. Of course I don’t think that we can ever fully defamiliarize ourselves. Society really shapes who we are, but I think that the more we can look at it in a defamiliarizing way, the less we will preoccupy ourselves with things that aren’t really important.”
“A car ride is usually just a car ride. You get in, turn on some music and for the most part zone out. One foot on the gas, your hands at ten and two, the same old routine. So I got in my car, put in my newly burned CD, and like I said got ready to zone out, only thinking about the two-hour drive ahead of me and the dinner my mom had made that would be waiting with my name on it. Time passed, I talked on the phone, thought about the week that had just gone by and the week ahead.
All it took was for me to look out the front window. It was about seven o’clock in the evening and right ahead of me was the moon. Just barely visible but set in front of the prettiest mix of navy and baby-blues. If that wasn’t enough, I looked in my rearview mirror and to my surprise saw the biggest sunset I had ever seen. A sun as round and colorful as an orange set against an evening sky of pink and blues. It was breathtaking. To be given one beautiful view was enough, but two at the same time, that was the defamliarizing experience. The rest of the ride I spent looking at the scenery, for once not zoning out.”
“When I learn a piece on the piano, I always have the book in front of me and sometimes when I continue into the memorization part, I automatically memorize some parts and not others, so I have to keep the book in front of me. The problem is that after I have the entire piece memorized and don’t need the book any more, it is hard to continue to play the piece memorized without the book in front of me, even with the covers closed. A prime example of when the automatism stops to serve us and we begin to serve it. What makes this dangerous is that when I have to perform in front of the judges at competition, I don’t feel as comfortable without the book as other performers seem to.”
“During class today we discussed ‘Anatomy of the Gag’ again. After thinking about it some more, I really think I understand what an automatism is and how they are, in fact, everywhere. I think that one of the biggest automatisms that we have in our lives are societal gender roles. The first thing that is said after we are born is ‘It’s a boy!’ or ‘It’s a girl!’ and from that point on our life is laid out before us by society. Certain colors, hairstyles, clothes, power roles, mentalities are given to us. This automatism is so strong that as soon as someone steps outside of (or when people are born outside of) their designated gender role, not only are they considered absurd, but they are actively ridiculed. Sometimes it simply scares people. It’s amazing how these first three words said after we are born unleash the most powerful automatisms.”
A Defamiliarizing Experience in Sellery
“It’s 10 pm. I’m sitting in the study den of Sellery 9B. All is quiet. Everyone around me is carefully turning the pages of their textbooks and typing away on their laptops. It’s the same story every night: a den full of busy college students typing up papers and furiously poring through pages of text. I, on the other hand, am not. ‘Anatomy of the Gag’ is still fresh in my mind, but I can’t seem to translate it beyond just the words on the page. Defamiliarization might be present in a Chaplin film, but how does it fit into my own life?
All of a sudden a fellow student breaks the silence by playing her bluegrass music and dancing along with it. The silent, serious studying of college students is not a gag. Playing a favorite type of music and dancing along to it is definitely not a gag. But when one plays their music and dances around to it is a room full of studying students – that is a gag!
This gag might not have the cinematic appeal of a Chaplin film, but it follows the same basic structure that Havel lays out in ‘Anatomy’. It consists of two phases that when separate are neither funny nor absurd. When the second phase, dancing, meets the first phase, studying, the first phase is defamiliarized. A certain absurdity and comical side can be seen in the studying.
The study break was much needed by everyone in the room. After watching the dancing and listening to the laughter, it was clear that there was a change in the room. The mood was lighter and the tension lifted. There was a definite feeling, in a small way, of catharsis. And I was more enlightened. Not only did it give me a subject to write about for my reaction journal, but it allowed me a moment to step back and think about the bigger picture before returning to homework. Schoolwork is important, don’t get me wrong, but it’s wrong to go through it with an automatic mentality. Stopping for a moment to ‘smell the roses’ allows us to analyze the ‘why’.”
The Diamond Automatism
“The process of our assigning meanings to objects was a topic we discussed while going over ‘Anatomy of the Gag’ today and it drew me back to a conversation I had earlier this summer with my dad. We were riding along in the car and one of the commercials for ‘Wedding Day Jewelers’ came on and, for anyone who isn’t familiar with these commercials, the owners preach about how ‘the girl you’re going to marry is one in a million so why not get her a diamond that’s one in a million’ (which is ironic since their store is a chain and there are probably many duplicates of all of the ring styles). Basically the message that they’re trying to sell is go with the biggest diamond because she’s worth it and she won’t be embarrassed to show it to her friends. Though I’ve heard commercials such as this a million times in a million different contexts, my mind wandered that day and I got to thinking about why society puts so much emphasis on what is nothing other than a simple rock. Sure, it may be a rare rock but it’s a rock nonetheless. Plus its rarity is falsely based on a diamond monopoly that only allows a certain number of diamonds into the marketplace. Also, the belief that the bigger the rock, the more it means the man must love the woman. While discussing this with my dad, he said that it’s not uncommon for a man to spend three months of his salary on a ring. On top of it all, the diamond serves no purposeful function: it just sits on its designated finger.
When it comes down to it, what a diamond ring boils down to is a dignified branding that tells the world you’re off the market, and the size of the branding shows the status of the rancher. If showing the degree of a man’s love is really the motivator behind the ring, then instead of spending all that money for a ring, spend it devoted to solely spending time with her. Or if the ring is truly meant for the purpose of symbolizing the commitment two people have made for each other, then it wouldn’t matter what the symbol was or what it was made of because you and the person are committed to both find meaning in that symbol and that’s all that’s needed, whether it be a $15,000 ring or a necklace made out of paperclips.”
Natasha at the Opera and Thornton Wilder
“When Havel referenced the scene in War and Peace when Natasha Rostov defamiliarizes the Moscow opera, I couldn’t help but think back to the play ‘Our Town’ by Thornton Wilder. The play is performed with little scenery and no set or props (thus if Natasha had attended this play all the defamiliarization work would have been done for her already). The play has three acts and focuses on the routine interactions of a typical American town. Act One addresses ‘daily life’, Act Two ‘marriage and family’, and Act Three ‘death’. The audience experiences a defamiliarized version of the life cycle as outsiders who are looking in.
The last scene is especially powerful when one of the main characters, Emily, is allowed to look back on a scene in her life after she has died. She chooses her 12th birthday, and while at first she is elated, her happiness turns to sadness as she realizes how she lived day-in and day-out going through the motions and taking life for granted. She is quoted as saying: ‘We don’t even have time to look at one another. Doesn’t anyone ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?’ And at this point the audience gets it: we all sleepwalk through life.
Leaving the theater after the dramatic ending is a sight in itself as people are walking out discussing how emotionally numb they’ve been and vowing never to take the simple things for granted any more. I don’t believe Wilder would have had this effect on his audience if it hadn’t been for defamiliarizing everything that we generally associate with theatrical productions and showing life in its basic, rudimentary, routine form. The very concept of defamiliarization is a clever technique utilized by both Wilder and Havel to get people to stop in their tracks and reevaluate their own automatisms.”
“Apple has done it again. Their new iPod nanos are smaller, fatter and come in a wide variety of new colors. The only thing missing from their ads is the fact that these *brand new* iPods… do exactly the same thing as the other ones. But their clever ads have struck a chord with the materialistic side of Americans as proven by my roommate who, although already the owner of an iPod shuffle and a full-size iPod, claims that she needs the new version and preferably in baby-blue. When I ask whether or not she really needs it, considering the extent of her current iPod inventory, she responds with something to the effect of one of them is broken and the other doesn’t let her choose songs it only shuffles. She also manages to throw in that I recently purchased an iPod nano after breaking mine. While I do admit to purchasing a new iPod instead of fixing the old one (and, yes, this causes me to clench my fists a bit when the new commercials come on to confirm that the one I bought it now already outdated), my roommate’s expressed desire for the new nano did surprise me because I don’t really consider her all that materialistic.
As Havel addressed in his letter to Husák, consumerism is an epidemic in industrialized nations. Citizens have this unquenchable thirst for products and it’s only temporarily satisfied when one is holding the newest, latest, sleekest, slimmest, fastest model released. While my roommate’s longing for the new iPod may have surprised me, the idea that our society is obsessed with consumerism is common knowledge. It doesn’t take a trained professional to flip through the channels and see countless ads selling products that nobody needs, that everybody has fifteen of already, but everyone still wants.
What did get my mind turning, though, was pondering how Mr. Havel himself lives his life. He writes this letter denouncing consumerism, yet I bet there’s some type of product out there that Havel himself always stays current on. He sets himself apart from the average person through his philosophical insights, yet Havel is a human just like everyone else, isn’t he?”
Power of the Powerless: “The Panorama of Everyday Life”
“My parents grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China. They remember traveling to the countryside from the city to learn farming skills and enduring strenuous farm labor as teenagers. They remember school closing down and books being banned. They remember violence in the streets. They remember joining the Red Guards. They remember watching what they said about the government to ensure that they did not face future arrest. They remember being told that wealth was evil. They remember burning old photos and family trees, throwing away or giving up valuables and my grandparents’ volunteering to take pay cuts, all to hide any signs of former wealth. To most people, my parents grew up during a difficult time under an oppressive communist regime. They had little freedom or control over their own lives.
When I talk to my parents, they do not feel as if they grew up believing their freedom was being oppressed by the government. They told me that freedom is defined by the form of government one is born into. Unless one witnesses several radical changes in governmental form, and accompanying changes in degrees of freedom, even a person living under an oppressive form of government may think that he was free. He doesn’t know any other freedom, therefore freedom is simply what he is born into and what he has become accustomed to.”
Power of the Powerless: Are We the Greengrocer?
“My group – the ideology group – talked about the greengrocer. We were impressed by Havel’s ability to break down the barriers of ideology and dissect it into the illusion-creating monster that it truly is. My group decided that, had we lived in the context of the essay, we would have been greengrocers. We would have mindlessly placed the sign in our shop window and went on living our lives, never stopping to think about the true significance of our everyday seemingly trivial actions. We would have happily lived within the illusion of ideology, occasionally complaining about the government, but never doing anything about it. We would feel strong and independent, without the slightest idea that we were losing to ideology all the qualities we hold dear as human beings, such as identity, dignity, and morality. The idea of being the greengrocer greatly alarmed my group. We felt foolish and brainwashed.
Later, I was equally alarmed when the idea came to me that I might be the greengrocer already! Ideology appears to spring from communist/post-totalitarian rule, but I don’t see why ideology can’t permeate a democracy, too. My idea is difficult to describe, but I’ll try my best. I thought about all the rules that I mindlessly follow on a day-to-day basis. I never question them, nor would I think to question them. I am happy and I don’t feel degraded by society in any tangible way. I feel as if I have identity, dignity, and morality. I am free to experience life in the way I please, and nothing seems to pose a great threat to that. By feeling this way, am I already the greengrocer? Do I no longer think about the meaning of my actions, but simply repeat them because they are normal and acceptable? Do I mistake the duties forced upon me by ideology as free will? Am I living an illusion of reality so persuasive that I will never know or think to leave it?”
Circles of Home
“The concepts of home, and circles of home, are powerful notions that Havel attempts to provide some insight on and that interest me personally. I have very different circles for different parts of my life to such an extent that my friends actually notice that I act differently in certain situations. For me, it’s hard to make all of my circles equally important. I value my friends and loved ones so much more than things like my country or ethnicity. I don’t think Havel would say there is anything wrong with this, but he would say that I shouldn’t favor my friends and family or my country in a way that would hurt other people.
I don’t mean to sound all high and mighty, but I do notice how people distance themselves from things that need to affect them. A good example of this are disasters that occur in other places in the world. When a few hundred thousand people die in Africa, it is easy to ignore. Ask someone if they would rather lose a finger or have a person in Australia dies, and you’d end up with a lot of dead Australians.
My friend wrote a note on Facebook (go figure) about a newspaper article he saw. A few days after the shootings at Virginia Tech, the exact same number of Iraqis died in one tragic event. He wrote about how nobody is going to remember that, and how people place so much importance on tragedies closer to home.
In this situation, our circles are definitely not concentric.”
Dear Dr. Husák Applied to America
“After getting back our first set of journals, I was encouraged to get more deeply into the text of Dr. Husák. So I went back and read it again, and I found a lot more in it that I had gotten the first time around. I realized in the reread that there are a lot of parallels between Havel’s concerns for Czechoslovakia and my concerns for where American society is heading. Here are some quotes that struck me:
‘If it is fear which lies behind people’s defensive attempts to preserve what they have, it becomes increasingly apparent that the chief impulses for their aggressive efforts to win what they do not yet possess is selfishness and careerism.’
‘We are all being publicly bribed.’
‘… people have lost all faith in the future, in the possibility of setting public affairs right, in the meaning of a struggle for truth and justice. They shrug off anything that goes beyond their everyday, routine concern for their own livelihood; they seek ways of escape; they succumb to apathy, to indifference toward suprapersonal values and their fellow men, to spiritual passivity and depression.’
