In honor of the victims of terrorist attacks at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris last week, we bring a piece of Vaclav Havel’s essay: Words on Words
Vaclav Havel: Words on Words
Vaclav Havel received the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association on October 15, 1989. He wrote the following as his acceptance speech.
… 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?
… 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.
… In 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.
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