Stories and Totalitarianism

"Stories and Totalitarianism" (April 1987) was written for the underground cultural journal Jednou nohu (Revolver Review), and dedicated to Ladislav Hejdánek on his seventieth birthday. In English, it appeared in Index on Censorship, no. 3 (March 1988) and, in a slightly different version, in The Idler, Toronto, no. 18 (July-August 1988). Translation by Paul Wilson.



A friend of mine who is heavily asthmatic was sentenced, for political reasons, to several years in prison, where he suffered a great deal because his cellmates smoked and he could scarcely breathe. All his requests to be moved to a cell with nonsmokers were ignored. His health, and perhaps even his life, were threatened. An American woman who learned of this and wanted to help telephoned an acquaintance, an editor on an important American daily. Could he write something about it, she asked. "Call me when the man dies," was the editor's reply.

It's a shocking incident but in some ways understandable. Newspapers need a story. Asthma is not a story. Death could make it one.


In Prague there is only one Western news agency with long-term accreditation. In Lebanon, a country far smaller than Czechoslovakia, there are reporters by the hundreds. Perhaps this is understandable, for, as they say, "Nothing is happening here." Lebanon, on the other hand, is full of stories. It is also a land of murder, war, death. But as long as humans can remember, death has been the point at which all the lines of every real story converge.

Our condition is like that of my friend: we are unworthy of attention because we have no stories, and no death. We have only asthma. And why should anyone be interested in listening to our cough?

One can't go on writing forever about how hard it is to breathe.


It doesn't bother me that terrorists are not on the loose here, or that there are no big scandals over corruption in high places, and no violent demonstrations or strikes.

What bothers me is something else: that this remarkable absence of newsworthy stories is not an expression of social harmony, but the outward consequence of a dangerous and profound process: the destruction of "the story" altogether. Almost every day I am struck by the ambiguity of this social quiescence, which is the visible expression of an invisible war between the totalitarian system and life itself.

It is not true that Czechoslovakia is free of warfare and murder. The war and the killing assume a different form: they have been shifted from the daylight of observable public events, to the twilight of unobservable inner destruction. It would seem that the absolute, "classical" death of which one reads in stories (and which for all the terrors it holds is still mysteriously able to impart meaning to human life) has been replaced here by another kind of death: the slow, secretive, bloodless, never quite-absolute, yet horrifyingly ever-present death of non-action, non-story, non-life, and non-time; the collectively deadening, or more precisely, anesthetizing, process of social and historical nihilization. This nihilization annuls death as such, and thus annuls life as such: the life of an individual becomes the dull and uniform functioning of a component in a large machine, and his death is merely something chat puts him out of commission.

All the evidence suggests that this state of things is the intrinsic expression of an advanced and stabilized totalitarian system, growing directly out of its essence.


Visitors from the West are often shocked to find that for Czechs, Chernobyl and AIDS are not a source of horror, but rather a subject for jokes.

I must admit this doesn't surprise me. Because totalitarian nihilization is utterly immaterial, it is less visible, more present, and more dangerous than the AIDS virus or radioactivity from Chernobyl. On the other hand, it touches each of us more intimately and more urgently and even, in a sense, more physically, than either AIDS or radiation, since we all know it from everyday, personal experience and not just from newspapers and television. Is it any wonder, then, that the less menacing, less insidious, and less intimate threats are relegated to the background and made light of?

There is another reason for the triumph of invisibility. The destruction of the story means the destruction of a basic instrument of human knowledge and self-knowledge. Totalitarian nihilization denies people the possibility of observing and understanding its processes "from outside." There are only two alternatives: either you experience it directly, or you know nothing about it. This menace permits no public reference to itself.

The foreign tourist can form the legitimate impression that Czechoslovakia is a poorer and duller Switzerland, and that press agencies have a legitimate reason for closing their bureaus here: how can they be expected to report that there is nothing to report?

I will attempt to make a few observations on the origin and nature of our asthma.

I will attempt to show that the disappearance of the story from this corner of the world is a story in itself.


