Havel's "Words on Words"

December 19, 2011

Yesterday, Czech playwright and politician Václav Havel died. A leader of the "Velvet Revolution," a non-violent revolution that overthrew the Communist government in Czechoslovakia in 1989, Havel later became president of Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic. His writings and political activities had previously resulted in his imprisonment by the Communist government. As a writer, he paid close attention to the importance of words. Here are a few highlights from a speech he wrote to accept a peace prize in 1989:

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. ... 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. ... There has never been a time when a sense of the importance of words was not present in human consciousness. ... 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. ... 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.
Amen! Words are critically important and must be read with a critical eye. Havel was an important figure in both literary and political terms, but especially in the way he mixed the two.

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