Remarkably, this was the very period in which Havel slowly transformed himself into the leading figure of the Czech resistance. The evolution was neither immediate nor inevitable. Indeed, it took some strange twists and turns. In what looks like an attempt to refute the regime’s charges that he was a bourgeois parasite, Havel even took a job for nine months rolling barrels in a brewery, commuting in a black Mercedes. The work was cold, numbing, and mindless, but writing saved him, enabling him to turn deadening experience into resistance and revolt. Out of his stint in the brewery, he wrote a play called Audience, which, after its premiere in Vienna in 1976 (the Czech regime forbade Havel from attending), was hailed as a satire on the “worker’s paradise.”
In 1975, Havel wrote a defiant open letter to Gustáv Husák, the general secretary of the Communist Party, pointing out that the “normalization” of society after the Prague Spring had only resulted in the “calm of the morgue or the grave.” He went on, “In trying to paralyze life, then, the authorities paralyze themselves and, in the long run, make themselves incapable of paralyzing life.” After this declaration of war, the regime made a concerted attempt to isolate him from the city’s theaters and from his friends. It was a preview of intimidation to come, when the police camped outside his Prague apartment and his country home, and he and his friends were repeatedly brought in for questioning.
During this period, when no one could possibly imagine that a challenge to the regime would ever succeed, Havel discovered—in the words for which he is best remembered—that hope “is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Those are words you have to earn the right to say, and Havel did that, not just through endurance but also through failure and shame. Under pressure, he did not always stand up. Once, he broke—and the painful lesson he learned from his own weakness helped make him both a more humble and a more resilient leader.
In January 1977, he and a tiny group of dissidents founded the human-rights organization Charter 77; the Soviets, in the Helsinki Final Act, had agreed to allow such groups in return for Western recognition of their hegemony in Eastern Europe. Charter 77 eventually grew into the movement that brought the regime to its knees, but in its early years its membership was minuscule and the repression it suffered was fierce. Havel was arrested later that January, and after some 20 interrogation sessions he pledged to concentrate on his “artistic activities” and refrain from “inspiring or organizing collective initiatives or public statements.” Having extracted this promise of good behavior, the regime let him go and, as Havel had suspected, made his promise public. Havel promptly disavowed the promise, but he remained deeply ashamed of his weakness. Zantovsky’s comment on this episode cannot be improved upon:
Havel left prison not only humiliated but also, and perhaps more important, humbled. He realized that for all his determination to resist evil, he was no superhero, but only a frail human being facing forces that might be beyond his power to withstand.
Havel was re-arrested in 1979, and after a show trial he was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. He endured his term with grim determination, as if to expiate his earlier lapse. His Letters to Olga, written from prison to his long-suffering wife, was a painful exercise in self-examination that left him tougher and less tolerant of his failings. To recover his political heroism, he had to say farewell to the parts of his personality that had led him to betrayal. He excoriated
my tendency to trust where inappropriate, my politeness, my silly faith in signs of good intentions on the part of my antagonists, my constant self-doubt, my effort to get along with everyone, my constant need to defend and explain myself.
It was prison that prepared him for power. Upon his release in 1983, his personal life remained chaotic: he resumed affairs with at least two women, one of them the ex-wife of a close friend. But politically, imprisonment validated his moral authority against an ever more bankrupt regime. In his greatest essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” written half a decade earlier, he had given voice, for the first time, to an awareness that power was shifting remorselessly from those with the guns to those with the truth. As Zantovsky writes:
The human capacity to “live in truth,” to reaffirm man’s “authentic identity,” is the nuclear weapon that gives power to the powerless. As soon as the system is no longer able to extract the ritual endorsement from its subjects, its ideological pretensions collapse as the lies they are.
By the 1980s, before Gorbachev and glasnost, Havel sensed his growing authority. When the American Embassy in Prague gave parties, visiting writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Albee, and Philip Roth sought him out. When Havel ran out of beer at a gathering in his Prague apartment, the cop assigned to surveil him volunteered to go to a nearby pub to refill his jug. This was when he knew that power was flowing his way.