Václav Havel's Funeral: Why Truth Needs Love

What the rest of us can learn from a one-of-a-kind sendoff

PRAGUE–It's a safe bet that in the history of state funerals, no former president has been sent off to the Absolute Horizon by not one but at least three different live, nationally televised rock songs about heroin.

Such was Václav Havel's genre-straddling life and thoroughgoing conception of freedom that it seemed as natural as tartar sauce on fried cheese to bookend a portentous, Dvořák-haunted National Requiem Mass in Central Europe's oldest Gothic cathedral with a loose-limbed, hash-scented rock and roll celebration at the Czech Republic's most storied music venue, all while the non-VIPs on the streets of Prague (and their counterparts outside the capital) lent the most dignity of all to the three-day National Mourning by creating ad-hoc candlelit shrines in whatever patches of cobblestone reminded them of the man who made them most proud to be Czechs.

It was a remarkable memorial, one that–like Havel himself–could not have happened in any other city or country. Yet the celebration offered enough bread crumbs for non-Czechs to stumble upon the promise of forgotten political alchemies lurking just outside our daily view. I was there to pay my respects; here are some observations and pictures.

You could not go anywhere in Prague last week without hearing Havel's hippiesh Velvet Revolution epigram, "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred." Most foreigners tend to focus on the "truth" part of that equation, since Havel wrote and spoke so memorably about how the simple act of "living in truth"–i.e., calling things by their proper names, refusing to go along with the rituals of coercion, staying true to your authentic sense of self–inevitably expands the zone of freedom and puts authoritarians on the defensive. 

"If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth," Havel wrote in his most famous exposition on the subject, "The Power of the Powerless" (1978). "This is why it must be suppressed more severely than anything else." It was no accident that a newly minted President Havel opened his first New Year's address with the memorable line: "I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you." 

Havel was ready to pay the predictable consequences of openly telling the truth to a closed dictatorship (nearly five years in prison, it would turn out), which gave his life heroic heft. Successfully navigating a bloodless, 10-day revolution, then following that up with another dozen years of helping knit his country securely into a place it had never been–completely within the fabric of the liberal democratic West–ensured that his funeral would be a somber, fully ceremonial state consecration. 

For nearly four hours in the near-freezing cold of St. Vitus Cathedral, dignitaries such as French President Nicholas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič, and Bill and Hillary Clinton observed a full Catholic mass for a non-churchgoer (who was nevertheless deeply if unspecifically spiritual; see this and this for more). Pope Benedict XVI sent a blessing that was read aloud by a representative. The Dalai Lama (a longtime friend of Havel's who visited him a week before his death) sent an emissary who sat in his colorful robes not far from emigre rocker Ivan Král. The Czech Philharmonic filled the massive vaults with Antonín Dvořák's ominously beautiful Requiem in B-flat minor, which was interjected between terse speeches by Czech President Václav Klaus, Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, the Czech-born former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and Bishop Václav Malý, the only real former dissident of the bunch. 

Ironically enough it was Schwarzenberg, an honest-to-God prince (and longtime friend of Havel's), who provided a lifeline between the stiff pomp inside and the spontaneous outpourings of Czech decency outside, by playing down his qualifications for giving a eulogy (which the great Czech journalist and rock musician Jan Macháček told me later that night was a subtle and appropriate jab at the previous speaker, Havel's longtime rival Klaus), and by honoring those many now-forgotten Czechs, Slovaks, students, and dissidents who stood up against the regime when it was still dangerous to do so.

"Many ridiculed Havel for his words about truth and love," Schwarzenberg said. "Yet it is the essence of the human struggle. And we must never give up that struggle....Only love makes us listen to the truth of others."

This may sound like some weird fusion between hippie claptrap and Mitteleuropean navel-gazing, but there was a resonance there for the Czech ear that's worth a listen ourselves. Czech politics (like American politics, only moreso) has been a dreary back-and-forth between mostly corrupt politicos making transparently cynical claims on the "truth" since at least 1997, when Klaus was impelled to resign as prime minister after a campaign finance/privatization scandal (a moment that occasioned one of Havel's best and most withering speeches as president).

Havel, partly because of his post-revolutionary ineffectiveness as a politician (due to a both principled and naive aversion to the mucky business of coalition-building), spent much of his domestic attention as president tsk-tsking his fellow politicians and citizens about the lack of morality undergirding their actions. "The spirit of justice and decency, as it emanates from the moral order, must permeate the entire set of technical rules governing our coexistence," is the kind of thing he was always saying. When divorced from concrete action, such high-sounding rhetoric sounded more and more like empty hectoring. 

