Vaclav Havel has died.

“His essays, lectures, and prison letters from the last quarter century are, taken altogether, among the most vivid, sustained, and searching explorations of the moral and political responsibility of the intellectual produced anywhere in Europe,” wrote Timothy Garton Ash, the foremost chronicler of revolutionary Central Europe, in his 1999 collection History of the Present. “Indeed, it is difficult to think of any figure in the contemporary world who has more cumulative authority to speak on this issue than Vaclav Havel.”

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[Havel] took from rock-influenced ’60s culture “a temperament, a nonconformist state of the spirit, an anti-establishment orientation, an aversion to philistines, and an interest in the wretched and humiliated…”

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Havel is a short and rumpled man, even in a sharp presidential suit. He’s a disaster at press conferences, wiggling his tube-socked feet under the table and making chewing sounds into the microphone before each response. He nearly died three times in the last eight years from various illnesses, and he reportedly headed to Portugal for a long cure soon after stepping down as president. He describes himself as perpetually nervous, afraid someone’s going to wake him from the dream and put him back in jail, where he probably belongs. He may have been the life of the party a time or two, but overall the impression he gives is that of an unspectacular man who probably would rather be drunk.

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Matt Welch, in reason, wrote an excellent 2003 essay about Havel from which the excerpts above are taken.

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“[We are] anchored in the earth and the universe,
the awareness that we are not here alone nor for ourselves alone, but that we are an integral part of higher, mysterious entities against whom it is not advisable to blaspheme. This forgotten awareness is encoded in all religions. All cultures anticipate it in various forms. It is one of the things that form the basis of man’s understanding of himself, of his place in the world, and ultimately of the world as such.

… This awareness endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence. Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respects for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence. Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be a part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors, and thus honor their rights as well.”

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3 Responses to “Largo Desolato”

  1. david foster Says:

    A good essay about Havel by Sheila O’Malley.

  2. Shane Street Says:

    But don’t ask Noam Chomsky:http://www.chomsky.info/letters/19900301.htm

    Chomsky is an unrelievedly nasty piece of work, ain’t he?

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Shane: Yes. I read that stuff, and yes.

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