Václav Havel’s Word to the Class of 2017

Václav Havel in 2007. Photograph by Bohdan Holomíček.

Hillary Clinton quoted the Czech writer and statesman Václav Havel in her commencement speech at Wellesley on May 26. But if he were alive today and giving speeches, would he quote her?

Havel and Hillary Clinton were well acquainted. They met many times in the 1990s, while Bill Clinton was president of the United States and Havel was president of the Czech Republic. Photos from a state dinner at the White House in 1998 show Hillary and Havel twisting on the dance floor like Thurman and Travolta at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Havel’s diary from 2005 records him encouraging her to run for the presidency.

At Wellesley, Clinton quoted from “The Power of the Powerless”, Havel’s seminal essay on dissent in the age of détente that has become fashionable in the age of Trump. But as I listened to her whole speech and then read the text, I wondered: if Havel were alive today and similarly addressing college crowds, would he return the honor and quote her?

Thanks to his international acclaim, Havel was invited to speak at many universities in many countries, often to receive an honorary degree or prize, and sometimes to address graduating students. By my count, he wrote around 30 speeches for such occasions. From them we can glean what a Havel commencement speech might sound like today, and how it would differ from what American audiences are accustomed to.

First, he would not speak to the students directly as a very special bunch on their so special day. The word occurring most often in Clinton’s Wellesley speech — 99 times — was “you”, with “I” in third place (54 times). In Donald Trump’s address to Liberty University graduates on May 13, “you” likewise came first, 137 times, followed by “I” a surprisingly humble 72 times. Clearly, American speakers on such occasions feel that first and foremost they are talking to the young mortar-boarders before them. Havel’s speeches are hard to compare because the Czech language often omits pronouns, but a translation of a typical address, such as the one at Harvard in 1995, contains only a scattering of “you” or “your”. He is not there to congratulate the crowd on graduating, or assure them that they are the future, or urge them to “double down” on their passions and accomplish whatever they set their minds to doing. Think it’s a day for pride? He’ll tell you instead that pride comes before a fall (Harvard 1995) and pride is just the delusion of someone who thinks he knows everything, understands the course of history and can direct it by force if necessary (Sciences Po, 2009).

To add to the buzzkill, Havel would drive home that this pride not only caused enormous suffering in the twentieth century, but in the twenty-first puts our entire planet in peril. As he told his audience at George Washington University in April 1993:

We are rationally capable of describing, in vivid detail, all the dangers that threaten the world: the deepening gulf between the rich and the poor parts of the world, the population explosion, the potential for dramatic confrontations between different racial and cultural groups the arming of whom no one seems able to stop, the nuclear threat, the plundering of natural resources, the destruction of the natural variety of species, the creation of holes in the ozone layer, and the unstoppable global warming. What is unsettling is that the more we know about such dangers, the less we seem able to deal with them.

In keeping with the first speech he wrote for an honorary degree, “Politics and Conscience” in 1984 (a work that should be cited as much, if not more than “Power of the Powerless”), Havel might open his remarks with an unsettling vignette of humanity in this strained relationship to the natural world. Poetic but not pastoral, it would shock the audience into a different frame of mind. Or he might do the same by reference to a place associated with calamity and folly, such as Munich, Yalta or Chernobyl.

Having demolished the sin of pride, Havel would extol the manifold virtue of responsibility.

I see only one way out of this crisis. We must come to a new understanding of ourselves, our limitations, and our place in the world. We should grasp our responsibility in a new way, and reestablish a relationship with the things that transcend us. We must rehabilitate our human subjecthood, and liberate ourselves from the captivity of a purely rational perception of the world. (George Washington, 1993)

He would say this not to denigrate higher education; on the contrary, he repeatedly underscored its importance. But it must not be all STEM and no humanities, in service of an amoral manipulation of the world. Education and science, no less than politics, have to be underpinned by a sensation of being held to account:

At the deepest level, responsibility means the awareness that there is someone who is watching us. The one who sees all that we do — including those things that our fellow citizens do not see — does not speak, remains silent. It is a silent gaze and yet we sense it and experience it intrinsically, we relate to it, we feel that some definitive evaluation of what we have done in our lives is in its hands and not just the hands of our friends or the public. (Malta, 2002; I have modified the translation)

Along with that would go Havel’s distinction between ideals (good) and illusions (bad), between information (which is necessary but neutral and abundant to a fault) and truth:

To put it briefly and simply, I believe that truth is also information but, at the same time, it is something greater. Truth — like any other information — is information which has been clearly proved, or affirmed, or verified within a certain system of coordinates or paradigms, or which is simply convincing; but it is more than that: it is information avouched by a human being with his or her whole existence, with his or her reputation and name, with his or her honor. (Michigan, 2000)

