‘The Post-Communist Nightmare’: An Exchange

Source: The New York Review of Books www.nybooks.com /

Joseph Brodsky, reply by Václav Havel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson.

Dear Mr. President:
I’ve decided to write this letter to you because we have something in common: we both are writers. In this line of work, one weighs words more carefully, I believe, than elsewhere before committing them to paper or, for that matter, to the microphone. Even when one finds oneself engaged in a public affair, one tries to do one’s best to avoid catchwords, Latinate expressions, all manner of jargon. In a dialogue, of course, or with two or more interlocutors around, that’s difficult, and may even strike them as pretentiousness. But in a soliloquy or in a monologue it is, I think, attainable, though of course one always tailors one’s diction to one’s audience.

We have something else in common, Mr. President, and that is our past in our respective police states. To put it less grandly: our prisons, that shortage of space amply made up for by an abundance of time, which, sooner or later, renders one, regardless of one’s temperament, rather contemplative. You spent more time in yours, of course, than I in mine, though I started in mine long before the Prague Spring. Yet in spite of my nearly patriotic belief that the hopelessness of some urine-reeking cement hole in the bowels of Russia awakens one to the arbitrariness of existence faster than what I once pictured as a clean, stuccoed solitary in civilized Prague, as contemplative beings, I think, we might be quite even.

In short, we were pen pals long before I conceived of this letter. But I conceived of it not because of the literalness of my mind, or because our present circumstances are quite different from those of the past (nothing can be more natural than that, and one is not obliged to remain a writer forever: not any more so than to stay a prisoner). I’ve decided to write this letter because a while ago I read the text of one of your most recent speeches, whose conclusions about the past, the present, and the future were so different from mine that I thought, One of us must be wrong. And it is precisely because the present and the future—and not just your own or your country’s but the global one—were involved that I decided to make this an open letter to you. Had the issue been only the past, I wouldn’t have written you this letter at all, or if I had, I’d have marked it “personal.”

The speech of yours that I read was printed in The New York Review of Books and its title was “The Post-Communist Nightmare.”* You begin by reminiscing about a time when you would be avoided in the street by your friends and acquaintances, since in those days you were on dangerous terms with the state and under police surveillance. You proceed to explain the reasons for their avoiding you and suggest, in the usual, grudge-free manner for which you are justly famous, that to those friends and acquaintances you constituted an inconvenience; and “inconveniences”—you cite the conventional wisdom—“are best avoided.” Then for most of your speech you describe the post-Communist reality (in Eastern Europe and by implication in the Balkans) and equate the deportment of the democratic world vis-à-vis that reality to avoiding an inconvenience.

It is a wonderful speech, with a great many wonderful insights and a convincing conclusion; but let me go to your starting point. It occurs to me, Mr. President, that your famous civility benefited your hindsight here rather poorly. Are you so sure you were avoided by those people then and there for reasons of embarrassment and fear of “potential persecution” only, and not because you were, given the seeming stability of the system, written off by them? Are you sure that at least some of them didn’t simply regard you as a marked, doomed man, on whom it would be foolish to waste much time? Don’t you think that instead of, or as well as, being inconvenient (as you insist) you were also a convenient example of the wrong deportment and thus a source of considerable moral comfort, the way the sick are for the healthy majority? Haven’t you imagined them saying to their wives in the evening, “I saw Havel today in the street. He’s had it.” Or do I misjudge the Czech character?

That they were proven wrong and you right matters little. They wrote you off in the first place because even by the standards of our half of the century you were not a martyr. Besides, don’t we all harbor a certain measure of guilt, totally unrelated to the state, of course, but nonetheless palpable? So whenever the arm of the state reaches us, we regard it vaguely as our comeuppance, as a touch of the blunt but nevertheless expected tool of providence. That’s, frankly, the main raison d’être behind the institution of police, plainclothed or uniformed, or at least behind our general inability to resist an arrest. One may be perfectly convinced that the state is wrong, but one is seldom confident of one’s own virtue. Not to mention that it is the same arm that locks one up and sets one free. That’s why one is seldom surprised at being avoided when one gets released, and doesn’t expect a universal embrace.