In the fifties there were enormous concentration camps in Czechoslovakia filled with tens of thousands of innocent people. At the same time, building sites were swarming with tens of thousands of young enthusiasts of the new faith singing songs of socialist construction. There were tortures and executions, dramatic flights across borders, conspiracies, and at the same time, panegyrics were being written to the chief dictator. The President of the Republic signed the death war rants for his closest friends, but you could still sometimes meet him on the street.

The songs of idealists and fanatics, political criminals on the rampage, the suffering of heroes—these have always been part of history. The fifties were a bad time in Czechoslovakia, but there have been many such times in human history. It still shared something, or at least bore comparison with those other periods; it still resembled history. No one could have said that nothing was happening, or that the age did not have its stories.

The blueprint for political power in Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion in 1968 was a document called "Lessons from the Years of Crisis." It was an appropriate title; the powers that be really did learn a lesson from the Prague Spring. They discovered how far things can go when the door to a plurality of opinions and interests is opened: the totalitarian system itself is jeopardized. Having learned this lesson, political power set itself a single aim: self-preservation. In a process with its own, mindless dynamic, all the mechanisms of direct and indirect manipulation of life began to expand and assume unprecedented forms. Henceforth nothing could be left to chance.

The past twenty years in Czechoslovakia can almost serve as a textbook illustration of how an advanced or late totalitarian system works. Revolutionary ethos and terror have been replaced by dull inertia, pretext-ridden caution, bureaucratic anonymity, and mindless, stereotypical behavior, all of which aim exclusively at becoming more and more what they already are.

The songs of zealots and the cries of the tortured are no longer heard; lawlessness has put on kid gloves and moved from the torture chambers into the upholstered offices of faceless bureaucrats. If the President of the Republic is seen in the street at all, he is behind the bulletproof glass of his limousine as it roars off to the airport, surrounded by a police escort, to meet Colonel Qaddafi.

The advanced totalitarian system depends on manipulatory devices so refined, complex, and powerful that it no longer needs murderers and victims. Even less does it need fiery Utopia builders spreading discontent with dreams of a better future. The epithet "Real Socialism," which this era has coined to describe itself, points a finger at those for whom it has no room: the dreamers.


Every story begins with an event. This event—understood as the incursion of one logic into the world of another logic—initiates what every story grows out of and draws nourishment from: situations, relationships, conflict. The story has a logic of its own as well, but it is the logic of a dialogue, an encounter, the interaction of different truths, attitudes, ideas, traditions, passions, people, higher powers, social movements, and so on, that is, of many autonomous, separate forces, which had done nothing beforehand to define each other. Every story presupposes a plurality of truths, of logics, of agents of decisions, and of manners of behavior. The logic of a story resembles the logic of games, a logic of tension between what is known and not known, between rules and chance, between the inevitable and the unforeseeable. We never really know what will emerge from the confrontation, what elements may yet enter into it, and how it will end; it is never clear what potential qualities it will arouse in a protagonist and what action he will be led to perform by the action of his antagonist. For this reason alone, mystery is a dimension of every story. What speaks to us through a story is not a particular agent of truth; instead, the story manifests the human world to us as an exhilarating arena where many such agents come into contact with each other.

The fundamental pillar of the present totalitarian system is the existence of one central agent of all truth and all power, an institutionalized "rationale of history," which becomes, quite naturally, the sole agent of all social activity. Public life ceases to be an arena where different, more or less autonomous agents square off, and becomes no more than the manifestation and fulfillment of the truth and the will of this single agent. In a world governed by this principle, there is no room for mystery; ownership of complete truth means that everything is known ahead of time. Where everything is known ahead of time, the story has nothing to grow out of.

Obviously, the totalitarian system is in essence (and in principle) directed against the story.


When the story is destroyed, the feeling of historicity disappears as well. I remember the early seventies in Czechoslovakia as a time when something like a "cessation of history" took place; public life seemed to lose its structure, its impulse, its direction, its tension, its rhythm, its mystery. I can't remember what happened when, or what made one year different from another, and I don't think it matters much, for when the unforeseeable disappears, the sensation of meaning disappears with it.

History was replaced by pseudo-history, by a calendar of rhythmically recurring anniversaries, congresses, celebrations, and mass gymnastic events; by the kind of artificial activity that is not an open-ended play of agents confronting one another but a one-dimensional, transparent, predictable self-manifestation (and self-celebration) of a single, central agent of truth and power.

