A speech, given by Michael J. Kirkwood, Professor of Slavonic Languages and Literatures at Glasgow University, on the occasion of the presentation of an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters at the University of Glasgow
Mr Chancellor, by the authority of the Senate, I present to you this person on whom the Senate desires you to confer the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters:
Members of the Senate will recall that the Senate resolved on 2 November 1989 that Dr Václav Havel be invited to receive the award of Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters at a Graduation Ceremony to be held in October 1990 when the City of Glasgow was celebrating its appointment as European City of Culture. Unfortunately, it has not been possible for Dr Havel to come to the University for the conferment of the Honorary Degree until today. Originally Dr Havel was to have received his Degree on 7 November 1997, a date which happened to mark the 80th anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917. That Revolution was the first link in a chain of events which established firstly in what was to become the Soviet Union and then, after the Second World War, in Eastern Europe, a totalitarian system of government which, in its Leviathan omnipresence, sought to suppress the individual, allegedly in the interests of the collective. It created what Alexander Zinoviev has called the 'atmosphere of the lie'. Václav Havel advocated and exemplified the following principle: 'live within the truth'. Today, 21 October 1998, can be seen, therefore, as an occasion for celebrating the victory of the truth over the lie.
But it is, of course, primarily an occasion for celebrating the outstanding achievements of a major playwright, essayist, intellectual and politician, of a man who's innate decency, strength of will, humanism and courage is quite simply exemplary. Mr Chancellor, I have to tell you that trying to do justice to President Havel's achievements in the time at my disposal has been a major challenge, and one which I fear I have not adequately met. I would dearly like to share with everyone here today the pleasure that I have derived from my study of Václav Havel's writing, to quote extensively from such masterpieces as his open letter to Dr Husák, his remarkable essay entitled 'The Power of the Powerless', from his plays which ridicule the absurdities of a totalitarian system of government and at the same time provoke serious thought as to the universality of the dialectics of power, from his letters to his wife Olga, written when he was in prison between 1979 and 1983. Therein is contained so much wisdom, humanity, courage, humour, and simple (or do I mean profound?) common sense, so much that is still relevant not only to the post-Communist environment/ but to the human experience 'tout court'. But given the time at my disposal, I shall be able to do little more than list the bare outlines of this man's achievements.
Václav Havel was born on 5 October 1936 in Prague into a prominent businessman's family. This privileged background was not to his advantage in the 'workers' state' which came into being in 1948. When he finished his schooling in 1951 his bourgeois background hindered his prospects for higher education. He was obliged therefore to seek another path. Between 1951 and 1954 he worked as a chemical laboratory technician during the day, attending workers' education classes in the evening. In 1955 he was admitted to the Economics Faculty at the Czech Technical University, Prague, leaving there in 1957. There was, however, one great advantage to being brought up with a bourgeois background in a communist state: Václav Havel was able to experience, in his own words, 'life from below', 'life as it really is'. To this experience he attributes his sensitivity to the dimension of the absurd in life, a sensitivity which he will reveal in his plays.
He himself notes the importance of the year 1956. It was the year of Khrushchev's 'secret speech', a time of revelations, of the disappearance of illusions, of the glimmerings of hope. It is shortly afterwards that Václav Havel began to write for the theatre. He himself professed not to be interested in politics, but his plays reveal a sharply analytical awareness of the 'contradictions' in society reflecting, in his own words, 'the tension between Stalinism and de-Stalinisation'. In 1960 he began work at Prague's avant-garde Theatre on the Balustrade as stagehand, and then as assistant director, and dramaturge. His first plays were produced there, including The Garden Party (1963) which became his first major international success, bringing fame both to the theatre and to himself. The Memorandum (1965) and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1968) were also major successes.
Between 1962 and 1966 he was allowed to study drama at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, having earlier been denied admission to drama school after his military service. In 1964 he married Olga Šplíchalová, whom he met at the Theatre on the Balustrade. She was to assist him in many of his dissident activities during the communist era and produced and disseminated samizdat materials while her husband was in prison. Founder of the Olga Havel Foundation, which provides humanitarian assistance to people with permanent or long-term health problems, she died on 27 January 1996. In 1997 he married Dagmar Veškrnová, a popular and acclaimed Czech theatrical, television and film actress.
From 1965 Havel was associated with the experimental literary journal Face, but it was soon forced to shut down on the grounds of its ideological non-conformism. In 1967 he attacked the Congress of Writers for its bureaucratic character and spoke out against literary controls. During 1968, the time of the 'Prague Spring', he was an active and outspoken advocate of reform and became thereby a target for attack from the Soviet bloc.