Such expectations, under such circumstances, would be disappointed because nobody wants to be reminded of the murky complexity of the relations between guilt and getting one’s comeuppance, and in a police state providing such a reminder is what heroic deportment is largely about. It alienates one from others, as any emphasis on virtue does; not to mention that a hero is always best observed from a distance. In no small measure, Mr. President, you were avoided by the people you’ve mentioned precisely because for them you were a sort of test tube of virtue confronting evil, and those people didn’t interfere with the experiment since they had their doubts about both. As such, you again were a convenience, because in the police state absolutes compromise each other since they engender each other. Haven’t you imagined those prudent people saying to their wives in the evening: “I saw Havel today in the street. He’s too good to be true.” Or do I misjudge the Czech character again?

That they were proven wrong and you right, I repeat, matters little. They wrote you off at the time because they were guided by the same relativism and self-interest that I suppose helps them to make a go of it now, under the new dispensation. And as a healthy majority, they no doubt had a significant part in your velvet revolution, which, after all, asserts, the way democracy always does, precisely self-interest. If such is the case, and I’m afraid it is, they’ve paid you back for their excessive prudence, and you preside now over a society which is more theirs than yours.

There is nothing wrong with that. Besides, things might easily have gone the other way: for you, that is; not for them (the revolution was so velvet because the tyranny itself by that time was more woolen than ironclad—otherwise I wouldn’t have this privilege of commenting upon your speech). So all I’m trying to suggest is that by introducing the notion of inconvenience you quite possibly misspoke, for self-interest is always exercised at the expense of others, whether it’s done by individuals or by nations. A better notion would be the vulgarity of the human heart, Mr. President; but then you wouldn’t be able to bring your speech to a ringing conclusion. Certain things come with a pulpit, though one should resist them, writer or no writer. As I am not faced with your task, I’d like to take your argument now where, I think, it could perhaps have gone. I wonder if you’ll disagree with the result.

For long decades,” your next paragraph begins, “the chief nightmare of the democratic world was communism. Today—three years after it began to collapse like an avalanche—it would seem as though another nightmare has replaced it: postcommunism.” Then you describe in considerable detail the existing modes of the democratic world’s response to the ecological, economic, political, and social catastrophes unraveling where previously one perceived a smooth cloth. You liken these responses to those toward your “inconvenience” and suggest that such a position leads “to a turning away from reality, and ultimately, to resigning oneself to it. It leads to appeasement, even to collaboration. The consequences of such a position may even be suicidal.”

It is here, Mr. President, that I think your metaphor fails you. For neither the Communist nor the post-Communist nightmare amounts to an inconvenience, since it helped, helps, and will for quite some time help the democratic world to externalize evil. And not the democratic world only. To quite a few of us who lived in that nightmare, and especially those who fought it, its presence was a source of considerable moral comfort. For one who fights or resists evil almost automatically perceives oneself as good and skips self-analysis. So perhaps it’s time—for us and for the world at large, democratic or not—to scrub the term communism from the human reality of Eastern Europe so one can recognize that reality for what it was and is: a mirror.

For that is what human evil always is. Geographic names or political terminology provide not a telescope or a window but the reflection of ourselves: of human negative potential. The magnitude of what took place in our parts of the world, and over two thirds of a century, cannot be reduced to “communism.” Catchwords, on the whole, lose more than they retain, and in the case of tens of millions killed and the lives of entire nations subverted, a catchword simply won’t do. Although the ratio of executioners to victims favors the latter, the scale of what happened in our realm suggests, given its technological backwardness at the time, that the former, too, run in the millions, not to mention the complicity of millions more.

Homilies are not my forte, Mr. President; besides, you are a convert. It’s not for me to tell you that what you call “communism” was a breakdown of humanity, and not a political problem. It was a human problem, a problem of our species, and thus of a lingering nature. Neither as a writer nor, moreover, as a leader of a nation should you use terminology that obscures the reality of human evil—terminology, I should add, invented by evil to obscure its own reality. Nor should one refer to it as a nightmare, since that breakdown of humanity wasn’t a nocturnal affair, not in our hemisphere, to say the least.

