I read Open Letters, a compilation of letters and essays written by Czechoslovakia’s first post-Communist president, Vaclav Havel. This man is a genius, and I don’t say that lightly. Our professors here, whether they knew him personally or admired him from the vantage of another front of the revolution, speak very highly of him. Havel seems to be one of those mythical leaders in Czech collective identity, and after reading his work I can understand why.
His prose is at once commanding and beautiful. Havel clearly articulates the chaos of the Communist regime and its ideology, while simultaneously developing his own political commentary and pruning his own aspirations for the future of Czechoslovak society.
Havel speaks clearly to the spirit of the Czech Republic, but to Prague in particular. His ideas are represented here in architecture and city planning, in the behavior of the society and most poignantly in its collective memory and identity.
Says Havel in his famous essay “Power to the Powerless:”
“But the moment someone breaks through in one place, when one person cries out, ‘The emperor is naked!’- when a single person breaks the rules of the game, thus exposing it as a game- everything suddenly appears in another light and the whole crust seems then to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably.”
Havel is that single person, or one of them in the case of Czech history. And indeed the society has, again and again, had these single people who have thrown out the order of things and brought about a complete change. One example is Jan Huss, an early reformer of Christianity who was burned at the stake for heresy. A full century later, Protestantism gained popularity in Central Europe and Huss was made a hero in Czech culture. The country never regained its religiosity after the Catholic Reformation, as Huss and others had forever exposed the dangers of religion and sectarianism to Czech society, thus “tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably” the religious fabric of the nation forever. Today, a memorial to Huss stands in the square directly adjacent to NYU’s campus in Prague.
This same physical memorialization of Czech dissenters lays in the architecture, or rather the locals’ impressions of the architecture. I mentioned this in a previous post, but many Czechs find the impressively preserved Baroque, Renaissance, Classical, even Gothic architecture here… lame. They’re garish and represent times gone by, regimes built on oppression. As an American, I know about regimes built on oppression. What is unfamiliar to me is the articulation of dissent reaching the point of architectural critique; this steadfastness and boldness in Czech dissent, represented by Havel’s “single person,” is iconic of their culture.
In his letter to Dr. Husák, then-General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Havel describes the current state of society as a result of government oppression. He asserts that culture is the society’s self-awareness, that through culture a society can determine if it is free, and that this is why the regime attacked culture first, so that “society might not know the extent to its subjugation.” The regime hijacked social memory with the celebration of faux anniversaries, co-opting May Day and International Women’s Day, among others, for the sake of propaganda that would erode true social consciousness. Czech society is still grappling with this cultural loss, and is still working to develop community and a collective identity in the wake of terror and tragedy and most important, little immediate historical support.
But it is happening, and one can feel it in the spirit of Prague. The city is bustling with cultural activity, reconciling its national fears and mistakes in such mediums as film and theater, while reclaiming its architectural landscape with the renaming of squares and streets. The new Constitution promises not only protection from the government, but positive rights that should help the country to rebuild. The confusion of Czech students to my laments of student loans is evidence enough of this. Prague is a city on the rise, an important cultural center once again. And in it lies Náměstí Václava Havla, Vaclav Havel Square, a memorial to the dissident, playwright, president, and single person.
I would be remiss if I failed to thank the editor of these works, Paul Wilson, who also translated them into English. Havel’s words are important for travelers to Prague, or any revolutionary-minded individual, to experience (and it is indeed an experience), and Wilson makes this possible for English readers.