And since human time can only be experienced through story and history, the experience of time itself began to disappear: time seemed to stand still or go in circles, to disintegrate into interchangeable fragments. The march of events out of nowhere and to nowhere lost its story-like character and thus lost any deeper meaning as well. When the horizon of historicity was lost, life became nonsense.

Totalitarian power brought bureaucratic order into the living disorder of history and thus effectively anesthetized it.

In a sense, the government nationalized time. Thanks to that, time encountered the same sad fate as many other nationalized entities: it began to wither away.


As I've said, the revolutionary ethos in Czechoslovakia has long since vanished. We are no longer governed by fanatics, revolutionaries, or ideological zealots. The country is administered by faceless bureaucrats who profess adherence to a revolutionary ideology, but look out only for themselves, and no longer believe in anything. The original ideology has become a formalized ritual that gives them legitimacy in space and time, and provides them with a language for internal communication.

Oddly enough, it is only recently that this ideology has begun to bear its most important fruit, to manifest its deepest consequences.

How are we to explain this?

Simply: by the age and the deeply conservative (in the sense of preserving) nature of the system. The further it gets from its original revolutionary fervor, the more slavishly it clings to all its constitutive principles, which it sees as the only certainty in an uncertain world. Inevitably, through its own mindless, automatic motion, it gradually transforms those principles into a monstrous reality. The ceaseless strengthening and perfecting of totalitarian structures has long since come to serve only the naked self-preservation of power, but this is the best guarantee that what was genetically encoded in the original ideology will flourish undisturbed. The fanatic whose unpredictable zeal for the "higher cause" might threaten this automatic process has been replaced by the bureaucratic pedant whose reliable lack of ideas makes him an ideal guardian of late totalitarianism's vacuous continuity.

The phenomenon of totalitarian nihilization is one of the late fruits of an ideology that has already gone to seed.

The totalitarian system did not fall from the sky fully developed. Nor is it the work of a pervert who has got his hands on a scalpel designed to remove malignant growths and begun killing healthy people with it.

We need only penetrate the tissue of various dialectical sprouts to discover that the germ of this nihilization lies dormant in the heart of the ideology the system is based upon: in its belief that it has fully understood the world and revealed the truth about it. And if the main territory of that belief is history, is it any wonder that its nihilizing intention radiates most strongly from its approach to history?

It began with an interpretation of history from a single aspect, then made that aspect absolute, and finally reduced all of history to that one aspect. The exciting variety of history was discarded in favor of an orderly, easily understood interplay of "historical laws," "social groups," and "relations of production," so pleasing to the eye of the scientist. But this gradually expelled from history the very thing that gives human life, time, and thus history itself a structure: the story. And the story took with it into the kingdom of unmeaning its two essential ingredients: uniqueness and ambiguity. Since the mystery in a story is the articulated mystery of man, history began to lose its human content. The uniqueness of the human creature became a mere embellishment on the laws of history, and the tension and thrill in real events were dismissed as accidental and therefore unworthy of the attention of scholarship. History became boredom.

The nihilization of the past nihilizes the future as well: when the "laws of history" were projected into the future, what would be and what had to be suddenly became obvious. The bright glare of this certainty burned away the essence of the future: its openness. Plans to make an earthly paradise the final end of history, to rid the world of social conflict, of negative human qualities, and even of misery, climaxed the work of destruction. Society was petrified into a fiction of everlasting harmony, and man into a stone monument representing the permanent proprietor of happiness—these were the silent consummations of the intellectual assassination of history.

Yet by presenting itself as an instrument for history's ultimate return to itself, ideology unwittingly admits to its own destructiveness. The claim is that through ideology, history has finally understood itself, understood where it is going and how it must proceed: that is, under ideology's guidance. Ideology revealed the historical necessity of what ought to happen, and in doing so, confirmed the historical necessity of itself, whose mission it is to fulfill that necessity. In other words, history has at last discovered its final meaning. The question is, however, does history that has discovered its own meaning still have any meaning? And is it history anymore?

Ideology, claiming to base its authority on history, becomes history's greatest enemy.