To this day, the word “communism” remains a convenience, for an -ism suggests a fait accompli. In Slavic languages especially, an -ism, as you know, suggests the foreignness of a phenomenon, and when a word containing an -ism denotes a political system, the system is perceived as an imposition. True, our particular -ism wasn’t conceived on the banks of the Volga or the Vltava, and the fact that it blossomed there with a unique vigor doesn’t bespeak our soil’s exceptional fertility, for it blossomed in different latitudes and extremely diverse cultural zones with equal intensity. This suggests not so much an imposition as our -ism’s rather organic, not to say universal, origins. One should think, therefore, that a bit of self-examination—on the part of the democratic world as well as our own—is in order, rather than ringing calls for mutual “understanding.” (What does this word mean, anyway? What procedure do you propose for this understanding? Under the auspices of the UN, perhaps?)

And if self-examination is unlikely (why should what’s been avoided under duress be done at leisure?), then at least the myth of imposition should be dispelled, since, for one thing, tank crews and fifth columns are biologically indistinguishable. Why don’t we simply start by admitting that an extraordinary anthropological backslide has taken place in our world in this century, regardless of who or what triggered it? That it involved masses acting in their self-interest and, in the process of doing so, reducing their common denominator to the moral minimum? And that the masses’ self-interest—stability of life and its standards, similarly reduced—has been attained at the expense of other masses, albeit numerically inferior? Hence the number of the dead.

It is convenient to treat these matters as an error, as a horrendous political aberration, perhaps imposed upon human beings from an anonymous elsewhere. It is even more convenient if that elsewhere bears a proper geographical or foreign-sounding name, whose spelling obscures its utterly human nature. It was convenient to build navies and defenses against that aberration—as it is convenient to dismantle those defenses and those navies now. It is convenient, I must add, to refer to these matters in a civil manner, Mr. President, from a pulpit today, although I don’t question for a minute the authenticity of your civility, which, I believe, is your very nature. It was convenient to have around this living example of how not to run things in this world and supply this example with an -ism, as it is convenient to supply it nowadays with “know-how” and a “post-.” (And one easily envisions our -ism, embellished with its post-, conveniently sailing on the lips of dimwits into the future.)

For it would be truly inconvenient—for the cowboys of the Western industrial democracies specifically—to recognize the catastrophe that occurred in our part of the world as the first cry of mass society: a cry as it were from the world’s future, and to recognize it not as an -ism but a chasm suddenly gaping in the human heart to swallow up honesty, compassion, civility, justice, and, thus satiated, presenting to the still democratic outside a reasonably perfect, monotonous surface.

Cowboys, however, loathe mirrors—if only because there they may recognize the backward Indians more readily than they would in the open. So they prefer to mount their high horses, scan the Indian-free horizons, deride the Indians’ backwardness, and derive enormous moral comfort from being regarded as cowboys—first of all, by the Indians.

As one who has been likened often to a philosopher king, you can, Mr. President, appreciate better than many how much all of that happened to our “Indian nation” harks back to the Enlightenment, with its idea (from the Age of Discovery, actually), of a noble savage, of man being inherently good but habitually ruined by bad institutions; with its belief that improvement of those institutions will restore man to his initial goodness. So to the admission previously made or hoped for, one should add, I suppose, that it’s precisely the accomplishment of the “Indian” in perfecting those institutions that brought them to that project’s logical end: the police state. Perhaps the manifest bestiality of this achievement should suggest to the “Indians” that they must retreat some way into the interior, that they should render their institutions a bit less perfect. Otherwise they may not get the “cowboys’ ” subsidies for their reservations. And perhaps there is indeed a ratio between man’s goodness and the badness of institutions. If there isn’t, maybe somebody should admit that man isn’t that good.

Isn’t this the juncture at which we find ourselves, Mr. President—or at least you do? Should “Indians” embark on imitating “cowboys,” or should they consult the spirits about other options? May it be that the magnitude of the tragedy that befell them is, in itself, a guarantee that it won’t happen again? May their grief and their memory of what happened in their parts create a greater egalitarian bond than free enterprise and a bicameral legislature? And if they should draft a constitution anyway, maybe they should start by recognizing themselves and their history for the better part of this century as a reminder of Original Sin.

