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Havel Underground: A synthesis of artistic freedom and socio-political responsibility

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by Matthew Somerville

The literary scholar, René Wellek, hypothesized that in the history of the Czech nation, only rarely has artistic creativeness coincided with periods of “intellectual advance and political good fortune” (29-30). For Wellek, there appears in Czechoslovakia a deep antagonism between the mind and soul, between contemplation and external business (30). There is merit in Wellek’s claim; for, the artist, if they are to remain true to their art, laments living in the head and only wishes to be left in peace to make art for art’s sake. Save for those times when a euphoric atmosphere overflows in a heady wave of anticipation and hope, when the nation calls forth the civic duty of the artist to shepherd the flock toward a new tomorrow, and excepting those times when the artist is co-opted, corrupted, or coerced into propagandizing political ideology, the artistic soul typically refrains, hides out of sight, or up and flees. Václav Havel often expressed the desire to be left alone to write in peace and quiet; yet, he was moved by what he considered a destiny of responsibility to speak for those who were unable to speak for themselves. Havel’s rise to the presidency in 1990 heralds one of those rare moments in Czech history where a synthesis of artistic expression and political good fortune is evident; a synthesis perceived not only in Havel’s symbolic turn from dissident playwright to political essayist, but in a humanist politics that seeks primarily to defend the rights of the individual. Whether or not the regime was destined to fall as it ultimately did in 1989, Havel’s directorship as one of the founding members and authors behind Charter 77 played a key role in the transition to democratic freedom. His rise to the presidency was activated through his engagement with the counter-culture movement and inspired by the underground movement’s refusal to live within a lie, and their initiative to free themselves by their own efforts, regardless of the personal sacrifices required.

Taking up Wellek’s proposition and beginning at the turn of the 20th century, one discerns a deep antagonism between the nation’s artistic soul and an (ir)rational, intellectual and political pragmatism. Czechoslovakia emerged from the rubble of WWI as an independent country; the nation sought to separate itself from the rigid censorship imposed under Austrian rule and called upon artists and political thinkers to contribute to the imaginative revival of the national spirit and identity. The optimism and hope that beckoned was subsequently crushed by the events of WWII and the occupation of the Czech lands, first by the German army, and later by the Soviet regime. A moment of respite from 1945 to 1948 marked a brief re-engagement with literary traditions, and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 provided a pressure release of sorts, leading to a high tide of artistic expression throughout the 1960s that culminating in the Prague Spring of 1968 and the proclamation of a “socialism with a human face” (Burian 94). As absurdities of the regime were bought to light throughout the 1960s intellectuals and artists fled politics for art as a means of expressing their sense of having been betrayed (Burian 102). 

Throughout a decade or so of gradual liberalization, the very idea of a return to repression may have seemed improbable to some; yet, for many, it was not a surprise when, in the summer of 1968, the Soviet led Warsaw Pact invasion dealt a crushing blow to the hope of the nation. Following the invasion, a period of normalization forced artistic expression into three divisions of operation: official “propagandization”; underground ‘samizdat’ publications and unofficial (illegal) performances; and exile ‘tamizdat’ publications. Throughout the 1970s, artists who did not conform to Party policy were demonized and their livelihood severely curtailed or made impossible; many were banned from publishing and had their books removed from bookshops, libraries and private residences. Bands were forced to sing in Czech, to cut their hair, dress non-provocatively, and audition in front of bureaucrats for a licence to perform in public, and further humiliated by performing at pro-communist events (Žantovský 160-1). Those unwilling to conform were driven underground. In terms of opposition, the invasion had a solidifying effect, in that it categorically removed all remaining doubt as to the illegitimacy of a regime that had deserted virtually all human-centred values (Burian 94). It was the severity and intolerance of the regime that led many into choosing to live outside of the system. Ivan Jirous, the art critic, historian, poet, and dissident figurehead of the underground movement, who would become the manager of the rock’n’roll band, The Plastic People of the Universe, claimed years later, “that it was never their intention to create a specific counter-culture, … [t]hey were driven to it by the intolerance of the totalitarian regime” (Machovec 177). By its refusal to play any part in legitimizing what Jirous coined “the establishment”, the underground counter-culture exposed cracks in the system. It would take another twenty years, and for some artist-dissidents many of these years would be spent in prison or in exile, yet over that period, the cracks would contribute significantly to the regime’s eventual collapse.  