‘By fixing a person’s whole attention on his mere consumer interests, it is hoped to render him incapable of realizing the increasing extent to which he has been spiritually, politically, and morally violated.’
‘… such a situation can only lead toward the gradual erosion of all moral standards, the breakdown of all criteria of decency, and the widespread destruction of confidence in the meaning of values such as truth, adherence to principles, sincerity, altruism, dignity, and honor.’
‘… aesthetics of banality, which misses the truth much more inconspicuously acceptably, and plausibly… is far more suited to the role accorded to culture in the consumer philosophy: not to excite people with the truth, but to reassure them with the lies.’
‘… whereas for our ancestors the repeated rituals always had a deep existential meaning, for us they are merely a routine performed for its own sake.’
These quotes popped out at me as a way to look into American culture. Where is it headed? Why is it headed that way? There is no doubt that America is one of the most consumer and material driven societies in the world. So, where does that take us in the future? Are we buying to suppress our feelings of loss of control, of loss of identity?”
Politics and Conscience: The Smokestack
“I think that Havel hits the nail on the head with his statement that ‘A modern man, whose natural world has been properly conquered by science and technology, objects to the smokestack only if the stench penetrates his apartment’. This smokestack image rules today’s world. We are continually working towards newer scientific inventions, but at the same time, we are not really thinking about what effects they will cause until the moment that they affect us personally. That moment is now. The effects of the industrial revolution and everything that followed has left us with global warming and other issues that we must solve in order to save the world from our own folly. Even with the focus that the media has shown on the worsening conditions in our world due to our own actions, I do not see people actively resolving the problems that will be our downfall. As Havel recognizes, the reason for the lack of worrying or caring about these problems is our own inability to see what the big picture (the absolute horizon) will turn out to look like if we don’t do something about it. We, in America, are too caught up in our daily lives and the protection that comes with being one of the most powerful nations in the world that we don’t believe that we will ever really be affected by these problems. This is our real problem. When the smoke from our proverbial smokestack pours in America’s living room, be it the effect of global warming or nuclear war, we may finally take notice and do something about the problem rather than just passively recognizing that it exists.”
“I find the analogy of the smokestack very revealing. Havel uses it to describe many things in the essay, but most of all I liked the story of the man who doesn’t care about the smokestack until its smoke pours into his own apartment. I think it is a good way to describe how most people in the world view problems.
I don’t think anyone is immune from this perception. I know for me personally, I participate in a walkathon every year to raise money for breast cancer. However, even though millions of people are affected by breast cancer, I didn’t participate until my own aunt was diagnosed. I think this is why people try to make statistics personal – because it makes us think about the likelihood that we ourselves or a close friend or family member could be affected. With this ‘too close to home’ feeling, we are more likely to act.
But this goes well beyond individuals. Organizations, companies, and even entire nations don’t act unless a problem specifically touches them. Why does America spend billions and billions of dollars in Iraq while the genocide in Darfur makes the news maybe once a week? Where do we need the most allies? Where are the resources that we want? Where are the people with the most power? Not in Africa. And even though 400,000 are dead in Darfur and around 2,500,000 are refugees as a result of the ward, we do not intervene because the smell of smoke has not reached our apartment windows and maybe never will.”
Thriller: Humility in the Face of Mystery
“I was very happy reading Thriller. It reassured me that some notion of mystery – or rather humility in the face of mystery – is important, essential. Questions of the afterlife and the point of life itself haunted me all summer. Actually, not until this very second as I write this did I realize it’s not haunting me anymore. The idea of my body decaying seems terribly, unspeakably tragic. Is that narcissistic? I don’t think so. I am attached to the body I have. It’s been through a lot, plus it will be the vehicle through which I’ll contribute to the world. I’m scared to meet God, if there is a God. On ‘Curb Your Enthusiasim’, heaven was depicted as a star-studded retirement home in the sky. In 2Pac and Nas’ ‘Thugz Mansion’, departed souls can drink champagne with the like of Malcolm and Billie Holiday. I like these ideas of heaven. I also like the idea of reincarnation, and that every time you get reincarnated, you have a better life than the one before it.
These ideas comforted me after I read the first sixty or so pages of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and had the will-to-live slowly but surely siphoned out of my body. I would still have that emotional entropy where it not for art and spirituality. Hitchens’ argument stirred me, but science in and of itself isn’t enough, and his way of thinking seems to me poisonous too, capable of creating a new brand of hopelessness stemming from hyper-rationalism. I don’t like science, really. I’m glad it exists because it constitutes physical reality, but I don’t want to think it’s all there is, or that all I am is living breathing science.”
It Always Makes Sense to Tell the Truth: Havel and Kant
“Havel says that ‘in general, [he] believes that it always makes sense to tell the truth in all circumstances’. He has plenty of reasons for this claim, but I would imagine that a main reason would have something to do with the fact that lying is usually a purely selfish act. In Havel’s eyes, selfishness and pure egoism are totally abhorrent because they deny the responsibility that you must have to your fellow man.
In my philosophy class, we’re talking about Kant. Kant’s philosophy of categorical ‘oughts’ includes the notion that it is always immoral to lie. His reason for this has to do with the fact that lying is to ignore the dignity of your fellow man and to treat them like an object to get what you want.
At face value it would seem like Havel and Kant have similar views, but I believe that they are very different on some level. For Kant, morality is derived from human responsibility to law. This law can be moral, but it is just the notion that you should do certain things and not question. You won’t find empirical reasoning in Kant’s argument because he derives everything purely from rational thought.
This is the key difference. For Havel, real life examples and evidence mean everything. Life is all about stories, examples, and evidence. Not necessarily explanatory evidence, but just the idea of two people telling each other about their experiences and about how these experiences have shaped them as people.
Havel believes in responsibility, but unlike Kant, this responsibility is all about reality. For Havel, it should be the goal of every person to see their responsibility and to appreciate their existence, and that is where their meaning and purpose comes from. For Kant, there are only laws.”
My Very Own Garden Party
“Every Tuesday and Thursday morning the scene in my apartment features me and the internal game I play with myself about whether to go or to stay home. Back and forth I go and if it ends up I go I win, but at the same time by going I lose. You see from 9:30 to 10:45 I attend my very own Garden Party, though it goes by the preferred name of XXX-123 [class name suppressed to protect the innocent].
The party consists of twelve students and, although liquidation offices or Small and Large Dance Floors aren’t the topics of conversation, the intriguing details of various research methods are. Falk, who is also employed as a teacher at UW-Madison, leads the party with speeches on research methods. She really hits the nail on the head with her research methodology – and why the hell not? She’s no beginner at methods!
The party participants take turns going back and forth discussing the pros and cons of various research experiments. However, the conversation follows a circular pattern as once one side convinces the other, the reasoning the convinced side used in turn convinces the convincer. Who’s convincing the convincer and whether or not the convincer is convinced is something I’ve convinced myself to zone out.
Regardless, Professor Falk makes sure this circular conversation flows and the convincers and the convinced battle it out in convincing language on who can hold the all-important position of Director of Convincing Arguments of Research Methods (which includes benefits such as a bright and shiny brown nose and a guaranteed avoidance if I ever see them out in public). The party is located on the 10th floor of the building and thus it continues into the elevator and, if I really have bad karma coming my way, then down the hall and part-way down the street.
As I was exiting the party a couple of weeks ago, one other party-goer lagged behind the convincers and finally said the only thing that has been real to me thus far in the entire semester. He looked at me and said, ‘Do you hate these people as much as I do?’ And with a stunned but appreciative nod, I went home.”
Student Reactions to Havel’s Writing: Fall 2006
“I’ve read a number of anticode-esque poems in my life. My favorite poet is e e cummings, and I was fortunate enough to have English teachers who taught me not only the meaning of the words, but also the meaning of their structure. Iambic pentameter is structured for a reason, the words at the ends are put there for a reason. These anticodes are like that only more so, being that most of their meaning lies in the form, not just some of it.
I was particularly inspired by certain poems, but I think the greatest impact was made by seeing them all together. They seem to me almost like ingenious doodles, the thoughts and feelings of a young man destined for greatness. The death of the individual. The distortion of words, and their potential for truth. Alienation. It was a great way to put in our minds the things we will be discussing this semester, instead of just writing “Alienation, Individualism, Totalitarianism” on the board.”
Gogogogogogogog s t o p gogogogogogogogogo
Dododododododod b e dododododododododo
Runrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrun l i v e runrunrunrunrunrun
unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique
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unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique
unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique
unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique
unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique
unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique
unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique
unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique
unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique unique
SILENCE SILENCE SILENCE SILENCE SILENCE SILENCE SILENCE SILENCE SILENCE
SILENCE SILENCE SILENCE SILENCE SILENCE
SILENCE SILENCE SILENCE SILENCE
SILENCE SILENCE SILENCE
SILENCE SILENCE SILENCE
Gags and Night Crawlers
“Charlie Chaplin is the coolest. Today in class we discussed what was probably my favorite reading so far, partially because gags are funny, but also because I think it’s wonderful how one might use humor to reveal the truth. I’ve always had a love for satire, and this absurdism definitely runs along those lines. Since we began this article, I’ve been having so many thoughts about so many things: automatization, defamiliarization, catharsis. It seems absurd in itself writing a simple journal entry about these concepts. Automatization is one of my greatest fears, and I’m constantly trying to defamiliarize myself from things that seem ordinary. Actually, if I had to pick one thing I like about myself, it might just be the love I have of making old things new, of stopping and smelling the roses instead of just walking by. The other day, for instance, I was walking home late at night after another rotten rehearsal, and I was wet and crabby and tired and scared of walking alone in the dark. Then I looked down and there on the sidewalk is the absolute largest, grossest, most amazing night crawler doing mach 2 across the wet sidewalk. For a moment I just stopped and laughed, ‘making strange’ my automatic walk home. There’s just this absurd moment when your life stops and you see everything afresh – because of a simple night crawler.
Now, I know that the way I talk about these concepts is far from the way Havel does: he’s talking about automatization under a totalitarian regime, after all. If I think about it, though, I suppose I can identify with big, scary automatization as well. America terrifies me every day, but often I don’t think about it because there’s nothing really to do. I’m used to it, almost. We are constantly being fed propaganda even in our free society, and maybe because it’s free, the propaganda is harder to notice as such. The word ‘terror’, for instance, is the number one word whose meaning has completely changed during my lifetime. I remember what happened on 9/11, I remember that day, and I feel sad that instead of mourning the events or solemnly remembering those who died that I feel resentment and fear when I hear that date mentioned. We have been led to think of September 11 as the justification for all we do in the Middle East. We make movies about heroism and then go on the offensive. It disgusts me. And I suppose that is my defamiliarization of it: seeing the fear from the outside and thinking about it.”
Defamiliarizing Graduation Ceremonies
“’The meaning of an event is determined by the association used by the person to tie it to other events, that is, by its human context. That which loses its human context becomes absurd.’ When we defamiliarize something as normally meaningful as a graduation ceremony, it can instantaneously become ridiculous. Think of what actually transpires during a graduation ceremony. There are humans wearing identical baggy pieces of clothing with identical square objects on their heads. These identical objects have identical pieces of string hanging from them, and they hang on identical sides. The humans sit in identical chairs facing a raised surface where a person or people stand. This person or people talk for a period of time, and then the humans walk across the platform one by one, very methodically, and receive pieces of paper. At some point, the humans move the identical strings to the other side of the square object on their heads. At various points in the ceremony, people will clap their hands together. When a graduation ceremony (or anything else) is dissected in this manner, it seems strange and almost comical.”
Defamiliarization, Distancing, and Catharsis
“We mock the modern age because it takes itself too seriously. We can laugh at very serious things. When we mock serious matters, we are cathartically distancing ourselves from them, even if we are still involved in them as a matter of necessity.
I love defamiliarization in literature. I like it when authors trust their readers with the intelligence to take what they can on their own from the reading by forcing them to look at the work ironically.
Defamiliarization allows us to escape systematic ideology and expectations within our own minds – a necessary adaptation to modern society!”
A Defamiliarizing Experience in Gordon Commons
“One topic we talked about quite often in class is defamiliarization. One day I was in Ed’s Express in Gordon Commons, and I was listening to my music when suddenly defamiliarization hit me in the face. When the song in my iPod changed and started playing ‘My December’ by Linkin Park, it seemed as if everything slowed down like the song. I had my iPod so loud that I couldn’t hear anything except the music, and everything at that moment seemed like a show: everybody walking slowly, talking but no words coming out of their mouth. As people walked to their destination it seemed as if they were moving to the rhythm of the song. The entire world seemed like a music video, the Ed’s Express workers looked like background dancers with their uniforms on. The ice-cream man was, well, the ice-cream man. That was the defamiliarization event that I had. It’s hard to see the world through new eyes when you are accustomed to having things there and not paying much attention to them.”
