Aaron noted the passing of Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was such a brilliant writer. He was also another vibrant person cut short by smoking and by recklessly excessive drinking. I knew too many wonderful people who departed too soon for related reasons. I’m glad that hard-drinking lifestyle has fallen out of favor. Great writers don’t need to live that way. That kind of recklessness casts too many sad shadows on surrounding lives.
Today I will take the liberty to remember and celebrate another larger than life figure, indeed a genuinely great moral leader, playwrite, and writer: Vaclav Havel. Two of my favorite Havel essays, noted below the fold.
The first, the Power of the Powerless, lay down the gauntlet against the Communist regime that tyrannized Czechoslovakia. Written in 1978, during in a time of apparently dominant Soviet power in eastern Europe, this essay helped to galvanize a dissident movement that ultimately produced the Velvet Revolution and brought Havel from a jail cell to his country’s presidency. You can’t understand the Arab Spring without understanding what came before it. If you are a young progressive person who came of age after the Cold War, this provides a great introduction to the criminalities of Soviet Communism.
The second is a lesser-known piece: Thriller. This is an inspired 1984 medidation on the role of mythology in modern life, linking threads from Michael Jackson’s music , the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the desire to eat the warm, beating heart of a Hoopoe. An inspired piece of prose, an inspired analysis of the superstitions that lay underneath the veneer of a high-tech modern life.
The Power of the Powerless
The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?
I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say…
BEFORE ME LIES the famous Occult Philosophy of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, where I read that the ingestion of the living (and if possible still beating) heart of a hoopoe, a swallow, a weasel, or a mole will bestow upon one the gift of prophecy. It is nine o’clock in the evening and I turn on the radio. The announcer, a woman, is reading the news in a dry, matter-of-fact voice: Mrs. Indira Gandhi has been shot by two Sikhs in her personal bodyguard. The corpse of Father Popieliszko, kidnapped by officers of the Polish police, has been fished out of the Vistula River. International aid is being organized for Ethiopia, where a famine is threatening the lives of millions, while the Ethiopian regime is spending almost a quarter of a billion dollars to celebrate its tenth anniversary. American scientists have developed plans for a permanent observatory on the Moon and for a manned expedition to Mars. In California, a little girl has received a heart transplanted from a baboon; various animal welfare societies have protested…