It’s not such a heady concept, as you know. Translated into common parlance, it means that man is dangerous. Apart from being a footnote to our beloved Jean-Jacques, this principle may allow us to build—if not elsewhere, then at least in our realm, so steeped in Fourier, Proudhon, and Blanc at the expense of Burke and Tocqueville—a social order resting on a less self-flattering basis than was our habit, and perhaps with less disastrous consequences. This also may qualify as man’s “new understanding of himself, of his limitations and his place in the world” you call for in your speech.

We must discover a new relationship to our neighbors, and to the universe,” you say toward the end of your speech, “and its metaphysical order, which is the source of the moral order.” The metaphysical order, Mr. President, should it really exist, is pretty dark, and its structural idiom is its parts’ mutual indifference. The notion that man is dangerous runs, therefore, closest to that order’s implications for human morality. Every writer is a reader, and if you scan your library’s shelves, you must realize that most of the books you’ve got there are either about betrayal or murder. At any rate, it seems more prudent to build society on the premise that man is evil rather than the premise of his goodness. This way at least there is the possibility of making it safe psychologically, if not physically (but perhaps that as well), for most of its members, not to mention that its surprises, which are inevitable, might be of a more pleasant nature.

Maybe the real civility, Mr. President, is not to create illusions. “New understanding,” “global responsibilities,” “pluralistic metaculture” are not much better at the core than the retrospective utopias of the latter-day nationalists or the entrepreneurial fantasies of the nouveaux riches. This sort of stuff is still predicated on the promise, however qualified, of man’s goodness, of his notion of himself as either a fallen or a possible angel. This sort of diction befits, perhaps, the innocents, or demagogues, running the affairs of industrial democracies, but not you, who ought to know the truth about the condition of the human heart.

And you are, one would imagine, in a good position not only to convey your knowledge to people, but also to cure that heart condition somewhat: to help them to become like yourself. Since what made you the way you are was not your penal experience but the books you’ve read, I’d suggest, for starters, serialization of some of those books in the country’s major dailies. Given the population figure of Czechia, this can be done, even by decree, although I don’t think your parliament would object. By giving your people Proust, Kafka, Faulkner, Platonov, Camus, or Joyce, you may turn at least one nation in the heart of Europe into a civilized people.

That may do more good for the future of the world than emulating cowboys. Also, it would be a real postcommunism, not the doctrine’s meltdown, with the attendant “hatred of the world, self-affirmation at all costs, and the unparalleled flourishing of selfishness” that dog you now. For there is no other antidote to the vulgarity of the human heart than doubt and good taste, which one finds fused in works of great literature, as well as your own. If man’s negative potential is best manifested by murder, his positive potential is best manifested by art.

Why, you may ask, don’t I make a similar crackpot suggestion to the President of the country of which I am a citizen? Because he is not a writer; and when he is a reader, he often reads trash. Because cowboys believe in law, and reduce democracy to people’s equality before it: i.e., to the well-policed prairie. Whereas what I suggest to you is equality before culture. You should decide which deal is better for your people, which book it is better to throw at them. If I were you, though, I’d start with your own library, because apparently you did not learn about moral imperatives in a law school.

Yours sincerely,
Joseph Brodsky

Václav Havel replies:

I am honored that you chose to reply to the speech I delivered at the George Washington University, later published in the New York Review of Books as “The Post-Communist Nightmare.”

You go into so many serious and distressing matters concerning not just the recent past in Eastern and Central Europe, but the present and future of the whole world, that to give you an adequate response I would have to write an essay at least as long and detailed as yours. At the moment, though, this doesn’t seem productive, for two reasons. In the first place, however tempting it may be to discuss such matters now, it would be irresponsible without first undertaking a closer and more comprehensive study of the issues. In the second place, the world is changing from hour to hour, compelling us constantly to reassess our views. Look at the Middle East, or the former Yugoslavia, or many places in the old Soviet Union, or South Africa, or even relatively peaceful Central Europe.

But my main reason for suggesting that we postpone a more thorough discussion of these matters until sometime in the near future is this: our minds appear to be working on the same problem, but using a different set of facts. As you point out, our views are shaped by experiences that coincide on some points, and differ significantly in others. We each lived under totalitarianism, but in different surroundings, and we lived that reality through feelings, thoughts, and instincts that were of a different nature.

