Václav Havel: A Word About Words
"A Word About Words" (July 25, 1989): In 1989, Havel was awarded the Peace Prize of the German
Booksellers Association. It was presented to him, in absentia, at the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 15, 1989.
This is his acceptance speech, which was read in Havel's absence by Maximilian Schell. It was translated by
A. G. Brain and reprinted in full in The New YorkReviem of Books, January 18, 1990.
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 dissemina tion 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 bc 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 people who belong to 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: