by Ron Hayes
In the late fall of 1989, upheaval around the globe seemed to bring pause to the world, as if we were all holding our collective breath. Revolution swirled through the streets and plains and forests and public squares of Eastern and Central Europe. In Prague, a middle-aged dissident writer, the factory-working son born out of time to bourgeois parents in a Communist age, emerged as an unlikely figurehead, a steady candle-flame fueling revolution in his beloved Czechoslovakia. His name was Vaclav Havel and he happened to write plays.
In 1998 I was finishing my undergraduate degree in English and looking for a thesis topic. I wanted something different, something unique; I didn’t want to contribute yet another wide-eyed take on some Shakespearean minutiae or a senseless, blathering discourse on the hidden intentions of Hemingway. Having nearly slid sideways into the Political Science realm, I turned to my interest in the Cold War and international relations, ultimately focusing my attention on Havel and the fascinating intersection of literature and politics.
And thus “On the Intersection of Literature and Politics in Czechoslovakia” became the first draft of my undergraduate English thesis. In it, I tried to make sense of the cultural traditions of Czechoslovakia and started to explore how the political climate there in the mid-20th Century contributed to the literary output of dissidents. It quite naturally segued into a deeper look at the life and work of Havel.
What fascinated me about this place and this person was (and remains) how a vast populace could be so informed and so passionate about literature in the face of such repression. Moreover, I was (and remain) profoundly impressed that, in the wide pool of characters from which a society could choose a leader, Czechs and Slovaks chose a writer. A sharp, crumpled, contemplative, compassionate, and wise man of words instead of a slick, shiny, shit-slinger cut and honed in the glare of publicity (and thus possessing a concomitant proficiency at performing, slickly, in the public eye). Czechoslovakia chose well, and among the slew of Eastern European revolutions in the 1990s, theirs has come to be known as the Velvet Revolution, for the absence of violence and senseless bloodshed during the transition of power.
So, what does this have to do with my writing goals for 2017? It means that today, on the eve of the inauguration of our 45th president, I realize I have gone on far too long distancing my politics from my literature. It means I’ve come to realize that, in choosing poorly, our country now careens toward a climate in which samizdat, literature critical of the state (and therefore banned by the state), suddenly seems not only possible, but likely. It means that my own personal intersection of literature and politics will be forever changed as I prepare to stand and fight for what I believe our culture should be, what it should aspire to be, and not what it seems happy to settle for. The pointed, debilitating dialogue so notable in the work of an easygoing, dissident playwright forced to atone for the sins of his bourgeois parents by toiling in unskilled labor withing a Prague brewery, surges to the forefront of my mind as I look upon Washington D.C. and recognize the portent of its newest denizen, himself bedecked and bedazzled with the trappings of opulence. The tenor and tone of Havel’s razor sharp criticism of Czechoslovakian Communism resonates in my memory and compels me to action.
My goals for 2017? To stand for what I believe is right, to confront bad governance with all the words at my disposal, and to put politics back IN to my literary output if for no other reason than to assure that compassion, grace, wisdom, and humility remain contours on the complexion of our collective American face, no matter how much a certain leader attempts to ignore or obliterate them. In the disturbing, orange face of this new administration, our literary efforts have never been more important. I will be diligent, I will be thoughtful, and I hope you will join me in being loud. As the Czechs once demonstrated the remarkable maturity to elect a writer as their leader, let us lead as writers until such time as our countrymen and compatriots can employ a similar level of maturity to select leaders far different from the ones we’ve chosen of late.
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