Recently, I was sorting and re-filing some old e-files when I came across an extract from a letter written and published openly in the mid-70s by Vaclav Havel, who was at the time a fairly well known Czech playwright and dissident. When I first read the extract in the late '80s, I was impressed by the profoundly simple, yet utterly perfect articulation of the truths it contained. Since then, I've had reason to recall or refer to Havel's words many times, and every time I would be moved anew by Havel's elegance and clarity of vision.
This time, I decided to search on-line to see if I might learn more about it. I found it easily, but I also learned that I'd only had a small portion of a much longer and more comprehensive missive, and that the part which so impressed me is near the end. The entire letter is well written, and has broad applicability even today, but the part I liked still resonates strongly with me, and even stands apart from the rest, shining more brightly for the dreariness of the picture the rest of the letter paints. I suspect the person who first quoted that part of the letter felt the same way.
While working as a Czech linguist in the U.S. Army, I learned quite a bit about the country and the people. The Czechs have a long, rich history, and their influence on the West is impressive. Even so, they are a unique people who have a sometimes bizarre-seeming view of the world—to say nothing of their almost universal reverence for the music of Frank Zappa. It was in Czechoslovakia that we saw during the so-called Velvet Revolution
in 1989 the first (and still most successful) national resurrection from the ashes of Communism that didn't involve violence, destruction, or wholesale economic collapse. Later the country divided itself in two
, again without violence, societal upheaval, or any of the usual accompaniments to such events.
Vaclav Havel, born in 1936, was elected the first President of Czechoslovakia in 1989 after the Communist government was deposed and, in July 1991, he precipitated the end of the Warsaw Pact when he abrogated the treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance with the USSR. He served as President of Czechoslovakia until 1992, when he resigned because he did not want to preside over the dissolution of the country. After the split, Havel was elected the first President of the Czech Republic, in which role he served from 1993 to 2003. Prior to all of that, he was a well-known poet, writer, and dissident who had been repeatedly imprisoned for his opposition to the government. One of his efforts was an Open Letter to Dr. Husak, General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party
, published on August 4, 1975. The entire letter can be read on Havel's official website
with prior membership in the archives. The extract below, as a statement of universal truth about one facet of the human character, is keenly astute.
If every day someone takes orders in silence from an incompetent superior, if every day he solemnly performs ritual acts which he privately finds ridiculous, if he unhesitatingly gives answers to questionnaires which are contrary to his real opinions and is prepared to deny himself in public, if he sees no difficulty in feigning sympathy or even affection where, in fact, he feels only indifference or aversion, it still does not mean that he has entirely lost the use of one of the basic human senses, namely, the sense of dignity.
On the contrary: even if they never speak of it, people have a very acute appreciation of the price they have paid for outward peace and quiet: the permanent humiliation of their human dignity. The less direct resistance they put up to it—comforting themselves by driving it from their mind and deceiving themselves with the thought that it is of no account, or else simply gritting their teeth—the deeper the experience etches itself into their emotional memory. The man who can resist humiliation can quickly forget it; but the man who can long tolerate it must long remember it. In actual fact, then, nothing remains forgotten. All the fear one has endured, the dissimulation one has been forced into, all the painful and degrading buffoonery, and worst of all, perhaps, the feeling of having displayed one's cowardice—all this settles and accumulates somewhere in the bottom of our social consciousness, quietly fermenting.
Havel's focus was clearly national and societal, but the same truths apply to individuals, and it is worth thinking about and paying heed to, whether one has control over a thousand people, a hundred million, or just one. As I reread the letter, I found myself thinking about its applicability to Muslim countries like Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, where men can be treated cruelly, but women are treated like property or worse. I also found myself thinking about the paragraph that follows those above. It is a straightforward warning to the leaders of Czechoslovakia in 1975, but it could easily have been written last year to any number of religious and political leaders around the world. Havel wrote:
Clearly, this is no healthy situation. No wonder, then, that when the crust [of ordered society]* cracks and the lava of life rolls out, there appear not only well-considered attempts to rectify old wrongs, not only searchings for truth and for reforms matching life's needs, but also symptoms of bilious hatred, vengeful wrath, and a feverish desire for immediate compensation for all the degradation endured. In these circumstances, it is hard to foresee all the feasible scenarios for a future "moment of truth:" to foresee how such a complex and undisguised degradation of the whole of society might one day demand restitution. And it is quite impossible to estimate the scope and depth of the tragic consequences which such a moment might inflict, perhaps must inflict.
* [added by me]
Not so impossible, actually. I can easily, and with great pleasure, imagine the time when Muslim women finally realize they need not remain enslaved under the tyranny of Islamic law and they unleash on Muslim men more than a millennium of pent-up anger, fear, torment, and resentment. Great pleasure indeed.
Update Note, 14 Sep 16: Clearly, I have too vivid an imagination. Even with the opportunities presented to the women and disenfranchised of the Arab-Islamic world in the past 14 years, they seem unable (and even unwilling) to throw off the shackles of enslavement to a religion that demands half of its members are chattel. What's worse, around the world, religious intolerance and superstition are growing apace, not only in the Islamic world, but also among the Hindus, in Western Europe (again), and in Eastern Europe (where it never stopped). Even here in the United States, it has again become fashionable for so-called Christians to cloak their fear-driven hate and ignorance in the pious language of Christian-purity and protection of their supposed family values. About the only place left to be free of such idiocy and hate, it seems, is on another planet. Unfortunately, as soon as any two humans arrived there, there'd be some argument about religion or politics (or both), and it'd be off to the races again. Frankly, I think the universe would be a much better place if whatever God is actually in charge just turned us all into frogs.
Corrections and revisions were made to this essay on 31 Dec 10, 9 Jan 11, and 14 Sep 16; links updated 11 Oct 2020.