Vaclav Havel: crisis of 'human spirit' demands spiritual reawakening

Vaclav Havel spent his life fighting for freedom and democratic expression. His legacy stands in sharp contrast to that of Kim Jong-il, who ruthlessly denied his people a voice.

David W Cerny/Reuters
People light candles as they pay their respects to late former Czech President Vaclav Havel at Wenceslas Square in Prague Thursday.

The mingled images of Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-il lying in state this week are a sobering finale to a year of global upheaval.

2011 brought an Arab Spring followed by a Pacific earthquake and tsunami that knocked the earth 9 millimeters off its axis – and it ended with the passing on the same day of arguably the best and the worst, the lightest and the darkest, of global public figures.

It’s a stranger-than-fiction contrast that would likely cause the dramatist in Havel to smile. He spent his life fighting for freedom, expression, growth toward more light, and bringing the East and West European families together. Mr. Kim spent his days ruthlessly denying those impulses, and reinforcing a dark, prison-state built on brainwashing and the personal deification of the Kim family dynasty.

Today in Prague, Bill and Hillary Clinton are joining British Prime Minister David Cameron, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, former Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, and a galaxy of artists and others, at Havel’s funeral. The guest list at Kim’s service has not been forthcoming. But the litmus test can be imagined.

I can remember interviewing Havel at his colorful office in the Prague castle, days before he came to Harvard University to deliver the 1996 commencement address. He spoke of the importance of civil society, and how tendencies in the modern world after the cold war still threatened the human spirit. At Harvard, then-Vice President Al Gore was in the audience (his daughter was graduating). At the time, the West was watching the Bosnian carnage from the sidelines. Havel pleaded openly with the US to do something, which it eventually did.

Later, while reporting in Beijing, I was denied access to Kim’s North Korea, but visited border areas where refugees gathered. We heard of labor camps the size of US cities, of starvation, fear, the beating and killing of prisoners, and of a system in the north allowing only those proved to have pure Korean blood to live in Pyongyang. The picture was chilling. But with Kim playing the nuclear card, little attention was paid to the North Korean people.

Except for Havel. He seemed to care that hundreds of thousands were persecuted in a system that the astute observer and Korean-based author B. R. Meyers describes not as Stalinist, but as deeply fascist in nature. In our global human family, Havel argued, one may not be able to solve every problem. But at some real level it matters to everyone when people are killed or tortured with impunity.

A marginalized voice

But Havel the president was increasingly marginalized in later years in the mad dash in the East to adopt market capitalism. He got treated as an exotic bird let out of his cage to make eloquent speeches. Those were often treated as pretty philosophy but unrelated to real life. “Let’s make money!” became more the mantra of the day.

Still, this week, when hearing of the twinned departures of Havel and Kim, it was difficult to fully fathom the dimensions of their difference. (Both were short of stature and crazy about film, but there it ends.) What they represented seemed to go far past even their description in headlines as polar opposites on the moral scale. 

Turning to Havel the dissident conscience and essayist, rather than the public figure, is salutary. His constant theme is the crisis of what he called “the human spirit,” and of mankind’s need to rediscover its deeper resources and identity. Without a spiritual reawakening, humanity is at peril. He said it under Soviet rule and he said it in new and compelling language in the post-modern present. There is something far more powerful, fresh, and astonishing about the spirit of man, than is recognized, he argued. Yet humanity has treated its spiritual life in much the same way Kim Jong-il treated his people. Pursuit of the material good life will not help humanity save itself. Nor is democracy alone enough, he said. A turning to and seeking of “Being,” or God, is needed, said Havel, whose credo became known as “living in truth.”

“The relationship to the world that modern science fostered and shaped appears to have exhausted its potential,” he said in Philadelphia, speaking at Independence Hall in 1994. “The relationship is missing something. It fails to connect with the most intrinsic nature of reality and with natural human experience.”

In Paris several years ago, he lamented Europe’s obsession with technocratic answers and consumerism. The path out of nuclear conflict, ethnic nationalism, or environmental degradation will require a more transcendent change of mind and heart, even if this is derided as nonsense by policy realists.   

“Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights. But it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence,” he added in Philadelphia. The “Creator” gave man the right to liberty, and “It seems that man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.”

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