History as Boredom — Another Plenum, Another Resolution, Beijing, 11 November 2021

該內容僅提供英文版。

Spectres & Souls

Shortly after the demise of Mao Zedong in September 1976, Simon Leys observed that:

‘…in a normal everyday situation where “his giant’s wants prevent him from walking”, any Great Leader worth his salt has a strong tendency to stir up artificial gales in order to get some wind back under his pinions. At that point he can become a nuisance, and nations which do not have the opportunity of getting rid of their geniuses are sometimes liable to pay very dearly for the privilege of being led by them.’

from ‘Mao Tse-tung and Chinese History’

Since late 2017, Xi Jinping has employed the official formulation that ‘the world is in a turbulent time that is unprecedented in the past century’ 當今世界正經歷百年未有之大變局 some forty times. According to Xi, the rolling crises of the early twenty first century offer strategic opportunities, putting it terms that any politician or, for that matter, hedge-fund manager, would be familiar:

‘We must identify opportunities in this period of crisis; turn crisis to our advantage; grasp opportunities and create openings.’ 要危中尋機、化危為機,要捕捉機遇、創造機遇。

In reality, during the first decade of his rule, China’s latest Great Leader has shown a Mao-like talent for stirring up artificial gales which, as luck (history, fate, or just intraparty factional struggles) would have it, he is uniquely placed to confront.

It is no surprise then that the word ‘leap’ 飛躍 fēiyuè features prominently in Xi-era propaganda. The airborne leap suggested by this term is more of a vaulting takeoff than the long jump-like ‘leap in one bound’ denoted by 躍進 yuèjîn, the term used in the late 1950s for the Great Leap Forward 大躍進, a murderous disaster. (On the three ‘Magnificent Leaps’ 偉大飛躍, see here andHomo Xinensis Ascendant’.)

***

In my introduction to Isaiah Berlin’s 1952 essay ‘The Artificial Dialectic: Generalissimo Stalin and the Art of Government’, reprinted as part of China Heritage Annual 2021: Spectres & Souls, I noted that:

‘The autocratic mind, regardless of the sphere or the era, shares many qualities in common. However, as Isaiah Berlin points out in his study of the artificial dialectic, when an individual penchant for purblind tyranny is informed by a sophisticated political theory, moreover, when it claims that it has History on its side, and that it is the agent of change and that the individual who embodies it is convinced that they are L’homme providentiel, a breathtaking and deeply troubling vista unfolds. It is a vista the defining features of which are political campaigns, movements, actions and purges.’

In the shadow of Great Leaders the individual is submerged by a collective tale of History writ large. It is a topic addressed by the Czech writer Václav Havel (1936-2011) in ‘Stories and Totalitarianism’, published in Index of Censorship in early 1988. Some years later, I quoted Havel’s essay when introducing China Candid: the People on the People’s Republic by the oral historian Sang Ye 桑曄. Sang Ye’s work, like that of other writers who flourished in the 1980s such as Dai Qing 戴晴, was intent on telling the stories that the Chinese Communist Party and its dominant historical narrative had for decades attempted to distort, drown out or simply silence.

Commenting on what he calls ‘totalitarian nihilisation’, Havel says that:

‘…the destruction of the story means the destruction of a basic instrument of human knowledge and self- knowledge. Totalitarian nihilisation denies people the possibility of actually observing and understanding that process ‘from outside’. There are only two alternatives: either you experience it directly, or you know nothing about it. This menace permits no reports of itself.’

He observes that ‘the germ of this nihilisation lies dormant in the very heart of the ideology upon which this system is based: in its self-assured belief that it has fully understood the world and revealed the truth about it.’ Writers like Václav Havel and others from the old socialist camp have long informed my understanding of the fate of history in China’s People’s Republic. Their work remains relevant in appreciating what I think of as China and Taiwan’s own Historikerstreit today.

As I noted in ‘The fog of words: Kabul 2021, Beijing 1949’ (SupChina, 24 August 2021):

‘On June 9, 1989, Deng Xiaoping declared that, despite its economic policies, the Communist Party was engaged in a protracted war with liberal values and Western-style democracy. Under Xi Jinping that war continues on a number of fronts, including in the areas of history and education. Over the years, many have fallen in the struggle; I think, in particular, of leading independent-minded historians, thinkers and journalists like Zhāng Zhènglóng 张正隆, Dài Qíng 戴晴, Gāo Gāo 高皋, Yán Jiāqí 严家其, Líu Xiǎobō 刘晓波, Gāo Huá 高华, Yuán Wěishí 袁伟时, and Xǔ Zhāngrùn 许章润, to name but a few. Countless others have similarly been condemned to silence, their voices stifled or never even heard, their works languishing unpublished or censored out of existence. The real casualties, however, are the citizens of China who, as a result of the Party’s tireless war, are denied the right to know, to discuss openly and interrogate freely their history, to revisit the past from new angles and in new ways. The mind-boggling fog of words that is generated by this protracted war also frustrates those who seek to understand more than the confabulated official China Story.

‘With the past beyond independent investigation, consideration and debate, in China today history has one overriding function: to lionize the party-state, its sacred mission and its infallible leaders.’

Xi Jinping is the core leader of the Communist collective, as well as of the nation that it dominates; his peerless Thought is a beacon that will guide China to become the preeminent global power and exemplar by 2049. All other China stories are now subsumed in his story, just as He is the embodiment of Chinese history itself.

In June 1981, the Chinese Communist Party adopted a ‘Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China’. In that document, Mao Zedong, whose personality, thought and politics had dominated the Chinese landscape for over thirty years was reduced to a more modest, and manageable, size. Forty years later, in November 2021, the Communists approved a ‘Resolution on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century’. In it Xi Jinping, his thought and politics were so inflated and canonised as to occlude all other historical, ideological and cultural possibilities for the foreseeable future.

