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March 4, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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The Man Who Brought Down Communism

WHAT IS BEAUTY? I THINK IT IS BETTER TO DEFINE BEAUTY WITH A PRACTICAL EXAMPLE; A SPECIMEN OF PERFECT BEAUTY IN THE REAL, HUMAN WORLD. THIS IS A KIND OF PROVABLE DISCUSSION THAT HAS MORE COMMON GROUND FOR US, AS OPPOSED TO SHOWY, AIRY INTELLECTUALISM. IN OTHER WORDS, I’M GOING TO PAINT A PICTURE OF HOW TO LIVE BEAUTIFULLY BY TALKING ABOUT ONE MAN WHO CAME CLOSER TO LIVING BEAUTIFULLY THAN PERHAPS ANY OTHER INDIVIDUAL IN LIVING MEMORY, WHO WORKED MOSTLY IN THE LATTER QUARTER OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, A TIME WHEN HUMANITY STRUGGLED IN A WAY THAT WE OF THE POST-COLD WAR GENERATIONS CANNOT UNDERSTAND, OR AT LEAST NOT YET. 

This individual and those who shared his thoughts, with a few beautiful pen strokes and remarks in public, caused the implosion of the Soviet system, destroyed Soviet tyranny over Europe and the wider world, and thus brought an end to the unreasoning animosity that defined the second half of the last century. Perhaps it was an accident of fate that he was the spark that burnt the whole ugly thing down, but if we look at that man’s beautiful character and the ugly environment he found himself in, it looks less like an accident of chance and more like an accident so inevitable that it was ordained by some kind of discoverable fate or simple rule about human society.

I’m not claiming that he was Jesus resurrected or that he embodied something divine; he had his flaws like everyone, and I won’t claim he represents some kind of beauty that exists outside of or above humanity, but he is very certainly the literal embodiment of human beauty in human action and words; he embodied what the average person was struggling to do in that time period. You have your Nelson Mandelas and your Dalai Lamas, but the thing about our man that adds that degree of perfection is how he seems to have individually and very quickly in his life found his way to being beautiful and not strayed. Others didn’t need to impose an understanding on him from childhood, or lecture him in civic values as a young adult. He came to live beautifully on his own terms.

You have probably heard this man’s name on the news occasionally, and sadly he passed away late last year, probably a happy casualty of healthy old age, untouched in body and spirit by the thorns of the repressive systems he fought against his whole life. Because that was just how he operated, he was so beautiful in his truth and the mild, articulate expression of it that he was untouchable; his enemies found the idea of violence against him so daunting that they preferred to ignore or submit to him, and mud thrown at his name could not stick. The system could not beat him so it had to join him. That man was many things to many people, but for the people of Europe he is their Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Tolstoy wrapped up into one. We knew him by the name Václav Havel, a playwright in Soviet Czechoslovakia.

Not a beautiful name to our eyes and ears, perhaps, but please bear with me. The Communists seized the Havel family property when Václav was still a boy in the 1950s. His family were not old barons or corrupt industrialists; they were hard-working middle class people who rose with modernisation in Prague, the Czech capital. Eventually, Havel was even expelled from the school system because of his class background; the Communists didn’t think it was safe to educate the sons and daughters of the formerly-rich families.

That was the ’50s. Fast-forward to the year 2000, when the Communist puppets of Moscow are gone and a healthy Czech Republic stands in their place. If you happened to be walking down the main street of Prague in 2000 you would see advertisements for plays written and produced by the country’s head of state, the President of the Czech Republic. You can probably guess who this man is, a playwright and the President of the now-free republic? It’s our Václav Havel. If you were to look out the door of the theatre, head over the river, and walk up to Prague Castle, that same day you would find a different kind of theatre being put on by that same President Havel: a three day international conference on globalisation, human rights, education, poverty etc., with a cast of heads of state, pop icons and spiritual leaders. In a healthy, young democracy, what does it mean when the vast majority put their hopes in a playwright? It is itself the stuff of fairy tales that somehow came true. What was the ‘somehow’?

In the 50 years between when Havel was an expelled student and jobless, and when Havel was the President, what happened? Back in the ’50s and ’60s, going about his life in Prague, in all honesty and legitimacy, Havel found himself working in the theatre business, found himself having certain ideas, which led to him being called a ‘dissident ringleader’ and a criminal by the Communists. A man content with having no power beyond his own voice and art, who wrote about ideas but did not force them on others, who had a distaste for anything corrupting, aggressive and deceitful, happened to live in a period when people were encouraged to give up power over their individual voices and thoughts. At this point in the story he might have given up and submitted. But he didn’t care what the Communists did to him for saying what he wanted to say and thinking what he wanted to think. Political, cultural, spiritual and intellectual leadership flowed from him and sparked so many simply because when he really didn’t like things, he called it as he saw it and did not worry about his own safety. In the words of one US President who valiantly attempted to do the same, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

You might ask, why is ‘honest, considerate and unwavering’ the one and only definition of ‘living beautifully’? Why Havel’s example, rather than, say, being reward-driven no matter the cost to others, or kneeling to the powerful, or being unsure of the existence of true beauty at all, or a feeling of apathy about the whole question? Well, men and women like Havel each certainly found an answer for their time and place. It helped them remain optimistic and constructive in the face of German invasions, the total destruction of Europe by the Second World War, and worst of all the Orwellian oppression of Stalinists. In Czechoslovakia, they overcame apathy in good time, solved their big problems, and began living beautifully again. If this still doesn’t make sense to you, maybe your diet is a bit too heavy on fear and self-loathing. Try thinking like Havel; or at least have a go at the things he was known for, like the following: perhaps every day you could deceive a little less habitually, at the risk of people knowing your thoughts too well for your self-esteem or safety; or give when no one is looking, at the risk of not being complimented on your ‘charity’. Give community service a go, not necessarily the ‘big stuff’ like being a candidate for political offices, but give something of yourself to others, in an effort to see it all as an extension of your self, at the risk of being lost in something bigger than yourself. If you consider yourself open-minded, be open-minded about the possibility of beauty in the grander scheme of things, and follow the example of unmistakably beautiful people like Václav Havel.

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