Anatomy of a Reticence


"Anatomy of a Reticence" (April 1985) was written, according to a note by the author, "to be delivered at a peace conference in Amsterdam, in my absence; and for an international collection of essays on European identity being prepared by the Suhrkamp publishing house." It first appeared in Czech in Obsah, a samizdat publication, in April 1985. Its first publication in English was as a Charter 77 Foundation pamphlet (Voices from Czechoslovakia, i), Stockholm, 1985. Subsequently it was published in Václav Havel or Living in Truth, edited by Jan Vladislav. The translation is by Erazim Kohák.

 

I

 

Western peace groups, it seems, in ever greater numbers are turning for natural allies not to the official, state-sponsored Peace Committees in the eastern part of Europe but to those ordinary citizens who concern themselves with global issues independently of their governments, that is, they are turning to the so-called dissidents. We are invited to peace congresses--the fact that we are unable to attend them is another matter. We receive visitors representing various peace groups; we are called upon for dialogue and cooperation. All this, to be sure, does not mean that this is a spontaneous and universal attitude within the Western peace movement. The opposite appears closer to the truth. When it comes to the "dissidents" in Eastern Europe, the prevailing mood seems to be one of reticence, of caution, if not of outright distrust and uneasiness.

 

The reasons for this reticence are not hard to imagine. Our governments resent anyone contacting us, and, after all, it is they, not us, who can most affect the fortunes of the world, and so they need the primary contacts. Besides, to the Western peace lighters the dissidents in the eastern half of Europe must seem strangely absorbed in their provincial concerns, exaggerating human rights (as if human survival were not more important), suspiciously prejudiced against the realities of socialism, if not against socialist ideals themselves, insufficiently critical of Western democracy and perhaps even sympathizing, albeit secretly, with those detested Western armaments. In short, for them the dissidents tend to appear as a fifth column of Western establishments east of the Yalta line.

 

The reticence, to be sure, is mutual. It is not less noticeable in the attitude of Eastern European dissidents toward the Western peace movement. When we read Western texts dealing with the issues of peace, we usually find in them shades of opinion that give us reason for a degree of reticence, as well.

 

I do not know whether I shall succeed in contributing to better mutual understanding--I tend to be skeptical in that respect. Still, I want to try to describe some of the reasons for one of those two cases of reticence, the one on our side.

 

Seen from the outside, the dissidents appear to be a minuscule and rather singular enclave-singularly radical, that is--within a monolithic society which speaks with an entirely different voice. In a sense, they really are such an enclave: there is but a handful of them and the state does everything in its power to create a chasm between them and society at large. They are in fact different from the majority in one respect: they speak their mind openly, heedless of the consequences. That difference, however, is hardly significant. What matters is whether the views they express differ significantly from those of the majority of their fellow citizens. I do not think they do. Quite the contrary, almost every day I come across some piece of heartening evidence that the dissidents are really saying nothing other than what the vast majority of their fellow citizens think privately. Actually, if we were to compare what the dissidents write in their texts with what we can hear their fellow citizens saying--albeit privately or, at most, over beer--we would reach the paradoxical conclusion that the dissidents constitute the less radical, more loyal, and more peaceful segment of the population. I say this because, if we want to consider the particular reticence among the dissidents when it comes to issues of peace, we need first to consider the social context of their actions, that is, the common experiences, perspectives, and feelings they echo, express politically, or follow through in their own distinctive way.

 

II

 

Perhaps the first thing to understand is that, in our part of the world, the word "peace" has been drained of all content. For thirty-seven years every possible and impossible open space in Czechoslovakia has been decorated with slogans such as "Building up our homeland strengthens peace," "The Soviet Union, guarantor of world peace," "For the even greater flowering of the peaceful labor of our people!" and so on and so forth. For thirty-seven years our newspapers and the other media have been saturated with the same weary clichés about peace. For thirty-seven years our citizens have been required to carry the same old peace placards in the mandatory parades. For thirty-seven years a few individuals clever enough to establish themselves as our professional "peace fighters," being particularly adept at repeating the official pronouncements, have engaged in extensive peace-congress tourism at state expense. For thirty-seven years, in other words, "the struggle of peace" has been part and parcel of the ideological facade of the system within which we live.

 

Yet every citizen knows from a thousand daily, intensely personal experiences that this official facade conceals an utterly different reality that is growing ever more disheartening: the wasteland of life in a totalitarian state, with its all-powerful center and all-powerless inhabitants. The word "peace"--much like the words "socialism," "homeland," and "the people"--has been reduced to serving both as one rung on the ladder up which clever individuals clamber, and as a stick for beating those who stand aloof. The word has become one of the official incantations which our government keeps muttering while doing whatever it wants (or perhaps whatever it has been ordered) to do, and which its subjects must mutter along with it to purchase at least a modicum of tranquility.

 

Can you wonder, under these circumstances, that this word awakens distrust, skepticism, ridicule, and revulsion among our people? This is not distaste for peace as such: it is distaste for the pyramid of lies into which the word has been traditionally integrated.

 

The extent of that distaste--and so its seriousness as a social phenomenon--can be illustrated by the fact that when our dissidents occasionally attempt to express their views on peace issues publicly, no matter how much they differ from the views of the government, they become mildly suspect to the public simply because they express serious interest in the issues of peace at all. While people listen with interest to other Charter 77 documents in foreign broadcasts, seek them out, and copy them, Charter 77's documents dealing with peace are guaranteed universal lack of interest in advance. The citizens of our country simply start to yawn whenever they hear the word "peace."

 

The complete devaluation and trivialization of this word by official propaganda is, to be sure, only one reason--and a rather superficial one at that--for the reserve which people here display (including to some extent the dissidents themselves, since they live in a climate not unlike that of others) when they regard the "struggle for peace" and the peace movement.

 

III

 

Against whom exactly is this officially sponsored "struggle for peace" in our country directed?  Naturally, against Western imperialists and their armaments. Thus the word "peace" in our country means nothing more than unswerving concurrence with the policies of the Soviet bloc, with its uniformly negative attitude toward the West. In our newspeak, the phrase "Western imperialists" does not refer to certain individuals obsessed by a vision of world domination, but rather to the more or less democratically elected Western governments and the more or less democratic Western political system.