In Writing Underground, Martin Machovec draws attention to the impact rock’n’roll music played upon social values both abroad in America and at home in Czechoslovakia. Considered together, the counter-culture and various protest movements, Machovec writes, “could be understood as attempts at creating independent, ‘autonomous’, non-alienated social ‘substructures’” (66-67). Machovec connects Jirous’ ideas and writings to the work of a number of specific counter-culture, anarchist-type artists, such Jeff Nuttall’s Bomb Culture, Marcel Duchamp’s idea that “the great artist of tomorrow will go underground”, the American social activist, Jerry Rubin, and the German writer, Ralf-Rainer Rygulla (68-69). Jirous’ vision of what came to constitute the Czech underground is outlined in his Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival, a short hybrid text that may be read as part cultural manifesto and part journalistic account of the events surrounding the creation and evolution of the underground movement, centred around The Plastic People of the Universe (Jirous). As Machovec explains, the Plastics and Jirous began to perceive “the underground” … in the sense of “a spiritual standpoint”, which became the centre of a community of various artists forced underground by the normalization policies of a totalitarian regime (196). In the Report and elsewhere, Jirous explains the concept of the underground movement as a “second culture” (Jirous 64), an idea he takes from Rygulla, in the awareness that change could not come from within the framework of legal activity (Machovec 69). Machovec describes the underground movement as

a declaration of a struggle against the establishment, the regime. … The underground is created by people who have understood that within the bounds of legality nothing can be changed, and who no longer even attempt to function within those bounds. (Machovec 70)

Quoting Ed Sanders of the New York ’60s noise band, The Fugs, Jirous called for a “total assault on culture,” stating that “[o]nly people who are not part of ‘official’ culture can launch such an assault” (Jirous 64). Jirous bemoaned the commodification of anti-establishment artists in the West and claimed that in Bohemia the artist of the underground shunned “the longing for recognition, success, awards, … titles, and … material prosperity gained by fame” (ibid). In Bohemia, Jirous claimed, the situation is “fundamentally different, … because we live in an atmosphere of clear-cut alternatives: the first culture does not want us. In turn, we do not want anything to do with them either” (ibid). By 1973, it had become evident to most that the invasion in ’68 and the subsequent period of normalization was not a mere blimp on the radar of the hope born in the 60s, but rather, a return to a repressive status quo. Jirous writes in part VIII of the Report: “It [1973] was a time when we all began to realize that the situation we were living in was not temporary, that it would last for a long time, probably forever” (quoted in Machovec 199). Unwilling to accept living within a lie, Jirous’ response may be summed up in his paraphrasing a quote by John Milton in the Report: “We must learn to live in the existing world in a way that is both joyful and dignified’ (Machovec 199). Idealistically at least, the underground movement had no political platform. “They really only wanted to do ‘their own thing’ – play music for their limited audience, publish their texts in samizdat editions, and enjoy their own way of life,” Machovec notes (75). Essentially, to live in truth. Machovec proposes that Jirous’ Report was intended for a broad public, “for the purpose of education and ‘enlightenment’”, and a means of gaining support for the underground community (193). Whether or not Jirous intended his Report to be read by a wide circle of “first culture” intellectuals, or that members of the cultural upper sphere might find something of value in the Report, his meeting with Havel in early 1976 is enough to suggest he was open to the possibility. 

Given his own contentious history with the establishment, Václav Havel may have appreciated the apolitical disturbance manifest in the ideals of the underground movement, despite possessing artistic tastes of a considerably different character. He very likely identified with the desire of those he acknowledged as wanting only to live in peace, “to play the music they enjoyed, to sing songs that were relevant to their lives, and to live freely in dignity and partnership” (Havel, The Power of the Powerless 87). Havel often expressed, as he does frequently in Letters to Olga, the wish to be left alone in peace, “to think a little” (96), “to read something good” (130), and to write; he would have plenty of time for these simple pleasures while writing Letters to Olga from his prison cell. Though Havel confessed to wanting only “to do what other writers do – tell the truth,” he recognized the real trial of man as fulfilling the “role given to him by fate” (Kenety). It was a call he continued to answer throughout his life. In a BBC interview in 1986, Havel elucidated upon the pressure of responsibility thrust upon the writer to stand as the nation’s conscience (Kenety). Though Machovec considers the underground’s apolitical nature as a reason for its the endurance and heterogeneity (67), the desire to be left to do “their own thing” is itself a political position. Havel contends as much in writing, “every free human act or expression, every attempt to live within the truth, must necessarily appear as a threat to the system and, thus, as something which is political par excellence” (PP 62). For Havel, accepting the personal responsibility to dissent and effect change can take shape in any number of ways: 

