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Vaclav Havel: “Being has memory”

May 2, 2012

On April 15 Barbara and I were in Prague for the 90th anniversary celebration of the Unitarian Church, a few hundred feet from the Karlova Most, the ancinet bridge, now a pedestrian way swamped with tourists, over the River Vlatva, celebrated by Smetna’s symphonic poem, “Moldau.”  We were there at the invitation of the minister, Rev. Petr Samojsky, who has guided this tenacious congregation since it reclaimed its property from a would-be cult leader, a decade ago.   We’ve followed the vicissitudes of the church over the years, from our first visit in 1969, directly following the Soviet invasion that terminated the “Prague Spring,” to the “Velvet Revolution” led by Vaclav Havel and his compatriots in 1989, and to the present, still tumultous times.

This history is reflected in my April 15 anniversary celebration sermon, for which I draw on Vaclav Havel’s words in “The Power of the Powerless,” his public argument for the historic Charter 77 movement.  Havel, who died last December 18, was a playwright before he became a politician and a President of his country; he remained a most humane and unassuming man.  His words speak powerfully to our own sense of participating in history-in-the-making.  I’ve posted a longer version of my excerpts and comments from Havel on the Essays and Sermons page–look it up!

In our Prague service Barbara gave a reading of Havel’s more personal reflections, drawn from the tribute by Paul Wilson, one of his translators, recently published in The New York Review of Books: 

Toward the end of To the Castle and Back, his unconventinal presidential memoir, in a section datelined “Hradecek, December 5, 2005,” Havel confronts his own death.  “I’m running away,” he writes.  “What I’m running away from is writing. But it’s more than that.  I’m running away form the public, from politics, from people.  Perhaps I’m even running away from the woman who saved my life.  After all, I’m probably running away from myself.”

He finds himself constantly fretting about the tidiness of the house, as though he were expecting a visit from someone “who will really appreaciate that everything is in it proper place and properly aligned.”  Why this obsession with order?

“I have only one explanation,” he says.  “I am constantly preparing for the last judgment, for the highest court from which nothing can be hidden, which will appreciate everything that should be appreciated, and which will, of course, notice anyting that is not in its place.   I’m obviouisly assuming that the supreme judge is a stickler like me.  But why does this final evaluation matter so much to me?  After all, at that point, I shouldn’t care.  But I do care, because I’m convinced that my existence–like everything that has ever happened–has ruffled the surface of Being, and that after my little riple, however marginal, insignificant and ephemeral it may have been, Being is and always will be different from what it was before.

“All my life I have simply believed that what is once done can never be undone and that, in fact, everything remains forever.  In short, Being has memory.   And thus, even my insignificance–the bourgeois child, a labratory assistant, a soldier, a stagehand, a playwright, a dissident, a prisoner, a president, a pensioner, a public phenomenon, and a hermit, an alleged hero but secretly a bundle of nerves–will remain here forever, or rather not here, but somewhere.  But not, however, elsewhere.  Somewhere here.”

Wilson’s citation of Havel stops there.  I’ll add my own observation.  We do not miss the tone of self-deprecating humor, and that it cannot quite keep the deeper import of Havel’s personal reflections under wraps: it matters what we think and do, what we take responsibility for, what we strive to create, for what has been will always be.  –GKB

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Howard Stoodley permalink
    May 2, 2012 7:43 am

    Thanks George…a thoughtful piece.

  2. May 3, 2012 3:12 am

    Dear “Kim”
    Thanks for this reminder of sharing the Prague 90th Anniversary weekend with you and Barbara.
    Two nights ago we were in London to see LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O’Neill. A tragic play starring David Suchet. Barbara’s reading of Havel anticipating death reminds me that much great writing from Shakespeake to O’Neill and Havel is a bit of “For God’s Sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of Kings.”

    I know the feeling well. A reminder to remember, “To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” “Long live the Queen!” Blessings and hope, Richard

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