Vaclav Havel: a hero who lived in truth

All of us … thought about freedom and injustice, about human rights, about democracy and political pluralism, about market economics and much else besides. Because we thought, we also dreamed. We dreamt, whether in or out of prison, of a Europe without barbed wire, high walls, artificially divided nations and gigantic stockpiles of weapons, of a Europe free of  ‘blocs’, of a European policy based on respect for human rights…We must not be afraid to dream of the seemingly impossible if we want the seemingly impossible to become a reality. Without dreaming of a better Europe we shall never build a better Europe.
– Vaclav Havel, President of Czech Republic, 1990

In 1978, the dissident Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, whose death was announced today, wrote the now-classic essay on resistance to totalitarian power, The Power of the Powerless in which he coined the term ‘living in truth’:

The original and most important sphere of activity, one that predetermines all the others, is simply an attempt to create and support the independent life of society as an articulated expression of living within the truth. In other words, serving truth consistently, purposefully, and articulately, and organizing this service. This is only natural, after all: if living within the truth is an elementary starting point for every attempt made by people to oppose the alienating pressure of the system, if it is the only meaningful basis of any independent act of political import, and if, ultimately, it is also the most intrinsic existential source of the “dissident” attitude, then it is difficult to imagine that even manifest “dissent” could have any other basis than the service of truth, the truthful life, and the attempt to make room for the genuine aims of life.

Milan Kundera once wrote that ‘Havel’s is the rare life that resembles a work of art and gives the impression of a perfect compositional unity’. Vaclav Havel was playwright, writer, intellectual, dissident, Frank Zappa fan and President of his country.  His career began in the realm of art and culture, traversed underground activism and ended in high state politics.

Havel was born in 1936 to a bourgeois family (son and grandson of wealthy architect-entrepreneurs on his father’s side; grandson of a writer who was an ambassador, then a government minister, on his mother’s): an privileged background transformed into penury and persecution after the communist seizure of power in Czechoslovakia in 1948. The family was stripped of its assets, for a time, his father was imprisoned, and Havel was not allowed to pursue a higher education after he completed his schooling in 1951.

Instead, his first job was as a laboratory technician, after which he studied at a technical college. Soon he developed an interest in poetry and founded a literary circle called the Thirty-Sixers, after the year of his birth. Havel was deeply influenced by the works of Kafka, even though his novels were banned by the communist government. After completing his military service, Havel joined the theatre, becoming a stagehand and then the resident writer for the Theatre on the Balustrade in Prague from 1960 to 1969. His first play, The Garden Party, was performed in 1963, and established Havel as a political satirist.

Like George Orwell, Havel satirised the ‘doublespeak’ of the official bureaucratic language of the communist regime, as this passage from his 1965 play, The Memorandum shows:

The Director’s office.  Large office desk, small typist’s desk, a fire-extinguisher on the wall, a coat-rack in the background. The stage is empty. Then Gross enters, takes off his coat, hangs it on the rack, sits at his desk and begins to go through his morning mail. He skims each letter, then puts it either into waste-paper basket or into out-tray. One letter suddenly arrests his attention. He glares at it and then starts to read it aloud.

Gross  (reads):  Rako hutu d dekotu ely trebomu emusohe, vdegar yd, stro reny er gryk kendy, alyv zvyde dezu, kvyndal fer tekynu sely. Degto yl tre entvester kyleggh: orka epyl y bodur deptydepeemete. Grojto afxedob yd, kyzem ner osonfterte ylem kho dent de det detrym gynfer bro enomuz fechtal agni laj kys defyj rokuroch bazuk suhelen. Gakvom ch ch lopve rekto elkvestrete. Dyhap zuj bak dygalex ibem nyderix tovah gyp. Ykte juh geboj. Fyx dep butrop gh –

(Hana enters . . . wearing a coat and carrying a vast shopping bag.)

Hana:   Good morning.

Gross  (without looking up):    Good morning.

