The Truth is Unmistakable for Anything Else
Resisting totalitarianism demands not political revolution but personal refusal of history’s usurping. The power of the powerless, defined by Václav Havel, is the power of each one to arise and say no
There are a few things we need to understand clearly about Václav Havel. Firstly, he was not, as is often suggested, merely an ‘anti-communist’ writer and intellectual, whose work relates to one period of man, with diminishing significance now that the political conditions he wrote out of are no longer there. No: Havel’s themes were universal ones, demonstrated in a specific political and ideological context. He distilled the particular from the general. His theme, really, was not communism, but the soul of man under a system seeking to extinguish it. It might well be said that his ideas and observations have never been so crucial as they are now; certainly they have never been more crucial for the Western Europeans who have emerged from the complacency of post-WWII Europe, thinking themselves immune from the pathologies of their own and their neighbours’ pasts.
Frequently in Havel’s writings can be found references to the idea of Western democracy as representing merely a marginally preferential condition to Soviet communism — which he called ‘a convex-mirror image’ of the democratic West. But he goes deeper, to talk always of ‘freedom’, which he understood, again, not as mere political freedom, but something more. He wrote and spoke always out of an awareness of the human desire to understand and describe reality, and a passion to define what it is to live truly — absolutely — within such a definition.
In speaking of the ideological configuration of this ‘convex mirror image’, Havel uses the word ‘dictatorship’, but in a particular way, taking pains, like Hannah Arendt and others, to emphasise that what we encounter here is quite different to the classical dictatorships of the past, which simply imposed their wills upon the people through naked terror and violence. At the core of the modern form of dictatorship — what he called the ‘post-totalitarian’ system — he identified the phenomenon of ideology, which he described as ‘almost a secularised religion’.
‘In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis,’ he wrote in The Power of the Powerless, ‘when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means, this ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind, it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on a new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety and loneliness vanish. Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority. The principle involved here is that the centre of power is identical with the centre of truth.’
He provides a slightly more refined and precise definition of his sense of the meaning of totalitarianism in an essay, Stories and Totalitarianism, which he wrote in 1987, just two years before the Velvet Revolution.
Recalling merely in outline some of its central insights into the nature of totalitarianism, I reread it recently and was stuck by something that had not — could not for reasons that will be obvious — have impacted me so greatly me before. This time, it struck me that perhaps someone involved in formulating the Covid scam might have read the essay and been inspired by its introductory passage.
In those opening paragraphs, Havel relates a story involving a friend of his, heavily asthmatic, who had been in prison, where the authorities appeared indifferent to whether he lived or died. An American woman, who heard about this, contacted an editor in one of the leading US dailies, asking if they would cover the story. The editor responded: ‘Call me when the man dies.’
Hável, though shocked, was also phlegmatic. Death is a story, asthma is not. He wrote, as though enviously, of Lebanon, where at the time many people were dying, and which was never out of the news. In Prague there was totalitarianism, but not so much death. As long as humans could remember, he wrote, ‘death has been the point at which all the lines of every real story converge.’ Like his friend, Czechoslovakia was unworthy of attention because it had no stories, and no death. He meant identifiably political deaths. There, he wrote, the war and killing took on a different form: ‘they have been shifted from the daylight of observable public events to the twilight of unobservable inner destruction.’ In these circumstances, Czechoslovak dissidents could not compete with the warriors of the Lebanon.
‘We have only asthma. And why should anyone be interested in listening to our cough?
‘One can’t go on writing forever about how hard it is to breathe.’
This passage reads now like a prophecy of the present, not just of Prague but of London, Paris and Dublin. Under totalitarianism, everything is different, including death. But, in these countries which have yet to name their condition as such, death has become an infinitely malleable commodity, its meanings and even its definitions slipping in and out of focus. The ‘story’ in these places is about the avoidance of death, or the purported avoidance of death. Yet, death continues, being caused by its alleged cures — vaccines, ventilators — and allegedly by a virus that has never been isolated in natural conditions. And the story-tellers, as selective as ever, are not interested in just any category of death: in virus deaths, yes; in vaccine deaths, no. They are interested in those who have difficulty breathing, only if their difficulty is rooted in the correct ideological context. There must be no whiff of denialism, or anti-vaxxery. If they conform to these rules, their difficulty breathing remains a ‘story’. Otherwise, they can just go to hell and die, or vice versa. If they die within 14 days of receiving a vaccine, then they qualify as ‘unvaccinated’, which means that, by implication, they died of their own negligence, even though the vaccine may have killed them. Still, the ‘story’ is clear: There is no story. The meanings of the deaths of countless thousands had shifted from the daylight of observable public events to the twilight of unobservable inner destruction.
