For when you have a spare half hour 🙂
The Secret Miracle by Jorge Luis Borges
And God made him die during the course of a hundred years and then He revived him and said:
“How long have you been here?”
“A day, or part of a day,” he replied.
– The Koran, II 261
On the night of March 14, 1939, in an apartment on the Zelternergasse in Prague, Jaromir Hladik,
author of the unfinished tragedy The Enemies, of a Vindication of Eternity, and of an inquiry into
the indirect Jewish sources ofJakob Boehme, dreamt a long drawn out chess game. The antagonists
were not two individuals, but two illustriousfamilies. The contest had begun many centuries before.
No one could any longer describe the forgotten prize, but it was rumored that it was enormous and
perhapsinfinite. The pieces and the chessboard were set up in a secret tower. Jaromir (in his dream)
was the first-born of one of the contending families. The hour for the next move, which could not
be postponed, struck on all the clocks. The dreamer ran across the sands of a rainy desert – and he
could not remember the chessmen or the rules of chess. At this point he awoke. The din of the rain
and the clangor of the terrible clocks ceased. A measured unison, sundered by voices of command,
arose from the Zelternergasse. Day had dawned, and the armored vanguards of the Third Reich were
On the 19th, the authorities received an accusation against Jaromir Hladik; on the same day, at
dusk, he was arrested. He was taken to a barracks, aseptic and white, on the opposite bank of the
Moldau. He was unable to refute a single one of the charges made by the Gestapo: his maternal
surname was Jaroslavski, his blood was Jewish, his study of Boehme was Judaizing, his signature
had helped to swell the final census of those protesting the Anschluss. In 1928, he had translated the
Sepher Yezirah for the publishing house of Hermann Barsdorf; the effusive catalogue issued by this
firm had exaggerated, for commercial reasons, the translator’s renown; this catalogue was leafed
through by Julius Rothe, one of the officials in whose hands lay Hladik’s fate. The man does not exist
who, outside his own specialty, is not credulous: two or three adjectives in Gothic script sufficed to
convince Julius Rothe of Hladik’s pre-eminence, and of the need for the death penalty, pour
encourager les autres. The execution was set for the 29th of March, at nine in the morning. This
delay (whose importance the reader will appreciate later) was due to a desire on the part of the
authorities to act slowly and impersonally, in the manner of planets or vegetables.
Hladik’s first reaction was simply one of horror. He was sure he would not have been terrified by
the gallows, the block, or the knife; but to die before a firing squad was unbearable. In vain he
repeated to himself that the pure and general act of dying, not the concrete circumstances, was the
dreadful fact. He did not grow weary of imagining these circumstances: he absurdly tried to exhaust
all the variations. He infinitely anticipated the process, from the sleepless dawn to the mysterious
discharge of the rifles. Before the day set by Julius Rothe, he died hundreds of deaths, in courtyards
whose shapes and angles defied geometry, shot down by changeable soldiers whose number varied
and who sometimes put an end to him from close up and sometimes from far away. He faced these
imaginary executions with true terror (perhaps with true courage). Each simulacrum lasted a few
seconds. Once the circle was closed,Jaromir returned interminably to the tremulous eve of his death.
Then he would reflect that reality does not tend to coincide with forecasts about it. With perverse
logic he inferred that to foresee a circumstantial detail is to prevent its happening. Faithful to this
feeble magic, he would invent, so that they might not happen, the most atrocious particulars.
