Václav Havel’s “The Trial”

As some of you hopefully know, the prologue of my book  ends with these words:

But the real reason I dedicated so much time to this story is because I believe it matters. I said I’m an ordinary citizen, but I do bring a particular perspective to the story. For a PhD at the University of Michigan, I studied a literary-journalistic form called the feuilleton. The feuilleton is a kind of conversational essay that appeared in its own section of newspapers, first started in response to Napoleonic censorship. In the two hundred years since, feuilletons often became important when political polarization or government censorship degraded the traditional news into ideological talking points. At such times, the feuilleton served as a place where writers, speaking in ordinary language, could tell of important events in a more meaningful way.

One example I studied was how, during the 1970s in Communist Czechoslovakia, a group of citizens started writing and sharing feuilletons among friends, telling an unofficial version of events, copying them over and passing them on in a form of self-publishing. These citizens would go on to lead a Revolution, the peaceful Velvet Revolution. One of these citizens would even become president.

You see, I came to this story knowing the power of ordinary citizens speaking the truth.

I thought it an appropriate time to share with you a fairly important feuilleton, one written by Václav Havel in response to the trial of the Plastic People of the Universe. Havel was never a big feuilletonist–his specialties are absurd drama  and ponderous essays. But he wrote this back in 1976, when they were still in the early days of samizdat. The trial of the band, Plastic People, was a kind of last straw, It led directly to the foundation of Charter 77  (just over thirty years ago now), which in turn eventually led–after many setbacks and much pain–to the Velvet Revolution.

Here’s the feuilleton that Havel wrote after the trial. It’s my own crappy adaptation of a translation I did for a different purpose (couldn’t find my professionally translated copy at home before I left). But you’ll get the jist.

Something that originally was in no way out of the ordinary suddenly illuminated the time and the world we live in with an unexpected light, bringing its fundamental questions surprisingly to the fore. On the surface, nothing special happened: the trial took place at the specified time; it lasted as long as it was supposed to last and ended in the way it was supposed to: the accused were found guilty. Yet everything to which man was a witness here so obviously and urgently transcended itself that even those who had the fewest reasons to admit such a thing to themselves sensed it.

Havel, the playwright, goes on to describe the trial as if it’s one big catastrophic play.

What is even stranger, nothing could be done about it: the play, once it started had to be played through to the end, thus finally showing how terribly its initiators had entangled themselves in the net of their own prestige. They did not dare to halt the whole thing and admit their error, but rather went through the embarrassing spectacle to the very end. At the same time the actors in this spectacle found themselves in a paradoxical situation: the more honestly they played their parts, the more obviously they uncovered their unforeseen meaning, thus becoming the co-creators of an entirely different performance than they had thought they were playing, or had wanted to play.

The description really resonates for me–the thought of a bunch of people launching “a play” that they thought they controlled, but one that ended up entangling them in totally unexpected ways. I see Libby, refusing to flip on Cheney, going through the “embarrassing spectacle” to the end. And David Addington, totally honest in his unfiltered babble of data, exposing the Unitary Executive for the farce it is.

And all of this, for Havel at least, provided a totally new view of the world.

A new view of the world opens out for us, and with it a new view for our own human possibilities, of what we are and what we could be.

The trial of the Plastic People, according to Havel’s description, exposed the whole facade of power of Communist Czechoslovakia such that those who witnessed it looked on their own lives and actions differently. By seeing their lives–and the falseness of the power the government exercised over them–differently, it freed them to act. It empowered them to launch whole new kinds of actions.

Now I’m not saying this trial is definitely going to be the beginning of the end for the evil direction our country is headed in. Only time will tell whether this trial acquires more significance, finally, than Anna Nicole Smith’s death.

But sometimes trials like this can be a beginning–the start of something important. I, for one, will think of this trial as a beginning, not an end in itself.

  1. Anonymous says:

    As always, ew I bow to your superlative writing.
    I didn’t know about feuilletons but they sound suspiciously like some of the blog posts I have read over the years on this case and other issues.