(Hana hangs her coat on coat-rack, sits down at typist’s desk, takes a mirror and a comb out of her bag, props mirror against typewriter and begins to comb her hair. Combing her hair will be her main occupation throughout the play.  She will interrupt it only when absolutely necessary. Gross watches her stealthily for a moment, then turns to her)

Gross:   Hana –
Hana:   Yes, Mr Gross?
Gross (shows her the letter):   Can you tell me, by any chance, what this is?
Hana (skims the letter): This is a very important office memorandum, Mr Gross.
Gross:  It looks like a hotch-potch of entirely haphazard groups of letters.
Hana: It might look that way at first glance. But in fact there’s method in it. It’s written in Ptydepe, you see.
Gross:   In what?
Hana:   In Ptydepe.
Gross:   In Ptydepe? What is it?
Hana:   A new office language which is being introduced into our organization. May I go and get the
milk?
Gross:  There’s a new language being introduced into our organization? I don’t remember having been informed.
Hana:  They must have forgotten to tell you. May I
go and get the milk?
Gross:   Who thought it up?
Hana:  It seems to be a full-scale campaign. Elsie said it’s being introduced into their department, too.
Gross: Does my deputy realize what’s going on?
Hana:  Mr Ballas? Of course he does. May I go and get the milk?
Gross:  Run along.

Following the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 he was banned from the theatre and became more politically active. He was forced to take a job in a brewery, an experience he wrote about in his playAudience.  In 1969, Havel’s passport was confiscated by the authorities because his writing was considered subversive – as indeed it was, dealing as it did with the absurd situations of everyday life in the communist system.  He was placed under constant surveillance by the security forces.

Vaclav Havel’s new neighbours: clip from a BBC documentary in the 1970s

In the mid-1970s, Havel wrote two influential and important essays that came to form the bedrock of the dissident movement’s ideas. The first, written in April 1975, was an open letter to Gustav Husak, General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. In it, Havel argued for ‘the moral and spiritual revival of society, for the enhancement of the truly human dimensions of life, for the elevation of man to a higher degree of dignity, for his truly free and authentic assertion in this world’.

The Czechs and Slovaks, like any other nation, harbour within themselves simultaneously the most disparate potentialities. We have had, still have and will continue to have our heroes, and, equally, our informers and traitors . We are capable of unleashing our imagination and creativity, of rising spiritually and morally to unexpected heights, of fighting for the truth and sacrificing ourselves for others. But it lies in us equally to succumb to total apathy, to take no interest in anything but our bellies and to spend our time tripping one another up. And though human souls are far from being mere pint pots that anything can be poured into (note the arrogant implications of that dreadful phrase so frequent in official speeches, when it is complained that ‘we’ – that is, ‘the government’ – find that such and such ideas are ‘being
instilled into people’s heads’), it depends, nevertheless, very much on the leaders which of these contrary tendencies that slumber in society will be mobilized, which set of potentialities will be given the chance of fulfilment and which will be suppressed. So far, it is the worst in us which is being systematically activated and enlarged – egotism, hypocrisy, indifference, cowardice, fear, resignation and the desire to escape every personal responsibility, regardless of the
general consequences. Yet even today’s national leadership has the opportunity to influence society by its policies in such a way as to encourage not the worse side of us, but the better.

So far, you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of  outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; or deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity for the puny sake of protecting your own power.

Yet, even within the given limitations, you have the chance to do much towards at least a relative improvement of the situation. This might be a more strenuous and less gratifying way, whose benefits would not be immediately obvious and which would meet with resistance here and there. But in the light of our society’s true interests and prospects, this way would be vastly the more meaningful one.

As a citizen of this country, I hereby request, openly and publicly, that you and the leading representatives of the present regime consider seriously the matters to which I have tried to draw your attention, that you assess in their light the degree of your historic responsibility and act accordingly.

Vaclav Havel, Writer
8 April 1975

Vaclav Havel at his cottage in Hradecek in the early 1970s

In 1976, motivated in part by the arrest of members of the psychedelic band Plastic People of the Universe, Havel was a founder member of Charter 77 and helped shape the document which gave the movement its name – published on 1 January 1977 and signed by 243 prominent Czech intellectuals, forming a ‘loose, informal and open association of people… united by the will to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world’.

The government’s reaction to the appearance of Charter 77 was harsh. The official press described the manifesto as ‘an anti-state, anti-socialist, and demagogic, abusive piece of writing’, and the signatories were labelled ‘traitors and renegades’. Repressive measures taken against the signatories included dismissal from work, denial of educational opportunities for their children, suspension of drivers’ licenses, internal exile, loss of citizenship, trial, and imprisonment. Havel was sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment for subversion of the republic, and spent the years from 1979 to 1983 in jail. While in detention Havel wrote a series of letters from prison to his wife  in which he defined his political beliefs. These letters were later published as Letters to Olga:

26 March 1982

Dear Olga,
The moment is approaching when I will have served three years, and thus two-thirds, of my sentence, and this is certainly a reason for giving some thought to it. All things considered, it seems increasingly clear that my prison term is merely a necessary and inevitable phase of my life, and in fact it’s a little surprising that it was so long in coming. After all, for eleven years, if not more, I’d been more or less anticipating or assuming it would come. Of course I didn’t know when, how long and what the concrete reasons for it would be, but essentially it was clear that it must happen: the ‘mass’
of my spirit and the field of gravity through which I fly are such that my flight couldn’t very well have ended anywhere else. In fact looking back, it even seems to me that after those two unsuccessful ‘runs’ at it, I subconsciously did everything I could to ensure that the inevitable would finally happen. So the question is not whether it had to happen, but ‘merely’ how I’ve come to terms with it and what I’ve made of it. My grand plans (to study, write, ‘work on myself’, etc. in prison) have proved immensely naive, of course; I had no idea what it would be like here (despite having heard so much about it- but the experience may indeed be impossible to communicate to anyone else) .

And so of all that only one thing has remained: the chance to prove – to myself, to those around me and to God – that I am not a lightweight as many may have seen me, that I stand behind what I do, that I mean it seriously and that I can take the consequences . . . In  any case, it was a deliberate choice on my part and I can’t be accused of making a virtue of necessity after the fact. At the same time, I have no desire to become a professional martyr; my position followed quite
naturally and logically from the logic of the situation as it evolved, and from the inner logic of my attitudes and my work, in other words, from my own identity. To put it more simply: I had to act as I did; there was simply no other way.

January 11, 1981
Four days ago was the first anniversary of our arrival in Hermanice. In retrospect, the year seems to have come and gone quickly. For the anniversary, I’ve made an important discovery (to be precise: it’s the most obvious and banal thing, and it seems important to me only in an entirely specific psychoneural context), and that is, that everything   passes; every crisis, depression, failure,  every complex and apparently insoluble situation – everything bad, in short – has ultimately one good quality; it is of finite duration and somehow it always – no matter how unlikely it seems at the time – comes to an end and must come to an end. This applies, I hope, to my stay in prison as a whole.

After his release, Havel continued to write plays, but was propelled more and more into politics by necessity.In 1978, he had written his second major essay, The Power of the Powerless, and this became the seminal text of the Czech dissident movement. In it Havel indicts ‘the lie’ upon which the communist regime maintained its power:

Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.

Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.

In the essay, Havel tells the story of a greengrocer to illustrate the mechanisms of the communist system in what had come to be known as the ‘period of normalization’ and the  philosophical basis for dissent in Czechoslovakia.  The greengrocer parable illuminates two crucial themes in Havel’s politics: public versus private, and truth versus lies.

The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life ‘in harmony with society’, as they say.

The greengrocer probably gives little or no thought to the sign he daily puts in his window along with the tomatoes and cucumbers. The slogan very possibly does not represent those opinions he expresses in private. It is, nonetheless, a highly communicative action. So why does he choose to display the poster? Havel answers that the public display of
the slogan is a sign to the public and the regime; it is one of the prescribed rituals requisite for living in a communist society. The greengrocer’s message to the public and to the regime is not so much one of socialist enthusiasm as it is
one of obedience.

Havel then asks the reader to consider what would be the consequences if one morning, the greengrocer were to make
the decision to leave the sign behind the counter, perhaps at the bottom of a box of rotten tomatoes?

Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth. . .

The bill, Havel comments wryly, will not be long in coming.

He will be relieved of his post as manager of the shop and transferred to the warehouse. His pay will be reduced. His hopes for a holiday in Bulgaria will evaporate. His children’s access to higher education will be threatened. His superiors will harass him and his fellow workers will wonder about him. Most of those who apply these sanctions, however, will not do so from any authentic inner conviction but simply under pressure from conditions, the same conditions that once pressured the greengrocer to display the official slogans. They will persecute the greengrocer either because it is expected of them, or to demonstrate their loyalty, or simply as part of the general panorama…

The fact that the greengrocer cannot choose not to hang his sign with impunity suggests that the displaying of this sign is quite important to the authorities. The possibility of the greengrocer’s refusal to obey would constitute, for some reason, a considerable threat to those in power. Why should this be?  The greengrocer might be regarded as small fry: unimportant and powerless. Nevertheless, he has the potential to threaten the regime with an action as small as neglecting to hang a certain sign in his window. In fact, if all the greengrocers one day took down their signs, precisely this act would be the beginning of a revolution.  Here, Havel reaches the nub of his argument:

The greengrocer has not committed a simple, individual offense, isolated in its own uniqueness, but something incomparably more serious. By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can co-exist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety. . . .