Havels’ plays and essays are in many respects prophetic, but I think that he would be surprised (he died in 2011) to discover that he had unconsciously presaged a central aspect of the COVID-19 episode: the weaponisation of respiratory illness as an instrument of warfare and death.
Every winter befor 2020, in every country in the world, people died — sometimes very many people — without anyone, aside from their relatives and friends, taking more than polite or compassonate notice. They died of all kinds of things — essentially the collapse of their vital organs as their immune systems guttered and gave out. In this, they were helped on their way by a number of factors depending on their wherabouts, in particular the sometimes extremely harsh weather experienced in the northern hemisphere around the turn of the year, which gives succour to innumerable bugs and viruses which serve finally to overcome the immune systems of the old, pushing them over the edge of this dimension. In this twilight, devoid of media attention, many people died and has words like ‘pneumonia’ and influenza’ scratched in bad handwriting on their death certificates. No one counted them. Few even noticed. That lacuna in pubic attention was to become the speck of grit around which the pearl of the Covid scamdemic was constructed. The ‘story’ had been scripted in advance, and could not be deviated from. Suddenly, something like ‘asthma’ was ‘news’.
As it happens, in Stories and Totalitarianism also, Havel helpfully explains the deep nature of totalitarianism, defining its central mechanism as the ‘assassination of history’ to achieve both ‘nihilisation of the past’ and mastery over the future. The instrument of this process he identified as the removal from history of the possibilities of human choice, mystery and autonomy. History becomes a fixed sequence of unfolding inevitabilities, and the role of human beings is merely to acquiesce and embrace what is pressed upon them. History, past and future, is appropriated in a manner that eliminates the human element — yes, the human story. All the unpredictability and possibility that arises from the human capacity for endless variety are removed and replaced with a sense that the future is simply an ideological continuum from the past, and that all that is required of the human person, citizen, is to move forward into a utopia that has been prepared according to the diktats of history. This process begins with the commandeering of history past by a single viewpoint, which is then made absolute, enabling history present to be reduced to that single aspect, thereby rendering history future amenable to total control. This, he wrote, occurs when the ‘story’ — that which gives human history its shape and meaning and structure — is eliminated from human culture. After that, he continued: ‘Since the mystery in a story is the articulated mystery of man, his story began to lose its human content. The uniqueness of the human creature became a mere embellishment on the laws of history, and the tension and thrill in real events were dismissed as accidental and therefore unworthy of the attention of scholarship. History became boredom.’
To put this another way, what ‘they’ are calling ‘the new normal’ is a future into which we are ‘invited’ to enter as though into a city already constructed, along lines that have not been discussed with us, the putative future inhabitants waiting to be moved in. Everything is already decided — and not, we are archly informed, by some arbitrary human authority but by the mechanistic mind of time, which ordains the course of history according to immutable and unchallengeable laws in accordance with circumstances that are not open for discussion. This is totalitarianism of its essence. It is totalitarianism in any time or place.
The comparison is not too strong. What the dissident fights for, under Covid as under Communism (in as far as they are different), is the right of men and women to live lives by their own lights, according to their given natures and infinite desiring. But this above all is what the totalitarian seeks to plunder. The seemingly least offensive thing about the human person — her desire to be let alone, to live her life in accordance with the nudgings of intrinsic desires and impulses — is what the would-be tyrant seeks to quell. We, as previously noted, had thought ourselves immune from such impositions — after all, our leaders, like us, were raised in the acute consciousness of the dangers of totalitarianism. But this has emerged as having sedated rather than stimulated us. We have therefore blundered into renewedly ominous times for human beings seeking to adhere to the truth and the givenness of things. Few of us, even in our most dystopian nightmares, anticipated the craziness that has descended upon us in the past handful of years, and viciously in the past 18 months, and something tells me that the worst is yet to come. Or, perhaps, not ‘something’ — more like ‘someone’, a man called Václav Havel.
