There Is No Cat

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Thursday, January 30, 2003

Farewell to a philosopher-king

Friday marks the retirement from public life of the Czech president, Vaclav Havel. Havel is a remarkable writer; his essays from his dissident days are astounding for their moral clarity. The Power of the Powerless seemed hopelessly idealistic at the time it came out; it eventually turned out to be a virtual prophecy. And his plays are wonderfully surreal portraits of life under a totalitarian regime, with all the odd ironies of life in such a society polished to a fine sheen. It seems inevitable in retrospect that he would wind up leading the country that had done so much to oppress him.

His record as a politician may not have been quite what the Czechs had hoped for. Sometimes his ruminations could seem moored in the clouds. But from the other side of the ocean, he still seems to have had a remarkable run, a true philosopher-king.

Timothy Garton Ash is one of my favorite writers on the topic of eastern Europe. He has a long connection with the countries behind the Iron Curtain, dating to his days as a student in East Berlin, chronicled in his memoir of betrayal and discovery, The File. He was present during most of the revolutions of 1989, and his book The Magic Lantern told that story. He writes of his good friend Vaclav in tomorrow's Guardian and tells of the times their paths crossed.

Posted at 10:02 PM

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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

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