But there was an important point there, one that was resurrected during the National Days of Mourning: Truth without love is like facts without context, like music without passion, like a sermon without faith. That is to say, it is finally not truth at all. Parsing words to gain momentary self-advantage at the expense of deeper understanding spreads a kind of moral rot, one that inhibits development and blunts joy. The phrase "living in truth" was not conceived by Havel as some kind of anal fact-check on every uttered word. In fact, as Havel's English translator Paul Wilson (who generously provided me entree into last week's funeral activities) told me, the slogan might not have been coined by Havel at all, but rather by the Czech countercultural madman and poet, Ivan Martin Jirous, better known as "Magor," the artistic director of the experimental rock band The Plastic People of the Universe.

The arrest of the Plastic People in the mid-1970s was the spark that lit both Havel and the East Bloc dissident movement, a story told by Tom Stoppard in his great 2006 play Rock 'n' Roll, and by Nick Gillespie and I in our Havel chapter in The Declaration of Independents. Havel found kinship with and inspiration from crazed rockers who insisted on living according to their own code despite an all-smothering state, which is how Magor probably intended the phrase that Havel would take and run with. Here, ultimately, is where truth fuses with love–love for music, for life, for Prague, for getting your drink on, and for taking advantage of every cracked-open door to bloody well do something with your life.

It was this spirit that animated the funeral after-party, a rock 'n' roll celebration-cum-family reunion headlined by The Plastic People that radiated warmth and fraternity. People hoping for a Lou Reed appearance were disappointed (though the Reed/V.U. cover band The Velvet Revival Band closed out the proceedings), and, well, Suzanne Vega is no Mick Jagger. But the concert, sponsored by Havel's gray-ponytailed brother Ivan, and hosted by the former dissident D.J. (imagine that sinister phrase!) Jiří Černý, was filled with sparkling moments, from a spirited bash-out by alt-countryish Slovak rockers Živé kvety (one of the great subtexts of last week was a kind of rapprochement between formerly embittered Czechs and Slovaks), to this song, prepared for the occasion by Patti Smith and Iggy Pop collaborator Ivan Král.

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  • Max||

    REason need more donations to pay for Welch's little junkets. Pony up, dimwits.

  • Sevo||

    Maybe you wouldn't be so jealous if your mom let you out of the basement from time to time.

  • Comrade Political Officer||

    Da, tovarisch Sevo.

  • El Commentariosa||

    Comments have been tossed into the abyss again

  • CalebT||

    They'll live on, so long as we remember them.

  • -||

    The abyss is there for a reason.

  • ¢||

    My iTunes random thingy played me Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned a couple days ago. I had a sad, sort of.

    People hoping for a Lou Reed appearance were disappointed

    Not as much as they would have been if he showed up.

    hiyo

    But seriously he sucks—when he's around. Not fucking up Lou Reed songs at Havel's funeral is how he paid his respects.

  • ||

    Even worse would have been if he'd brought Metallica along. Yeesh...

  • Matt Welch||

    Funny!

  • yawn||

    Did someone die?

  • ||

    OK dude, you have to admit that is pretty whack!

    www.privacy-surf.tk

  • ||

    Where are the PM links, god damn it?!?

  • anon||

    Aren't coming until 9 pm, right when you're about to go to bed.

  • first||

    Amandine is a Parisian born Jewish girl. She teaches hip-hop dancing to teenagers at one of the many dancing institutes in Paris and also works as a show dancer. This caring and warm-hearted girl loves animals too.

    Amandine openly admits to being an exhibitionist and loves to wear skimpy outfits that show off her toned, dancer’s body, both during her dancing classes and when she goes out clubbing in Paris. She is very comfortable with her body but this petite brunette wishes she was taller. Amandine's training as a dancer really shines through when she is being photographed or filmed. She literally performs a private dance for the camera, engaging the lens with her sensual movements and inviting eyes.

    With her upbeat attitude towards life and her sweet smile, Amandine is great fun to be around!

    http://www.hegre-art.com/models#action=show&id=145

  • Evan from Evansville||

    Woah. NSFW.

    But genuinely arousing.

  • Virginia Postrel||

    When I finally met Vaclav Klaus, I really regretted all the nice things Reason had said about him, and that was before any scandals. Just because someone says the right things about markets does not make him a good person, or even a good economist.

  • ||

    Not all Václavs are created equal, it appears.

    It's too bad we couldn't do better than to send the SoS and an ex-president. Havel deserved much more.