In other words, the powerless greengrocer is not so powerless after all. On the contrary, he is quite powerful. Hence, he is responsible.

If living within the truth is an elementary starting point for every attempt made by people to oppose the alienating pressure of the system, if it is the only meaningful basis of any independent act of political import, and if, ultimately, it is also the most intrinsic existential source of the “dissident” attitude, then it is difficult to imagine that even manifest “dissent” could have any other basis than the service of truth, the truthful life, and the attempt to make room for the genuine aims of life.

In an introduction to Description of a Struggle: The Picador Book of Contemporary East European Prose (1994), the Czech novelist Ivan Klima discussed the significance of the role played by the dissident writer or artist in this period:

As the gulf between the arts and political power widened, artists, especially writers, began to enjoying growing favour with the public; on publication days long queues would form in front of bookshops from the early hours, banned writers’   books often circulated in hundreds of typewritten copies. Here, too, people often speak of the extra-literary function of literature beyond the Wall. Literature did frequently take on the functions of journalism or politics. This was not because it dealt with political themes – it was simply that in situations where civil or basic rights are suppressed, many forms of expression become political: unconventional language, a love story with no ideological message, historical writing with heroes other than those officially recognized, a critical picture of the ailments of civilization or moral problems which the regime refuses to recognise for it insists that everything which somehow complicates life is a throwback to the old era.

Asked once why Kafka was banned in his own country, I replied: ‘Because he was too genuine.’ My answer was taken as a joke, but it was meant seriously: anything genuine threatens a world built on deceit, in the Empire behind the Wall it became political discourse. Right until the end, regimes continued to react vitriolically to any such ‘political discourse’, persecuting and victimizing obstinate artists, putting them in mental hospitals or prisons, but  mainly just sidelining them, forcing them to adopt another livelihood. This frequently subjected writers to experiences they would never have had in a free society.

Deep   experiences do not make a great writer, but I am convinced that great literature seldom arises without it. Even pure fantasy needs to draw on real life, otherwise it is lifeless and forced. I have often thought that what this Empire deprived us of in terms of freedom, it returned to us in the form of experience.

Havel addresses demonstrators celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Prague, 10 December 1988.

By the 1980s, Havel had become the leading spokesman for the human rights movement in Czechoslovakia, and in November 1989 he formed the Civic Forum, the movement whose purpose was to unify the anti-authoritarian forces in Czechoslovakia and to overthrow the communist regime. In December 1989, as the events of the Velvet Revolution unfolded, that purpose was achieved.

Vaclav Havel and Alexander Dubcek prepare to speak, December 1989

Back in 1975, Havel had written, in Letter to Gustav Husak:

If life cannot be destroyed for good, neither, then, can history be brought entirely to a halt. A secret streamlet trickles on beneath the heavy lid of inertia and pseudo-events, slowly and inconspicuously undercutting it. It may be a long process, but one day it must happen:  the lid will no longer hold and will start to crack. This is the moment when once more something visibly begins to happen, something truly new and unique, something unscheduled in the official calendar of ‘happenings’, something that makes us no longer indifFerent to what occurs and when – something truly historic, in the sense that history again demands to be heard.

Images from the Velvet Revolution 1989

After his leading role in the Velvet Revolution that December, Havel was elected by direct popular vote as president of Czechoslovakia.

Havel after he took the oath as President of Czechoslovakia on 29 December 1989.

29 December 1989, Vaclav Havel was sworn in as President of Czechoslovakia. In May 1982 he had written to his wife Olga from prison:

An interesting thing: the person I still dream about most often is Milos Forman. Ever since I’ve been in prison, he’s never let me alone. What does that 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 life? God knows!

In his first address as president, on New Year’s Day, 1990 Havel said:

Let us teach ourselves that politics can be not just the art of the possible, especially if that means the art of speculation, calculation, intrigue, secret deals and pragmatic manoeuvring, but that it can even be the art of the impossible, namely the art of improving ourselves and the world.

In everything he had written he had insisted that morality should be at the heart of a new politics:

Experience of a totalitarian system of the communist type makes emphatically clear one thing which I hope has universal validity: that the prerequisite for everything political is moral. Politics really should be ethics put into practice … This means taking a moral stand not for practical purposes, in the hope that it will bring political results, but as a matter of principle.

