“A Word About Words” — Vaclav Havel’s speech accepting the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association. The speech was written by Havel, and read in his absence by Maximilian Schell on October 15, 1989 at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany (translated by A.G. Brain for publication in the January 18, 1990 New York Review of Books):
“The prize which it is my honor to receive today is called a peace prize and has been awarded to me by booksellers, in other words, people whose business is the dissemination of words. It is therefore appropriate, perhaps, that I should reflect here today on the mysterious link between words and peace, and in general on the mysterious power of words in human history.
In the beginning was the Word; so it states on the first page of one of the most important books known to us. What is meant in that book is that the Word of God is the source of all creation. But surely the same could be said, figuratively speaking, of every human action? And indeed, words can be said to be the very source of our being, and in fact the very substance of the cosmic life form we call man. Spirit, the human soul, our self-awareness, our ability to generalize and think in concepts, to perceive the world as the world (and not just as our locality), and lastly, our capacity for knowing that we will die — and living in spite of that knowledge: surely all these are mediated or actually created by words?
If the Word of God is the source of God’s entire creation, then that part of God’s creation which is the human race exists as such only thanks to another of God’s miracles — the miracle of human speech. And if this miracle is the key to the history of mankind, then it is also the key to the history of society. Indeed, it might well be the former just because it is the latter. For the fact is that if they were not a means of communication between two or more human “I’s”, then words would probably not exist at all.
All these things have been known to us — or people have at least suspected them — since time immemorial. There has never been a time when a sense of the importance of words was not present in human consciousness.
But that is not all: thanks to the miracle of speech, we know, probably better than the other animals, that we actually know very little, in other words, we are conscious of the existence of mystery. Confronted by mystery — and at the same time aware of the virtually constitutive power of words for us — we have tried incessantly to address that which is concealed by mystery, and influence it with our words. As believers, we pray to God, as magicians we summon up or ward off spirits, using words to intervene in natural or human events. As people who belong to a modern civilization — whether believers or not — we use words to construct scientific theories and political ideologies with which to tackle or redirect the mysterious course of history — successfully or otherwise. In other words, whether we are aware of it or not, and however we explain it, one thing would seem to be obvious: we have always believed in the power of words to change history — and rightly so, in a sense.
Why “rightly so”? Is the human word truly powerful enough to change the world and influence history? And even if there were epochs when it did exert such a power, does it still do so today?
You live in a country with considerable freedom of speech. All citizens without exception can avail themselves of that freedom for whatever purpose, and no one is obliged to pay the least attention, let alone worry their heads over it. You might, therefore, easily get the impression that I overrate the importance of words quite simply because I live in a country where words can still land people in prison.
Yes, I do live in a country where the authority and radioactive effect of words are demonstrated every day by the sanctions which free speech attracts…I do live in a country where a writers’ congress, or a speech delivered at it, is capable of shaking the system…Yes, I do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions, where Solzhenitsyn’s words of truth were regarded as something so dangerous that their author had to be bundled into an airplane and shipped out. Yes, in the part of the world I inhabit, the word “Solidarity” was capable of shaking an entire power bloc…
In truth, the power of words is neither unambiguous nor clear-cut. It is not merely the liberating power of Walesa’s words or the warning power of Sakharov’s. It is not just the power of Rushdie’s clearly misconstrued book. The point is that alongside Rushdie’s words, we have Khomeini’s. Alongside words that electrify society with their freedom and truthfulness, we have words that mesmerize, deceive, inflame, madden, beguile; words that are harmful — lethal, even. The word as an arrow…
The point I am trying to make is that words are a mysterious, ambiguous, ambivalent, and perfidious phenomenon. They can be rays of light in a realm of darkness…They can equally be lethal arrows. Worst of all, at times they can be one or the other. They can even be both at once!…
What a weird fate can befall certain words!…No word — at least not in the rather metaphorical sense I am employing the word “word” here — comprises only the meaning assigned to it by an etymological dictionary. Every word also reflects the person who utters it, the situation in which it is uttered, and the reason for its utterance. The same word can, at one moment, radiate great hope; at another, it can emit lethal rays. The same word can be true at one moment and false the next; at one moment illuminating, at another, deceptive. One one occasion it can open up glorious horizons; on another, it can lay down the tracks to an entire archipelago of concentration camps. The same word can at one time be the cornerstone of peace, while another, machine gun fire resounds in its every syllable…
The point is that all important events in the real world — whether admirable or monstrous — always have their prologue in the realm of words. As I’ve already said, my intention here today is not to convey to you the experience of one who has learned that words still count for something when you can go to prison for them. My intention is to tell you about another lesson that we in this corner of the world have learned about the importance of words; a lesson which I believe has universal application: namely, that it always pays to be suspicious of words and to be wary of them, and that we can never be too careful in this respect. There can be no doubt that distrust of words is less harmful than unwarranted trust in them.
Besides, to be wary of words and of the horrors that might slumber inconspicuously within them — isn’t this, after all, the true vocation of the intellectual?…(T)o listen carefully to the words of the powerful, to be watchful of them, to forewarn of their danger, and to proclaim their dire implications or the evil they might invoke…
At the beginning of everything is the word. It is a miracle to which we owe the fact that we are human. But at the same time it is a pitfall and a test, a snare and a trial. More, so perhaps, than it appears to you who have enormous freedom of speech, and might therefore assume that words are not so important.
They are important everywhere.”