John Keane | Pricking Havel’s Bottom
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Pricking Havel’s Bottom

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An interview with the Czech President’s latest biographer

(An interview with John Keane conducted by Jan Culik, published on the Central Europe Review, the Vol 1, No 15, 4 October 1999)

Central Europe Review : As a well-established political thinker in Britain and as someone who has written a number of books on general political topics, why have you extended your interest to Havel – someone who seems to be slightly out of your region?

John Keane : Well, it is not a new interest. I first met Vaclav Havel in 1984 when we discussed my role as editor of his first English-language book, Moc bezmocnych (The Power of the Powerless). Havel had just come out of prison. He was an unfortunate figure. He looked to me exhausted, depressed and overweight. I found this first personal contact very moving.
Ten years later, after writing about him under the nom de plume Erica Blair, I wrote to Vaclav Havel to tell him that I had decided to write his unauthorised biography. I was very uncomfortable with the conventional view of Vaclav Havel as something of a new Masaryk, a man who is revered as a great hero of democracy and morality and who symbolises a struggle for freedom. I think that all revolutions, including that of 1989, create their own myths. And I am afraid that Vaclav Havel became part of this mythology. The book is a ruthlessly honest account of his life and of the Czechoslovak and the Czech context in which he grew up. In this way, I hope it punctures some myths.

CER : How does it relate to your other work? Are you just as ruthless as you were with Tom Paine?

JK : Yes. I think that the job of a political writer and a political thinker is to use the pen to prick the bottoms of the powerful – and in this book I do just that. It is something of a manual for democrats which I have written as a tragedy. I have had a lifelong interest in the history, philosophy and future of democracy, and, given my long contacts with the Czechs through the dissident Parallel University and the publication of Havel’s first work in English, it seemed only right that I had to come to terms with his past.

CER : I can already hear some of the critical voices in the Czech Republic saying that you are using the writer’s pen as a biased instrument. They will argue that the media should not be entering the political arena as a political force – that the media, television, are only there in order to report facts dispassionately and should not enter the political process. What is your opinion of this?

JK : This is an outdated, pre-French Revolution view of the role of the press and other media. The fact is that the media does not function any more as a force of state; yet, media and politics are inextricably bound together. Every actually existing democracy is now being forced to come to terms with this process of “media-isation” of politics.
The case of Vaclav Havel fits rather well with my long-standing interest in the subject of media power politics and democracy. After all, he was a man of the theatre – an Ichspieler, as well, as I describe him in the book. Especially since the birth of Charter 77, he has played himself before the cameras and the pens and the microphones of the world. So, this book is also an account of one figure in a heavily media-saturated politics.

CER : You say in the introduction to your work that you are trying to write a different biography; you are attempting to write differently about politics. What do you mean by that?

JK : Several things. It is unauthorised and, in this respect, very different from the original. The first biography by Eda Kriseova, was written as a fairytale, to help Czechs and Slovaks through the difficulties of the Revolution.Unfortunately, it heroises Havel. It is hagiography; it is a bad book. Havel, in fact, changed his mind about the Kriseova biography: he came to have serious misgivings about the work and later found it embarrassing.
This unauthorised account is, I would say, much more honest. It is factional. It rejects the classic distinction between biography, dealing with facts, and literature, dealing with fiction. In this respect I cannot agree with Ondrej Stindl, who in the Czech daily Lidove noviny criticised the burial of facts underneath words. This is a rather antiquated view for biographers. This biography is contextual. It thinks about the life of Vaclav Havel in the context of 20th-century Europe. It is written democratically. I have tried not to moralise in it. There is no heroisation of my subject; there is no demonisation of him, either. It is written in the form of tableaux vivants, partly as an ode to his interest in theatre. Above all, I think this is a book about power. I am convinced that this is among the most important topics for the human condition.

CER : The reader can see that you have taken the Czech Republic to be a kind of laboratory for democracy. This is where the interest for the general Western reader lies. But why is power so important?

