It’s a shame that it took him dying late last year for me to go back to the essays of Vaclev Havel, but it did, and I’ve been carrying the book around with me in my backpack for months now with plans to write up this post.
If you haven’t read any of Havel’s work, you ought to give a glance at “The Power of the Powerless.” Here’s a bit of it:
The profound crisis of human identity brought on by living within a lie, a crisis which in turn makes such a life possible, certainly possesses a moral dimension as well; it appears, among other things, as a deep moral crisis in society. A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system, whose identity is dissolved in an amalgam of the accoutrements of mass civilization, and who has no roots in the order of being, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his or her own personal survival, is a demoralized person. the system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society.
Living within the truth, as humanity’s revolt against an enforced position, is, on the contrary, an attempt to regain control over one’s own sense of responsibility. In other words, it is clearly a moral act, not only because one must pay so dearly for it, but principally because it is not self-serving: the risk may bring rewards in the form of a general amelioration in the situation, or it may not. In this regard, as I stated previously, it is an all or nothing gamble, and it is difficult to imagine a reasonable person embarking on such a course merely because he or she reckons that sacrifice today will bring rewards tomorrow…
Another of my favorites is his letter to Dr. Gustav Husak, then General Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. A small section:
Just as the constant increase of entropy is the basic law of the universe, so it is the basic law of life to be ever more highly structured and to struggle against entropy.
Life rebels against all uniformity and leveling; its aim is not sameness, but variety, the restlessness of transcendence, the adventure of novelty and rebellion against the status quo. An essential condition for its enhancement is the secret constantly made manifest.
On the other hand, the essence of authority (whose aim is reduced to protecting its own permanence by forcibly imposing the uniformity of perpetual consent) consists basically in a distrust of all variety, uniqueness, and transcendence; in an aversion to everything unknown, impalpable, and currently obscure; in a proclivity for the uniform, the identical, and the inert; in deep affection for the status quo. In it, the mechanical spirit prevails over the vital. The order it strives for is no frank quest for ever higher forms of social self-organization, equivalent to its evolving complexity of structure, but, on the contrary, a decline toward that “state of maximum probability” representing the climax of entropy. Following the direction of entropy, it goes against the direction of life.
In a person’s life, as we know, there is a moment when the complexity of structure begins suddenly to decline and his path turns in the direction of entropy. This is the moment when he, too, succumbs to the general law of the universe: the moment of death.
Somewhere at the bottom of every political authority which has chosen the path to entropy (and would like to treat the individual as a computer into which any program can be fed with the assurance that he will carry it out), there lies hidden the death principle. There is an odor of death even in the notion of “order” which such an authority puts into practice and which sees every manifestation of genuine life, every ex~ ceptional deed, individual expression, thought, every unusual idea or wish, as a red light signaling confusion, chaos, and anarchy.
The entire political practice of the present regime, as I have tried to outline it here step by step, confirms that those concepts which were always crucial for its program-order, calm, consolidation, “guiding the nation out of its crisis,” “halting disruption,” “assuaging hot tempers” and so on-have finally acquired the same lethal meaning that they have for every regime committed to entropy.
True enough, order prevails: a bureaucratic order of gray monotony that stifles all individuality; of mechanical precision that suppresses everything of unique quality; of musty inertia that excludes the transcendent. What prevails is order without life.
True enough, the country is calm. Calm as a morgue or a grave, would you not say?
In a society which is really alive, something is always happen ing. The interplay of current activities and events, of overt and concealed movement, produces a constant succession of unique situations which provoke further and fresh move~ ment. The mysterious, vital polarity of the continuous and the changing, the regular and the random, the foreseen and the unexpected, has its effect in the time dimension and is borne out in the flow of events. The more highly structured the life of a society, the more highly structured its time dimension, and the more prominent the element of uniqueness and unrepeatability within the time flow. This, in turn, of course, makes it easier to reflect its sequential character, to represent it, that is, as an irreversible stream of noninterchangeable situations, and so, in retrospect, to understand better whatever is governed by regular laws in society. The richer the life society lives, then, the better it perceives the dimension of social time, the dimension of history.
In other words, wherever there is room for social activity, room is created for a social memory as well. Any society that is alive is a society with a history.
Smokin’ hot, right? And there’s more where that came from. Do yourself a favor and check him out.