A POLITICS OF hope (4):
Hello again friends, thanks for visiting. In this series on a politics of hope, here’s the second of a pair of posts on politics and thoughtfulness (the first is here). It’s a 10-minute read or 16-minute listen.
I’ve recorded an audio of this post – here if you prefer to listen…
This is the second of a pair of posts on hope and a politics of thoughtfulness and the last of four dedicated to the memory of the Czech playwright and politician Václav Havel.
Havel’s preoccupation as a dissident was this: that his people turn from ‘living within the lie’ and towards an ‘attempt to live within the truth’. Since the entire, creaking edifice of Soviet violence stood on nothing more than its people’s daily conformity, all their freedom needed was the gradual refusal to join the performance – the Power of the powerless.
It’s startling that such a confident hope could spring from apparent hopelessness – not from some privileged insight into the future’s promise, but from the very pessimism that was swathing the world in apparently permanent grey. It’s precisely when daily life has been diminished to absurdity, so Havel believed, that a person cannot avoid reckoning with who they are and how they live. Then something in you ‘snaps’, he wrote. The risk of saying ‘no’ must then be faced – the risk, that is, of denying the lie and trying to live ‘within the truth’ for the first time.
If this sounds like an encouragement to make our choices more ethical, picking and choosing according to your values, then the thought hasn’t fully landed. Havel is pointing to a wholesale movement in your soul, which surprises and unsettles: a turn away from ‘the lie’ on which violence feeds and towards ‘the truth’ of human dignity. His deeply hopeful appeal to us is that this is what each of us actually means our lives to be about, yet from which we’ve drifted after living for so long inside the harmful norms of the world.
Havel sets this ‘crisis of identity’ in the high street of the Eastern bloc. There, tin lilies hanging from lampposts would tinnily spout Soviet anthems to the passers-by. Ideologically sterile posters would call the world’s workers to unity from the greengrocer’s window. Informants would watch and listen from street corners. It was a place entirely colonised by a lie so brazen it had become a charade.
But the West was on the hook too. Peering over the Wall, Havel saw our own high street languishing in a lie of its own, for it too lacked roots in what he called ‘the order of being’. Half a century later, we’re still taken in by lies, be they adverts for bleach or for war, headlines that cast our most vulnerable neighbour as a threat, or the thin smiles of showboat politicians. Our system won’t throw us in prison just for thinking what we think, as Havel’s did more than once to him. But our political-economic system can just as quickly smother that feeling, so personally and politically precious, for what matters and what does not. It’s how its designed.
I grew up in a market town in the deep blue sea of Middle England, a haven far from the fray, defended today by a millionaire MP. The lifeworld of my schoolmates and I was steeped in a particularly stubborn lie: that the more comfortable life gets, the more successful it becomes. And it had hold of us. You could watch news of the Falklands War at six and switch to Sale of the Century at seven-thirty without the slightest twinge.
Today, the chemically perfect lawns and SUV ‘Zen cocoons’ still suggest an anxious longing for a comfortable remove from the afflictions of a much wider world. It seems to me a culture numbed, well defended against Havel’s confidence that the life of the lie can’t imprison the ‘true aims of life’ forever.
Mulling this over the other day, I asked an activist friend whether she had any hope for Middle England facing up to this age of crises. She muttered a flat ‘no’. I’m a little more hopeful than that – I suppose I have to be, since I wasn’t exactly asking for a friend. But I do have some reason, too.
I recall my own first moment of doubt as a child when I noticed a CND poster showing a gigantic mushroom cloud with a few words whose meaning lay beyond me: Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light. I remember staring at the monochrome image a long time, learning a lesson for which I have the words only now: the world isn’t safe. I was seven. The poster interrupted an illusion I was living under: those cherry-lined avenues didn’t reach round the whole world after all.
