Letters Archive
Spring 1993, Vol. 1, No. 2
  • A Discussion: Vaclav Havel, A Performer of Political Thought
  • An Afternoon of Reflection
  • A Discussion: Vaclav Havel, A Performer of Political Thought

    Vaclav Havel, until recently the president of Czechoslovakia, is an unusually reflective political voice. The author of numerous plays, a supporter of revolutionary forces in Czechoslovakia for many years, and an influential essayist, Havel is convinced of the moral worth and obligation of politics and the political life. Because his life represents a unique intersection of literary, political, and philosophical discourses, discussion on Havel at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities has attracted a number of interested faculty members over the years. The 1990/91 Fellows Program, dedicated to the relationship between Eastern European literature and political change, provided a year-long focus for an encounter between Michael P. Hodges of the Department of Philosophy and Jean Bethke Elshtain of the Departments of Political Science and Philosophy—an encounter which has turned into an ongoing conversation. Letters recently invited Professors Hodges and Elshtain to discuss the present state of their views.

    LETTERS: You both have been carrying on an extended conversation about Havel.

    HODGES: For both of us, Havel's life presents a powerful model of a very attractive blend of reflection and practice, of a kind of open-ended possibility that is not governed by looking at immediate ends, at the possibility of success, but at something larger than that. His life is unproblematically exemplary.

    ELSHTAIN: I think we would call him a "performer of political thought."

    HODGES: That is an appropriate description in light of his own writing. The other thing that is exemplary abut his life is the extent to which it is a single fabric. His public life, his private life, his writing—it all seems to spring from some deep commitments of his. The question then comes: how will we assess him as a political thinker, he resists calling himself a philosopher at all?

    ELSHTAIN: That's right.

    HODGES: I want to try out the idea that we should treat his philosophy as a performance, too, as a performance directed toward an audience. The audience is constituted by a community that already shares some fundamental commitments, and it's only in light of this that their debate goes on. The power and validity of that debate is already constituted by their agreement in some way, and by his capacity to highlight and call to consciousness in his life, actions, and writing the fundamental points of agreement that they have. And that is as far as we need to go. In that sense it's a piece of rhetoric in the classical sense of the word.

    ELSHTAIN: I would add to that perhaps putting a slightly different spin on it. Certainly it's the case that he shares with the people of his place not just a Czech, but essentially a European, background that's constituted by forces that have crystallized their identities over time. Historically that would include Christianity, both Catholicism and Protestant revolt, and the Enlightenment. It would include lots of different voices—ironic voices, pious voices, skeptical voices, rationalistic voices, and even demonic voices. I think that Havel would suggest that there are things he can and must assume, there are ideas that are shared. And yet, there are lots of ordinary, solid decent people that are from time to time capable of doing really awful things, and so it becomes necessary, and he jokingly used this phrase in a discussion in Prague, to shake up the "psycho-physical apparatus."

    HODGES: That's right, it is necessary to do that at key points. We can even think of American examples. Martin Luther King Jr., who called us to our better natures, and whose example, whose life, at least his public persona, was one which did that for us all. In that sense he galvanized us, focused us around certain features of that shared structure which had not been given adequate voice, which had been lost in the shuffle. In that sense Havel's actions, his life, are part of the attempt to call us to our better natures.

    ELSHTAIN: I think that's absolutely right. One of the themes he talks about in his work, and it's a theme that I think is difficult for Americans to come to grips with , is the preparedness to suffer. This is not to demand sacrifice from others, since one can't demand that other people be heroic, but one must oneself be prepared to suffer. That is, you may have to pay a price for your enactment in a situation in which, for all you know, your life may end in total obscurity. You may die alone in a prison cell someplace. One of the things that people in Czechoslovakia say when you talk to them is that when Havel emerged in 1989, people knew the name, but nobody knew what he looked like. We knew more about him here, in a way, because in his own country he could never be on television, he was never in the newspapers, and his plays couldn't be produced. So they said it was a stunning thing for people to be able to see him and to listen to him, and that had a profound effect. Before that, he was, as with the other dissidents, a name, but he wasn't a presence because he didn't have a stage. So, part of the notion of Havel as a performer of political thought is that you require a stage. And often the stage isn't just there for you to walk on and play your part; you must create it. How do you create a public space that makes possible the realization of freedom, of free action and the responsibility that goes with it?

    HODGES: Those are the right questions to ask of Havel, and that's why he talks so much about what theater is, about theater as constituting a community, both in the simple sense of a group which comes together in a theatrical setting, but also in the larger sense. And so he sees himself as an actor. If the audience ignores him, that's one thing, but he has to act, he has to be an actor and hope, but not demand that anyone pay attention to him.

    LETTERS: In Havel's Disturbing the Peace, the theater he was drawn to most strongly was the theater of the absurd. And yet, now you're talking about a kind of creation of or attraction to meaning. Is this in tension with his participation in the theater of the absurd?