We offer Václav Havel’s ‘Stories and Totalitarianism’ to mark the occasion.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
14 November 2021

***

Further Reading:


Xi Jinping leading the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party to re-affirm their oath of loyalty to the Communist cause. This image was part of a song-and-dance extravaganza staged in Beijing on 28 June 2021 during the celebration of the Communist Party’s centenary. Source: AP

***

Stories and Totalitarianism 

Václav Havel

Written in April 1987 for Revolver Review
Dedicated to Ladistav Hejdanek on his 60th birthday

Translated by Paul Wilson

 

A friend of mine who is heavily asthmatic was sentenced, for political reasons, to several years in prison where he suffered a great deal because his cellmates smoked and he could scarcely breathe. All his requests to be moved to a cell of non-smokers were ignored. His health, and perhaps even his life, were seriously threatened. An American woman who had learned of this and wanted to help out telephoned an acquaintance, an editor on an important American daily. Could he write something about it; she asked? ‘Call me When the man dies,’ was the editor’s reply.

It’s a shocking incident but in some ways understandable. Newspapers need a story. Asthma is not a story. Death could make it one.

*

In Prague there is only a single Western news agency with long term accreditation. In Lebanon, a country far smaller than Czechoslovakia, there are reporters by the hundred. This is understandable since ‘nothing’s happening here’, as they say, whereas Lebanon is full of stories. It is also, of course, a land of murders, wars, death. But the two are connected; as long as humans can remember, death has been the point at which all the lines of every real story converge.

Our condition is rather like that of my friend: we are unworthy of attention because we have no stories and no death. We have only asthma. And why should anyone be interested in listening to our commonplace cough?

After all, one can’t go on writing forever about how hard it is to breathe.

*

I’m not bothered by the fact that terrorists are not on the loose here or that people are not being murdered in the streets or that there are no big scandals over corruption in high places and no violent demonstrations and strikes.

What bothers me is something else: the fact that this remarkable absence of newsworthy stories is not an expression of social harmony but merely the outward consequence of a dangerous and profound process: the destruction of ‘the story’ altogether. Almost every day I am struck by the ambiguity of this social-quiescence, which is essentially only the visible expression of an invisible war between the totalitarian system and life itself.

It is not true, therefore, to say that our country is free of warfare and murder. The war and the killing merely assume a different form: they have been shifted from the sphere of observable social events to the twilight of an unobservable inner destruction. It would seem that the absolute, ‘classical’ death of stories (which for all the terrors it holds is still mysteriously able to impart meaning to human life) has been replaced here by another kind of death: the slow, secretive, bloodless, never quite absolute yet horrifyingly ever-present death of ‘non- action’, ‘non-story’, ‘non-life’ and ‘non- time’; the strange collective deadening — or more precisely anaesthetising — of social and historical nihilisation. This nihilisation annuls death as such, and thus it annuls life as such too: the life of an individual becomes the dull and uniform functioning of a component in a large machine and his death is merely something that puts him out of commission.

All the evidence suggests that this state of things is the intrinsic expression of an advanced and stabilised totalitarian system, and even that it grows directly out of its very essence.

*

Visitors from the West are often shocked to find that Chernobyl and AIDS arouse no horror here, but are rather a subject for jokes.

I must admit this doesn’t surprise me. Because it is utterly immaterial, this totalitarian nihilisation is, on the one hand, even more invisible, ever-present and dangerous than the AIDS virus or radioactivity from Chernobyl. On the other hand it touches each of us even more ‘physically’, more intimately and more urgently than either AIDS or radiation does, since we all know it directly from everyday, personal experience and not just from newspapers and television.

Under the circumstances is it any wonder that the less menacing, the less insidious and less intimate threats are relegated to the background and made jokes of?

Invisibility triumphs here for another reason too: the destruction of the story means the destruction of a basic instrument of human knowledge and self- knowledge. Totalitarian nihilisation denies people the possibility of actually observing and understanding that process ‘from outside’. There are only two alternatives: either you experience it directly, or you know nothing about it. This menace permits no reports of itself.

The foreign tourist can therefore form the legitimate impression that Czechoslovakia is a poorer and duller Switzerland, and that press agencies are right to close their bureaux here: after all, how can they be expected to report on the fact that there is nothing to report?

I will attempt to make a few observations on the origin and nature of our asthma.

I will attempt to show that the disappearance of the story from this corner of the world is a story in itself.

*

Totalitarian power brought bureaucratic ‘order’ into the living ‘disorder’ of history and thus effectively anaesthetised it as history.

In a sense the government had nationalised time. And as a result, time encountered the same sad fate as many other nationalised entities: it began to wither away.

In the 1950s there were enormous concentration camps in Czechoslovakia filled with tens of thousands of innocent people. At the same time the construction sites were swarming with tens of thousands of young enthusiasts of the new faith singing songs of socialist construction. There were tortures and executions, dramatic flights across borders, conspiracies, while at the same time, panegyrics were being written to the chief dictator. The President of the Republic signed the death warrants of his closest friends but you could still occasionally meet him on the street.

The songs of idealists and fanatics, political criminals on the rampage, the suffering of heroes — these have always been a part of history. The 1950s were a bad time in Czechoslovakia, but there have been many such eras in human history. It still shared something with those other periods, or at least bore comparison with them; it still somehow resembled history. I could not have said that nothing was happening or that the age did not have its stories.

The basic blueprint for political power as it was installed in Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion in 1968 was a document called ‘Lessons From the Years of Crisis’. There was something symbolic in this: the powers that be really did learn a lesson. They discovered how far things could go when the door to plurality of opinions and interests was opened: the very totalitarian essence of the system was jeopardised. Having learned this lesson, political power began to focus entirely on self-preservation. In a process that had its own, mindless dynamics, all the mechanisms of direct and indirect manipulation of life began to expand and assume unprecedented forms. Henceforth nothing could be left to chance.

