Saturday, December 24, 2011

Vaclav Havel 1936-2011

Here's a short account of the demonstrations in Krakow, Poland, 1988-89. These demonstrations and others like them throughout the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe signaled the end of communism. The full account is here.

"Wednesday I was sitting in a tram, basking in Stalinist glee – I'd actually found a seat – and during rush hour! Around four. But the tram stopped and refused to start up again. Suddenly a voice called out, 'Everybody off! Demonstration!'

I got off and could barely find the demo. It turned out to be maybe ten kids from 9 to 14, one holding a Czechoslovak flag, another two holding a sign that said, 'Free Vaclav Havel.' Kids. Skinny, small girls in net stockings and sneakers and hennaed hair and khaki jackets. Some boys: fat, horribly skinny and dorky, pimply, fresh-faced with that skin that looks like it has never been touched. Moving the way kids move – loping, giggling, punching each other, self conscious of their bodies. We marched to the square, where the crowd grew thicker. We marched to a lovely old house on the Maly Rynek where we chanted against General Fatty. We marched to perhaps a police headquarters? Where suddenly everyone ran."

Vaclav Havel had been arrested in January, 1989, for attempting to lay flowers in Prague's Wenceslas Square. He went to the site where, twenty years before, Czech student Jan Palach had set himself on fire to protest the Soviet Bloc crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring.

I love those Polish kids from 1989 who understood, and who acted.

Those Polish kids understood – this isn't just about Poland, or Poles. We are part of a bigger story. When the police arrest the Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, that is a skirmish in our struggle; that is something we must respond to.

Those Polish kids understood – we must take action. We must be the ones to make the change. We can't sit back whining and complaining and waiting for someone else to act.

Those Polish kids understood – we aren't just about celebrating famous dead generals. We must champion intellectuals – writers – playwrights! And people who aren't yet celebrities on the world stage. (Back then, most people didn't know who Vaclav Havel was. NPR broadcasters regularly mispronounced his name.)

Those Polish kids, with their dedication to a Czech playwright who wasn't particularly famous, and others liked them, brought down a system – Soviet Communism – that many thought unconquerable.


I mention Vaclav Havel in the essay, "The Illusion of Protection: Two Travelers Speak of Home." In this essay, I use the work of two Czech writers, Vaclav Havel and Milan Kundera, to understand my life as a traveler.

"In 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,' Milan Kundera talks about 'poetic memory.' It's a precious commodity. Poetic memory is made up of the memories that touch us—and—here's the essence of it, its gift, its challenge—these memories must be shared. My home is built of poetic memory; physically homeless, I am hostage to its fate. I'm more careful, certainly more anxious, about with whom I build up stores of poetic memory than with whom I share bodily fluids. You can get the divorce, take the Twelve Steps, never call again, throw away the reject's letters, but no matter how thorough the split, the closure, the final decree, if you are human, someday you'll find yourself laughing over a joke that only he would understand, or crying over something that she once shared with you. No lawyer nor daytime talk show shrink can rescue you from poetic memory.

The other day I was reading Vaclav Havel's letters from prison. There was a line that compelled me, after years of awkward silence, to call Eric, who had once been my closest American neighbor in Peace Corps Nepal. The village where I taught English and the one where he taught math were, on sunny days, visible to each other; we were only a day's walk, and about ten thousand feet, apart.

Eric and I had inhabited an exquisitely endangered ecosystem: a tiny bubble in the Himalaya, which we created because we were the only speakers of English. Not only was he not in his culture and I not in mine, we weren't of each other's. Puget Sound Eric was Nordic, majestic, blonde, a high school and college swim team star. I'd come from a coast much closer to Ellis Island, and had worked my way through school as a nurse's aid.

Quarantined by shared affliction, besieged by language, Eric and I frantically invented a new culture for our nation of two. We became zealots at using poetic memory with each other, to bind, to wound, to raise a laugh, to drive home a point; he could deploy it as other men, jealous, resort to physical strength. If a man were flirting with me, all Eric had to do was sidle behind and recite an excerpt from our canon of poetic memory and I was his, irrevocably; the flirt before me transformed into an interloper. Dinners, proposals, even another man's love poems, could not survive one strategic reference from Eric. 'Goska, remember that time that you and...'

At our posts in Nepal, the only pens available to us had been Chinese ballpoint pens. Halfway through each of our letters to each other there was always a big blob of ink, or a disappearing line, an apology, and a curse. 'Damn these Chinese pens!'

The other day, I was reading imprisoned Vaclav Havel pleading with his wife Olga to send him more Chinese ballpoint pens, so much better than the Soviet ones. I laughed out loud. No one in the room understood. Who would understand but Eric, terribly distant in space and class, terribly intimate in my poetic memory?"