In another passage of the same essay, Havel refers to the nature of the shift that occurred in Czechoslovakia after the abortive Prague Spring of 1968, following which the mode of government changed from brute tyranny to totalitarianism. Before, things had been hard, with much misery, death and suffering, as well as idealism and heroism on the part of those who resisted Communist rule. There were stories, at least. But, after 1968 and the abortive Prague Spring of Alexander Dubček, things changed in ways that it takes a writer of Havel’s capacities to describe. He refers to the infamous document, Lessons from the Years of Crisis, which set down the blueprint for life following the Soviet invasion of ’68. The authorities had learned a lesson from the Prague Spring about ‘how far things can go when the door to a plurality of opinions is opened’ — the totalitarian system itself is jeopardised. His description of what happened next is of interest to the world in the era of Covid: ‘In a process with its own, mindless dynamic, all the mechanisms of direct and indirect manipulation of life began to expand and assume unprecedented forms.’ These words can be applied to the train of events in the world generally from the spring of 2020, to the rude and presumptive intrusion of supposedly democratic administrations into the most intimate areas of the lives of their citizens — into their homes, their relationships, their parenting, their most fundamental movements in the most private realms.
What results from such intrusions, Havel elaborates, is the expansion of the idea of just one central pillar of all truth and power, itself propelled by a singular rationale of history. The normative democratic exchange, whereby matters of concern to the society are discussed in public between voices from different perspectives, is no longer present. ‘Mystery is dead, the story has disappeared from culture. ‘Where everything is known ahead of time, the story has nothing to grow out of.’
This, under Communism, was followed by a ‘cessation of history’, which was replaced by ‘pseudo-history’, a succession of recurring anniversaries: celebrations, congresses, parades. Time blurs, stands still, goes in circles; one week, month, year morphing into the next, with few or no distinguishing features. Time becomes nationalised. Where once the country was led by fanatics, now it is led by bureaucrats, who no longer believe in anything. Ideology reigns, but a dead version of a once living belief system. History, left to its own devices, has the power to disprove ideological certitudes, and so, even under totalitarianism. history has to be marked but without the attribution of meanings. It is therefore flattened into something tiresome, trampled into its own dust, hammered into boredom.
The nihilisation of the past nihilises the future also. Just as the past is flattened, so also the future is rolled into a plain of tedium, its promise and openness no longer reachable. ‘Society,’ writes Havel,’was petrified into a fiction of everlasting harmony, and man into a stone monument representing the permanent proprietor of happiness — these were the silent consummations of the intellectual assassination of history.’ The boredom of the history books had leaped out into what remains of the life of the present. It is fairly clear that something a little like this trundled down the streets of Western nations in the flattened vistas of 2020.
In Letters to Olga, the volumne of his letters written to his first wife from prison, Havel wrote that he had always rejected (for himself) the idea of a ‘complete, unified, integrated and self-contained’ belief system, because ‘I simply don’t have the internal capacity for it’. What he had, he told his wife, was faith: ‘a state of persistent and productive openness, of persistent questioning, a need to “experience the world” again and again’. He elaborated that what he called ‘the Order of Being’ is multiform and elusive, and ‘simply cannot be grasped and described by a consistent system of knowledge’. This is the key to understanding how the evil of totalitarianism may be overcome. That key is the deep personal response of the human being, not some idea or set of ideas that may be applied to the problem as though to an electrical or mechanical conundrum.
‘The more slavishly and dogmatically a person falls for a ready-made ideological system or “worldview”, the more certainly he will bury all chances of thinking, of freedom, of being clear about what he knows, the more certainly he will deaden the adventure of the mind and the more certainly — in practice — he will begin to serve the “order of death”’.
In his most famous essay, The Power of the Powerless, he took this quest beyond the point of mere diagnosis, offering a method by which the human person — alone if necessary — might confront such a system and not merely reject its oppression but actively work, in a non-political, non-ideological way, to brings its power to an end.
At the centre of that essay is the image of the greengrocer in Prague who is required by the governing ideology to place a sign in his shop window bearing the slogan: ‘Workers of the World Unite’. Havel takes us beneath the literal level of this episode, beneath the elements we might not notice because we are unobservant or unthinking or because what he describes seems to us to be obvious and therefore not worth dwelling on. He insists on naming things, on describing their meanings. But in the journey he guides us through, Havel enables us to enter into the mindset of the greengrocer, who places the sign, essentially, as a gesture of obedience. The sign might just as easily read: ‘I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly compliant’, but this would cause the greengrocer to lose face, and so the sign as it is serves both the needs of the greengrocer and the needs of the regime. The sign therefore becomes another kind of sign: of the operation in a culture of ideology, which Havel defines as ‘a specious way of relating to the world’, because it ‘offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity and of morality, while making it easier for them to part with them.’
