New biography ‘Havel: Unfinished Revolution’ traces intimate, inward journey of Czechoslovakia’s last president

Photo: © Tomki Němec / 400asa

Dr. David Gilbreath Barton, an award-winning American journalist and psychotherapist, first visited Czechoslovakia in the mid-1980s, “fell in love with the country”, and moved to Prague in the heady early days of Václav Havel’s presidency, less than a year after the Velvet Revolution. His new biography of Czechoslovakia’s last president, Havel: Unfinished Revolution, is an intimate, sweeping portrayal especially of the dissident playwright’s underground years and inward journey.

David Gilbreath Barton,  photo: archive of University of Pittsburgh Press

Back in 2009, Dr Barton began working on a “triple biography” of Havel and two other founders and early spokesmen of the Charter 77 human rights initiative – the ex-diplomat Jiří Hájek, who as foreign minister protested against the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, at the United Nations; and the renown philosopher Jan Patočka, a mentor to Havel and other dissident intellectuals.

“I wanted to write a joint biography of Jiří Hájek, Jan Patočka and Václav Havel, interweaving those three stories. That was my originating idea in 2009, and I realised within the first year that it was just more than I could take on; within the first two years, I limited the biography to just Havel’s story.

“Nevertheless, the book tries not to see Havel in isolation but as part of a larger story of what was going on in Czech society in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and trying to tell that story particularly for an American audience that might not fully understand and appreciate the complexities of Eastern Europe.”

Dr Barton, a psychotherapist and associate professor of humanities now living in New Mexico and long married to a Czech, was founding editor and publisher of The Salt Journal, a national US magazine covering “the intersections of myth, culture, psychology and religion” before entering academia.

“I do tend to see things psychologically. I don’t know that the reader will notice it when reading the book. But I am very interested – as Havel was – in the undercurrents of what’s going on in the culture. The things that people can’t see but are alive in the unconscious, alive in what isn’t being lived.

“And, of course, that’s one of my deep interests in Havel, I think perhaps even before I realised it, that as a playwright, as someone in the ‘theatre of the absurd’, he was always looking to the unseen, to the images below the surface, of what were the unlived possibilities of society. I think that’s what gave Havel his visionary quality.”

Dr Barton spent four or five years tracking down Havel’s letters, documents, and notes from the decades before the Velvet Revolution, keen to trace his thinking – his “inward journey” – at seminal points in his private life – from theatre stagehand to celebrated playwright, from banned author and essayist, Charter 77 cofounder, and political prisoner.

“It was actually quite a chore to dig up his correspondence at that time, precisely because of the kind of life that he had led and his letters had been scattered all about. But it was deeply valuable for me. He wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters, and many provide a very deep insight into the way he thought about the world, his work and activities. I found it an enormously enjoyable enterprise, but quite a difficult one as well. ” …

“In many ways, I wrote the biography for myself – I wanted to write the biography that I wanted to read. I wanted to explore Havel’s ideas, where they came from, how he generated them. I wanted to know about the underground society he lived in, how it had influenced him, and his attraction to it. So it’s really much more a biography about Havel’s ‘underground’ years, if I can call them that – some people do object to that word – the world outside official society. That’s really what the biography is really about – that underground world and the ways in which he incubated his ideas there.”

In Havel: Unfinished Revolution, Dr Barton writes:

‘For many the primary image of Václav Havel comes from a happier time, perhaps November 22, 1989, day five of the Velvet Revolution. On that afternoon, a crowd of 200,000 demonstrators stood in the cobblestone boulevard that stretches a half mile from Můstek to the National Museum. Havel flashed a “V for Victory” sign from a balcony. As the shortest man addressing the crowd, Havel appeared anything but heroic. His hair was windblown, his moustache thin and wispy, giving him the appearance, as Timothy Garton Ash once said, “of nothing so much as a friendly walrus.” ‘Radim Palouš, a philosopher and long-time dissident, spoke first to the demonstrators, then Václav Malý, an underground priest. When Havel’s turn came, he spoke while gazing downward, observing his feet. From any other speaker, the results would have been disastrous. For Havel, however, the slow, hesitant voice came across as authentic, even fresh. His posture seemed to reveal a shy, conflicted artist. Having listened to the triumphalism of communist functionaries for forty-one years, Havel’s antiheroic nature seemed electrifying.’

Dr Barton calls Disturbing the Peace, a collection of interviews Havel gave to the journalist Karel Hvížďala published in 1986 in connection with his fiftieth birthday, ‘something of a masterpiece, a book-length discussion that was not only deeply personal but also an exploration of his struggle to live a life of civic responsibility’.

