In his letter of 1975, Havel makes a number of fascinating comments about history.(1) For Havel, "true" or "real" history is chaotic. It comprises a whole series of unique, unrepeatable events. It follows, therefore, that only a truly vibrant society – "a society that is really alive" – is capable of appreciating and generating true / real history.
The antithesis of this authentic history is what Havel calls "pseudo-history", the author of which is "not the life of society, but an official planner." These apparatchiks substitute "the disquieting dimension of history" with a remorseless succession of "non-events": stilted, stifling and repetitive anniversaries, celebrations, parades, congresses. These are used by governments to maintain the pretence that "history is moving". The result is that,
thanks to this substitution for history, we are able to review everything that is happening in society,
past and future, by simply glancing at the calendar. And the notoriously familiar character of the
recurrent rituals makes such information quite as adequate as if we had been present at the
This raises a slightly tricky dilemma, however. Václav Havel is likely to be commemorated by a phalanx of "recurrent rituals", including anniversaries, celebrations and perhaps even the occasional congress or two. Maybe his birthday – 5 October – will become "Václav Havel Day". But wouldn't it be awful if this became just another "non-event" in the commemorative calendar? Surely the worst possible way of remembering Havel would be to enlist him to the cause of pseudo-history; to trap him in all the "trappings of state"?(2)
With this in mind, any incipient "Václav Havel Day" must be a madcap mix of "the continuous and the changing, the regular and the random, the foreseen and the unexpected". It should be a moment of radical reflection – as much about the present and future as about the past. A true "Václav Havel Day" would be an occasion to bring our societies to account in all sorts of innovative and satirical ways. Put simply: to create true history. This would safeguard us from falling into a nostalgic yearning for a pseudo-past and succumbing to the dead hand of pseudo-history.
Václav Havel is sadly no longer alive. It is up to us to ensure that he goes on living in the realm of true history.
(1) The following quotations are derived from Václav Havel's "Letter to Dr Gustáv Husák, General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party", pp. 3-35 in Living in Truth (Jan Vladislav, ed.) (London: Faber & Faber, 1989).
(2) Stuart Hughes, "Vaclav Havel funeral: World leaders pay respects", BBC News, 23/12/2011, accessed, 23/12/2011 at, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16304858.