But the hostility is double-edged: if ideology destroys history by explaining it completely, then history destroys ideology by unfolding in an unpredictable way.

Ideology, of course, can destroy history only ideologically, but the power based on that ideology can suppress history in real ways. In fact, it has no choice: if history, by unfolding unpredictably, were allowed to demonstrate that ideology is wrong, it would deprive power of its legitimacy.

By negating history, power is defending not just its ideological legitimacy, but its identity as totalitarian power. This identity too has a firm ideological anchorage: the principle that there is a single central agent of truth and power could scarcely have come into existence, let alone develop and grow strong, had it not initially drawn strength from an ideology that so smugly disdained any viewpoint but its own, and so proudly declared its historical mission, and all the prerogatives this mission endowed it with. After all, totalitarian power has been fed and weaned and to this day is imbued with the intolerant spirit of this ideology, which sees plurality only as a necessary evil, or as a formality. And its central principle is nothing more than the consistent working-through of the original ideology and the perfect incarnation of its vanity; as its legitimate product, it draws on ideology’s nihilizing energy, so that it can put the theories of ideology successfully into practice.

The asthma our society is now suffering from is a natural continuation of the war that intellectual arrogance once declared on the story, on history, and thus on life itself.

Boredom has jumped out of the history textbooks and into real life.


Any fledgling totalitarian power tries first to limit and ultimately to eliminate other sources of power. The first to go is political plurality. But along with it, or shortly afterwards, intellectual and economic plurality disappear as well, since any power that respects these pluralities would not be total.

First, then, the story is driven out of public life.

By virtue of its own specific gravity—its totalitarian gravity—this power deepens its totality and extends its range. Once the claims of central power have been placed above law and morality, once the exercise of that power is divested of public control, and once the institutional guarantees of political plurality and civil rights have been made a mockery of, or simply abolished, there is no reason to respect any other limitations. The expansion of central power does not stop at the frontier between the public and the private, but instead, arbitrarily pushes back that border until it is shamelessly intervening in areas that once were private. For example, a club of pigeon fanciers that had enjoyed a kind of autonomy now suddenly find themselves scrutinized by the central power. Today, that power walks through my bugged bedroom and distinguishes my breathing, which is my own private matter, from what I say, which the state cannot be indifferent to.

When opposition parties are banned and censorship has been introduced, the attack on the story and thus on life itself is not over; it is just beginning.

Because they are better hidden, indirect interventions are in some ways more dangerous. Public life is not as sharply distinguished from private life as it used to be. Countless phenomena in modern civilization bind the two spheres together, and so they have become two faces, two poles, or two dimensions of a single and indivisible life. Though it sometimes happens in complex and hidden ways, everything that takes place in the public sphere eventually influences and shapes the private sphere. When public life is nihilized, private life is distorted and ultimately nihilized too. Every measure taken to establish more complete control over the former has a pernicious effect on the latter.

The attack on plurality and on the story and on public territory is therefore not an attack on a single side of life; it is an attack on all of life.

The web of direct and indirect manipulation is a straitjacket that binds life and necessarily limits the ways it can appear to itself and structure itself. And so it languishes, declines, wastes away. It is cheapened and leveled. It becomes pseudo-life.


While I was in prison, I realized again and again how much more present, compared with life outside, the story was. Almost every prisoner had a life story that was unique and shocking, or moving. As I listened to those different stories, I suddenly found myself in something like a pre-totalitarian world, or in the world of literature. Whatever else I may have thought of my fellow prisoners' colorful narratives, they were not documents of totalitarian nihilization. On the contrary, they testified to the rebelliousness with which human uniqueness resists its own nihilization, and the stubbornness with which it holds to its own and is willing to ignore this negating pressure. Regardless of whether crime or misfortune was predominant in any given story, the faces in that world were specific and personal. When I got back from prison, I wrote somewhere that in a cell of twenty-four people you can probably encounter more real stories than in a high-rise development housing several thousand. People truly afflicted with asthma—those colorless, servile, obedient, homogenized, herd-like citizens of the totalitarian state—are not found in large numbers in prison. Instead, prison tends to be a gathering place for people who stand out in one way or another, the unclassifiable misfits, real individuals with all sorts of obsessions, people who are unable to conform.