 

Add to this one more circumstance: our media, in reporting world news, have for decades systematically sought to create the impression that virtually the only thing which ever happens in the West is the "peace struggle"--naturally in the sense that word has here. That is to say, the peace movement is used as evidence of the eagerness with which the people of the West await Soviet-style communism.

 

In such circumstances, what do you expect the average citizen thinks? Simply that those Western peace fighters should get their wish--let them be punished for their naïveté and their inability to learn!

 

Try to imagine what would happen if a young, enthusiastic, and sincere Western peace fighter were to approach not a prominent dissident but an ordinary Czechoslovak citizen and were to ask him to sign, say, a petition against the completion of NATO's armament plans. In principle I can imagine two possible outcomes. One is that this ordinary citizen would politely show his visitor the door. The other (probably more likely) is that he would take him for an agent of the secret police and would promptly sign the proffered paper just as he signs scores of similar papers presented for his signature at work--without studying it, simply and solely to stay out of trouble. (A more alert citizen, regardless of his attitude toward armament plans, might try to squeeze an invitation to the West out of the whole thing. Ultimately he is accustomed to looking out for "number one": there might be time to visit Paris for the first time in his life before Europe is consumed in an atomic conflagration.)

 

Let me make it even more emphatic. Imagine that through some unfortunate coincidence our Western visitor happened to hit upon an older citizen who has lived all his life on Letná in Prague--and who, together with hundreds of others, is soon to be forcibly moved to some housing development on the outskirts of Prague, losing his life-long home and being forced to pay perhaps double the rent (out of what?), simply because Soviet officers have decided that Letná is where they want to live. Soviet officers--the most militant peace fighters of all. Would the Western enthusiast be justified in his surprise over the cold reception he would receive in this household?

 

I know that some people in the West believe the entire Western peace movement is a Soviet plot. Others perceive it as a collection of naive dreamers whose great enthusiasm and minimal knowledge are cleverly utilized by the Soviets.

I do not share these views. Still, I have the impression that if one could determine what the people of Eastern Europe really think, it would turn out that these views have more supporters here than in the West itself.

 

I think that a mutual exchange of such hard truths, with no punches pulled, is the first precondition for any meaningful European rapprochement.

 

IV

 

The more enlightened among the Western peace fighters demand not only the disarmament of their own countries but the simultaneous disarmament of everyone else. For that reason they expect the people of Eastern Europe to struggle against the various Soviet rockets rather than against the Pershings. This surely makes sense: let everyone first put his own house in order.

 

Since my topic today is the reticence toward "peace" in our part of Europe, I need to call attention to something that tends to be overlooked: that any, even the most diffident, expression of disagreement with government policy in an area as sensitive as defense is infinitely more dangerous here than in the West. After all, whereas the Western press publishes maps showing projected or completed rocket bases, the location of any weapons whatever is considered a state secret in our countries. Simply revealing the location of a base would undoubtedly lead to a prison term of many years. And when I try to imagine someone daring to approach a rocket base with an antiwar placard or--perish the thought!--trying to interfere with its construction, I break out in a cold sweat. It would mean not fourteen days in jail, with visits and packages, as in England, but fourteen cruel years in Valdice, our Czech Sing Sing. When I once mentioned this to one of my interrogators during a police interrogation occasioned by an encounter of mine with some Western peace activists, he floored me with his answer. "Different countries, different customs," he said.

 

Yes, different country, different customs. To my countrymen I have always stressed that we should not lie our way out of our responsibility and blame everything on prevailing conditions, on the superpowers, and on the big, bad world. To readers abroad, though, I would like to point out that we live in a country where the "customs" are indeed different. To speak out against the rockets here means, in effect; to become a dissident. Specifically, it means the complete transformation of one's life. It means accepting a prison term as one of life's natural possibilities. It means giving up at a stroke many of the few openings available to a citizen in our country. It means finding oneself, day after day, in a neurotic world of constant fear of the doorbell. It means becoming a member of that microscopic "suicide-pact" enclave surrounded, to be sure, by the unspoken good wishes of the public but at the same time by unspoken amazement that anyone would choose to risk so much for something as hopeless as seeking to change what cannot be changed.

 

The peace movement in the West has a real impact on the dealings of parliaments and governments, without risking jail. Here the risk of prison is real and, at least at this point, the impact on the government's decision making is zero.

 

I'm not saying that all action here is pointless. I only want to explain why so few people choose to act. I do not believe that, as a nation, we are significantly more cowardly. If the same conditions obtained in the West, I doubt that significantly more people there would choose to act than among us.

 

All this, I hope, is obvious. Still; it is important to repeat it over and over again--among other reasons, to prevent the gradual growth in European minds of the wholly erroneous impression that the only dangerous weapons are those surrounded by encampments of demonstrators.

 

V

 

I would not presume to speak about conditions in the entire Soviet bloc. I believe, however, that I can say at least of the Czechoslovak citizen that his world is characterized by a perennial tension between "their" omnipotence and his impotence.

 

This citizen, for instance, knows "they" can do anything they want--take away his passport, have him fired from his job, order him to move, send him to collect signatures against the Pershings, bar him from higher education, take away his driver's license, build a factory producing mostly acid fumes right under his windows, pollute his milk with chemicals to a degree beyond belief, arrest him simply because he attended a rock concert, raise prices arbitrarily, any time and for any reason, turn down all his humble petitions without cause, prescribe what he must read before all else, what he must demonstrate for, what he must sign, how many square feet his apartment may have, whom he may meet and whom he must avoid. The citizen picks his way through life in constant fear of "them," knowing full well that even an opportunity to work for the public good is a privilege "they" have bestowed upon him, conditionally. (One of my friends, an expert in a certain area of medicine, was invited to attend a conference in her field in the neighboring German Democratic Republic. Her own scholarly society supported her request to attend, but she was turned down by her superior--who of course was a bureaucrat, not a doctor-simply because, as he made clear, learning about the methods of scientists in other countries is not, in this country, a question of natural interest in scientific development and in patient care, but a favor bestowed upon doctors by their bureaucratic superiors.) The average citizen living in this stifling atmosphere of universal irritability, servility, perpetual defensiveness, backbiting, nervousness, and an ever smoldering compensatory contentiousness, knows perfectly well, without having to read any dissident literature that "they" can do anything and he can do nothing. (That there is no clear division between those "down below" and those "up above," that no one really knows who "they" are, and that all of us, drawn into the same plot, are in part "they," while "they" are at the same time partly "we," "they" are subordinate citizens dependent on some other "they"--this is a different matter, outside the present context.)