To be a little more precise: the poster achieves nothing by itself, and nor can the waiting openness of the child. But when the two come together – when Dylan Thomas’ words tilt towards the uncomprehending child and the child tilts back towards them and the rising mystery of violence – then a moment of uneasy truthfulness comes. Then, the encounter has precipitated a certain kind of movement of the spirit; it has unsettled the life of the lie.
We might reasonably say that the poster helps to fill out our understanding of the world by offering some essential facts about it, but I think this would be a mistake. The child’s entire sense of the world and their place in it has taken a knock. The tidy lifeworld they’ve inherited from a numbed culture just can’t cope with the new reality the poster points to. The child doesn’t gain understanding so much as lose it: their illusion of safety is being sloughed off.
Now the child is faced with a choice they can’t avoid. They can suffocate the life that newly stirs in them to keep calm and carry on. Or they can make room for it in their unease, and allow their failing knowledge of the world to give way a little. They can double down on the spectacle of the lie, or allow it to break, rather like a spell breaks. The child allows themselves to know less than they’d believed, but that very loss precipitates a new thoughtfulness in them. They’re confused, but a little more feral.
From the poster truth calls out and in the child it’s met. But why this child when most others pass by? Perhaps this individual is unusually wise to pay heed to a warning of Armageddon, or perhaps especially morbid. But all that distinguishes them in fact is that they’re an outsider.
To those who fit in with their world, what matters is the world they fit into and so they head straight on. But if you don’t quite fit, or if the norms of the world haven’t convinced you they’re worth moulding yourself to, then you’re veering left and right, looking for something real to meet your life with. The genesis of truthfulness may not favour the sage after all, but the misfit – it finds Caliban before Prospero.
I think of that poster now as the first of a long and slender thread of precipitating encounters – some fleeting, some enduring, all unexpected – that has tugged me willingly and unwillingly from the first towards a life more thoughtful. Nothing has snapped. Perhaps like you, I’m still caught forever between truthfulness and the life of the lie, saved and damned all at once. The only real change is that now I know which way I hope to face.
At about the same time I happened across that CND poster, Havel’s Power of the powerless was being published underground in blue, samizdat carbon copies a thousand miles away. The Prague Spring long since crushed, the new Charter 77 human rights movement was targeted for surveillance, interrogation, incarceration. Soviet power seemed destined to paint its world grey till kingdom come.
But it was precisely the grey of those times that incited their dissident movements to preserve their humanity against it – to insist, as it were, on colour, and so wrest themselves free from their stupefying cocoon. Charged with urgency, Havel had bashed out his essay in full knowledge the police would come for him, hoping against hope, surrendering liberty for freedom.
Havel dedicated the work to an elderly friend, the philosopher Jan Patočka. It was Patočka who’d bequeathed Havel the conviction that an honest reckoning with violence can so disturb a person’s lifeworld that they have to let it go – because the comfortable story they’ve always told themselves about their world can no longer hold their experience of it.
Patočka dubbed these individuals ‘the community of the shaken up’ (společenství otřesených). ‘The shaken’ are those whose spirit has been so rocked by their encounter with violence that now they’d sooner not live at all than live untruthfully. They’ve lost faith in blueprints for a better world. The only thing they’re sure they comprehend is that the world can’t be comprehended (lit. ‘laid hold of’). But that means they, and only they, can face life as it really is. When ‘the shaken’ come together, Patočka believed, they form the only force in the world capable of recognising its violence and resisting it.
Havel took this insight to heart and made it his own, though his hope was a little brighter. You needn’t wait to witness the worst of the world’s violence before taking a first step away from life within a lie. The true aims of life are not the preserve of the shaken few, they’re within us all, waiting, forever pushing through – if we allow them. In Havel, Patočka’s darkly hopeful scepticism metaphorphoses into a kind of sceptical hopefulness within reach of all of us.