  1. We must champion intellectuals – writers – playwrights!

    of course, but they're usually bullshit, and they play to the pay, and they are NEVER around for us, here - - - - in the USA.


  2. Not sure about that never, but far too many weak talents run the PO/Lit biz here in the U.S. that's for sure. Havel was an inspiration for me. Christina Pacosz

  3. Christina Pacosz has done inestimable service to Polonia and all Bohunks through her writing.

    Ditto Thomas Bell, a Slovak American, author of "Out of this Furnace."

    Ditto Louis Adamic, Slovenian-American.

    Re: Christina's comment that there is something wrong with the Pol-Lit scene in America. All too true.

    I've got two essays coming out shortly about Polish and other Bohunk issues.

    The editors who will publish me are not Polish at all. They sent me lovely notes, treated me with respect, and will even pay me !

    I submitted an essay to an upcoming anthology of Polish American writing. The Polish American editors sent me an email calling my writing "sophomoric" and unfit for publication.

    I've had too many such experiences not to conclude that there is something deeply wrong in Polonia.

  4. OK, now and then, maybe once every 10 years. They usually bow to everyone else's gods a zillion times before they get back to us. Academic szlachta?

    What is the Po/Lit, or Pol/lit scene?

    dja notice that Bram Stoker's Slovaks fit Dr. Goska's description of (her) Bohunkophobia and (my) Slavophobia?

    Ah, do you think it more or less likely that the Bohunkophobic play Dr. Goska describes in further articles would have ever been published as a reference to Slavs?

    I think not.

    Bohunk is a play word, not real, so they can use it freely (it means what they say it means, says the caterpillar), since to most it means a not real person, too many composites. It means what's in their minds, as a a very ethereal concept, it can be better manipulated by the media shits.

    Slav is harder to screw with, and if he had said that about Slavs, it would not have flown. Don't think that Bohunk cannot be used toxically by the other side. You see it has.


  5. My guess is that most traditional PolAm editors are wary of anything that looks like it is even tenuously associated with anything PC, or "progressive', or "enlightened", or "cosmopolitan", since these have more often than not been the sources of assault. ----- or "inclusive", which in practice means, eventually, Slavophobic,and highly exclusive-- of us.

    I don't blame them.

    Bowing to everyone else's gods as much as you bow to your own, while they are always kicking yours in the ass, and you say that they can't be blamed, basically affirms or reifies the dominant paradigm (oh that deconstruction and business shit talk) that they are always equal, and you are always lesser. It even shows that you agree with them.

    Start your own publishing house. Your are mostly there now anyhow. Epub would be a great way to go. The costs of ePub are grossly down. I have heard that Amazon and Apple and a few others pay royalties of 70%. Authorial control. Always --- read that, always --- in print. Massage your price point. You can DO THIS ! The people will then vote with their dollars, and at the speed of light. If you talk a lot of crap, that too will get around, at the speed of light. I DID after all, buy your book twice, even if we always don't agree on everything. Taken over time, I don't always agree with myself !!


  6. I also experienced a 4-month bubble of profound poetic memory with a Polish girl named Aga. She works for the Polish department of foreign affairs now and ushers around foreign diplomats. We were both 'isolated', living as foreigners in a big German city. I could never say what a profound gift to me that friendship was - and it has always seemed one of life's mysteries, she herself has said nothing like that happened to her since. At the end I cut her off sharply and abruptly, being freaked out to be a nervous 22 year old virgin with no successful relationship experience, achieving that level of intimacy and friendship with a beautiful woman (she had a boyfriend in PL). The depth of shared feeling did not make sense to me and I ran from it.

    The letter to Beata from which the snippet is taken addresses an interesting point. The feeling and perception it describes are also known to me. The most profound poetic statement of the feeling I found in Siegfried Sassoon's poem "Strangeness of Heart":

    When I have lost the power to feel the pang
    That first I felt in childhood when I woke
    And heard the unheeding garden bird who sang
    Strangeness of heart for me while morning broke;
    Or when in latening twilight sure with spring
    Pausing on homeward paths along the wood
    No sadness thrills my thoughts while thrushes sing
    And I’m no longer the wondering child who stood
    So many sunsets past and could not say
    What distant voices called from far away:
    When I have lost those simple spells that stirred
    My being with an untranslated song
    Let me go home for ever; I will have heard
    Death; I will know that I have lived too long.

    And the most profound statement on the meaning of that feeling I found expressed here:

    Its awesome how you lace your social commentary with passages where you reveal yourself more thoroughly - it makes reading you such an experience.


  7. Eric, thanks so much for that post.

    Can you tell me any more about the presence process, whose blog you link?

    I read most of that blog post but he lost me when he denounced all religions as cults.


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