    WRT ANS, sad as that story is for the people directly involved for the rest of us it it only the tragedie du jour (or semaine) and will sink back into the arms of Morpheus, as wind of the help that Justin Timberlake, now sadly sans Cameron, is giving his first love Brittany Spears help to make a comeback.

    And how do you like my highflying writing style? David Brook’s use of â€the owl of Minerva flies at dusk†inspired me. ;o)

  2. Anonymous says:

    Beautiful. Resonant. Thank you so much for what you’ve done. I’m thinking of planning a small conference on information pathways of the Iraq war about false intelligence and the rise of the blogosphere. Interested?

  3. will says:

    EW – thanks for all your liveblogging, I’ve been reading from afar in London fascinated. This reminds me of Jeffrey Alexander’s work on the Watergate scandal and how the inquiry became a social/media ritual through which wider issues were played out (I have a similar perspective on the US bicentennial celebration in my research and its role as a venue for wider conflicts and debates). Anyway, I think the blogging and live-blogging of Plamegate has become a similar kind of social phenomenon, although I fear it is also symptomatic of the modern age and that maybe it is about those of us who want to see and those of us who don’t. As such, as a blog reader and international citizen, I am anxious about how elitist our attention is – that we’re not representative of society as a whole, and maybe that’s what we should worry about, and whether we all engage in a kind of false consciousness (accepting that Libby was found guilty of course!). Ok, ramble over!

  4. Anonymous says:

    If it is to be Eliot, let’s quote it all…

    What we call the beginning is often the endAnd to make and end is to make a beginning.The end is where we start from. And every phraseAnd sentence that is right (where every word is at home,Taking its place to support the others,The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,An easy commerce of the old and the new,The common word exact without vulgarity,The formal word precise but not pedantic,The complete consort dancing together)Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,Every poem an epitaph. And any actionIs a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throatOr to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

    This Trial is the beginning. While we don’t yet know what it begins, or where it leads, please take a well deserved bow for your part in the fact that we have a place to start from.

    We look forward to your further feuilletons lighting the way…

  5. Anonymous says:

    In Tucson we try to schedule people we like between October and March, so that’s what I’m thinking. I’ll be in touch!

  6. dipper says:

    Do you suppose Communist Czechoslovakia had the equivalent of Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter to poison the minds of otherwise intelligent people in their struggle against oppression?

  7. freepatriot says:

    during the 1970s in Communist Czechoslovakia, a group of citizens started writing and sharing feuilletons among friends, telling an unofficial version of events, copying them over and passing them on in a form of self-publishing.

    this kinda sounds like a community I joined a few years back. We’re led by a core of very inteligent people who are dedicated to discovering the truth and restoring our liberties

    cept we don’t use paper


  8. Canuck Stuck in Muck says:

    EW! Dobry den. Nemluvim Cesky.
    Thanks for your flashback. Through it I was returned to the summer of my own doctoral research in a little town near Brno in 1992. The friends I made there are always in my thoughts. But I noticed that they were still, three years after the Velvet inspiration, wary, ever worried that the Russians could or would return. Still, they were free to think and speak like never before, and for that I thanked Mr. Havel every day I spent there. Havel’s work had valence in Czechoslovakia under the Communists. And, while I see the obvious analogy with the European experience, I think there must be a difference. You and Jane and Christy and Pach, SWOPA, Kos, Josh, and the other web loggers are (I think) more literally pamphleteers in the tradition of revolutionary America. And we need you more than ever we did in those days, because our mad King George is insidiously unravelling all the gains made in the eighteenth century. We need you more than ever because, in these times, we are too used to top-down information–from our parents, our teachers, our politicians, our news agencies. What you and the others are doing is a bottom-up information campaign, which involves the audience in an active way, and which promulgates critical thinking. Your efforts will, eventually, topple the superstructure of lies that fill our lives, and replace them, one hopes, with a generation of active knowledge producers, rather than the (metaphorically speaking) couch potatoes we’ve become. We are all very much in your debt, and very much invested in your continued progress and future successes. We all, I must believe, wish we could be so eloquent. We are all inspired. For some time now I’ve wondered when the people were going to grab their torches and pitchforks and surround the castle of this Frankenstein administration in Washington. It’s time. The timorous need not apply.