“Upon reading ‘Anatomy of the Gag’ I stated to think about the automatized times of my life. I grew up in Bosnia during its independent times as well as its Yugoslav times. Though I was very young when that region was under communism, I remember watching little boys and girls in school, marching to Tito’s music and wearing blue, white, and red ‘pioneer’ uniforms. I saw pictures of my parents and cousins in this same attire. I remember being extremely excited to start school and wear those same garments. I wanted to sings patriotic songs, blend in, and call my dad ‘tata’ instead of ‘babo’. ‘Tata’ was the word everyone called their father in those TV specials. However, when I started first grade, communism ended and I didn’t get to wear my little uniform, instead I just had my plain individual clothes. I remember being quite disappointed that I couldn’t be as happy and joyful as those little pioneers.
Now that I look back upon it and as I look at the history of communism in my country, I realize the suppressions of individualism and the building of the ultimately passive, uniform, automatized human being. It was really interesting to see the residue of communism reflected in the fact that the government still aired the specials on young pioneers and the greatness of Tito, years after his death. That generation and the ones before it had already been scarred and affected by the system. I feel that my generation was affected only slightly, however the thing that helped us snap out of it was the war in the 1990’s. The dream of the uniform Southern Slav was gone, and it was not coming back. It was only at this point and in today’s retrospective that I realized that I too was pulled into the propaganda. Though this wasn’t a huge revelation to me on the surface, I feel like my eyes were finally opened to the fact that I was so close to being suckered into a highly politicized atmosphere without even knowing it.”
“I believe it was in the eighth grade when, for the general reading and literature class that eighth graders get, my class read an essay entitled “Conversational Ballgames”. The essay discussed the author’s experiences in conversation in the US and in Japan. The author compared conversation styles in Japan to bowling where someone tells a story and then everyone else thinks about it, like you would watch someone roll a bowling ball down the alley. Conversation in the US was compared to the game of tennis when one person shares an anecdote, like serving a tennis ball, and the other people or players are thinking of a way to return the ball right away: they’re looking for an anecdote of their own to hit back with, instead of contemplating the other person’s idea, as people do in Japan, like watching the course of a bowling ball down the alley until it’s the next person’s turn.”
V for Vendetta
“This past weekend I watched the movie ‘V for Vendetta’. As the movie went on I started to pick up many themes from ‘The Power of the Powerless’ and ‘Dear Dr. Husák’. If you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend it, and will not ruin it for you in this journal by going into too much detail about its plot. The main themes that the movie expressed are the ones that directly correlate to Havel’s themes: responsibility, fear, post-totalitarian dictatorships, secret police surveillance, and automatization. Not only did this movie resemble Havel’s themes but they incorporated themes from the book ‘1984’, themes of Cold War propaganda as well as the Anti-Terror rhetoric we hear today.
The main character, V, tries to empower a revolution of automatized people in England. He states that the reason people maintain this system is because they are scared. ‘The people shouldn’t be afraid of their government. The government should be afraid of its people.’ It’s the propaganda, specific historic incidents and ‘protection’ of the regime that keeps the public thinking they’re powerless. He intends to change all of this.
Once he gains control over a TV station, he addresses the public on both the theme of fear and responsibility by stating ‘I do, like many of you, appreciate the comforts of every day routine- the security of the familiar, the tranquility of repetition.…And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror.’
The quote above is stating the same thing Havel is trying to state. That is, due to fear the public has given up the responsibility for their lives and their future and by giving up their responsibility, they have lost their voice and power. The public needs to get their voice back, take responsibility, and they will gain the power. Of course, this is much easier said and executed in the movie (it is Hollywood, after all), but the main message is seen in Havel and the Velvet Revolution.”
Havel’s Letter to Husák and Power in America
“David commented on Havel’s letter to the president that we are reading and on the impact that it had on Czechoslovakia at the time. This made me think of the powerless in America and about how even those who try to make a difference find it hard to really do so because of the lack of influence they can exert over political officials without being an interest group or the majority opinion. This made me ponder the effectiveness of writing a letter to the president (the governor, senator, mayor). There are many factors to consider, including whether or not the recipient would even read it. I remember a few years ago there was a picture of Bill Clinton smoking a cigar in the newspaper, and my sisters wrote a letter to him about the dangers of smoking and how he was a role model to a lot of people and was setting a bad example. In this case, we did receive a letter back about how it was just for show and that he doesn’t smoke, but we don’t know whether he wrote that personally or had someone else write it for him. Considering the quantity of work he had to do, it seems more likely that one of his staff members read it and responded. In Havel’s case it was a letter to the president that made all the difference.
Regardless of the number of opinion columns and people calling out the president’s actions, it seems that it has no effect on the president, nor are people inspired to action by them. People don’t seem to want to have their lives ‘defamiliarized’ and so they write off the criticisms as extremist and go back to their routines. In today’s world, it seems like people don’t care about issues until they are directly affected by them, and if they aren’t affected, then they don’t allow themselves to be drawn into them by people who are.
I guess my point is that people are satisfied to turn a blind eye to the problems of the world and prefer to stick with what they know and feel safe in. On the other hand, maybe it’s because people think they can’t make an impact and just leave it for someone else to do and so nothing gets done. It’s like the crowd syndrome where lots of people witness a stabbing and assume that someone else will call the police and then the victim dies because no one calls.”
The Terrain of Alienation
“’Individuals can be alienated from themselves only because there is something in them to alienate.’ What is in us that could be alienated? What does the word ‘alienate’ mean at an existential level? It means ‘to make strange’. To be alienated from yourself, or your true self: is that ‘living in a lie’? I think this is what Havel means. Next sentence: ‘The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence’. The violation is being alienated from oneself. The terrain of it: what does this mean? The landscape of it, the make-up of it? Is it akin to the consequences of living in a lie? What can terrain be like? Rocky, sandy, slippery, sloped, flat. These can all be metaphors for the consequences of the violation, which is alienating your true self. This terrain is the alienated person’s authentic existential landscape. By alienating yourself, you live a ‘flat’ life.”
“Are we all driven by fear? I know that a big factor for me in deciding to go to college directly from high school was fear. In the high school that I attended and the group of friends that I had, the question wasn’t ‘Are you going to college?” but “Which college are you going to?”. It always felt like an arranged marriage of some sort. I always thought that I wanted to go to college, but looking back it is difficult to see if it was because it was truly what I wanted or if it was because no other real options were on the table. There was the money incentive: my parents made it clear that they would pay in-state tuition and help me out with rent and other expenses, but that was contingent on attending college full-time and getting good grades. The idea of rebelling only to make eight bucks an hour at the mall and have to struggle to make rent each month was daunting. Looking back, I’m glad that I went to college, but that isn’t the point. There were times I signed up for a new semester of classes and had no idea why I was doing it and knew that I didn’t want to be doing it… but the idea of the alternative was always in my mind.
In a way, as Havel said, we are all being publicly bribed. In my specific case, it wasn’t so much public but it was definitely a (well-intentioned) bribe. Havel says that doing what is required of you costs you nothing, and in time you cease to bother about it; it is not worth a moment’s thought. He goes on to counter that, saying that despair leads to apathy, apathy to conformity, conformity to routine performance and ritual. While I am overall happy that I went to college and will soon graduate, I am disturbed at the way I have gone about getting the degree. For many of my required classes, I would take great care in figuring out how I could do the minimal amount of work and still get a good grade. Clearly that is not what college is supposed to be about, but my fear of not being in college superseded my resistance of wanting to explore my options prior to attending it.”
“Ideology spans the gap between what reality ought to be and what it really is. This isn’t something that I’d thought about in-depth before. Ideology often has an antagonistic relationship to what is actually happening.
If I were to try to put this in American terms, my thoughts go quickly to the Iraq war. Ideology-heavy words such as ‘freedom’, ‘peace’, ‘justice’ are attached to it seemingly at random. Even in our society, where we are free to recognize and disagree with this abuse of words, it takes place. I can only imagine the extent to which it affected Czechs and Slovaks.”
Havel in My Own World
“Identity and culture is not about eating sushi or bowing. It’s about experiences and understanding. It’s about becoming cognizant of where one stands in public. It’s about letting people know that one’s experiences can be part of a larger world. That is why I share: stories of my immigrant life, stories of finding and working through the difficulties of fitting into the duality of two cultures, stories of the goodness of living in the “betweens” of cultures. All of this, I hope, is presented in such a way that is pure and guileless. I will share my stories of affection and love, gentleness and strangeness, ignorance and desperation, intelligence and grace, all in a way that is awake. Much like Havelian thoughts, I try to see through the material image to the real thing, through human surfaces to the strange, comical, and at times lamentable truth that changes a fool into a great solemn hero. Every day I am looking under every petal, looking for that strange truth, where our original voice lies, enveloped by my experiences, my identity, the being that I am.”
Havel and the Scientific Method
“In reading many of Havel’s writings, I was generally overwhelmed by and consumed with trying to maneuver through his thoughts. Upon examining several of his essays more carefully, I was able to notice some of the methods behind his complexity of expression. Since I come from a science background, I realized that I was able to compare his ideas on the Absolute Horizon to the scientific method as it is used in research. The scientific method can be broken down into 5 distinct stages:
1. Observation and description of a certain phenomenon.
2. Formulation of the hypothesis to explain the phenomenon.
3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena.
4. Testing an collecting data to prove the hypothesis.
5. Publishing the results.
Havel writes about the AH in his letters to Olga. He begins to question the idea of a conscience within people, and he makes the observation that people follow their conscience: ‘Why is it that when we are traveling alone in that second car of a conductorless streetcar, so that obviously no one could catch us not paying, we still usually – though perhaps after an inner tussle – drop our fair in the box?’ (letter 95). His ‘description’ of a conscience is a ‘feeling that a person ought to do something and that if he doesn’t he will reproach and torment himself for it… as though someone were constantly observing him.’ Havel began this thought by wondering why people were ‘good’ with no apparent personal advantage to themselves. He develops this idea of a conscience and expands it into his hypothesis by looking at the internal ‘dialogue’ with this ‘observer’ as the inner experience of the ‘total integrity of Being… that somewhere, everything is known… [and] that everything is indestructibly present in the absolute horizon of Being.’ Havel predicts the existence of the AH, based on man having internalized a certain form of behavior that houses an inner sense of responsibility.
The hypothesis regarding the AH cannot be physically tested via experimentation, but Havel examines the assumption of the ‘memory of Being’, a kind of total registration and evaluation of everything, and the assumption of an Absolute Justice where the ‘final court of appeal’ would judge his decisions against standards. Normally scientists would come to concrete conclusions about their hypothesis before publishing them, but Havel wanted the final answer about the AH to be individually determined and not presented as fact for all.”
“In his final words to Maria before the end of the play, Gross states that ‘we build superb communication between continents and yet communication between man and man is increasingly difficult.’ Indeed today we have the ability to communicate at the speed of light through online social networking sites, instant messenger programs, and regular email. Today people are more ‘connected’ to those geographically far away than ever before in history, but has it made our society closer? I don’t think so. Robert Putnam writes in Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital that Americans have lost their passion for group association, and as a result their participation in the political system has declined. Putnam got the name for his principle after spending an afternoon at a local bowling alley where he noticed that every lae was filled not with bowling leagues but with individuals bowling alone. Under Putnam’s principle people prefer to experience fun on an individual level and not in a group context, which would logically decrease their overall feelings of camaraderie and fellowship with their community members. Gross’s statement to Maria then is the precursor to Putnam’s thesis: as people forget how to communicate with each other they participate less in mutual activities.
It is indeed a sad reality today that people do not have the same sense of community that was once found in American cities, towns, and bowling alleys. I remember back when I was in elementary school how every summer people in my neighborhood would barricade off the streets for one evening and have a large block party where everyone was invited. As time has gone on, children have grown older and people’s schedules have filled up with activities, and this tradition has faded.”
“I agree with the authors of the reactions 2002 and reactions 2004 comments on The Memorandum that this play was just like the big fluorescent-lit, cubed-off office spaces we have in the US. Like most people, I’ve served my time in such places and came away with the same feelings of confusion, boredom, and irritation. This play is set within just such a place. It humorously points out the inefficiencies of bureaucracy and the awkward and manipulative interactions of employees in such a place, but the play wouldn’t be Havel’s if it wasn’t about much more than that. It’s also about language, communication, and ideology.
I think Gross is your average citizen, particularly in the context of post-totalitarian Czechoslovakia where fear of consequences cancels out action on beliefs. He is not all bad, he understands much about and preaches on behalf of truth and fairness but he lacks the personal ability to act on his ideals when they’re being challenged. He’s afraid of the consequences. We see this all the time in our society.
Maria is the pure character in the play and she gets fired because she helped Gross to translate the memo, then Gross refuses to save her job. Havel kind of has us look at it like she has escaped rather than that she has been punished. I thought it was wild how she’s happy when she walks out at the end, but maybe it’s because she also realizes it’s for the better.