It can be any means by which a person or a group revolts against manipulation: anything from a letter by intellectuals to a workers’ strike, from a rock concert to a student demonstration, from refusing to vote in the farcical elections, to making an open speech at some official congress, or even a hunger strike. (PP 34)

Surely Havel recognized in the decree of the underground to not live within the legality of the establishment’s rules, individuals ready to accept the personal responsibility thrust upon them by fate and the intolerance of the regime. In the same BBC interview noted above, Havel declared: “You cannot expect hope to be delivered to you by some professional hope suppliers – you must look for it inside yourselves” (Kenety). Havel’s declaration is a resounding echo of Jirous’ quoting Mao Tse-Tung in the epitaph of the Report, in which he calls upon the people 

to free themselves by their own efforts. Nothing must be used that would do it for them. Believe in people, rely on them and respect their initiative. … Let people educate themselves in the great revolutionary movement. (Quoted in Machovec 75)

Having been introduced to Jirous in early 1976, Havel was prompted into action when police rounded up members of the Plastics and a number of other musicians in March 1976 (Žantovský 162). Žantovský notes how Havel recognized the attack on the musicians as “an attack on life itself, on the very essence of human freedom and integrity” (163). Havel intuited that the fight must start from the bottom, as an obligation to fight for those who are unable to fight for themselves (Žantovský 163). Havel begins by asking who are the so-called dissidents and examines what he calls the “potential of the ‘powerless,’” which brings him to a further examination of the nature of power within which the powerless operate (PP 22). “The primary excusatory function of ideology,” Havel considers, “… is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe” (PP 31). By accepting the prescribed rituals and appearances as reality, the individual himself becomes part of the system. As such, “everyone is,” Havel explains, “both a victim and a supporter of the system” (PP 45). By calling for absolute independence from the first culture, Jirous held a mirror to the system’s lie by refusing to enter into the game, sounding the underlying message that things were not in order, that the emperor was indeed naked. 

Havel solicited “’serious’, ‘distinguished’ and ‘respected’ members of the older generation of writers and intellectuals,” a circle of peers that were deemed untouchable, to pen a private appeal to President Husak (Žantovský 164). An additional letter outlined the central argument: 

If today young people with long hair are condemned for their unconventional music as criminals without notice, it will be all that much easier tomorrow to condemn in the same way other artists for their novels, poems, essays and paintings. (Žantovský 164)

Jirous and the Plastics, along with many other musicians and artists of the underground would pay a high price for dissent. Jirous was sentenced to eighteen months in prison on this occasion; in all, he did a total of five prison spells. Havel, who took the stand in the musician’s defence, saw this as a turning point of no return for himself, the moment when his ambitions in the theatre, and his desire to be left alone to write, were overcome by his destiny of responsibility. 

The outpouring of support for Jirous, the Plastics, and for other musicians led to the preparation of Charter 77. Signatories were collected in December, 1976, and the Charter was published and distributed in January 1977. The Charter was intended not as an expression of political opposition, but rather as a criticism urging the government to adhere to the basic human rights provisions already existent in Czechoslovak legislation in accord with their signing of the Helsinki Agreement in 1975. Though the Charter was orchestrated by members of the first culture under the helm of Havel, Ludvik Vaculik, and Pavel Landovský, Machovec records “that as many as 40 percent of the overall count of all pre-1989 Charter signatories came from the underground community and belonged … primarily to the working class” (80). Copies of the Charter were distributed through samizdat editions and smuggled out of the country to be printed in western newspapers. The government retaliation was predictable, leading to further show-trials and the imprisonment of the leaders behind the Charter, including Havel. By no stretch of the imagination did Charter 77 lead directly to the overthrow of the regime. Ironically, it is probable that the majority of Czech citizens came to know of the Charter through the government’s campaign to discredit it. It is, however, revealing that when the momentum for change eventuated in the dismantling of the Eastern Bloc in 1989, many of the Charter’s signatories found themselves in positions responsible for the peaceful negotiation of power. In no small way, the relatively peaceful nature of the Velvet Revolution evolved out of the principles at the heart of the Charter and Havel’s political philosophy. Long before the time would come, Havel acknowledged the seeds of his own eventual rise to the presidency were planted by “individuals who were willing to live within the truth, even when things were at their worst … [By people who had] no access to real power, nor … aspire[d] to it” (PP 79-80). Havel understood that dissidents tend to be sceptical of the kind of political ideology that promotes government instituted social change to the detriment of individual human lives (PP 99). He believed that the organization of society must first and foremost serve the people by creating a space in which citizens may organize in meaningful ways (PP 95): 