 

And now try to imagine, my dear Western peace activist, that you confront this half exhausted citizen with the question of what he is willing to do for world peace. Are you surprised to find him staring at you uncomprehendingly, wondering to himself what kind of trap has been laid for him this time?

 

You see, for him matters far simpler than questions of peace and war are-or, under our present conditions, appear to be utterly beyond his competence. Since he can have absolutely nothing to say about the possible conversion of a large tract of his homeland into a desert for the sake of a bit of inferior coal that God knows what industry needs for God knows what purpose, since he cannot protect even his children's teeth from deteriorating due to environmental pollution, since he cannot even obtain a permit to move for the sake of his children's teeth and souls from northern to southern Bohemia, how could he influence something on the order of some sort of "Star Wars" between two superpowers? All that appears so terribly distant to him, as far beyond his influence as the stars above, that it really can exercise only people free of all his "ordinary" concerns and restless from sheer boredom.

 

Mrs. Thatcher was charmed by Mr. Gorbachev. In a completely rationalized world of computers even capable, I have heard, of launching a nuclear war, the entire civilized world is irrationally fascinated by the fact that Mr. G drinks whiskey and can play golf--thanks to which, we are told, humankind is not utterly bereft of all hope of survival. But how does this appear to our weary little Czech? As yet another proof of what he has known all along: that war and peace are the business of Messrs G and R. What could he add to it? How can he enter into their thoughts? Can he join them for a glass of whiskey and a few holes of golf? He cannot even enter into the thoughts of some petty bureaucrat at the passport office who will decide, with no appeal possible, whether to permit him to have the two-week vacation in Yugoslavia for which he has been saving all year long. Is it surprising that he does not consider some mysterious stellar pact between Messrs R and G as an "important step toward peace," but simply as yet another plot against him?

 

I am trying to show that the general reserve in questions of war and peace is not--at least in my country--the result of a genetically determined indifference to global problems, but rather a completely understandable consequence of the social atmosphere in which it is our lot to live.

 

I repeat, I do not claim that there is nothing we can do. I am trying to say only that I can understand why so many people around me think they can do nothing. I would beg our friends the peace fighters in the West-to try to empathize with the situation of these people. Please try, in our common interest!

 

VI

 

From time to time there appear in this world people who can no longer bear the spectacle of life's outrageous chaos and mysterious fecundity. They are the people tragically oppressed by the terror of nothingness and fear of their own being, who need to gain inner peace by imposing order ("peace") upon a restless world, placing in a sense their whole unstable existence into that order, ridding themselves of their furies once and for all. The desperate impatience of such people drives them compulsively to construct and impose various projects directed toward a rationally ordered common good; their purpose is to make sure that, at long last, things will be clear and comprehensible, that the world will stride onward toward a goal, finally putting an end to all the infuriating uncertainty of history. No sooner do they set out to achieve this--if the world has had the misfortune to have given them the opportunity--than they encounter difficulties. A great many of their fellow humans would prefer to go on living as they like. Their proposal, for all its perfection, does not attract those people. They treat it spitefully, putting obstacles in its path, whether intentionally or simply by their very nature. The fanatic of the abstract project, that practicing utopian, is incapable of tolerating that sort of thing, not only because it destabilizes his own center of gravity, but because he can no longer perceive the integrity of all that exists, and can see only his own dream of what should be. So he decides to impose his project upon the world--for its own good, to be sure. That is how it begins. Then that strange "arithmetic of the common good" comes into play, demonstrating that it is proper to sacrifice a few thousand recalcitrants for the contentment of millions, or perhaps to sacrifice a few million for the contentment of billions. How it must end is evident--in universal misery. It is the tragic story of what might be called a "mental short circuit": Why bother with a ceaseless and in fact hopeless search for truth when truth can be had readily, all at once, in the form of an ideology or a doctrine? Suddenly it is all so simple. So many difficult questions are answered in advance! So many laborious existential tasks from which our minds are freed once and for all. The essence of this short circuit is a fatal mistake: the tacit assumption that some ingenious, universally applicable product--and is a doctrine or an ideology ever anything more than a human product?--can lift from our shoulders the burden of the incessant, always unique, and essentially inalienable question, and utterly transform man from a "being in question" into an "existing answer." This is the illusion that the demanding, unending, and unpredictable dialogue with conscience or with God can be replaced by the clarity of a pamphlet, that some human product, like a set of pulleys freeing us from physical effort, can liberate us from the weight of personal responsibility and timeless sorrow.

 

Extreme examples of this mental short circuit, some quite sad, some rather tragic, and some nothing short of monstrous, are familiar from history--Marat, Robespierre, Lenin, Baader, Pol Pot. (I would not include Hitler and Stalin in this category; if I did, it would have to include every criminal.) However, I am less concerned with these well-known luminaries of fanaticism than I am with the inconspicuous temptation containing the germ of utopianism (and with it of totalitarianism) present in perhaps everyone who is not wholly indifferent. Visions and dreams of a better world are surely a fundamental aspect of authentic humanity; without them, and without that transcendence of the "given" which they represent, human life loses meaning, dignity, its very humanness. Is it any wonder then that this diabolical temptation to take the shortcut is no less omnipresent? An atom of it is hidden in every beautiful dream!

 

So it is only a "minor detail": to recognize in time that fateful first moment of deterioration, when an idea ceases to express the transcendent dimension of being human and degenerates into a substitute for it, the moment when product, the plan for a better world, ceases to be an expression of man's responsible identity and begins, on the contrary, to expropriate his responsibility and identity, when the abstraction ceases to belong to him and he instead begins to belong to it.

 

I believe that a distinctive Central European skepticism is inescapably a part of the spiritual, cultural, and intellectual phenomenon that is Central Europe as it has been formed and is being formed by certain specific historical experiences, including those which today seem to lie dormant in our collective unconscious. That skepticism has little in common with, say, English skepticism. It is generally rather stranger, a bit mysterious, a bit nostalgic, often tragic, and at times even heroic, occasionally somewhat incomprehensible in its heavy-handed way, in its gentle cruelty and its ability to turn a provincial way of seeing into a global anticipation of things to come. At times it gives the impression that people here are endowed with some inner radar capable of recognizing an approaching danger long before it becomes visible and recognizable as a danger.

