If you define a hero as someone who performs deeds which you cannot imagine yourself perform and which are marked by self-sacrifice for a greater good, Václav Havel, who passed away today at the age of 75 near Prague, was my hero.
The 13-year old me learned his name early on in the Velvet Revolution, as he and his fellow dissidents negotiated the end of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia’s rule. With democracy taking hold in my country for the first time since 1938, details of his life emerged: the theft of his family’s property by the communist government; the emergence as a playwright; the opposition to the regime, particularly through the Charter 77 declaration that he co-wrote in the first months of my life on the country’s other end; the imprisonment and persecution; the sweep into the pinnacle of politics as the regime crumbled.
His credo, “Truth and love will prevail over lie and hate,” his New Year’s addresses, his essays, his aloof communication style and character quirks (wearing a sweater in office, roaming the halls of the Prague Castle on a scooter) not only endeared Havel to me, they opened whole new worlds: of morality, of philosophy, and of ‘doing your own thing’. Much later I realized that, as president, first of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, then of the independent Czech Republic, he was the democratic embodiment of Plato’s philosopher king.*
He could not prevent my country from falling apart. He could not preserve his high ground in the morass of politics. He could not resist following the passing of his wife Olga, the recipient of his letters in the eponymous collection, with a marriage to an actress 20 years his junior. Heroes are human, too, I told myself, and his experience of communist persecution led me to believe that even through the perceived failings, he stuck to his ‘living within the truth’ philosophy.
In an eerie, if unwitting, presentiment, I got an urge about 3 weeks ago to check out from the library the collection of Havel’s essays “Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990”. I skimmed a couple of pieces I recalled from the first time I read the book years ago, and returned the book into the reading stack. Re-reading the book over the holidays feels like an inadequate way to honor his memory, but everything short of living within the truth would.
Pán prezident Havel, hlboko Vám ďakujem, a odpočívajte v pokoji.
* “The philosopher is he who has in his mind the perfect pattern of justice, beauty, truth; his is the knowledge of the eternal; he contemplates all time and all existence…” —Plato, “Republic”
Image credit: Tomki Nemec
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