  9. emptypockets says:

    A new view of the world opens out for us, and with it a new view for our own human possibilities, of what we are and what we could be.

    Is this how we feel?

    Some do. Particularly those who have followed this story day by day, may see the guilty verdict as affirmation that the system can work, that traitors can be tried and punished and not wriggle free.

    But the view from 1,000 feet up may not be as affirming. At the risk of sounding like a terrible downer, it seems that (1) this trial confirms a fundamental corruption in our government, (2) that that corruption has gone largely unchecked, as even the sequestered jury recognized that several major players were going untried and unchallenged, and (3) that even the one player who has been brought down was not found guilty of the elemental crime he committed but rather, as Havel’s piece suggests, tripped up in his own net on other charges.

    So, as with the interpretation of this story from its beginning, I think it may still fall to the ones who followed it closely and â€got it†at a deep level to explain to the rest of America whether this really opens a â€new view of our own human possibilities†(in a good way) and how it points us to â€what we could be.†Because if the best we can be is a nation that doesn’t lie to the courts and obstruct federal investigations, it feels like we are setting the bar disappointingly low!

  10. jhhugo says:

    Dear Emptywheel,

    Once again it is a delight to think about our current situation from the perspective of events in E.E. during the 1970s. Let us hope that journalists who have in many ways become like Havel’s shopkeeper by mindlessly parroting the Conservative gospel will realize that their survival no longer depends on conformity. Perhaps Michael Barrone’s comments today (hattip TPM Memo) are a sign we are reaching that stage.

  11. Haralambos says:

    All I can say is thanks, once again. Since the folks who put up comments here are so well-informed and more articulate and clever than I am I will not add more aside from the thanks. This is not snark but genuine appreciation of your posts.

  12. William Ockham says:

    I saw the title of this post and immediately thought of the other resident of Prague who wrote something called â€The Trialâ€, Franz Kafka, but I guess that would be Kagro X’s beat (state secrets, NSA, al-Masri, Padilla, etc.).

    Now this may be a bit off-topic, but, of the many things that came out at the trial, the fact that Tim Russert talked to the FBI in Fall 2003 is the most interesting to me. If Libby has said he heard about Plame from Judy Miller he very well might have skated through the whole thing. With Miller, he had an explicit journalist/source relationship and real reason to think she wouldn’t testify. Why was it important to Libby to tell a story that had him â€re-learning†about Plame on July 10 rather than July 8?

  13. Anonymous says:

    â€Why was it important to Libby to tell a story that had him â€re-learning†about Plame on July 10 rather than July 8?â€

    Novak called Libby on the 9th, topic unspecified in the testimony…

  14. Anonymous says:

    More importantly, Mickey, Dick Cheney ordered him to leak to Judy on July 8.

    The July 8 conversation gives you one degree of separation between Cheney and an illegal leak.

  15. kim says:

    The feeling that the state of the world can change in a big way, for the good I should add, is a great feeling. I do think that all the major news organizations will change greatly over the next 10 years and people like Team FDL are leading this change.

    Today I dropped my last delivered newspaper for its website (now I’ll just buy the weekend paper as a new form of indulgence), I’ve also a couple of other papers that I subscribe to on the web. I’d encourage people doing this because I think the traditional papers should be supported, the idea of the NYTimes or WaPo going out of business because they’re free on the web is just unacceptible to me (the WS, well maybe yes, not a straightforward decision).

  16. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    I recall (dimly) reading an interview with Havel years ago, in which he said that he’d had an epiphany about the Communists by realizing how much ’bad art’ they put on their walls; the art was never expressive or aesthetic. (With respect to Libby, I have always thought that his writing about a 10 year old linked sexually with a bear was like something that a Communist functionary would write.) Bad art is always a warning sign.