There has probably always been a greater concentration of people in prison who stand out in some way. Nevertheless, I'm convinced that what I observed when I was there myself bears directly on conditions under totalitarianism. The nature of many of the stories confirmed this.

On the whole, it's logical: the wider the scope of the instruments by which the system manipulates, de-individualizes, and circumscribes life, the more powerful its embrace, the more thoroughly everything unique is pushed to the periphery of "normal" life and ultimately beyond it, into prison. The repressive apparatus that sends people to jail is an organic part and, indeed, the culmination of the general pressure totalitarianism exerts against life: without this extreme threat, many other threats would lose their credibility. It is certainly no accident that, proportionally, Czechoslovakia has many times more prisoners than the United States. Criminality—I mean real criminality—cannot be that much greater in Czechoslovakia.

What is greater is the demand for uniformity and its consequence: the criminalization of difference and variety.


If the agents entering into a story can fully manifest their individuality only as the story unfolds, in other words if individuality requires a story to become what it is, then by the same token a story assumes and requires individuality. Without unique—mutually distinguishable—individuals, the story could never get off the ground. Individuality and story are therefore like Siamese twins that cannot be separated.

They also have a common abode: plurality. Individuality, like the story, cannot exist without plurality, since individuality is only possible alongside another individuality with which it can be compared and contrasted; where there are not many individualities, there are none at all.

An attack on plurality is therefore an attack both on the story and on individuality. Indeed, the world of advanced totalitarianism is outstanding for the remarkable decline of individuality; a veil of vague, expressionless indistinguishability clings to everything, coloring it all gray. Paradoxically, this veil clings to its source as well: in banishing all other comparable individual agents from its own world, the central agent divests itself of its own individuality too. Hence the strange facelessness, transparency, and elusiveness of power, hence the blandness of its language, the anonymity of its decisions. Hence too its irresponsibility, for how can an agent be genuinely responsible when its identity is so blurred and when, moreover—because it is so isolated—there is no one left for it to be responsible to?

This antipathy to individuality is not something planned by the individuals who rule, but an intrinsic expression of late totalitarianism. Its centralism cannot co-exist with individuality. If we mix all the colors together, we get a dirty brown. The intention of totalitarianism is to make everything totally the same. Its fruit is uniformity, Gleichschaltung, and the herd mentality.

Standardized life creates standardized citizens with no wills of their own. It begets undifferentiated people with undifferentiated stories. It is a mass-producer of banality.

Anyone who resists too much, or despairs too much, or insists too much on having something of his own that exceeds the norm, or who tries to escape the standardized nothingness—either internally or by going abroad—in other words, anyone who sets himself apart is already on his way to a place where he will no longer disrupt the prescribed forms of social life: to jail.

Once a place where crimes were punished, prison is now a "correctional institute": a wastebasket for peculiar humans and their bizarre stories.


Whenever I found myself in a new cell, I was asked where I was from, and when I replied, "Prague," the question always came back: "Whereabouts in Prague?"

It would never have occurred to me to say I was from Dejvice, so at first the question surprised me. But very quickly I understood it: in this old-fashioned world of individual stories a thing as old-fashioned as a city quarter still plays a role. Obviously there are still people for whom Dejvice, Holešovice, or Liben are not just addresses but a real home. People who have not capitulated to the standardizing and nihilizing pressure of the modern housing estate (where you can no longer tell what city you're in) and who still cling to their streets, the pubs on their corners, the former grocery store across the road—and to the mysterious and secret meaning of the stories connected to these localities.

The most natural of questions—where is your home?—I have heard asked most often in prison.


The history of the system I live in has demonstrated persuasively that without a plurality of economic initiatives, and of people who participate in them, without competition, without a marketplace and its institutional guarantees, an economy will stagnate and decline.

Why then does this system so stubbornly resist all attempts to restore these proven instruments of economic life? Why is it that all such efforts have so far either been half-baked or else repressed?

The deepest reason is not the leaders' fear that it will conflict with the ideology, nor their personal conservatism, nor even the fear that if the center gives up its economic power, it will give up its political power as well.