The past nineteen years in Czechoslovakia can serve as an almost textbook illustration of how an advanced or late totalitarian system works. Revolutionary ethos and terror have been replaced by dull inertia, pretext-ridden caution, bureaucratic anonymity and mindless, stereotypical behaviour, the sole point of which is to become, ever more fully, exactly what they are.

The songs of the zealots and the cries of the tortured have fallen silent; lawlessness has donned kid gloves and moved from the legendary torture chambers into the upholstered offices of faceless bureaucrats. If the President of the Republic is seen in the streets at all it is behind the bulletproof glass of his limousine as it roars off to the airport under police escort to meet Colonel Khaddafi.

The advanced totalitarian system depends on manipulatory devices so refined, complex and powerful that it no longer requires murderers and victims. Even less does it require fiery Utopia builders spreading discontent with their dreams of a better future. The epithet ‘Real Socialism’, which this era has coined to describe itself, points a finger at those for whom it has no room: the dreamers.

Every story begins with an event. This event — understood as the incursion of one ‘logic’ into the world of another ‘logic’ — initiates what every story grows out of and draws nourishment from: situations, relationships and conflict. The story has a ‘logic’ of its own as well, but it is the logic of dialogue, encounter and the interaction of different truths, attitudes, ideas, traditions, passions, human beings, higher powers, social movements and so on — in other words, of a number of autonomous, independent forces which have done nothing in advance to define each other. Every story, therefore, assumes a plurality of truths, of ‘logics’ and of subjects, of decisions and forms of behaviour. The logic of a story resembles the logic of games, a logic of tension between the known and the unknown, between rules and randomness, between the inevitable and the unforeseeable (for example the unforeseeable outcome of whatever provokes a confrontation with the inevitability of a different order). We never know with any certainty what will emerge from the confrontation, what elements may yet enter into it and how it will end; it is never clear ahead of time which of the potential qualities in one ‘player’ it will arouse and what action he performs in response to an action on the part of his ‘antagonist’. For this reason alone mystery is an essential dimension of every story. What speaks to us through a story is not a particular agent of truth; instead, the story manifests the human world to us as an exhilarating arena where many such agents come into contact with each other.

The fundamental pillar of the present totalitarian system is the existence of a single, central agent of all truth and all power (a kind of institutionalised ‘rationale of history’) which also becomes, quite naturally, the sole agent of all social activity. This activity ceases to be an arena in which different more or less autonomous agents square off; and becomes no more than the manifestation and fulfilment of the truth and the will of a single agent. In a world governed by this principle, there is no room for mystery; proprietorship of complete truth means that everything is known ahead of time. And where everything is known ahead of time there is no soil for the story to grow out of.

Obviously the totalitarian system is in its very essence (that is, in the essence of its basic principle) directed against the story.

When the story is destroyed, the feeling of historicity necessarily disappears as well. I remember the early Seventies in Czechoslovakia as a time when something like a ‘cessation of history’ took place: public activity seemed to lose its structure, its impulse, its direction, its tension, its rhythm and its mystery. I can’t remember what happened when, or what made one year different from another one, or even what was actually going on, and I don’t think it matters very much, for when the unforeseeable disappears, the sensation of meaning itself disappears along with it.

History was replaced by pseudo-history, by a calendar of rhythmically recurring anniversaries, congresses, celebrations and mass gymnastic events; in other words, by precisely the kind of artificial activity that is not an open-ended play of agents confronting one another but a one-dimensional, transparent and utterly predictable self-manifestation (and self- celebration) of a single, central agent of truth and power.

And since human time can only be experienced through story and history, the very experience of time itself began to disappear: time seemed to stand still or go around in circles, disintegrate into fragments of interchangeable moments. The march of events that came out of nowhere and went nowhere lost its story-like character and thus lost any deeper meaning as well. When the horizon of historicity was lost, life became nonsense.

Totalitarian power brought bureaucratic ‘order’ into the living ‘disorder’ of history and thus effectively anaesthetised it as history.

In a sense the government had nationalised time. And as a result, time encountered the same sad fate as many other nationalised entities: it began to wither away.

*

The ceaseless strengthening, developing and perfecting of totalitarian structures have long since come to serve only the naked self-preservation of power, but this is precisely the best guarantee that what was genetically encoded and hidden away in the original ideology may also flourish undisturbed. The fanatic whose unpredictable zeal for the ‘higher cause’ might threaten this automatic process has been replaced by the bureaucratic pedant whose reliable lack of ideas makes him an ideal guardian of the vacuous continuity of the late totalitarian system.

I think that the phenomenon of totalitarian nihilisation is one of the late fruits of an ideology that has already gone to seed.

As I’ve already suggested, the revolutionary ethos in Czechoslovakia has long since vanished into thin air. We are no longer governed by fanatics, revolutionaries or ideological zealots. The country is administered by faceless bureaucrats who may profess their adherence to a revolutionary ideology but in reality are only looking out for themselves: they no longer believe in anything. The original ideology has long since become no more than a formalised ritual that gives them a legitimacy in space and in time and provides them with a language for internal communication.

Oddly enough this ideology has only now begun to bear its most important fruit; only now, it would seem, has the full extent of its deepest consequences begun to appear.

How are we to explain this?

Simply: by old age and the deeply conservative (in the sense of preserving) nature of the system. The further away it is from its original revolutionary fervour, the more slavishly it clings to all its constitutive principles, which it sees as the only certainty in an uncertain world. Gradually, through its own dull automatic motion, it slowly, mindlessly and inevitably transforms those principles into a monstrous reality. The ceaseless strengthening, developing and perfecting of totalitarian structures have long since come to serve only the naked self-preservation of power, but this is precisely the best guarantee that what was genetically encoded and hidden away in the original ideology may also flourish undisturbed. The fanatic whose unpredictable zeal for the ‘higher cause’ might threaten this automatic process has been replaced by the bureaucratic pedant whose reliable lack of ideas makes him an ideal guardian of the vacuous continuity of the late totalitarian system.

