The House of Meaning – Larry Inchausti

Larry Inchaushti: Ward and I have been challenged to come up with these anecdotes and these stories and I have got a short one today because I think it summarizes more of my response or how I feel a little bit about Chautauqua and ideas and my role is telling these stories.

Vàclav Havel was the first president of the Czech and Slovak republics but before he became President of the Czech and Slovak republic, he was a dissident playwright, who was in jail under the eastern block soviet regime and he wrote all of his plays from jail and they were anti-establishment, attacks upon the Soviet occupation of the Czech and Slovakian republics. And then he became the leader of what we call the Velvet Revolution and became the President of the Czech and Slovak republic. And it was the first time you had a playwright or an artist as President of a major European country and when this happened, after this happened, he suddenly had writer’s block and fell into a deep depression because as long as he was under siege, he had access to his creativity and his purpose and he could write and he had lots to say and then he became President and he was just blocked. He could not write any more and he did not know what to say. It was sort of like I know what I have to say until now you have got the mike. What do I say now that the other people are listening to me?

So, he fell into this depression and he ended up writing a play about it called ‘Largo Desolato’ which was about his depression and I guess another word for it would be burnout, post revolutionary burnout depression and there is a scene in it where he is dealing with his agent and his agent is telling him, ” Really just because you are president does not mean you have to stop writing, we need to hear you and we need another play.” So there is a knock on the door and there is this young student and she comes in and she says, “I want to talk to Vàclav.” And he says, “That’s me.” And she says, “I just want to tell you that I read your book, ‘Phenomenology of Love’ and I was on a bus when I finished it and I looked up and I realized that I loved everybody in the bus. And I wanted to tell them, how great they were and how marvelous they were but they did not seem to know it and I did not have the words to tell them and so I made it a mission that I would come to you and ask you, what do you say to people to make them realize how great they are and how beautiful they are?” I end up getting choked over my own stories. It is part of the charm of the storyteller.

So Vaclav Havel says, “You have just given me the greatest compliment a reader can give to a writer. You have asked me what the meaning of life is.” And he said, “It would be nice if the meaning of life was the answer to a question that you could know, and whenever you wanted to know the meaning is, you could say it.”

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I am just too good for myself. I got to deflate myself. So, he says, “You have asked me; but the meaning of life is not an answer to a question. It is more like a house you live in and when I wrote the book, The Phenomenology of Love, I was living in a house of meaning, but I do not live in that house anymore. The revolution is over, I am not in prison and I have nothing to say but, I can tell by your question that you are living in a house of meaning, so why don’t you come in and have some tea with me and maybe you could show me the way back to what I wrote in that book.”

And that I thought was a great anecdote for the student being the teacher, the leader finding the meaning of the message in the people that are trying to interpret it. And then the girl says to him, and this is the part I came to understand better through this Chautauqua. The girl says to him, “I don’t feel like I live in a house of meaning. I feel like I live in a house of mystery.” And Havel says, “The house of mystery is the house of meaning.” And she says, “How can that be how can the house of mystery be the house of meaning?” and he says, “Because the house of mystery is when you are present to the originality of your own experience.

Ward Mailliard: Please say it again.

Larry: “The house of meaning is when you are present to the originality of your own experience, and as a burnout President of Czech and Slovak Republic, I no longer feel present to the originality of my own experience. And I have to find my way back to that.”

I think that Chautauqua is bringing us back to the originality of our own experience and at least when it does it well, I think the small groups do that very well because we are being asked to be original and not to play as we play from our ‘repertoire,’ our ‘schtick’ but when you get into power and you get to hear your schtick reverberating back from the room then you go, “Man, that is old news.” And the part of having young people in the room is that they don’t presume to teach us but they presume to have high aspirations, and so that they are a little closer just by virtue of their age to the freshness of the originality of their own experience because they are just coming into, they haven’t had time to have a ‘shtick,’ but if you take them out of the room you have ‘shtick’ contests. But you bring them into the room and you realize you can’t throw spit wads at that. You can’t teach that, that is really shaming and so, have to say for their sake, I have to stay true to the originality of my experience. And that’s why Chautauqua is in some ways different than the academic conferences I go to where everybody has all the answers.