Speech at Union of Writers, 1965

On June 9, 1965, on the twentieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, Havel gave a speech at a conference of the Czechoslovak Union of Writers in Prague. This is a passage from the opening of his speech.

“On Evasive Thinking”

Some time ago, as we know, a stone window ledge came loose and fell from a building on Vodičkova Street, killing a woman. Not long afterward, an article appeared in Literarní noviny commenting on the event, or rather on the spontaneous wave of outrage that followed. The author began by assuring us that window ledges ought not to fall, that it was entirely proper for the public to criticize such things, and how wonderful it was that we could openly criticize such things today. He then went on to talk about the enormous progress we’d made as a whole, and to illustrate this he mentioned that whereas before, young girls used to wear anoraks, today they dress in the latest Parisian fashions. This rather graphic example of the achievements of our time ultimately led him to ask whether there wasn’t, after all, just a little bit too much criticism, and he appealed to us not to limit ourselves to what he called local matters, but to focus on themes that were more worthy of the dignity of the human mission and more appropriate to the humanistic notion of man. He concluded with a challenge to literature, too, to free itself from all petty, local, municipal matters and to begin, at last, to deal with mankind and our prospects for the future.

Fortunately, the public opinion to which this author had appealed ignored his advice and last week, when a second window ledge fell on Spálená Street and killed someone else, an even greater wave of outraged protests followed. As it had done many time before, the public again showed more intelligence and humanity than the writer, for it had understood that the so-called prospects for mankind are nothing but an empty platitude if they distract us from our particular worry about who might be killed by a third window ledge and what will happen should it fall on a group of nursery-school children out for a walk.

If the author of the article were a cold cynic, fully aware of the amoral implications of his conclusions, his piece would have been no more than a harmless oddity meriting scant attention. But – and this is what is tragic about the whole affair – it was written with the purest of intentions, in the sincere belief that it was contributing, albeit tactically, to a good cause.

Here is a clear example of how any intention can become its exact opposite if it is carried forward in the conventionalized, pseudo-ideological thinking that has become so dangerously domesticated in all areas of our social life. This way of thinking, in my opinion, is causing immense damage. The essence of it is that certain established dialectical patterns . . . when applied to different kinds of reality, seem at first to have achieved, admirably, a heightened . . . view of that reality, whereas in fact they have, without our noticing it, separated thought from its immediate contact with reality and thus crippled its capacity to intervene in that reality effectively. . . .


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