Hence we begin today with a post Kevin Courrier wrote back on May 10, 2010 on Vaclav Havel's book The Art of the Impossible as a tribute to the Czech playwright and President who died today at the age of 75. Tomorrow a tribute to the recently deceased journalist Christopher Hitchens by Shlomo Schwartzberg.
Democratic Vistas: Vaclav Havel's The Art of the Impossible
For many, especially on the left, Bush had made America the scourge of the planet which meant that (after Obama won) the world would soon be spinning on its proper axis again. The belief seemed to be, with Obama in the White House, that the violent insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban suicide bombers in Afghanistan would now put away their toys and play nice. But the world hasn’t changed in that manner and the zealots haven’t gone away. (Neither has the right-wing version currently propping up the Tea Party.) I do think that Obama sensed the unreal expectations being heaped upon him which is why he underplayed the significance of his election. He knew that the world he was about to confront was the same world that the previous President confronted. Their approach to it might be radically different, but (unlike Naomi Klein) he understood that the irrational ideologies threatening democracy were not solely the product of American corporate power. (In saying so, I'm also not forgetting the economic mess the previous administration left for Obama to clean up.)
The point of creating an intelligent and thoughtful political culture goes far beyond the rabble-rousing of partisan ideologues. To press the point, Walt Whitman once asked in Democratic Vistas, "Did you too suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, for a party name?" To answer that question, I turned to Vaclav Havel's 1997 book, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice. Havel's book is basically a chronicle of speeches, beginning with his address to the United States congress in 1990 (a year after the fall of communism) and concluding with a 1996 speech about politics and theatre at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague three years after he became president of what is now the Czech Republic. But the overall theme of this anthology is a political and personal quest of an idealist struggling to come to terms with the vision of what his homeland was, what it might become and where it might go. Elections and regime changes don't always grapple with those issues.
What Havel is saying quite simply is that totalitarianism didn't fall from the clouds, or become a systemic force that oppressed an innocent public. He is saying that we are all responsible for its existence and that political systems grow out of the character structure of a peoples. (It reminded me of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich when he visited the Soviet Union shortly after the Russian Revolution. He tried in vain to explain the Oedipal conflict to the Red Army who refuted the idea and then later went off to die for the Motherland.) What Havel did (and what I think Obama is trying to do) is to restore a sense of what personal responsibility means when creating freedom within a democracy.
- originally published on May 10, 2010 in Critics at Large.
Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier will be doing a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule in December. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.