Kicking the Door

Source: The New York Review of Books / /

Václav Havel, translated from the French by Tamar Jacoby

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright, was one of the three principal spokesmen for the Charter 77 group. Since the signing of the Charter he has been arrested three times. First imprisoned from January through May 1977, he was arrested a second time in October of that year and condemned to another fourteen months in jail, a sentence that was suspended. In January 1978, a ball given for Charter signers was raided by Prague police who beat up several people and made three arrests: Havel, Pavel Landovsky, and Jiroslav Kukal were charged with “creating a scandal”—a violation of the Paragraph 202 described by Havel in the following article written a few days before his arrest. 1

Havel was released from jail in March 1978; he once more acted as the spokesman of the Charter 77 group between the autumn of 1978 and February 1979. He has recently been kept under tight surveillance by the political police.

It was midnight one Sunday and we—two friends and I—were looking for a place where we could get a glass of wine. Surprisingly enough, we found one; not only was it open, but it would stay open for another hour. As often happens, the door was locked, so we rang the bell. Nothing. An instant later we rang again. Still nothing. After another minute we decided to knock lightly. Again nothing. Then, just as we were about to leave, the door opened—not for us, but so that the waiter could let out one of his friends. We took advantage of the opportunity to ask very politely if there wasn’t room inside for us. The waiter didn’t even bother to answer—that the place was full, that he didn’t want clients, that he was only admitting friends, or anything else. He said nothing. He made no sign, didn’t even look at us. Then he slammed the door in our faces.

Until that moment there had been nothing surprising about the incident; similar things happen every night in Prague in front of the few restaurants and bars that are still open to ordinary citizens.

The strange thing happened then: I became suddenly furious. If I say strange, it’s because I’m not at all an angry man. Sudden crises of rage of this sort—which distort my vision and render me capable of doing things that I never do and that aren’t characteristic of me—happen to me only very exceptionally, I would say once every seven to ten years. Typically the most important events (as, for example, when someone slanders me in public, or they confiscate my apartment, etc.) do not arouse my fury; but mere trifles do. When I was in the army, a soldier named Ulver once tried to trip me, and I turned on him to beat him up. It is in this sense that the crisis that night in front of the bar was in keeping with my personal history.

This is not to say that the trifle that makes me furious is not a kind of substitute, a compensation. Perhaps it pays, as they say, for all the larger things that don’t succeed in making me angry. Perhaps somewhere in the depths of my tranquil soul there is a secret battery that charges, little by little, until the accumulated potential reaches a certain level. Then any little provocation is enough: the cup overflows, and all is discharged in a blast for an apparently inadequate reason. Thus the innocent joker Ulver was cruelly and arbitrarily punished because I had just spent two years building a floating bridge and then been ordered to destroy it.

So I became suddenly angry and began to kick savagely at the door of the bar. To my astonishment nothing happened; it must have been made of very thick glass. My attitude was, by all standards, absurd and indefensible. I acted like a vagabond. Some part of me knew this at the time, but it had no influence on my behavior.

It is likely that the door served as the same kind of compensation that the soldier Ulver played many years before. The door paid for all the arrogant indifference, the scorn, the humiliation, the crudity, and the disrespect that so color the life of an ordinary man today. It paid for all the waiting in public offices, all the lines in department stores, all the institutions that won’t answer my polite letters, all the policemen who don’t know how to speak to a man except as a noncommissioned officer speaks to his lackey. It paid for all the conspiracies of cops and other uniformed thugs that have made Prague nights unfit for innocent amusement. It may even have paid for the men who kicked and beat the philosopher Ladislav Hejdanek.2 It paid for the haughty insolence of office workers, and the terror of those who aren’t office workers, for the disdain and the fearfulness that are seeping slowly but inevitably into all corners of contemporary life, quietly dehumanizing every place and every relationship. My anger was the explosion of an impotent man piqued by a small humiliation that seemed to symbolize all the huge, complex humiliation that weighs upon his life.

None of this excuses my vagabond’s behavior. On the contrary. I did not face up to the situation; I submitted to it. The only excuse is that no one is superman, and it’s not surprising that people’s nerves occasionally crack. Especially when someone is always straining them.

What followed was predictable enough. The waiter, a huge mountain of a man, reappeared in the street. He seized me by the collar and, with the help of his friend, pulled me into the bar. They began to beat me, yelling that I was a scoundrel and that they were going to call the police who would give me a proper beating. My fury was long since spent, and I behaved myself most realistically—that is to say, like a coward. I did not defend myself. And I am thankful for my realism; because of it, I soon ceased to amuse them and they kicked me out into the street without having done any serious damage. Thus my quite thoughtless revolt against a petty humiliation—the waiter’s refusal to answer us—had no serious consequences because I submitted in silence to the much greater humiliation of the beating.

What would have happened if I had behaved like a man and defended myself?

1) I would almost certainly have made the usual sort of sacrifice for my courage: I might have lost an ear or several teeth, had my nose or arms broken, perhaps gone home with a black eye and blood on my coat.

2) More important, because I had begun it all by kicking at the door, I would most certainly have been arrested, charged, and condemned for creating a scandal—for violating Paragraph 202 of the penal code. In this way I would have postponed my punishment, unless of course the arrest was also accompanied by a beating—a particularly inconsequential one because I would not be a “political” prisoner.

3) The evening paper would have run a column about the madman who defended human rights at the door of a bar.

4) Most reasonable people would have said, “That’s what he gets for acting like a vagabond.”

Of course none of that happened. But I understood then that Paragraph 202 is waiting to catch us out at every turn—like a wily diplomat with designs on each of us. I also understood that for every man with temperament, the paragraph creates a kind of vicious circle.

