2010/02/17 Andreas Jungherr

All the Running You Can Do

Recently I started reading Vaclav Havel’s memoirs To the Castle and Back which he wrote in 2005. In his State of the World 2010 Bruce Sterling mentioned Havel’s memoirs as a good illustration of the imp of the perverse:

People don’t need what they want, and don’t want what they need. My intuitions about this have been sharpened by reading Vaclav Havel’s new memoirs TO THE CASTLE AND BACK.


There’s a lot of stuff in there about people being surprised and even flummoxed by the spectacular glee of being given what they want — great things that are clearly good for them. They’re better off by almost every objective measure, and they’d never go back, but somehow they seem to live less.

inkwell.vue.373: Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #46 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 5 Jan 10 07:21

While this is definitely an element of Havel’s memoirs. Still, after reading the first pages Havel’s memoirs made me think of something else. I’m reminded of the Red Queen’s race out of Lewis Carrol’s Through the Looking-Glass:

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking-Glass. 1872.

Havel writes his memoirs in the year 2005 looking back on his presidency. These short reflective vignettes are interspersed with excerpts from Havel’s memos to his staff which he wrote during his time in The Castle. These memos offer a detailed view on the minutiae of the day to day life of a president and his staff. What is especially poignant are the plethora of mundane details that fill these memos. As Havel puts it himself:

When I think of all those thousands of meetings I held as president, of how many worries and preparations were necessary for every one of them and how many things I had to answer – from the very basic ones concerning the future organization of the world to the most petty ones concerning, for instance, the placement of cutlery or the seating arrangements for some official dinner – it occurs to me that not only will no one ever be able to fully appreciate all that but that today, practically no one knows about it anymore.

How wonderful it is, by comparison, to be a writer! You write something in a couple of weeks, and it’s here for the ages. What will remain when presidents and ministers are gone? Some references to them in textbooks, most likely inaccurate.

Václav Havel: To the Castle and Back. Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson. 2008. p. 35.

From this perspective Carrol’s Red Queen’s Race finds an uncanny likeness in political life. Good or Bad? Well, this judgement will have to wait.

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