[T]he ‘simple’ defence of people – is in a particular sense … an optimal and most positive programme because it forces politics to return to its only proper starting point, proper that is, if all the old mistakes are to be avoided: individual people. (PP 94)

“The depravity of the opposite approach,” he contends, “… is something we have known on our own skins only too well” (ibid).

As presidential bookends to more than eight decades of fluctuating freedom and oppression, T.G. Masaryk and Václav Havel provide a compelling contrast in political ambitions and philosophy; so too, in respect to the antagonistic relationship René Wellek had in mind, a contrast, that is, between the intellectual and practical form of literary expression and artistic expression. According to Wellek Masaryk saw Czech literature largely as an expression and illustration of the ideological struggle against the authority of the Church and the oppressive forces of feudalism (18-19). “[T]he view of Czech literature which emerged,” Wellek suggests, “was excessively ideological. … [and] had the obvious danger of neglecting all considerations of the art of literature” (19). Masaryk, a thinker and a social and literary critic, was above all a politician, driven to lead the new nation in a time of profound social and political change. In contrast, Havel was first and foremost an artist and may be considered somewhat of a reluctant or accidental president, drawn to political action according to his own personal conscience and feeling of responsibility, not so much in service of the country, but for the soul of the individual Czech citizen. Havel’s political aims never strayed from his concern for the individual’s right to live in truth.

Havel believed that from the depths of independent responsibility and a commitment to enact change, from the vital fringes of dissident opposition, “a more coherent and visible initiative may emerge … an initiative that transcends ‘merely’ individual revolt and is transformed into more conscious, structured and purposeful work” (PP 88). One may conjecture as to the inexperience and naiveté of Havel’s political vision, together with that of his league of artists and writers who took up high-level positions in the government under his presidency. One cannot deny, however, this rare moment in the history of the Czech nation, where a synthesis of artistic and socio-political expression coincided to constitute, as Jan Vladislav describes, both an inner artistic “reflection on the burden of being” and “an urgent call for moral renewal, for ‘living in the truth’ … [as an assertion] of politics as morality in practice” (Vladislav xviii).

Works cited

Burian, Jarka M., Modern Czech Cinema: Reflector and Conscience of a Nation. University of Iowa Press, 2000.

Havel, Václav. Letters to Olga: June 1979 to September 1982. Translated by Paul Wilson, New York. Henry Holt and Co., 1989.

—, The Power of the Powerless. Translated Paul Wilson, Vintage, 1978

Jirous, Ivan Martin. “A Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival.” Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s. Edited by Hoptman, Laura and Tomáš Pospiszyl, Museum of Modern Art and MIT Press, 2002, pp. 56-65.

Kenety, Brian. “Václav Havel, master of the (political) Theatre of the Absurd.” Radio Prague Int., 2020.

Machovec, Martin. Writing Underground: Reflections on Samizdat Literature in Totalitarian Czechoslovakia. Karolinum Press. 2019.

Vladislav, Jan. “Introduction.” Václav Havel, Living in Truth: Twenty-two essays published on the occasion of the award of the Erasmus Prize to Václav Havel. Edited by Jan Vladislav, London, Faber and Faber, 1986, pp. xiii-xix.

Wellek, René. Essays on Czech Literature. The Hague, Mouton, 1963.

Žantovský, Michael. Havel: A Life. Grove Atlantic, 2015

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