Letters to Olga

In October, 1979, Havel and five other Czech dissidents were given prison terms varying from two to five years for their activities in the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Prosecuted, an adjunct of Charter 77. Havel was sentenced to four and a half years, and during that time, he was only allowed to correspond with his immediate family members. Havel’s letters to his wife, Olga, were later published in a single volume called Letters to Olga.

September 27, 1980

In my last letter, I wrote you a little about how I am trying to bring a certain order into my outer life in the form of a deliberate program of “self-care,” aimed at promoting physical health and steadiness of nerve. Today, I’m going to continue that theme with a short essay on tea. When I was outside, I didn’t understand the cult of tea that exists in prison, but I wasn’t here long before grasping its significance and succumbing to it myself (I, who used to drink tea, if at all, only once a year, when I had the flu) or more precisely, including it as an inseparable part of my “self-care” program. I’ll try to indicate briefly some of the functions tea assumes in these circumstances.

(1) First of all, it cures: one always tries tea first of all to head off a whole range of minor indispositions such as headaches, sluggishness, chills, the inability to concentrate, sore throat, incipient colds, etc. etc, — and it often works.

(2) It warms: ten fur coats will not get rid of the occasional numbness better than a glass of hot tea.

(3) Stimulation: it is only here, where one has no alcohol, coffee, and all the other means of excitation common on the outside, that one appreciates how powerful a stimulant tea, or rather the caffeine it contains, is. It is a real pick-me-up; it reduces weariness, nervousness, bad moods, apathy, sleepiness, etc., and restores one’s freshness, alertness, ability to concentrate, energy, strength, and appetite for life. . . .

(4) Last but not least––in fact most important of all, perhaps––is tea’s peculiar uplifting function. Tea, it seems to me, becomes a kind of material symbol of freedom here:

(a) it is in effect the only fare that one can prepare oneself, and thus freely: when and how I make it is entirely up to me. In the preparation of it, I realize myself as a free being, as it were, capable of looking after myself.

(b) Tea––as a sign of private relaxation, as a brief pause in the midst of the hubbub, of rumination and private contemplation––functions as the external, material attribute of a certain unbridling of the spirit and thus as a companion in moments of focused inner freedom.

(c) The world of freedom considered as leisure time is represented by tea in the opposite––in the extroverted and therefore the social––sense: sitting down to a cup of tea here is a substitute for the world of bars, wine rooms, parties, binges, social life, in other words again, something you choose yourself and in which you realize your freedom in social terms.

In short, tea has a rich panoply of functions; it’s become a habit. I drink it every day, preparing it is one of my small daily ceremonies (and even such small ceremonies help to hold one together––it is something like a salutary strait-jacket). I look forward to it and consuming it (which I schedule carefully, so it does not become a formless and random activity) is an extremely important component of my daily “self-help” program.


Sept, 1980

One of the most frequent themes of my meditations and daydreams are the friends that have left the country. Initially, I feel a slight nostalgia and even some envy (of their artistic achievements) and a slight anxiety (they are doing what they enjoy at last; they are involved in their work, free from endless complications, no doubt viewing our toiling and moiling as pointless now, while I, on the other hand, am deprived of all that, without the slightest chance of working in a theatre. . . ). That is how such meditations begin, and they always end with a peculiar sensation of inner joy that I am where I should be, that I have not turned away from myself, that I have not bolted for the emergency exit and that for all the privations, I am rid of the worst privation of all (one that I have known myself, too): the feeling that I have not measured up to the task.”


May 1, 1982

Twenty-five years ago in the army, I made a significant discovery: if I smoked a cigarette in front of a mirror, focused entirely on that, and observed the smoke, it was very soothing and increased the enjoyment I got from smoking. Here I do it almost daily (once – after supper, and after cleaning my teeth) and on Saturdays and Sundays twice (after lunch and after supper). People around here have gotten used to this peculiar habit of mine, but of course it means I have to see myself up close every day and confront my own unsightly prison aspect (my shaved head looks like a rugby ball; a dirty complexion, bags under my eyes, etc.) I always try to enhance my looks as best I can for visits, but I’m still surprised that you always say how well I look.

My favorite sentence from Herzog: ‘To God, he jotted several lines.’ . . .

An interesting thing: the person I still dream about most often is Milos Forman. Every since I’ve been in prison, he’s never let me alone. What does this mean? Is it perhaps an incarnation of my ancient dream to become a film director? Or does he – the most successful of my buddies from my youth – wish to remind me constantly of what I have not achieved in my life? God knows! On the contrary I am not at all surprised that in my dreams (and when I am awake too) various girlfriends appear and try, in all sorts of clever ways, to seduce me (a while ago, for instance, it was Běla. Give her my greetings!)


The Vaclav Havel Center