This made me think of my dad. He works for a big stupid company that downsizes pretty much annually. Almost every year my dad has to reapply for his job, usually having to take on more work with no real additional financial incentive once he’s ‘blessed’ with making it through another lay-off period. The last couple of times that this has happened, he told me that he will almost feel relieved if he gets cut because his kids are now out of the house, and he’s over the age where they have to give him health insurance for life. He’s trying to hang on until retirement, but I like it that he’s OK with the idea of being forced to start over if it means being free. I’m proud of him for realizing the ridiculousness of that company and choosing not to live his life by it, but it’s really sad to think about how much crap he had to eat before he reached that point.”
“The whole idea of communication and its effectiveness is the premise of Havel’s play. In the play a new language is created specifically for the purpose of easing communicating and eradicating errors in understanding. However, I think that Havel’s point in the play is that no matter how efficient your words are, if they don’t represent your thoughts properly, then true understanding is impossible. While the new language eradicates misunderstanding, it also removes all subtlety. While it increases the effectiveness of communicating, it removes the ability for interpersonal understanding since understanding is now only based on the words and their literal meaning and not on the emotional connotations behind them. Were a language like this to exist, Havel shows us how stale life would be and that no matter how much you understand the words someone says to you that doesn’t necessarily mean you will understand the meaning that person is trying to convey. This play also reminded me of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller with the comically ridiculous bureaucratic decisions meant to simplify things but that really only messed them up more.”
“We have so far only read this play, but it is already apparent that we have reached the area of Havel’s true literary mastery – his plays. Lacking the strong, often confrontational political and existential messages (on the immediate surface) of his essays, his plays are a welcome breath of fresh air. Their flow, their comic elements (I laughed aloud more than a few times while reading The Memo), their absurdity.
But that isn’t to say that these plays are devoid of Havelian ideas. In fact, quite the opposite is true. It could be argued that the plays are the basis for Havel’s ideas, the place where we first get to see them start to take shape and bloom. For examples:
1. There is the obvious theme of communication (or lack thereof) within the office.
2. There is ‘petty dip’ as ideology: ‘It doesn’t work when applied coldly and broadly,’ as someone said in class. It handles human communication with the velvet ‘gloves of ideology’, removing from it the human element and striving for a grand, impractical final goal. You cannot remove humanity from everyday life unless that everyday life is a life in a world devoid of humans. It is our tendencies, the way we act, what we say, our automatisms, and our resistance of automatisms. After is failure in the office, ‘petty dip’ is reported as having gained connotational overtones in areas where it has been widely accepted – a deeply ironic revelation.
3. There is the circularity of thoughts and ideas, evident through repeated dialogue, actions, and the circular plot of the play. This can be representative of a number of things: the totalitarian system, bureaucracy in general, the circularity of thinking that is often present in the modern world. In short, Havel is awakening our tendency to move forward only scientifically and technologically while losing sight of the bigger picture.
4. The office as ‘totalitarian system’ or on a broader level, a system in which open communication is restricted.”
“Absurdist plays are absurd. However, many events that render these plays absurd are not far from the truth. For example, when Thumb is kicked out of the classroom, the teacher continues to teach to an empty class. As absurd as this may seem, some professors have been known to ramble on about a topic to the point where students as well as the professor have no idea of the point that the professors are trying to make. As a result, the professor may as well be teaching to an empty classroom. It may not always be the professor, students can also contribute to this phenomenon. For example, I myself have been tried or not in the right mindset at an 8 am class. I know I’m not the only one that feels this way. If enough students are like this, the professor might as well be teaching to an empty class.
In this play Ballas gives up his job to Gross because he doesn’t understand Ptydepe. A situation where a managing director readily gives up his job to his subordinate is quite absurd. But how many times have we sidestepped responsibility because we didn’t want to go through the trouble of dealing with a particular event? Personally, I’ve encountered this situation many times. Fore example, after signing the lease to my apartment, I was faced with the decision of whether I wanted to be responsible for utilities, the main name on the account to the landlord, and the cable bill. If I accepted the responsibility, I could establish a better credit rating as well as improve my budgeting skills. Despite this, I shied away from it. I didn’t want to be left on the hook for bills that my roommates may decide that they didn’t want to pay. My decision isn’t different than that of others in similar situations – most people shy away from increased responsibility when given a chance.”
Anatomy of a Reticence
“This essays deals with flexible systems of belief, the gap between perceptions and realities, the actions and consequences surrounding communication problems and positions within situations. The main issue as a result of these things is communication as negotiation. Havel seems to be obsessed with meanings of words and language, which I’m fine with because I am too. We can use the same words with each other and each person can derive a different meaning from one statement based on his or her experiential construct of meanings. We see that language and culture vary around the world, so it’s only natural that we should have varying meanings for similar words and basic concepts. Different conditions warrant different understandings of words and ideology.
I agree with Havel that dreams require a bit of ideology, and I agree with him that it’s tough to achieve a dream without ideology interfering with the purity of the dream itself. People often sacrifice small dignities and practice subtle manipulation to achieve their dreams. This isn’t as scary as when governments do it. On such a scale you can’t be manipulating and sacrificing on behalf of entire populations in order to achieve a dream that might be so tainted and corrupt by the time you’ve reached it that it’s lost all of its goodness and purity.
When I stop to think about the dreams I’ve had over the years, and what I had to do to achieve them, there may be small sacrifices or manipulations I see in myself, but I almost feel that these actions were necessary. How else do you gain a big thing that you want? You just need to make sure that you’re not directly damaging yourself or anyone else with those means.”
“This speech certainly made me think about some of these usual concepts differently, primarily because Havel, writing for a Western audience, does a wonderful job of putting them in their place. I can see these Western peacekeepers meeting in Amsterdam, and I wonder how many of them were so sure about their noble cause before they heard Havel’s speech, and how many of them returned afterwards to their hotel rooms, silently loosened their ties, looked in the mirror, and heard his words again. It’s hard to imagine hearing one of the greatest ‘dissident’ intellectuals say that the word ‘peace’ itself, which these men and women no doubt spent their lives trying to fight for, ‘awakens distrust, skepticism, ridicule, and revulsion’ in Eastern Europe. And with good reason.
Yet another stab at the West, albeit with good intentions, came when he spoke of the West’s love of ideology, saying that the West loved ideology even more than those who live in a system ‘ideological through and through’. He certainly gets right to the point when he speaks of our political spectrum, criticizing ‘that endless, exhausting examination of this or that attitude, opinion, or person to determine whether they are rightist or leftist, left of center or right of center, right of the left or left of the right – as if the proper pigeonhole were more important than the substance of an opinion’. And obviously he is right It is disgusting to see people voting for political candidates simply because they’ve slapped the title ‘democrat’ or ‘republican’ next to their names. Or seeing people like my own mother voting for an amendment that would withhold civil rights from numerous people merely because her party says to do so. If she would only read and think about what she is voting for! Our country is crippled by our inability to not politicize every issue. We spend so much time labeling matters depending on whether they’re blue or red or reddish-blue or bluish-red. How frustrating it all is, how ‘petty, erroneous, and far removed from what is actually at stake’.
Havel is right: we can’t take a shortcut to a better world. We have to work for one. We have to think about what we are doing, we have to use our own brains instead of letting political parties make the decisions for us. What a wake-up call this must have been for the listeners at the peace conference, hearing about peace, freedom, unity, terrorism, justice, democracy, socialism – and about how nothing is what it seems to be.”
The World as a Stage
“In class we discussed how we start acting the moment we set foot outside our doors each morning. Politics and society demand theatrics – unless you’re from a small town. If you live in a small community, you can’t get away with acting because your neighbors are sitting behind the set and have read your entire script. This idea couldn’t possibly ring truer for me. It used to frustrate me growing up. I hated that I was my older sister’s little sister; I wanted to be solely responsible for the perception of my character by others. In my town, all your classmates know your family history, your economic status, all your friends and all their scandals… it can be crippling if you feel a need to escape. However, I’ve developed a sincere appreciation for that kind of community. I have made many friends and acquaintances since moving to Madison, but I still prefer my Mount Horeb friends when I’m feeling down. They’re the only people who truly know me, and it’s because I was never able to act around them. We have no appearances to keep up when we’re around each other.”
“Halloween weekend people became not what they were disguised as but the monster within. I defamiliarized the city and its people and converted Madison into a big graveyard. People walking around, screaming, getting drunk: lifeless without conscience or reason or thought. There were zombies on the floor passed out from too much drinking. Cleopatra lay half-naked on her royal balcony, and Jesus Christ was having drinks with Lucifer. I felt like a living being walking among the dead. While everybody transformed into something horrific (well, there were some butterflies), I kept my human form. This was a weird moment in my life especially when you go back to Thriller and remember that we are the demons. All it takes is a special night like Halloween to turn the innocent into wild coyotes who do bizarre and insane things.”
“For a group project I had to read Havel’s essay called Article 203. This dealt with a Czech law that stated that anyone who evades honest work or was supported by someone else or gained his or her living in some underhanded manner would be subject to imprisonment. Then I remembered when I took a criminal justice class in high school and we had a guest speaker from the LAPD. I clearly remember the officer saying “in this field the pen is mightier than the gun” and then he went on to explain how the laws in CA have some loopholes for the officer to use and stop suspicious people.
Article 203 deals with people not working in a post-totalitarian regime and how they can be easily prosecuted because of its vagueness as to what counts as honest work. In modern times and in our context, the law is still somewhat vague and the pen is, or can be, mightier than the gun.”
Theater and Movies
“Now that we’re reading Havel’s plays, we talked in class about theater and what it is. Theater in America is thought of as an alternative form of entertainment, and many people only encounter theater either in their child’s school play or as a large-scale, fancy production. There are many other possible ways in which to encounter theater, however, I believe that American theater is an ignored entertainment outlet. Most people won’t go out of their way to find a low-budget theater and see a production put on by struggling, hard-working actors; a much easier thing is to go to the movies. Additionally in an American society obsessed with violence as entertainment, the theater can only offer a limited selection while unlimited special effects can be created on the movie screen through digital imaging. The result is that people look on the theater as boring. At the theater you must be an active audience member, paying attention to the acting and discerning information from asides and other techniques while also stretching your imagination to believe that the set you see is really the place it pretends to be. On the other hand, at the movies, the film will do all the imagination-stretching for you, and you only have to sit back and zone out for two hours.”
“So, the gods have left Olympus.
This essay is probably my favorite of what we have read so far. It is short, sweet, and terrifying. I’m fascinated by Havel’s existentialist writing, and this certainly delves into the idea that we are without authority. Every sentence of this essay meant something to me, and scared me. The world now is full of rationalism, logic, science, and cold facts, and although we know now that the world is round, we also know that there are so many millions of things that we will never know. We have opened Pandora’s box.
I know what it is to feel ungrounded. Not only can I no longer gain purpose from belief in the Christian God, but I have also been without a family, name, and heritage most of my life. Growing up in a foster home made me the person I am today, that is for sure, one who prizes family above all and clings to culture. My love for superstitions and myths and traditions reveals my lack of them. I know this lost feeling that Havel writes about. And now, upon reading, I understand how the monsters in my closet actually help us and give us stability of a sort.
Also this makes me think about literature, and how basically everything I’ve read that has been written after WWII has a forlorn, lost core. Fitzgerald tried to fill the absence with parties, Hemmingway with bravery. Kerouac spent a lifetime on the road looking for it. The lost generation is every generation, I think. We answer to no one, we matter to no one, and the more we try to rationalize our existence, the worse it gets. I can’t imagine what it will take to get passed this.”
“After initially reading this essay I did not especially like it, but the description given in class, that it was one of Havel’s most ‘poetic pieces of prose’, piqued my interest. I may or may not be a sucker for prose… but this description was my invitation to do some rereading and find the beauty myself.
As with any good piece of poetry, it wasn’t until the third time reading that I started to really absorb what Havel was trying to convey. As I started to read the second paragraph of the essay, about modern man and myth, I started to think about my experiences this past summer in Santa Fe, NM.
Before leaving for Santa Fe, many people told me that it was such a beautiful place and that I would love it there, that is was so ‘spiritual’. I was excited to go and experience the spirituality that everyone talked about, but when I got there I did not feel it. I did not understand what they were talking about.
I got into life there, got up in the morning to go to work at the opera, stitched for hours, and got off of work at 9, just in time to see the sun setting over the mountains. For a month and a half I did not understand the spirituality, I had essentially forgotten about it, but two weeks before I left I was fortunate enough to go on a hike in the mountains with my uncle. At the end of the day, I felt as if I had finally understood the spirituality of Santa Fe and New Mexico. I think it was a combination of the fresh air, the scenery, and maybe the margaritas for dinner, but most of all it was my uncle’s stories sprinkled throughout the day of old Native American sacred sights and rituals, and his firsthand accounts of Native American friends he’d had and trips he’d been on, that gave me a sense of the spiritual.
