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"We haven't had this feeling since 1989!" Živé kvety lead singer Lucie Piussi gushed to me backstage. She was right about the feeling, but I think under-generous about the timeline.
From the Velvet Revolution through at least 1991, and in many (though lesser) respects for years after, Prague was alive with rediscovery and experimentation in the exciting, difficult, anarchic interlude between Communism and its built-out replacement. Instigators from the former underground (those who didn't join Havel in his chaotic first two castle administrations) flooded into newly vacated spaces–like, say, the bizarre caverns underneath the podium where a 50-foot statue of Stalin once stood–and started temporary nightclubs, exhibit halls, pirate radio stations. The new actions inevitably brushed up against the old laws, and just when you thought the fun was over Havel would appear with a wink and a nod to let people know where his ever-present heart remained.
But more than mere nostalgia for a limited era of time (one I was fortunate enough to participate in), that same spirit of, well, love, or at least its handmaiden decency, has never really gone away. It's in evidence at the goofy but still-touching Lennon Wall near the Charles Bridge, where Czech teens since the 1980s have been spray-painting messages that stress above all the notion of love. It was around last week in the wee hours of pub conversations, when there was something close to national pride at the gossip that Havel to his last days was having hospital staff sneak him beer and cigarettes. And it was wafting through the air at spontaneous memorials all over the former Czechoslovakia. There is an important muscle memory of self-effacing decency among Czechs, and last week there was plenty of perhaps premature discussion that the funeral and related events would help re-insert these notions back into the debased national conversation.
It was Havel's conscious work to link together the various strains of Czech humanism, from Czechoslovakia founder Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, to 20th century philosopher Jan Patočka, to Magor, to (by extension) people like Jan Macháček, who before going onstage to sing his celebratory versions of Lou Reed songs gave me a complicated debriefing of the Czech/Polish impact on the Euro crisis. In this universe, it makes complete sense to mix a deep-seated appreciation of free speech, keen interest in far-flung human-rights abuses, literate debate over economic policy, fierce defense of personal freedom, and a well-cultivated taste for life lived interestingly. This will remain one of Havel's greatest legacies. May it become one of ours, too.
Matt Welch is Editor in Chief of Reason, and co-author of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America (PublicAffairs). See also his May 2003 Reason feature, "Velvet President."