This April marks the forty-fifth anniversary of a letter.
Not just any letter, but an open letter written by Václav Havel in 1975, at the very midpoint of his eventful life. Addressed to the leader of Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party, Gustáv Husák, it lamented the parlous state of the country, seven years after the Soviet-led invasion to stop the reforms of the ‘Prague Spring’.
Havel’s letter to Husák, however, is more than just a description of a society corralled into a suffocating ‘normalcy’ after a traumatic event. It is a timeless essay on the contrast between a politics of life and a politics of death. More deeply, it was a protest against an attitude to power that Havel rooted in psychologist Erich Fromm’s analysis of necrophilia.
Fromm used the term necrophilia not in the clinical sense of a sexual perversion but as a sociological ‘syndrome of decay’, of indifference to life and our effect on nature, and attraction to the mechanistic, the narcissistic and sadistic. Fromm’s necrophile craves certainty, reveres the powerful because they can kill, and delights in seeing the powerless belittled and manipulated through a witless consumerism full of fun but no joy.
Havel represented Fromm’s ideas first through characters in a play, Conspirators, and then in his letter to Husák through metaphors for the necrotic entropy that was a ‘desperate substitute’ for real life. He likened the post-invasion regime’s censorship and surveillance to castration, impotence and emasculation. He compared the suppression of life to violation, ravishment, enfeeblement and anesthesia. He predicted that grievances would grow like pus, abscesses, carbon monoxide, lava.
But Havel was confident that life would assert itself out of a yearning for variety, novelty and transcendence. Unwilling to abandon its governing ‘death principle’ and silencing the early warnings that might come from the arts and press, the entropic regime condemned itself to eventual demolition by a sudden ‘tornado’ of life resurgent.
In the years that followed, Havel experienced several times that most direct encounter with state power, imprisonment. He felt an acute sympathy for the petty criminals he met there, many of them Roma, whose lifestyles could not be reconciled with what he called the ‘semi-militarily organized society’ and ‘necrophilic character of bureaucratic power’. Upon becoming president at the end of 1989, one of his first acts was to amnesty 80 per cent of all inmates — a move that was not popular then or now.
Likewise, he long opposed the death penalty and put his name on a petition to abolish it in 1978 — a move that many fellow dissidents did not endorse and most Czechs opposed when it did happen under Havel’s presidency in 1990. (Even today, nearly 60 percent of Czechs wish the practice were still allowed, about 10 percent more than in the United States, where it is.) I suspect that if Havel were alive today, he would be a vocal advocate for people like Narges Mohammadi, a campaigner against the death penalty in Iran who was herself sentenced to 16 years in prison.
As we shelter from the lethal potential of covid-19 and hear some latter-day Gradgrinds in positions of power call for a hastened return to ‘normal’ economic life regardless of the cost to actual lives, let us remember another essay Havel wrote, holed up one dark night in November 1984 at his farmhouse, Hrádeček. In ‘Thriller’, he reflected on the horrors reported from around the world on the nine o’clock news, and saw in them the expression of something nasty in the collective unconscious. In the past, we made sense of it through myth; now too rational to believe in those stories but not rational enough to stop acting on the primal impulses behind them, we must endeavour all the more to resist the tempting advocacy of ‘lesser evils’ and high casualty rate of necropolitics. To quote Josef Šafařík, the most important philosophical influence on Havel, ‘Without a battle with death in the soul, there can be no return to man’s identity in the living body and to his natural place in the organic world’.