When Uncle Will dropped me off at my apartment, I jumped on my old Schwinn Traveler from the goodwill and headed down to the plaza to sit and enjoy dusk and write in my journal. As I wrote I became aware of my discovery, and I felt pleased with myself. Then I tried to explain it, which proved to be very difficult. The only way I could really put it into words was to talk about the Native American presence here. In any case, my point is that I understood this fact of spirituality in my… soul (this is where English needs another word that combines the head and the heart) but I knew that I was expressing it in a very convoluted way in words on paper. What Havel is talking about in Thriiler, the sense of myth and metaphysicality, is perhaps precisely what I was missing. Though Havel argues that it has left modern society, that may be true but it is not gone completely.
Havel sums it up well when he writes: ‘The civilization of the new age has robbed old myths of their authority. It has put its full weight behind cold, descriptive Cartesian reason and recognizes only thinking in concepts.’ So if this is the problem how will we ever reintroduce myth and this sense of wonder back into our world? Now that I’ve had this experience and can talk about it more concretely, what do I do with it I can’t answer that question right now, but I feel fortunate to have asked it in the first place.”
Student Reactions to Havel’s Writing: Fall 2004
Explaining and Understanding
“After talking in class today about the explaining vs. understanding dichotomy, I got to thinking about examples of this phenomenon that we can find in everyday life. One big one that stands out is the concept of “being in love”. I think this concept defies explanation. This is not to say that we as human beings do not try to do so. Ask anyone what “love” is and they will probably make some sort of attempt to explain it in clear terms. From my experience, however, these “explanations” usually fall into one of a few insufficient categories.
First, there are vague assertions regarding feelings/emotions: “It is a very special devotion to another”. Still other descriptions capture a particular manifestation of love, but fail to capture its essence: “It is a condition in which another’s happiness is intimately intertwined with your own”. Granted, these examples are not false, per se. They do capture some small piece of what love means for many people. But to describe love in words is, I think, an endeavor that is doomed to failure. Love defies explanation. It is something that must be felt to be known. Suffice it to say that when I feel love, I know instantly that it is love, but any explanation offered to another regarding how I feel at that moment would be grossly inadequate in conveying it.
This idea about love can be seen as illustrative when viewed in the context of Havel’s attitude toward the arrogance of man in the modern era of science and rationalism. Scientists may describe love (and other emotions) as nothing more than the release of a given neurotransmitter or hormone and the physiological effects it has on our body. Indeed, this view may be correct in a sense, and may very well be useful in certain scientific endeavors. What Havel reminds us, however, is that describing something experiential in scientific, rational terms is not useful for the purposes of human interaction and identity. To be sympathetic, empathetic, or to know another deeply we must interact on a level other than that which describes human beings as essentially well organized pieces of matter, as nothing more than immeasurably complex machines composed of electrical, chemical, and mechanical parts. As human beings, we are defined not by this notion, but by our consciences, hopes, dreams, attitudes, experiences, and how these things have made us feel and shaped our personality. Insofar as they can be conveyed to another, these are the things that facilitate human interaction and allow us to “know” others. Perhaps more importantly, it is these things that define our “self-identity”, or the way in which we see ourselves. When I think of who I am and what defines me as a person, I think of my conscience, important experiences that I have had, how they have made me feel, and how these things have shaped my development. So, both in terms of knowing others and knowing oneself, rationalism is a paradigm that is not only insufficient, but detrimental since it impedes these processes.”
R W D S O
CONTROL CONTROL CONTROL
CONTROL CONTROL CONTROL
“I really liked the uncomfortable nature of this play’s conclusion. One of the first tenets of classical film narrative is that, in order to make the audience sympathize with a character, have something unfair happen to them. This is only compounded if the unfairness occurs as a result of the character’s own goodness. This, then, is supposed to occur only at the beginning of the narrative. To have this happen to Maria at the end, with no rectification, is entirely unsatisfying to an audience searching for the “non-arbitrary ending”. However, I think it’s really important, though it doesn’t really translate to a word-only script, because it couches Gross’ grandiose soliloquy in physical surroundings that contradict it. I can imagine it on stage: directly following Gross’ assessment of our contemporary “time out of joint” and bold assertion that he must remain to combat Ballas’ evil, Gross joins the knife-and-fork procession of everyone else in the office, subsuming and reintegrating himself into the backdrop circumstance, thus finally confirming the audience’s suspicion that the only decent person in this society is the one that gets expelled (or, perhaps, escapes) from it (and goes to work in the theater!). And, of course, it is Maria, the one with whom the audience has just established a rapport through the unfairness of her circumstance. It’s a really subtle and thought-provoking closing indictment of the system that we’ve been plunged into for the last hour or so, and I think he pulls it off well.”
“I found the subtle office aspects of this play simply hilarious. It was a deeper, not so satirical version of the movie Office Space. I worked in an office for a large company this past summer, and I could see much of my own experience in Havel’s work. The company was so large that we all just seemed to be parts of the flexible packaging machine. I’m not sure if my being an intern was the cause of this, or if it was felt throughout the company. Many times I would find myself on the phone calling companies on the other side of the company. I was never sure if they were our customers or we theirs, and I rarely knew what the document I was requesting meant. A lot of times I felt like the characters in the play who were trying to deal with ptydepe. I would not understand a word of the Regulatory/Environmental Affairs lingo, yet I knew exactly the next place each document had to go.
Also like characters in the play, our detachment as employees caused us to find enjoyment in other things at the office. At least once a week there was a birthday, and we would wonder with eager anticipation whether that person would bring cake or donuts. If we were lucky, the birthday person would be in our department and we would get to go out to lunch. However, the highlight of the days had to be scoping out the catering services for the conferences in the building. The legal department was located next to the conference center, so they would keep an eye out for that afternoon’s spread. Then there would be multiple interoffice emails pertaining to the content and supplier of that day’s meal. The first 20-25 minutes of lunch would be spent waiting in the wings while the conference attendees got their food. We would be discreet enough so they wouldn’t notice, but visible enough to know just the right moment to pounce on the leftovers before all the other vultures got to them. This was definitely the most strategic planning and problem-solving that I experienced this past summer, and it had nothing to do with my job.”
The Anatomy of Apathy
“As human beings we ought to be constantly concerned with the welfare of our species. As living beings we are all invested in the concerns of life. Apathy is a dangerous enemy, because the aims of apathy are quite opposite the aims of life: life is dynamic, always changing and reliant on diversity; apathy is static, devoid of change and reliant on a few uniform conditions. To survive and be happy humans must be explorative and adaptive. Apathy is an enemy of life, and it threatens our existence as living creatures. We must understand the nature of this threat in order to drive it from ourselves and dismantle the conditions which create it.
Apathy as a mood may be characterized by the dictionary as, “Lack of interest or concern, especially regarding matters of general importance or appeal; indifference.” Apathy as a general mindset or way of life is something greater than this. It is the conceptualization – whether accurate or illusory – of a loss of individual power and the subsequent lack of feeling. This lack of feeling is a result of general wariness about emotional investment when one perceives having little control over those investments due to the lack of power. The apathetic mindset is the plague of our modern civilization. The mindset of a population is relative to its culture and structure. It can be derived, therefore, that the specific nature of our culture and social structure nurtures the apathetic mindset.
The most concrete cause of apathy is the actual decline of the modern individual’s ability to effect change on his or her environment. There is a direct relationship between population and individual power. As populations have increased exponentially in the past 150 years the role of centralized government in the life of the modern individual has increased dramatically and popular sovereignty has consequently decreased. Society is organized in a hierarchal manner where power flows from the influential minority on top of society down to the vast majority of individuals who reside on the bottom of society. The result is the modern individual has significantly less potential for directly affecting his or her immediate conditions. The lesser the amount of power one has, the less one is willing to invest in using that power.
Parallel this is the conceptualization of the loss of power. This occurs when one believes that one has less power than one actually does – when there is a belief in powerlessness. Largely this is a product of the psychological effects of a hierarchal society. The modern individual has little power to cause direct change in structured positions: his or her job description is something provided for his or her information, and is typically not a negotiable document; laws are passed and enforced with or without his or her participation, and if the individual does choose to participate it is usually with limited effect; social perceptions and trends come and go as dictated by entertainment and fashion industries, and the individual is judged by standards set far above him or her on the power scale. The constant undermining of an individual’s power over certain aspects of his or her life will lead that individual to conceive a loss of power in all aspects of his or her life. Believing oneself to be powerless, the desire to use power to change one’s immediate conditions will slowly dissipate.
Modern culture is a thing of spectacle. Fads become intensely popular for relatively short periods of time. As a participant in the ritual of spectacle, it is the role of the modern individual to be an observer. Cinema and television are two powerful and popular mediums of spectacle where, unlike any live performance such as theater or a musical production, the audience has absolutely no means of interaction with the performers; they are simply passive observers. Ritualistically participating in spectacle by observing trains the modern individual to simply observe and rarely participate. Comfortable in this position, the individual loses the desire to create change, forgetting what it is like to be in control.
Technological advance has created the merchant’s wildest dream: instant gratification. Credit cards, the internet, and the overall fast-paced nature of modern society make it possible to satiate almost any material desire in relatively insignificant amounts of time. As members and participants of this hyper-society we have become dependent on instant gratification. Things that take too long these days are simply not worth it. Bureaucratic methodology is slow and systematic. Creating change has become a slow and tedious process, and the results can be not only very slow to manifest but also seemingly inconsequential by the time they do so. Dependent on the ability to gratify his or her desires almost immediately, the modern individual acquires distaste for the slower reality of personal or long-term change.
Luxury is the opiate of the masses. When unable to create external change, the modern individual turns to personal change – to directly improving his or her material status. By focusing on improving his or her home and increasing his or her possessions, the modern individual satiates the inherent human need to improve one’s conditions without actually accomplishing anything significant. Real avenues for change are supplanted by ineffective alternatives, diffusing what potential the individual had left through false outlets.
Cynicism is another outlet for real human feeling which allows apathy to persist. When the modern individual feels anger, frustration, and desperation, he or she is able to use caustic humor and cold cynicism as an immediate outlet for those feelings. Not only does this not confront their source, but it allows the individual to feel relieved of feeling that way without being led to do something constructive. It allows the individual to simply cope with his or her suffering without changing anything in his or herself or in the larger world, and so both suffering and apathy continue.
The apathetic individual has come to understand him or herself as an impotent being, both because there is an actual loss of power and because he or she develops a belief in his or her own powerlessness. This creates psychological inertia: the longer the individual conceives powerlessness, the more likely the individual is to continue to exist in powerlessness. Seeing oneself as impotent, one can become depressed and detached from his or her surroundings, further reinforcing the apathetic mindset. One is also led to violence, for violence is the anti-pole of apathy: apathy is the conceptualization of loss of power and subsequent lack of feeling; violence is the reckless use of power and the consequential immediate negative feelings, both physical and emotional. Where apathy numbs the individual’s natural desire to feel by making them powerless, violence puts the individual back into an immediate position of power and allows them to feel and make others feel, despite the negative nature of those feelings. Most dangerously apathy results in the death of change and the death of opposition. A population sedated by apathy is incapable of offering resistance to the whims of the powerful few. It is also incapable of fighting in its own interest and in the interest of human welfare.
Apathy is a powerful force in direct opposition of life. As living beings concerned with our own welfare it is important to recognize the manifestations and underlying causes of apathy so that we can dismantle the conditions which create it, and also drive it from ourselves. To do this is to create a society based on truth and honest human feelings. The destruction of apathy is a reaffirmation of personal power. It is a commitment to the continual participation in one’s own future. It is a reaffirmation of life.”
Havel’s “Absolute Horizon”
“The “absolute horizon” (AH) is a concept that is central to the philosophical writings of Václav Havel. The following paragraphs will seek to examine some issues surrounding the AH. Please note that this is not meant to be an in-depth, systematic analysis of Havel’s understanding of Being (another term he uses for the AH). Rather, the majority of this paper will focus on questions that have been raised in my mind while reading about the AH.
Before going further, it will be useful to briefly define the AH. It is, as Havel puts it, “something beyond which there are no more beyonds”. Essentially, it is a higher, ever-present spiritual order that is around us, within us, and of which each of us is a part. It is an absolute set of coordinates that every individual can use as a moral guide for his or her life. One way, then, in which the AH can be understood is as conscience. More accurately, conscience can be thought of as the way that Being is manifested in each of us. Havel equates conscience to the “voice of Being”, a sort of conduit via which Being expresses itself in humans.
This idea that the AH can be understood as conscience raises an interesting issue. Havel speaks of Being as “… I understand it within myself…” This clearly implies that an integral step along the path to living in accordance with the AH is one of interpretation. We each must determine what Being is, what it means to us, and how this meaning should manifest itself in our lives. The AH is thus not an entity that is static across humanity. Rather, it may appear in distinct forms to different individuals and hence express itself in various manners through them.
This apparent fluidity stands in contrast to the impression conveyed by the term “absolute horizon”. The word “absolute”, as used in this context, could be defined as one of the following: “Not limited by restrictions or exceptions; unconditional” or “Not to be doubted or questioned; positive”. This certainly does not suggest that the AH is something open to interpretation, as Havel implies when relating it to conscience. Instead, we get the sense here that he is speaking of an ultimate, unequivocal truth (or set of truths) that is innately present in all of us; a sort of “model” by which to conduct ourselves existentially.
