Hrabal, Havel, and Hope

Too Loud a Solitude was written underground over many years during Russia’s long occupation of Czechoslovakia as an affirmation of a robust humanity that refused to be destroyed along with the condemned books that bore testament to it. Sven Birkerts of the New York Times described Hrabal’s efforts as “a cry of expiring humanism,” a eulogy for existence not as we know it, but as we imagine it, ushered in, not by a totalitarian regime, but by the superiorly pernicious culprit of indifference.

As Westerners, we read Hrabal’s mini masterpiece from the remove of historical context – the story is deeply moving and universal in appeal, but it was written under circumstances that have no overt application to the Western experience. We have never been occupied. Since the political situation in the United States has capsized, and our social and civic freedoms feel increasingly at risk, I have only now begun to understand what contemporary Eastern philosophers have understood all along – totalitarianism has deep roots in every iteration of the body politic – and democracy, the emblem of the free world, is fast becoming the expression of totalitarianism’s most insidious and terrifying features.

In Vaclav Havel’s 1984 essay Politics and Conscience, he talks about his experience as a boy seeing his first smokestack, spewing grey sludge into the mouth of heaven, and the horror he felt at this obvious violation of the natural order.  It seemed to his young mind an arbitrary invasion of the manmade into the mystery that holds all things in perfect order, rupturing the perfect unity that gives meaning to everything in the universe. He goes on to correlate how our abdication of personal responsibility to our environment is caused by the indifference and alienation born from a loss of connection to the tangible world. The tangible contains both the incontestable materiality of the seen, but also a reverence for what remains unseen, holy, and unifying, through the understanding that there are things that remain outside the power of humankind to control. It is only in abdicating the desire to dominate the invisible that keeps us human, and allows the practices of basic reason and decency to maintain civic peace and balance.

Havel states:

“the natural world, in virtue of its very being, bears within it the presupposition of the absolute which grounds, delimits, animates, and directs it, without which it would be unthinkable, absurd, and superfluous, and which we can only quietly respect.  Any attempt to spurn it, master it, replace it with something else, appears, within the framework of the natural world, an expression of hubris for which humans must pay a heavy price…”

Jacques Ellul, in his voluminous writings on the relationship between humankind and technology, also expounded on the crises caused by the assertion of independence from the natural world through the construction of the city. As we lose contact with what Havel calls our “absolute horizon,” abolishing the sanctity of the unknowable to make way for the manmade certitude of science and technology, we deprecate the meaning of our own lives.

It is through this disconnection with our own humanity, our inextricable need for connection to a purpose beyond us, that we become “defenseless,” and as such, conquerable. As our consciousness becomes colonized with false ideas grounded in the belief that personal experience is purely subjective, untethered to a larger framework of accountability, the motor of totalitarianism, fueled by the imperative to realize itself and nothing more, encounters no resistance.

One of the things I have always loved most about Too Loud a Solitude is Hrabal’s lack of sentimentality. It always seemed, in this refusal to bracket his situation as unique to him or his time, that there was a much larger concern he was pointing to.  I see more clearly now that he understood that his situation was not bound to a particular epoch or political climate – it was the condition of our spirits and our minds that concerned Hrabal. Far worse than books being destroyed was the dehumanizing motor of political practice eroding truth and moral responsibility. “The best resistance to totalitarianism is to drive it out of our own souls,” writes Havel. The takeover is not something that happens when fascists roll in in tanks, but when the irrational and impersonal become norms that we can no longer distinguish from the ideals of the world we long to live in.

Hrabal met Havel at The Golden Tiger, Hrabal’s favorite pub, along with Bill Clinton and Madelaine Albright in 1994. I do not know to what extent they knew one another beyond that meeting. Although less overtly political than Havel, Bohumil Hrabal’s writing style contains the urgency of Vaclav Havel’s central concern in his political writings – without our humanity, we are defenseless, and defensless, we are at risk of losing very liberty we trust our political systems to uphold.

Havel’s final thoughts offer a powerful directive of what must be done to stem the tide of totalitarianism, which feels as poignant now in the West as it must of in the time he wrote it, before the Soviet Union lost supremacy in Eastern Europe. It’s poignancy bears repeating verbatim in its entirety:

“ …it seems to me that all of us, East and West, face one fundamental task from which all else should follow. That task is one of resisting vigilantly, thoughtfully, and attentively, but at the same time with total dedication, at every step and everywhere, the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and unhuman power – the power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureauocracy, artificial languages, and political slogans. We must resist its complex and wholly alienating pressure, whether it takes the form of consumption, advertising, repression, technology, or cliché – all of which are the blood brothers of fanaticism and the wellspring of totalitarian thought. We must draw our standards from the natural world, heedless of ridicule, and reaffirm its denied validity. We must honor with the humility of the wise the limits of that natural world and the mystery which lies beyond them, admitting that there is something in the order of being which evidently exceeds all our competence. We must relate to the absolute horizon of our existence, which, if we but will, we shall constantly rediscover and experience. We must make values and imperatives the starting point of all our acts, of all our personally attested, openly contemplated, and ideologically uncensored experience. We must trust the voice of our conscience more than that of all abstract speculations and not invent responsibilities other than the one to which the voice calls us. We must not be ashamed that we are capable of love, friendship, solidarity, sympathy, and tolerance, but just the opposite: we must see these fundamental dimensions of our humanity free from their “private” exile and accept them as the only genuine starting point of meaningful human community. We must be guided by our own reason and serve the truth under all circumstances as our own essential experience.”

The audacious naïveté of Havel’s proclamation underscores how critical language becomes in a time where it is being blatantly contorted into excruciating violations of common sense and reason. Language - real, true, sincere language that cleaves to the certitude of uncontestable meaning – is our stronghold against cynicism, irrationality, and indifference.

Hrabal’s language, which he savors like a fruit drop, reminds us that we exist within the vastness of constellations. We are born from, and return to, the absolute horizon, the source of the tangible and intangible, and the invisible wonder that holds it all together. The meaning and value of our existence is indisputable, and defensible, if we only have the courage to remember what we are made of.