I’m not sure what to make of Havel’s definition of truth, and whether it’s what we need at the moment. On the one hand, it does grow organically from Havel’s critique of authoritarian politics, in which public discourse is often insincere and diverges from private beliefs and practice. In a democracy, his standard of truth would compel speakers, especially ones of public prominence, to stand by what they say, and not throw out a line — especially a controversial one — only to dismiss it casually and expediently or put it down to sarcasm or misinterpretation. But what of the fanatic and the conspiracy theorist, who wholeheartedly and single-mindedly stand by their claims? Maybe avouching the truth, a most deadly earnest act, also needs a touch of self-deprecating humor and appreciation of the absurd, which Havel recommended in a speech at a university that has recently come under threat, the Central European University in Budapest.

If speaking to an American audience, he would remind them of the special expectation of America’s responsibility, whether Americans like it or not:

It is obvious that those who have the greatest power and influence also bear the greatest responsibility. Like it or not, the United States of America now bears probably the greatest responsibility for the direction our world will take. The United States, therefore, should reflect most deeply on this responsibility. (Harvard, 1995)

To audiences elsewhere, he would stress that it is a shared duty. Intellectuals, journalists and especially politicians have a special responsibility to reconcile local cultures and the emerging world civilization and to help manage the various strands of an integrated identity (nationhood, class, religion) while curbing the extreme forms that each of them can take. As president, Havel traveled to every corner of the globe, and prepared assiduously for the unfamiliar cultures he would encounter, especially in Asia and South America. He took a special interest in the history of myth, religion and human evolution, which he felt pointed to a shared spiritual minimum embedded deep in some collective consciousness. At Stanford he alluded to the research of the Czecho-Californian therapist Stanislav Grof to illustrate how learning can be put in the service of a more mindful relationship to the world:

There are principles, experiences, and what we might call prescientific knowledge that are more essential and mysterious than our prenatal experiences. At the same time somewhat paradoxically it often happens that the leading discoveries of contemporary science themselves provide confirmation of this and so, by a circular route, bring human understanding back to something that all cultures have known intuitively since the dawn of time, something that until recently modern science has treated as no more than a set of illusions or mere metaphors.

The challenge of the present age is thus to arrive at some sort of cross-cultural codex, taking the form neither of a new unified religion nor the imposition of Western values, practices and institutions. Since the consumer lifestyle and materialist appetites are part and parcel of the threat to the world, a renewed, non-anthropocentric appreciation of the transcendent and the mysterious would be part and parcel of the solution.

Maybe Havel would refer here obliquely to recent political trends and events, such as by insisting on the right of self-determination of smaller nations against aggression by larger, but he would not dwell on an individual figure such as Trump or Vladimir Putin. What has been happening over the past five years is just another installment in the great unraveling since the end of the Soviet bloc, a meridian in history Havel compared to the end of the Roman empire in its magnitude. The problem today is not that a good way of running countries and the world has been hijacked or subverted or corrupted; “post-Communism” in the global sense has exposed design flaws in the very way in which advanced societies — East and West — have been organized for decades, and below those flaws lies a still deeper, older crisis of authority and morals.

But — and here Havel would at last indicate a role for the bewildered youngsters in his audience, and summon the hopeful spirit of “Power of the Powerless” — a globalized world intensely connected by information flows nested in a universe connected by the invisible threads and memory of Being allows for anyone anywhere to act with potentially far-reaching consequences. It is not the standard exhortation to bold ambition that Havel would rely upon, but a derivative of Edward Lorenz’s “butterfly effect” from meteorology, in which minor changes can ripple radically. As he put it in his last speech in a university setting, thinking back on interviews with journalists before the 1989 revolution,

I often emphasized in those conversations that in conditions of totalitarianism it was very hard to look into the innards of a society that outwardly seemed like a loyal monolith, but that this monolith — cemented together mainly by fear — could in fact be far more brittle that it appeared on a cursory glance. And that no one knows whether some random snowball could set off an entire avalanche. It’s true that awareness of this was not the main or sole motor of our activity at the time, nevertheless we felt that way. (Sciences Po, 2009)

So, back to my opening question: what might Havel make of Clinton’s 2017 address?

As someone who mixed libertarian and communitarian principles, Havel might have liked Clinton’s trademark invocation of solidarity; as she said at Wellesley,

Our culture often celebrates people who appear to go it alone. But the truth is, that’s not how life works. Anything worth doing takes a village. And you build that village by investing love and time into your relationships. And in those moments for whatever reason when it might feel bleak, think back to this place where women have the freedom to take risks, make mistakes, even fail in front of each other.

