While re-reading David Copperfield recently, I came across a turn of phrase that seemed oddly familiar. It’s in a line of dialogue from the saintly Agnes, as she explains to David that by sheer goodness she hopes to be able to save her alcoholic father from the malign influence of Uriah Heep:
“I hope that real love and truth are stronger in the end than any evil or misfortune in the world.”
I found myself idly wondering: Could this be the source of Václav Havel’s famous revolutionary motto, “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred”? Was Havel a big Dickens fan?
Well, no. I mean, maybe he liked Dickens, but inconveniently, I am reminded, upon searching the archives at the Václav Havel Library, that in 1999, Havel himself traced the origin of the phrase to Jan Hus, who wrote, “Truth prevails over all,” shortly before being burned at the stake. Who knew that Agnes was so thorough in her study of medieval Czech church history…
“Havel’s Specter,” my essay on Václav Havel’s philosophy as manifested in his essays, his plays, and his political career, is published in the 9 April 2012 issue of The Nation.
If anyone wants to know what a Czech shopkeeper’s display window under Communism actually looked like, click on the gallery titled “Prague Shop Windows 1976–96” on the photographer Iren Stehli’s website.
For this essay, I consulted Havel’s plays and essays in English, as well as, in some cases, in Czech as published in his collected works, the first seven volumes of which were published by Torst in 1999. For biographical details, I relied on Havel’s autobiographical books, Disturbing the Peace and To the Castle and Back; Eda Kriseová’s campaign biography of Havel (1991; translated in 1993 by me in an earlier life; don’t blame me for all the typos! its original publisher went out of business before the book went to press and it was never proofread); John Keane’s problematic, tonally off-kilter 1999 biography; and Carol Rocamora’s Acts of Courage, which focuses primarily on Havel’s career as a dramatist. I also consulted the New York Times obituary and the chronologies at the back of Jan Vladislav’s anthology Living in Truth and on the website of the Václav Havel Library. Also useful were Hugh Agnew’s The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown and Aviezer Tucker’s The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence from Patočka to Havel. Paul Wilson commented on Havel’s word samopohyb in “Notes from the Underground,” a 2006 article in Columbia magazine. Details of Václav Klaus’s political philosophy are taken in part from his book Renaissance. Klaus claimed that the role of dissidents had been exaggerated in a 15 November 2003 column in Mladá fronta dnes and repeated the claim in a 16 November 2004 interview with Hospodářské noviny as well as in remarks delivered in English in London in 2009. Wilson’s observations about Klaus’s eulogy were published in the New York Review of Books.
Just two days ago, I received in the mail a copy of my friend Jonathan Bolton’s new book, Worlds of Dissent: Charter 77, the Plastic People of the Universe, and Czech Culture under Communism, which I’m eagerly reading and highly recommend! I strongly suspect it will be the definitive account in English of Havel’s ideas about dissidence and the intellectual milieu in which they arose.