Thus, he carefully elaborates, the social phenomenon of self-preservation exhibited by the greengrocer is subordinated to ‘a blind automatism which drives the system’. By displaying the sign, the greengrocer has shown his willingness to enter into the prescribed ritual of pretence, and has therefore colluded in his own enslavement. The sign contains a message relating to the ideology, which nobody really believes in, but its unquestioning promulgation becomes both an outward show of loyalty and a way of avoiding loss of face. An equivalent of the sign might be the face mask, known to have no beneficial effect, but nevertheless worn, and insisted upon, as a sign of compliance with official diktats, regardless of logic or benefit.
In a series of graphic images, Havel makes visible the process by which ideology operates upon the human person. Ideology enables the human being to be brought into harmony with the system, but this enslavement becomes invisible by virtue of being hidden behind high motives and ideals. It conceals the enslavement by creating a series of ‘excuses’ which allow both parties — system and enslaved — to deny, if not conceal, the true nature of their relationship. Ideology offers a pseudo legitimacy, giving the relationship an external coating of morality. ‘It pretends that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life. It is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality.’
Ideology is the quasi-metaphysical ‘glue’ that holds the totalitarian power system together, making complicit all those who are really its victims. The purpose is to dehumanise, to persuade people to surrender their human identities in favour of the corporate identity of the ideology.
Ideology provides the ‘gloves’ by which the system achieves its objective in a way that outwardly appears to eschew coercion. In such a system, everything is falsified, twisted, inverted and corrupted. Words, if they mean anything, mean the opposite of their dictionary definitions. In the human victims of the post-totalitarian system, anonymity and dehumanisation are key symptoms of the dictatorship of ritual and ideology.
In a further development of this process, ideology supplants reality, precisely because, having corrupted what is real, the ritual becomes the only reality. In the end, ideology itself becomes the dictator — what Havel calls ‘the dictatorship of the ritual’. And because the ideology is not human, it has a superhuman capacity to transcend the short lives of those who form the changing guard of power, providing the totalitarian caravan with a continuity which is difficult for mere humans to break. The ruling figures at any particular moment are mere puppets, ‘blind executors of the systems internal laws.’ Thus, those who aspire to power become, in the end, either casualties of their own insistence on continuing to be human — and therefore become cast out — or coterminous with the automatism of the system, in which case they are themselves dehumanised. Totalitarianism of this kind, therefore, becomes not something imposed on one group by another, but on everyone by everyone. Those who conform to the dictates of the regime, write Havel, become ‘both victims of the system and its instruments’.
The syndromes just described, it will become obvious, have many parallels in Western culture, and not just recent ones. Havel speaks of the ‘panorama’ of slogans which litter the landscape of the Soviet-style dictatorship of ritual. In the West, as implausible as it may at first appear, the same function has long been supplied by advertising, a set of slogans-in-windows which have a more subtle existence than that of the placard in the greengrocer’s window. But Havel is relentless in his clarity: ‘A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system, whose identity is dissolved in an amalgam of the accoutrements of mass civilization, and who has no roots in the order of being, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his or her own personal survival, is a demoralized person’. This demoralisation is what the ideological reduction seeks out and exploits for its own survival.
He writes: ‘The post-totalitarian system is only one aspect — a particularly drastic aspect — of this general inability of modern humanity to be the master of its own situation. The automatism of the post-totalitarian system is merely an extreme version of the global automatism of technological civilization. The human failure that it mirrors is only one variant of the general failure of modern humanity’. Hence, the post-totalitarian system is merely a ‘caricature’ of modern life in general, a warning to the West of its own latent tendencies.
‘There is no real evidence that Western democracy, that is democracy of the traditional parliamentary type, can offer solutions that are any more profound. It may even be said that the more room there is in the Western democracies (compared to our world) for the genuine aims of life, the better the crisis is hidden from people and the more deeply do they become immersed in it.’
This, precisely, is a diagnosis of the reason why our supposed understanding of the lessons of history has all been for nothing, why our very awareness of the past has not merely failed to operate as a kind of inoculation against a recurrence of the patterns of our own pasts, but has served to delude us as to our own resilience against a recurrence. Possessed by the wrongthink of ‘evil as aberration’, we misinterpreted the meanings of the cautions history sought to convey. Taking our capacity to think and talk as indicative of something given and imprescriptible, we allowed ourselves to become deluded as to the source and continuity of these values. We took for granted what was ‘given’, failing to ask whence it came and how it was all done. The danger arose because we imagined we had, by our ‘enlightenment’ and ‘progressiveness’, placed ourselves beyond danger.
