|Vaclav Havel :: born October 5, 1936 :: died December 18, 2011|
“…only someone whose very being thirsts after meaning, for whom ‘meaning’ is an integral dimension of his own existence, can experience the absence of meaning as something painful, or more precisely, can perceive it at all. In its tormenting absence, meaning may have a more urgent presence than when it is simply taken for granted, no questions asked—somewhat in the way one who is sick may better understand what it means to be well than one who is healthy.” -Vaclav Havel, Letters to Olga
Czech playwright and politician Vaclav Havel died today at the age of 75. He rebelled against the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, spent time as a dissident in prison and became the first president of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989 in the aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s destruction in November ’89. Communism had fallen; the Cold War was over.
As the new president, Havel was tasked with establishing a democratic system in Czechoslovakia. As one would expect, this was no easy feat. Just shy of four years into his presidency, he resigned: the country was breaking apart. In 1993 Czechoslovakia became two countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In spite of that, Havel was elected new president of the Czech Republic—the people still loved him as he met with no contest.
Like all politicians, he had his faults: he was a better foreign diplomat than a domestic governor. He was unfaithful to his wife, Olga. A chain-smoker, he put his own health in jeopardy.
I remember talking with my next door neighbor here in Chicago about a year ago. He told me he was from Czechoslovakia so I brought up Havel’s book, Letters to Olga. Well…that set him off! For the next ten or fifteen minutes my neighbor went on a tirade berating Havel. He claimed that Havel was the worst possible thing that could have ever happened to Czechoslovakia. He was clearly bitter that Havel would be revered by so many as he was.
I recall thinking, “Wow, I had no idea Havel was such a controversial figure.” Later, however, I learned my neighbor was a Nazi. Yes, literally.
Havel was far from perfect but if he stumbled and fumbled on occasion he did so with dignity, flair and perseverance. I was intrigued by him because he was an artist leader.
A while ago I read Letters to Olga. It is a series of letters he wrote to his wife while in prison. Here are a few excerpts:
“Indifference and resignation, I believe, are the most serious forms of human decline into nothingness.”
“…those who wish to do things best are the first to doubt the value of what they do…”
“Art in general is a little like playing with fire; the artist deals with something without knowing precisely what it is; he creates something without knowing precisely what it will ‘mean.’”
“…if we can explain and name anything too well, we come to terms with it too quickly, our interpretation soothes us, the work ceases to tantalize and irritate us and we quickly forget it.”
“One of the essential aspects of every good mood is a sense of identification with something outside oneself…”
This last quote summarizes a central thesis of Letters to Olga. In his writing, Havel spoke of three horizons that define and give meaning to our lives. The first horizon, he says, is that physical horizon of our own immediate environment. At the time of writing Letters to Olga Havel identified this horizon as his prison cell.
The second horizon, however, is greater than the first, wrote Havel. It is the horizon of “existence” which is greater than the physical space we occupy. This horizon requires “memory and imagination”, wrote Havel. It is the horizon of a life which transcends specific locality. It includes the sum of a person’s work and substance.
But that is not the final horizon, Havel wrote. The final horizon, he says, is that horizon from which all other horizons derive their meaning. It is the horizon that is “the most abstract, the most concealed and the most difficult of all to grasp, but at the same time, paradoxically, the most certain (it endures though everything concrete disintegrates).” It is “the most lasting. It is final and absolute (as the absolute horizon of all of life’s relativities); it is...the metaphysical vanishing point of life, defining its meaning.”
Havel says this third horizon is the horizon we refer to as God.
Havel died early this morning in his weekend home, the first horizon. His lifework--as a playwright, politician and global ambassador--scores a broad, recognizable second horizon. But today, Sunday, Havel walked across that third horizon, which seemed so long in coming while he was imprisoned but which, as for all of us, runs right through our own bedroom as we draw each labored breath, including our last--and beyond it.
“I’m beginning to understand a lot of things with a new urgency, above all that in everything he does, man—usually without being aware of it, or far more than he knows—relates to something outside himself…All his actions, in fact, take place against the background of this horizon, which defines and gives meaning to those actions somewhat in the way the heavens make the stars what they are. And even things apparently trivial, and apparently meant to fulfill personal needs, conceal somewhere in their depths this sense of ‘relating.’” --Vaclav Havel, Letters to Olga
born October 5, 1936
died December 18, 2011