BY MATTHEW HERBERT
A few days ago I wrote about Václav Havel’s ingenious analysis of post-totalitarian political culture in his 1978 pamphlet “The Power of the Powerless.”
The main point was that, under a post-totalitarian system, masses of ordinary people could be brought to participate willingly in their own disenfranchisement. The Soviets figured out that they could run a state in a way that made it too inconvenient for people to be their authentic selves or stand up for what they believed in.
Yes, of course there was real terror at the base of Soviet system, but Moscow’s big discovery was that most of the time it wasn’t necessary: they could get people to go along with the system out of habit. By the time a peasant or factory worker woke up and realized they’d been mouthing slogans they didn’t believe for decades, there was just too much water under the bridge to bother changing. Besides, they always knew they could get that midnight knock at the door if they got too far out of line.
In today’s post, I will focus on Havel’s call to reject this mode of life and politics. The antidote to living within a lie is to live instead within the truth.
It sounds too easy.
Just live within the truth? Havel must mean something more than that you simply stop believing falsehoods and start believing the truth instead. To be quite specific, he meant you should stop mouthing those slogans you never believed in–what we might today call performative obedience. But Havel wasn’t really focused on what you literally believed or disbelieved. His concern was how individuals’ lives could be–and were–submerged in a swamp of performative obedience. His interest was in the question whether people lived in conformity with the whole program of government lies.
The answer to the question, How does one live within the truth?, for Havel, is a paradox. To resist a system, you must start by having your own, inviolable life. You create such a life on the basis of things you know to be true. These things become impervious to official lies.
But this answer just pushes the question back one step. How does one build a life of inviolable truths? Math, after all, consists of inviolable truths. Should one become a mathematician?
Well, Havel points out, there’s something to that. Mathematicians might just make good dissidents. When Havel looked at Czechoslovakia’s budding resistance movement in 1977, he saw that “a ‘dissident’ is simply a physicist, a sociologist, a worker, a poet, individuals who are merely doing what they feel they must and, consequently, who find themselves in open conflict with the regime.”
Another dissident Havel knew was a beer brewer. He typified what Havel called the “small-scale work” of dissent. He stood out because he was an excellent brewer, and he wanted the brewery (where Havel worked at the time) to produce excellent beer. Driven by inner priorities, he analyzed the problems of his workplace and made recommendations. The brewer’s assumption that his colleagues shared his desire to do better made everyone around him uncomfortable, including the power structures of the Communist Party. He was labeled a “political saboteur” and stripped of the little authority he possessed. He had, Havel wrote, “come up against the wall of the post-totalitarian system.” Just by trying to brew good beer.
No one, of course, consciously constructs their lives with this kind of function in mind. No one brews beer, plays guitar, models with clay or writes sonnets primarily to defy the government. But done with integrity, Havel argues, leading lives fueled by disciplined, creative energy has this effect nonetheless. As he puts it, “every piece of good work is an indirect criticism of bad politics.” Here is the paradox of living within the truth restated, more directly this time: To be your best political self, you must cultivate a robustly apolitical self.
Dissent comes from a realm that Havel called the “pre-political.”
I turn, as I so often do, to Orwell to add depth to this idea.
In 1941 Orwell was worried that Great Britain would cave to Nazi Germany and accommodate the wave of fascism rolling across Europe. But curiously, Orwell wasn’t that worried. He thought the English, although capable of making peace with fascists, could never be very good fascists themselves. Why not? Among other things, Orwell wrote (in “England Your England”), they would laugh at the way fascists march. It was part of the English national character, he explained, to scorn in-your-face military swagger:
One rapid but fairly sure guide to the social atmosphere of a country is the parade-step of its army. A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim. Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would laugh. Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army.
The matter of what one finds ridiculous is deeply encoded in your character, seemingly as an instinct. What you hold in laughable contempt says volumes about who you are at your pre-political core.
What was it about the English in 1941 that Orwell thought set them against fascist theatricality at this basic level? Part of it is that the English did not and simply could not lead the kind of lives that could be invigilated in every detail by some overweening authority. Britons were too full of their own ideas and pursuits. And it was not important that these ideas and pursuits be lofty, which they emphatically were not, in Orwell’s estimation. What is important about the lives of the English is that they were theirs. Orwell writes:
[A]nother English characteristic which is so much a part of us that we barely notice it . . . is the addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life. We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’. The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above. . . . Like all other modern people, the English are in process of being numbered, labelled, conscripted, ‘co-ordinated’. But the pull of their impulses is in the other direction, and the kind of regimentation that can be imposed on them will be modified in consequence. No party rallies, no Youth Movements, no coloured shirts, no Jew-baiting or ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations. No Gestapo either, in all probability.