 

Among the dangers for which our mind has such an exceptionally keen sense is the one of which I have been speaking, utopianism. Or, more precisely, we are keenly sensitive to the danger that a living idea, at once the product and the emblem of meaningful humanity, will petrify into a Utopia, into technical instructions for doing violence to life and intensifying its pain. (This skepticism may also be reinforced by the fact that, in our area, it must co-exist permanently with a great deal that is not far from the utopian mentality. I am thinking for instance of our provincial enthusiasm, our periodic inclination to illusions, our tendency to trust, at times to the point of servility, everything that comes to us from elsewhere, the grand words and short-windedness of our courage, an inclination to sudden euphoria which, predictably, turns to frustration, resignation, and apathy at the first setback, and so on and so forth.)

 

Once and only once in this country did a number of Czechs and Slovaks fall prey to unambiguous utopianism (and for historically intelligible reasons at that--it was in the atmosphere of the moral collapse of the older orders). That was when they came to believe that the merciless introduction of Leninist-Stalinist socialism (with the help, of course, of its world headquarters) would secure those "glowing tomorrows" for us--and when, heedless of the will of the rest of the populace, they proceeded to carry out that intent. (After many tragic experiences and after what was for some a long process of self liberation and for others an awakening, we did attempt something like a revision of the misfortune, a "socialism with a human face." But that too, alas, was colored by the utopianism that had survived in many of us as a fundamental habit, more persistent than the individual illusions on which it had focused. The utopian aspect of that effort was not so much the faith that democratic institutions could be erected under Moscow's rule as it was the faith that we might secure approval from above-that the Kremlin, if only we could explain it all properly, must understand and approve. As it turned out, this faith proved a rather insecure foundation for such an undertaking. The response to the plea for understanding was to send in the tanks.

Our country has paid a cruel price for its postwar lapse into utopianism. It helped cast us--and for God knows how long--into a subjugation in which we need not have found ourselves at all.

 

The result of this story is obvious--a new, far-reaching reinforcement of our Central European skepticism about utopianism of all colors and shadings, about the slightest suggestion of utopianism. Today there is actually more of this skepticism than is good for us, for it has spilled over into the will to resist evil as such. The result is that even a timid, hesitant, tactful appeal to justice--and officially proclaimed justice at that-though it puts no pressure on anyone, is kept in check by both individual reflection and conscience, and is anti-utopian in its entire moral essence, will be suspected of utopianism (which is something the dissidents in particular know well).

 

I have spoken about all this at length because I suspect that the reserve people here feel toward the Western peace movement is rooted not merely in the banal suspicion that it is all a communist plot but much more in our region is fundamental skepticism about utopianism. Rightly or wrongly--but not surprisingly--our people ask themselves whether the Western peace fighters aren't just offering more of the same. Bogged down in a wearying, exhausting everyday existence, crushed in the name of his putative well-being by bureaucratic might, the Czechoslovak citizen tends to ask who is proposing still more "glowing tomorrows" for us this time? Who is disturbing us again with some Utopia? And what new catastrophes are being prepared for us-with the best of intentions? Why should I get burned in some attempt to save the world when I don't even know what miserable new scheme my boss will come up with at work tomorrow, naturally in the name of a better world? As if I didn't have enough problems already! Should I create more problems with pipe-dreams about a peaceful, disarmed, democratic Europe of free nations, when merely a whisper about such a dream can land me in troubles for the rest of my life--while Mr. G will still go on playing golf just as he pleases? Isn't it better to attempt to live with dignity and modesty even in this morass, so I will not have to be ashamed in front of my children, than to get mixed up in some platonic reorganization of Europe? Western peace fighters will get me mixed up in something and then, without giving it a second thought, they'll be off to a demonstration somewhere in Hanover, while I'll be left here at the mercy of the nearest secret-police department which, for my concern about the future of the world, will arrange to have me fired from a job I find half decent--and in addition my children will have their very real futures ruined too. (For the sake of accuracy, let us note that this distrust applies to every utopianism, not only to the leftist variety: militant anticommunism, in which reason is crowded out by obsession and reality by a dream, evokes, I think, the same reactions, at least among sensible people.)

 

Hand in hand with skepticism about all Utopias goes, quite understandably, skepticism about the different types and manifestations of the ideological mentality. I have taken part in enough political debates in my life to be used to quite a bit, at least in this respect, but I must admit that even I am taken aback by the extent to which so many Westerners are addicted to ideology, much more than we who live in a system which is ideological through and through. Those perennial reflections about whom this or that view serves or abets, what political tendency it reinforces or weakens! Which idea can or cannot be misused by someone! That endless, exhausting examination of this or that attitude, opinion, or person to determine whether they are rightist or leftist, left of center or right of center, right of the left or left of the right! As if the proper pigeonhole were more important than the substance of an opinion! I can understand that in a world where political forces interact freely, this might be to some extent unavoidable. Still, I wish it could be understood why for us, against the background of our experiences, in circumstances where ideology has utterly terrorized the truth, this all seems petty, erroneous, and far removed from what is actually at stake.

 

Perhaps my description is overstated and oversimplified. Still, it seems to me that anyone who is seriously concerned about the future of Europe would do well to familiarize himself as closely as possible, for his own as well as the general good, with the various aspects of the skepticism which people here in the heart of Europe feel with respect to all visions of "glowing tomorrows." Few people would be happier than a Pole, a Czechoslovak, or a Hungarian were Europe soon to become a free community of independent countries in which no great power would have its armies and its rockets. And at the same time, I am sure that no one would be more skeptical about accomplishing this by appeals to anyone's good will, even assuming someone might get around to making such appeals. Let us not forget that few have had such a good opportunity to learn directly about the reason for the presence of superpower armies and rockets in certain European countries. Their purpose is not so much defense against a putative enemy as it is the supervision of conquered territories.