JK : Is there any more important topic than who gets what, when and how? And whether they should have? The human condition is unthinkable without power. Power is the ability of human actors to move in the world, to initiate things, to block things, to keep things as they are. Power is coextensive with the human condition. It is true that I chose the Czechs because it seems to me Czechs have had the unlucky privilege of experiencing every major regime change in 20th-century Europe. This is the sense in which they have lived in a laboratory of power. The topic of power is, of course, also one of Havel’s favourites; he has written many essays and plays on the subject. I make the claim in this book that the concept of power is crucial for understanding his own life, his own manoeuvrings. My assessment of his overall importance is that this is a man whose life teaches us a very great deal about the subjects of the powerful and the powerless – of power grabbing and power sharing.
I hope Czech readers won’t feel picked-upon. I also hope they will not feel privileged in a perverse way, in connection with the “cesky udel” (Czech fate) argument: “it is the fate of we poor Czechs to suffer tragedies and to be written about as figures of tragedy – that is our greatness.” They would all be misunderstandings. I would also be concerned about a xenophobic reaction: “Who is this Australian Briton, writing about us?” I can only appeal to Czech readers on the basis on my good will and love of the country. I made the effort to learn Czech. I found generous cooperation from most people I contacted as interviewees. Most of them emphasised the advantage of this book being written by a foreigner precisely because of the independent perspective on Havel.

CER : If this book can be seen as a laboratory analysis of what power does to people, how can this benefit the ordinary citizen in a democracy?

JK : There is something absurd about dictatorial and totalitarian power. My work has, from the beginning, been committed to exploring the difficulty of creating and consolidating a democratic alternative to these absurd forms of cruel and often ruthless power. The book expresses my philosophic conviction that the lust for power is polymorphously perverse. Power, wherever it is exercised, whether in the bedroom or on the battlefield or in the Party caucus, is always in need of public control. In this respect, I try in this book to reconnect the life of Vaclav Havel with the classical Greek problem of hubris. You know, our Greek ancestors, Thukydides and others, taught us that the exercise of power over others always breeds overconfidence and imprudence. That power leads to the striving for increased power because powerful rulers have to act that way. The Greeks, of course, saw no way out of this trap of hubris, except through the intervention of gods. We are not believers in that any more, and, therefore, our difficulty in late modern, complex societies in the European region is to invent and institutionalise non-violent mechanisms for sharing and publicly controlling the exercise of power. If there is a theme which is central in this book, it is that one.

CER : Maybe some of the critics in the Czech Republic will be slightly baffled by your work. A careful reader will notice that the book is impartial, presenting both negative and positive points. But maybe a reader in Eastern Europe will miss a general conclusion, a forcefully expressed summary, the concluding view of the author. The Czech reader, used to black-and-white solutions, will be dissatisfied. What are you going to say to him?

JK : Read the book. It is important to grasp the art of coping with multiple perspectives of the life of a single figure. It is deliberately structured to avoid the Brechtian moralising that has so commonly been central to biography. It is neither a heroisation nor a demonisation. It is deliberately written in some fifty-five vignettes, not chapters, to produce a cubist perspective on Havel’s life. This literary form corresponds with the experience of living in contemporary democracy in which the plurality of perspective is becoming the norm in everyday life. This is a deliberate attempt to avoid an authoritarian power relationship between writer and reader.

CER : Nevertheless, there are certain value judgements. You are talking about hubris. You describe Havel as the great manipulator – maybe we should talk about morals in politics. It seems that Havel spoke the truth when he was a dissident, but the moment he became President, he became economical with the truth. Do you think that morals have a place in politics? Are we supposed to judge politicians when they assume power and begin to lie?

JK : I am no believer in universal morals. But having said that, I do not think that morals are just a mask of those who play power games. And that under certain conditions, certain morals do count for a great deal. There are many accounts in the book of the odes that have been played to Vaclav Havel by Henry Kissinger and a hundred others for the courage, the determination and the commitment in insisting that morals count in the world of power politics. In this respect, it is understandable that some, Timothy Garton Ash for example, have described Havel as the moral leader of the European region. But I have in this book seriously questioned that rather naive account, because it seems to me that there are so many instances in Havel’s life where manipulation is central – in which morals are used as a mask for power games.
I also question his lifelong commitment to the principle of “living in truth.” In the circumstances, it was a pre-political formulation that produced undesirable effects. It certainly encouraged Havel to play the role of Ichspieler, gathering power around him.
The key question for any people caught up in the process of democratisation, like the Czechs, or for those who live under consolidated democratic conditions, is how to give expression to a plurality of morals. I make an appeal for the humbling of morals, the need for people, individuals, groups, to live together by respecting each others’ morals. This requires, of course, a framework of democratic morality in which respect for political and civil liberties, the defence of civil society and other institutions like the rule of law are basic conditions of plurality of morals. This account of the life of Vaclav Havel tries to address this problem of morals and politics.

