The Borges Retrospective: Part I: Intro. (I know I said we’d begin with “The Aleph”, but how stupid a thought is that? We’ll end at the Aleph. We were always going to end at the Aleph.)
Think first of the carpenter who picks up a plank, and lays it perpendicular on another one. With careful skill and a substantial brutality, he hammers a cross, setting in motion thousands of years of ecstasy and pain. He unwittingly, doing a job, lays the groundwork for Pere Brébeuf ‘s agony at the roasting pole, and Kateri Tekawitha’s sublime conversion. He sets into motion dramas in lands which he could never imagine.
Think then of the builder who attaches a wooden mane on a great horse, which bears in its womb countless Greeks with a berserk desire for murder. These are the creators of our great dreams, and our great dramas. They build the stage on which we tell our tales. But in one of the greatest stories Borges ever tells, he steps back, and tells the tale not of our great builders, or our blood-covered warriors, but of a man who fell victim to Hannibal, to the Druidic gods, to the madness of Hitler. In “The Secret Miracle”, he tells the story of creation, the story of telling our stories, and makes it more sad and more heroic than any of the great tales.
I didn’t choose “The Secret Miracle” (full pdf) to kick off the rest of Borges week because it is representative. In many ways, it isn’t. It takes place firmly within our reality, within the German takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1939. It’s not in an ancient labyrinth, or a bitter Argentine bar where the battles of Junín are somehow replicated with the glint of a blade. This was one of the few Borges stories which captured our world, and to me, it is one of the best representations of his vast humanism.
Our story concerns Jaromir Hladik, a Czech writer who had accomplished very little in his life. A few monograms, a description of a metaphysical chess game, some criticism. But he signed his name to an anti-Nazi manifesto, one of those brief moments where the person we imagine ourselves to be runs with ragged and angry claws over who we are, a brief instant where the ego is subsumed by self-image. The unassuming Hladik somehow becomes a target for the Nazis, in their cruelty, and gets sentenced to death.
Hladik accepts this in a sort of gnostic/agnostic way. His one regret is not finishing an epic play he is writing, one that he thinks will justify his meager and unremarkable existence. The nights that lead up to his execution are passed with his imaging the horrors of his death. I quote in full, angry that blogging guidelines prevent me from doing a wholesale substitution of his words for mine.
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.
And should we have stoppped here, as we say in Passover, that would have been enough. Look at how with such an economy of prose Borges captures not just the man sentenced to death, but Man sentenced to Death by dint of being born. How we struggle and flail against the inevitable, and how we try to push it off with our power of imagination. If the story had just captured this moment of truth, it would have been one of the finest ever written.
But of course it didn’t. As Hladik was led into the firing grounds, he observed, with no little courage, the face of his murderers. In doing so he echoed, in a Borges sort of way, Ceaser identifying his murderers, and even Christ acknowledging the centurion. Because it was grubby, because it was on a mud-soaked courtyard for uninteresting deaths, didn’t make it any less epic.
And then, the miracle.
As the bullets ripped toward him, time stopped.
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’s temples 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, as in 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.
Hladik, the night before, had asked a god for whom he had a meager belief on request: to finish his play, a weird refracting modern piece in which mirrors and secret identities created a new reality. And, it seemed, God or whomever granted him this. Time stopped, for all but him, or rather all but his mind. He was to die, at the exact moment as it was foreseen in the books of eternity, or at least a Nazi legerdemain, but he had one year, known only to him, to revise.
And he did. He edited verses and whole scenes and acts. He dropped characters and brought others to unexpected prominence. There was a chronological dilemma which seemed distracting, but which he solved. And then, when he finished the last piece, when he completed the chess board…
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.
In less than five full pages, Borges tells a thousand stories. He tells the story of our century, of our jackboots and our hatred for– and more importantly our fear of– art. Of how it can ridicule even the staunchest regimes, and how it must be destroyed. He also tells the story that we all reckon with, that of being terribly and inconsequentially mortal, or existing without leaving a mark.
But he also does so in a way that can give us hope. I didn’t want to tie this series to the cruel and howling madness of the week, but I think it is important. In “The Secret Miracle”, Borges makes a modest proclamation for what makes us human: our ability to tell stories. True, or false, they matter, more than the irritating and shrieking politicians who howls on our radios. In telling these stories, we become something better than ourselves. We overcome our vast and encompassing mediocrity, our nothingness in the face of eternity. We can, in some ways, stand up to the totalitarian mindset, which is at once both so dull and so sharp, so literal and so disgustingly imaginative, that makes these cruel creations in our firing lines and our once-happy nightclubs. He stands up to it, and knows that the miracle wasn’t the unknown and impossible year, but it was the non-literal mind in the face of rigid cruelty. (It should be noted he also knew how the cruel could tell these same stories, to make themselves part of something bigger, as seen in “Deutsches Requiem“)
Borges was not a political writer in any accepted sense, and it would be stupid and antithetical to his project to try to make “The Garden of Forking Paths” a metaphor for the Weimars, or whatever. But he also understood (as we’ll talk about in the essay on his political writing) that the stories we tell are a bulwark against the worst in our humanity, and a striking blow for the beautiful in humans. That he gave us his greatest declaration of the importance of creativity in the face of jackbooted permanence and literalism, and did so with a minor talent, whose small dreams echo most of ours, is a testament to his essential humanity, and the core of grounded decency that laid underneath even his most fantastic work. Borges transcended that dumb and violent century, but he also planted a humble flag in its wreckage, toward which any reckless and human dreamer should salute.