 

VII

 

Some time ago, two appealing young Italian women arrived in Prague with a declaration of women calling for all things good: respect for human rights, disarmament, demilitarization of children's education, respect for all human beings. They were collecting signatures from both parts of our divided Europe. I found them touching: they could easily have been cruising the Mediterranean on yachts with wealthy husbands (they could surely have found some)--yet here they were, rattling around Europe, trying to make the world better. I felt all the sorrier for them because virtually none of the better-known Prague women dissidents wanted to sign (the petitioners understandably did not even try to approach non-dissidents). The reason was not that Prague women dissidents could not agree with the content of the declaration. Without conferring in any way about it, they all, individually, agreed on a different reason: it seemed to them ridiculous that they should sign something as women. Men, who had nothing to sign, treated this feminine action with gallant attentiveness and a quiet smile, while among the ladies the prevalent mood was one of vigorous distaste for the whole matter, a distaste all the more vigorous for the fact that they were not absolved from deciding whether to sign or not; they experienced no need to be gallant. (Incidentally, in the end about five of them did sign.)

I wondered where this sudden, spontaneous distaste for associating on the basis of gender among my women friends had come from. It surprised me.

 

Only some time later did I come up with an explanation. One of the traditions of the Central European climate of which I have been speaking is, after all, a deepened sense of irony and self-irony, together with humor and black humor, and perhaps most important in this context, an intense fear of exaggerating our own dignity to an unintentionally comic degree, a fear of pathos and sentimentality, of overstatement, and of what Kundera calls the lyric relation to the world. Yes, my women friends were suddenly seized with the fear that, as participants in an international women's venture, they might make themselves ridiculous. It was the fear that they would become "dada," to borrow a term from the Czech theoretician of art, Karel Teige-that, unwittingly, they would become laughable in the earnestness with which they sought to reinforce their civic opinion by stressing their defenseless femininity. Apparently they had suddenly remembered how repulsive it was when, in her televised talks, the vice president of Czechoslovak Television, Mrs. Baláš, larded the official "peace" theses with constant references, full of fake sentimentality, to women and children. My women friends among the dissidents undoubtedly know a great deal about the sad position of women in our country. Despite this, they found even the vague suggestion of feminism in the fact that the declaration in question was to be strictly a women's affair intrinsically objectionable. I do not wish to ridicule feminism; I know little about it and am prepared to believe that it is far from being the invention of a few hysterical women, bored housewives, or cast-off mistresses. Still, I have to note that in our country, even though the position of women is incomparably worse than in the West, feminism seems simply "dada."

 

Feminism, to be sure, is not the issue here. I want only to illustrate that strange, almost mysterious horror of everything overstated, enthusiastic, lyrical, histrionic, or overly serious that is inseparable from our spiritual climate. It is of the same kind, and stems from analogous roots, as our skepticism about utopianism, with which it is often co-extensive: emotional enthusiasm and rationalistic utopianism are often no more than two sides of the same coin.

I can cite another example. It would be obviously inappropriate for Charter 77 to make jokes in its documents. Recently, however, it occurred to me in a particular context that some people might be getting bored with Charter 77 because it may seem to be taking itself much too seriously. Knowing only its documents and not its authors, they might easily gain the impression that Charter 77, forced for years to repeat the same theme over and over, has become stuck in the rut of its own seriousness, its martyrdom, its fame, that it lacks the ability to rise above itself, to look at itself from a distance, to make light of itself--and for that very reason, it might end up looking unintentionally ridiculous. I do not know whether such an impression really exists, and if it exists, how widespread it may be; even less can I judge to what degree it might be justified or unfair to us. In any case, it is something to think about.

It seems that in our Central European context what is most earnest has a way of blending uneasily with what is most comic. It seems that it is precisely the dimension of distance, of rising above oneself and making light of oneself, which lends to our concerns and actions precisely the right amount of shattering seriousness. Is not Franz Kafka, one of the most serious and tragic authors of this century, at the same time a humorist? Anyone who does not laugh when reading his novels (as Kafka himself is supposed to have done when he read them out loud to his friends) does not understand them. Is not a Czech Hašek or an Austrian Musil a master of tragic irony or of ironic tragedy? Is not Vaculík's Czech Dreambook (to cite a contemporary dissident writer) oppressive in its humor and merry in its hopelessness?

 

The life of a dissident in Czechoslovakia is really not particularly jolly, and spending time in Czechoslovakjails is even less so. Our frequent jesting about these matters is not in conflict with their seriousness; rather, it is their inevitable consequence. Perhaps we simply couldn't bear it at all if we were not at once aware of how absurd and so how comic it all is. Many of those who sympathize with us abroad would not understand our joking or would take it for cynicism. (More than once I have noted that, when meeting with foreigners, I do not translate much of what we say, just to be sure.) And when a dissident friend of mine, tasting what, for us, were exotic delights at the American Embassy, hailed them with Patočka's famous remark, "There are things worth suffering for," we all laughed; it never occurred to any of us to consider this unworthy of the dignity of Patočka's heritage, of his tragic death, and of the moral foundations of the dissident stance in general.

 

In short, perhaps it is part of the plebeian tradition of Czech culture, but here we tend to be more acutely aware of the fact that anyone who takes himself too seriously soon becomes ridiculous, while anyone who always manages to laugh at himself cannot be truly ridiculous.

People in the West are, for various reasons, more afraid of war than we are. They are also significantly more free, they live more freely, and their opposition to armaments has no unacceptably serious consequences for them. Perhaps all of this makes the peace fighters on the other side seem, at least from here, a bit too earnest, perhaps even slightly histrionic. (There is something else here as well, something which we are probably insufficiently aware of--that for them, the fight for peace is probably more than a simple matter of particular demands for disarmament, it is an opportunity to erect nonconforming, uncorrupted social structures, an opportunity for life in a humanly richer community, for self-realization outside the stereotypes of a consumer society and for expressing their resistance to those stereotypes.)

Our distrust of all overstatement and of any cause incapable of seeing itself in perspective may also affect that reticence which I have sought to analyze here. Since we pay a somewhat harsher price for our interest in the destiny of the world, we may also have a stronger need to make light of ourselves, to desecrate the altar, as Bakhtin so aptly put it. For this reason alone we have to be a bit more reserved than we might wish in our reaction to the earnest hyperbole (which, at the same time, and not accidentally, is not purchased at as high a risk) with which some Western peace fighters come to us. It would be absurd to force on them our black humor and our invincible skepticism or even to demand of them that they undergo our serious tribulations and learn to see them in an ironic perspective, as we do. It would, however, be equally absurd if they expected from us their own brand of overstatement. To understand each other does not mean to become like each other, only to understand each other's identity.