    ELSHTAIN: Havel actually talked about that in a conversation in Prague. Someone said, "When I read your plays and then I read your essays, I have the sense of two different people." And he said, "No, it's the same man." It's the same world outlook but moving in different arenas of human experience and speaking in different voices. Not a different man, but different voices. Havel said that he sees both the plays and the essays "as a genre through which one can shake people up and pull them out of themselves." But they are different arenas of human action. Also, his is theater of the absurd, but not a theater of cruelty. He is using Camus' sense of the absurd, which expresses his realization that human beings are bound to be finite and imperfect, and that to avoid a terrible kind of solemnity one must be able to reflect even on the experience of being a dissident. Havel does this in his play, Largo Desolato, in which he pokes fun at himself, but that in no way detracts from the seriousness of his commitments as a dissident. Finally, he seems to me an exemplary modernist. He is all the currents that constructed modern identity in the very best sense. There is displayed in his work and within his own identity an ongoing and interesting tension, even a tug-of-war at times, between the skepticism and piety, the ironic voice and the moral voice. I think it's that tension that he knowingly preserves.

    HODGES: In one of the Letters to Olga he says, "Man is the only animal that reflects upon itself, upon the mystery of his existence, and the mystery of his ability to reflect upon himself, and as such he is the only creature capable of stepping outside himself in order to point to himself." There is the notion of the absurd. That is, if you have the capacity to step outside of yourself you're never exhausted in the multiplicity of your actions. All those actions can come into question. That's what his plays make eminently clear.

    ELSHTAIN: But its a self that is not so infinitely displaceable that the self can never be held accountable. Since responsibility is one of his big themes, there is an entity there that in fact must be called to account, can be held responsible.

    HODGES: Now, let's see if we can say something about what that is. That self is constituted by the network of agreements that constitute the possibility of a discussion, and it need be no more than that. In that network of agreements there is the possibility of calling out certain aspects of the self, shaping and reshaping it in various ways. It need not be any higher nature in the sense of something that is metaphysically transcendent.

    ELSHTAIN: This is where the issue will get joined. I think first of all about the undeniable fact that in Havel's work he is convinced that he does in fact require something more. The question is what is that something more beyond the network of agreements. I would distinguish this way: its not a set of metaphysical categories he requires, but a framing of the horizon of being that provides a transcendent, not metaphysical, context within which the self is realized. I think Havel would argue that if the self is constituted solely by the network of agreements and relations and the context within which one finds oneself, then this would lead over time to impoverishment in the possibilities for self-constitution of the sort that made Havel himself possible. Havel argues that one requires some transcendent framework, some beyond, some Other before whom one is responsible, or within which human beings are defined.

    HODGES: I agree with you if you think of this network of agreements as agreements that we arrive at by some kind of choice or by some kind of congress of national agreement. That is far too shallow to make sense of commitment, of obligation, of the dimension of self-transcendence that we need here, and that Havel appeals to over and over again. This network of agreements is not something we arrive at, but is a way in which we are de facto alike, that we can't change. They may be open to some historic transformation, for all we know, but that's irrelevant. They transcend me because they are not choices I can make. I make choices in light of them. I can't escape them. Havel's skill is in describing things in such a way that his followers and opponents see that certain things aren't possible. At first they see themselves as role players in this huge ideology that he talks about, as just going along with it, then all of a sudden that whole set of activities is cast into a different kind of relief which they can't escape. And that's all one needs in order to sustain a political dialogue and to move others. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn't address everyone, he only addressed those of us who already began with a sense of fairness and justice and racial harmony. He called us to our better selves.

    ELSHTAIN: But there also has to be some horizon beyond in order to call us out of ourselves. The words that come to mind when I think of Havel's writing are notions of mystery and of awe, notions of that before which perhaps the only appropriate response is a kind of silence. There is about him a profound awareness of the fact that there is a tremendous amount that we cannot account for, that we cannot fully explain, that is not exhausted by understanding our histories and our context. And that helps to make possible a world of personal responsibility, as well as an appropriate recognition of mans place in the overall scheme of things.

    HODGES: But I like mystery to be mystery. I'd like to say simply that every time we shine a light, there is a darkness which surrounds it. In that recognition, we recognize the limitedness of any of our human projects. We don't understand that limitedness against a backdrop of a mystery that is not really a mystery because we can import something that we know. If we're going to be silent, let's be silent about it! Let's not sneak in a sort of quasi-theological understanding of it. That's where I become nervous.

    ELSHTAIN: What makes you nervous? Why do you become nervous about that?

    HODGES: I become nervous about that because of my own philosophical understanding. If the finitude of human projects only becomes clear against a backdrop of presupposed infinity, it's not true to itself, because then that finitude already presupposes an infinite perspective. That's what bothers me.