For me, this perspective makes Vaclav Havel a heroic figure amongst the general run of political leaders.  He is a deeply attractive figure, having a loose, laid-back style, too.  Note that the high-minded ideals of the Charter 77 were spurred, in part, by the repression of a rock band.  Note, too, the photograph, above, of Havel as President in his office; on the bookshelf to his right a book of photographs by Lou Reed.

And then there’s the Zappa connection.  Havel had long been a fan of Zappa’s music and even credited his music as part of the inspiration for the anti-communist revolution. The Plastic People of the Universe were an underground sensation in the 1970s, and members of the group were convicted of ‘organized disturbance of the peace’ and jailed. The music of Frank Zappa’s and the Velvet Underground were a huge inspiration – representing freedom and independent thinking –  and were specifically banned by the government. Zappa in particular was hailed as a kind of revolutionary hero.

Soon after becoming President, Havel invited Zappa to Prague.  He arrived in January 1990, stunned to be acclaimed as a national hero by huge crowds of fans intimately familiar with his music through bootleg copies of his albums. Zappa and Havel hit it off immediately.  Havel appointed Zappa ‘Special Ambassador to the West for Trade, Culture and Tourism’ and meetings were held between Zappa, Havel, his finance ministers and the Ministry of Culture and Trade.

Two weeks later, US Secretary of State James Baker re-routed a trip through Europe to visit Havel. At the time, Czechoslovakia was seeking aid from the American Government. Baker’s message was short and simple: Havel could either do business with the United States or he could do business with Frank Zappa. Zappa’s career as an international trade ambassador was over.

Frank Zappa was one of the gods of the Czech underground, I thought of him as a friend. Whenever I feel like escaping from the world of the Presidency, I think of him.
-Vaclav Havel, playwright and President of Czechoslovakia

Frank Zappa and Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel’s presidency ended in 2003. As President he had steered the counntry through the break-up of Czechoslovakia, and seen the Czech Republic enter the European Union and NATO.  What makes Havel extraordinary is that he never lost his artistic spirit to the void of politics; rather, he remained modest and moral, strongly rooted in his philosophical beliefs and constantly working not only towards the good of his country, but the world as a whole.

In one of his last interviews with RFE/RL, Havel looked back, 20 years later, at the events of November 1989. He said it had become clear that sooner or later change would come, the only question was when. And that the student demonstration of November 17 had provided the trigger:

They couldn’t foresee how it would all turn out and that this would be the snowball that would trigger an avalanche. Of course, we didn’t know it either. By ‘we’ I mean the signers of Charter 77, the dissidents,” Havel said. “What was clear, however — and I’ve spoken or written about this before — was that sooner or later a snowball would start rolling and turn into an avalanche. No one knew what that snowball would be and when it would happen precisely. We weren’t soothsayers. But it was clear that sooner or later it had to happen.

In March 2011, Havel was interviewed by CNN about the uprisings in the Arab World:

It’s an epoch-making event. We don’t know what it will lead to, how it will finish up.

But there is one thing I find very interesting — there are thousands of experts at ministries, at universities, in science institutes, who specialize in the Arab world. Not one of them predicted that this would happen. More than 10 countries are now experiencing this revolt. There are many similarities with the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe, but also many “dissimilarities.”

There is one thing I would add — in the countries where it’s impossible to do a free poll, it’s hard to see what is happening below the surface. I remember that Western journalists were telling us for years: You charter-signers and dissidents are Don Quixotes. You are not supported by the working class or farmers or some serious political power. What kind of sense do you think it makes? I was saying: “Be careful. Be careful. What do you know about what’s happening under the surface of the society?”

Those are the things which someone, especially coming from the free world, would never expect to be happening. And all of a sudden, it explodes somewhere, it’s contagious, hitting other countries. And that’s similar to what was happening here 20 years ago

The interviewer asked, What do you hope is your personal legacy?

I would be glad if it was felt that I have done something generally useful. I don’t care much about personal fame or popularity. I would be satisfied with the feeling that I had a chance to help with something in general, something good. That history gave me that chance.

Excerpt from the film Citizen Vaclav Havel Goes on Vacation

A short extract from a documentary by Jan and Adam Novak which recreates (with irony) a little-known episode in Havel’s rebellious life: the decision to test the limits of the secret police by taking an extended ‘vacation’ to visit his friends across Czechoslovakia.

See also

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