The strongest impression I have from your letter is that a misunderstanding has occurred between two people who essentially understand each other. To put it another way: we don’t really disagree at all, we merely have a different way of thinking about commensurate experiences that vary in their details.

I will mention only one example. You say that under the totalitarian regime, I was not so much an “inconvenience” for my friends and acquaintances as “a source of…moral comfort, the way the sick are for the healthy majority.” This observation is clearly based on your experience with totalitarianism in Soviet Russia. The Czech experience was somewhat different.

Though we were subjected to varying types and degrees of totalitarianism over a long period of time, it was not long enough for this experience to sink as deeply into the consciousness of several generations as it did in Russia, and other parts of the Soviet Union.

Some members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, at least from Stalin’s death onward, silently ran their lives with a mixture of personal pragmatism and opportunism. Even some who were not Party members managed to maintain relatively well-paying careers as long as it didn’t come out that, privately, they told too many jokes at the expense of the Party leaders or that they were sometimes highly critical of the system.

By the late Seventies, this phenomenon had existed for a long time, and it was only at the end of the decade that we coined an expression—“the gray zone”—to describe it. The term applied mainly to a stratum of educated people—some Party members, some not—who were aware that the system, should it continue, would eventually destroy us, both morally as individuals and professionally as artists, scholars, and intellectuals. At the same time, these people felt that the right thing to do under the circumstances was to continue working in their laboratories, publishing houses, research institutes, and so on, so that they themselves would not forget their subjects, and so that their professions and areas of expertise would not atrophy.

But what could historians, poets, or writers do? Such a compromise was not open to them. They couldn’t publish and earn a living in their field without going against their consciences and denying their own understanding of reality. They chose instead, therefore, to wash windows, to work as night-watchmen on construction sites, or as stokers in heating plants, or as technicians measuring water flow in remote parts of the country.

These people formed the core of those who signed the human rights initiative, Charter 77. They were not, just as I was not, a “comfort” to those secret critics of the regime in the “gray zone,” but were indeed an inconvenience, a living reproach. Their very existence prompted those in the gray zone to ask if there wasn’t more they ought to be doing to hasten the regime’s demise than simply complaining about it in secret.

In Soviet Russia, opposing both the brutal power of the state and the ingrained beliefs of most citizens must have required great moral power, a brave intellect, and special talents. I can imagine, for instance, that after you were sent to prison many people expressed their relief in a way you suggest some Czechs might have done in my case, by dismissing you and your cause as lost: “He’s had it!”

But there is a difference. For ordinary people in your country of birth, any change aiming at a freer system, at freedom of thought and action, was a step into the unknown. Thanks to your moral strength and talent, you and a relatively small number of other authors continued the work of the great Russian poets, novelists, and essayists of the nineteenth century, and of that handful of irrepressible artists with names like Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Babel, Zoshchenko, and even Pasternak and others.

You longed for freedom, and you won it. When your friends, both intimate and distant, saw you go off to prison to pay for that victory, they might well have said that they were in no danger of experiencing the inconvenience of freedom. Perhaps they gained some dark satisfaction from that.

By contrast, Czechs and Slovaks enjoyed a considerable degree of freedom and democracy in the late nineteenth century under the Austro-Hungarian constitutional monarchy, and even more during Czechoslovakia’s First Republic. The traditions of those times live on in family life and in books. Thus, though the renewal of freedom is difficult and inconvenient in our country too, freedom was never a completely unknown aspect of time, space, and thought. Several generations of people here know it as a living and inspiring experience. That is what made our struggle so different from your practically private—and pioneering—struggle to win freedom of thought and action.

I repeat: I am heartened by your response. But it seems to me that the special circumstances of this discussion—the fact that despite the similarity of the language we use, we are not really talking about the same thing at all—can only be resolved in direct personal conversation.

Let’s set a date to meet sometime in the near future to try to understand better why thoughts as parallel as those expressed in your open letter and my speech have caused a disagreement which may be no more than a misunderstanding.

—Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson