From the time he authored his first play, “The Garden Party,” in 1963 until he was elected as first president of the Czech and Slovak Federated Republic, Vaclav Havel demonstrated his propensity for “living in the truth,” a central theme of his life.
Born into privilege but enduring the harsh constraints of a totalitarian regime, this Prague native described himself as primarily a writer.
“I write what I want, and not what others want me to write,” Havel said upon being released in 1983 from one of his many stints in jail.
In his book, Vaclav Havel: The Intellectual Conscience of International Politics, James Sire describes Havel as one of the 20th century’s “most amazing people.” As dramatist, humorist, intellectual, moralist, politician and statesman, the man who was elected in 1998 to his second and final term as president did not intend to become a career politician. Rather, he built his reputation as a playwright whose dramas were sometimes absurdist comedies and at other times morality plays.
Often standing alone, especially when expressing strong dissent from bureaucratic oppression, Havel has been firmly committed to human dignity and willing to pay the price for expressing his view. Sire calls “courage” the Czech president’s most attractive attribute.
At the heart of this book, the reader discovers not a critique of Havel’s dramas or an assessment of his political career, but an exploration of his worldview and the philosophy which formed it. This exploration leads to the fundamental question: What is reality?
To Carl Sagan, Sire reminds us, reality is that “the cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” To the writer of the Fourth Gospel, reality is the Word made flesh. To Havel—deeply influenced by his philosophical mentor Martin Heidegger—reality is Being.
Those who were seminarians during the mid-twentieth century may also begin to hear echoes of Paul Tillich. To Havel, however, Being appears to “combine aspects of Christian theism and Heideggerian metaphysics.” (Page 55)
Once Sire establishes that Being is central in Havel’s worldview he begins to draw subtle parallels between Being as the foundation of reality and orthodox Christianity.
Havel was raised a Roman Catholic, yet his outlook now is not clearly theistic. Though declining to call Being God, Havel openly admits to a personal sense of shame before an impersonal transcendent.
It is possible for human beings to be alienated from Being. Havel calls this alienation “thrownness” which he then illustrates with a poignant incident from everyday life.
While watching a weather forecast he notices that the broadcast audio has failed. The reporter, unable to reestablish contact with her audience, does not know what to do. Eventually she just stopped talking and left the broadcast set.
To Havel this embarrassing situation “in which a person comes face to face with the big bad world and herself is an image of the primal situation of humanity; a situation of separation, of being cast into an alien world and standing there before the question of self.”
Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is the succinct outline of Havel’s life and thought. Sire obviously admires his subject’s work, though in places his efforts to distill a lot of material into a brief book make his writing slightly confusing.
On the other hand, he does a good job of presenting Havel’s thought objectively, despite his own personal commitment to Christian orthodoxy.
Near the book’s end, the author summarizes his subject’s worldview aptly. He writes: “For Havel, Being is not personal, yet we are responsible to Being. This, I suggest, cannot be so.”
Hidden somewhere behind Havel’s lofty notion of Being, Sire would like to find “the God who is there” in a fully personal way. Disappointed in that, Sire and those who read his book have to settle for a brisk encounter with a profound thinker who cannot bring himself to affirm a personal God.
C. Roland Marcus is pastor of First Baptist Church in Middletown, Ohio (ABC).