 

VIII

 

There are, to be sure, still other reasons for the reticence with which I am concerned here. For instance: Czechoslovaks learned only too well, from their own fate, where a policy of appeasement can lead, and they still have not quite got over it. For many years to come, historians are likely to speculate about whether the world could have avoided the Second World War, with its millions of corpses, if the Western democracies had stood up to Hitler forcefully and in time. Is it any wonder that in this country, whose present decline began at Munich, people are especially sensitive to anything even remotely reminiscent of the prewar capitulation to evil? I do not know how much genuine courage there would be in this country in any extreme situation. I do know, however, that one idea is firmly rooted in our common awareness: that the inability to risk, in extremis, even life itself to save what gives it meaning and a human dimension leads not only to the loss of meaning but finally and inevitably to the loss of life as well-and not one life only but thousands and millions of lives. Certainly in a world of nuclear arms capable of exterminating all of humankind, many things have changed. Still, the fundamental lesson of experience, that one must not tolerate violence in silence in the hope that it will simply run its course, retains its validity. (To believe the opposite would mean, among other things, to surrender to the inhumanity of technology once and for all.) Should such an attitude by some miracle avert rather than accelerate the coming of war, I cannot imagine to what kind of world, to what kind of humanity, to what kind of life and to what kind of "peace" it would open the door. To be sure, a universal moral imperative and concrete political techniques for implementing it are two different things. I believe there are more effective and more meaningful ways of resisting violence or the threat of violence than blindly imitating it (that is, promptly matching each of your opponent's actions with one of your own). That question, however, would take me too far afield.

 

So let me cite just one example to complete the picture. How much trust or even admiration for the Western peace movement can we expect from a simple yet sensitive citizen of Eastern Europe when he has noticed that this movement has never, at any of its congresses or at demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of participants, got around to protesting the fact that Froe years ago, one important European country attacked a small neutral neighbor and since that time has been conducting on its territory a war of extermination which has already claimed a million dead and three million refugees? Seriously, what are we to think of a peace movement, a European peace movement, which is virtually unaware of the only war being conducted today by a European state? As for the argument that the victims of aggression and their defenders enjoy the sympathies of Western establishments and so are not worthy of support from the left, such incredible ideological opportunism can provoke only one reaction--utter disgust and a sense of limitless hopelessness.

 

IX

 

It should be evident that the reticence of the inhabitants of the Soviet bloc with respect to peace issues has a variety of causes; some are probably found in all its countries, some are primary in one land, others in another.

 

Understandably, these elements enter to a greater or lesser degree into the reflections of Eastern European dissidents as well. If we also take into account the fact that the specific social situation differs in each of the Soviet-bloc countries, that each nation has its own historical, social, and cultural traditions, experiences, and models of behavior, and finally, when we consider that the dissidents, though not numerous, still constitute a highly variegated group (in a way the dissent in each of these nations mirrors the whole spectrum of political attitudes, as would become evident if it were ever allowed to emerge), it becomes quite clear that the Western peace movement is unlikely ever to receive a unified and specific peace program from our side.

 

And yet there is, it seems to me, something like a "common denominator" even here, some basic thoughts upon which we could probably all agree if we ever had the opportunity to do so. At least that is my impression from the texts I have seen: certain motifs recur in them with a surprising regularity. That cannot be a coincidence. Evidently analogous experiences lead to analogous considerations, perspectives, and convictions. And if they indeed represent something like a common denominator of the Eastern European experience and thought, it is surely worth noting.

 

It is not the aim of this essay to formulate this "common denominator." I shall only try to sum up some of the points that appear to be common to all independent East-Central European thinking about peace and the peace movement and are characteristic of it.

 

1. Most important, despite the general reticence, there appears to be a certain basic sympathy for the moral ethos of those who, living in a mature consumer society, place their concern for the destiny of the world ahead of a mere concern for personal well-being. Are we not doing something similar here, albeit in different ways and under different conditions? This "pre-rational" consideration guarantees of itself a certain basic weakness for the Western peace movement among our dissidents.

 

2. A close second, however, may be a clearly polemical conviction: the danger of war is not caused by weapons as such but by political realities (including the policies of political establishments) in a divided Europe and a divided world, realities which make possible or simply require the production and installation of these weapons and which in the end could lead to their utilization as well. No lasting, genuine peace can be achieved simply by opposing a particular weapons system, because this deals only with consequences, not with causes. Opposition to weapons-assuming, of course, that it is an opposition to all weapons and not only to those suitable for protest encampments--can at best induce governments to accelerate various disarmament negotiations, that being probably the most we can expect.

 

3. Disarmament negotiations alone cannot resolve the present crisis, even if they are successful (which in the light of our experience thus far seems unlikely). So far, everything an agreement had slowed down soon accelerated again, without any agreement, a short time later. At best, successful negotiations might create a more favorable atmosphere for a real resolution of the crisis. Atmospherics, however, are one thing, the will to resolve the crisis another. Basically, they can achieve nothing more than the perpetuation of an explosive status quo--but with a smaller amount of explosive technology.

 

4. Thus the sole meaningful way to genuine European peace--and not simply to some armistice or "non-war"--is by fundamentally restructuring the political realities that are at the roots of the current crisis. This would require both sides to abandon radically their defensive policy of maintaining the status quo (that is, the division of Europe into blocs) as well as policies based on power or superpower "interests." They would have to subordinate all their efforts to something quite different--to the ideal of a democratic Europe as a friendly community of free and independent nations. What threatens peace in Europe is not the prospect of change but the existing situation.

