To portray a person is to give some semblance of a biography. But in writing a biography, one may only ever recreate imperfectly, though the goal may not be to merely “recreate.” As recently-deceased Nobel-winning Czeslaw Milosz writes, “Obviously, all biographies are false, not excluding my own…. They are false because their individual chapters are linked according to a predetermined scheme, whereas in fact they were connected differently, only no one knows how.” If I were to strip away the strict linear temporal sense behind the typical biography, then I would have to arrive at a different method for discussing the life and work of a politician, like, say, Vaclav Havel! Perhaps this method might be rooted more in terms of ideas or fundamental results of the life. In any event, it might be an altogether more relevant endeavor when one considers the artistic essence of his life.
I daresay Havel would hesitate to say he is a politician, but he was President of the Czech Republic. He led the famous Velvet Revolution against the Soviets, ushering New Europe into being. And while most people know him for his role as the last President of Czechoslovakia and then the inaugural President of the Czech Republic in 1992, he is also an outstanding playwright and essayist. It is particularly fortuitous, then, that I have picked Havel as a reference here, for he is an artist in the overt, literal sense, as well as in the covert, political sense.
Havel once wrote something incredibly interesting about the meaning of truth in art. Is he a product of his time, when no truth could be had from a government run in Moscow? The extent of a culture’s influence is perhaps a subject best left to other domains at the moment. In any event, Havel strongly implies a transcendent value of truth in being and meaning:
It seems to me that these thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused categories [capitalism and socialism] have long since been beside the point. The question is wholly other, deeper and equally relevant to all; whether we shall, by whatever means, succeed in reconstituting the natural world as the true terrain of politics, rehabilitating the personal experience of human beings as the initial measure of things, placing morality above politics and responsibility above our desires, in making human community meaningful, in returning content to human speaking in reconstituting, as the focus of all social action, the autonomous, integral and dignified human I, responsible for ourself because we are bound to something higher….
Havel concludes by also alluding to authenticity—and by this he means authenticity to the self and to natural meaning in life versus that imposed by authority of any kind, but most especially against the impersonal. But might this simply be a matter of artistic preference, drawn more conspicuously because of the contrast to the stultifying and drab strawmen of the Communist Czech regimes? Havel continues:
If we start with the presupposition that art constitutes a distinctive way of seeking truth – truth in the broadest sense of the word, that is, chiefly the truth of the artist’s inner experience – then there is only one art, whose sole criterion is the power, the authenticity, the revelatory insight, the courage and suggestiveness with which it seeks its truth, or perhaps the urgency and profundity of this truth. […] The degree to which politics is present or absent has no connection with the power of artistic truth.
These thoughts suggest a will to power through which, if he had the opportunity, he would seek such truth in all forms of art, in all recognizable forms of human endeavor. I accept the “will to power” in the Nietzschean sense: the enthusiastic drive to enhance vitality to act on the world (rather than reacting to it). Havel‘s truth seems inextricably bound with a concept of authenticity that is reflexive, self-evident, pure, and timeless. Instead of reacting to other ideologies and reacting to other artists and other schools of arts, people, in their lives (and art?) should come from within, as much as possible, and so a more profound, less derivative form will become real, and come closer to truth and authenticity than any of the dominant forms.
And yet, it seems ironic that these beliefs should seem so obviously reactionary to the Communist oppressors who were nominally Czech but had to endorse all forms of artistic production, not to mention every other means of production, within the country. The Russian language was forced on millions of Czechoslovakians and clearly inner expressions will change from language to language, so that between the control of supply of art and the form of the art, the Soviet Union quite distorted the expressions of truth for Czechoslovakians in ways many of us can probably not even imagine. It is perhaps ironic then that Havel’s art/politics, which are so strongly based on a concept of inner truth (independent of external forces), should be so manifestly shaped by external forces.
The fetish for “truth” in art was not limited to Havel, a rebel right from his youth. One of my favorite poets, Jaroslav Seifert, a Nobel Prize-winner, also seemed commanded and compelled by it:
My origins are proletarian, and I thought of myself for a long time as a proletarian poet. But as one grows older, one discovers different values and different worlds. For me, this meant that I discovered sensuality…. All language can be thought of as an effort to achieve freedom, to feel the joy and the sensuality of freedom. What we seek in language is the freedom to be able to express our most intimate thoughts. This is the basis of all freedom. In social life, it ultimately assumes the form of political freedom…. When I write, I make an effort not to lie: that’s all. If one cannot say the truth, one must not lie, but keep silent….
It is a curious perversion of totalitarian regimes that all thoughts must be controlled and limited. But any and all political administrations and systems invite reflections and contrasts. Each element of a political system has the capacity to affect personal identity, and at root, all art involves some kind of expression of that identity. We do not know the exact formula that dictates the nature and extent of the muse as we create, but it is there nonetheless. Havel himself thought the muse comes from language itself, which might make the imposition of Russian all the more alien and therefore untruthful:
At the beginning of everything is the word. But at the same time it is a pitfall and a test, a snare and a trial. More so, perhaps, than it appears to you who have enormous freedom of speech, and might therefore assume that words are not so important. They are. They are important everywhere. The same word can be humble at one moment and arrogant the next. And a humble word can be transformed easily and imperceptibly into an arrogant one, whereas it is a difficult and protracted process to transform an arrogant word into one that is humble.
All politicians must help formulate some concert of policies that will have effects on their people. Policies may have the capacity to help people express truth and act authentically, they may straitjacket and twist the contours of identity, or they could do both at the same time in different ways. Whatever curious mix the politician chooses, the people are the canvas. For an artist such as Havel, living and realizing one’s art must be the highest fulfillment of his self, as he is so committed to truth. But there exist yet other intriguing possibilities.
[Author’s note: I have omitted citations but they are available upon request. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to read Czeslaw Milosz’s extraordinary book The Captive Mind, which is the most accurate and penetrating depiction of why humans become infatuated with Socialism (and perhaps other religions) that I have yet read. I read it from the library four years ago but am purchasing it tonight. Another interesting aside is that I personally appreciate Havel for his philosophy of aesthetics, but prefer his arch-nemesis and successor Vaclav Klaus‘s art for practical purposes. Both are admirers of Margaret Thatcher, though for different reasons. Surely one of the most interesting but untold stories of modern political discourse is the story of how the Left in Eastern Europe reveres Margaret Thatcher for his her unyielding support of their movement against Communism. If you want to see one of the last gasps of authenticity in political art, watch that video link. ]