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An Aspie tries to read The Power of the Powerless

An Aspie tries to read The Power of the Powerless

My attempt to read Václav Havel’s essay

In March 2012, a friend lent me a copy of The Power of the Powerless, an essay written in October 1978 by Václav Havel, the Czech dissident who later became President of Czechoslovakia and then President of the Czech Republic. It was in an English translation by Paul Wilson (see Bibliography). My friend thought I would find it inspiring. While I have no particular interest in politics, I was happy to give it a try. The essay is long (30,000 words) but I did not expect to have too much difficulty in reading it. This page of mine, originally written for a few friends, describes the barriers that I immediately met.

It is not my purpose to fault Havel’s essay. That would be impertinent. I have it on good authority that his essay is a profound piece of writing. His style of writing may be incompatible with my style of reading, but, to coin a word, an incompatibility need not be the fault of either of the two patibles. This page of mine is not about what Havel wrote: it is about how my mind works, as a person with Asperger Syndrome (AS), and what I personally need in a piece of writing if I am to benefit from it.

I am mindful that the barriers I met may have been exacerbated by matters of translation. Accordingly when I use the term “the author” I should be understood as referring to the author or the translator as the case may be.

I will now walk you through the first few sentences of the text, from my perspective.

A spectre is haunting Eastern Europe:

The author uses metaphorical language from the start. That is not my native medium of thought, but I expect to cope. I take the haunting spectre to be a metaphor for some mental conception. Probably, as one would expect of a spectre, the mental conception is disturbing. It may be a mental conception of something unwelcome, something feared. Probably again, as one would expect of a spectre, the mental conception is a vision of something that is less than real and present. It may be an illusory vision, or a vision of something that is merely in prospect.

the spectre of what in the West is called ‘dissent’.

The syntax is ambiguous. Is the spectre the dissent? Or is the dissent one thing and the spectre of it a different thing? (In the phrase “the month of May” the month is May, but in the phrase “the daughter of the queen” the daughter is not the queen.) The second reading strikes me as the more likely. It confirms to me the interpretation that the spectre is a disturbing mental conception of something less than real and present. It is a mental conception of some dissent, and the dissent is less than real and present because it is merely in prospect. The author is saying, “In Eastern Europe, there is a disturbing prospect of dissent.”

This spectre has not appeared out of thin air.

Another metaphor, and a curious one. Appearance out of thin air is a metaphor for unexpected appearance. Generally the metaphor works because in the physical world things do not generally appear out of thin air. With spectres, however, appearing out of thin air is just what they are supposed to do. If this is a deliberate piece of humour on the part of the author, I like it.

It is a natural and inevitable consequence of the present historical phase of the system it is haunting.

System? Ah, the author is referring to a social system. I should have preferred him to say so, though I am not so stupid that I can’t work it out. If I were writing an essay about an astronomical system or a musical system or a theological system, I wouldn’t leave the word system unqualified on its first occurrence.

It was born at a time when this system, for a thousand reasons, can no longer base itself on the unadulterated, brutal, and arbitrary application of power, eliminating all expressions of nonconformity. What is more, the system has become so ossified politically that there is practically no way for such nonconformity to be implemented within its official structures.

No problems. I mean, the subject matter may be hard for me, but I have no difficulty grasping the meaning of the language. There are two more metaphors (“born” and “ossified”) not counting the dead metaphor “base itself”, and there is one hyperbole (“a thousand reasons”).

Who are these so‐called ‘dissidents’?

This is the first sentence of Havel’s second paragraph. I walk into it like walking into a brick wall and my head hurts. Not only has the author not already mentioned dissidents or dissidence; he hasn’t so much as mentioned any person or persons. His first paragraph was expressed wholly in abstract terms. He used the word dissent, but I took him to be talking about the mere prospect of dissent, on good linguistic evidence I thought. And that is quite apart from the matter of what relation, if any, there may be between dissent and dissidence.

Ok, so I am now reading the first paragraph again, more slowly. I now believe that the author is saying that there is already dissent. The spectre is not a mental conception of dissent: the spectre is the dissent itself. But now I don’t understand the metaphor of spectre. Before, I thought I did, but I can’t have done. I wonder if the author means to portray the dissent negatively: to suggest, for example, that, like a ghost, it is unwelcome or feared. But I don’t understand why, as a dissenter himself, he would want to portray dissent in such terms. I wonder if perhaps the Czech word translated as “spectre” has not got the negative overtones of the latter and if a better translation might have been “spirit”. But in any case, if the dissent is real and present, and the author doesn’t mean to portray it negatively, then I don’t see any content at all in his metaphor of calling it a spectre or a spirit.

I should have been saved ten minutes on my reading of the first four lines of the essay if instead of “A spectre is haunting Eastern Europe: the spectre of what in the West is called ‘dissent’,” the author had written what I now believe he meant, which is “Dissent is spreading through Eastern Europe.” I should have been spared three tasks: the tasks of considering –

There is no etymological connection between the words dissent and dissident: they derive from Latin words that mean “feeling” and “sitting” respectively. But I believe that the author (or the translator) is conflating the two derivations. His phrase “these so‐called ‘dissidents” relates to his earlier phrase “what in the West is called ‘dissent”, and is intended to refer to those who have dissented.

