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Havel, Kafka and Us

December 21st, 2011 - 7:22 pm

A friend sent me this Czech tv video on the mourning march to the St Vitus Cathedral in the Prague Castle.  I can’t watch it without tearing up. It’s entirely worthy of the great Czech poet, playwright, and revolutionary hero.

The leaders of the free world — not, however, the president of the United States, who is sending the Clintons to the funeral on Friday — will pay him homage, as they should.  Havel was  a marvelous leader and a rare man who remained true to his admirable principles without puffing himself up or delivering moralistic sermons.  He was well aware of his foibles and sins, and yet he worked miracles.  This season, in which so many religious people celebrate miracles, is the right time to reflect on his life.

He wasn’t lucky in his choice of birthplace:  Czechoslovakia, 1935, and the Nazis would soon arrive.  He came from a good family (dad was a restaurateur), but that made things harder for the Havels once the Communists took over after the war.  Given his “bourgeois” background, Havel was kept out of prestigious university programs, and he did manual labor for a while. He fought Communism all his life, got thrown into jail for four years, and when he came out the regime offered him the chance to emigrate to the West.  He laughed at them, went on to lead Charter 77 and then the whole country.

So he came from the wrong sort of family, didn’t have the credentials to ensure literary or intellectual success, and was singled out for punishment and repression by a very nasty regime.  Yet he was one of a handful of people who changed the world by fighting totalitarian Communism and then, having defeated it, inspired his people to rejoin the Western world, embrace capitalism, and support democratic dissidents everywhere.

Did I mention that he loved music?  Both rock and jazz, because he recognized their subversive power.  He loved Frank Zappa, and made him the Czech “cultural ambassador.”  When Bill Clinton visited Prague in the mid-nineties, Havel took him to a seedy nightclub, where the American president played sax with the locals (and his wife, Dagmar, visited the club on a walking tour of the city shortly after Havel’s death).
Watching the video took me back to the day I first visited Prague and saw the castle where Havel’s body lies in state.  I think of it as The Castle, Kafka’s Castle, and if you go up the big hill to Kafka’s house, which hangs over the side over the beautiful city, you may have the same reaction I did:  it’s not at all the way I imagined it when I read Kafka.  I imagined one of those British castles, a Robin Hoody sort of castle with a moat and a drawbridge and a single structure for the lord of the domain.  But no.  “The Castle” has lots of buildings, and it’s kind of baffling.  Very Kafkaesque, so to speak.  The church gives it a certain logic, but otherwise it’s hard to figure out where the center of power lies.  Fortunately there’s a sign with an arrow pointing to the government offices.

Havel loved to write “absurdist” plays and poems.  He was a true heir to Kafka.  Like Kafka, he had an uncanny grasp of the dynamics and resulting horrors of bureaucracy.  And, like Kafka, he was a Zionist.

Unlike Kafka, he found a political vocation, showing once again that you never know how it’s going to turn out.

He’ll be buried on the hill, as he should be.  I rather hope he’ll be buried in jeans and a sweater, his favorite uniform. And in a way it’s proper that Obama not attend the funeral.  He’d be totally out of place in the presence of a real leader, an anti-narcissist, a man of great substance and great faith, who warned that without a firm grasp of moral  principles we are lost.

One by one the great men and women of the generation that survived Nazism and defeated Communism are passing away.  The current crop are midgets compared to Havel and his contemporaries, and we can only hope that a new generation of worthy leaders is on the way.  As he hoped.  And showed the way.

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