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, Dvo?ák-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 Gašparovi?, 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 Dvo?ák'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 Machá?ek 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!) Ji?í ?erný, 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.

"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 Pato?ka, to Magor, to (by extension) people like Jan Machá?ek, 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."