Václav Havel’s “Leaving” and the Toxic Aging Narcissist in a Baseball Hat

Ten years ago, Václav Havel published his final play, Odcházení (“Leaving” or “Exiting”). When I first read it, I was disappointed. I came to it expecting the equivalent of one of his seminal political-philosophical essays from the 1970s and 1980s, a stage version of “Letter to Dr Husák” or “Politics and Conscience”. Instead, it struck me as an almost slapstick pastiche, a riff on classics such as Shakespeare’s King Lear and Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, but one lacking the verve and intricacy of his 1972 adaptation of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, my favorite of Havel’s plays.

It took several years for me to realize that I needed to see Leaving — and Havel’s 2011 film of it — differently. While working on a biography of Havel for Reaktion Books, I read the outline and first draft of the play, which Havel had started to write long before, in 1988. Viewed in that context, the play took on a new meaning as the central character, a politician named Vilém Rieger, comes undone when he experiences the sort of forced retirement that had recently befallen the aging leaders of Communist Parties, such as Gustáv Husák and Hungary’s János Kádár. Like so many of Havel’s previous plays, Leaving began as a reflection on the frailty of a person’s identity if it relies unduly on a public role and external affirmation, and not on a fundamental truth for which one is willing to vouch and risk opprobrium or even death. Havel’s translator, Paul Wilson, also surmised that Rieger was meant to embody the halfway liberalization of Gorbachev’s perestroika — lots of fine talk but trying to be all things to all people.

Once I understood the circumstances in which the play was conceived, I could appreciate it for what it was and no longer mind that it did not seem to have something deep to say about politics per se.

And then the 2016 American elections happened.

In the months that followed, Havel’s play yielded up a dimension that I had previously overlooked: the fallen chancellor, Rieger, is a timeless depiction of political narcissism, suddenly made timely.

Havel had read about narcissism while working on an earlier play about politics, Conspirators, in the years following the Soviet-led invasion of 1968. In trying to make sense of how his country had reacted to that setback, he delved into the work of the eminent psychologist Erich Fromm. Although most famous for his study of fascism, Escape from Freedom, it was Fromm’s later books The Art of Loving and The Heart of Man that were available to Havel in translation. The Heart of Man was written shortly after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, out of concern for indifference to life in an age of potential annihilation. In East and West alike, there was a “bureaucratically organized and centralized industrialism” resulting in a “new type of man; he can be described as the organization man, as the automaton man, and as a homo consumens”. (My quotations are from the 1964 edition published by Harper & Row.)

The homo consumens is well fed and has fun, but is tortured by a nagging awareness that he is powerless. The sensation of that impotence produces psychic misery, to which one response is necrophilia — an intense submissive attachment to a person who wields the instruments of law, order and deadly force.

When necrophiles form groups, they suffer from a collective narcissism, and are eager to have a leader with whom they can identify and who will himself be a narcissist. The telltale traits of a narcissist, according to Fromm, are

“all the signs of self-satisfaction: one can see that when he says some trivial words he feels as if he has said something of great importance”;

“his sensitivity to any kind of criticism”, which “can be expressed by denying the validity of any criticism, or by reacting with anger or depression”;

“his facial expression”, which often entails a “glow or smile, which gives the impression of smugness to some, of beatific, trusting, childlikeness to others”;

“a peculiar glitter in the eyes, taken by some as a symptom of half-saintliness, by others of half-craziness”.

This checklist fits Rieger in Leaving, especially in the film version in which he is played by Josef Abrhám. Like the narcissist diagnosed by Fromm, he is keen to talk at length, “in a superficial and banal way, yet with the air and intonation of one voicing the most wonderful and interesting words”. This is particularly true when Rieger is being interviewed by the tabloid journalist Jack, to whom he summarizes his broadly banal political program, with the individual at the center, served by “less government” but kept safe — as a necrophile would crave to be — by a pervasive apparatus of police, intelligence and armed forces. In office Rieger had espoused massive tax cuts, including to the “tax on interest on inherited interest” in the belief that it would so stimulate growth that the government could then increase spending on benefits and pensions. He also boasted, with evident hollowness, that he had been a scourge of corruption and champion of women.

As Leaving opens in the garden of his villa, Rieger and his staff are in the process of trying to sort his personal belongings from those that belong to the state and have to be turned over. The difficulty, if not impossibility of this disentangling shows to what extent Rieger has merged his identity with his place in government. This fits Fromm’s observation that a narcissist often “cathexes” a certain aspect of his personality, such that he “becomes identified with a partial aspect of himself. If we ask who ‘he’ is, the proper answer would be that ‘he’ is his brain, his fame, his wealth, his penis, his conscience, and so on”. If the self is bound up in property (such as Rieger’s villa and its contents), “a threat to his property is like a threat to his life”.

