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Six asides about Vaclav Havel

I. Culture forms chaotically from spirit. Havel begins his essay, or talk, “Six asides about Culture” with some speculation that tomorrow he might write his best ever literary work, or then again he might never write another word again. Culture escapes determinants. It has the quality of life, and not the predictable attributes of an economist’s spreadsheet. So Havel writes the future of a culture is open to freedom and the spirit. In Communist Czechoslovakia this message was one of possibility. The “second culture” – that formed against the grain of the official culture of the regime among dissidents, in private life, shared covertly through samizdat – could bloom. It could also die. It could also wither on the vine in a dull compromise with the regime, perhaps as so much contemporary culture in the West had since done. But its future rested in the spirits of those who carried forward their projects, however small. Havel had been asked to speculate on the future development of this culture. In a characteristic feint, he left the future in the hands of all who read him”

“When even a single author… cannot foresee his literary future, how can anyone foresee what the overall development of culture will be?…. The secrets of a culture’s future are a reflection of the very secrets of the human spirit.” (Havel, “Six Asides about Culture”, Living in Truth pp 123-4)

II. The community’s “living organism has an “irrepressible cultural hunger.” To believe in this credo was an act of faith, and a will to survive the repression of the regime in communist Eastern Europe. That regime fought its own people, and made the conditions of participation in culture enormously difficult. For many it compromised and brutalized lives. Roger Scruton speaks of meeting many “stokers” in Czechoslovakia who were punished by the regime by placement in a menaingless job, to stoke a furnace, an engine, rather than to work in their field, whether that was science or philosophy or carpentry. We do not have the same repression today, except the strange repression imposed by marketing and the commercial operations of the production of culture. Where Havel looked out a saw hope and survival for the second culture in samizdats, theatres, young people crossing the country to attend a concert that may not even be allowed to be staged, I see hope for a new second culture, unshackled from endless compromised selling, in blogging, alt-lit and the aesthetics of play.

III. Thought – free thought, not luxurious thought – involves sacrifice. Havel wanted to free the thought of the dissidents both from the obligation to be a martyr in person, since he knew very well the real suffering endured by those who opposed the regime, and from the condescension of the liberal West, who pitied and belittled the second culture with the label of a martyr. And in doing so, Havel saw a truth about the West’s culture that many still not see today:

“as I follow from a distance various individual actions and social upheavals in the ‘free world’, I am not at all sure that they are inevitably characterized by penetrating thought. I fear that far too often the idea comes limping behind the enthusiasm. And might that just not be because for the most part no great price need be paid for that enthusiasm? Are thought and sacrifice really so mutually exclusive? Might not sacrifice, under some circumstances, be simply the consequence of a thought, its proof, or conversely, its moving force” (p 126)

IV. Culture – and within it, of preeminent importance to me, writing – has no mould to conform to, whether that be advocated by five-year plans, the ideologically pure, or the demands of the market. “If there is anything essentially foreign to culture, writes Havel, “it is the uniform” (p 128). Culture and writing need to be what they are, and let aside any judgements of their worthiness, their marketability, their relevance to the times.

A great many people can peck at a typewriter and, fortunately, no one can stop them. But for that reason, even in samizdat, there will always be countless bad books or poems for every important book. If anything there will be more bad ones than in the days of printing because, even in the most liberated times, printing is still a more complicated process than typing. But even if, objectively, there were some possibility of selection, who could claim the right to exercise it? Who among us would dare to say that he can unerringly distinguish something of value – even though it may still be nascent, unfamiliar, as yet only potential – from its counterfeit? Who among us can know what may seem today to be marginal graphomania might not one day appear to our descendants as the most substantial thing written in our time? (p , my emphasis)129

V. Culture does not divide into political allegiances, and there is no more reason to celebrate some art as independent, alternative or progressive, just because it aligns with some form of political idea. What counts for culture is not political preferences, but the pursuit of “autonomous free humanity” (p. 131). Havel’s first culture, which was that of the Communist regime, and both today’s mainstream and subsidised alternative culture (all the fringe festivals as well as the opera companies) belong to “what is permitted, subsidized or at least tolerated, an area that naturally tends to attract more of those who, for reasons of advantage, are willing to compromise their truth.” (p. 132) I choose the heirs of the second culture, “an area constituted through self-help, which is the refuge, voluntary or enforced, of those who refuse all compromise (regardless of how overtly ‘political’ or ‘non-political’ their work is.)” p 132.

VI The creation of culture is an intrinsic good in itself. Whether the culture is created in the first or second culture, in the mainstream media or on an alternative literature blog, in a bestseller or a samizdat, if it is authentic, it is valuable in itself. Belonging to one or other culture, like the ceaseless badges of identity we are confronted with, matters little. “Every meaningful cultural act – wherever it takes place – is unquestionably good in and of itself simply because it offers something to someone.” Havel asks, “Does not the bare fact that a work of art has meant something to someone – even if only for a moment, perhaps to a single person – already somehow change, however, minutely, the overall condition for the better.” This idea of cultural acts as free gifts takes us back to the human spirit. So Havel concludes his six asides on culture, composed at Hrádeček in August 1984:

“Is not precisely some ‘impulse to move’ – again in that deeper existential sense – the primordial intent of everything that really belongs to culture? After all, that is precisely the mark of every good work of culture: it sets our drowsy souls and our lazy hearts ‘moving.’! And can we separate the awakening human soul from what it always, already is – an awakening human community?”

Vale Vaclav Havel. Havel forever.

Image Source: Photo from Wencelas Square, Prague, which says in Czech, Havel Forever. By David Sedlecký – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

All references to Havel “Six Asides about Culture” in Living in Truth (1986)

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