This June, our country held its first free elections in many long decades. Demanding days of putting together a new coalition government followed. On July 5, a freely elected Parliament reelected me president of Czechoslovakia, and shortly thereafter approved the new Cabinet. These events marked the culmination of one of the most dramatic periods of our modern history: the shattering of the totalitarian system. It was a time of excitement, swift decision, and countless improvisations; an utterly thrilling, even adventurous time. It was a little like a mildly bewildering, but essentially wonderful, dream. It was, in a way, a fairy tale. There were so many things that could have gone wrong. We were traveling on totally unknown terrain, and none of us had any reason to believe that it wouldn't collapse under our feet.
It didn't, though. And now the time has come when there is indeed reason to rejoice. The revolution, with all its perils, is behind us, and the prospect of building a democratic state, in peace, is before us. Could there be a happier moment in the life of a land that has suffered so long under totalitarianism?
And yet precisely as that splendid historical moment dawned, a peculiar thing happened to me: When I arrived at work for the first time after my election, I found I was depressed. I was in some sort of profoundly subdued state. I felt strangely paralyzed, empty inside. I suddenly seemed to have lost all my ideas and goals, my skills, hope, and resolve. I felt deflated, spent, lacking in imagination. Even though just a few days earlier I had been terribly busy, I suddenly had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.
The pressure of exhilarating events, which until then had aroused in me a surprising level of energy, abruptly vanished, and I found myself standing bewildered, lacking the inner motivation for anything at all, feeling exhausted, almost irrelevant. It was an extremely odd sensation, comparable to a bad hangover after some wild binge, to awakening from a pleasant dream to the ugly reality of cold daylight, to the shock of a man in love discovering his sweetheart's treachery.
I wasn't the only one with these strange feelings; many of my colleagues at Prague Castle felt the very same way. We realized that the poetry was over and the prose was beginning; that the county fair had ended and everyday reality was back. It was only then that we realized how challenging, and in many ways unrewarding, was the work that lay ahead of us, how heavy a burden we had shouldered. It was as if up to that moment the wild torrent of events had not allowed us to step back and consider whether we were up to the tasks we had undertaken. We had simply been tossed into the current and forced to swim.
It seemed to us that only now could we begin to appreciate fully the weight of the destiny we had chosen. That realization brought with it a sudden, and under the circumstances seemingly illogical and groundless, sense of hopelessness.
Somewhere in the depths of this feeling lay fear: fear that we had taken on too much, fear that we wouldn't be up to the job, fear of our own inadequacy; in short, fear of our very selves.
At the very deepest core of this feeling there was, ultimately, a sensation of the absurd: what Sisyphus might have felt if one fine day his boulder stopped, rested on the hilltop, and failed to roll back down. It was the sensation of a Sisyphus mentally unprepared for the possibility that his efforts might succeed, a Sisyphus whose life had lost its old purpose and hadn't yet developed a new one.
About a year ago, when I was asked to launch this august festival with a brief lecture, I never considered that I might be able to attend in person. Still, I was pleased to accept the offer and planned to submit my contribution in writing. During the tranquil Christmas season I would calmly compose a little essay on the theme of fear and the sense of danger in Central European literature. But history got in my way, robbing me of both time and concentration. So I decided to complete the task after the elections; in fact, I was truly looking forward to it, because it would allow me to enjoy a brief return to my original profession as a writer and because I planned to use the occasion as a dividing mark between the first, revolutionary, stage of my political commitment and the second stage, a calmer one, which involved building up rather than tearing down.
I did, in fact, find the time to write. But the time I found was the period of my peculiar political hangover. First history got in my way; now I was getting in my own way: I was simply unable to write anything; I was depleted, paralyzed, powerless.
What a paradox: I had wanted to write about fear, and here it was fear that was incapacitating me in my writing. Fear of my subject matter, fear of the act of writing itself, fear of my own inadequacy, fear of myself.
All I could do about this paradox was try to approach the topic paradoxically: by describing the situation that led to my inability to approach it. There is nothing new in that. In fact, part of why most writers write is to divert their despair into their work and thus overcome it. Perhaps this explains why I am talking so much about myself here. It isn't out of any complacent egocentrism but because, simply, I have no other options.
No inventory of the various characteristics specific to Central European culture and literature would be complete without one particularly important one: an increased perception of danger, a heightened sensitivity to the phenomenon of fear. It makes perfect sense. In a place where history has always been so intricately tangled, in a place with such complex cultural, ethnic, social, and political structures, in a place that saw the origins of the most varied of European catastrophes, fear and danger are the very dimensions of human experience that must be felt and analyzed most intensely.
The heterogeneity of Central Europe explains clearly enough, I think, the two characteristic poles of its life and thus of its literature as well. On the one hand history is miniaturized; it becomes idyll, anecdote, an almost folkloric cult of locality. On the other hand, there are obsessive and often quite terrifying prescient fears of the dangers presented by the so-called great movements of history. A jovial neighbourliness typical of this region has its inevitable counterpart, deriving precisely from this heightened fear of history, in varieties of fanaticism and nationalism. At the same time, the nations and ethnic groups living under this constant sensation of threat seek to defend themselves by national or nationalistic self-affirmation. Ethnic groups that could never develop politically in freedom wage a constant struggle to affirm their identity, and one of the ways they do this is by dwelling on their own differences and being hypersensitive to the danger they feel from the differences of others.
