Thriller

by Václav Havel, translated by Paul Wilson

November 1984. Originally written at the request of the Hessischer Rundfunk for their series on mythology in modern life, this essay first appeared in English in The Idler magazine, no. 6 (June-July 1985), Toronto.

BEFORE ME LIES the famous Occult Philosophy of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, where I read that the ingestion of the living (and if possible still beating) heart of a hoopoe, a swallow, a weasel, or a mole will bestow upon one the gift of prophecy. It is nine o'clock in the evening and I turn on the radio. The announcer, a woman, is reading the news in a dry, matter-of-fact voice: Mrs. Indira Gandhi has been shot by two Sikhs in her personal bodyguard. The corpse of Father Popieliszko, kidnapped by officers of the Polish police, has been fished out of the Vistula River. International aid is being organized for Ethiopia, where a famine is threatening the lives of millions, while the Ethiopian regime is spending almost a quarter of a billion dollars to celebrate its tenth anniversary. American scientists have developed plans for a permanent observatory on the Moon and for a manned expedition to Mars. In California, a little girl has received a heart transplanted from a baboon; various animal welfare societies have protested.

ANCIENT MYTHS ARE are certainly not just a manifestation of archetypal images from man's collective unconsciousness. But they are undoubtedly that as well. Much of the mystery of being and of man, many of his dark visions, obsessions, longings, forebodings, much of his murky "pre-scientific" knowledge and many important metaphysical certainties are obviously encoded in old myths. Such myths, of course, transcend their creators: something higher spoke through them, something beyond their creators, something that not even they were fully able to understand and give a name to. The authority invested in old myths by people of ancient cultures indicates that this higher power, whatever it is, was once generally felt and acknowledged. If we go no further than Jung's interpretation of myths, it is obvious that they introduced a partial or temporary "order" into the complex world of those unconscious forebodings, unprovable certainties, hidden instincts, passions, and longings that are an intrinsic part of the human spirit. And they obviously exercised something like a "check" or "supervisory power" over those forces of the human unconscious.
       The civilization of the new age has robbed old myths of their authority. It has put its full weight behind cold, descriptive Cartesian reason and recognizes only thinking in concepts.
       I am unwilling to believe that this whole civilization is no more than a blind alley of history and a fatal error of the human spirit. More probably it represents a necessary phase that man and humanity must go through, one that man—if he survives—will ultimately, and on some higher level (unthinkable, of course, without the present phase), transcend.
       Whatever the case may be, it is certain that the whole rationalistic bent of the new age, having given up on the authority of myths, has succumbed to a large and dangerous illusion: it believes that no higher and darker powers—which these myths in some ways touched, bore witness to, and whose relative "control" they guaranteed—ever existed, either in the human unconscious or in the mysterious universe. Today, the opinion prevails that everything can be "rationally explained," as they say, by alert reason. Nothing is obscure—and if it is, then we need only cast a ray of scientific light on it and it will cease to be so.
       This, of course, is only a grand self-delusion of the modern spirit. For though it make that claim a thousand times, though it deny a thousand times the "averted face" of the world and the human spirit, it can never eliminate that face, but merely push it further into the shadows. At the most, it will drive this entire complex world of hidden things to find surrogate, counterfeit, and increasingly confusing manifestations; it will compel the "order" that myth once brought into this world to vanish along with the myth, and the "forces of the night" to go on acting, chaotically and uncontrollably, shocking man again and again by their, for him, inexplicable presence, which glimmers through the modern shroud that conceals them. But more than that: the good powers—because they were considered irrational as well—were buried along with the dark powers. Olympus was completely abolished, leaving no one to punish evil and drive the evil spirits away. Goodness, being well mannered, has a tendency to treat these grand obsequies seriously and withdraw; evil, on the contrary, senses that its time has come, for people have stopped believing in it altogether.
       To this day, we cannot understand how a great, civilized nation—or at least a considerable part of it—could, in the twentieth century, succumb to its fascination for a single, ridiculous, complex-ridden petit bourgeois, could fall for his pseudo-scientific theories and in their name exterminate nations, conquer continents, and commit unbelievable cruelties. Positivistic science, Marxism included, offers a variety of scientific explanations for this mysterious phenomenon, but instead of eliminating the mystery, they tend rather to deepen it. For the cold, "objective" reason that speaks to us from these explanations in fact only underlines the disproportion between itself—a power that claims to be the decisive one in this civilization—and the mass insanity that has nothing in common with any form of rationality.
       Yes, when traditional myth was laid to rest, a kind of "order" in the dark region of our being was buried along with it. And what modern reason has attempted to substitute for this order has consistently proved erroneous, false, and disastrous, because it is always in some way deceitful, artificial, rootless, lacking in both ontology and morality. It may even border on the ludicrous, like the cult of the "Supreme Being" during the French Revolution, the collectivist folklore of totalitarian systems, or their "realist," self-celebrating art. It seems to me that with the burial of myth, the barn in which the mysterious animals of the human unconscious were housed over thousands of years has been abandoned and the animals turned loose—on the tragically mistaken assumption that they were phantoms—and that now they are devastating the countryside. They devastate it, and at the same time they make themselves at home where we least expect them to—in the secretariats of modern political parties, for example. These sanctuaries of modern reason lend them their tools and their authority so that ultimately the plunder is sanctioned by the most scientific of world views.
       Generally, people do not begin to grasp the horror of their situation until too late: that is, until they realize that thousands of their fellow humans have been murdered for reasons that are utterly irrational. Irrationality, hiding behind sober reason and a belief that the inexorable march of history demands the sacrifice of millions to assure a happy future for billions, seems essentially more irrational and dangerous than the kind of irrationality that, in and through myth, admits to its own existence, comes to terms with the "positive powers," and, at most, sacrifices animals. The demons simply do what they want while the gods take diffident refuge in the final asylum to which they have been driven, called "human conscience." And so at last bloodlust, disguised as the most scientific of the world's views (which teaches, by the way, that conscience must submit to historical necessity) throws a twentieth-century John of Nepomuk into the Vistula. And the nation immediately canonizes its martyr in spirit.