I think that the phenomenon of totalitarian nihilisation is one of the late fruits of an ideology that has already gone to seed.

*

The totalitarian system did not fall from the sky as a fully developed, pure ‘structure in and of itself. Nor is it the work of a pervert who has stolen a scalpel designed to remove malignant growths and begun killing healthy people with it.

We need only penetrate the tissue of various dialectic sprouts to discover that the germ of this nihilisation lies dormant in the very heart of the ideology upon which this system is based: in its self-assured belief that it has fully understood the world and revealed the truth about it. And if the main terrain of its self-assurance is history, is it any wonder that its nihilising intention radiates most clearly from how it approaches history?

It began with an interpretation of history from a single aspect of it; then it made that aspect absolute and finally it reduced all of history to it. The exciting multiplicity of history was replaced with an easily understood interaction of ‘historical laws’, ‘social formations’ and ‘relations of production’, so pleasing to the order-loving eye of the scientist. This, however, gradually expelled from history precisely what gives human life, time, and thus history itself a structure: the story. And, banished to the kingdom of unmeaning, the story took with it its two essential ingredients: uniqueness and intrinsic ambiguity. Since the mystery in a story is merely the articulated mystery of man, history, having lost the story, began to lose its human content. The uniqueness of the human creature became a mere embellishment on the laws of history, and the tension and thrill inherent in real events were dismissed as accidental and so unworthy of the attention of scholarship. History became boredom.

The negation of the past negates the future as well: when the ‘laws of history’ were projected into the future, what would be and what had to be suddenly became obvious. The bright glare of this certainly burned away the very essence of the future: its openness. Plans to make an earthly paradise the final end of history, to rid the world of social conflict, of negative human qualities and even, perhaps, of human misery as well, climaxed the work of destruction: the petrification of society as a fiction of everlasting harmony, and of man as the permanent proprietor of happiness — these were the silent consummations of an intellectual execution of history.

Yet by presenting itself as an instrument of the ultimate return of history to itself, ideology unwittingly admits to its own destructiveness. The claim is that through ideology, history finally understood itself, understood where it was going and how it had to proceed: that is, under ideology’s guidance. So ideology revealed the historical necessity of what must happen, and at the same time it revealed the historical necessity of itself as that which has come to fulfill that necessity. In other words, history has at last discovered its final meaning. The question is, however, does history which has discovered its own meaning still have any meaning at all? And is it really history any more?

Ideology, claiming to base its authority on history, becomes history’s greatest enemy.

The hostility is double-edged: if ideology destroys history by explaining it completely, then history destroys ideology by unfolding in a way other than that prescribed by ideology.

Ideology, of course, can destroy history only ideologically, but the power based on that ideology can suppress history in real ways. In fact it has no choice: if history, by unfolding autonomously, were allowed to demonstrate that ideology is wrong, it would deprive power of its legitimacy.

By negating history, of course, power is not just defending its ideological legitimacy, but its very identity as totalitarian power. And we have seen how incompatible that identity is with a sense of history.

But that identity too, of course, has a firm ideological anchorage of its own: the principle that there is a single central agent of truth and power — the backbone of the totalitarian system — could scarcely have come into existence at all, let alone develop and grow strong, had it not initially drawn power from the self-assurance of ideology which so smugly disdains any viewpoint other than its own, and so proudly declares its own historical mission and all the prerogatives this mission endows it with. After all, totalitarian power has been fed and weaned and nourished and is imbued to this day with the intolerant spirit and mentality of this ideology, which sees plurality only as a necessary evil or a mere formality. In fact it is the very embodiment of this spirit. And its central principle can be justifiably understood as nothing more than the consistent working through of the original ideology and the perfect incarnation of its vanity; as its legitimate product, it draws on ideology’s nihilising energy, so that it can successfully put the theories of ideology into practice.

It can be said that what the asthma society is now suffering from is only a natural continuation of the war that intellectual arrogance once declared on the story, on history and thus on life itself.

Boredom has jumped out of the history textbooks and into the real life of the nation.

*

Yet by presenting itself as an instrument of the ultimate return of history to itself, ideology unwittingly admits to its own destructiveness. The claim is that through ideology, history finally understood itself, understood where it was going and how it had to proceed: that is, under ideology’s guidance. So ideology revealed the historical necessity of what must happen, and at the same time it revealed the historical necessity of itself as that which has come to fulfill that necessity. In other words, history has at last discovered its final meaning. The question is, however, does history which has discovered its own meaning still have any meaning at all? And is it really history any more?

Ideology, claiming to base its authority on history, becomes history’s greatest enemy.

Drawing on the assurance that it is totally right and therefore has a claim to total power, any fledgling totalitarian power first tries to limit and ultimately to eliminate altogether its main competitors: other sources of power. The first to go is political plurality. But along with it, or shortly afterwards, intellectual and economic plurality necessarily disappear as well, since any power that respects these pluralities would not be total.

First of all, then, the story is driven out of public life.

By virtue of its own specific weight — the weight of its own totalitarian essence — this power naturally tends to deepen its totality and extend its range; it recognises no authority over itself, one that might limit it. In other words, once the claims of central power have been placed above law and morality, once the exercise of that power is divested of public control and once the institutional guarantees of political plurality and civil rights have been made a mockery of or simply abolished, there is no longer any reason to respect any other limitations. And so the expansion of central power does not stop at the frontier between the public and the private, but instead, arbitrarily pushes back that border until it is shamelessly intervening even in areas that were once considered exclusively private. (For example, a club of pigeon-fanciers that had once enjoyed a kind of autonomy now suddenly find themselves scrutinised by the central power: the borders of what can come under surveillance shifted from political parties to pigeon-fanciers. And of course it didn’t stop there: today that power walks through my bugged bedroom and distinguishes my breathing, which is my own private matter, from what I say, which the state cannot be indifferent to).

