Dividing Lines and Sidelines

TLS December 19 & 26, 2014

from Jacques Rupnik's review of Michael Zantovsky's Havel: a Life:

It was in the 1970s that Havel established himself as the leading figure of Czech dissidence, both as a political thinker and as the prime inspirer of the human rights movement that became known as Charter 77. His "Letter to Gustáv Husák" of 1975 was, of course, not a letter to the party boss but a lengthy and profound essay on governance through fear and the way "we go in for various kinds of external adaptation as the only effective method of self-defence". This idea of habituation and critique of the "as if" behaviour prevalent in society was futher developed in Havel's famous essay of 1978, "The Power of the Powerless". In the post-totalitarian system, he argued, "the dividing line is not just between the party-state and society . . .  it runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his own way is both victim and supporter of the system" [emphasis mine]. This deep insight provides the key to understanding Havel's controversial stance after 1990 on "lustration": his reluctance to engage in a radical settling of scores with the collaborators of the old regime.


from Kathryn Murphy's review of Ivan Klíma's My Crazy Century: A memoir:

An apocryphal Chinese curse wishes that enemies may live in interesting times. Klíma's times were decidedly interesting, and the curse had added implications for a writer beyond the dangers of censorship and persecution. Dissident literature carries what Klíma himself called, in an interview with Philip Roth in 1990, an "extraliterary appeal": in Czechoslovakia it offered testimony "on the side of truth", against the derangements of sense and language perpetuated by the regime, and bore the torch for a continuity of culture and civic society. For some writers in the West, this was cause for a peculiar envy: the curse of interesting times at least meant interesting material. and a context in which writing really mattered. But such expectations are also oppressive: demanding seriousness, political engagement and a sidelining of formal and aesthetic concerns. The political role which literature was compelled to play stifled assessments of quality, conferring value not always reflected in the work itself [emphasis mine].


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