The real reason, in my opinion, lies—again—in the totalitarian essence of the system itself, in its overwhelming inertia. It cannot relinquish its control of such an enormous and vital part of life as the economy. If it were to recognize the institutional guarantees of economic plurality and undertake to respect them, it would be acknowledging the legitimacy of something beyond its own claims to total power. This would deny its own totalitarian nature and it would cease to be itself. So far, overwhelming inertia has always prevented the system from carrying out this ontological self-destruction. (A stronger power may someday arise to oppose this inertia and compel the system genuinely to relinquish its essence, but this has never yet happened, anywhere.)

When he can no longer participate with relative autonomy in economic life, man loses some of his social and human individuality, and part of his hope of creating his own human story.

I mention this now because although the standardizing and therefore nihilizing impact of political and intellectual centralization is clear, the analogous impact of economic centralization—as one of the indirect methods of manipulating life in general—is far from being so obvious. And that is what makes it more dangerous.


Where there is no natural plurality of economic initiatives, the interplay of competing producers and their entrepreneurial ideas disappears, along with the interplay of supply and demand, the labor and commodity markets, and voluntary employer-employee relations. Gone too are the stimuli to creativity and its attendant risks, the drama of economic success and failure. Man as a producer ceases to be a participant or a creator in the economic story, and becomes an instrument. Everyone is an employee of the state, which is the one proprietor of economic truth and power. Everyone is buried in the anonymity of the collective economic "non-story."

When economic plurality disappears, the motives for competition in the marketplace of consumer goods disappear with it. The central power may talk all it wants about "satisfying differentiated needs" but the pressures of a nonpluralistic economy compel it to do exactly the opposite: to integrate production, standardize goods, and narrow the range of choice. In this artificial economic world, diversity is merely a complication.

Not only do consumers have to depend (as all who live in modern industrial societies do) almost exclusively on commodities they have not produced themselves; they do not have a choice of different commodities, and cannot express their individuality even in this limited way. All they have is what has been allocated by the monopoly producer: the same things that have been allocated to everyone.

A centralized furniture designer may not be the most typical representative of the totalitarian system, but as one who unconsciously realizes its nihilizing intentions, he may have more impact than five government ministers together. Millions of people have no choice but to spend their lives surrounded by his furniture.

Let me exaggerate deliberately. It would be to the greatest advantage of a centrally directed system of production if only one type of a prefabricated panel were produced, from which one type of apartment building would be constructed; these buildings in turn would be fitted with a single kind of door, door handle, window, toilet, washbasin, and so on, and together this would create a single type of housing development constructed according to one standardized urban development plan, with minor adjustments for landscape, given the regrettable irregularity of the earth's surface. (In each apartment, of course, there would be the same kind of television set showing the same program.)

Imperceptibly but irresistibly, not deliberately but inevitably, everything begins to resemble everything else: buildings, clothing, workplaces, public decorations, public transport, the forms of entertainment, the behavior of people in public and in their own homes.

This standardization of public and private spaces has a standardizing effect on life and its rhythms, narrowing the sphere of desires and aversions, of sensual experience and taste. It flattens the world and the people in it.

In such an environment, stories become interchangeable.

Is it any wonder that an ambitious reporter would rather risk his life in Lebanon?


If a citizen of our country wishes to travel abroad, get a new job, exchange his apartment or his stove, organize an amateur event, he is usually compelled to undertake a long and exhausting march through various offices for the necessary permits, certificates, recommendations, and he must frequently demean himself or bite his tongue. It is tiring, boring, and debilitating. Many people, out of disgust, or for fear it will drag them down, quickly give up on their most personal plans.

In doing so, they renounce something of their own potential story. It may be something of little importance. But the process of surrendering oneself begins with small matters.

Obviously, then, the bureaucratic regulation of the everyday details of people's lives is another indirect instrument of nihilization. It is here that public matters infiltrate private life in a way that is very "ordinary," but extremely persistent. The sheer number of small pressures that we are subjected to every day is more important than it may seem at first, because it encloses the space in which we are condemned to breathe.

There is very little air in that space. But not so little that we might suffocate, and thus create a story.


These examples do not exhaust the ways in which the totalitarian system, directly and indirectly, negates life.

