The Great Czech Playwright Turned Dissident Turned President Václav Havel on Hope
By Maria Popova
“Mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself,” Rachel Carson exhorted the young in her final farewell to the world. “Therein lies our hope and our destiny,” she told the next generation, two generations before Rebecca Solnit insisted in her magnificent manifesto for resilience that “hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.”
I too have long contemplated the question of hope — how it serves as a life-affirming antidote to the cowardice of cynicism, how its active and actionable nature differs from the laziness of passive optimism. Born into a communist dictatorship, one of my earliest memories is sitting atop my father’s shoulders, holding a candle into the night air alongside thousands of others gathered at the plaza before the Bulgarian Parliament in the protests that eventually brought down the dictatorship.
Months after I was born, a handful of longitude degrees north, the great Czech playwright turned dissident (turned, some years later, president) Václav Havel (October 5, 1936–December 18, 2011) addressed the vital role of hope in steering destiny in a series of interviews conducted shortly after his release from prison, where he had spent four years for composing an anti-communist manifesto in response to the imprisonment of the Czech psychedelic rock band The Plastic People of the Universe. Eventually published as Disturbing the Peace in 1990, his timeless insights into the inner life and civic purpose of hope were excerpted a quarter century later in Paul Loeb’s lucid and life-buoying posy of hope-strands, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear (public library).
Imprisoned multiple times for upholding his ideals of justice and humanism, for his insistence on anti-consumerism and environmental responsibility, Havel, like Viktor Frankl, knew the value of hope with visceral intimacy, not as an intellectual pretension or a spiritual delusion but as a lifeline of sanity and survival, for the individual as well as for the constellation of individuals we call society. He writes:
The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.
A century after Walt Whitman, having lived and served and continued writing hope-giving, life-salving verses through a gruesome war, held up optimism as a mighty force of resistance, Havel adds:
Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.
But what is this “elsewhere” and where does it reside? In the hearts of citizens, Havel argues — the individual hearts that harmonize into the symphonic pulse-beat of culture. Writing from the other side of unspeakable atrocities and terrors and oppressions, as the communist regime was beginning to topple after a decades-long rein, he examines the nature of power as a bidirectional valve, flowing not only top-down but bottom-up:
All power is power over someone, and it always somehow responds, usually unwittingly rather than deliberately, to the state of mind and the behavior of those it rules over… No one can govern in a vacuum. The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: Everyone has a small part of himself in both.
With an eye to the groundswells of hope and resistance he had begun witnessing — the very groundswells that would, before the decade’s end, topple the dictatorship — he writes in a passage of astounding prescience for his own time and vibrant resonance to ours:
New islands of self-awareness and self-liberation are appearing, and the connections between them, which were once so brutally disrupted, are multiplying… Something is happening in the social awareness, though it is still an undercurrent as yet, rather than something visible… And all of this brings subtle pressure to bear on the powers that govern society. I’m not thinking now of the obvious pressure of public criticism coming from dissidents, but of the invisible kinds of pressure brought on by this general state of mind and its various forms of expression, to which power unintentionally adapts, even in the act of opposing it.
Pointing to “the unstoppable development of independent culture” and the moral awakening of youth as the two greatest motive forces for the coming change, he writes:
[Young people are beginning] to seek, among the diffuse and fragmented world of frenzied consumerism…, for a point that will hold firm — all this awakens in them a longing for a genuine moral “vanishing point,” for something purer and more authentic. These people simply long to step outside the general automatic operations of society and rediscover their natural world and discover hope for this world.
I thought of Havel as I cycled across the Manhattan Bridge to join the breathtaking gathering of young people at the 2019 Climate Strike, the largest environmental protest in history — a magnificent mass of resistance to greed, to consumerism, to the capitalist exploitation of our irreplaceable planet’s oceans and rivers and rainforests and wildlife, whose preservation and administration, as Rachel Carson admonished in 1953 to unheeding ears, “is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.”
The future, Havel reminds us, is a mosaic built of these seemingly small yet combinatorially enormous acts of courage and resistance:
Isn’t the reward of all those small but hopeful signs of movement this deep, inner hope that is not dependent on prognoses, and which was the primordial point of departure in this unequal struggle? Would so many of those small hopes have “come out” if there had not been this great hope “within,” this hope without which it is impossible to live in dignity and meaning, much less find the will for the “hopeless enterprise” which stands at the beginning of most good things?
People who are used to seeing society only “from above” tend to be impatient. They want to see immediate results. Anything that does not produce immediate results seems foolish. They don’t have a lot of sympathy for acts which can only be evaluated years after they take place, which are motivated by moral factors, and which therefore run the risk of never accomplishing anything.
Unfortunately, we live in conditions where improvement is often achieved by actions that risk remaining forever in the memory of humanity… History is not something that takes place “elsewhere”; it takes place here; we all contribute to making it.
Complement the thoroughly inspiriting The Impossible Will Take a Little While — which also gave us Diane Ackerman on what working at a suicide prevention hotline taught her about loneliness and resilience — with Zadie Smith on optimism and despair and Iris Murdoch on art as a force of resistance to tyranny, then revisit Havel’s stirring 1995 Harvard commencement address.
Published September 22, 2019