This, then, is our condition in what is left of Western democracy in the Year of Our Lord 2021, albeit described here from a different perspective by someone who has seen its exaggerated face up close to his. We, for our part, have persisted one day — maybe one week, one month — too long in misunderstanding what freedom is and in continuing to create, or enable the creation or acceptance of systems which institutionalised these misunderstandings in the manner of a slow-boiling pan under our feet.
Traditional parliamentary democracies, Havel insisted, offered no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society, for these niceties of liberal society, too, were being dragged helplessly along by these phenomena, which had become the enslavers of man by exploiting his weakness for comfort and ease. Thus, a new form of tyranny, which ‘oppresses’ man by cosseting him — Huxley rather than Orwell, or perhaps the Orwellian fist in the Huxlean glove. People are manipulated ‘in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies’, but the processes of capitalism, materialism, advertising, commerce and consumer culture all combine to repress in the human being the questing for the ‘something’ that defines the human. In the communist system, fear of repercussions led to a quiescence that was usually enforced without external evidence of violence; in the West, the ‘oppressor’ is the human unwillingness to sacrifice material benefits so as to retain spiritual and moral integrity. And to seal the deal, Western man like to sneer at the very idea of spiritual or moral integrity, by way of showing off his sophistication.
In The Power of the Powerless, Havel makes many startling observations. People, he states, live within lies as an alienated form of humanity, not because they have no choice, but because something about them makes it congenial to live this way. Human beings can accommodate themselves to the lie, including the lie that makes them less human. But the power of the lie, precisely because it is dependent on the collusion of the individual, can be broken by the individual choosing to refuse. To live within the truth requires just a short step, but its power is tremendous. Everyone who steps out of line with the lie ‘denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety’.
In this there is an answer to those who feel that the power of modern society, in whatever guise, is too overwhelming to be resisted by just one person. In truth, there is no other way of resisting but each person doing it for himself.
Havel reminds us that we too are complicit in our own enslavement. Deep in ourselves, we know that, in our reaching for freedom, coherence or security, we have left something vital behind. We become as refugees from our own misconception of what it means to be free, and therefore what it means to be human. We look wistfully backwards, but cannot find a way of reintroducing ourselves to a total understanding of who we are.
Havel shows us that it is precisely in the single act of one person that the lie is exposed and undermined. ‘Individuals can be alienated from themselves only because there is something in them to alienate. The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence’. The lie occurs, therefore, because the truth exists, is seductive and powerful; the lie is an attempt to suppress it. Hence, a sense of falseness should always alert us to the suppression of something real.
Havel shows us that, to live in the truth, in the face of a powerful lie, is not as risky as it may sound. For truth finds harmony with itself, and is unmistakable for anything but itself. The hidden sphere of truth is dangerous for the regime, but the ally of the slave. The truth does not require soldiers of its own but finds its strength in the repressed longing for authenticity, for human life as it ought to be lived. Hence, to live within the truth is to create a subversion that can only grow and grow. This is the ‘power of the powerless’.
‘This power does not participate in any direct struggle for power; rather it makes its presence felt in the obscure arena of being itself,’ is how Havel puts it. And the hidden movement it gives rise to there can suddenly erupt as a political or social phenomenon. This is why the regime will always prosecute even the smallest gesture that occurs as an attempt to live within the truth. The crust of lies needs to be broken just once, in one place, for the whole thing to split and disintegrate. In Havel’s depiction, the truthful gesture does not have to be a grand political statement or initiative, but could be something far more prosaic, like attending a rock concert or a students’ demonstration in defiance of the regime, both of which categories of gesture played momentous roles in the freeing of his own country. The simple act of insistence upon a truthful existence confronts the automatism of the system in a powerful way. The criterion is not the scale of the gesture, but its nature. It can take the form of an artist simply pursuing the truth in his work, or a citizen intent upon preserving her human dignity in a clear and uncompromising manner. It might be as simple as walking into a store without a face mask. It is not necessary for the ambition to be momentous, or the action earth-shattering of itself. Havel refers to such phenomena as ‘pre-political events’ or ‘existential revolutions’, which cause the virus of truth to seep through the tissue of lie, which eventually disintegrates — and no one can predict at what moment, or by what critical intervention, the moment of disintegration will occur. Havel writes: ‘Most of these expressions remain elementary revolts against manipulation. You simply straighten your backbone and live in greater dignity as an individual’.
