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The Sacred and the Myth: Havel's Greengrocer and the Transformation of Ideology in Communist Czechoslovakia Marci Shore University ofToronto There is nothing a free man is so anxious to do as to find something to worship. But it must be something unquestionable, that all men can agree to worship communally. For the great concern ofthese miserable creatures is not that every individual should find something to worship that he personally considers worthy ofworship, but that they should find someming in which they can all believe and which they can all worship in common; it is essential that it should be in common. And it is precisely that requirement ofshared worship that has been the principal source of suffering for individual man and the human race since the beginning of history. In their efforts to impose universal worship, men have unsheathed their swords and killed one another.Fyodor Dostoevsky (306) Thus the conflict between the aims of life and the aims of the system is not a conflict between two socially defined and separate communities; and only a very generalized view (and even that only approximative) permits us to divide society into the rulers and the ruled. Here, by the way, is one of the most important differences between the post-totalitarian system and classical dictatorships, in which this line of conflict can still be drawn according to social class. In the post-totalitarian system, 1 64Marci Shore this line runs defacto through each person, for everyone in his or her own way is both a victim and a supporter ofthe system. Vaclav Havel (37) The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia arrived as a symbolically gentle conclusion to a half-century long era ofharrowing violence and totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. It was an era that saw the emergence ofNazism, Stalinism, and various indigenous fascisms, effecting a startling demonstration of the potency of ideology to co-opt minds and to wreak violence. The existence of communist ideology as a myth cohering communist totalitarian societies has been widely enough asserted. Yet this analysis can be taken to a further level through the aid oftwo paradigms. The first is a theory of human relationships developed by René Girard, which blends the disciplines ofliterary criticism, anthropology, philosophy, and political science. The second is a model arising from Vaclav Havel's parable of the greengrocer, told in "The Power ofthe Powerless" (1979). Girard's model posits the existence ofthe sacred, that locus of power that was once the pole of primitive religions. The core of the sacred is transfigured human violence. Girardian scholar Robert Hamerton-Kelly explains the process by which the sacred comes into being: Girard tells us that [the sacred] is a mendacious representation of human violence; "it is the sum ofhuman assumptions resulting from collective transferences focused on a reconciliatory victim at the conclusion of a mimetic crisis." The element of "the overwhelming" defines the Sacred...but its primary content is violence understood as being...outside ofnormal human control. (142) The sacred is established as the result of a crisis, one which finds resolution in the purging ofa relatively arbitrary scapegoat. Following this catharsis, three expressions sustain the sacred: myth, ritual, and prohibition. An examination ofthe evolution ofthese expressions in Czechoslovakia from the Stalinist period through normalization (the so-termed "posttotalitarian " period described by Havel in his essay) reveals much about the paradoxical dynamics ofideologically-based totalitarianism—which Havel defines most poignantly by suggesting that at the essence of ideological totalitarianism is the collapsing of the traditional dichotomy between victim and oppressor. The Sacred and the Myth: Havel's Greengrocer165 A Girardian deconstruction of Stalinism A political space for Stalinism developed in Czechoslovakia through the tumultuous period of Nazi occupation and the communist nature of anti-Nazi resistance. By the eve ofthe 1948 communist coup, the communists had claimed thirty-eight percent ofthe popular vote in free elections. Milan Kundera describes the coup as a usurpation of power "not in bloodshed and violence, but to the cheers of about half the population" (1986, 8). Defining this initial fanaticism was its honesty, especially among the younger generation. A young Stalinist later to become a reformist, and still later a dissident, Zdenek Mlynár, explains...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1930-1200
Print ISSN
1075-7201
Pages
pp. 163-182
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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