 

5. Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens, there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and their state, there can be no guarantee of external peace. A state that ignores the will and the rights of its citizens can offer no guarantee that it will respect the will and the rights of other peoples, nations, and states. A state that refuses its citizens their right to public supervision of the exercise of power will not submit to international supervision. A state that denies its citizens their basic rights becomes a danger to its neighbors as well: internal arbitrary rule will be reflected in arbitrary external relations. The suppression of public opinion, the abolition of public competition for power and its public exercise opens the way for the state power to arm itself in any way it sees fit. A manipulated population can be misused in serving any military adventure whatever. Unreliability in some areas arouses justifiable fear of unreliability in everything. A state that does not hesitate to lie to its own people will not hesitate to lie to other states. All of this leads to the conclusion that respect for human rights is the fundamental condition and the sole, genuine guarantee of true peace. Suppressing the natural rights of citizens and peoples does not secure peace--quite the contrary, it endangers it. A lasting peace and disarmament can only be the work of free people.

 

The position I have tried to sketch out here has been articulated in detail and with supporting arguments in innumerable, highly diverse works devoted to this topic by independent writers in our part of Europe. To quote them at length or to repeat what has already been written about it would be superfluous. This is roughly the attitude of various independent civic initiatives and groupings in the countries of the Soviet bloc.

 

It has become evident that reflection on the bitter daily experiences of the citizen in a totalitarian state always leads quite logically to the same point-a new appreciation of the importance of human rights, human dignity, and civic freedom. This is the focus of my remarks, and the focus, with good reason, of all reflections about peace as well. It may be that this understanding of the fundamental preconditions of peace, purchased at a high price and marked by a new vehemence, is the most important contribution that independently thinking people in our part of the world can make to our common awareness today.

 

For us it is simply no longer comprehensible how anyone can still believe in the possibility of a disarmament that would bypass human beings or be purchased at the cost of their enslavement. This appears to us to be the most foolish of all Utopias, comparable perhaps only to a hope that all the weapons in the world will, on their own, deliver themselves to the scrap heap or turn into musical instruments.

 

The intensity and manner of emphasizing the continuity between peace and human freedom tend naturally to vary at different times and in different places in our part of the world, and they depend, in various ways, on the specific situation and context. Still, when we are confronted with the view that our insistence on introducing human rights into every discussion about peace complicates the situation and interferes with agreement, we all, for evident reasons, fall prey to the hopeless feeling that those who will not hear are beyond help.

 

X

 

Since the matters I have just discussed appear to us almost banally obvious, it is almost embarrassing to be forced to explain them again and again. It seems, however, that they are anything but obvious to many adherents of the peace movement and that we have no option other than to go on explaining. More than once in conversations with peace activists or while signing shared position papers, I have encountered the notion that our ideas may be remarkable, perhaps even surprising (!), but they are also too abstract, too “philosophical”; not sufficiently political, clearly comprehensible, or hard-hitting, and thus difficult to implement. I had the impression that my interlocutors were far more accustomed to the kind of slogans, proclamations, and clear, unambiguous demands that are more suitable for placards and T-shirts than they are for serious, general thinking on the matter. But we can't help it. Our ideas are derived from the world of practical, real politics.

 

Still, our position remains simple enough as long as we are asked for no more, and no less, than a clarification of our fundamental perspective on the topic of peace. More serious complications arise when, for whatever reason, we are asked to explain how we imagine projecting our global or "philosophical" conception into the real world of political action: what should we actually be demanding, and what political measures, and in what order, would we expect Europe to take in the light of our perspective?

 

An initial difficulty here is that even when Eastern European dissidents have definite views on this matter, those views differ widely.

 

There are some, for instance in Poland and Hungary, who believe that the first and perhaps the most important step toward transforming the status quo in Europe and thus toward genuine peace should be the creation of a belt of neutral states in Central Europe in place of the present abrupt frontier between the two blocs. The objection of many to this suggestion is that this is the least realistic of all possible demands--surely the Soviet Union will not be willing to give up several of its European client states and to guarantee their neutrality to boot. Besides, it is said, this would be immoral because it would in fact mean a solution to the detriment of others-as long as we are free, let the rest of Europe manage as best it can!  According to the critics of such a solution, that immorality is linked with its hopelessness: a "no-man's-land" between the blocs into which Europe is divided will not bring peace. The danger of conflict would continue, and were it to come, the Central European states would be the first to be blown sky-high (was it ever otherwise in our remembered history?) while the neutrality behind which, Swiss style, they sought to hide from the world's turmoils, would become a scrap of paper overnight.

 

Others suggest a straightforward dissolution of the two military blocs and withdrawal of American and Soviet armies from the territories of their European allies (which would naturally lead to the liquidation of all nuclear weapons stationed in or aimed at Europe). Speaking personally, this seems simply lovely, although it is not quite clear to me who or what could induce the Soviet Union to dissolve the entire phalanx of its European satellites--especially since it is evident that, with its armies gone from their territories, it would sooner or later have to abandon its political domination over them as well.

 

Another voice, incidentally a particularly authoritative one, seeks to show that Europe will remain divided as long as Germany remains divided. For that reason (and not simply because of the German right to unification) we should first of all demand a German peace treaty which would confirm the present European frontiers but would at the same time offer the two German states the prospect of gradual confederation. With the German problem resolved, a dissolution of the two pacts might be far more realistic. This perspective is rather persuasive: would a Europe without pacts and without the protection--or rather the "protection"--of the superpowers be imaginable if Berlin were to remain cut in two by a wall and the German problem left unresolved?

 

This proposal also evokes a series of objections: it is said to be provocative, stirring up all kinds of ghosts and emotions on every side; many judicious people fear the reconstitution of a greater Germany, with its danger of automatic German predominance in Europe, and so on.

Finally, still others believe there is no point in raising any of these bold proposals since no one is prepared to act on them in any case, and the mighty find them needlessly irritating. It makes more sense, they would say, to take the various treaties already on the books at face value (for example, the Concluding Act of the Helsinki Agreement) and to demand that they be observed. Or perhaps it might be better to support without bombastic gestures a variety of small steps which would gradually lead to a healthier climate throughout Europe, to cooler heads and so to a gradual limitation of armaments, and to a relaxation of tensions.