The elimination of political plurality deprives society of a means to structure itself, because it prevents a variety of interests and opinions and traditions from proclaiming their presence. The drastic curtailment of intellectual plurality makes it hard for a person to choose a way co relate to Being, to the world, and to himself. Culture and information controlled from the center narrow the horizon against which people mature. The demand for unquestioning loyalty forces people to become bit players in empty rituals. People cease to be autonomous and self-confident participants in the life of the community and become instruments with which the central agent fulfills itself The ever present danger of being punished for any original expression compels one to move cautiously across the quicksand of one's potential, a pointlessly exhausting process. The network of bureaucratic limitations affects everything from one's choice of study or profession to the possibility of travel, the limits of admissible creative initiative, right down to the extent and kind of personal ownership, and all of this shrinks the space one has to act in. The total claim of the central power—respecting only those limits it imposes upon itself for practical reasons at a given moment—creates a state of general nervousness: no one is ever sure of the ground he stands on, or what he may venture to do, and what he may not, or what may happen to him if he does. The sway of this power over the executive authority of the legislature and the judiciary, coupled with the actual omnipotence of the police makes people insecure. The imperious vanity of the administrative apparatus, its anonymity, the extinction of individual responsibility in the faceless pseudo-responsibility of the system (anyone may offer excuses for anything, or be accused of anything, since the will of centralized power recognizes no arbitrator in any dispute with an individual) creates a sensation of helplessness and cripples the will to live one's own life.

All of that together—and much that is more subtle—lies behind our asthma.

On the surface of things, everything goes on just as it does anywhere else: people work, have fun, make love, die. Beneath this surface a destructive disease is gnawing away.

"Call me when the man dies."

In this case the patient will not die. Nevertheless, to keep his disease a secret amounts to encouraging its spread.


In recent years, several very good film comedies have been made in Czechoslovakia that were successful at home and abroad. A couple of them were even nominated for Oscars.

However much I may enjoy such films, I can't shake the feeling there's something not right about them. American audiences, who do not have to suffer daily the asthma that prevails here, see nothing wrong with them.

What do these films have in common?

One important thing, I think: the stories they tell lack historical background. No matter how many superficial and ornamental techniques these films employ to suggest a specific locality and moment in time, they seem to exist outside space and time. The stories they tell could have happened anywhere.

There are two ways in which totalitarian pressure removes their historicity: directly, through censorship and self-censorship, both of which have evolved a sophisticated sensitivity to anything that might capture the historical dimension of life; and indirectly, by the destruction of historicity in life itself It is, of course, extremely difficult to grasp the historic quality of a moment when a global attack on the very notion of history is taking place, because it means trying to tell the story of the loss of story, the story of asthma.

This double pressure forces a creative person to turn his attention to private life. And yet—as I've said—private and public life today (particularly under totalitarianism) are inseparable; they are like two linked vessels, and one cannot be represented truthfully if the other is ignored. Private life without an historical dimension is a facade and a lie.

Indeed, the picture of life that has been artificially reduced to its purely private dimension (or provided with superficial reminders of the public dimension, while skirting around everything essential in that dimension) inevitably becomes a strange anecdote, a genre picture, a familiar cliché, a fairy tale, a fiction concocted from thousands of living individualities. In such a presentation, even the most private life is oddly distorted, sometimes to the point where it becomes implausibly bizarre, the paradoxical outcome of a paralyzing desire for verisimilitude. It is obvious what has made this desire so intense: the subconscious need to compensate for the absence of the opposite pole—truth. It is as though life in this case were stripped of its inner tension, its true tragedy and greatness, its questions. The more charmingly all of its superficial features are caricatured, the more seriously the work misses the point. Imitating life, it falsifies it. Calligraphy replaces drawing.

In the films I'm talking about, what I miss is not this or that concrete bit of political detail. Some details from political reality are always there, sometimes more than is good for the work. I miss something else: a free vision of life as a whole. This is not a matter of theme: I can well imagine a film about nothing more than love and jealousy, yet where this freedom would not be lacking.

During the Nazi occupation, several popular film comedies were made in Czechoslovakia. They were remarkable for a similar a historicity and the untruths that flowed from it. Here again it wasn't the theme that was at fault: it wasn't images from concentration camps that I found lacking. I missed an inner freedom, and felt that their humor was only a slick way of making a virtue from necessity.

