The Endlessly Quotable Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011

Thousands in Prague mourn the loss tonight of Velvet Revolutionary Vaclav Havel, who has died at age 75. Havel was a lifelong smoker with chronic respiratory problems, whose condition rapidly deteriorated in past months.

An absurdist playwright who led a bloodless uprising in 1989 that broke Czechoslovakia free from the shackles of Communism, Havel's loss is both tragic and timely, coming as it does at the tail end of the much-hyped Year of the Protester.

And like the freshly departed Christopher Hitchens, who was never the president of anything, Havel too left behind a sizable body of writings: 22 plays, 6 volumes of poetry, 9 non-fiction books, and one children's book. Both men were enormously quotable, though Havel less acridly so. Here then are some memorable Havel quotations:

  • On the hidden mysteries of life:
  • "Sometimes I wonder if suicides aren't in fact sad guardians of the meaning of life."

  • On heeding the call:

  • "You do not become a dissident just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society."

  • On the advantages of the underdog:

  • "There's always something suspect about an intellectual on the winning side."

  • On loosening up:

  • "Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not."

  • On the audacious semantics of hope:

  • "Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

  • On the impermanence of memory:

  • "Twenty or thirty years ago, in the army, we had a lot of obscure adventures, and years later we tell them at parties, and suddenly we realize that those two very difficult years of our lives have become lumped together into a few episodes that have lodged in our memory in a standardized form, and are always told in a standardized way, in the same words. But in fact that lump of memories has nothing whatsoever to do with our experience of those two years in the army and what it has made of us."

  • On living a lie:

  • "Human beings are compelled to live within a lie, but they can be compelled to do so only because they are in fact capable of living in this way. Therefore not only does the system alienate humanity, but at the same time alienated humanity supports this system as its own involuntary master plan, as a degenerate image of its own degeneration, as a record of people's own failure as individuals."

  • On the perks of power:

  • "If you want to see your plays performed the way you wrote them, become President."

  • On the Jesus Connection:

  • "Man is in fact nailed down - like Christ on the Cross - to a grid of paradoxes . . . he balances between the torment of not knowing his mission and the joy of carrying it out, between nothingness and meaningfulness. And like Christ, he is in fact victorious by virtue of his defeats."

  • On the true nature of Art:

  • "There is only one Art, whose sole criterion is the power, the authenticity, the revelatory insight, the courage and suggestiveness with which it seeks its truth."

    [Quotes via Ranker, WikiQuote, HuffPo, Photo of Czech shrine to Havel via Getty]