  • Brett L||

    We paid him the compliment of not sending Biden.

  • Matt Welch||

    I thought the same thing too, but it's actually pretty damned rare for a POTUS to attend state funerals, and Havel had a particularly warm personal relationship with each of the members of the American delegation.

  • Suki||

    Can you hang around a while so things can go back to whatever normal is around here?

  • Sevo||

    Virginia Postrel|12.27.11 @ 8:43PM|#
    "When I finally met Vaclav Klaus, I really regretted all the nice things Reason had said about him, and that was before any scandals. Just because someone says the right things about markets does not make him a good person, or even a good economist."

    Care to enlarge on this?

  • Steve||

    Think it might have something to do with this: http://www.dynamist.com/weblog.....01832.html

  • Evan from Evansville||

    @ Matt Welch:

    So you spent what, 5+ years in the Czech Rep. doing the newspaper?

    Is there somewhere where you have documented that experience so I can get more info? It sounds quite adventurous and interesting.

    If not: What was the genesis of that idea? Of all the countries to go to after the end of the USSR, why go to the Czech Rep., of all places?

    I was born in '87, so it's impossible for me to truly understand the Zeitgeist of '91.

    Do you have a family connection? Can you speak Czech fluently enough? Is that how you met your French wife? I've lived/studied in Germany where my German was just good enough to get by (although even the homeless are fluent English speakers, so it's no biggie), and I've lived in (and will soon live again in) Korea, where I have an almost absurdly limited vocabulary. I'm always curious of others' experiences living in places absurdly different than their homelands.

    Could you please help a fellow ex-ex-pat out?

  • Evan from Evansville||

    @ Matt Welch:

    So you spent what, 5+ years in the Czech Rep. doing the newspaper?

    Is there somewhere where you have documented that experience so I can get more info? It sounds quite adventurous and interesting.

    If not: What was the genesis of that idea? Of all the countries to go to after the end of the USSR, why go to the Czech Rep., of all places?

    I was born in '87, so it's impossible for me to truly understand the Zeitgeist of '91.

    Do you have a family connection? Can you speak Czech fluently enough? Is that how you met your French wife? I've lived/studied in Germany where my German was just good enough to get by (although even the homeless are fluent English speakers, so it's no biggie), and I've lived in (and will soon live again in) Korea, where I have an almost absurdly limited vocabulary. I'm always curious of others' experiences living in places absurdly different than their homelands.

    Could you please help a fellow ex-ex-pat out?

  • Matt Welch||

    August 1990--July 1995, with a year in there ('93) spent mostly in Bratislava. Paper ran from 3/91-3/95. There's a limited amount of stuff up at http://mattwelch.com/prognosis.html.

    Genesis was my life was going nowhere (college dropout, recession, newspaper doom), my work contract was running out in June '90 (when I would have been graduating), so I decided I would Figure Out My Future during the holiday break in 1989. Which was a particularly choice time to be watching CNN. Was not a complicated or profound decision. Czechs had the best revolution, the best city, the best (and cheapest!) beer.

    No family connections, pretty miserable street-language skills. Fun fun fun, mixed with pain.

    Good luck!

  • Evan from Evansville||

    @ Matt Welch:

    So you spent what, 5+ years in the Czech Rep. doing the newspaper?

    Is there somewhere where you have documented that experience so I can get more info? It sounds quite adventurous and interesting.

    If not: What was the genesis of that idea? Of all the countries to go to after the end of the USSR, why go to the Czech Rep., of all places?

    I was born in '87, so it's impossible for me to truly understand the Zeitgeist of '91.

    Do you have a family connection? Can you speak Czech fluently enough? Is that how you met your French wife? I've lived/studied in Germany where my German was just good enough to get by (although even the homeless are fluent English speakers, so it's no biggie), and I've lived in (and will soon live again in) Korea, where I have an almost absurdly limited vocabulary. I'm always curious of others' experiences living in places absurdly different than their homelands.

    Could you please help a fellow ex-ex-pat out?

  • Evan from Evansville||

    THE SQUIRRELS ARE EMPHATIC!

    This is all Postrel's fault!!!!#@!@$~

    DRIIIIII!!!!!NK!

  • Evan from Evansville||

    I love that the human urge to be free is so powerful that it's impossible to control, and no attempt should be made. And people will choose anything, almost out of spite, to rebel against if they think they're being suppressed. Art, rock & roll, politics, anything.

    All because of my favorite impulse, which I have named: "Because Fuck You, That's Why."

  • requin tn pas cher||

    NO

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