 

In all likelihood, numerous other proposals and perspectives exist. (For completeness' sake, although this is not directly related to the various perspectives on the restructuring of Europe, I would like to mention one other point that divides the dissidents rather significantly--their attitude toward the United States. On one side of the spectrum, anti-Americanism is nearly as strong as it is among Western leftists; on the other, the viewpoint tends to be Reaganite: the Soviet Union is the evil empire, the United States the land of the good. As for myself--should anyone care to know--I have no great illusions about America, about the American establishment, and about American foreign policy. Still, the degree of internal freedom and consequently of international political credibility characteristic of the two superpowers appears to me so profoundly different that to consider the current situation as symmetrical, in the sense that both colossi are equally dangerous, appears to me a monstrous oversimplification. Yes, both are dangerous, but each in a different way; they definitely are not dangerous in the same way.)

 

Another difficulty involved in considerations of this kind in our part of Europe is more serious than that deriving from the difference of opinion we have just described. It is rooted in a rather vague, difficult to explain, and yet immensely powerful sense of the futility and senselessness of all such considerations. It may seem strange, however, as I shall try to explain, that ultimately it is quite logical that this feeling came over us not when we confined ourselves to "philosophizing" generally about peace, but only at the point when our reflections had to touch upon concrete politics.

 

A Central European mind-skeptical, sober, anti-utopian, understated, crushed by daily confrontation with unprincipled power--when suddenly cast in the role of arbiter of Europe's future, cannot avoid the feeling that this is "dada." It is no great problem for a local dissident to concoct this or that vision of European development and of Europe's future. The problem is how to shake off the feeling of the utter hopelessness and pointlessness of such work, how to rid oneself of the fear that any specific, technical, conception of the longed-for transformation of Europe into a continent of peace is every bit as ludicrous nowadays as any other utopian construction, how to rid oneself both of the fear that he will become a target for his sober neighbors' ridicule, and of the feeling that, for the first time, he is actually drifting away from real life and up into the stratospheric realm of fairy tales.

 

A trace of the heroic dreamer, mad and unrealistic, is hidden in the very genesis of the dissident perspective. The dissident is essentially something of a Don Quixote. He writes his critical analyses and demands freedoms and rights all alone, merely with a pen in his hand, face to face with the gargantuan might of the state and its police. He writes, cries out, screams, requests, appeals to the law--and all the time he knows that, sooner or later, they will lock him up for it. Why, then, such scruples? Amid clouds of folly should he not feel like a fish in water? I will attempt to explain the difference between the "natural folly" of the dissident's world and the type of folly that terrifies him when he is asked to sign a program for the peaceful reordering of Europe.

 

As I have written more than once, I believe the phenomenon of dissent grows out of an essentially different conception of the meaning of politics than that prevailing in the world today. That is, the dissident does not operate in the realm of genuine power at all. He does not seek power. He has no desire for office and does not woo voters. He does not attempt to charm the public, he offers nothing and promises nothing. He can offer, if anything, only his own skin--and he offers it solely because he has no other way of affirming the truth he stands for. His actions simply articulate his dignity as a citizen, regardless of the cost. The innermost foundation of his "political" undertaking is moral and existential. Everything he does, he does initially for himself something within has simply revolted and left him incapable of continuing to "live a lie." Only then does there follow (and can there possibly follow) a "political" motive: the hope--vague, indefinite, and difficult to justify--that this course of action is also good for something in general. It is the hope that "politics beyond politics," that "politics outside the sphere of power," does make some sense that by whatever hidden and complex ways it leads to something, evokes something, produces some effect. That even something as apparently ephemeral as the truth spoken aloud, as an openly expressed concern for the humanity of man, carries a power within itself and that even a word is capable of a certain radiation, of leaving a mark on the "hidden consciousness" of a community. (An intrinsic aspect of this perspective is that the dissident is more likely to describe and analyze the present than to project a future. He is far more a critic of what is wrong here and now than a planner of something better to come. He sees his mission more in defending man against the pressures of the system than in imagining better systems. As for the future, he is more concerned with the moral and political values on which it should rest than with premature speculations about how and by whom these values will be secured for humankind. He knows, after all, that the nature of this future does not depend on his present wishes but on the difficult-to-predict course of things to come.)

 

This, then, is the "natural folly" of the world of dissent. It is meaningful because, within its limits, it is consistent. It is tactical because it does not let itself be guided by tactical considerations. It is political because it does not play politics. It is concrete, real, effective--not in spite of its folly but because of it. To be sure, it is also this because there is something honest about its folly, it is faithful to itself, it is whole and undivided. This may be a world of dreams and of the ideal, but it is not the world of Utopia.

 

Why deny it, this world of truth, however uncomfortable to live in, offers at the same time definite advantages: finding himself outside the universe of real power and traditional practical politics, that is, outside the matrix of utility, tactics, success, compromise, and the inevitable manipulations of half truths and deceptions, the dissident can be himself and can even make fun of himself without danger of becoming ridiculous to everyone.

 

A dissident runs the risk of becoming ridiculous only when he transgresses the limits of his natural existence and enters into the hypothetical realm of real power, that is, in effect, into the realm of sheer speculation. For only then does he risk becoming a utopian. Here he accepts the perspective of real power without having any genuine power whatever; he enters the world of tactics incapable of tactical maneuver and without being either licensed or compelled to do so by real power; he leaves the world of service to truth and attempts to smuggle his truth into the world of service to power without being able or even willing to serve it himself. He attempts to go on speaking the truth outside the world of truth; standing outside the world of power, he attempts to speculate about power or to organize it. He trades the respectable role of a champion for the somewhat grotesque role of a self-appointed adviser to the mighty. In the role of a dreamer, he was not ludicrous, just as a tactician is not ludicrous in a tactician's role. He becomes ludicrous only when he becomes a dreamer playing at tactics. A dreamer playing at tactics is a minister without a ministry, a general without an army, a president without a republic. Alienated from his role as a witness of history, yet unwelcome in the role of its organizer, he finds himself in a strange vacuum-outside the credibility of power and outside the credibility of truth.

In all of this I do not wish to suggest that Soviet-bloc dissidents should not comment on the political realities and political possibilities where they live, that they should not examine the different limits on their effectiveness and seek to expand them, that they should not reflect on how and where they can or cannot project their truth. History is unpredictable, and we need to be prepared for a whole range of eventualities: recall, for instance, how the dissidents of the Polish Workers' Defense Committee had to become practical politicians overnight.

 

I have sought only to explain why I believe that Eastern European dissidents are, and in all likelihood will remain, cautious in their own distinctive manner whenever they are called upon to take part in peace activities.

 

 

April 1985

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