In 1969 Václav Havel's work was banned in Czechoslovakia and he himself moved from Prague to the country, where he concentrated on his writing. For a time he worked as a labourer in a brewery, an experience which provided him with material for three later one-act plays, each of which examines an aspect of the lives of ordinary people under 'real socialism' and the compromises they have to make in order to 'live normally'. His activity against the Communist regime continued, reflected in part in his support for and interest in contemporary rock-music. On more than one occasion he hosted concerts of banned music at his country cottage.
The period of so-called 'normalisation' which set in after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968, coming as it did after the heady days of the 'Prague Spring' when many people dared to hope that genuine reform was possible, was very hard to bear and a national apathy set in, reflected in a kind of sullen pact between the ordinary people and the regime whereby the former were offered a measure of material well-being based on consumerism in exchange for their acceptance of the regime and abstention from overt criticism. Outwardly, there was indeed a kind of 'normal' equilibrium: apparent stability, apparent (if unspectacular) material improvement in the standard of living.
In 1975 Václav Havel wrote an open letter to Dr Husák, the leader of the Czechoslovak government, in which he laid bare the foundation on which this apparently normal state of affairs was based. It was his first public statement since being blacklisted in 1969. I regard it as an astonishingly brave thing to have done: to have published such a withering condemnation of the socio-political system under which he and his fellow citizens were forced to live and to have addressed it to the head of the government. Openly, unambiguously, with no thought for his own safety, Václav Havel calmly explains to Dr Husák that the apparent pact between the government and the governed is based primarily on fear. That the process of 'normalisation' has created a world of the lie, within which people in their public lives - at all levels and in every aspect and at all times (which is an experience that we in the West so far have been spared)- are forced to dissimulate. 'For fear' he writes 'of losing his job, the schoolteacher teaches things he does not believe; fearing for his future, the pupil repeats them after him.' Or again: 'Fear causes people to attend all those official celebrations, demonstrations and marches. Fear of being prevented from continuing their work leads many artists and scientists to give allegiance to ideas they do not in fact accept, to write things they do not agree with or know to be false, to join official organisations or to take part in work of whose value they have the lowest opinion, or to distort and mutilate their own works.' Elsewhere in the letter he accuses the authorities under Husák of promoting the 'cult of right-thinking mediocrity'. His government permanently issues an 'open warrant for the arrest of anything inwardly free'. His final accusation is devastating: 'So far, you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power.'
Perhaps surprisingly, the author of Dear Dr Husák was not arrested, although he was fully prepared for that eventuality. In 1976 he was one of the few non-participants who was allowed to witness the trial of four rock-band musicians. That trial provided what the Germans call a 'Wendepunkt', a turning point. It was a spectacle which, in its enacting, became embarrassing for everyone involved, judge, prosecutor, accused, spectator. As Havel wrote: 'What was the public prosecutor originally supposed to have been in this trial? Undoubtedly a plausible spokesman and guardian of society's interests, convincingly demonstrating how offensive, vulgar, immoral, and antisocial the defendants' creative work was. But what did this man become? The symbol of an inflated, narrow-minded power, persecuting everything that does not fit into its sterile notions of life, everything unusual, risky, self-taught, and unbribable, everything that is too artless and too complex, too accessible and too mysterious, everything in fact that is different from itself. He was a mouthpiece for the world of spiritual manipulation, opportunism, emotional sterility, banality and moral prudery.'
Attitudes changed after that trial. Something, it seemed, had to be done. And something indeed was done. Charter 77 was born. On 6 January 1977 Václav Havel, Pavel Landovský and Ludvík Vaculík, the official spokesmen for Charter 77 were detained for questioning while on route to the post office to mail copies to its 240 signatories and to the government of Czechoslovakia. The full text was published in German the following day in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and in many other newspapers throughout the world. Charter 77 by its own admission was a 'free informal open community of people of different convictions, different faiths and different professions united by the will to strive, individually and collectively, for the respect of civic and human rights'. It was launched in January 1977 in a year proclaimed as the Year of Political Prisoners and its aim was to 'promote the general public interest'.
As a consequence of his involvement with Charter 77 and the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted which was founded in 1978, Havel was subject to house arrest during 1978-79. In October 1978 he wrote his famous essay 'The Power of the Powerless', in which he tackles the question of how the individual can pursue what he called 'the aims of life' within a totalitarian environment. Václav Havel's solution to the problem of 'living in the lie' was at once breath-takingly simple to understand and at the same time desperately difficult to execute. It was the advice to his countrymen and women to 'live in the truth'. What I find remarkable about that formula is that it was advice given without the expectation of any change in the political system in the foreseeable future. It was advice to worry about the consequences of window ledges falling on people and killing them, rather than sweeping such incidents under the carpet in the interests of the bright future. It was advice to act towards people in ones immediate environment with consideration, respect, dignity, to work for, as he put it, 'the rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love.' He envisioned the development of what he called a 'parallel polis', within which people acted in their immediate environment along the lines just advocated, and which would co-exist with the external, formalised, ritualised, bureaucratised polis.
