Christopher Hitchens, verbal bully, died this past week. He was great with words and I dearly loved reading his essays considering his illness and his entry into the “land of malady.” He was smart and privileged and tunnel-visioned and forceful in his beliefs, some of which were awe-inspiring and others of which I found abhorrent.
This morning I woke to the news that Václav Havel died at the age of 75. Like Hitchens, he was a powerful writer, though I was more moved by his essays and speeches than I was by his dramas, which I found to be too-thin allegories. Not The Garden Party, though, which rises to heights based on wordplay alone. Havel was a courageous, driven dissident, and all of the things that made him so perfectly suited to be the front man for the Velvet Revolution (a title which, like all front men, is not meant to downplay the importance of the rest of the band), made him a frankly ineffective politician after the fact. Dissidents can’t compromise. Politicians must.
Havel and Hitchens shared a loathing for dictators and they shared an initial agreement that what would become the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a good idea. Hitchens maintained his position using his deft rhetorical powers, trumpeting the end of Saddam Hussein as a necessary goal, ignoring the hundreds of thousands of dead and the lack of weapons of mass destruction. I’m not sure how Havel’s position might have changed (one article here).
As much as the data constantly shows up in news and media reports that our memories are unreliable, notoriously pliable, and easily manipulated, in our daily lives I suspect that our personal experience challenges this fact. “I remembered to lock the door before bed.” “I remembered to feed the cats.” “I remembered your birthday” or “anniversary.” Because I remember, my memory must be good; therefore any instances of not remembering are outlying instances, not representative of my overall stunning mental puissance.
Especially for the dead, to whom we want to show respect by considering their great qualities, not their negative ones. We want to show compassion and respect for those that are bereaved by that person’s loss. How does one do that – show respect – while also, in Havel’s formulation, “living in the truth”? Because the truth is big and unwieldy and the fact is that while Hitchens was an essayist (of the written and spoken word alike) of few peers, he was impatient and unkind. He was, as we all are, a product of his age – and according to friend and colleague Jefferson Morley, pining for an age of clearer moral disagreements. Whether he found that moral fracture or magnified one in his “Islamofascism” is a separate debate to be had. Havel, too, as a man imprisoned for his beliefs and for the defiance of immoral but legislated laws, learned a set of behaviors. Both men came from privileged backgrounds, but because of the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, Havel was punished for his family’s wealth and was given low-level jobs as punishment. Hitchens recognized his privilege but neither gave it up nor sought to renounce it – although he did choose to experience other cultures (through travel) and horrors (waterboarding). Havel had his mentor, Jan Patocka, die in prison after an eleven hour interrogation by the Czechoslovak State Police.
Do we afford their lives nothing but light and grant these men and their mistakes a hagiography because of their skills and their experiences?
What was admirable in them was deeply admirable. What was flawed was deeply flawed. I would like to think, as someone who admires these two for different reasons and to different degrees, that in both cases they would stand by intellectual honesty and moral clarity. I would like to think that they would appreciate less of a glowing limn of their legacies, and more of an argument. Over beer, whiskey, and cigarettes.