With the banning of opposition parties and the introduction of censorship, the attack on the story and thus on life itself is not over; on the contrary, that is just the beginning.

Because they are more hidden, indirect interventions are in some ways even more dangerous. Everywhere today, public life is no longer as sharply distinguished from private life as it used to be. The countless phenomena of modern civilisation bind these two spheres together by thousands of mutual ties and so they are essentially only two faces, two poles or two dimensions of a single and ultimately indivisible life. Everything that takes place in the public sphere inevitably — though sometimes through complex and hidden routes — penetrates the private sphere, influencing it and in many cases directly shaping it. When public life is negated, this inevitably deforms, distorts and ultimately negates private life as well: every measure taken to establish more complete control over the former has a pernicious impact on the latter.

The attack on plurality and on the story and on public territory is therefore not merely an attack on a single side or area of life; it is an attack on life as a whole.

The web of direct and indirect instruments of manipulation is a straitjacket that binds life and necessarily limits the fundamental ways it can appear to itself and structure itself. And so it languishes, declines, wastes away. It is cheapened and levelled. It becomes pseudo-life.

While I was in prison, I realized again and again how much more present — compared with life outside — the story was. Almost every prisoner had a life story that was unique and shocking, or moving. As I listened to those different accounts, I suddenly found myself in something like a ‘pre-totalitarian’ world, or simply in the world of literature. Whatever else I may have thought of my fellow-prisoners’ colourful narratives, there is one thing they were not: they were not documents of totalitarian nihilisation. On the contrary, they testified to the rebelliousness with which human uniqueness resists its own nihilisation, and the stubbornness with which it holds to its own and is willing to ignore this negating pressure. Regardless of whether crime or misfortune were the predominant motifs in any given story, the faces in that world were very specific and personal. When I got back from prison, I wrote somewhere that in a single cell of twenty-four people you can probably encounter more unique stories than in a high-rise development housing several thousand. People truly afflicted with asthma — those colourless, servile, obedient, homogenised, herd-like citizens of the totalitarian state — cannot be found in large numbers in prison. Instead, prison tends to be a gathering place for people who stand out in one way or another, the unclassifiable misfits, highly individual people with all sorts of obsessions, people who are scarcely able to adapt.

There is probably always a greater concentration of people in prison who stand out in some way than there is on the outside. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that what I observed bears a direct relationship to conditions under totalitarianism. The nature of many of the stories directly confirmed this.

On the whole, it’s logical: the wider the scope of those instruments by which the system manipulates, de-individualises and circumscribes life, and the more powerful its embrace, the more thoroughly everything truly unique is pushed to the periphery of ‘normal’ life and ultimately beyond it — into prison. The repressive apparatus that sends people to jail is merely an organic part and, in fact, a culmination of the general pressure totalitarianism exerts against life: without the horizon of this extreme threat many other threats would lose their weight and their credibility. In any case it is certainly no accident that, proportionally, Czechoslovakia has many times more prisoners than the United States. And clearly criminality — I mean real criminality — cannot be that much higher in Czechoslovakia.

What is in fact higher is the demand for uniformity and its inevitable consequence: the criminalisation of difference.

*

…the world of advanced totalitarianism is outstanding for the remarkable decline of uniqueness; it is as though a veil of vague, expressionless indistinguishability clung to everything, colouring it the same shade of grey. Paradoxically this veil clings to its source as well: in banishing all other comparable unique agents from its own world, the central agent divests itself of its own uniqueness as well. Hence the strange facelessness, transparency and elusiveness of power, hence the blandness of its language, the anonymity of its decisions.

If the subjects entering into a story can fully manifest and realise their uniqueness only through the story itself, in other words if uniqueness requires a story to become what it is, then by the same token a story assumes and requires uniqueness. Without unique — mutually distinguishable — subjects to appear in a story and create it, the story could never get off the ground. Uniqueness and the story are therefore like Siamese twins; one is unthinkable without the other, and they cannot be separated.

They also have a common abode: plurality. Plurality of course is a precondition not only of the story but also of uniqueness, since uniqueness is only possible alongside another uniqueness with which it can be compared and contrasted; where there are not many uniquenesses, there is no uniqueness at all.

An attack on plurality is therefore an attack both on the story and on uniqueness. And if the totalitarian system sees plurality as its chief enemy, it must repress uniqueness as well. Indeed, the world of advanced totalitarianism is outstanding for the remarkable decline of uniqueness; it is as though a veil of vague, expressionless indistinguishability clung to everything, colouring it the same shade of grey. Paradoxically this veil clings to its source as well: in banishing all other comparable unique agents from its own world, the central agent divests itself of its own uniqueness as well. Hence the strange facelessness, transparency and elusiveness of power, hence the blandness of its language, the anonymity of its decisions. Hence too its irresponsibility, for how can a subject be genuinely responsible when its identity is so blurred and when, moreover — because it is so alone — it has no one left to be responsible to?

This antipathy to uniqueness is not something the individuals who rule plan deliberately, but an intrinsic expression of the system’s totalitarian essence. Its centralism cannot co-exist with uniqueness or individuality: in destroying plurality this system inevitably destroys all forms of autonomy, particularity, unpredictability, independence, multiplicity and variation. If we mix all the colours together we get a dirty grey. The intention of totalitarianism is to make everything totally the same. Its fruit is uniformity, Gleichschaltung and the creation of a herd mentality.

