LYNDON DAVIES – Editorial: Goodbye Havel

Václav Havel died. The powerless one who became powerful and at the same time somehow less powerful than before, has become now powerful in a different way, by doing that thing the dead do – completing a trajectory.

Every epochal political event is simple: for instance, the people rise up against their oppressors, a revolution occurs, either violent or “velvet”. Except that, like everything else in nature, the simple is also unimaginably complex. Beyond the tipping-point, the event reveals how intolerably multiple it always, in fact, was; discloses the welter of ideas and emotions which fused for an unlikely instant, and then scattered again.

Astonishing, that moment of revolt, in its hour and place. How vivid and correct the leader, where there is one, or failing that the multicellular impulse of a people. Right to honour such events for themselves, as moments which, even if already tragically (or comically) fated, are the necessary responses to the time that required them; perfect perhaps only for one millionth of a second, but for that millionth of a second better than their own inescapably compromised destinies.

Havel was human but he didn’t seem to mind. Too human to look anything other than ill at ease as a stuffed shirt chivvying a royal, or staring symbolically into a clenched military distance. He knew all about absurdity, did Havel. Odd then that he should end up as a kind of figurehead (admired by Thatcher) for a system that he so very clearly, in his rebellious pomp, despised; a system in some ways as antisocial as the one he’d just assisted in giving the bum’s rush to. Here’s what he wrote in 1978:

It would appear that the traditional parliamentary democracies can offer no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society, for they, too, are being dragged helplessly along by it. People are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies. This static complex of rigid, conceptually sloppy, and politically pragmatic mass political parties run by professional apparatuses and releasing the citizen from all forms of concrete and personal responsibility; and those complex focuses of capital accumulation engaged in secret manipulations and expansion; the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, consumer culture, and all that flood of information: all of it, so often analyzed and described, can only with great difficulty be imagined as the source of humanity’s rediscovery of itself.1

Was he right, then, to associate himself so completely with this diseased hulk, or should he have gone on pushing from the highground for an ethical reconstitution of the nature of politics and society? The trouble with the human is that it tends to make human choices. One step at a time oh lord, and so on… But time could prove him right, may already be doing so.

His name seemed to fruit, then soften and mulch away. He allowed that, maybe even welcomed it with that dishevelled half-smile. He wouldn’t have seen it harden again suddenly, out there: a constellation, dripping with incense and bells. In that form it surely wouldn’t have been much use to him, that name; he’d prefer the one still rotting away in the civic apple pile, just oozing a useful juice, a potential alcohol. (Let’s think it).

Strange how well his pig-headed, non-doctrinaire, learn as you go, slightly shambling spirit of rebellion seems to fit the tenor of the current outbreak of insurrections everywhere, at least in their commencements and especially in their less desperate manifestations. It hovers over the “Occupy” movements in America and Europe; it’s no doubt drawn like a needle to magnetic north to the communal, improvisatory ground-work of the Arab Spring. Here’s Havel again, sounding rather Green:

There can and must be structures that are open, dynamic, and small; beyond a certain point, human ties like personal trust and personal responsibility cannot work. There must be structures that in principle place no limits on the genesis of different structures. Any accumulation of power whatsoever (one of the characteristics of automatism) should be profoundly alien to it. They would be structures not in the sense of organizations or institutions, but like a community. Their authority certainly cannot be based on long-empty traditions, like the tradition of mass political parties, but rather on how, in concrete terms, they enter into a given situation. Rather than a strategic agglomeration of formalized organizations, it is better to have organizations springing up ad hoc, infused with enthusiasm for a particular purpose and disappearing when that purpose has been achieved.2

He would, I dare say, have been encouraged by 2011: the Havel of 1978 would have been, anyway. It was quite a year: wherever we looked emperors were unaccountably losing their clothes: an epidemic of poor bare forked shivering animals in high places. Suddenly they didn’t even look very dangerous any more, just ridiculous, like clowns, though clowns with some very dangerous machinery behind them. The normal were calling the grotesque to account, the modest were rattling the hypertrophied like maraccas. Tyrants, captains of finance and media, received élites, all the ones with an over-inflated sense of their own entitlement, all over the world in the most unlikely places were learning to look over their shoulders and under the beds.

And long may it continue, as it certainly will have to, worked at, renewing itself over and over, breaking veil after veil (see Egypt), enjoying its own absurdities, always on the qui vive against the imperfections inextricably knitted into it. And long may Havel go floating over it in his shirtsleeves, dropping ash from his endless ultimate cigarette, laughing fraternally, openly with no hint now of embarrassment.

Junction Box says good luck and thanks to him. And Happy New Year to the people all over the world who are sick of the bullshit and trying to do something about it.

1. Václav Havel: The Power of the Powerless (Oct 1978) Trans: Paul Wilson. See:

2. Ibid.

Lyndon Davies lives in Powys. His first collection of poems, Hyphasis, was published by Parthian in 2006. His second book, Shield, (Parthian) came out in May 2010. He co-runs the Glasfryn Seminars, a series of discussion groups on contemporary literature and also co-runs the Hay Poetry Jamboree, an annual festival of innovative poetries.


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