    I have no idea whether blogs are fuelletins, but my fairly regular contact with some quite conservative, religious people suggests that the blogs could shut down tomorrow, and it wouldn’t stop The Tipping Point we’ve reached. Many of these people join and serve in the military, so they’ve been very aware of disasters in Iraq and in military health care for quite some time and I definitely sense a seething indignation — and [politically] what people wanted to believe in, trust, and value has shown itself to be deplorable. There’s a psychic crisis that has nothing to do with Al Quaeda, but a lot to do with demographics, economics, technological innovations, and personal identity — but also with what I might call ’personal ethics’ as the results of selfish, greedy, blind decisions are played out in the public sphere. Many of these folks don’t handle ambiguity very well, so when their fundamental assumptions are overturned, they’re really at a loss.

    If a new consciousness arises, that moment of the Earthrise taken from the moon will mark it’s quickening. But sometimes when I use Google Earth, or read information about global health, or altered storm patterns, or go online to track a plane flight for arrival times…I see daily indications that the new consciousness will probably derive from some strange mashup that merges the microscopic with a view from 35,000 feet.

    I do sense something trying to emerge from a lot of smoldering indignation. I only hope (I heartily hope) that it will come with as little violence as possible. I hope it is aesthetically pleasing, and has a good sound track

    And being a fan of most things digital, I suspect that it will be fundamentally mashup; mix-and-match, fileshare, recompressing and repurposing will probably be inherent to the communicating that happens about it. I have more than once been struck, however, at the analogies inherent in images of the developing World Wide Web, and the development of a human brain; perhaps some cybercartographer will point us to a way forward.

  17. emptypockets says:

    we are mixing our metaphors here. was Havel’s â€new view of the world†the result of the trial or the result of feuilletons? is our â€new view,†if we have one, the result of the prosecution and verdict or something bloggy?

    I thought, for Havel the former, and it sounds like for us the latter.

  18. Anonymous says:

    More importantly, Mickey, Dick Cheney ordered him to leak to Judy on July 8.

    The July 8 conversation gives you one degree of separation between Cheney and an illegal leak.

    Good point! Speaking of degrees of separation, is part of our new beginning the assumption that there are zero degrees of separation between Cheney and the leak, or do we have to prove it again?

    And, along with that, I wonder whether Patrick Fitzgerald will talk to Waxman’s Committee. Waxman’s letter is a carte blanche request for Fitzgerald’s â€views and insights.†Except for his closing argument, he’s held his â€views and insights†pretty close to his chest.

  19. kim says:

    I’ll encourage people to think of who they’d like Waxman to subpoena, there may not be another hearing.

    I’m going to suggest Toensing as I think she would lead to anyone among the Republicans who was worried about outing someone at the CIA.

    I might also suggest Tenet as he could defend Plame and better define her status at the CIA (re:IIPA for instance).

    Another dream witness might be Armitage – did anyone in the WH or OVP tell him about Plame/Wilson before he met Woodward?

    I’d ask Cheney exactly when he first learned of Plame (under oath of course)?

    I might even try asking that Repug lobbyist friend of Novak’s a bit more about his understanding of this scandal.

    EW might have additional suggestions.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I might even try asking that Repug lobbyist friend of Novak’s a bit more about his understanding of this scandal.

    Richard Hohlt and the Off the Record Club would be a wonderful band to play at the Waxman soirée.

  21. Jon says:


    Thanks for the dogged coverage of this issue! What I’d most like to know is what Bush and Cheney told Fitzpatrick. I hope that Congressional hearings can bring forward this information.

    If Libby had not lied but simply told the truth, that the VP had told him about Plame and ordered him to launder her name through selected members of the media, would Fitzpatrick have brought any charges? I suspect not. I believe he would have deferred to the Executive branch on the issue.

    I hope that this sordid incident will bring attention to the weakness of the statute that protects the lives of America’s undercover and protected agents and result in corrective legislation that makes it a crime to knowingly or unwittingly reveal or otherwise identify a protected member of the intelligence services or an undercover agent. The statute could be written in much the same way that other criminal statutes are written with degrees of culpability. Regardless of how an agent is outed, the fact that it is a prosecutable crime will not be in doubt but instead the only doubt that might remain will be how many years in prison one will get for the outting. It should be required of all citiznes, including journalists, that they must affirmatively ascertain the status of a protected employee of the intelligent services or risk prosecution. In this way, we shift the burden to the person doing the outing where it should lie. And not on some technicality of whether an incident can be succesfully prosecuted.