Photo: © Tomki Němec / 400asa

Apart from such things as Czech history and the erosion of spirit in the modern world, Havel discussed his plays, years in prison, marriage to Olga, and the many absurdities and paradoxes he saw in his own life.

“If I recall that passage, one of the central paradoxes was that he loved nothing more than peace and quiet, yet spent most of his adult life in an enormous amount of turmoil – and felt compelled to do that; that he wanted nothing more than to be left alone to write his plays, and yet spent years doing anything but writing his plays. I think that’s really central in understanding his character.

“There’s another paradox behind all of those that I tried to get at, which is that Havel spent a great deal of his life trying to understand the authoritarian nature of the culture he lived in. But he himself was a man of immense control, and I think much of his life he struggled with and tried to understand his own nature, and his own tendencies towards, let’s call it control.”

“And the writing process was extremely painful for Havel for much of his life. He often spent years and years writing his plays, and that continued up towards the middle of the 1980s, when he had a series of creative and probably emotional breakthroughs, psychological breakthroughs, in which he went from taking years to writing plays to writing them in these huge bursts of activity. Largo Desolato and Temptation – both of those plays were written within about ten days.”

I wanted to ask you maybe to put on your ‘psychiatrist’s hat’ – what personality type was Havel, if you can break it down so… If you can imagine that he were your patient, what would you write up your notes about him?

“Extremely creative and extremely conflicted – as many creative people are. And that inner struggle was an enormous challenge for him. One of the things that became clear to me was that it wasn’t until he fell in love with Jitka Vodňanská that he was really able to open up completely and fully to himself. He was a very guarded person, and he sometimes found it – as he said – difficult to remember that he had a body, and difficult to fully embrace the world around him.”

I also wanted to ask about his relationship with Olga. A lot of authors, kind of in passing, speak of her as a maternal figure, and he was known to confess his infidelities to her – if you can call them that, since they were out there on the table. What do you read into their relationship? And did you find much in the letters, in the archives, to explain it?

“Well, he was very guarded in all his letters to Olga. You could hardly call them ‘love letters’ – they were more like business letters. It’s hard to find letters in which he is fully open and revealing of himself with Olga, unlike for instance in his letters with Jitka.

Václav Havel with his wife Olga | Photo: Ondřej Němec,  Výbor dobré vůle,  CC BY 4.0

“I find it a perplexing relationship and probably a very deep one. There was a long period in the 1980s where they struggled with whether to continue the marriage, but there was obviously something there for both of them, something really important.

“Havel said many times that Olga was his anchor, yet he came right up to the precipice of leaving her several times. There’s a letter from him to Jitka where he tell her that he has left Olga. And by the next week, he was back with her. He simply could not leave. In that way, I do think that Olga was a kind of mother figure for him.

“She was so different from his actual mother – a kind of liberation from his mother. He needed Olga very badly, and in some way seems to have needed her admiration and respect. I think, in the end, we’d have to say that despite all of these things, she was a miraculous partner for him. And that couldn’t have been easy on her.”

Václav Havel spent five years in and out of prison, endured the suppression of his work and freedoms and lived for two decades under near constant surveillance by the secret police, before his ascendency to Prague Castle in the wake of the Velvet Revolution. Dr Barton writes:

‘Havel’s life didn’t conclude with the Velvet Revolution. By some accounts, it had just begun. The long years of resistance gave way to something entirely new. As president, he was, as he himself said, “catapulted overnight into a world of fairy tales.” The international fame, the press coverage, and the trappings of being head of state were all part of what he called “a diabolical trap set for me by destiny.” […] ‘From another point of view, however, the presidency is a mere footnote to the larger story of his life. The real Havel, the heroic part of his life, came earlier. In many ways, the presidency was a matter of tidying up what he had been working on for more than 25 years, putting things in order, attempting to institute the ideas of the Velvet Revolution into the offices of the government.’

Dr. Barton’s biography gives readers an insightful overview of Havel’s complex personality, particularly his persistent self-doubt, intellectual curiosity, and the ideas that perhaps ultimately made so interesting and still so relevant today – his desire to live an examined life, and live in truth, adhering to a moral code.

“I do think that he was a deeply spiritual man. I think really that’s what his theatre of the absurd is about – his need, ultimately, to find meaning, spiritual grounding. In a number of letters, he does talk about his experiences in prison where he did attend Catholic mass, and there’s no question that he was moved by that. But he couldn’t believe in a personalized god, which I think is a deeply spiritual position, actually. He wouldn’t allow himself that comfort. And yet, I think that was part of a search for a very spiritual viewpoint of the world. That would be my own take on him.”