Where does their point of view come from?

I have to do a double take at this, and I feel annoyed at the author, although it costs me only a few seconds of thinking time. “Point of view” is here of course a metaphor. (A literal use of the phrase “point of view” might be “John sees the boat as small from his point of view at the top of the cliff.”) “Come from”, referring as it does here to a non‐physical entity, is a metaphor also. Neither metaphor on its own is a problem. But the two metaphors, as I read them, are conceptually incompatible with each other.

A point of view, whether conceived literally or metaphorically, is conceived as a place. Coming from somewhere, whether conceived literally or metaphorically, is conceived as a movement. And places don’t move.

The author needs one metaphor and one only: either, “What is their point of view?” or “Where do their views come from?” His combining of the two metaphors comes across to me as conceptually unsound, and in any case I do not see what purpose he intends it to serve.

At this point I can see all my friends shaking their heads and saying, “Eric, you read things too literally!” No, I don’t think that that is what I am doing. I am well aware that, in this context, “point of view” and “come from” are metaphoric and not literal. I have no difficulty with the metaphoric use of either phrase. But the purpose of metaphor is to aid our thinking, by prompting us to conceive of something abstract in terms of the physical world of material objects in space and time. The metaphor “What is their point of view?” on its own aids our thinking by prompting us to conceive of one’s political attitude as a place where one stands and from which one sees things. The metaphor “Where do their views come from?” on its own aids our thinking by prompting us to conceive of a political view as something that moves into one’s mind from somewhere else. The composite version “Where does their point of view come from?” destroys both metaphors, and clouds my mind with what I read as a conceptual error in the author’s mind. And if I apprehend that there are conceptual errors in an author’s mind, then why should I pay any attention to what he writes? I find it far worse than a mere mixed metaphor. The juxtaposition of metaphors in “I smell a rat; I see it floating in the air” may be comic, but there is nothing conceptually unsound about it. Rats do not float in the air, but conceptually they might. By contrast, conceiving of a place moving is unsound thinking. Even in an earthquake, places do not move. All that happens is that a large piece of earth moves from one place to another.

Most readers, when they read, have secure joint access with the writer to a vast universe of shared social understanding. I have not. Basically what I have access to is the words. So when I read, I have to read in an analytic way. I don’t think I read in a way that is too literal: rather, I may read in a way that many people would consider too analytic. But because all I have access to is the words, I have to do that. I have to read in such a way as to derive the author’s meaning compositionally from the words that he uses and the way he puts them together. I need his words to match accurately the concepts that he is trying to convey. I don’t want to have to guess. I don’t want to have to make mental corrections and overlookings all the time, any more than I want to listen to a musical performance while smiling benignly at every wrong note, or eat a casserole while politely tolerating every foul‐tasting pea. I don’t want to waste time, and invite mis­understanding, by having to choose between alternative readings of a syntactically ambiguous sentence. Most of all, I don’t want to be reduced to just letting the words wash over me in the hope that the author may have intended some meaning or other and that some of it may happen to diffuse into my mind. All of this means that, when I read, and especially when I read difficult stuff, I require a precision in the writing which may be more than most readers require.

So, when I tried to read that essay, I found it such a difficult, unsettling and unpleasant experience that I got as far as the first 12 lines and then gave up. To assuage my feelings of guilt, I have instead read the Wikipedia articles on Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and the Soviet Union. I thoroughly enjoyed all of them and I have learned a lot.

Eric P Smith
7 March 2012

Postscript

A friend has kindly shown me that Havel’s opening words mirror the opening words of The Communist Manifesto:

A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.

That explains a lot. Havel begins his essay with some humorous irony. The dissent is now against communism rather than capitalism.

If I had got Havel’s joke, I would not have written this page. Nevertheless, the page stands. Indeed I think my failure to understand the joke adds to the point of my page. My page is about the difficulty that an AS mind has in reading Havel’s essay; and impaired or non‐standard humour appreciation is one feature typical of AS. Slow recovery from disorientation is another. And how disorienting it is, to start reading an essay that begins with a joke and not see the joke!

Another friend, who knows about these things, has explained to me that Havel deliberately plays with ambiguity in his essay to express the uncertainty that communism engenders in those who live under it. Havel deliberately makes his readers feel uneasy. That friend fully appreciates that my AS mind may not value anxiety as a means to enlightenment.

EPS
14 March 2012

Bibliography

The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel (English translation by Paul Wilson)

I can’t find any website that allows universal free access to the full authentic text.

JSTOR has the authentic text with a free preview of the first page, but the full text can be accessed only by purchase or through a participating institution.

ICNC and several other websites provide versions which have universal free access, but which are not faithful to Wilson’s spelling and punctuation.

Several other websites give universal free access to authentic text, but omit some sections, perhaps in an effort to sidestep copyright.