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Words on Words

Václav Havel received the Friedenpreis des Deutschen Buchandels, the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association, on October 15, 1989. He wrote the following as his acceptance speech.

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 subjects of 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. Just recently, the entire world commemorated the bicentenary of the great French Revolution. Inevitably we recalled the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens, which states that every citizen has the right to own a printing press. During the same period, i.e., exactly two hundred years after that Declaration, my friend Frantisek Stárek was sent to prison for two-and-a-half years for producing the independent cultural journal Vokno—not on some private printing press but with a squeaky, antediluvian duplicator. Not long before, my friend Ivan Jirous was sentenced to sixteen months’ imprisonment for berating, on a typewriter, something that is common knowledge: that our country has seen many judicial murders and that even now it is possible for a person unjustly convicted to die from ill-treatment in prison. My friend Petr Cibulka is in prison for distributing samizdat texts and recordings of nonconformist singers and bands.

Yes, all that is true. I do live in a country where a writers’ congress or some speech at it is capable of shaking the system. Could you conceive of something of the kind in the Federal Republic of Germany? Yes, I live in a country which, twenty-one years ago, was shaken by a text from the pen of my friend Ludvík Vaculík. And as if to confirm my conclusions about the power of words, he entitled his statement: “Two Thousand Words.” Among other things, that manifesto served as one of the pretexts for the invasion of our country one night by five foreign armies. And it is by no means fortuitous that as I write these words, the present regime in my country is being shaken by a single page of text entitled—again as if to illustrate what I am saying—“A few words.” Yes, I really 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 it was necessary to bundle their author into an airplane and transport him. Yet, in the part of the world I inhabit the word Solidarity was capable of shaking an entire power bloc.

All that is true. Reams have been written about it and my distinguished predecessor in this place. Lev Kopelev,* spoke about it also.

But it is a slightly different matter that concerns me here. It is not my intention solely to speak about the incredible importance that unfettered words assume in totalitarian conditions. Nor do I wish to demonstrate the mysterious power of words by pointing exclusively to those countries where a few words can count for more than a whole train of dynamite somewhere else.

I want to talk in more general terms and consider the wider and more controversial aspects of my topic.

We live in a world in which it is possible for a citizen of Great Britain to find himself the target of a lethal arrow aimed—publicly and unashamedly—by a powerful individual in another country merely because he had written a particular book. That powerful man apparently did it in the name of millions of his fellow believers. And moreover, it is possible in this world that some portion of those millions—one hopes only a small portion—will identify with the death sentence pronounced.

What’s going on? What does it mean? Is it no more than an icy blast of fanaticism, oddly finding a new lease on life in the era of the various Helsinki agreements, and oddly resuscitated by the rather crippling results of the rather crippling Europeanization of worlds which initially had no interest in the import of foreign civilization, and on account of that ambivalent commodity ended up saddled with astronomical debts they can never repay?

It certainly is all that.

But it is something else as well. It is a symbol.

It is a symbol of the mysteriously ambiguous power of words.

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 alarm-raising 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. Words that electrify society with their freedom and truthfulness are matched by words that mesmerize, deceive, inflame, madden, beguile, words that are harmful—lethal, even. The word as arrow.

I don’t think I need to go to any lengths to explain to you of all people the diabolic power of certain words: you have fairly recent first-hand experience of what indescribable historical horrors can flow, in certain political and social constellations, from the hypnotically spellbinding, though totally demented, words of a single, average, petit bourgeois. Admittedly I fail to understand what it was that transfixed a large number of your fathers and mothers, but at the same time I realize that it must have been something extremely compelling as well as extremely insidious if it was capable of beguiling, albeit only briefly, even that great genius who lent such modern and penetrating meaning to the words: “Sein,” “Da-Sein,” and “Existenz.”

The point I am trying to make is that words are a mysterious, ambiguous, ambivalent, and perfidious phenomenon. They are capable of being rays of light in a realm of darkness, as Belinsky once described Ostrovsky’s Storm. They are equally capable of being lethal arrows. Worst of all, at times they can be the one and the other. And even both at once!

The words of Lenin—what were they? Liberating or, on the contrary, deceptive, dangerous, and ultimately enslaving? This is still a bone of contention among aficionados of the history of communism and the controversy is likely to go on raging for a good while yet. My own impression of these words is that they were invariably frenzied.

And what about Marx’s words? Did they serve to illuminate an entire hidden plane of social mechanisms, or were they just the inconspicuous germ of all the subsequent appalling gulags. I don’t know: most likely they are both at once.

And what about Freud’s words? Did they disclose the secret cosmos of the human soul, or were they no more than the fountainhead of the illusion now benumbing half of America that it is possible to shed one’s torments and guilt by having them interpreted away by some well-paid specialist?

But I’d go further and ask an even more provocative question: What was the true nature of Christ’s words? Were they the beginning of an era of salvation and among the most powerful cultural impulses in the history of the world—or were they the spiritual source of the crusades, inquisitions, the cultural extermination of the Americas, and, later, the entire expansion of the white race that was fraught with so many contradictions and had so many tragic consequences, including the fact that most of the human world has been consigned to that wretched category known as the “Third World”? I still tend to think that His words belonged to the former category, but at the same time I cannot ignore the umpteen books that demonstrate that, even in its purest and earliest form, there was something unconsciously encoded in Christianity which, when combined with a thousand and one other circumstances, including the relative permanence of human nature, could in some way pave the way spiritually, even for the sort of horrors I mentioned.

  1. *

    Lev Kopelev received the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association in 1981.

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