When Truth Begins To Be Untangled From Ideology
BEYOND GLASNOST: THE POST-TOTALITARIAN MIND, by Jeffrey C. Goldfarb. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 248 pp. $24.95. LETTERS TO OLGA, by V'aclav Havel. New York: Henry Holt and Co. Inc. 397 pp. $25. REHABILITATING dissident authors and dead politicians is a glasnost pastime, but it's no excuse for not getting it right in the first place. It's cold comfort to the ghost of Hungarian premier Imre Nagy that his speech protesting the Soviet invasion of his country in 1956 - the speech for which he was executed - is now being rebroadcast in a fit of revisionist compunction and guile.
Readers of Milan Kundera's best-selling novel of ideas, ``The Unbearable Lightness of Being'' (1984), and maybe even those who saw the movie, are in a good position to understand the ironies of life in the Soviet bloc now. In the novel, Kundera expands brilliantly on the concept that personal and historical truth are mysteriously intertwined, that fidelity and memory are sisters and muses in an otherwise bleak world. The mixture of politics and media spooned out under glasnost makes everything in Kundera's novel familiar.
Familiarity needs an occasional shock.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb's ``Beyond Glasnost: The Post-Totalitarian Mind'' sketches in the context and ``post-totalitarian minds'' jump off the pages.
As Goldfarb explains it, ``post-totalitarian'' points to something Gorbachev manipulates with the policy of glasnost: The goal of the totalitarian state may be served by seemingly anti-totalitarian measures. A little free speech here, a little capitalism there, and things look better all over.
For the dissident writers, handled carefully glasnost may mean that communist ideology, and its popular medium, newspeak, can be replaced, judiciously, with words that actually have real referents, that have historical truth. Quoting a poem by Polish expatriate Stanislaw Baranczak, Goldfarb explains newspeak as officially accepted discourse composed of words that ``easily let themselves slip through the strainer of a microphone.'' In newspeak, it's subversive to criticize the Soviet invasion of 1968 that put the current Czech leadership in place.
``Force defines reason'' is one of the useful compact expressions Goldfarb employs to explain totalitarianism. The acceptance of this creates what he calls post-totalitarian society, ``a culture of systematic ignorance and cynicism.''
Against this hopelessness and cynicism the phoenix Solidarity has risen in Poland. Outlawed for years, Solidarity is entering its post-totalitarian phase. Goldfarb helps us grasp the drama of the moment. Solidarity does not stand for an alternative to communism, but for certain well-defined goals. Like other projects of freedom in the Soviet bloc, the end is to create an autonomous realm, where the truth about some things can be untangled from ideology, where, to quote Baranczac again, one can replace glib newspeak with words ``which must work themselves through a grating/ with immense effort.''
And out of the post-totalitarian condition have risen writers of world stature. Goldfarb is excellent on V'aclav Havel, the Czech playwright. Havel spent almost four years in prison for his contributions to Charter 77, an organization that monitors human-rights violations by the Czech regime. Goldfarb shows how Havel has provided an example of ``living in truth.''
Living in truth is difficult where the very idea of truth is questioned. As the letters he wrote to his wife from prison show - published in English as ``Letters to Olga'' - Havel developed a philosophical vocabulary sufficiently oracular to pass the censors, but magnificently charged with piety toward ``Being'' as it's understood by continental philosophy at this time.
The letter of May 1, 1981, illustrates the range of Havel's epistolary art. May Day, as Kundera points out in ``The Unbearable Lightness of Being,'' is ``the model of communist kitsch'' when the grand march toward the workers' paradise becomes a tawdry parade of boots and bombs and martial fanfare, a mixture of chauvinism and regional ``culture'' that blocks the memory of suffering and demeans everyone involved.
On this particular May Day, Havel writes: ``It's May Day, and I'm celebrating it by the kind of work I enjoy most, that is, continuing to write about myself.''
The letter unfolds its sinewy logic in defense of Havel's eclectic approach to truth. He's a bee, sipping now from the Bible, now from Darwin, as he will. (That is, he has the courage to speak of Jesus, even in prison.) A postscript rounds off the exuberant and ironic performance: ``A record by the Bee Gees has come out; you should certainly buy it!!''
Reading Goldfarb, one sees the point: Havel has turned his prison experience toward the truth, expressing, in respites from hard labor, ``fundamental pluralisms and refutable truths.''
The letters document a personal crisis. During his first detention in 1977, Havel played into the hands of the police, yielding to an impulse to clever, amoral self-criticism. For years afterward, Havel felt stigmatized and unworthy. What unfolds in these Olga letters is Havel's gradual discovery of something solid on which to stand.
``Letters to Olga'' should become a classic of world literature. Havel describes prison life as a ``convex mirror,'' where everything stands out. Since the censors did now allow him to give particulars, Havel mastered the art of generalization. His self-portrait in this convex mirror is a portrait of humanity.
Havel is more than a local hero. After his metaphysical and personal hardening in prison, he is now fit to bear witness to ``living in truth'' whatever comes. As Goldfarb shows, one has to be particularly hardy to withstand the blandishments of glasnost. Havel is ready.