Vaclav Havel: Playwright, Poet, President, Advocate for 'The Individual' (Video)

Article excerpt

Vaclav Havel not only led a peaceful 'Velvet Revolution' in Czechoslovakia, but inspired similar revolutions around the world with ideas that still resonate today. Vaclav Havel passed away on Sunday.

"People, your government has returned to you."

The words of Vaclav Havel's 1990 New Year's address to what was then Czechoslovakia were heard with a mixture of joy and disbelief by crowds holding candles on Wenceslas Square. History had taken a new turn: The Soviets were out and Havel was "in the castle" in Prague, as president, in a bloodless Velvet Revolution that changed the world in ways completely unforeseen in the West and East.

Impish, shy, a playwright and poet, a friend of both rock and roll stars and physicists, Havel offered not just a voice, but a deeply moral and spiritual vision for human rights and for addressing what he called "our crisis of civilizational values."

During the Soviet era, he spent years under arrest for dissident writing that detailed in plain language why eastern and central Europeans did not want or deserve a totalitarian system rigged in Moscow or a daily life based on a steady imposition of lies, fear, conformity, and punishment. The typical Czech "greengrocer" - Havel's famous description of the symbolic Czech Everyman - did not believe Soviet propaganda, but felt helplessly enmeshed in it.

Havel articulated a credo of conscience that he called "living in truth." It was a call to take life at its most profound and searching level, come what may. "Hope," he said, "is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

His concurrent view that "consciousness precedes being" was a direct challenge to the opposite Marxist dictum that material values are the be-all and end-all of human life. He steadily decried the lack of transcendent ideals in modern times, but did so with an incisiveness that defies easy categorization. "Consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim," he said in a speech to the US Congress in 1990. "For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness, and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will ever change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe towards which this world is headed - the ecological, social demographic, or general breakdown of civilization - will be unavoidable."

Havel passed away Dec. 18, but he remains a truly historic figure, a defining "public intellectual" who was part South African anti-apartheid champion Nelson Mandela, part Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov. His words and example live on in such essays as "The Power of the Powerless," and the "Charter 77" manifesto.

Writing today in the Guardian, Havel's friend Timothy Garton Ash calls him "a defining figure of late 20th century Europe. He was not just a dissident; he was the epitome of the dissident, as we came to understand that novel term. …