12/19/2011 09:00 am ET | Updated Feb 18, 2012

Tracking Vaclav Havel: From Orwell to Vermont and Into Prague

This past week the world mourned the loss of both Vaclav Havel and Christopher Hitchens, two major thinkers who incidentally had a lot in common. Both moved mountains with their words and built philosophies around their larger-than-life personas. Both unexpectedly supported the Iraq War, defying their supposed leftist ideologies, and constantly questioned religion. Both were consistently tough to predict or pigeon-hole.

A Luxembourg newspaper, in their obituary for Havel yesterday, referred to him as a modern George Orwell. And in 2003, Reason Magazine made the same comparison.

"Both [Havel and Orwell] infuriated the left with their stinging criticism and ornery independence," wrote Matt Welch in that piece. "Both were haunted by the Death of God, delighted by the idiosyncratic habits of their countrymen, and physically diminished as a direct result of their confrontation with totalitarians."

Hitchens, incidentally, had a lifelong obsession with Orwell, and wrote a penetrating biography -- Why Orwell Matters -- in 2003.

That was the same year I left Plano, Texas, and arrived at Middlebury College in Vermont with too-few layers of clothing and no rational understanding of what a negative-20-degree wind chill factor actually meant. It was also the same year I caught one of the funniest plays I'd ever seen up to that point -- The Memorandum, by Havel -- which followed a particularly confusing memo written in a made-up language, circulating around an overwhelmingly bleak and bureaucratic office building; an Orwellian story if there ever was one.

Havel originally published that play in 1965, right before the Prague Spring, as an absurdist affront to Communism (that ultimate insurmountable bureaucracy) and it falls perfectly into his larger body of work.

The Memorandum helped confirm I wanted to act, or do theatre, or comedy, or something. I just wanted to be a part of whatever they were doing up there. Later that week I found a used copy of Open Letters, a collection of Havel's essays, and went to the library to read what other plays I could find, only to realize that he hadn't published a single new play since 1988. I wondered why.

As it turned out, Havel had been busy converting communist Czechoslovakia into the democratic Czech Republic, and then becoming president of said country for the next 14 years. So that probably didn't give him as much time to write plays. Also, up until the Velvet Revolution, his work had all been a reaction to something -- a rebellion. And now he didn't have as much to directly rebel against.

All his life, Havel lived for art and activism. He was a peaceful and shy intellectual with a quiet voice who President Clinton once compared to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and who had been imprisoned on a handful of separate occasions over the course of his life because he refused to stop writing and fighting against the Soviet regime. How many other countries can claim a leader who gave so much to establish democracy without ever sending any of its people to die in its name?

Anyway, after my initial burst of Havel-interest in 2003, he didn't really cross my mind again, until I found myself in Prague a few years later, studying abroad, and I rediscovered him entirely.

Every Czech person I met seemed to have a Havel story of their own -- whether they'd seen him speak somewhere, or had run into him at some seedy bar, tipsy, or they knew someone who shared a cigarette with him, or stood with him at a jazz concert. The Czech Republic is still such a young country so basically everyone, or at least everyone's parents, were affected by him in some tangible way.

That year, every student in my program had the option to apply for an internship, and one of the options was to copyedit for Forum 2000, an organization Havel co-founded in 1997. Forum 2000's purpose was to gather world leaders into a room to talk to each other. Simple enough. But how many organizations, or leaders, could bring a Prince of Jordan, two former Nobel Peace Prize winners, a former president of Germany, Bill Clinton, a Cuban dissident, the chair of Greenpeace, and one of the foremost Islamic scholars in the world into a room to chat together on the record?

Every other day, I'd hike up Petrin Hill (admirers of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being might be familiar), past topless sunbathers and teenagers making out and smoking cigarettes on the grass, to the Forum 2000 offices overlooking the city, where I'd spend the day reading these conversations. It was one of the more enjoyable editing jobs I've ever had, since it essentially involved reading what incredibly smart, very different people from all over the world had to say to each other.

One day we were told there was a chance -- a chance -- that Havel himself might show up to the offices for a visit. I noticed people dressed a lot nicer that day. I tucked in my shirt. Halfway through the afternoon, an older man entered and everybody stood up immediately, but it wasn't him.

Perhaps it was better that way. The legend lived larger.

In many ways, Havel embodied the spirit of the "flower child;" he spoke often of "truth and love" as trumping all other things, and was emphatically anti-war. In 1990, one of his first acts as president was to empty Czech prisons and close down its arms factories. Yet even the most conservative leaders admired him. President George H.W. Bush, in an interview with Columbia University, remembered watching Havel command a crowd of a million after the Velvet Revolution, and said he couldn't think of another foreign leader for whom he has more respect.

"I cannot say enough good things," Bush concluded, "about President Vaclav Havel."

In 1990, Havel delivered his first New Year's address to a budding nation, three days after being named its first president. He encouraged the new republic to be built around a politics of morality above all else, a message Orwell would likely have approved himself.

"Let us teach ourselves and others that politics should be an expression of a desire to contribute to the happiness of the community," he said. "Let us teach ourselves and others that politics can be not simply the art of the possible, especially if this means the art of speculation, calculation, intrigue, secret deals and pragmatic maneuvering, but that it can also be the art of the impossible, that is, the art of improving ourselves and the world.

This past week we lost a writer and a major intellectual, as well as a brutal, confounding dictator. We also lost a playwright, a rebel, a rockstar, a chain-smoker, a renowned artist, a non-profit leader, and one of the most beloved presidents in history, all at once.