Extract from a speech by Vaclav Havel delivered in absentia at the Frankfurt Bookfair on October 15, 1989. He had been awarded the International Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association. It was reprinted in full in the New York Review of Books in January 1990. This English translation by Alice and Gerry Turner was edited by Paul Wilson.
………..”At 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 important.
“They are important everywhere.
“The same word can be humble at one moment and arrogant the next. And a humble word can be transformed easily and imperceptibly into an arrogant one, whereas it is a difficult and protracted process to transform an arrogant word into one that is humble………..
“As we approach the end of the second millennium, the world, and particularly Europe, finds itself at a peculiar crossroads. It has been so many reasons 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 a catastrophic collapse of society and civilization by which I mean the widening gulf between rich and poor individuals and nations – have hidden deep within them a single root cause: the imperceptible transformation of what was originally a humble message into an arrogant one.
“Arrogantly, man began to believe that, as the pinnacle and lord of creation, he understood nature completely and could do what he liked with it.
“Arrogantly, he began to think that as the possessor of reason, he could completely understand his own history and could, therefore, plan a life of happiness for all, and that 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 began 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 from all this, 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.”……………
Vaclav Havel photograph of unknown provenance.
The featured image was posted in 2015 on the NY Underground Metro.