There Is No Cat

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Wednesday, February 12, 2003

His name was widely sung

The New Yorker has a lengthy piece on the last days in office of Vaclav Havel, now the former President of the Czech Republic. As I implied on January 30, I've long been fascinated by Havel, going back to his dissident days, and followed the whole Velvet Revolution and its aftermath very closely. So it's a real treat to find this fine-grained portrait of the end of his time in office.

One of the things in Havel's writings that always resonated with me was his insistence on "living in truth". The totalitarian regime under which he lived expected that the people would alter their behavior in minor, trivial ways that would demonstrate their fealty to their leaders. The example given in the New Yorker article from Havel's classic essay The Power of the Powerless is of the grocer who places a sign reading "Workers of the World, Unite!" among the onions and carrots. The sign is absurd on its face in that context, but the message it truly conveys is not that the workers should unite, but rather that the owner of this shop bows down before the power of the state.

In this atmosphere, refusing to act in ways contrary to ones natural personality, "living in truth", and by doing so insisting on ones own humanity, becomes an act of dissent.

I don't mean to equate totalitarian dictatorship with the corporate environment, but when I was working in a large corporate environment, I found much in that philosophy to inspire me. The path of least resistance is to flatter power. So when a higher-up asks what you think of a particular product/project/initiative, the "proper" response is to make suitably approving noises, participate in whatever manner is deemed appropriate, even when said project is absurd on its face. One thing more than one of my bosses commented on was my insistence on saying what I really thought (fortunately for me, they usually approved of this). Obviously, the pressures to conform aren't as great in a corporate environment, and the consequences of refusing to do so are much less severe (they can fire you, but they can't throw you in prison for years), so like I said, I wouldn't equate the two, but I find it interesting that I could relate to so much of what Havel wrote. Even his absurdist plays and satires on bureaucracy resonated with me.

Incidentally, I found this article from a link on Patrick Nielsen Hayden's blog Electrolite, which is subtitled "Growing luminous by eating light." I immediately recognized that as a lyric from a wonderful song by Peter Blegvad entitled "King Strut" from his album of the same name (an album produced by a long-time favorite of mine, Chris Stamey). There are some lines in the song that seem eerily appropriate to Havel's life, such as the couplet from which Hayden takes his tag line: "Now a man without a moral code is just an appetite / King Strut was on a diet growing luminous by eating light," as well as the following verse, which in a way describes what happened to Havel in 1989:

Some say it was a diamond, like the crown jewel Koh-i-noor
Or a talisman empowered by an ancient conjurer
A hot tip or a claim check, no one knows for sure
All we know is King Strut changed overnight from being poor to being an authority
Philanthropist, connoisseur who paid for what he wanted with a simple signature, King Strut

One of the things mentioned in the New Yorker article is that at the time of the Velvet Revolution, in addition to the graffito Havel na hrad (Havel to the Castle) that appeared all over the place, there was a second, triumphant graffito that appeared after the revolution was won: Havel je král (Havel Is King).

Indeed.

Posted at 12:43 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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