So which is it? It would seem that the AH cannot be simultaneously pliable and unequivocal. Havel states that the “blurred, ‘soft’ and unclear quality [of the AH] suits me” and he strives to let it retain this character. In so doing, has Havel gotten lost in the complicated, though intentional, abstractness of the term? In his attempt to maintain the term’s “blurriness”, has he failed to accurately and completely convey its meaning?
Let’s pretend that two people are faced with the same moral decision. Both individuals strive, on a daily basis, to seek out and listen to the “voice of Being” within them. In other words, they are in touch with their consciences. Their behavior is not governed by closed, ideological systems of thought, they possess a sense of responsibility to themselves and thus to Being, and they make decisions not based on their potential concrete, material ramifications, but on their ramifications with respect to the AH. Now, let’s pretend that these two people each reach a different decision as to what is the “right” course of action in this moral dilemma. How would Havel explain this situation? There are two possible answers. Either there is no true “right” course of action (in which case the viewpoint of either individual is valid) or one of the individuals is “right” and the other is “wrong” (and has thus interpreted the AH incorrectly).
If the former is the case, then the idea of an AH becomes almost obsolete. If there is no “right” way to interpret Being, then how are we to know who is acknowledging it at all, who is at least making their best effort to live according to the AH as it manifests itself to them? If Being leaves itself open to our interpretation, how can we know when someone we disagree with morally is simply interpreting it differently than us and when they are denying its existence entirely (or, in other words, concerning themselves with only material, “concrete” things)?
The answer to the above question would seem to be simply: we can’t. Anyone, regardless of their actions, could claim that they are simply living according to their own interpretation of the AH, which is just as valid as anyone else’s. There is thus no basis by which to judge the actions of humanity, and Havel’s idea of an “absolute horizon” is of little use in altering its current course. So, this explanation of the hypothetical situation posed above is problematic.
Now, let’s assume that Havel would answer with the latter option, namely that one of the two individuals reached the “right” decision and the other was simply “wrong”. Once again, this implies that, though we are all part of the AH, it may be interpreted differently across individuals. However, now two different interpretations are not equally valid. There is one, and only one, correct way to live in full accordance with Being. As above, the problems with this line of thinking are many.
First of all, how can we possibly know which interpretation is “right”? Who can tell us? Certainly no human has the authority or knowledge to do so. So, as above, it seems we are unable to utilize the AH to assist us in improving the current state of humanity. Furthermore, if this notion that there is one “right” way to interpret Being is indeed Havel’s view, then doesn’t the AH resemble an ideology? It lays out the “truth” for us; telling us how to live our lives the “right” way. Though many may never reach this “truth”, we are all a part of it. Realizing this fact and submitting to it is the key. To sum up, then, from this second perspective, the AH, if we can reach it and interpret it correctly, tells us unequivocally what is “right” and what is “wrong”. So, what distinguished the AH from an ideology?
Though in some ways the AH may resemble an ideology, it lacks one important characteristic: the cultivation of an arrogant attitude that a closed system of beliefs can explain everything and provide universal solutions to the world’s problems. Rather, one who has found the AH realizes that only constant examination and questioning of our beliefs, actions, and attitudes can possibly lead the world in the right direction. So, though the AH represents a spiritual grounding from which we can derive general principles for how to live our lives, it does not lay out an explicit, finite set of guidelines as ideological systems do.
Furthermore, perhaps the perspective from which the above analysis originates is too rational. Havel would llikely tell us that the AH is something that can be understood, but not explained. Like love, it is something that we will instantly know when we see or experience it, but cannot possibly convey in words. Indeed, this insufficiency of language is one of the central themes of Havel’s writings. Therefore, it is not necessary to come up with a checklist to determine which behaviors are in accordance with the AH and which are not. We need not worry about how to determine who is following Being: we will just know. As Havel says, the AH may manifest itself differently in each individual, and so different people may take slightly varied approaches to moral dilemmas. However, two slightly different approaches can both be rooted in the same spiritual order and derive from an attention to the “voice of Being”.
Another interesting angle from which to address the AH is in relation to the teaching of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Indeed, much of Havel’s own philosophy originates from the ideas of Heidegger, especially the belief that man is arrogant and incorrect in believing that he can explain everything in the world and hence control it. Havel and Heidegger diverge, however, in their views regarding Being. For Heidegger, Being is “an impenetrable mystery”, the awareness of which he refers to as Dasein or “being there”. Though Heidegger’s definition of this term is quite similar to Havel’s treatment of the human condition as something mysterious, and both agree that the atheistic self-focus of modern man robs him of this mystery, it is here that the two part philosophical ways. Heidegger argues that Being itself is a “no-thing”. In other words, we have no idea of its true nature and thus of how to live our lives “correctly”. Morals, according to Heidegger, are simply human constructs, and there is essentially no way to judge whether or not a particular action is in accordance with Being. This moral relativity is a dilemma that many, including Havel, find in Heidegger’s philosophy.
Many of Havel’s musings, in fact, are an attempt to refute this particular point. Havel argues that Being is apparent on the Earth, for we and everything surrounding us are part of the AH. There is a natural order, the “order of Being”, which governs both the world around us and inside us. Opening ourselves up to this order, this set of coordinates, is what Havel terms “living in truth”. Under this paradigm, an absolute set of moral principles exists to guide human actions. So, in essence, Havel believes that a higher power (Being; the AH) not only exists, but manifests itself via a natural order on Earth. This power is around us, within us, and we are a part of it. What’s more, it presents, though not explicitly, a set of moral guidelines after which we should fashion our lives. Some have argue, in light of these beliefs, that Havel is actually a “Christian in denial”; that the AH is really God and Havel is simply unwilling to take the step of fully admitting his faith.
I think that this idea is misguided. Havel holds that those who believe in the AH “are all those who do not surrender to their existence-in-the-world, regardless of whether or not they acknowledge a God, a religion or an ideology”. Furthermore, Havel argues, albeit implicitly, that following a particular religion is dangerous. Organized religions tend to be by nature ideological and dogmatic. They instruct their followers to live according to an explicit set of tenets, and believe that in them lies the secret to knowing everything about the world and thus to solving all the problems of humanity. This arrogance, however, is precisely the problem Havel sees with the modern world. The institutions of man, whether they are religions, governments, political movements, or ideologies of some other nature, often claim to have all the answers. This false belief that one can create a utopian society by adhering to some concrete checklist is what has led to movements such as Nazism and Communism. A central point that Havel returns to is that we must strive to avoid this trap by constantly questioning ourselves, our actions, and our beliefs. No single, closed philosophical system can provide the answers, as most organized religions claim they do. A large portion of Havel’s philosophy is therefore directly opposed to a central characteristic of religion, its ideological nature. To claim that Havel is a “Christian in denial” is thus missing his entire point regarding the role of ideologies in the modern crisis of humanity.
As Havel progresses in his writings, becoming President and thus writing more speeches rather than essays, his terminology when discussing spiritual issues changes somewhat. Rather than using the terms “‘absolute horizon” or “Being”, he simply says “God”. Again, some point to this as evidence of his gravitation toward Christianity. However, using the word God, which Christians use to describe the higher power in which they believe, hardly makes Havel a Christian. His teachings regarding the dangers of ideology and the need to constantly examine our beliefs remain steadfast, indicating that, regardless of the particular word he uses to describe the higher power, his spiritual leanings are still decidedly removed from those of Christianity.
Another final question now presents itself: does one have to be consciously aware of this higher power in order to live in accordance with it? As shown above, Havel would certainly not argue that one must be a follower of a particular religion, but does he believe that one must be, in some way, spiritual or religious? I’m not sure how Havel would respond to this question, but to conclude I will share my own answer.
In his acceptance speech for the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, Havel states that “Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation… can genuinely value himself and his neighbors, and thus honor their rights as well.” This reaffirms Havel’s belief that morality derives from a higher set of coordinates that are present around us and within us. I don’t think, however, that one must consciously believe in a higher power in order to “live in truth”, and thus lead a moral life. I believe an individual can have a sharp conscience and lead their life with a greater good in mind (ie, that of humanity and the world) without being spiritual or religious. I hold this opinion based on people I know well whose lives are guided by morality/conscience, yet are not spiritual or religious. Perhaps Havel would say that these individuals are in touch with the AH via their consciences even though they don’t believe that their consciences are grounded in something higher. In this manner, one could live in accordance with Havel’s AH (by listening to one’s conscience), even without explicitly believing that a higher power exists.
Regardless, I believe that everyone, religious or otherwise, has the capacity to distinguish moral right from wrong. Thus, regardless of our beliefs, or lack thereof, I believe that we all have access to what Havel calls the absolute horizon.”
Student Reactions to Havel’s Writing: Fall 2002
“In VH’s ‘Letter to Alexander Dubcek,’ he writes of the moral dilemma the first secretary of the communist party must face when confronting the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia. Havel, being the humanitarian and natural idealist that he is, urges D. to hold his ground in spite of the communist pressure. He reasons that although D. will no doubt suffer and be persecuted if he stands his ground against the communists, his sacrifice will be a great moral victory for the Czech and Slovak people. Even if the secretary is vilified (which is more than probable), history will ultimately redeem him, and as such he stands no real risk of losing face.
This appeal calls into question the political atmosphere of the day. When one considers the leading political officials in the US, it seems hard to imagine them yielding to VH’s plea if they were to find themselves in similar circumstances. Today, the political theater is such that image is everything and any kind of confrontation or possible challenge to integrity should be avoided at all costs. Take, for example, the Wisconsin gubernatorial race. When the main candidates were questioned regarding the UW system, they offered canned responses, which produced no real answers. They were evasive and didn’t want to offend any group of voters by offering a concrete plan; they shied away from the issue and tried to downplay it. Now this gubernatorial election doesn’t involve communist players and their policies per se, but it does illustrate the weak and evasive techniques that politicians use when confronted with the “tough issues.”
I believe strongly that evasive politics ruins the political system. Back in the day when the country was first struggling to get on its feet, the candidates seemed to have more guts and vigor; they cared about the issues and each one had their own plans and opinions about how best to go about correcting the social ills of the day. Most candidates today care only about pulling in enough votes to get into office. Once there, most have no real aspirations of improving the system, but want to merely preserve it; this was the case in Czechoslovakia, too: none of the candidates were there out of idealist principles, instead they were there because of opportunism and ambition.”
Dear Dr. Husák
“The first third of this letter is interesting to me for a couple of different reasons. First of all, it is a good overview of the social situation in Czechoslovakia at the time, at least from VH’s point of view. In the beginning, I wondered how valid his claims of a society in fear were, when he said that people “wear the faces of confident, self-satisfied citizens” and that this fear is on a deep, hard-to-measure level. ‘How can VH himself gauge the state of mind of the citizens in that way?’, I thought. Of course, he then paints a picture of the situation which is hard not to believe. Secondly, while reading this part of the letter, I wondered why VH was bothering to explain the state of society at all, since it is addressed to Dr. Husák. The government obviously knows what effects it is having on people — namely the fear, the greed, and indifference that VH cites — since it planned for those things to happen. It seemed to me that VH was just provoking the government to take a tighter grip on his own life. Then I understood that the letter really was for a different audience. This intended audience would be citizens — intellectuals, students, etc. — and many of them might need this explanation of society to help form and solidify their ideas concerning the government.
The part of this first third of the letter that caught my attention the most was VH’s description of the indifference and the turning inward of energy that was occurring. I am probably interested in this because it closely resembles a situation I feel Americans are in. Of course, our government does not directly keep us out of politics like the communist regime had done. Americans are indifferent to our political process, so we don’t participate (as that is the easiest avenue for us). Why are we indifferent? Why don’t more of us put forth the effort to be involved in our communities? Maybe the consumer culture is winning more and more of us over with the ease with which we can replace genuine lives with ‘lifestyles’ created by marketing teams. Certainly there are a lot of people still outwardly involved, and society will not collapse because of this consumerism in the near future. I could liken this societal (anti-societal?) force to a cancer that may spread through our whole system by some point. Or, at least, it will weaken our ability to confront adversity.
The last two-thirds of the letter deals with the future and the cause-and-effect that the regime will have in the longterm. In this part, VH stresses the importance of culture to an extent that I had not really given to culture myself (not that I had made the effort to think about it before). One passage in particular (p. 65, third paragraph, “For example…”) made me think about culture in America. I personally feel that an overly large part of American culture is controlled by the mass-media corporate giants. Before, I thought that this was just not good for variety of choice. However, I can see how VH’s assertion that communist Czech works of culture are “basically fraudulent social consciousness” could apply to many productions of American media companies.”
“Certainly we all sympathize with VH’s particular cause, and inasmuch as we also live under and confront a large super-powered political regime, we are inspired by his courageous articulation of heretofore-unnamed experiences. The story of the greengrocer and the sign in his window helps us understand the nature of the recent plastering of the American flag all across public space. Still, there is a difference, but the difference is not that the American gesture is more authentic, more spontaneous, or more free.
