Current trends in Europe and US make Havel’s writings relevant once again, says academic David S. Danaher

David S. Danaher, photo: Ian Willoughby

Sunday was the fifth anniversary of the death of Václav Havel, the Czech dissident who led the Velvet Revolution and went on to spend nearly 13 years as president. But before he became a politician, Havel was, of course, a playwright, and it is just his literary work that is the focus of the book Reading Václav Havel by David S. Danaher, a Slavic Studies expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When he visited our studios recently, we discussed, among other things, Havel’s legacy and relevance today. But I first asked Danaher what had led him to Czech.

David S. Danaher,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Like many Slavists of my generation, I came to Czech through Russian. I had the opportunity to learn Russian in high school, which was quite unusual in the early ‘80s in the United States.

“I studied Russian as an undergraduate at the university and only started Czech at graduate school.

“Before Czech I took Polish, so I kind of migrated west in Slavic cultures. I fell in love with Czech and fell in love with Prague in particular – and kind of stuck with it.”

Typically, who are your students?

“It varies considerably. I teach Czech language at the introductory and intermediate levels.

“We normally have heritage speakers of Czech who have varying degrees of fluency, usually at the lower levels.

“But then we have students who simply want to take a more exotic language. The typical language is Spanish or French or German and they see Czech in the timetable and are excited about doing something different.”

Obviously the internet has transformed life for those who are studying the language and culture of faraway countries. But typically what Czech sources do you find you use the most?

“I do try to use the internet a great deal. YouTube videos. We listen to a number of songs.

“But I think the thing that helps most of all is films. Because Czech is, as you know, a complicated language for English speakers, and one of the difficulties is the distinction between literary and spoken Czech.

“We use a lot of films in my sequence at the University of Wisconsin because that’s really the way you get to see and hear spoken Czech in action.

“You can’t really discuss it theoretically. You can a little bit, but students really need to see it and hear it in action in order to understand how those differences work.”

“Typically Havel is viewed through a historical or biographical lens.”

Just as a matter of interest, what particular films are popular with your students?

“We do older films, because I’ve had to develop materials for them and that takes a long time so I don’t have the time to do newer films.

“We do Dark Blue World. Loves of a Blonde, by Miloš Forman, which is a wonderful, delightful film.

“For more advanced films we do the film that’s translated as Divided We Fall: Musíme si pomáhat. Because it’s more hypothetical, the language is a little more difficult.”

Last year you brought out the book Reading Václav Havel. What was your main aim with that book?

“I’ve been teaching a monograph course on Havel since 2002.

“I teach to what I call naïve readers of Havel, which is students who aren’t specialists in literature and who don’t necessarily know much about Havel before the semester begins.

“These days they don’t know what the Cold War is really, and I have to explain that to them.

“What I noticed in teaching this course is that Havel manages to resonate with students who don’t know anything about his particular context.

“I wanted to explore that in book form. And it took me a very long time – it was about 10 years of teaching this course before I started writing the book – to come to that topic.

“Typically Havel is viewed through a historical lens, or a biographical lens.

“That’s fantastic and necessary scholarship, but it kind of leaves on the side this question of Havel’s resonance to naïve readers. So that’s primarily my motivation for writing the book.”

Do you find there’s any typical misconception about Havel as a writer?

“I think one thing I would emphasise is he’s associated often with a critique of socialist Czechoslovakia, or of totalitarian Eastern Europe.

“Certainly that is true, that critique is there, but we also have to realise that there are two levels of analysis in a lot of what Havel wrote.

“In the book I talk about the domestic level of analysis, that is this critique of socialist countries.

“But there’s also what I call the existential level of analysis. Havel was quite aware of the crisis of modern democracy. He coined the term ‘post-democracy’, which didn’t stick.

“So we also have this critique of modern society in general in a lot of Havel’s work, certainly in the plays and some of the more famous essays.

“And that level, that broader level of critique, tends to be missed by many readers.”

Does Havel’s reputation as a dissident, a politician and a human rights campaigner in any way impact, for better or for worse, appreciation of him as an author?

“I focus in the book on Havel as a writer primarily, because I think that we tend to focus on Havel as a political activist in one way or another, dissident or president, and of course his major contributions to human rights worldwide.

“But for me Havel is primarily a writerly thinker. One of the things I emphasize in the book is that what we associate with Havel’s plays is this notion of the appeal, the provocation.

“In the book I argue that this is true of all of Havel’s genres, and I include political activism as one of the genres.