The “secret weapons” of these bonds tally with the community of dissidents that in “Power of the Powerless” Havel said were not just a way to withstand persecution behind the Iron Curtain, but could also serve as a model of resistance to all forms of manipulation in the modern age, even in politically more open societies. Havel since adolescence had favored a fluid, participatory democracy, without bureaucratized mass parties; people would combine into small-scale entities for certain ends ad hoc, then dissolve them and re-combine as needs required.

Stylistically, however, I suspect he would find Clinton’s speech undercooked — several minutes too long, and repetitive in its determination to be of good cheer. Although Havel repeated himself from speech to speech out of consistency, each speech in itself was tightly composed, with no fluff or throwaway lines. They reflect the discipline of a man who wrote poems in his youth and letters from prison in middle age, with every line having to be measured, weighed and justified.

Overall, the Clinton 2017 speech and the 45,000-word corpus of Havel’s university addresses are lexically very different. An analysis with KWords, which in Havel’s case I edited to omit pronouns, conjunctions and so forth, turns up the top nouns and adjectives. I rank them by frequency, but also display their DIN scores, which compare Havel’s use of a word to its presence in a massive reference corpus of spoken and written Czech. The closer the DIN to 100, the more a word is particular to Havel, while a score approaching 0 would indicate that the word, even if appearing often in Havel’s language, does so in line with general Czech practice.

Compare that list to the keywords of Clinton’s Wellesley address on May 26; because it is so much shorter than Havel’s corpus, I have not edited the list down; the reference for the DIN score is the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

Some of the keywords in Clinton’s speech do occur farther down the long list of Havel’s, but truth (pravda) appears surprisingly seldom in his speeches, only 6 times each in the nominative and instrumental cases. The dominant Havel word is clearly svět (world), which in KWords is flagged as reaching Thematic Concentration (TC) level for its prominence and prevalence; no word in Clinton’s 2017 speech achieves TC status (Trump’s address at Liberty had two: very + great).

In short, Havel would probably struggle to find a passage in Clinton’s 2017 address at Wellesley that would appeal to him the way the words of his “Power of the Powerless” appealed to her.

But this was not the only speech Clinton has given at Wellesley; as she recalled, she also spoke on behalf of her graduating class in 1969. And that speech operated in a very different lexical realm, one much closer to Havel’s.

First, note the emphasis on “we” rather than the “you/I” tandem, followed by the prominence of “world”, “trust”, “integrity” and, at the bottom, “responsibility”. Here is a vocabulary that Hillary Rodham used to generate sentences that Havel himself would not only have endorsed, but could have written, such as:

“We feel that for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.”

“We questioned about what responsibility we should have both for our lives as individuals and for our lives as members of a collective group.”

“Many of the issues that I’ve mentioned — those of sharing power and responsibility, those of assuming power and responsibility — have been general concerns on campuses throughout the world. But underlying those concerns there is a theme, a theme which is so trite and so old because the words are so familiar. It talks about integrity and trust and respect”.

“Every protest, every dissent, whether it’s an individual academic paper or Founder’s parking lot demonstration, is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age. That attempt at forging for many of us over the past four years has meant coming to terms with our humanness. Within the context of a society that we perceive — now we can talk about reality, and I would like to talk about reality sometime, authentic reality, inauthentic reality, and what we have to accept of what we see — but our perception of it is that it hovers often between the possibility of disaster and the potentiality for imaginatively responding to men’s needs.”

“Integrity, the courage to be whole, to try to mold an entire person in this particular context, living in relation to one another in the full poetry of existence. If the only tool we have ultimately to use is our lives, so we use it in the way we can by choosing a way to live that will demonstrate the way we feel and the way we know.”

“There’s that mutuality of respect between people where you don’t see people as percentage points. Where you don’t manipulate people. Where you’re not interested in social engineering for people. The struggle for an integrated life existing in an atmosphere of communal trust and respect is one with desperately important political and social consequences.”

To paraphrase Samantha Bee, Havel might not have brought himself to quote Hillary Clinton. But he would be quoting Hillary Goddamn Brilliant Badass Queen Beyoncé Rodham.

Recommended reading on Havel

Seán Hanley, “Havel: For young radicals or middle aged and middle of the road?”, Dr Seans Diary, 23 June 2015.

David Danaher, Reading Václav Havel (University of Toronto, 2015).

James F. Pontuso, Václav Havel: Civic Responsibility in the Modern Age, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

Delia Popescu, Political Action in Václav Havel’s Thought (Lexington Books, 2011).

Daniel Brennan, The Political Thought of Václav Havel (Brill, 2017).

Kieran Williams teaches in the Department of Political Science at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa. His biography of Václav Havel was published in 2016 by Reaktion Books and the University of Chicago Press.

Photograph by Bohdan Holomíček, taken at Havel’s country home, Hrádeček.

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