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  • Transcending the Clash of CulturesDemocracy’s Forgotten Dimension
  • Václav Havel (bio)

The honor I receive today from your university, this important intellectual center, presents me with an opportunity to set aside the political cares of the day and attempt to make several observations on a very general theme—the theme of civilization as a context for contemporary politics.

Recently I read a remarkable book from the pen of a Czech-American psychotherapist. In it, the author describes in great detail and veracity methods that have enabled him, over the years, to recover from the human unconscious experiences which, until recently, very few were aware of at all: the prenatal experiences of the human embryo from conception until the moment of birth. The author then demonstrates that the wealth of these experiences corresponds remarkably with all the basic archetypes and archetypal visions or stories we find—in thousands of specific forms—in all ancient myths, legends, and fairy tales, and above all in all religions. Cultures formed many thousands of years ago, cultures that developed their myths and ritual practices quite independently of one another, operate with the same basic archetypes, the prefigurations of which modern science is now discovering in the depths of the human unconscious as prenatal experiences. Naturally, there is no claim that this is the only source of those archetypes or of all the tidings contained in the different religions. It is probably only an incidental, secondary source of inspiration, one that helps us fill in the broader picture. Still, I was unusually taken with this finding. It shows that there exist deep and fundamental experiences shared by the entire [End Page 3] human race, and that traces of such experiences can be found in all cultures, regardless of how distant or how different they are from one another.

This, of course, is only a single example, taken from my recent holiday reading. From many other modern studies—and even from comparisons every unprejudiced layman can make for himself—it follows that all human cultures and religions have infinitely more in common than that, infinitely more hidden somewhere deep in their sources and foundations. There are principles, experiences, and what we might call prescientific knowledge that are more essential and mysterious than our prenatal experiences. At the same time, somewhat paradoxically, it often happens that the leading discoveries of contemporary science themselves provide confirmation of this and so, by a circular route, bring human understanding back to something that all cultures have known intuitively since the dawn of time, something that until recently modern science has treated as no more than a set of illusions or mere metaphors.

It turns out, for example, that many other experiences, far more difficult to explain, slumber in our collective unconscious. In various forms, these experiences surface again and again in the cultural achievements of humanity and often in individual human experiences. In a way that we scarcely understand, they transcend what a person could know himself or inherit from his ancestors. It seems rather as if something like an antenna were picking up signals from a physically indeterminable transmitter that contains the experience of the entire human race.

Or another thing: It would appear that the whole history of the cosmos, and especially of life, is mysteriously recorded in the inner workings of all human beings. This history is projected into man’s creations and is, again, something that joins us together far more than we think.

But something else seems to be the most essential of all: It cannot be an accident or a mere concord of countless misperceptions if, after thousands of years, people of different epochs and cultures feel that they are somehow parts and partakers of the same integral Being, carrying within themselves a piece of the infinity of that Being, whose very relative aspects are not just categories of space and time, but of matter and consciousness as well. I do not believe it is merely by chance or with no good reason that all cultures assume the existence of something that might be called the “Memory of Being,” in which everything is constantly recorded, and that they assume the related existence of...