Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Rose By Any Other Name

Yesterday, I mused somewhat briefly on the passing of journalist Christopher Hitchens. In particular, I focused on what I saw as a telling sentence fragment regarding the necessity of safeguarding one's dignity.

In contrast, consider the following from Vaclav Havel, who also left us for good and all this past weekend:
I had arrived in the countryside outside Prague at a place called Okrouhlice to visit artist friends. After a feast by a bonfire, I led a friend who had had too much to drink down a dark path toward a house nearby. In this total darkness, though completely sober, I suddenly fell into a black hole surrounded by a cement wall. The fact is, I had fallen into a sewer, into what can only be called, you'll excuse me, shit.
My attempt to swim in this fundamental mud, this strange vegetation, was in vain, and I began to sink deeper into the ooze. Meanwhile, a tremendous panic broke out above me. Local citizens flashed lights, grasped one another's arms, legs, offering limbs, articles of clothing to grab; a chaos of impossible rescue techniques followed. This brave fight for my life went on for at least thirty minutes. I could barely keep my nose above the dreadful effluvium and thought this was the end, what a way to go, when someone had the fine idea of putting down a long ladder.
Who could have known I was to leave this unfortunate sewer only to end up in the president's office two months later? I was not, after all, to have the distinction of becoming the first playwright to drown in shit at Okrouhlice.
What of Havel's dignity remains after confessing, with an air of surprise at what seems to be its uniqueness, that he was sober? What of Havel's dignity remains after confessing that bare weeks before the events that would catapult him on to the world stage he nearly drowned in shit?

Nothing contrasts these two men and the very different trajectories their lives followed than these little snippets. One had the courage of a life spent quietly, thoughtfully, writing poems, plays, and other pieces that held his rulers up to the contempt of the world. He spent quite a bit of time in jail, yet continued to write, saying what so many of his fellow Czechs knew to be true. He could make them laugh, both at themselves and at their rulers, something more deadly than the most strident polemics.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001, Christopher Hitchens took up the sordid mantle of defiance against the terrorists. Which, one would think, was hardly a display of courage. Yet, he marked this "decision" by breaking with many on the Left whom, he seemed convinced, were insufficiently outraged by the wanton murder of thousands and the glee of far too many at the destruction wrought that sunny September afternoon. When the Bush Administration decided to attack Iraq, Hitchens, a long-time advocate for Kurdish rights against Iraqi and Turkish violence against them, hitched his wagon not only to that particular Administration's plans, but to an entire ideology that represented everything Hitchens had spent his professional life fighting. He did so without a glance backward, without a regret or thought he might be selling himself far too cheaply.

Havel never lost the ability to chuckle at the irony and absurdity of the world. He also never mistook the various ways we might appear undignified for the reality that it is only worldly powers who wish to strip far too many of our fellow human beings of the signal dignity that comes with being human. Whether being jailed repeatedly for refusing to remain silent, or being called "collateral damage", and having various officials shrug at their deaths, it is this indignity that should be the focus of our rage. I cannot imagine Hitchens writing with obvious good-humor at an event in which he comes up smelling like shit. Havel, on the other hand, understood that sometimes in life we all fall in deep pools of shit.

At the end of their lives, each of these men carried a definite odor about them. One, having fallen in to a sewer, has the aroma of sweet perfume about him. The other, sad to say, against his insistence to the contrary, merely stinks.

Rest in peace, Vaclav Havel. And thank you.

Virtual Tin Cup

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