If writers were once thought of as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, Vaclav Havel’s OPEN LETTERS: SELECTED WRITINGS, 1965-1990 goes a long way in giving them the acknowledgment they perhaps now deserve. This collection of speeches and essays traces the evolution of the political conscience of Havel from early in his career, when he was a playwright and a member of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers in 1965, to when he became the democratically elected president of his country in 1990. Here are writings dealing with the evasive thinking and mushy logic employed by Communist party functionaries; Havel’s arrest and imprisonment for subversion against the state; observations of the crumbling Communist world; and Havel’s first address, as president, to the Czechoslovakian people.
In this book there is a pervasive awareness of the power of the word, of the power shared by a community of writers, and of the writer’s responsibility in wielding such power. In the essay “On Evasive Thinking,” Havel warns of such power gone awry, when the writer has lost contact with the “intelligence and humanity” of the public. He writes: “This happens chiefly through a ritualization of language. From being a means of signifying reality, and of enabling us to come to an understanding of it, language seems to have become an end in itself.”
It is exciting to be in the presence of a writer and statesman of such eloquence (these are beautifully translated pieces). Not since Thomas Jefferson has the world known a more determined or capable advocate for freedom, democracy, and expression. In reading OPEN LETTERS one gains the bright realization that the people of the world are perhaps regaining control of their collective destiny. In Havel’s own words, his vision of the future is “Of a republic of well rounded people, because without such it is impossible to solve any of our problems, human, economic, ecological, social, or political.”