And so gradually the great multiplicity of personal traditions, habits, lifestyles, attitudes, the uniqueness of localities and their climates, human institutions and communities, products and objects disappear forever.

Standardised life creates standardised citizens with no individual wills of their own. It begets undifferentiated people with undifferentiated stories. It is a mass producer of banality,

Anyone who resists too much, despairs too much or insists too much on having something of his own that exceeds the general norm or who tries to escape the standardised nothingness — either by going abroad or on a ‘trip’ — in other words anyone who disturbs the prescribed appearance of this standardised world and thus ‘sets himself apart’ from society, as it were, is inevitably headed to a place where he will no longer be a blotch on the surface of social life: to jail. Once a place where crimes were punished, prison is now a ‘correctional institute’: a refuse bin for human peculiarities and their bizarre stories.

*

Whenever I found myself in a new cell I was always asked where I was from, and when I said I was from Prague, the question always came back: ‘Whereabouts in Prague?’

It would never have occurred to me to say I was from Dejvice, so at first the question surprised me. But very quickly I understood it: in this old-fashioned world of individual stories a thing as old-fashioned as the uniqueness of a city quarter still plays a role. Obviously there are still people for whom Dejvice, Holesovice or Liben are not just addresses but a real home. People who have not capitulated to the standardising and nihilising pressure of the modern housing estate (where you can no longer tell what city you’re in) and who still cling to the uniqueness of their streets, the pubs on their corners, the former grocery store across the road — and to the mysterious and secret meaning of the stories connected to these localities.

It seems sadly symbolic to me that I have heard the most natural of questions — ‘Where is your home?’ — asked most often in prison.

The history of the system I live in has demonstrated persuasively that without a plurality of economic initiatives and those who participate in them, without competition, without a market place and its institutional guarantees, an economy will stagnate and decline.

Why then does this system so stubbornly resist all attempts to restore these proven instruments of economic life? Why is it that all such efforts have so far either been hopelessly half-baked or else repressed altogether?

The deepest reason for this is not the leaders’ fear that it will conflict with the ideology, nor their personal conservatism, nor even the fear that limiting the economic power of the centre inevitably leads to a limiting of its political power.

The real reason, in my opinion, lies — again — in the totalitarian essence of the system itself, or rather in its overwhelming inertia. The system must control everything or it is not total. It cannot release from its sphere of control such an enormous and vital part of life as the economy without losing its identity. Were it to recognise institutional guarantees of economic plurality and undertake to respect them, it would be acknowledging the legitimacy of something else, something other than its own total claim to power, something that placed legal limits on that power. This would be tantamount to denying its own totalitarian nature and it would thus cease to be itself. So far, overwhelming inertia has always prevented the totalitarian system from carrying out this kind of ontological self-destruction. (I have no reason not to believe that sometime in the future a stronger power might arise to oppose this inertia and compel the system genuinely to relinquish its totalitarian essence. I’m only saying that this has never yet happened, anywhere.)

I mention this now because although the standardising and therefore nihilising impact of political and intellectual centralisation is immediately clear, the analogous impact of economic centralisation — as one of the indirect methods of manipulating life in general — is far from being so obvious. But that is precisely what makes it more dangerous.

Where there is no natural plurality of economic initiatives, the interplay of competing producers and their competing, entrepreneurial ideas disappears, and along with it the interplay of supply and demand, the labour and commodity markets, voluntary labour relations disappear too. Gone as well are the stimuli to creativity and its attendant risks, the drama of economic success and failure. Man as a producer imperceptibly ceases to be a participant or a creator in the economic story and becomes a mere instrument whose stereotypical functioning can no longer give time a genuinely human structure. Everyone is an employee of the state, which is the one central proprietor of economic truth and power, and as such, everyone is buried in the anonymity of the collective economic ‘non-story’.

With the loss of his uniqueness as a relatively autonomous participant in economic life, man loses some of his social and human uniqueness and thus, as well, part of his hope of ever creating his own human story.

When economic plurality disappears, the motives for competition in the marketplace of consumer goods naturally disappear along with it. The central power may of course talk about ‘satisfying differentiated needs’ but the economic pressures of a non-pluralistic economy compel it to do exactly the opposite: to integrate production and standardise the choice of goods. In this artificial economic world, diversity is merely an economic complication.

As a consumer then, a person has no choice, and once again therefore he is manipulated in far-reaching ways: not only does he have to depend (like all who live in modern industrial societies) almost exclusively on commodities he himself did not produce, he does not even have a choice of different commodities and thus cannot even realise his own uniqueness at least in this limited way. All he has is what he has been allocated by the monopoly producer: the same things that have been allocated to everyone else.

A centralised designer of furniture may not be the most typical representative of the totalitarian system, but as one who unconsciously realises its nihilising intentions he may have more impact than five government ministers put together: millions of people have to spend their entire lives surrounded by the furniture he has invented.

Let me exaggerate deliberately: it would be to the greatest advantage of a centrally-directed system of production if only a single type prefabricated panel were produced from which a single type of apartment building would be constructed; these buildings in turn would be fitted with a single kind of door, window, toilet, door handle, washbasin and so on, and together this would create a single type of housing development constructed according to a single, standardised urban development plan, with minor adjustments for several different categories of landscape, given the regrettable irregularity of the earth’s surface. (In each apartment, of course, there would be the same kind of television set showing the same programme.) Imperceptibly but irresistibly, not deliberately but inevitably, given the form of economics engendered by the totalitarian system, everything begins to resemble everything else: the buildings, the clothing, the workplaces, the public decorations, public transport, the forms of entertainment, the behaviour of people in public and in their own houses.

This general standardisation of public and private spaces is a faithful reflection of the deep intentions of the totalitarian system and it necessarily has a standardising effect on the way of life and its rhythms, narrowing the range of alternatives and the sphere of desires and aversions, of sensual experience and taste. It flattens the world in which people live.

