From an Ex-Pat…With Love: On Vaclav Havel & Hopelessness

ColumnA Vaclav Havel memorial in Prague, photographed hours after the announcement of his death Sunday.

Vaclav Havel, the prolific and politically-incendiary Czech writer and intellectual cum 1989 Velvet Revolution leader, died last Sunday at the age of 75; a decades-long devotee of tobacco, he passed due to respiratory complications in the privacy of his country home in Bohemia. Havel’s works – including 22 plays, nine non-fiction books, and the Charter 77 human rights manifesto – galvanized not only the disfavor of the Communist government, who imprisoned him on multiple occasions because of his texts, but conversely the esteem of his countrymen, who elected him as the first democratic ruler of then Czechoslovakia.

Havel’s creative output spans the gamut from absurdism to children’s stories, and he leaves behind an impressive oeuvre of books and letters rich with imminently quotable passages. Over the intervening days since his departure, I’ve been rolling around certain Havelian turns-of-phrase – cold, dark marbles on my tongue.

With quiet but ruthless exactitude, Havel called out of hiding small, hard secrets about the human condition. He of course exposed and documented systematic abuse and civil rights violations in former Communist Czechoslovakia, but also delivered a fair share of reckoning with our species’ systemic frailties and follies.

He wrote that people “are compelled to live within a lie, but they can be compelled to do so only because they are in fact capable of living in this way. Therefore not only does the system alienate humanity, but at the same time alienated humanity supports this system as its own involuntary master plan, as a degenerate image of its own degeneration, as a record of people’s own failure as individuals.”

To form a bridge between his quote and this weekly column’s core theme – love and intimacy – doesn’t require elaborate architecture. While Havel is talking here about the nation-state and body politic, the principle of self-propagating defeatism also holds fast in romantic pairings. He implicates not only the government, but also the governed; in doing so, he examines macro structures and also micro figures within a system – both of which inform, and feed, the other. The whole is a reflection of its sum parts. The major movements and themes of a piano concerto sound not without the harmonization of individual ivory keys pounding the chords.

Relationships – whether you’re like me exploring the sublime nuances and also sour notes of being a single woman after a lifetime spent otherwise or, like my little sister in the United States, married to the very boy you met and fell for in junior high school – are an inalienable, inexorable feature of our existence. Pair bonding’s resultant transcendence is illusory, albeit recurring, giving way at times to tedium, pointlessness and a rot of existential rubbish.

Havel wrote his own way out of it: “Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.”

Berlin-based Abigail Wick is a contributor to The New York Times and National Public Radio. ‘From an Ex-Pat…with Love’ is her weekly EcoSalon column about cultural dislocation, romantic relationships and lifestyle choices – filtered through the lens of an American woman living and working abroad in Europe.

Author Image: Alina Rudya; Article Image: Megan Ouellette