Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Power of Words

This is the first of two "Reader Response" essays I wrote for my Lit class. Subject: the power of words.
If anyone knows about the importance of words, it is Elie Wiesel. Few authors have been through such a horrific event and lived to tell about it. Moreover, he tells his story in such eloquent terms that the reader of any of his books is instantly transported to Sighet, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, or any of the other places the story takes you. You can feel the confusion of the young Eliezer, as well as the somewhat repressed anger of the older Elie who is writing. These emotions are conveyed through his use of words. His stories are of the variety that illustrates best the power of the written and spoken language.

In one of his memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel wrote about his first experience with words, in Hebrew school. He remembered what his teacher had said about words. The alphabet, the teacher had said, were the “beginning and end of all things.” This is very true. In the beginning of time, there was nothing- no substance of any kind. Then God started everything up and began to form it-- all with a few simple words made up of a few simple letters. God said, “Let there be light” and it happened. God gave commands about what would be formed, and they formed. Then, years later, the long-passed-down story was written down with the same letters that had been first spoken. Then, too, it could be that God could speak and end the world, like he created it. This idea could be illustrated quite well by referring to Douglas Adams’ book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In this book, the Earth is destroyed by a group of Vogons, aliens who are demolishing planets to make way for an interstellar bypass. The captain of the Vogon ship makes an announcement about the demolition just prior to blowing the planet up. His voice seems to boom out from nowhere, and it was totally unexpected by all humans. This could be translated as an equivalent for God speaking the world out of existence, and it will very probably happen at just as unexpected a time. No one will know when the world will end but God.

Words have been realized as important throughout the centuries, from culture to culture. When John the son of Zebedee wrote the book of John, which is now part of the Bible, he started it off, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It was very wise to place God as the Word, because of his audience and their beliefs. To the Jews, words were important because of the account in Genesis. God spoke the world into existence, so therefore words were held as sacred. Other cultures also held words in high regard. The Greeks, in particular, respected the power of words. Their word for “word,” logos, was often used to imply “reason.” The philosopher Heraclitus, perhaps best known for the saying “When I step into a river for the second time, neither I nor the river are the same,” also believed that logos, or reason, was the equivalent of God. He believed that God was the universal reason. John was writing primarily to the Greeks and Jews, so placing God as the Word really emphasized the importance of God.

Words are powerful in many ways. One of these ways is that they convey, and often contain, emotions. There are thousands of millions of books that have been written about every subject imaginable. Some books, like Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called ‘It’, that you have to read with a box of Kleenex beside you, because you will weep. When reading other books, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you still need a box of Kleenex, but this because of laughter that just wouldn’t stop. But these are not necessarily the books that strike you, because these are only the most basic of emotions. The best books are the ones that make you both laugh and cry. The best books are the ones that get into your soul and challenge the foundations of what you believe and what society says is acceptable. One example of a book that did this is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This book shook everyone who read it. It challenged what society was trying to persuade them was acceptable. In effect, it started the Civil War. Even Abraham Lincoln realized it. When he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

Words can, and often do, change the world that the speakers or writers see around them. Indeed, that was one of the reasons that Hitler ordered the book burnings of the 1930s and 1940s-- to stop the spread of “dangerous” revolutionary ideas. That was a practice that was used before and has been used since. Since words have the power to change the course of history, dictators ban whatever books they feel could spark a revolt among the people. But if they have the power to change history, they also have the ability to retell it, so that the past will not reoccur in the present or future. For example, by telling the stories of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel could be helping to ensure that another Holocaust of that scale does not occur. Most often, by hearing of the atrocities that occurred, something inside people stirs, and it changes the way that they think. Something in them becomes resolved to do something, any little thing, to make certain that those same atrocities do not happen again. This is why it is important to pay attention to what is happening now and what has happened in the past-- to read what has been written, to hear what has been said, to observe what has been done. Throughout history, words have been recognized as being important. The Greeks recognized it, the Jews, the Romans. Holocaust survivors like Elie Wiesel now realize the value of both silence and words, because they were forced to endure the former for years, and now they express the pain through the latter. So why are people today not picking up on the significance of what they say? Why are we not realizing the power of an insult or a compliment in changing the course of someone’s day, or even their lives? For the moment, this remains unanswered. Yet we will have to answer it soon, both individually and as a society. Words have provoked wars, and they have ended them. So if we want to end wars, if world peace is going to become a reality in future years, we are going to have to learn what should be said, and what should remain unsaid. Until the power of words is recognized, world peace can never happen.

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