Both dissidents were vindicated by events. Patočka perished at the hands of the secret police, faithful unto death in his determination to live truthfully or not at all. Havel’s truth was justified a decade later by the Velvet Revolution, when Czechoslovakia’s people, grown tired of the Soviet lie, finally threw off its yoke.
I believe Patočka and Havel leave us with a deeply hopeful gift for our own times. They’ve named the possibility that encounters with the violence of the lie may throw us into uneasy thoughtfulness, a newly passional openness to the world that the lie can no longer colonise so easily. Their joint plea that we not let our chosen loyalties abet violence deserves to be taken to heart – our loyalties to, for example, a political party, a faith, perhaps a line of work, must be contingent on a deeper fidelity to the thoughtfulness of care.
They also offer us a clearer steer on what a politics of thoughtfulness means. Neither had assumed that moving towards truthfulness means the steady accumulation of the right answers to what the world needs. A person who is ‘shaken’, who ‘attempts to live within the truth’, is as radically unsure about the answers as they are passionately thoughtful about the questions. They’re not one who knows, say, that nuclear weapons ought to be banned – even if they should – but one who knows that the question deserves the passion of attentiveness, for it puts life at stake. Perhaps truthfulness shouldn’t be defined by knowledge at all, but by care.
…is the bleak astonishment of violence really the only thing capable of turning us to thoughtfulness and care? The sun before me now, scintillating off the river in spate, dazzling the frozen flood plain beyond, astonishes no less, here in the same troubled world our understanding can’t quite lay hold of. Most of the time, our nearest star passes unnoticed as the stage-light for our straitly human drama. But sometimes, in a fleetingly genuine moment of attentiveness, haven’t we felt its promise warming through us, urging us outwards from our narrower selves? Can’t the sun and all the life under it still leave us undone, even ‘shaken’, a little more awake to a breathing world tilting us its way?
An attempt at truthfulness more than denies the lie its dominion; it also learns to love the life the lie diminishes. Why else would we labour to crack open the spectacle of the lie, but that we have already begun to move with the life of the world it hides, hoping to meet its teeming vitality with our own? Learn the songs of the birds, favour the migrant’s story, it’s not too late. Tilt head, heart, and hand towards the life that moves in you – commune, create.
- Havel and Patočka’s final conversation took place at the secret police HQ while they waited in the same room to be taken through for their interrogations. Havel never went home that day; he was imprisoned for the next three years. He heard the news of Patočka’s death shortly afterwards. Writing in secret from his cell, he wrote a tribute to his friend: ‘And it seems that those like Professor Patočka, with all they were, thought out, did – somehow keep being – here – there – somewhere – more urgently than the many of whom death has nothing to fear…’
- I’ve suggested here that, in dominant white middle class culture, ‘truth favours the misfit’, adding that since they haven’t conformed to the norms of their society, the question of what makes life meaningful is still an open one. But for the same reasons, conspiracy theories favour the misfit too, so what’s the difference? It may be that the misfit who is moving towards a life more thoughtful is growing less sure of what they believe, and so more openly thoughtful. In contrast, a conspiracy theorist grows ever more certain of their worldview. To tell them apart, you could ask each of them, If you were mistaken, how would you know? Only one could offer an answer.
- I mentioned my friend’s view that dominant middle-class culture isn’t capable of facing our world situation for what it is. My reply here is only partial, since if something does favour the outsider, then by definition it favours someone who isn’t quite of their culture. Not much optimism here, though no need for hopelessness either!
- Václav Havel is quoted from his The power of the powerless (London: Vintage, 2018) and a short samizdat essay, ‘Last conversation’, in M Goetz-Stankiewicz (ed.), Good-bye, samizdat: Twenty years of Czechoslovak Underground Writing (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1992).
- Jan Patočka is quoted from his Heretical essays in the philosophy of history (Chicago: Open Court, 1996) [trans. Erazim Kohák]
- Thanks and appreciation to Tim Stead and Ersilia Verlinghieri for their thoughtful thoughts on an earlier draft.
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