Wait. Is Orwell, the great political thinker, honestly telling us that the English are good libertarians because they do crosswords and collect stamps? Orwell’s greatness, though, often consists in seeing what is right in front of his nose. The fact that the English were accustomed to having lives of their own–so much so they were not even aware of their condition–did not make the private sphere any less sacred or special. It made it more sacred and special, something worth guarding and sacrificing for.
For Havel, the oppressiveness of the communist regime made it abundantly clear what it felt like to be deprived of a private self. It was the same thing Orwell noticed but without having to be oppressed: “Individuals,” Havel reflected, “can be alienated from themselves only because there is something in them to alienate. The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence.”
Why do totalitarian governments form corporate states, a vast apparatus crowded with youth clubs and holiday camps and and ministries of culture, and that sort of thing? Because they want their citizens to assemble their entire identities from component parts that are optimized by the regime for surveillance and control. They don’t want excellent brewers or even Orwell’s humble stamp collectors, because such people are doing their own thing. Totalitarian systems are allergic to privacy, a hidden sphere of being. Havel writes that a totalitarian government “is perfectly aware of the potential power of ‘living within the truth’ rooted in the hidden sphere, and well aware too of the kind of world ‘dissent’ grows out of: the everyday human world, the world of daily tension between the aims of life and the aims of the system.” So it tries its best to abolish the everyday human world.
In a 2006 letter, Kurt Vonnegut had this advice to give to five students of St. Xavier High School of New York:
Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.
Seen from the perspective of Havel and Orwell, this was deeply political advice. Because when you follow your inner imperatives, when you discover and express who you are in a way that makes your soul grow, you can be assured there is an authority somewhere who dislikes what you’re doing. Your inner excellence is an indirect criticism of their bad politics.
I should note that the Soviet Communist Party was not the only organization in the world that stood to benefit by abolishing privacy and shaping the component parts from which an obedient citizen is expected to build their lives. Our system does this too, with a smiling, indulgent face. Ours is no Soviet system based in state terror (at least for most of us); it hollows out lives and wastes them rather than repressing them or killing them outright. Our system gives us mass culture, bad food, the menace of gun violence everywhere, and public environments built for cars and corporations rather than people, and we voluntarily assemble our lives from these parts. We convince ourselves the parts are great because, aren’t we great, and aren’t we made of those things?
Every time I go for a “good” walk in the suburbs, I indirectly critique bad politics in the way Havel foresaw. The sidewalks, you see, do not connect with one another in the suburbs. They appear and disappear. They don’t go anywhere. Isn’t a sidewalk a kind of path? And aren’t paths by definition supposed to go somewhere? I cannot try to go for a good walk without pointing up the badness of the policies that led to the sidewalks’ design. This complaint on its own seems trifling, but it is connected to a host other objections to be raised about the built environment. Together, these complaints indicate a lie, in which we are constantly pressured to live. That lie is: the built environment is for humans. In reality, though, the aims of the system diverge from the aims of life: the system is not for humans. Pretending otherwise is humiliating, because people are not meant to accept lies as the framework of their lives.
So walking becomes a way of living within the truth.
There’s one last thing I think Havel would want us to know about living within the truth; it is a project that can be taken up immediately. This is because, as Havel notes, it is an answer to a sense of responsibility, and responsibility is something we carry with us everywhere. In this regard, the decision to live within the truth is like Christianity’s notion of a sudden conversion. Just like Christianity, Havel writes, living within the truth “is a point of departure for me here and now–but only because anyone, anywhere, at any time, may avail themselves of it.”
Vonnegut emphasizes this too. Once you ascertain the best thing about life–that it is irrevocably yours–you may act on this good news immediately. Right after encouraging the students of St. Xavier High to grow their souls through art, Vonnegut exhorts them, “Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of [your teacher], and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.”
Notice one more thing. That list of “artwork” looks a lot like Orwell’s catalog of private English pursuits–so humble and ordinary! All those things are connected up with what Havel calls the “aims of life.” Pursue them with discipline and vision and you will eventually find yourself in conflict with the aims of the system. To live within the truth by making your soul grow is a refusal to identify with the system; it is a refusal to be the system. There is nothing more important than this.