John Keane | John Keane recalls meeting Václav Havel
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John Keane recalls meeting Václav Havel

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An interview about Vaclav Havel with The World Today’s Eleanor Hall, ABC Radio, 19 December 2011


As mourners gather in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to pay respect to their late former president, tributes to Vaclav Havel have been pouring in from leaders around the world.

US president Barack Obama says the man whose Velvet Revolution was critical to ending communism throughout Europe “exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology”.

The German chancellor Angela Merkel says her nation is indebted to Vaclav Havel for his fight for freedom and democracy.

I spoke earlier to Professor John Keane from Sydney University who wrote a political biography of the dissident writer who went on to become Czechoslovakia’s president.

JOHN KEANE: I first met him in the winter of 1984 in Prague and I went to see him about his first publication in English, a wonderful essay called The Power of the Powerless which I edited, and he had just come from prison and it is the most memorable moment.

Shaking, extremely nervous, disorientated, battered by the experience of some three and a half years in prison and we sat in his apartment in central Prague, which was being deconstructed at that point, plasterboard and so on was being removed to remove bugs from the apartment. It was like a scene from Gene Hackman’s The Conversation but a man very striking, intense, could be witty, serious and a man of great courage. That was a great moment.

ELEANOR HALL: You talked about how he was battered by prison when you first met him. What sort of personal price did he pay for his stance against totalitarianism?

JOHN KEANE: Well, the well known heavy chain smoking particularly took its particularly heavy toll with a constant lung and cancer problem but it is interesting in the last 24 hours upon his passing, there has been an outpouring of praise about his political achievements. Sweden’s foreign minister has called him one of the great European statesmen of our age.

I think that it is actually the less impressive part of his life and career what he achieved in politics. He is often described as a reluctant politician. I think that is incorrect. Actually power, political power turned out to be something of an aphrodisiac for Vaclav Havel – four presidencies in two countries for 13 years.

The point that he should be remember for is that three-quarters of his life was spent under conditions of dictatorship or totalitarianism. The Czechs suffered along with him so Havel as a consequence of prison and as a consequence of living in a regime that felt like one giant dark, dank prison, was highly sensitive to the problem of hubris, concentrated blind abuse of power; looked in through his poems and plays and political writings for ways out of the trap of politics in that sense.

Plays like The Memorandum and this essay, the Power of the Powerless – widely considered to be one of the great, perhaps the greatest, political treatise that came out of central and eastern Europe before ’89.

He then, one could say, suffered the tragedy of going into formal politics which turned out to be a less than happy experience for him and when he left office after 13 years, he wasn’t exactly a popular figure.

ELEANOR HALL: Now you say that he wasn’t the reluctant president that he is so often portrayed as. He later compared the presidency itself to imprisonment. What do you think he meant by that?

JOHN KEANE: Well, I think that was Havel at his most honest. I mean, he enjoyed the privileges of presidential life. He treated his office at the castle as a stage and played the role of himself as something like the good king personified. So this idea or sort of this thought that Havel was the reluctant president, that he didn’t want it, actually not only incorrect but I think it underestimates the way in which power actually turned out to be an aphrodisiac.

He got caught up in the machinations of representative democracy and elite politics which actually he’d spent three quarters of his life arguing against.

ELEANOR HALL: Do you think that power in the end did corrupt him?

JOHN KEANE: I think that it corrupted him during the 13 years, yes. I think any obituary worth its salt will point out that if Vaclav Havel were writing honestly about Vaclav Havel it was the low point of his political career.

Or to put it more positively, I think Havel would like to be remembered for not being put on a pedestal. He wouldn’t have wanted that. He would be the first to say that democracy shouldn’t immortalise their leaders.

ELEANOR HALL: He was still writing until very recently. Did you have a chance to speak to him about his reaction to this year’s uprisings in the Middle East?

JOHN KEANE: No. He was in fact rather ill for much of this year. There were remarks that he made in sympathy and of course those uprisings had a Havel quality about them. They were attempts to change the whole system of power by refusing the dominant structures and doing it from below. Those are very Havel idea and that is exactly what he worked for for three quarters of his life.

ELEANOR HALL: Professor John Keane thanks very much for joining us.

JOHN KEANE: My pleasure.

ELEANOR HALL: And you can listen to a longer version of that interview with Professor John Keane from Sydney University on our website.

See the original link here