Words on Words

Source: The New York Review of Books www.nybooks.com /
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.

Words can have histories too.

There was a time, for instance, when, for whole generations of the downtrodden and oppressed, the word socialism was a mesmerizing synonym for a just world, a time when, for the ideal expressed in that word, people were capable of sacrificing years and years of their lives, and their very lives even. I don’t know about your country, but in mine, that particular word—“socialism”—was transformed long ago into just an ordinary truncheon used by certain cynical, parvenu bureaucrats to bludgeon their liberal-minded fellow citizens from morning until night, labeling them “enemies of socialism” and “antisocialist forces.” It’s a fact: in my country, for ages now, that word has been no more than an incantation that should be avoided if one does not wish to appear suspect. I was recently at an entirely spontaneous demonstration, not dissident-organized, protesting the sell-off of one of the most beautiful parts of Prague to some Australian millionaires. When one of the speakers there, loudly decrying the project, sought to bolster his appeal to the government by declaring that he was fighting for his home in the name of socialism, the crowd started to laugh. Not because they had anything against a just social order, but quite simply because they heard a word which has been incanted for years and years in every possible and impossible context by a regime that only knows how to manipulate and humiliate people.

What a weird fate can befall certain words! At one moment in history, courageous, liberal-minded people can be thrown into prison because a particular word means something to them, and at another moment, people of the selfsame variety can be thrown into prison because that word has ceased to mean anything to them, because it has changed from a symbol of a better world into the mumbo jumbo of a doltish dictator.

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. The meaning of every word also reflects the person who utters it, the situation in which it is uttered, and the reason for its utterance. The selfsame word can, at one moment, radiate great hopes, at another, it can emit lethal rays. The selfsame word can be true at one moment and false the next, at one moment illuminating, at another, deceptive. On one occasion it can open up glorious horizons, on another, it can lay down the tracks to an entire archipelago of concentration camps. The selfsame word can at one time be the cornerstone of peace, while at another, machine-gun fire resounds in its every syllable.

Gorbachev wants to save socialism through the market economy and free speech, while Li Peng protects socialism by massacring students, and Ceausescu by bulldozing his people. What does that word actually mean on the lips of the one and the lips of the other two? What is this mysterious thing that is being rescued in such disparate ways?

I referred to the French Revolution and that splendid declaration that accompanied it. That declaration was signed by a gentleman who was later among the first to be executed in the name of that superbly humane text. And hundreds and possibly thousands followed him. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité—what superb words! And how terrifying their meaning can be. Freedom: the shirt unbuttoned before execution. Equality: the constant speed of the guillotine’s fall on different necks. Fraternity: some dubious paradise ruled by a Supreme Being!

The world now reechoes to the wonderfully promising word “perestroika.” We all believe that it harbors hopes for Europe and the whole world.

I am bound to admit, though, that I sometimes shudder at the thought that this word might become just one more incantation, and in the end turn into yet another truncheon for someone to beat us with. It is not my own country I am thinking of: when our rulers utter that word it means about the same as the word “our monarch” when uttered by the Good Soldier Svejk. No, what I have in mind is the fact that even the intrepid man who now sits in the Kremlin occasionally, and possibly only from despair, accuses striking workers, rebellious nations or national minorities, or holders of rather too unusual minority or national minorities, or holders of rather too unusual minority opinions, of “jeopardizing perestroika.” I can understand his feelings. It is terribly difficult to fulfill the enormous task he has undertaken. It all hangs by the finest of threads and almost anything could break that thread. Then we would all fall into the abyss. But even so I cannot help wondering whether all this “new thinking” does not contain some disturbing relics of the old. Does it not contain some echoes of former stereotyped thinking and the ancien régime’s verbal rituals? Isn’t the word perestroika starting to resemble the word socialism, particularly on the odd occasion when it is discreetly hurled at the very people who, for so long, were unjustly lambasted with the word socialism?

Your country made an enormous contribution to modern European history. I refer to the first wave of détente: the celebrated “Ostpolitik.”

But even that word managed at times to be well and truly ambivalent. It signified, of course, the first glimmer of hope of a Europe without cold wars or iron curtains. At the same time—unhappily—there were also occasions when it signified the abandonment of freedom: the basic precondition for all real peace. I still vividly recall how, at the beginning of the Seventies, a number of my West German colleagues and friends avoided me for fear that contact with me—someone out of favor with the government here—might needlessly provoke that government and thereby jeopardize the fragile foundations of nascent détente. Naturally I am not mentioning it on account of myself personally, let alone out of any sort of self-pity. After all, even in those days it was rather I who pitied them, since it was not I but they who were voluntarily renouncing their freedom. I mention it only in order to demonstrate yet again from another angle how easy it is for a well-intentioned cause to be transformed into the betrayal of its own good intentions—and yet again because of a word whose meaning does not seem to have been kept under adequate observation. Something like that can happen so easily that it almost takes you unawares: it happens inconspicuously, quietly, by stealth—and when at last you realize it, there is only one option left to you: belated astonishment.