In such an environment, uniqueness languishes and stories become interchangeable.

Is it any wonder than an ambitious reporter would rather risk his life in Lebanon?

If a citizen of our country wishes to travel abroad, get a new job, exchange his apartment or his stove, or organise an amateur event, he is usually compelled to undertake a long and exhausting march through various offices for the necessary permits, certificates, recommendations, and he must frequently demean himself or at least bite his tongue when confronted with the swollen and indifferent monster of bureaucracy. It is tiring, boring and debilitating. Many people, out of disgust or a mental inability to submit themselves to all this, or for fear that it will simply drag them down, quickly give up on many of their most personal ideas, desires and plans.

In doing so of course they also renounce something of their own potential story. It may be something of secondary importance. But the process of surrendering something of oneself always begins with small matters.

Another indirect instrument of nihilisation is the bureaucratic regulation of the everyday details of people’s lives. It is that special sector in which public matters infiltrate into everyone’s private life in a way which is very ‘ordinary’, but at the same time extremely persistent. The sheer number of small pressures that we are subjected to every day in this sector together create a kind of horizon that is more important than it may seem at first: it encloses the space in which we are condemned to breathe.

There is very little air in that space. Not so little, however, that we might suffocate entirely and thus create a story.

The demand for general and unquestioning loyalty forces people to become bit players in countless empty rituals and leads them to despair of any kind of public self-realisation. Man ceases to be an autonomous and self- confident participant in the life of the community and becomes a mere instrument by which the central agent realises itself.

*

These examples, of course, do not exhaust the range of ways in which the totalitarian system directly and indirectly, negates life.

The elimination of political plurality deprives society of a basic means of structuring itself because it does not allow a variety of interests and opinions and traditions to proclaim their presence and make a contribution. The elimination or drastic curtailment of intellectual plurality makes it hard for a person to choose a way to relate to Being, to the world and to himself. Culture and information controlled from the centre narrow the horizon against which man matures into his own uniqueness. The demand for general and unquestioning loyalty forces people to become bit players in countless empty rituals and leads them to despair of any kind of public self-realisation. Man ceases to be an autonomous and self- confident participant in the life of the community and becomes a mere instrument by which the central agent realises itself. The ever-present danger of punishment for any kind of original expression compels one constantly to make certain one is moving cautiously enough across the quicksand of one’s own potential, and this is a process that pointlessly wastes one’s strength. An extensive network of bureaucratic limitations affects everything from one’s choice of profession or study, the possibility of travel, the limits of admissible creative initiative, right down to the extent and kind of personal ownership, and all of this shrinks to an uncommon degree the space one has to act in. The total claim of the central power — respecting only those limits it imposes upon itself for practical reasons in any given moment — creates a state of general uncertainty: no-one is ever sure of the ground he stands on, or what he may venture to do, and what he may not, or what may happen to him if he does. The sway this power exercises over the executive power of the legislature and the judiciary, coupled with the actual omnipotence of the police, makes people feel uncertain and insecure. The imperious vanity of the administrative apparatus, its anonymity, and the extinction of individual responsibility in the faceless pseudo-responsibility of the system (anyone may offer excuses for anything or be accused of anything, since the will of the centralised power recognises no arbitrator in any dispute with an individual) creates a sensation of helplessness and cripples the will to live one’s own life.

All of that together — and much more that is even more subtle — lies behind our asthma.

On the surface of things, everything goes on just as it does anywhere else: people work, have fun, make love, live and die. Beneath this surface, however, a destructive disease is gnawing away.

‘Call me when the man dies.’

In this case the patient will not die. Nevertheless to keep his disease a secret amounts to encouraging it, and encouraging its spread.

In recent years, several very good film comedies have been made in Czechoslovakia that were successful at home and abroad. One or two of them were even nominated for Oscars.

However much I may enjoy these films, I can’t shake the depressing feeling that there’s something not right about them. American audiences, who do hot have to suffer daily the kind of asthma that prevails here, naturally see nothing wrong with them.

What do these films have in common?

One important thing, I think: the stories they tell lack historical background. No matter how many superficial and essentially ornamental techniques these films employ to suggest a particular locality and a particular moment in time, essentially they seem to exist outside space and time. The stories they tell could have taken place anywhere and any time.

There are two immediate ways in which totalitarian pressure surgically removes their historicity: directly, in other words through censorship and self-censorship, both of which have an extraordinarily evolved sensitivity to anything that might capture, in any essential way, the historical dimension of life; and indirectly, by the destruction of historicity in life itself. It is, of course, extraordinarily difficult to grasp the historic quality of a moment when a global attack on the very notion of history is taking place, because it means trying to tell the story of the loss of story, the story of asthma.

This double pressure automatically forces a creative person to turn his attention to private life. And yet — as I’ve already said — private and public life today (particularly under totalitarianism) are inseparable; they are like two linked vessels, and one cannot very well capture one truthfully while ignoring the other. Private life without a historical horizon is pure fiction, a facade and ultimately a lie.

Indeed, the picture of life that has been artificially reduced to its purely private dimension (or provided with no more than superficial reminders of the public dimension, while carefully avoiding everything essential in that dimension) inevitably becomes an eccentric anecdote, a genre picture, a story told over the back fence, a fairy-tale or a fiction concocted from thousands of undeniably living individualities. In such a presentation, even the most private life is somehow strangely twisted, sometimes to the point where it becomes implausibly bizarre, a paradoxical outcome of some intense and paralysing desire for living verisimilitude. It is obvious what has made this desire so intense: the subconscious need to compensate for the absence of the opposite pole — truth. It is as though life in this case were stripped of its genuine inner tension, its true tragedy and greatness, its genuine questions. The more charmingly all of its superficial features are caricatured, the more seriously the work somehow misses the point of its innermost themes. Imitating life, it in fact falsifies it. Calligraphy replaces drawing.

