The other day, at the supermarket, I think it was the same day Cesaria Evora died, when I was completing my transaction, I was a little taken aback to see that the change came out to exactly 4,444 yen, a number with not much significance to a typical Westerner, but fraught with peril for Japanese. Four, or shi 四, has the same pronunciation as the word for death — hence the aversion. For four fours to be stacked together like this was formidable.
Who were the four? Well, first there was Christopher Hitchens, whom I wrote about a few days ago here. Then Evora, the lovely Portuguese singer from Ivory Coast whom I remember seeing live some years back in Berkeley. Then Václev Havel, author of The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, last President of Czechoslovakia, first President of the Czech Republic. Finally Kim Jong Il.
Certainly scores of people have died around the world in the last week — these are only a few of the notables among many. But I'm a superstitious blogger. So I match each four of my change to a name.
Of these, the Korean dictator interests me the least. Frankly the threat of that depressing regime elicits mainly a yawn — even if I do happen to live within missile range of his apparently trigger-happy son.
Of the four, as a historical figure, Havel, leader of a revolution that smacked communism down, will be remembered longest. But as a writer — I really don't know. Mainly it has to do with this nagging question: can a man of letters, of literature — any artist really — become a political figure without in the end polluting the spring of creativity from which the words flow?
I guess it depends on what type of artist you are; what you think art ultimately can or should do. For Havel, a lifelong dissident, living within a system he wanted to erase, living without the luxury, perhaps, of complete artistic freedom, the notion of pure art, or art for art's sake would have had very little meaning.
But still, for a writer entering the stink hole of politics, the danger cannot be overstated. Perhaps Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru's 2010 Nobel Laureate, summed it up best in his "Fleeting Impression of Vaclev Havel": "....almost inevitably politics degrades the language in which it is expressed, that its discourse sooner or later falls into stereotypes or clichés, that it is rarely authentic or personal since what is politic to say always takes primacy over what should be said."
Havel was certainly aware of the danger. In his play The Garden Party, Pludek, the father, keeps spouting maxims and clichés: "The middle classes are the backbone of the nation." "He who fusses about a mosquito net can never hope to dance with a goat.""Not even the Hussars of Cologne would go into the woods without a clamp." (Your guess is as good as mine as to the meaning of some of those.)
Of course, both Llosa and Havel recognized the differences between political discourse and literary language. And it was precisely because of this moral laxity or laziness of other politicians that Havel chose to write his own speeches. Llosa speaks of Havel being aware of "the Machiavellian conflict, sometimes latent and sometimes explicit, but always inevitable, between efficacy and truth."
Havel knew that pressure, but resisted it. Or so he said. "I can guarantee that in the pursuit of government, I have never lied." Interestingly, this statement reveals nothing about his art.