However, that is precisely the fiendish way that words are capable of betraying us—unless we are constantly circumspect about their use. And frequently—alas—even a fairly minor and momentary lapse in this respect can have tragic and irreparable consequences, consequences far transcending the nonmaterial world of mere words and penetrating deep into a world that is all too material.

I’m finally getting around to that beautiful word “peace.”

For forty years now I have read it on the front of every building and in every shop window in my country. For forty years, an allergy to that beautiful word has been engendered in me as in every one of my fellow citizens because I know what the word has meant here for the past forty years: ever mightier armies ostensibly to defend peace.

In spite of that lengthy process of systematically divesting the word “peace” of all meaning—worse than that, investing it instead with quite the opposite meaning to that given in the dictionary—a number of Don Quixotes in Charter 77 and several of their younger colleagues in the Independent Peace Association have managed to rehabilitate the word and restore its original meaning. Naturally, though, they had to pay a price for their “semantic perestroika”—i.e., standing the word “peace” back on its feet again: almost all the youngsters who fronted the Independent Peace Association were obliged to spend a few months inside for their pains. It was worth it, though. One important word has been rescued from total debasement. And it is not just a question of saving a word, as I have been trying to explain throughout my speech. Something far more important is saved.

The point is that all important events in the real world—whether admirable or monstrous—are always spearheaded in the realm of words.

As I’ve already stated, 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 still go to prison for them. My intention was to share with you another lesson that we in this corner of the world have learned about the importance of words. I am convinced it is a lesson which 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 distrust words, and indict them for the horrors that might slumber unobtrusively within them—isn’t this, after all, the true vocation of the intellectual? I recall that André Glucksmann, the dear colleague who preceded me here today, once spoke in Prague about the need for intellectuals to emulate Cassandra: to 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.

There is something that should not escape our attention and it concerns the fact that for centuries we—the Germans and the Czechs—had all sorts of problems with living together in Central Europe. I cannot speak for you, but I think I can rightly say that as far as we Czechs are concerned, the age-old animosities, prejudices and passions, constantly fuelled and fanned in numerous ways over the centuries, have evaporated in the course of recent decades. And it is by no means coincidental that this has happened at a time when we have been saddled with a totalitarian regime. Thanks to this regime we have developed a profound distrust of all generalizations, ideological platitudes, clichés, slogans, intellectual stereotypes, and insidious appeals to various levels of our emotions, from the baser to the loftier. As a result, we are now largely immune to all hypnotic enticements, even of the traditionally persuasive national or nationalistic variety. The stifling pall of hollow words that have smothered us for so long has cultivated in us such a deep mistrust of the world of deceptive words that we are now better equipped than ever before to see the human world as it really is: a complex community of thousands of millions of unique, individual human beings in whom hundreds of beautiful characteristics are matched by hundreds of faults and negative tendencies. They must never be lumped together into homogeneous masses beneath a welter of hollow clichés and sterile words and then en bloc—as “classes,” “nations,” or “political forces”—extolled or denounced, loved or hated, maligned or glorified.

This is just one small example of the good that can come from treating words with caution. I have chosen the example especially for the occasion, i.e., for the moment when a Czech has the honor to address an audience that is overwhelmingly German.

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.

They are important everywhere.

The selfsame word can be humble at one moment and arrogant the next. And a humble word can be transformed quite easily and imperceptibly into an arrogant one, whereas it is a very difficult and protracted process to transform an arrogant word into one that is humble. I tried to demonstrate this by referring to the fate of the word “peace” in my country.

As we approach the end of the second millennium, the world, and particularly Europe, finds itself at a peculiar cross-roads. It is a long time since there were so many grounds for hoping that everything will turn out well. At the same time, there have never been so many reasons for us to fear that if everything went wrong the catastrophe would be final.

It is not hard to demonstrate that all the main threats confronting the world today, from atomic war and ecological disaster to social and civilizational catastrophe—by which I mean the widening gulf between rich and poor individuals and nations—have hidden within them just one root cause: the imperceptible transformation of what was originally a humble message into an arrogant one.

Arrogantly, Man started to believe that, as the pinnacle and lord of creation, he had a total understanding of nature and could do what he liked with it.

Arrogantly, he started to think that as the possessor of reason he was capable of understanding totally his own history and therefore of planning a life of happiness for all. This even gave him the right, in the name of an ostensibly better future for all—to which he had found the one and only key—to sweep from his path all those who did not fall for his plan.

Arrogantly he started to think that since he was capable of splitting the atom he was now so perfect that there was no longer any danger of nuclear arms rivalry, let alone nuclear war.

In all those cases he was fatally mistaken. That is bad. But in each case he is already beginning to realize his mistake. And that is good.

Having learned all those lessons, we should all fight together against arrogant words and keep a weather eye out for any insidious germs of arrogance in words that are seemingly humble.

Obviously this is not just a linguistic task. Responsibility for and toward words is a task which is intrinsically ethical.

As such, however, it is situated beyond the horizon of the visible world, in that realm wherein dwells the Word that was in the beginning and is not the word of Man.

I won’t explain why this is so. It has been explained far better than I ever could by your great forebear Immanuel Kant.

—Hrádecek, July 25, 1989