Vol 1, No 25
13 December 1999
L E T T E R S:
On reading Professor Keane's reply to my review of his biography of Vaclav Havel, I find nothing that would cause me to rethink or retract any of my criticisms. When we get beyond the uncivil invective, we encounter little in the way of answers to the questions I raised.
His defence of his concept of tragedy by reference to the work of Christian Meier is intriguing; it is, however, news to me, as I can find no reference to Meier or his theory in Keane's book. Rather than attributing my failure to grasp what he was trying to do to some philistinism on my part, Keane should practice what he preaches, exercise humility and consider whether his theory should have been expounded more substantially and convincingly.
Some of his rebuttals simply baffle me.
For example, his claim that because Schwarzenberg and Pehe were among his sources I am wrong to describe them as 'missing men' is not an answer to my criticism that Keane does not evaluate their role and impact. I see only one use of Pehe as a source, in a footnote on p. 482, and one appearance in the body of the text, on page 499, in the capacity of a spin doctor rather than as Havel's closest political adviser at the time.
Schwarzenberg is mentioned only as a provider of formal attire (p. 382), as a witness to the floods of letters that swamped Havels office (p. 390) and as a member of Havel's inner circle (p. 391). This does not amount to an appraisal of influence or conduct.
Also confusing is Keane's outrage at my insistence on attention to the facts, which he derides as 'pedantic precision', yet he seems so concerned that there be one, true interpretation of his own work. He insists on a licence for himself to render a man's actual life as faction (pulp faction, I'd say, being too clever by half), thereby freeing him from the tiresome constraints of traditional empirical scholarship. At the same time, however, he retains for himself the traditional academic author's right to possess his work by denouncing my reading of it as wilfully wrong.
Related to this is his admission that he borrowed from the work of other scholars but felt no obligation to acknowledge it, in this case, the Everyman Companion to East European Literature. This encyclopedia is not the equivalent of a dictionary, as Keane suggests; it is the product of its contributors' unique reading of the authors, the result of years of study and their search for the right words to capture the work of poets and novelists. That effort must be respected and the reader of Keane's book be made aware that when he describes Nezval, Seifert and Holan, he is standing on the shoulders of other scholars.
This is a principle we engrain in students from day one, and no commercial concern about footnotes cluttering the bottom of pages can override that principle.
Ultimately, it is a matter of showing consideration for others and, to use again one of Keane's favourite words, humility.
Kieran Williams's critique of John Keane's Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts can be found here.
John Keane's reply is here.
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