Instruction Manuals


Spartakiáda, 1960

From The Smart Set:

Under the communist regime of Czechoslovakia, Havel staged plays such as the banned The Garden Party. In the play, a man adapts so well to the absurdity of the communist system in order to get placed into a good job that his family no longer recognizes him. Secret invitations to The Garden Party went out, and performances were set up spontaneously. Havel was arrested, harassed, beaten, and ultimately dumped out of the prison on his deathbed — the government had no desire to turn the most visible member of the resistance and intelligentsia into a martyr. But then, after he physically recovered communism fell in the Velvet Revolution, Havel stepped into a position of power to help navigate Czechoslovakia back into the rest of the world.

It did not quite go according to plan. Many of the intellectuals, writers, and artists who found themselves surprisingly running the region’s fledgling democracies didn’t want straight-up capitalism. The only system they knew was a regime in which governments had complete control over citizens’ lives. Desirable jobs such as teaching were handed out to the most loyal party members, while the experienced college professors, many of whom had a whiff of dissent on them, were assigned jobs of labor and toil. Many of these new leaders still leaned far enough left that they wished for some sort of middle ground between communism and capitalism, a gentler sort of beast. But capitalism does not play nice. Central Europe today is as much a part of the consumerist culture as New York or London (though perhaps in a more aspirational, fantasizing role than as an active participant). Many of those intellectuals were just as surprised when they were voted out of office and replaced with nepotistic career politicians.

Twenty years after the Velvet Revolution, Havel gave a public speech in which he assessed the current state of the free Czech Republic. “On the one hand everything is getting better — a new generation of mobile phones is being released every week,” he said. “But in order to make use of them, you need to follow new instructions. So you end up reading instruction manuals instead of books and in your free time you watch TV where handsome tanned guys scream from advertisements about how happy they are to have new swimming trunks… The new consumer society is accomplished by a growing number of people who do not create anything of value.”

The artistic and literary scene that flourished paradoxically under censorship and repression has died off. The public intellectual is, for the most part, no longer invited to the most important parties. Anna Porter writes, “Now that everyone can publish what they want, what is the role of the intellectuals?” and she can’t find an answer. It’s no longer the police state that’s attacking the intelligentsia — it’s disinterest and boredom. It’s distraction.

“The Economy, Stupid”, Jessa Crispin, The Smart Set