After losing power, Rieger assumed he would be allowed to continue to live in the state-owned villa that has been his home for years. But his nemesis, a fast-rising younger politician named Klein, threatens to evict him if he does not actively support the country’s new leadership. Like all the flawed male leads in Havel’s plays, Rieger has a few shreds of integrity or self-respect and puts up an initial show of resistance, but eventually caves, after he is arrested, questioned and blackmailed on the basis of letters from his personal archive. In this situation he is not capable of clear thinking, for as Fromm observed, rational judgement is distorted when “the object of narcissistic attachment is thought to be valuable (good, beautiful, wise, etc.) not on the basis of an objective value-judgement, but because it is me or mine”.

The action of Leaving takes place entirely on the grounds of the villa, and thus entirely within Rieger’s narcissistic horizons. He has no idea what is happening beyond the villa’s walls, and wants only to be told (and believe) that he still has faithful followers who clamor for his return. Whereas Havel’s earlier play Conspirators took place through the tunnel vision of a narcissistic group grappling with the absence of a recently overthrown, and never seen, strongman, Leaving is from the perspective of a deposed, and never missed, statesman. As Fromm says of the narcissist, “he and his are overevaluated. Everything outside is underevaluated”. The intensity of his overreaction to any criticism “can be fully understood only if one considers that the narcissistic person is unrelated to the world, and as a consequence is alone, and hence frightened”, which he masks by self-inflation: “If he is the world, there is no world outside which can frighten him; if he is everything, he is not alone”. When this conceit is challenged, “the fright emerges and results in intense fury” or, once he realizes he is too weak against his critic (such as the monstrous upstart, Klein), he falls apart, “in mourning for the “wonderful ‘I’ which has died”. In Leaving, this collapse takes place during a hallucinatory Lear-like tempest.

A last line of defense for the narcissist is to become still more removed from reality, to “isolate himself increasingly in narcissistic splendor”, and if the adoration of millions is not forthcoming, then find it in at least one person. This is not a proper relationship, according to Fromm, but a sado-masochistic folie à deux in which both partners “have no real, deep interest in each other (not to speak of anyone else), they remain touchy and suspicious, and most likely each of them will be in need of a new person who can give them fresh narcissistic satisfaction”. This is a fairly accurate description of Rieger’s partnership with his “long-term companion”, Irena, herself a glamorous, brittle micro-manager who fuels Rieger’s delusions but also punctures — deliberately or accidentally — his self-importance by gestures such as having him wear a clownish baseball cap declaring “I Love You”.

It is a relationship that no longer meets Rieger’s needs, especially after he has suffered a series of blows to his ego; in that situation, Fromm predicts, the “lack of objective judgement, his rage reactions in consequence of any setback, his need to keep up the image of omnipotence may provoke him to make mistakes which lead to his destruction”. One of these mistakes is to go after a much younger woman, Bea Weissenmütelhofová. Rieger is aroused not just because she is pretty, but because she can quote at length from his speeches and wants to write his authorized biography. He moves on her, and she lets him, because she is — in Fromm’s terms — a necrophile, attracted to life-killing power. Temporarily reinvigorated, Rieger appears in Act III with his white hair dyed to make him resemble his younger self depicted in the large portrait shown at the beginning and at several other points in the play. (There is also a resemblance to Dirk Bogarde as the equally pathetic Aschenbach at the end of Visconti’s “Death in Venice”.) Later, once Rieger is trounced, Bea effortlessly redirects her attentions to Klein, as does Rieger’s necrophilous secretary, Viktor, who has supplied government investigators with the intimate private letters that are used to break Rieger’s resistance.

In the play’s conclusion, Rieger capitulates and agrees to take a humiliatingly minor advisory role in the new government, even though he will not be allowed to stay in the villa, which Klein wants to convert into a casino, mall and brothel with Ukrainian prostitutes. The long-suffering Irena leaves him, unable to live with a “parody of a lecher” who refuses to face reality; Rieger only feebly tries to stop her, because he cannot believe she will not return.

Rieger then has to quit the villa’s safe confines, accompanied by one of his daughters, the scheming, ambitious Vlasta, and her silent pale husband; Rieger is oblivious to his other daughter, despite her efforts to show him real love and care. He has to go out into an uncertain world not of his imagination, with only a few of the many possessions that had once symbolized his power and persona; before exiting, he dons the “I Love You” cap in a pathetic show of defiance. His fate, and that of his family, is unclear, but could certainly entail a further fall from grace.

Leaving thus becomes a tale of uplifting hopefulness for those of us outside the villa’s walls.

Comparative political scientist, Drake University. https://www.drake.edu/polsci/facultystaff/kieranwilliams/