On the contrary, a Havelian critique of current American Ideology would have to be, to my thinking, more sophisticated in its unraveling of the many threads that contribute to the almost unchallenged imperialist power of America today. I believe that Havel’s critique of ideology was implicitly founded on cold-war notions of state control. That is to say, the cold-war divide imagined two giant ideologies… If Havel spoke of a post-totalitarian model for governments, today ideology is fashioned by post-communist or post-walled/curtained states. The great fear is that without the divide and symbolic balance of the cold-world model, we will enter again a totalizing or totalitarian expansion of power… ie, Bush’s neo-imperialism.
In fact, what is called the “Bush Doctrine” is just such a totalizing vision. According to even a generously trusting reading of our new foreign policy, Bush and Co.’s new aims are to enter into a protracted era of wars, seeking to forcefully overthrow a series of Middle Eastern governments and generally impose his will on the world — all in the name of national security. Even if the term “globalization” was only a euphemism for the passive and progressive appropriation of the world by free markets under the Clinton administration (something I’m not totally convinced of), it is nothing compared to the singular ambitions of domination, of “globalism” by Prince Bush.
In any case, in such a system, I believe ideology functions slightly differently. The “real” that lies beneath the ideological surface or the possibility of “living in the truth” are not the most useful conceptual distinctions, it seems, in effecting change in our historical moment. Instead of the metaphor of the bridge, consider ideology as a cable news channel: you are allowed — even welcomed — to speak out, speak your opinion, no matter how controversial, as long as a mediator has the power to intervene, interpret, explain away. The binaries of conservative/liberal or democrat/republican also serve as mediating categories in that they stereotype ideas. This is how freedom of speech does not translate into the freedom to be understood.
Ideology is not the power to say this or that, but the power to edit — not the power of content but of form.
Instead of “living in the truth”, we should live in the symbolic or imaginary — that is to say, we should tell bold and imaginative lies; not lies that are meant to benefit their teller, but like the lies proscribed in Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying”, lies meant to stretch and question the sanctioned symbolic order. This needs further formulation, over the course of the semester.”
“There is a tendency among political parties to move from a system of beliefs to an ideology. Individual beliefs give way to imposed ways of thinking, saying ‘this is right, this is wrong’. This transition, Havel says, is likely, so ‘Be aware!’. Ideas become ossified in our minds, they are built upon and built upon until it seems they are the only right answer. They are the truth and nothing but the truth! This same transition seems to take place as we age. The longer we are on this earth, exposed to these ideas and people and events, our views become narrower and narrower. We no longer have the curious eyes and open mind of a child, but instead become set in our ways. We think certain things and do certain things for so long that they seem factual.
Does religion do this same thing to us? Do the people we surround ourselves with do this? This tapering of our minds is dangerous — we are exposed to so much less and miss out on so much more.”
The Joy of Communication
“‘It is simply the joy of communication, of being understood, of being appreciated — that is, a pleasure that somehow returns to me through my echo in others, and reinforces my own identity, or in which my efforts find support.’ Profound and inspiring, ideas like this express the true passions VH has about writing. It seems that his motivation for sharing his thoughts is completely pure (which makes the fact that he became a politician even more refreshing), that he honestly writes because he feels compelled to articulate his inner desires and ideas. With superb understatement, the phrase ‘simple joy of communication’ denotes his basic yearning to reveal his ponderings to others, a rare quality that is simplistic and beautiful. Perhaps it is the result of his time spent incarcerated that he so appreciates and recognizes the simple joys of life, since the privilege of communication was one of the few liberties afforded him behind bars, but the fact that he clarifies the separate entities of ‘communication’, ‘being understood’, and ‘being appreciated’ is a vital distinction for any good writer to acknowledge. On the basic level, communicating is merely expressing an idea; this is not to be trivialized for it is the necessary starting point for any mutual understanding, but it is only the beginning. Being understood takes the process to a new level, as the burden (or is it the privilege?) of interpreting the statement is not longer directly under the speaker/writer’s control — the task now belongs to the listener. This can easily frustrate a writer, as is evident by VH’s concern over maintaining a correct and cohesive interpretation of his plays, because it is now literally out of his hands, and up to the audience to decipher. Finally, I love the distinction he makes between being understood and appreciated — it relates so well to so many facets of life! How often so we hear and comprehend, or read and memorize and therefore retain for a short time, compared to what we are exposed to and truly appreciate? That is, in essence, the captivating beauty and intrigue of literature: it lends itself as not only a vessel by which to communicate and a method of fostering understanding, but as an invitation to genuinely grasp a concept and internalize it, to apply an original or foreign idea to your own life in the context of your own reality which you personally construct.”
In What Ways Do I Feel Powerful?
“•My education puts me a step ahead of much of the human population who are not educated to the extent I am, perhaps not at all.
•My health enables me to do many things others cannot, whether that is something as standard as walking with my own two legs or something as extreme as trying out for the Olympic luge team.
•I am able to make day-to-day decisions regarding my well-being. These decisions might seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, but they determine the course of my life.
•I am financially stable, and therefore have the means to live a comfortable life, to maintain my health, to attend a university.
•I live in a country that preaches “equal rights”, even if that is not always the case.
•I feel as though I have a minutely significant say in the US government. I am entitled to vote, and it is my personal decision whether or not I choose to do so and whom I choose to vote for.
•I am free to choose who I want to associate with.
•I am able to protest the US government and its stances on certain issues without risking my job, my education, my life.
•I am able to express my though through writing, much like VH. I risk little each time I put the tip of my pen to a piece of paper and begin to write.”
On “Power of the Powerless”
“At last, Havel offers solutions to the problems. He suggests a renewal of the “human order.” People connecting on a more personal level, more than comrades, but exhibiting true brotherhood/friendship. He suggests that it is, in its simplest form, the rehabilitation of trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, and love.
In America, we need the same rehab, even though we claim to be ‘enlightened’ or beyond the Communists. Hate is strong, and intolerance breeds contempt and mistrust. We love ourselves and our possessions and sometimes a select few others. But enough of us feign love and in actuality express detestment for each other, on personal levels. Responsibility is another issue altogether. It’s always someone else’s fault. We sue every chance we get, whether it be from spilling coffee or making the choice to inhale our Marlboro’s. We can’t accept blame for something — we can only accept credit or praise. But as soon as something goes wrong, it’s someone else’s fault. This unhealthy pretense sickens me and worries me at the same time. A true society is built on relationships between people. When a society is built upon relationships that are constantly looking to exploit the others, the society will only spiral into a dismal and dark future.”
“’I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.’” This was from the story of the greengrocer and his sign. I really liked the point Havel was making when he said that the sign could as well have said the quote above.
It reminds me of a story about me. When I was in 5th grade, I went to church camp. We had to play this game where we were “smuggling” bibles into a country that didn’t allow it. It was at night and all the counselors were “guards” to stop us and question us. We could either lie and get past or try to convince them of our cause and we would know if we would pass or not. The point of the game was if you were going to stand for what you believed in or just lie and be safe.
Since I was only 10, I was really scared and I ended up crying while trying to tell them why I was passing. So they let me go through even though I told the truth. Obviously that wouldn’t be the case if it had been real life. I know it doesn’t measure up to Havel’s time, but the “struggle” is similar to me.
It relates because we had a choice to be scared and conform — or to stand up for our beliefs and possibly get hurt in the process.”
“’Technology — that child of modern science, which in turn is a child of modern metaphysics — is out of humanity’s control, has ceased to serve us, has enslaved us and compelled us to participate in the preparation of our own destruction. And humanity can find no way out: we have no idea and no faith, and even less do we have a political conception to help us bring things back under human control. We look on helplessly as that coldly functioning machine we have created inevitably engulfs us, tearing us away from our natural affiliations… just as it removes us from the experience of Being and casts us into the world of “existences”.’
This quote states almost exactly the large crisis that the US, and other technologically advanced countries, face. In an attempt to lessen our work and make things more efficient, humans invented high-tech machines, such as computers. After inventing such time-saving machines, one would think the work days would shorten in length, but this is not true. Despite these machines, people have continued to work just as long, if not longer, than before. In an attempt to constantly ‘get ahead,’ people become so engrossed in their work that they often overlook — and spend less time on — what should be their priorities (family, friends, etc.). People often spend so much time on their work that they have little time left to even practice religion. It is hard to believe that something that was once considered the ‘base’ of human life can be replaced by something so meaningless and unsatisfying as work.
Indeed, if we continue to ‘live in our work,’ we will end up with a world of unfulfilled beings. Sadly enough, I often find myself becoming so engrossed in my everyday routine of ‘what needs to be done’ that I, too, reverse my priorities. I try to catch myself when I do this, but many times I do not even notice this happening, as I am too caught up in my routine to even realize this is happening. When working with our technology, we become wrapped up in something ‘abstract’ or something that doesn’t exist rather than something concrete. Some people may use this as an excuse to escape their realities. If we continue to act this way, we will indeed self-destruct.”
A Few Words about Words
“Along the lines of what we were talking about in class, there are many examples of words that have “lost” their meaning or become ambiguous in conventional conversation. One example is “hope”. Hope has become such an ambiguous word to most that it is losing its impact on our lives. Hope is always meant and continues to mean an expectation of obtaining something desirable. But it is what it means to the individual that I think VH would be interested in. My hope is not your hope. I may hope for a degree from college while you hope that you will eat tomorrow. Existential hope is not what comes to mind for most when they are asked. Many hope for a good job or to get married, or, most ambiguously, to be happy in their life. But for others, hope has a totally different meaning. So many hope to be able to eat the next day, or to not contract a disease and die within hours. Americans have these hopes, too, but they are so buried under material hopes that we fail to recognize them at all. Existential hope, at its base, is what drives many to search; I don not know what they search for, but I know they search. Many, in searching, find religious beliefs that give them hope — hope of something better beyond this life. But phrases from strangers like “Hope your travels are safe” or “Hope to see you soon” ring hollow, as you know their hope is not your own. I cannot speak for everyone, but this resignation of “hope” slates me towards cynicism, as I lose faith in my fellow man.
Another word that has lost its original meaning or become “fuzzy” is “need”. Little Johnny says he needs a new radio-controlled car. Suzy needs a new dress, when in fact, neither of these individuals need anything of the sort. Americans have such an inaccurate view of need, continually sloped towards themselves. Need is when a little African boy is dying of starvation and needs food. Need is the man who is bleeding to death in a hospital and needs a blood transfusion. Need is also existential, and we in the West today make it a facet of our own desire.”
“A Word about Words, I thought, was one of VH’s most universal essays. It seemed to appeal more to the West than his own country even. It made me think about all the words whose use in our society should perhaps be questioned, or words that maybe should be redefined. We discussed many politically related words in class, but as politics aren’t exactly my favorite subject, I was interested in words in everyday life. I came up with several. Beautiful: a cruel word in my opinion, for being beautiful is tall, thin, having ridiculous proportions, and in short achieving a look that few can naturally have. Smart: in our society we base intelligence for students on grades. This is hardly fair. I know many people who just can’t seem to get really good grades, but who I would say are the smartest people I know. Intelligence is a word we use to classify people into groups. Employers use it to determine job candidates, even though a person who is book smart may not have nearly the qualifications of someone who hasn’t gotten quite as good grades, but who has more of a passion and interest in the job. Education: it is based on a high school diploma, an undergrad degree, and possibly even grad school. However, this is not the only means of education. Why are these papers necessary proof of getting an education? Couldn’t someone who spends their day in the library reading be getting an education? Or a person who travels and learns the local history of the places they visit — is this not also an education? Unfortunately, these things mean nothing as far as our definition of an educated person. Havel is right when he says that our society is much too trusting of words. The Czechs have learned to mistrust them, perhaps we should too.”
“Regarding VH’s quotes we received in class from Letters to Olga, I fully agree with his points. The fact that “theater simply cannot exist without an audience” is a universal component of this highly unique genre. From passersby observing performance art on the sidewalks of a crowded city, to scholars gathering for a dramatic Shakespearean rendition of a tragedy, to parents fondly watching a kindergarten fairy tale dramatized, the ‘fourth wall’ aspect of theater is the audience, and the actors and script are the vehicles by which the participatory experience is transmitted. My mom, an actress, virtually introduced my dad, an insurance consultant, to the theater, and she knew that he finally understood what it is all about when she asked him how he felt after attending a performance and he replied “Tired”. The interactive experience of audience participation and the connection the observers feel to the action is the essence of live performance, a feature completely lost in electronic mediums. With high standards of dramatic expectation, the most critical observer sometimes does not extract all that is potentially available to him — a crucial part of observing is the willing suspension of disbelief, the mentality of putting yourself in the here and now of the situation and allowing for the seemingly too convenient aspects of theater (set changes, thoughtful monologues articulated, the pausing and accelerating of time, etc.) to be accepted for what they represent. But once this willing suspension of disbelief has been embraced, some of the most charismatic and meaningful human encounters can unfold.”