If we take Havel’s analysis at its word, we begin to see that change in modern, post-democratic, and already subtly ’post-totalitarian’ societies cannot come about by means of an alternative political vision, but will arise from the transformation of the moral and existential conditions of the society. We may knock down walls in order to meet the insistent demands of our deepest longings, but the answer we seek is not necessarily to be discovered in the concepts of freedom to be encountered on the other side, or in embracing the trappings of a rival system. Human desire is boundless and indefatigable, and freedom is not something a political or economic system can ultimately deliver, because the human appetite remains unsatisfied by physical conditions or resources. Political and economic solutions have their place, but at a certain point something else needs to take over: an understanding that the things that suggest themselves as the target of human desire are merely stepping stones to something else, and this always lies tantalisingly ahead, over the horizon. A freed human being is one who comes to know that what he desires cannot be bought, any more than it is to be found on the other side of a guarded frontier.
The locus of the necessary change, he tells us, converges on a parallel ‘second culture’, which builds itself underground, in secret, a layer of truthfulness growing underneath the tissue of lies. But this cannot, he stresses, amount to a separate reality, a retreat into a ghetto or an act of self-isolation by certain people for themselves. It would be wrong, he insists, to consider it an essentially group solution with nothing to do with the general situation. This risks becoming another lie to live within. Responsibility, he says is something we must accept and grasp ‘here, now, in this place in time and space where the Lord has set us down’.
Thia phrase is typical of Havel’s capacity for surprise. He was not, he often said, a particularly good Christian or Catholic, but he recognised his existence as occurring in a crucible of givenness, defined by horizons that had been placed there to orient his life. In his writings more generally — especially in his letters to his first wife, Olga, from prison — he places man in front of what he called ‘the absolute horizon’, establishing the total context and relationship which, by virtue of defining and describing man’s natural circumstances becomes, precisely, the target of those seeking to enforce upon man some narrower form of self-understanding. Think, again, of Ireland in the past 18 months.
Reviewing in 1984, that volume, Letter to Olga, the collection of letters Havel wrote during the years he was imprisoned for refusing an ideological prescription, the German writer Heinrich Böll observed that Havel appeared to be the manifestation of a new form of religiousness, ‘which out of courtesy no longer addresses God with the name which has been trampled underfoot by politicians’. Böll noted that Havel used careful constructions, such as ‘the absolute horizon’ and ‘the spiritual order’, rather than applying the name that is in general use, which is to say ‘God’ or ‘Christ’.
Indeed, Havel had wrestled with the subject in many of the letters. ‘I have the feeling that something more than intellectualistic subterfuge is preventing me from admitting my belief in a personal God,’ he wrote to his wife. ‘Something deeper is concealed behind these subterfuges: what I am lacking is that extremely important “last drop” in the form of the mystical experience of the enigmatic address and revelation. There is no doubt that I could substitute the word “God” for my “something” or for the “absolute horizon”, and yet this does not seem to be a very serious approach.’ He acknowledged his closeness to Christian feelings, and was pleased whenever this was recognized by others; but still, he felt, one must choose one’s words well. He balked at the articulation of words that, though they might literally convey the reality of his belief, could also place him in a camp that would make him uncomfortable.
But although Havel avoided the intentional use of the word ‘God’, Böll concluded: ‘I dare say that Christ is speaking in these letters, albeit a Christ who does not describe himself by that name and yet is still a Christ, and yet I must quickly erase this description again before those every ready Christian drummer boys, representing their explosive version of Christianity, lay their hands on it.’
What Havel means, to the extent that there is any absence of clarity, is the very force or process by which we have been deposited here in this reality, the process by which we have been born, replete with rights and freedoms, to answer an invitation to live a life to be intuited as to its meanings and destination. That life, the journey it represents, is ultimately the meaning of our freedom, a freedom that belongs to each of us alone. It can be taken from us only if we agree to surrender it, or at least if we are unprepared to pay the sometimes exacting cost of keeping it. Defying such temptations, such short-changing of ourselves, such capitulation to the idea that there is something else — something that is not freedom — in which the meaning of life might be located, is ultimately what Havel was talking about: the power of the powerless, the dawning realisation that living in truth is the only coherent option, and that the truth is always easy to recognise because it is unmistakable for anything else.