In the films I’m talking about, what I miss of course is not this or that concrete bit of political detail. There are always some details from political reality present, sometimes even more than is good for the work. I miss something else: a free vision of life as a whole. This is not a matter of theme: I can well imagine a film about nothing more than love and jealousy, yet where this profound freedom would not be so lacking.

During the Nazi occupation several popular film comedies were made in Czechoslovakia. They were outstanding for a similar historicity and the untruths that flowed from that. Here again it wasn’t the theme that was at fault: it wasn’t images from concentration camps that I found lacking. I missed an inner freedom, and felt that their humour was only a slick way of making a virtue of necessity.

It’s interesting how you can always tell in the end.

The domestic success of today’s Czech film comedies has a problematic side to it. People find in them a rather strange kind of consolation: it confirms their illusions that the asthma does not in fact exist, and to the extent that it does exist, you can live with it; that it’s not really so important; that their lives have not been ravaged to the extent they sometimes seem, in weaker (or more precisely: stronger) moments. It’s a pacifying excuse.

These films tell unique stories. What they do not show, however, is the nihilising pressure against which these stories have been brought to life. People are thrilled to find that stories still exist. They are elated with them and end up kidding themselves: they forget that the story is only on the screen. That it is not their story.

I don’t know if there is anywhere to hide from the AIDS virus.

It seems to me, however, that there is no hiding place, no reservation, where one is safe from the virus of nihilisation.

There is a sphere in which the symptoms of our asthma can, on the contrary, be observed better by a foreigner than by someone suffering from it. This sphere is the visible or public face of the daily life of society. We have long since grown accustomed to this face. But more than one observant visitor has been shocked by it.

All you have to do, for example, is ride the subway escalators and observe the faces of people going in the opposite direction. This journey is a brief pause in the daily rat race, a sudden stoppage of life, a frozen moment which may reveal more about us than we know. Perhaps it is one of those legendary ‘moments of truth’. In this situation, a person suddenly stands outside all relationships; he is in public, but alone with himself. The faces moving past are all strangely empty, strained, almost lifeless, without hope, without longing, without desire. The eyes are expressionless, dull.

It is enough to observe how people behave towards each other in stores, in offices, and on the streetcars and subways: they tend to be surly, selfish, impolite, and disobliging; for the counter staff, customers often seem like an imposition, and they serve them while talking among themselves about their own private matters. When asked a question they reply with evident distaste (that is if they know an answer at all). Drivers yell at each other, people in queues elbow in ahead of others and snap at each other. Officials don’t care how many people are waiting to see them, or how long they’ve waited. They make appointments and often are not there to keep them. They get no pleasure from helping people and have no regrets when they can’t. They are capable of slamming the door in a supplicant’s face, cutting him off in mid-sentence. It would not be so depressing were it not that these officials are often the final court of appeal in a given matter.

It’s enough to look at people in the streets: most of them are in a rush, their faces are full of worry, they pay no attention to things around them. A sense of ease, cheerfulness and spontaneity has vanished from the streets. In the evening or at night the streets seem empty and hopeless, and if you do happen to see a group of relaxed, happy people, they are usually foreigners.

Warmth, openness, kindness and unassuming friendliness are gradually vanishing from everyday public contacts. Everyone seems to have a single thing on his mind: where to find what he happens to be looking for. Indifference and bad manners are spreading, even in restaurants people seem somehow buttoned up. Mindful of their own behaviour, they speak to each other in low voices, checking to make sure no one else is listening. Class four restaurants have become the last remaining oasis of natural companionship, and they tend to be in the suburbs rather than in the centre; these are the places one remembers in prison. But even in such places, more and more people come there just to drink intensively.
At the bottom of all such phenomena lies a vague stress: people are either nervous, irritated, somewhat anxious, or else they are apathetic. They give the impression that they expect to be hit at any moment from an unexpected quarter. Calmness and healthy certainty have been replaced by aggressivity.

It is the stress of people living under a constant threat. It is the stress of unfree, humiliated, and discouraged people who no longer believe in anything. It is the stress of people compelled, each day, to deal with absurdity and nothingness.

It is a stress of people living in a city under siege.

The stress of society which is not permitted to live in history. The stress of people exposed to the negating radiation of totalitarianism.

*

I am not describing here anything like the end of humanity. I am merely trying to draw attention to the inconspicuous, unspectacular and undramatic war that life wages every day against nothingness.

I am merely attempting to say that the struggle of the story and of history to resist their own nihilisation is in itself a story and as such belongs to history.

It is our special metastory.

Life, of course, goes on. It resists manipulation in many ways, adapting to it or finding ways to live with it. In real terms, it has not been destroyed, nor is it ever likely to be. Cracks can always be found for it to penetrate, levels where it can go on developing, ways in which, even in this suffocating milieu, it can express itself and structure itself into stories. Somehow we will always manage to write our stories by the way we act.

I am not describing here anything like the end of humanity. I am merely trying to draw attention to the inconspicuous, unspectacular and undramatic war that life wages every day against nothingness.

I am merely attempting to say that the struggle of the story and of history to resist their own nihilisation is in itself a story and as such belongs to history.

It is our special metastory.

We do not yet know how to talk about it because the traditional forms of storytelling fail us here. We do not yet know the laws that govern our metastory. We do not even know yet exactly who or what is the main villain of the story (it is definitely not a few individuals in the power centre: in a sense they too are victims of something that transcends them, just as the rest of us are).

One thing, however, is clear: we must tell the story of our asthma not despite the fact that people are not dying from it, but for precisely that reason.

Only one small detail remains: we have to learn how to do it.

***

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