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Václav Havel: Letters to Olga

On November 19, The John W. Kluge Center, The Embassy of the Czech Republic, and Florida International University will remember Václav Havel’s influence and legacy in a private conference at the Library of Congress. The event will be immediately followed by the dedication of a bust of President Havel in the U.S. Capitol.

Havel twice was a scholar-in-residence at The John W. Kluge Center: in spring 2005, and again from December 2006 to March 2007. For the next two weeks, “Insights” presents a four-part series on Václav Havel’s life, legacy, and relationship to the Library. Dan Turello begins our series.

Beloved in his country and abroad, Václav Havel ranks among the great leaders of the 20th century. Courageous dissident, visionary politician, brilliant writer, one of the truly remarkable elements of his legacy is the breadth of realms  he thought and wrote about. This wide range of interests is fully evident in  “Letters to Olga,” a collection of pages written to his wife between 1979 and 1982 while he was held as a political prisoner.

A successful playwright in his mid-forties, he had been jailed because of his activities as a critic of the regime, and his leadership of the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted. The writing gives us a glimpse into Havel’s spirit at a time in which his literary reputation was already well-established, and at a pivotal point in his development as a dissident and future political leader.

Havel tells us in the preface to the published letters that they were his only creative outlet during his time in prison. The letters were monitored, so Havel often disguised his honest reflections in the midst of more abstract and unintelligible paragraphs. He had realized this was the best way to get them through the censors. In spite of these constraints, his pages are brimming with ideas and sprinkled with humor.

Below, I offer you a few representative quotes from this lovely collection.  Selecting them was difficult because every page is filled with insight. I hope these excerpts might inspire you to read the book in full–it is well worth it–and to reflect on Havel’s life and legacy for politics, human rights, and the arts, on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

On Life in Prison

March 8, 1980

I’ve discovered that in lengthy prison terms, sensitive people are in danger of becoming embittered, developing grudges against the world, growing dull, indifferent and selfish. One of my main aims is not to yield an inch to such threats, regardless of how long I’m here. I want to remain open to the world, not to shut myself up against it; I want to retain my interest in other people and my love for them.

February 6, 1982

Today is Sunday. I’m taking pills, drinking tea, lounging on my bed and perspiring a little. I’m content. Greetings to Lada L. Have someone send you The Wall, by Pink Floyd.

[In the previous paragraph, Havel had written about his health. He was in recovery from a cold and fever and permitted to rest for a weekend. There are other passages in the letters that hint at the harsh conditions of prison. Hard labor was the norm. As might be expected, activities were limited, schedules unpredictable, and time for writing an inconsistent privilege. However, this passage stood out for its understated sense of humor.]

On Writing, Theatre, and Politics

November 21, 1981

Writing is a supremely solitary activity and so it is somewhat of a paradox that I, of all people, should have taken it up. The thing is, I’m basically a social person, even politically-minded (not that I would like a career in politics, but in the sense that I take an interest in public matters, i.e. in matters of the polis–the community). I was probably attracted to theatre (among other things) because, of all the artistic disciplines, it has the greatest potential to be a social phenomenon in the true sense.

On Asking Questions About the Meaning of Life

June 10, 1981

Because I am less concerned with what defines us as animal beings than I am with what makes us human, I will leave the survival instinct as such to the experts and begin where this instinct leaves off, as it were: at the moment we ask ourselves the question ‘to be or not to be.’ If the capacity to ask that question is what makes us human–that is, if it lays the foundation for our human existence–then how we respond to it will lay the foundation for our human identity–and will indicate who we are.

On Personal Responsibility

August 21, 1982

I agree with Levinas when he says that responsibility cannot be preached, but only borne, and that the only possible place to begin is with oneself. It may sound strange, but it is true: it is I who must begin.

The Embassy of the Czech Republic in Washington, D.C., commemorates Václav Havel and the Velvet Revolution with a week-long series of events. See the full schedule at http://www.25yearsofdemocracy.org.

Quotes are drawn from Václav Havel, “Letters to Olga. June 1979 – September 1982” (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989).

One Comment

  1. Rozelle Watson
    April 16, 2016 at 4:53 pm

    His life is still full of meaning!

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