Naturally, he finished by fearing that these particulars were prophetic. During his wretched nights
he strove to hold fast somehow to the fugitive substance of time. He knew that time was precipitating
itself toward the dawn of the 29th. He reasoned aloud: I am now in the night of the 22nd. While this
night lasts(and for six more nights to come) I am invulnerable, immortal. His nights ofsleep seemed
to him deep dark pools into which he might submerge. Sometimes he yearned impatiently for the
firing squad’s definitive volley, which would redeem him, for better or for worse, from the vain
compulsion of his imagination. On the 28th, as the final sunset reverberated across the high barred
windows, he was distracted from all these abject considerations by thought of his drama, The
Hladik was past forty. Apart from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic practice of
literature constituted his life. Like every writer, he measured the virtues of other writers by their
performance, and asked that they measure him by what he conjectured or planned. All of the books
he had published merely moved him to a complex repentance. His investigation of the work of
Boehme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd was essentially a product of mere application; his translation of
the Sepher Yezirah was characterized by negligence, fatigue, and conjecture. He judged his
Vindication of Eternity to be perhaps less deficient: the first volume is a history of the diverse
eternities devised by man, from the immutable Being of Parmenides to the alterable past of Hinton;
the second volume denies (with Francis Bradley) that all the events in the universe make up a
temporal series. He argues that the number of experiences possible to man is not infinite, and that
a single “repetition” suffices to demonstrate that time is a fallacy . . . Unfortunately, the arguments
that demonstrate this fallacy are not any less fallacious. Hladik was in the habit of running through
these arguments with a certain disdainful perplexity. He had also written a series of expressionist
poems; these, to the discomfiture of the author, were included in an anthology in 1924, and there was no anthology of later date which did not inherit them. Hladik was anxious to redeem himself from his equivocal and languid past with his verse drama, The Enemies. (He favored the verse form in the theater because it prevents the spectators from forgetting unreality, which is the necessary condition of art.)
This opus preserved the dramatic unities (time, place, and action). It transpires in Hradcany, in the
library of the Baron Roemerstadt, on one of the last evenings of the nineteenth century. In the first
scene of the first act, a stranger pays a visit to Roemerstadt. (A clock strikes seven, the vehemence
of a setting sun glorifies the window panes, the air transmits familiar and impassioned Hungarian
music.) This visit is followed by others; Roemerstadt does not know the people who come to
importune him, but he has the uncomfortable impression that he has seen them before: perhaps in
a dream. All the visitors fawn upon him, but it is obvious – first to the spectators of the drama, and
then to the Baron himself – that they are secret enemies, sworn to ruin him. Roemerstadt manages
to outwit, or evade, their complex intrigues. In the course of the dialogue, mention is made of his
betrothed, Julia de Weidenau, and of a certain Jaroslav Kubin, who at one time had been her suitor.
Kubin has now lost his mind and thinks he is Roemerstadt . . . The dangers multiply. Roemerstadt,
at the end of the second act, is forced to kill one of the conspirators. The third and final act begins.
The incongruities gradually mount up: actors who seemed to have been discarded from the play
reappear; the man who had been killed by Roemerstadt returns, for an instant. Someone notes that
the time of day has not advanced: the clock strikes seven, the western sun reverberates in the high
window panes, impassioned Hungarian music is carried on the air. The first speaker in the play
reappears and repeats the words he had spoken in the first scene of the first act. Roemerstadt
addresses him without the leastsurprise. The spectator understands that Roemerstadt is the wretched
Jaroslav gubin. The drama has never taken place: it is the circular delirium which Kubin unendingly
lives and relives.
Hladik had never asked himself whether this tragicomedy of errors was preposterous or admirable,
deliberate or casual. Such a plot, he intuited, was the most appropriate invention to conceal his
defects and to manifest his strong points, and it embodied the possibility of redeeming (symbolically)
the fundamental meaning of his life. He had already completed the first act and a scene or two of the
third. The metrical nature of the work allowed him to go over it continually, rectifying the
hexameters, without recourse to the manuscript. He thought of the two acts still to do, and of his
coming death. In the darkness, he addressed himself to God. If I exist at all, if I am not one of Your
repetitions and errata, I exist as the author of The Enemies. In order to bring this drama, which may
serve to justify me, to justify You, I need one more year. Grant me that year, You to whom belong
the centuries and all time.
It was the last, the most atrocious night, but ten minutes later sleep swept over him like a dark ocean and drowned him
Toward dawn, he dreamt he had hidden himself in one of the naves of the Clementine Library. A
librarian wearing dark glasses asked him: What are you looking for? Hladik answered: God. The
Librarian told him: God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the 400,000 volumes
of the Clementine. My fathers and the fathers of my fathers have sought after that letter. I’ve gone
blind looking for it. He removed his glasses, and Hladik saw that his eyes were dead. A reader came
in to return an atlas. This atlas is useless, he said, and handed it to Hladik, who opened it at random.