You can always tell in the end.

The domestic success of today's Czech film comedies has a problematic side to it. People find in them an odd consolation: their illusions are confirmed, that the asthma does not really exist and that, to the extent that it does exist, they can live with it; that it's not really important; that their lives have not been as ravaged as they sometimes seem in bad moments. It is pacifying.

These films tell unique stories. But they do not show the nihilizing pressure against which these stories were brought to life. People are thrilled to find that stories still exist. They are elated, and end up kidding themselves: they forget that the story is only on the screen. That it is not their story.

I don't know if there is anywhere to hide from the AIDS virus.

It seems to me, however, that there is no hiding place, no reservation, where one is safe from the virus of nihilization.


There is one sphere where the symptoms of our asthma can be observed better by a foreigner than by someone suffering from it. That sphere is the visible face of the daily life of society. We have long since got used to this face. But more than one observant visitor has been shocked by it.

Ride the escalators in the Prague subway and watch the faces of people going in the opposite direction. This journey is a pause in the daily rat race, a sudden stoppage of life, a frozen moment that may reveal more about us than we know. Perhaps it is one of those "moments of truth" when a person suddenly stands outside all relationships; he is in public, but alone with himself. The faces moving past are empty, strained, almost lifeless, without hope, without longing, without desire. The eyes are dull.

Or observe how people behave toward each other in stores, in offices, and on the streetcars: they tend to be surly, selfish, impolite, and disobliging; for the counter staff, customers are often an imposition: they serve while talking among themselves. When asked a question, they reply with distaste (if they know an answer at all). Drivers yell at each other, people in lineups elbow ahead and snap at each other. Bureaucrats don't care how many people are waiting to see them, or how long they wait. They often make appointments and fail to keep them. They get no pleasure from helping people and have no regrets when they can't. They are capable of slamming the door in a supplicant's face, cutting him off in midsentence. It would not be so depressing if these officials were not so often the final court of appeal.

Or look at people walking the streets: most of them are rushed, their faces full of worry, inattentive to things around them. The sense of ease, cheerfulness, and spontaneity has vanished from the streets. In the evening or at night the streets are empty, and if you do happen to see a group of relaxed, happy people, they are usually foreigners.

Warmth, openness, kindness, and unassuming friendliness are vanishing from everyday public contacts. Everyone seems to have one thing on his mind: where to find what he is looking for. Indifference and bad manners are spreading; even in restaurants, people seem buttoned up. Mindful of their own behavior, they speak in low voices, checking to make sure no one else is listening. Class-four restaurants are the last oases of natural companionship, and they tend to be in the suburbs rather than in the city; these are the places one remembers in prison. But even in such places, more and more people come there just to get drunk.

At the bottom of all this lies a vague stress: people are either nervous, anxious, irritated, or else they are apathetic. They look as if they expect to be hit from an unexpected quarter. Calm and certainty have been replaced by aggression.

It is the stress of people living under a constant threat. It is the stress of people compelled, every day, to deal with absurdity and nothingness.

It is the stress of a people living in a city under siege.

The stress of a society that is not permitted to live in history. The stress of people exposed to the radiation of totalitarianism.


Life, of course, goes on. It resists manipulation in many ways, adapting to it or finding ways to cope. It has not been destroyed, nor is it ever likely to be. Cracks can always be found for it to penetrate, levels where it can go on developing, ways in which, even in this suffocating milieu, it can arrange itself into stories. Somehow we will always manage to write our stories by the way we act.

I am not describing anything like the end of humanity. I am instead trying to draw attention to the inconspicuous and unspectacular war that life wages every day against nothingness.

I am attempting to say that the struggle of the story and of history to resist nihilization is in itself a story, and belongs to history.

It is our special metastory.

We do not yet know how to talk about it because the traditional forms of storytelling fail us here. We do not yet know the laws that govern our metastory. We do not even know yet exactly who or what is the main villain of the story (it is definitely not a few individuals in the power center: they too are victims of something larger, just as we are).

It is clear: we must tell the story of our asthma, not despite the fact that people are dying from it, but because they are not.

One small detail remains: we have to learn how to do it.



April 1987