    At this point, it is imperative that Congressional hearings untangle the web of deceit for both the history books and to finally dtermine whether the Vice President and others could be held accountable for â€high crimes and misdemeanors.†If the Congressional hearings uncover sufficient information that it becomes clear that the members of the Administration should be brought to account, then I would hope that Congressional Democrats will have the stomach and the fortitude to convene a special committee to undertake this task.

  22. desertwind says:

    Thanks so much for this beautiful piece of writing and all the work you’ve done clarifying this for us.

    Dana Milbank’s March 7th piece in WaPo had this observation. It will be interesting to see who ’em is:

    Libby’s wife, Harriet Grant, was not as composed. In the first row of spectators, she hunched over and shook. A young member of Libby’s defense team put his arm around her shoulders. After judge and jury left, Grant went over to hug her husband with a furious look on her face. Three reporters heard her say what sounded like, â€We’re gonna [expletive] ’em.â€

  23. kim says:

    Judging from the right-wing eruptions, on FauxNews wednesday night, at JOM Wednesday (â€In Which I appeal…â€), in the Washington Post’s editorial yesterday and op-ed today (Krauthammer), and in the Washington Times today (Tyrell), I’d feel confident to guess that â€â€™em†is Joe and Valerie Wilson.

  24. Anonymous says:

    â€The trial of the Plastic People, according to Havel’s description, exposed the whole facade of power of Communist Czechoslovakia such that those who witnessed it looked on their own lives and actions differently. By seeing their lives–and the falseness of the power the government exercised over them–differently, it freed them to act. It empowered them to launch whole new kinds of actions.â€

    Of course this is akin to the turn Evie makes in response to the moral charade in which V engages her. I cry always cry when Evie realizes her â€empowerment†and the soul wrenching music in this scene is transcendent. Cinemax showed â€V is for Vendetta†in its first thing monday morning slot this week. It was a definite omen of a shift in consciousness.

  25. viget says:

    OT and weedy:

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the infamous 6/12/03 note is actually part of the talking points that Cheney had for Libby to give to Miller. It’s the missing smoking gun document.

    I’ve been reading and listening to the GJ testimony and it’s abundantly clear to me that Fitz keeps on coming back to this note and does not believe that the data is purported to be what it is. Now, of course Scooter admits as such, saying he came back later to add that date. He also claims that he added the info about the Uranium and Iraq Kristof NYT article later too, and that the note had no heading when he originally wrote it.

    Now why would that be? Could it be that he didn’t want prying eyes to know exactly what that note was all about? Maybe he did have the info about the Kristof article originally, but just no date? Man, I’d love to know exactly where this note was found, because it seems abundantly clear to me that Fitzgerald is mighty suspicious about it.

    It also seems to track pretty closely with Judy Miller’s account of their 6/23 meeting, especially with their conversation about Kristof’s article. The â€at our behest†makes an appearance, as does the VP didn’t know talking point, and the Agency never sent us a report talking point. Oh, and Miller also mentions knowing that State and Defense were pestered by OVP about potential uranium deals (this might have been Scooter’s way of getting around talking point 4, if he suggested that State and Defense wanted to know more to satisfy OVP, they might have also asked the CIA too, perhaps prompting Miller to look into that).

    Now, there’s no mention of the IAEA or of forgeries… maybe Miller just thought that wasn’t important enough to note, or maybe Libby just never covered that aspect. But, isn’t it amazing how many other of the talking points show up here? And I’d not be surprised if Libby did mention that Wilson’s wife worked in the counterproliferation division to Miller, but maybe she mistook it for nonproliferation bureau (where her good buddy Bolton worked), and mistakenly wrote bureau instead of division.

    Of course, this tells us nothing about any document of talking points for the July 8th meeting, where Libby likely flat out told Miller that Plame was a CIA NOC, but it does suggest that Libby needed to hide this other talking point document in order to mask Cheney’s involvement.