CER : As you are talking about the general framework of morals, let me take you to one particular case. There is a pivotal point in your book, where you talk about Jan Kavan who was subjected to a witch-hunt for seven years in the 1990s – accused of cooperation with the Communist secret police. In December 1991, you say, Vaclav Havel privately told Jan Kavan in the company of some of his dissident colleagues and friends that he knew or was convinced that Kavan never worked for the secret police, but that he could not say this publicly and that he actually forbade Kavan from mentioning this to journalists. Would you say that this was acceptable, within the general framework of morals?

JK : The controversial lustration episode, when alleged secret police collaborators and members of the Communist Party nomenklatura were collectively, by law, excluded from politics, media, the civil service and the universities after 1989, is a turning point in the story of Vaclav Havel on morals and politics. His tortured, fraught handling of the lustration controversy taught him to be more measured and calculating in his moral statements. And the Kavan episode is an illustration of the change that comes over Vaclav Havel in presidential power. It is easy in retrospect to see that that statement was uncourageous.

CER : Throughout the whole five hundred pages you quote a large array of witnesses, people associated with Havel’s life, but you actually never let Havel speak for himself. He is the absent voice. Should not he have had the right to express an opinion, since he is being accused and analysed in the work? Where is the voice of the Hrad?

JK : I think that is unfair. There are many new things about the life of Vaclav Havel and references to what he has written and said. His voice is omnipresent in the book: there is new material on the “Thirty-Sixers;” on his role in 1968 in the town of Liberec; a new account of the Letters to Olga episode; a different account of his role during the Revolution, as Ichspieler and, I think, a brand new account of the past ten years. There is constant reference to what he has said and done. My contact with him has been long and extensive.
But the fact is that getting an appointment with Vaclav Havel is difficult, and I saw him only once towards the conclusion of the book – in London, in fact. Such is power. Even his brother has remarked that he saw him much more frequently during the prison period than in the years of his presidency. The self-distancing of Vaclav Havel is the quality of the current presidency, though you could be forgiven for thinking that – particularly in the treatment of the last few years – the direct voice of Vaclav Havel seems to fade away.
Every biographer of the living muses whether his or her subject will read the book. If Vaclav Havel has time to read this book, his soul is likely to be divided. He will be annoyed and perhaps embarrassed by some things in it. I am unsure how he will react to this book. I am certain that some incidents in this book will cause him discomfort, either because he does not remember them or because he disagrees with the interpretations offered or perhaps because he considers them potentially ruinous of his political reputation.
But I hope that he will have the courage to read the book that resembles a book about Vaclav Havel that might have been written by Vaclav Havel himself. That is what I tried to write; to apply the standards of sensitivity to power, the dislike of hubris, the belief in plurality, to apply these principles to the life of Vaclav Havel himself.

CER : So you think that Vaclav Havel should not have become President – that this has destroyed him?

JK : Well, let us discuss the high points and the low points of his life. This book is a tragedy. The story has many of the ingredients of classical tragedy, defined as it was by people like Aristotle, Seneca and Shakespeare. It is the story of the private anguish and difficulties of a single individual, a courageous mortal who has imperfections – a man who acts on a public stage, cluttered with great evil, suffering caused by violent struggles for power over others.
But the point of tragedy is not to depress the audience, make them love their misery. I hope readers will recognise some of themselves in the misfortunes of Vaclav Havel, because tragedy, as Shakespeare said, can act as a great and powerful medicine. It can reinforce human claims to dignity and freedom. So, in this book there are high points and low points in the life of Vaclav Havel. High points: the first-born son of a remarkable mother; meeting the poet Jiri Kubena; a chance befriending of Pavel Tigrid in May 1968 in Paris; the birth of Charter 77; coming out from prison in the spring of 1983; out-manoeuvring others to become President so that he could perform before the crowds of Letna; and his assaults on the theatre establishment to produce award-winning, side-splitting satires on the absurdities of unaccountable power.
The low points: being bombed at his family’s country home Havlov at the end of the Second World War; his incredible near-drowning after a drunken episode just weeks before becoming President; his role in the loss of half the country; his quarrels with Olga; the death of Olga; perhaps, the marrying of Dagmar Veskrnova; coping with a lame-duck presidency. Having to come to terms with the maxim that every political career normally ends in failure; and finally, unwrapping the gift of death – this is the theme on which the book ends. That’s hard to come to terms with, the gift of death.


See this article on the Central Europe Review

Read more on Vaclav Havel – A Political Tragedy in Six Acts (2000)