Voices not heard at Geneva
LET us imagine you happen to be neither American nor Russian in this season of summit meetings and arms control talks. Just how do you feel, being one of the nearly 5 billion human beings who are not represented by either of the super states? European friends fumble for a metaphor that will explain: You feel like a small child when your mother and father are quarreling over where to live. The decision will affect you as much as them, but you have no say. You hear the voices rise. You watch the faces turn red. You hope nobody does anything irreparably rash out of anger or pride. Your fear is that this supposedly rational discussion could end, not in one compromise or another, but in breaking up the home altogether.Skip to next paragraph
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What you feel is left out.
What you feel is helpless.
Some European writers have shaped their feelings into print, and they make chastening reading for any Americans who bother to read them, or any Russians who can.
Consider just the voluble Czechs, who have come into their own during the last decade as spirited spokesmen for the vast, vast majority that makes up the third world of non-Americans, non-Russians. Surprisingly, they are concerned not that the superpowers fail to be serious enough, but that they are too serious, or at any rate, too solemn.
In the latest New York Review of Books, writing on ``Peace: The View From Prague,'' the playwright V'aclav Havel confesses: ``It seems that in Central Europe what is most earnest has a way of blending, in a particularly tense manner, with what is most comic. It seems that it is precisely the dimension of distance, of rising above ourselves and making light of ourselves, that lends our concerns and acts just the right shattering seriousness.''
Clearly Havel finds something rigidly unyielding, and perhaps inhuman, in the grim solemnity with which the superpowers confront each other. Certainly he finds something dangerous.
Knowing that humor on the subject of war and peace would appear equally threatening to most Americans and Russians, Havel writes: ``The life of a dissident in Czechoslovakia really is not something particularly jolly, and spending time in Czechoslovak jails is even less so. Our frequent jesting about these matters is not in conflict with their seriousness, rather it is its inevitable consequence.''
Havel's assertion of Czech ``distrust of all overstatement and of any cause incapable of seeing itself in perspective'' connects to the remarks of another Czech author, Ivan Kl'ima, in a letter to the American novelist Philip Roth, reprinted in Harper's. Kl'ima worries about rhetorical excess driving Americans and Russians into absolute claims of virtue and innocence, reducing ``all problems to the common denominator of political conditions, dividing the world into good and evil, free and unfree.''
As Kl'ima sees it -- and a Czech should know: ``Most people live in a world of considerably circumscribed freedoms.'' This is the unjust fact of history, and people, including writers, find ways to survive, like Dostoyevsky and Chekhov who suffered ``the oppression and the infamy of the czarist regime.''
``Only a free human being can create genuine art,'' Kl'ima concludes. ``But one can be free even while living in conditions of unfreedom.''
What are these writers from a tiny country -- and one might as well include the 'emigr'e satirists Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky -- trying to say to the superpowers? Maybe the message is that in this mega-power, mega-rhetoric summit world of limousines and television cameras and entourages of experts there is a fundamental distortion. The scale is so big it becomes, paradoxically, provincial.
Important issues, these wry, private voices appear to be saying, have to be made small and personal in order to be sane and true. And so we come to the cat of Karel Capek. Another toughly whimsical Czech of an earlier generation, Capek wrote about cats in order to write about war and peace, or perhaps it was the other way around.
``A cat,'' he observes, ``coos to you, looks into your eyes and says: `Open, man, this door for me; give me, you much-eating one, from what you are partaking; stroke me; say something; let me come onto my chair.' Toward you she is no wild, hissing, solitary shadow; for you she is simply a domestic puss, because she has faith in you. A wild animal is an animal which has no faith. Domestication is simply a state of confidence.
``And after all, even we men escape being wild only to the extent that we trust each other. . . . Politics which live by cultivating distrust are the politics of the wild. . . . If you destroy the state of trust, the world of human beings becomes a land of wild animals.
``A state of distrust is the first state of savagery; distrust is the law of the jungle.''
At which point, Capek leaves the summits and the arms control talks to us, and like a good Czech announces to all readers that he is going back to stroking his cat. A Wednesday and Friday column