I believe that even the kind of fear I experienced is typical of the Central European spiritual and intellectual world, or at least is understandable against its background. Certainly it would be hard to imagine that in England, France, or the United States a person could be depressed by his political victory. In Central Europe, on the other hand, it seems perfectly natural.
For that matter, the experience of the hangoverlike void is certainly not unique to me, nor is that odd sense of fear. I have observed variations of that fear and emptiness quite often, not only in Czechoslovakia but also in the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe that have shaken off totalitarianism.
It was with a great deal of effort that people in these lands attained the freedom they yearned for. The moment they gained that freedom, however, it was as if they had been ambushed by it. Unaccustomed to freedom, they now, suddenly, don't know what to do with it; they are afraid of it; they don't know what to fill it with. Their Sisyphean struggle for freedom has left a vacuum; life seems to have lost its purpose.
Similarly, in this part of the world we observe symptoms of a new fear of the future. Unlike totalitarian times, when the future, though wretched, was certain, today it is very unclear. The single (if ubiquitous) familiar danger represented by totalitarian oppression seems to have been replaced by an entire spectrum of new and unfamiliar or longforgotten dangers: from the danger of national conflicts to the danger of losing socialwelfare protection to the danger of the new totalitarianism of consumption, commerce, and money.
We were very good at being persecuted and at losing. That may be why we are so flustered by our victories and so disconcerted that no one is persecuting us. Now and then I even encounter indications of nostalgia for the time when life flowed between banks that, true, were very narrow, but that were unchanging and apparent to everyone. Today we don't know where the banks lie and are slightly shocked by it.
We are like prisoners who have grown used to their prisons and, suddenly given their longed-for freedom, do not know what to do with it, and are made desperate by the constant need to think for themselves.
I repeat that the existential situation I illustrated for you from my own experience, and which I have also observed in various forms in my fellow citizens, is, in my opinion, a particularly Central European one. Our literature contains innumerable examples of it in our not-too-distant past, in the atmosphere following both World War I and World War II.
In short, it seems that fate has ordained that we, more frequently than others, and often in unexpected situations, shall be afraid.
For us, fear of history is not just fear of the future but also fear of the past. I would even say that these two fears are conditional, one on the other: A person who is afraid of what is yet to come is generally also reluctant to look in the face of what has been. And a person afraid to look at his own past must fear what is to come.
All too often in this part of the world, fear of one lie gives birth to another lie, in the foolish hope that by protecting ourselves from the first lie we will be protected from lies in general. But a lie can never protect us from a lie. Just as in Czechoslovakia, nothing protected us from the Stalinist lie about the socialist paradise on earth, we will not be protected by the lie about Hitler's racist allies as alleged inheritors of an ancient princely throne. Those who falsify history do not protect the freedom of a nation but rather constitute a threat to it.
The idea that a person can rewrite his autobiography is one of the traditional selfdeceptions of Central Europe. Trying to do that means hurting oneself and one's fellow countrymen. When a truth is not given complete freedom, freedom is not complete.
One way or another, many of us are guilty. But we cannot be forgiven, nor can there be peace in our souls, until we at least confess our guilt.
Confession is liberating. I know how it once liberated me when I found the strength to admit my own mistake. I have many reasons for believing that truth purges one from fear. Many of us who, in recent years, strove to speak the truth in spite of everything were able to maintain an inner perspective, a willingness to endure, a sense of proportion, an ability to understand and forgive others, and a light heart only because we were speaking the truth. Otherwise, we might have perished from despair.
Our specific Central European fear has led to many a misfortune. It could be shown that in it lies the primal origin of not only countless local conflicts but also some global ones. Here, the fear that possesses petty souls has often led to violence, brutality, and fanatical hatred.
But fear is not only a destructive condition. Fear of our own incompetence can evoke new competency; fear of God or of our own conscience can evoke courage; fear of defeat can make us prevail. Fear of freedom can be the very thing that will ultimately teach us to create a freedom of real value. And fear of the future could be exactly what we need to bring about a better future.
The more sensitive a person is to all the dangers that threaten him, the better able he is to defend against them. For that matter, I have always thought that feeling empty and losing touch with the meaning of life are in essence only a challenge to seek new things to fill one's life, a new meaning for one's existence and one's work. Isn't it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourished human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.
In spite of having spoken in such an un-statesmanlike manner about my moments of hopelessness, I will conclude on a constructive note, that is, with an appeal to all of us, Central Europeans. Let us endeavor to confront our traditional fears by systematically eliminating every possible reason we might have for harboring them. Let us try, quickly and together, to build the kind system of mutual political, cultural, and economic ties that will gradually, once and for all, eliminate all the potencial dangers that lurk in our common future. Only thus will we eliminate the reasons for our potential fears.
Let us finally endeavor, in this sorely tried place, to get rid of not only our fear of lies but also of our fear of truth. Let us finally take a direct, calm, and unwavering look into our own countenances: our past, our present, and our future. We will only be able to escape their ambiguity when we understand them.
Let us try to delve into the core of our doubts, our fears, and our despair to come up with the seeds of a new European selfconfidence the selfconfidence of those who are not afraid of looking beyond the horizon of their personal and community interests, beyond the horizon of this moment.