As if through a haze, he saw a map of India. With a sudden rush of assurance, he touched one of the
tiniest letters. An ubiquitous voice said: The time for your work has been granted. Hladik awoke.
He remembered that the dreams of men belong to God, and that Maimonides wrote that the words
of a dream are divine, when they are all separate and clear and are spoken by someone invisible. He
dressed. Two soldiers entered his cell and ordered him to follow them.
From behind the door, Hladik had visualized a labyrinth of passageways, stairs, and connecting
blocks. Reality was less rewarding: the party descended to an inner courtyard by a single iron
stairway. Some soldiers – uniforms unbuttoned – were testing a motorcycle and disputing their
conclusions. The sergeant looked at his watch: it was 8:44. They must wait until nine. Hladik, more
insignificant than pitiful, sat down on a pile of firewood. He noticed that the soldiers’ eyes avoided
his. To make his wait easier, the sergeant offered him a cigarette. Hladik did notsmoke. He accepted
the cigarette out of politeness or humility. As he lit it, he saw that his hands shook. The day was
clouding over. The soldiers spoke in low tones, as though he were already dead. Vainly, he strove
to recall the woman of whom Julia de Weidenau was the symbol . . .
The firing squad fell in and was brought to attention. Hladik, standing against the barracks wall,
waited for the volley. Someone expressed fear the wall would be splashed with blood. The
condemned man was ordered to step forward a few paces. Hladik recalled, absurdly, the preliminary
maneuvers of a photographer. A heavy drop of rain grazed one of Hladik’stemples and slowly rolled
down his cheek. The sergeant barked the final command.
The physical universe stood still.
The rifles converged upon Hladik, but the men assigned to pull the triggers were immobile. The
sergeant’s arm eternalized an inconclusive gesture. Upon a courtyard flag stone a bee cast a stationary
shadow. The wind had halted, asin a painted picture. Hladik began a shriek, a syllable, a twist of the
hand. He realized he was paralyzed. Not a sound reached him from the stricken world.
He thought: I’m in hell, I’m dead.
He thought: I’ve gone mad.
He thought: Time has come to a halt.
Then he reflected that in that case, his thought, too, would have come to a halt. He was anxious to
test this possibility: he repeated (without moving his lips) the mysterious Fourth Eclogue of Virgil.
He imagined that the already remote soldiers shared his anxiety; he longed to communicate with
them. He was astonished that he felt no fatigue, no vertigo from his protracted immobility. After an
indeterminate length of time he fell asleep. On awaking he found the world still motionless and
numb. The drop of water still clung to his cheek; the shadow of the bee still did not shift in the
courtyard; the smoke from the cigarette he had thrown down did not blow away. Another “day”
passed before Hladik understood.
He had asked God for an entire year in which to finish his work: His omnipotence had granted him
the time. For his sake, God projected a secret miracle: German lead would kill him, at the determined
hour, but in his mind a year would elapse between the command to fire and its execution. From
perplexity he passed to stupor, from stupor to resignation, from resignation to sudden gratitude.
He disposed of no document but his own memory; the mastering of each hexameter as he added
it, had imposed upon him a kind of fortunate discipline not imagined by those amateurs who forget
their vague, ephemeral, paragraphs. He did not work for posterity, nor even for God, of whose
literary preferences he possessed scant knowledge. Meticulous, unmoving, secretive, he wove his
lofty invisible labyrinth in time. He worked the third act twice over.
He eliminated some rather too-obvious symbols; the repeated striking of the hour, the music. There were no circumstances to
constrain him. He omitted, condensed, amplified; occasionally, he chose the primitive version. He
grew to love the courtyard, the barracks; one of the faces endlessly confronting him made him
modify his conception of Roemerstadt’s character. He discovered that the hard cacaphonies which
so distressed Flaubert are mere visual superstitions: debilities and annoyances of the written word,
not of the sonorous, the sounding one . . . He brought his drama to a conclusion: he lacked only a
single epithet. He found it: the drop of water slid down his cheek. He began a wild cry, moved his
face aside. A quadruple blast brought him down.
Jaromir Hladik died on March 29, at 9:02 in the morning.