His essay had an immense impact in Eastern Europe. As Zbygniew Bujak, a Solidarity activist, said: 'This essay reached us in the Ursus factory in 1979 at a point when we felt we were at the end of the road. Reading it gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up, and a year later - in August 1980 - it became clear that the party apparatus and the factory management were afraid of us. We mattered. And the rank and file saw us as the leaders of the movement. When I look at the victories of Solidarity, and of Charter 77, I see in them an astonishing fulfilment of the prophesies and knowledge contained in Havel's essay'.
In the context of the post 1989-developments which have led to the defeat of communism in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is a passage in this essay which is remarkably prescient. Václav Havel's hope that the decision by increasing numbers of people to 'live in the truth' would lead to the development of a parallel polis led him to the following realisation. He wrote: 'either the post-totalitarian system will go on developing, thus inevitably coming closer to some dreadful Orwellian vision of a world of absolute manipulation, or the independent life of society (the parallel polis), including the 'dissident' movements, will slowly but surely become a social phenomenon of growing importance'. The events of that remarkable autumn in 1989, when Eastern Europe effected its 'peaceful revolution', demonstrate the extent to which the 'parallel polis' had indeed become important.
Václav Havel's tireless devotion to the cause of truth did not go unpunished and he has been incarcerated several times for his beliefs, the last time from January to May, 1989. His longest prison term lasted from 1979-83, allegedly for 'subversion'.
In November 1989 Václav Havel became one of the leaders of the Civic Forum opposition movement, which helped bring about the end of communist rule. On 29 December 1989 he was elected President of Czechoslovakia. The new, freely elected Parliament re-elected him on 5 July, 1990, for a two-year term. As President of the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic, he established new relationships with many world leaders and helped lay the foundations for Czechoslovakia's new foreign policy. When, after the June 1992 parliamentary elections, it began to be clear that the federation was heading for dissolution, Václav Havel resigned from the federal presidency on 20 July. On 26 January 1993 he was elected the first President of the Czech Republic. He was re-elected Elected President of the Czech Republic on 20 January 1998. Mr Chancellor, in paying tribute to President Havel's outstanding contribution as a responsible citizen of his country, I do not wish to neglect the contribution he has made to the theatre, and to culture in general. His plays have been performed around the world. His books have been translated into many languages. Books in English include Letters to Olga, Disturbing the Peace, Open Letters, Selected Plays by Václav Havel, Summer Meditations and Towards Civil Society.
Among his many honours are the Obie Award (USA, 1968, 1970); the State Prize for European Literature (Austria, 1968); the Prix Plaisir du Thťatre (France, 1981); the Erasmus of Rotterdam Prize (Netherlands, 1986); Olaf Palme Prize (Sweden, 1989); Ordre des Arts et Lettres (France, 1989); the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (1989); Grande Croix de la Lťgion d'Honneur (France, 1990); the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal (USA, 1990); the Council of Europe Medal (1990); the W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award (USA, 1991); the Sonning Prize (Denmark, 1991); the Internationaler Karlspreis (Aachen, Germany 1991); honorary membership in the Royal British Legion (1991); the Athinai Prize of the Onassis Foundation (Greece, 1993); the Theodor Heuss Preis (Germany, 1993); the Indira Gandhi Prize (India, 1994); the Philadelphia Liberty Medal (USA 1994); the Order of the Bath (1996).
Václav Havel has also been awarded honorary academic degrees from many institutions, including York University, Toronto, Canada, Le Mirail University,Toulouse, France, Columbia University, NewYork, USA, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel, Bayreuth University, Bayreuth, Germany, Charles University, Prague, Universitť Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, Wroclaw University, Wroclaw, Poland, Stanford and Harvard Universities, USA.
Mr Chancellor, no one foresaw the collapse of communism. The Autumn of 1989 was a triumphant vindication of Václav Havel's inspirational advice to pursue the aims of life. In this connection there is a moment in Václav Havel's biography to which I should like to draw attention. In an essay he wrote in 1987, there is the following sentence: 'Skepticism is now so general and so deep-seated that I find it impossible to imagine the kind of leader it would take to stand in Husák's place and get this society moving again'. Well, as we say in Scotland, 'ye ken noo.' The answer is: it takes a man like Václav Havel, a man who, by his exemplary behaviour as citizen, artist and human being is an inspiration not only to his countrymen but to us all.
It is thus with great pleasure, Mr Chancellor, that I now invite you to confer upon Václav Havel the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters.