It is fifty years ago this week that the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. On 21st August 1968, the invasion of Czechoslovakia brought an end to an extraordinary season for music and literature. Among those inspired by that period was former Czech president Václav Havel. A playwright during those days in 1968, he became subject to constant persecution by the secret police, including spells in prison, the longest of which lasted four years.
Havel’s experiences shaped a profound understanding of the world that emerged. Speaking at Independence Hall, Philadelphia on Independence Day, 4th July 1994, he attempted to describe the contemporary worldview:
Today, this state of mind or of the human world is called postmodernism. For me, a symbol of that state is a Bedouin mounted on a camel and clad in traditional robes under which he is wearing jeans, with a transistor radio in his hands and an ad for Coca-Cola on the camel’s back. I am not ridiculing this, nor am I shedding an intellectual tear over the commercial expansion of the West that destroys alien cultures. I see it rather as a typical expression of this multicultural era, a signal that an amalgamation of cultures is taking place. I see it as proof that something is happening, something is being born, that we are in a phase when one age is succeeding another, when everything is possible.
“Everything is possible and almost nothing is certain,” he goes on to say. Even language does not have certainty in a world where there is no consensus on meanings. Italian philosopher and writer Umbert Eco wrote,
I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her ‘”I love you madly”, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say, ‘”As Barbara Cartland would put it, ‘I love you madly'”. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.
In a world where nothing is certain and where things formerly expressible may only be articulated by reference to a former age, there has been no adequate response to contemporary culture. Václav Havel saw that the end of modernism, the end of rationalism, as ushering in a dangerous age:
Cultural conflicts are increasing and are understandably more dangerous today than at any other time in history. The end of the era of rationalism has been catastrophic. Armed with the same supermodern weapons, often from the same suppliers, and followed by television cameras, the members of various tribal cults are at war with one another.
Havel believed that if those tribal conflicts were not to lead to an ultimate destruction, then there needed to be self-transcendence:
It logically follows that, in today’s multicultural world, the truly reliable path to coexistence, to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies, or sympathies – it must be rooted in self-transcendence.
It is a proposal rooted in a sense of the “spiritual,” but not in any of the spiritualities offered by those selling political or religious certainties. It about having a capacity to rise above one’s own perspectives, to engage with things that are universal, it is something that is unlikely in the present context. A springtime like that in Prague is needed if the world is to become a safe place. Václav Havel cannot have expected how dangerous the world might become.