Václav Havel is a Czech playwright, essayist, and politician. He was president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until that country’s dissolution in 1992, then served as president of the newly created Czech Republic until 2003. Before his rise to the presidency, Havel was imprisoned multiple times for dissident activities, and wrote many letters to his wife, Olga, while serving his prison sentences. The following is excerpted from Letters to Olga: June 1979–September 1982, by Václav Havel, translated by Paul Wilson, translation © 1987 by Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag. Translation © 1988 by Paul Wilson. © 1983 by Václav Havel. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.


Dear Olga,

Today I have served half my sentence. . . .

When I was still in Hermanice, something happened to me that superficially was in no way remarkable, but was nevertheless very profoundly important to me internally: I had an afternoon shift, it was wonderful summer weather, I was sitting on a pile of iron, resting, thinking over my own affairs and, at the same time, gazing at the crown of a single tree some distance beyond the fence. The sky was a dark blue, cloudless, the air was hot and still, the leaves of the tree shimmered and trembled slightly.

And slowly but surely, I found myself in a very strange and wonderful state of mind: I imagined I was lying somewhere in the grass beneath a tree, doing nothing, expecting nothing, worrying about nothing, simply letting the intoxication of a hot summer day possess me. Suddenly, it seemed to me that all the beautiful summer days I had ever experienced and would yet experience were present in that moment; I had direct, physical memories of the summers I spent in Zdarec as a child; I could smell the hay, the pond, and I don’t know what else. . . .

I seemed to be experiencing, in my mind, a moment of supreme bliss, of infinite joy (all the other important joys, such as the presence of those I love, seemed latent in that moment), and though I felt physically intoxicated by it, there was far more to it than that: it was a moment of supreme self-awareness, a supremely elevating state of the soul, a total and totally harmonic merging of existence with itself and with the entire world.

So far there was nothing especially unusual about this. The important thing was that because this experience, which contrasted so entirely with my prison-house/ironworks reality, was more sudden and urgent than usual, I realized more clearly something I had felt only dimly in such moments before, which is that this state of supreme bliss inevitably contains the hint of a vaguely constricting anxiety, the faint echo of an infinite yearning, the strange undertone of a deep and inconsolable sense of futility. One is exhilarated, one has everything imaginable, one neither needs nor wants anything any longer — and yet simultaneously it seems as though one had nothing, that one’s happiness were no more than a tragic mirage, with no purpose and leading nowhere. In short, the more wonderful the moment, the more clearly the telltale question arises: And then what? What more? What else? What next? . . . It is, I would say, an experience of the limits of the finite; you have approached the outermost limits of the meaning that your finite, worldly existence can offer you, and for this very reason, you are suddenly given a glimpse into the abyss of the infinite, of uncertainty, of mystery. There is simply nowhere else to go — except into emptiness, into the abyss itself. . . .

This vague anxiety, this breath of infinite nonfulfillment emanating from an experience of the greatest fulfillment, this sensation of terrifying incomprehensibility that blooms in a moment of firmest comprehension, can always be brushed aside like a bothersome piece of fluff. You may wait till the cloud temporarily covering the sun passes by and go on living in peace and delight without asking troublesome questions. But you may also do the opposite: forget about all the “spontaneous meaningfulness” that gave you such intense pleasure, forget about the answer given before the question was posed, and stop precisely at the point where the cold air from the abyss struck you most powerfully — when you felt most intensely that in fact you have nothing, know nothing, and, worst of all, do not even know what you want — and bravely confront the question that comes to mind in such moments. That is, the genuine, profound, and essentially metaphysical question of the meaning of life.