“When we view Havel through the lens of an appeal-oriented writer and thinker, I think we tend to read his various genres a little bit differently.”

Havel’s plays were largely in the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd, which I guess is regarded as a genre of the past. Are his plays still relevant today?

“With the results of the US election, I’ve noticed a lot of people suggesting that we read The Power of the Powerless again.”

“I think his plays are still relevant, though I would agree that Theatre of the Absurd tends not be the kind of theatre that we see on stages these days.

“I’ve seen productions of Havel’s plays in the modern American context that are adapted to a modern American reality and they still have considerable effect on the audience.

“But of course that largely depends upon directors’ decisions.”

Is there a sense that the “philosophical” writings, such as The Power of the Powerless, which has been translated into so many languages and I believe is still read by dissidents today, overshadows his plays?

“This is a question I deal with in the book. Because Havel wrote in many genres, and the primary genres would be plays and essays and, after 1989, presidential speeches.

“And for me those are all literary works. I read the political essays primarily as literature.

“I think when we read Havel we need to read across those genres. We need to have a holistic or integrative reading of Havel, because Havel was very sensitive to how form affects meaning.

“So the plays represent the idea of dissent in a performative way, on the stage, where the essays treat it more theoretically or abstractly.

“We can’t just look to the essays and say, This is Havel’s definitive word on dissent.

“We also have to read them simultaneously, side by side with the plays and understand that Havel was exploring this topic from various angles and in various experimental forms.”

Is there any single work by Havel that for you will be, or could be, his legacy, long into the future?

“Oh, I think we’d have to say The Power of the Powerless.

“With the current results of the American election, I’ve noticed a lot of people suggesting that we read The Power of the Powerless again.

Václav Havel | Photo: Tomáš Adamec,  Czech Radio
“As you said, it’s been read throughout the world and translated into many languages.”

I was reading that in Reading Václav Havel you set English translations alongside Czech originals to explore what’s lost in translation. Does that mean you think Havel hasn’t been translated as well as he ought to have been?

“Absolutely not. Havel’s main English translator, Paul Wilson, is absolutely fantastic.

“I’ve had many arguments in my head with Paul Wilson over certain translations and he always wins those arguments.

“I’ve talked to other Bohemists who have had the same kinds of arguments and Paul Wilson is always right.

“I think it’s a question of cultural translation, and that’s what I explore in the last chapter of my book: the idea that words that seemingly translate easily, or have only one possible translation, an example would be svědomí, which translates as conscience…

“Nonetheless, against the background of each language, Czech and English, they have startlingly different meanings.

“We can investigate those meanings. We have tools to do that now, we have the Czech national corpus, and English language corpora that help us that.

“So I explore those sometimes very subtle differences, as a way of entering into Havel’s thought. Because these are really key words in Havel’s thinking.”

From your perspective, what was Havel’s best period as a writer?

“I think Havel was a brilliant playwright prior to 1989 and a brilliant essayist prior to 1989.

“For me, the works that are undervalued are the presidential texts and really the speeches.

“He did other things as president, but the speeches are just wonderful gems.

“They’re all available online – most of them in English translation, not all of them – and I would really urge people to take a look at those speeches on a wide variety of topics.

“I’ve had many arguments in my head with Paul Wilson over certain translations and he always wins those arguments.”

“They address modern problems: globalisation, climate change and the responsibility that we have as human beings to confront those problems.”

When you introduce your students to Havel, what is it that typically grabs them?

“I think they enjoy the playfulness of Havel. We start by reading his visual poetry, which he called the Anticodes.

“It’s very, very playful poetry. It can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. The students enjoy coming up with various readings of each of these Anticodes.

“We read them and then se discuss why Havel called them Anticodes.

“I think what students enjoy is that Havel appeals to them to co-create the meaning of each text.

“That’s less prominent in the essays than in the Anticodes and the plays, and also in the speeches.

“But I think once that’s pointed out to the students they really get into the idea of figuring out what it all means for themselves.”

Maybe I’m kind of going back over ground that we’ve covered a bit, but five years after his death, what shape is Havel’s reputation as a writer in today?

“I do think we’re in danger, especially with celebrating what would have been his 80th birthday, of relegating Havel to, let’s say, the museum context, and no longer reading him.

“I think that would be a terrible shame because I do think a lot of his works are still very relevant to the present. Maybe even more so than they were a few years ago, with the kind of political trends that are happening in Europe and America.”