IN THE EVENTS which chance tossed together in a single newscast, and juxtaposed with Agrippa's Occult Philosophy, I begin to see a sophisticated collage that takes on the dimensions of a symbol, an emblem, a code. I do not know what message is hidden in that unintentional artifact, which might be called "Thriller," after Michael Jackson's famous song. I only feel that chance—that great poet—is stammering an indistinct message about the desperate state of the modern world.
       First, Marxist demonologists in the Polish papers label Popieluszko a practitioner of black magic who, with the assistance of the Devil, serves the black mass of anticommunism in the church of St. Stanislaw Kostka; then, other scientific Marxists waylay him at night, beat him to death, and throw him into the Vistula; and finally, still other "scientists" on one sixth of the earth's surface claim that the Devil in disguise—the CIA, in other words—is behind it. It is all pure medieval history. Except that the actors are scientists, people shielded by science, possessing an allegedly scientific world view. Of course that makes the whole thing so much more powerful. The demons have been turned loose and go about, grotesquely pretending to be honorable twentieth-century men who do not believe in evil spirits.
       The Sikhs do not even need to masquerade as men of science. Confronting this modern world with modern machine guns in their hands, they believe themselves to be instruments of providence: after all, they are merely meting out punishment in accordance with the ancient prophecy about the desecrator of their Golden Temple. The Hindus then turn around and murder Sikhs, burning them alive, as though all Sikhs, to the last man, had taken part in Mrs. Gandhi's murder. How can this happen in the century of science and reason? How can science and reason explain it? How does it relate to colonizing the Moon and making ready an expedition to Mars? How does it relate to an age capable of transplanting the heart of a baboon into a person? Could we be getting ready to go to Mars in the secret hope of leaving our demons behind on the earth and so disposing of them? And who, in fact, has a baboon heart: that little girl in California—or the Marxist government of Ethiopia, building its mausoleums in a time of famine; or the Polish police; or the Sikhs in the personal bodyguard of the Indian prime minister who died—thanks to their belief in ancient prophecies—like an antique emperor at the hands of his own servants?
       It seems to me that man has what we call a human heart, but that he also has something of the baboon within him. The modern age treats the heart as a pump and denies the presence of the baboon within us. And so again and again, this officially nonexistent baboon, unobserved, goes on a rampage, either as the personal bodyguard of a politician, or wearing the uniform of the most scientific police force in the world.
       Modern man, that methodical civil servant in the great bureaucracy of the world, mildly frustrated by the collapse of his "scientific" world view, finally switches on his video recorder to watch Michael Jackson playing a vampire in "Thriller," the best-selling video cassette in the history of the world, then goes into the kitchen to remove from a thermos flask—behind the backs of all animal welfare societies—the still warm heart of a hoopoe. And he swallows it, hoping to have the gift of prophecy conferred upon him.