    ELSHTAIN: On the other hand, if the way in which we talk about this beyond or this mystery is always in relation to our experience of it, the danger is that we fall into a kind of subjectivism. Here I'm thinking of the essay on power and powerlessness in which he talks about a pre-political, hidden sphere out of which being or truth emerges. He quite unabashedly talks about life "in its essence," which is not human nature as some performed teleology, but is more like a human condition. Life in its essence, the human condition, is a world of plurality and a world of multiple possibilities. This would contrast with any notion of a subjective experience" of mystery. He is able to discuss things that we sometimes think we can't discuss because if we do we're going to fall into essentialism. But instead it's a notion about a human condition, not human nature. It shifts the terms of the discussion.

    HODGES: It puts it in new words. I'm not sure it shifts it.

    ELSHTAIN: I think it does. Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition, says that if there is a human nature we can't know it. But there is a human condition, and she goes on to characterize that human condition. It's very much like Havel's characterization: we enter a world that's not cut to our measure, it's there already, we're already in it, we're born helpless and dependent beings. We have to engage not just others but a natural world, a world of objects on which we depend in some way. Those are all features of a human condition, not a performed human nature, and that's what he's talking about when he talks about life in its essence.

    HODGES: It's a question whether you can get from there to anything more substantial. Again, when we move from a horizon of responsibility to one's time and place, to the human condition, into its meaning for the political life, you and I don't disagree too much. I want to say that this horizon is constituted out of the finitude of our practices. But I don't want to go on then to identify it and give it a structure in some sense, because it seems to me that that's just cheating at that point. This is not just the silence of "I don't know," it's a more profound silence. The silence of "I don't know" demands, "well, get to work and find out." But here, Havel calls our attention to a silence that is constitutive of our very practices and of every attempt to come to know. That seems to me to be a very different territory. I think it has traditionally been expressed theologically, though I think the theological expression of it fundamentally falsifies it.

    ELSHTAIN: I don't think Havel's is a theological expression of it.

    HODGES: It's always lurking.

    ELSHTAIN: Oh, it's lurking, but I think there's a kind of reticence to name in a way that plays into some kind of system.

    HODGES: His reticence is that he does not want to be caught-up in dogma. He doesn't want to be captured by the explicit dogma, Catholic or whatever. I want to carry it one step further, in a sense.

    ELSHTAIN: And I don't. I think if you carry it a step further, then in fact the horizon of possibility both for the construction of self identity and certain other sorts of possibilities dissipates. I am prepared to take Havel at his word that he requires certain categories in order to think certain thoughts, to engage in certain actions, and to be the kind of person he is, I accept that.

    HODGES: I accept his self-description, unquestionably. That's critical. I don't know how to move beyond that as a self-description. I don't mean of his particularity, but of his performance, which is essentially a social performance, social in its meaning. I think that is absolutely right, he is playing to an audience, and has to be playing to an audience.

    ELSHTAIN: I think he would say that it is social in its meaning, but my hunch is he would say that doesn't exist the meaning. He describes at one point, in discussing the dissident experience, the complexity involved in overcoming fear. In fact, what he feared most was giving some kind of offense to something outside himself. And that fear was stronger than the fear of what the regime would do to him.

    HODGES: How does that differ from the experience, not unique to Havel, of inescapability of myself?

    ELSHTAIN: What do you mean by inescapable? That you can never get out of your own skin?

    HODGES: No, the notion that it's not possible for me to do just anything. I can't escape that notion of self, and Havel draws me to that self.

    ELSHTAIN: His notion about that self is a self that is constituted not just out of the culture I'm a part of and the history I'm part of and so on, but with reference to something that frames that particular world. The self for Havel emerges simultaneously both out of a pre-political realm and with reference to something other and beyond.

    HODGES: I'm all for the pre-political, I just don't want to turn it into something. To do that is to fall back into metaphysics, and therefore ideology and so on.

    ELSHTAIN: Well, again, metaphysics and ideology are two different things. Certainly it can resist ideology. Whether it can resist metaphysics would be another question.

    HODGES: I'm not sure how you draw that distinction.

    ELSHTAIN: So, this seems to be the one point on which we continue to disagree.

    LETTERS: But it's an interesting point. I wanted to ask you both, are you working on Havel now?

    ELSHTAIN: I've just written a paper which I gave at a meeting in Prague, enormously condensed, of course, because Havel was sitting right there. But it's going to be translated by someone into Czech.

    HODGES: I wouldn't say I was working on Havel, but I'm interested in him and I continue to be drawn into discussions on Havel, partly because Jean keeps bringing people here who are doing it! I am working always on the relationship between questions of transcendence and the possibility of knowledge, solidarity, unity. Those seem to me to be a nest of questions that take on roughly the same shape whether you deal with politics, epistemology, or philosophy of religion, or whatever.

    ELSHTAIN: And I'm interested, and have been forever, in thinkers, and Havel is one, Camus is another, who find themselves poised and want to remain poised between various possibilities, between skepticism and belief, between the absurd and the committed. The most interesting thinkers are those who keep themselves in that tension between possibilities. And they're tugged a couple of ways, but they keep working the ground, that terrain in between.

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