“Is Havel a religious man? A devout Christian? What are his religious beliefs? On occasion, we come across the word ‘God’ within Havel’s writings. But yet, how is it that he uses this word? Does he use it because he is a sincere believer in its meaning and tradition? I would disagree. I believe that although Havel may be a pious man, it is not in any traditional religious sense. His beliefs come from many years of thoughtful internal debate and discussion. Over and over, Havel has questioned his faith, and had his faith questioned. I follow along a similar path of questioning and critiquing. When using the word ‘God’ in his writings, I think that it is used as a more concrete example, something that others can relate to. Questions of human rights, responsibilities, nature, technology, politics, etc., can be way over the heads of your average citizen. So, as a way of acquainting John Q. Public with what could be considered complex and abstract ideas, Havel uses a different abstract concept that has an easily identifiable concrete reaction. The feelings one has toward God and religion can then be easily related to the feelings Havel has toward ideology, politics, human rights and responsibilities. Does this really answer all of my questions? No, but maybe I’ll expand further on this one for a final journal entry, after I have more literature behind me.”
“Since I am in the responsibility group it is hard sometimes not to get on one track when I do read Havel. Though in reading in this way, I find it easier to understand Havel, maybe not always as the way he meant it, but in a way that I can look at the text as a domestic product rather than a foreign import. Though we are different countries and have different customs, there is something universal to all societies. Basically Havel says: ‘To my countrymen I have always stressed that we should not lie our way out of responsibility and blame everything on prevailing conditions…’ Though this statement is in response to the weak logic Western peace fighters are using to describe the situation, there seems to be application for every society and specifically ours. The opening to the statement is as foreign to our society as the author behind it. “To my countrymen” seems to give a sense of brotherhood, unity, a family bond among strangers that I have never felt even in the tragedies of recent years. Though I am a part of this country, I have never felt the swelling urge to refer to any other citizens as ‘countrymen’. Nor does it seem that I would be right to do so, in that I do not think any other citizen would return it on me. The bond as citizens of the same country does not hold the same importance nor relevance here in the US as it did for Havel. Further, lie and blame seem not to be that harsh of words in the vocabulary of most Americans. Surely some felt violated by Nixon’s lie about Watergate and Clinton’s deception over the affair, but one can only look at today and see that our society is still here. Though they lied, though many others in our society lie, the system moves on. I cannot say that the system rights the wrongs of the lies, but time goes on and everything that happens seems to be inevitable in that there is a sense that something bad will happen but that too will pass. As to blame, it is probable that an entire treatise could be written on Blame and the US. I can say in general that our ‘countrymen’ seek to lay blame elsewhere rather than on themselves. To not lie or blame others is a high responsibility in Havel’s eyes, but in America they are merely words or minute actions in a social system that moves on and around them without changing life too dramatically.”
Havel Angers Me
“Havel angers me. In Politics and Conscience he states: ‘Yes, “anti-political politics” is possible. Politics “from below.” Politics of man, not of the apparatus. Politics growing from the heart, not from a thesis.’ This sounds like a wonderful notion yet he never goes into specific, concrete explanations of how this is realistically applicable to modern governments. This issue was present in The Magic Lantern, but again, ad hoc political groups were only used to a small degree for a short period of time. Havel seems to argue that a modern government could be based on a noble, romantic foundation. However, I just don’t see how ‘anti-politics’ could ever compete with politics and gain control over a governing body. At some point the ‘heart’ of the man in power is going to have to be judged. How could this take place without the installation of an ‘apparatus’? There are simply too many questions that Havel neglects in this area. Hopefully he has answered them in later writings.”
Politics and Theater
“In Plato’s Republic, an overtly political doctrine, he makes no qualifications in his distrust and dislike of the theater. The muse, which he claims controls the theater, is dangerous to the project of installing a philosopher-king. The imaginary world of the theater is divorced from reality and therefore, like ideology, apt to mislead the polis. Nevertheless, Plato’s own form of writing is entirely theatrical, and his use of dialogue brings a certain drama to the unfolding of his ideas. Considering this foundation, how might we understand the modern philosopher-king Havel in relationship to his roots as a playwright? To begin with, one should probably note that Havel was not a Platonic philosopher, but actually a phenomenologist. To put the matter crudely, if pre-modernist philosophers sought to hit onto a metaphysical truth with a capital T, modernist philosophers like Nietzsche, Freud, Marx and Wittgenstein were more interested in describing the human will or material and linguistic relationships. Which is to say, they were greatly influenced by Phenomenology (Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger), as an intermediate stage between pre-modern and Modern philosophy. Key to phenomenology are the acts of observation and description. This training might account for Havel’s sensitivity to the material world around him, to the phenomenon of social interactions and his desire to re-create these dynamics on the stage. Indeed, Phenomenology treats the world a bit like a critic treats theater, reflecting and analyzing it like an aesthetically privileged space. Derrida, another thinker greatly influenced by Phenomenology, would later say that “there is no end to the text.” In this light it is easy to see why Havel the philosopher would become Havel the playwright, but it still doesn’t fully explain his interest in politics. The political dimension, however, is already present in the move from detached philosophical observation to active theatrical description. Between observation and description there is interpretation, and as such, especially from the point of view of Modernist thinkers like Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, this interpretation is keenly political. It would never be enough to just observe phenomena without finding meaning in it, and this meaning would never be worthwhile unless it is publicly shared, but, if the public is to see what you see, it is better to show them (theatrically re-produce the phenomena) than just tell them. It is in this way that Havel’s theater is political.”
Politics and Conscience
“I am unclear on something regarding Havel’s first example (with the smokestacks) in this essay. He says that the factory with the smokestacks that are visibly polluting the environment is “a symbol of an epoch which denies the binding importance of personal experience…” A modern man would not take offense at the factory metaphysically since his world is dominated by an objective scientific model of the world, but humans with other perspectives would take offense. We know that the rest of this essay argues that the overly rational, impersonal, scientific modern structure of the world is a crisis that cannot continue in its present form forever. I cannot understand why Havel says that he is “not proposing that humans abolish smokestacks or prohibit science or generally return to the Middle Ages,” if the smokestacks are a symbol of this crisis. I’ve tried to think how such factories could take into consideration personal experience and be a part of a world not dominated by impersonal systems. I cannot come up with anything better than Havel’s average modern man conceives: a catalytic scrubber. What is it that Havel is saying?…
OK, maybe I understand better now. The factory is under man’s control, and man can manage it in whatever way he wants. Since modern man believes that the highest purpose is technological advancement of civilization (from goods to “technology of power”), the factory is created and operated without regard to the natural order. It must be possible that factories need not be like this. In a society oriented toward the natural order of things, “factories” might use scientifically discovered methods to eliminate unnatural, unhealthy byproducts. They might be planned, located, and constructed in a manner that would have negligible impact on the environment. They might be operated in a way that is not detrimental or degrading to the workers. I am in less of a position than Havel to guess at what such “factories” or other aspects of modern society changed to fit into a new world would be like. However these things would function, they would do so with man’s realization that they are of secondary importance to the generally uninhibited workings of the natural world; that they are not to be accommodated, but are to fit in. I see how this example relates to the political discussion in this essay now.”
On Laughter in Grave Situations (From “Anatomy of Reticence”)
“I have always been able to identify with the fact that not only do people need to be able to laugh at themselves, but also that laughter is a good way to deal with things. I am not saying that it’s okay to repress bad situations and pretend like everything is okay. I am agreeing with the idea that sometimes one needs to make light of a situation and try to see the more humorous and happy sides in order to, well, basically stay sane.
The reason why this particular passage [from “Anatomy”] struck a nerve was this: A few days ago, I was having a conversation with someone on the topic of death and specifically the deaths of family members. I mentioned that when my grandma was dying, one of the biggest helps to me, my parents, and my grandpa was laughter and joy, through telling funny stories about her, laughing about how stubborn she could be, and acknowledging as well as forcing ourselves to understand that life will continue. The person with whom I was talking was shocked at this, and exclaimed that it was so disrespectful to be laughing and making jokes at a time like that. My first response was to put up a defense because it was quite the opposite — to this day, her death is by far the hardest thing I have ever had to go through in my life, but I realized that he just didn’t understand. I, physically as well as emotionally, simply could not cry anymore without losing my wits.
I have always stood by the fact that I don’t want a funeral when I die, as my grandma did not, but rather a wake. Sure, I want people to be sad that I’m gone, but I don’t want people to mope and mope and mope — if that never ceases, it becomes unhealthy and a vicious cycle. I want people to celebrate my life and all the cool things that I did (which I’m sure I will, by the way!).
There was no way I would’ve been able to get through her death without making light of the situation. We took her off life support on a Saturday (she had a stroke on a Thursday, 2 days after 9/11), and although the doctors were sure she’d only hang on for a few hours, she held on until Monday. For us, taking her off life support was pretty much her death, since by then there was no brain activity and she was basically a vegetable — in comparison to her personality, that was her death. It gave us some time to simply think about how cool she was, and laugh and tell jokes, and I think it was kind of in her honor.
Havel’s passage touched me because it was gratifying to hear someone verify that this is an okay thing, as I was quite taken aback by the outburst of whomever it was with which I was talking. I love that Havel acknowledges this near necessity — he would make a good psychologist. In his writing, he consistently shows his experiential intelligence and he confirms to his readers what he is writing — that what they’re thinking or wishing or doing is okay and normal.”
s P o R l O u B t L i E o M n
people Money happiness
Respect for Mystery
“I was pleased with Havel’s thoughts on having respect for the mystery of the world in his speech at the World Economic Forum. When it comes to the search for happiness, at its purest form, happiness can be inevitably found in children — children who still have a sense of awe and wonder because they have not yet been told just how every little things works. It is a tragedy that as we grow into adults, the mystery is lost. It is put into a neat little box by scientists, never to be opened again, because they’ve already figured it out. As winter approaches, we are not awed by a snowfall, it is a simple matter of precipitation from the clouds and cold at high altitudes. A plane flying in the air has everything to do with physics and nothing to do with the miracle of flight! The destruction that bombs cause is simply a matter of science and statistics — many have lost the awe of their destructive power. So what else does this lack of mystery do to our society? We have become numbed and deadened to world events. People starving is nothing new. Death and war are also old news, the statistics mean nothing to us anymore, and the numbers of the dead are simply numbers. Consequences are statistics an nothing more. There is no mystery in any of it.”
“Havel’s speech ‘The Philadelphia Liberty Medal’ — with his critique of ‘science as the basis of the modern conception of the world’ — reminds me of an essay by Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish philosopher in exile during WWII. In his essay ‘The Storyteller,’ Benjamin makes the following important point: ‘Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep it free from explanation as one reproduces it.’ What this longish quote illuminates, it seems to me, is that information or scientific explanation can never fully account for the existential significance of an event. Put another way, storytelling is a practice of synthesizing all of the information, opinions, explanations and confronting the reader with the possibility of a universal structure, with the promise of a transcendental meaning at the horizon, even if and especially because that meaning cannot be fully articulated. Information’s significance is immediately spent at the moment of explanation, but the knowledge contained in a story, even a very old story, is always replenished and it threatens to realize its significance many times anew, over the course of many historical periods.
Imagine the experience of accidentally banging one’s hand on the corner of a hard surface. The subsequent pain can be scientifically explained, the stimulation of nerve endings can be measured, and increase in blood-pressure can be monitored. The experience of pain, however, the dilemma of being a creature in pain, the pain’s interruption of identity — none of this can be accounted for by a mere explanation of pain. It is what is unexplainable about pain that gives it significance.”
Havel’s “The Memorandum” and American Business
“As funny as The Memorandum is, it is not that far from the reality of American business. I cannot generalize and speak of every company and corporation; however, my work for a marketing company this year has had striking similarities to Havel’s comical play.
First, quite obviously there is the outrageous terminology that is used to describe events and actions. Clearly terms such as ‘profit-dictating downsizing,’ meaning firing people because the company isn’t making enough money for the executives, and ‘sales representative power conference,’ meaning meeting, are needlessly overstated and complicated. Some terms even try to impart emotion or purpose into events such as ‘phone jam,’ meaning a bunch of people sitting in a room talking on the phone.
Even more confusing than the business terminology is the number of different titles and positions held at the company. Similarly to the play, many times an action is ordered and carried out, yet when something goes wrong, no one can remember who actually gave the order in the first place. This is compounded by the multitude of coinciding positions that overlap both in title and in duty. These include both ‘Regional Director of Sales’ and “Director of Regional Sales’ — which are two different people.
Finally, nothing is more frustrating about working there than seeing a problem fixed and having that very same problem occur the next day. This is parallel to the destruction of Ptydepe and the creation of Chorukor. For example, I would have fixed an error in a customer order, but the following day I would receive the order again saying I had not fixed the error. A great deal of my time ended up being dedicated to seeing that paperwork was actually recorded by the proper individuals.”