Notice how it works. Phase one: in the atmosphere of general humiliation, such a man’s nerves will almost certainly crack, and he will find himself involved in a minor “scandal.” This makes him vulnerable to yet greater humiliation by those who have already provoked him. And if he cannot—or will not—behave himself, as I did, in a “realistic” manner, he will defend himself. Then of course he will find himself involved in an even larger “scandal.” No matter how he is punished, humiliation will again triumph—this time with still greater force. If he is really a man of temperament, he will almost certainly feel goaded to provoke a superscandal—which I won’t dare to imagine. Where will it all end?

The specter of this vicious circle is an effective way to encourage the desired “realism,” is it not? The only way to escape is to resign both dignity and honor. A friend of mine was once brought to trial for hitting a man who offended his girlfriend; the official moral commandment of our day is “turn the other cheek.”

Everyone knows that you can’t allow yourself to hit and kick recklessly at every tavern door. And yet Paragraph 202 strikes me as suspect. Not long ago I was discussing it with a jurist who told me that it had been “imported from the East” and that it had no legal tradition in our country. It is not a political statute, and yet it could only be born of a certain kind of government. Besides, it has something in common with political statutes:

1) It is extensible: almost anything can be called a scandal by someone who wishes to claim he’s been scandalized. (What a paradise for informers.)

2) The enforcement of the paragraph depends in an unhealthy way on the political and moral climate of the country. For example, in 1963, when Ivan Jirous launched the first exhibition of the work of Jiri Lacina, he could have behaved as provocatively as he liked and no one would have thought of sending him to prison for causing a so-called scandal; but in 1977 work in connection with a second Lacina show led to Jirous’s arrest.

3) The paragraph can be—and often is—used as an instrument of political repression. The official reasoning is simple. It is necessary to condemn a group of nonconformist musicians? Accuse them of scandal! It is desirable to prevent a group of young people from holding a meeting? Arrest the host of the house where they plan to meet and charge him with scandal! Facts are easily invented and a “scandalized” witness can always be found. It is necessary to harass someone for signing a petition? Wait until one evening he drinks too much and acts a bit queerly on an empty tram; then arrest him for creating a scandal.

How many “troublemakers” do you think could be found in the establishment if the paragraph were used against them? And what would be left of the postwar avant-garde if Paragraph 202 had existed in those years?

The decision to enforce the paragraph depends entirely on the good faith of the authorities. Imagine, for example, that a well-known factory director from Prague creates an uproar in Wencelas Square and I am so outraged that I file a complaint. The district attorney’s office would merely laugh at me. Or, perhaps more likely, they would send directly to Marinovsky to see if there is anything suspicious in my record. But if I caused an uproar and the factory director denounced me, it is certain that I would be accused of scandal.

5) The paragraph is easily and often used as a means of personal revenge. Respectable Mr. A, enemy of Mr. B, need only report that he is scandalized by Mr. B’s behavior, and Mr. B will soon be arrested. He could be persecuted for speaking ill of his boss or of his working conditions, for rudeness, unusual dress or eccentric habits, for singing in stairways or allowing his dog to bark.

Paragraph 202 is thus one of the many means by which the centralized authority—originally a czarist power, now our own—keeps citizens in a cage. Most of the people know very little about the paragraph, and yet they smell it in the air. It is the appropriate symbol of a government that does not like citizens to meet or organize (unless of course the meeting is supervised), a government that prefers that people do not go out—or if they must leave home, that they behave themselves silently, discreetly, and humbly. It is a government that encourages spying and paranoia, an authority that sees society as a docile herd with an obligation to be eternally grateful for the little they have.

I would like to know how many people have been imprisoned on the pretext of Paragraph 202, and also to know the real reasons for their arrests. They are not considered political prisoners, and nothing particular is known about them. But the facts about enforcement of the paragraph might say more about national conditions and the attitude of the authorities than do the much better known facts about abuses of political statutes. We know nothing about the innumerable complaints of citizens quickly and easily silenced by the paragraph; nor about the personal vendettas, masquerading as patriotism, executed in its name.

How many weak and impotent people have had their lives ruined by the whim of a man of power who crushed several citizens every day? How many of those accused of scandal are merely victims of arbitrary persecution by an authority that can tolerate neither freedom of expression nor resistance, a government that allows not even the slightest deviation from standardized behavior and thought? Can we even begin to evaluate the countless more and less trivial injustices that contribute to the leveling, the uniformity, the dulling, and the stagnation of life? Can we measure how much it has encouraged tattling, conformism, egotism, indifference, and anxiety? How can we calculate how much of our happiness it has soured, or how it has infiltrated the very air we breathe?

I repeat once more: one must not kick at tavern doors, and every society must protect itself against vagabonds who behave that way. That is one thing. But Paragraph 202—particularly as it is used by the current authorities, in the most indiscriminate and slippery way—that is something else.

Political trials involve much work and, usually, a lot of noise. Besides, no one really believes in them. Paragraph 202 is a more useful kind of statute; who would ever come to the defense of a few common vagabonds?

And it is of course an instrument with almost limitless possibilities. All it takes is a subtle smile, a faint cheer, an equivocal comment or an oddly colored tie.

It’s clearly a paragraph that depends on a certain perspective. It is, I tell you, the paragraph of the future. The paragraph of 1984. At the end of 1977 my little outrage in front of the bar—perhaps a kind of justice at a sad price—passed without grave consequences. Will all pass as smoothly another time?

Translated from the French by Tamar Jacoby

  1. Two previous articles by him have appeared in the West: “An Open Letter from Prague,” published in Encounter magazine in 1975, and “Breaking the Ice Barrier” in the London Index of January/February 1978.
  2. See his piece in The New York Review, May 18, 1978.