Monday, 23 September 2013

"Put thine Castle in Order!": Vaclav Havel and the Ideology of Power

Vaclav Havel: Czech playwright, dissident and later president

To The Castle and Back, Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel, the great Czech dissident and playwright, attained an almost canonical status in the west. His elevation above, say, Walesa (creepingly autocratic), Gorbachev (still a socialist at heart), and Woytyla (Catholic), speaks volumes about which particular lessons we like to draw from the fall of communism. Havel, grumpy and vaguely elitist, never presented himself as a 'man of the people' (unlike Walesa, however knowingly). His wit and ironic distance from the organs of power made him an anti-ideological figurehead. This while having assumed the highest office in the land. In the words of Tim Garton Ash, ubiquitous devotee of the east's 'return to Europe', he never deigned to "examine the political surface of things" but rather lifted his eyes constantly to the transcendent.1 Havel himself described the cleaving of the world into left and right as a mystification arising from the prejudices of modernity.2 The truer mode of distinction was the ancient, moral one - that between right and wrong - which permits an escape from the absurdity of totalitarianism into an older, more sceptical world.

What could not have been appreciated at the time was the way in which Havel's deep scepticism of political ideas began not merely a demystification of the last century's morality but a laying of the foundations of the ideology of the next.

It is telling that Tony Blair, another politician dear to Garton Ash's heart, is likewise keen to stress the primacy of renewed moralism over sectarian politics. All of which bluster assumes that the old division of left and right was somehow artificial, an unnatural substitute which impeded access to this transcendent order of right and wrong. Never mind the gross hubris implied in declaring your own moral constructions transcendentally superior to all others.

The subtlety of Havel's conception of ideology, so influential since first voiced in 'The Power of the Powerless' (1979), is often missed today. His originality was to conceive ideology not as the 'instrument for the rational articulation of ideas' (to sink for a moment to the lowest level of Party jargon), but instead as a kind of "veil" which "permeates" and helps to "form" society itself. In a situation he already described as "post-totalitarian", the guarantee of social cohesion was undertaken through essentially cynical means - while nobody really believed, everybody remained within the system in order to avoid any problems. Ideology became the (cynical) legitimization of power, a way of totalizing social space, of making people accept society as they found it. Yet for Havel this desire for totality was not strictly unique to communist societies, but in fact stemmed from the "historical encounter between dictatorship and consumerism", and contained a warning to the west. After all, he asked, wasn't totalitarianism merely an "exaggerated caricature" of modern life in general? Communism, therefore, was lumped in with all the other symptoms of the condition of humanity under modernity. 

The crucial aspect was to understand how ideology was no longer adopted out of naive idealism, but had taken on the role of a cynical mode of self-justification, a sort of universal deception which allowed a debased society to function. In a conclusion which always contained the potential for mysticism, it was modernity as such that degraded truth.

Havel believed in a kind of social and political order, but in what specifically? Clearly not the order of the Communist Party, which was for him a reactionary Orleanism, a reinstitution of the old cycle of coercion and repression. Havel's order is the response to a divine injunction - "put thine castle in order!" Following this revelation of divine will, one's task is literally to give order to the clutter of the world. Giving order to the humdrum in the face of a great wave: popularly this is known as fiddling while Rome burns. It is the "structures that embody our statehood"3 - coats of arms, dinner etiquette, properly emblazoned cutlery - which obsess him. There is a certain charm to this. At one point in To The Castle and Back he damns an old cleaner who, firmly ensconced somewhere in the Castle's political heart, stubbornly refuses to let anybody make use of the good silver for diplomatic dinners. Havel's delight in heraldic motifs (the Castle itself being one) was an expression of a desire to reinvigorate a more magical side of Europe, one more concerned with exploring the occult than anything like mass politics. Hence his affection for the Rudolfine court and its vast, eccentric treasure-troves.

Havel's suspicion of political ideas stemmed from a more general distaste for rationalism. For Havel order was the creation of personal balance. His was the Truth of prophets and poets, one that could be disclosed only through revelation, and even then only fleetingly. Reason fractures the unity of the World, yet in the absence of human reason (in Nietzschean overtones) "everything is related to everything else."4  The World is thus a priori harmonious; it is in human consciousness that the violence exists. He speaks of a "hidden fabric of life"5 accessible through ruptures with linear, rational thought, such as the collage (a reference to the non-linear or rather multi-linear structure of the book). While negatively this resulted in disdain for the modern "machinery" of the state, its positive aspect was a deep nostalgia for a more heraldic, romantic past. Revelation was an act of the individual creative will, a glimpse of a mysterious unity outside of human reason. Hence Havel's dislike of honest capitalism (or "capitalism without adjectives", in the words of the ODS slogan) - too protestant and earthy to satisfy his need for something transcendent and unbothered by the merely material.

In a sense then this was a specifically Catholic method of revelation: the divine order of reality fleetingly revealed. His 'post-political' (sometimes even, in his more daring, anti-consensual moments, 'post-democratic') politics was really only a reversion to some pre-modern conception of political order as social balance, harmony with nature, and atonement in the eyes of a transcendent power.

This poetics of revelation, with its emphasis on the mysterious and alchemical, found its apotheosis in the Prague Castle itself. At once the embodiment of noble grandeur and mystical experiments, in the Castle Havel could explore the psychical depths of Central Europe, situated at the very heart of its cultural repository (one of his great diplomatic blunders was an attempt to have Sweden return the sacked artefacts of Rudolf II's famous collection to Prague). Yet as any visitor to Prague knows, the Castle refuses to 'reveal' anything besides a slightly ridiculous testament to imagined histories of power, rendering the city somehow inadequate relative to its lofty ambitions.

In contrast to Kafka's eponymous Castle, which reveals itself through the mists as a ramshackle assemblage of dull huts, Hradcany (The Castle district) dissolves into mere 'aristocratic splendour'. As people wander its odd little streets they might be heard to ask where the famous Castle actually is. From a distance it is sombrely imposing, but on the approach it breaks down into its constituent parts: cathedral, dwellings, old shops, presidential quarters. Yet, as something more than the sum of its parts, it is forever visible on the skyline, a black crystalline embodiment of a fantasy of power utterly alienated from the city at its feet. Its very pageantry, awash with the occult, only reinforces its reality for 'cynical' Czechs as a magnificent chocolate-box screen image - the benign mask of an intangible trauma, a troubling hangover from centuries of religious oppression and foreign domination.

Havel was a kind of benign mystic reactionary, rejecting modern consciousness as essentially sullied by technocratic rationalism. It was this very rejection which mired him in an impotent campaign for a fantastical revolution in the general human consciousness, a groundless religious mission which lacked (and lacks) any concrete support, and left him startlingly isolated by the end of his time in office. Havel regrets that the "political technocrats outnumber the dreamers"6: it's no cruel trick on the dreamers, however, that this remains the case. Nonetheless, the more interventionist of liberals; those, like Blair, of a more militaristic pose, have also been bloodier. For Havel's rare political quietism we should in the end be thankful.

1Ash, The Uses of Adversity, 163
2qtd., Ash, 171
3Havel, To The Castle and Back, 286
6 ibid., 295

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