Literature Study GuidesFiccionesPart 2 The Secret Miracle Summary

Ficciones | Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges

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Ficciones | Part 2, The Secret Miracle : Artifices | Summary

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Summary

On March 19, 1939, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Jaromir Hladík is arrested by the Nazis. Hladík is an ambitious but unproductive writer. He has written but not finished a tragedy The Enemies. He is charged with being Jewish, signing a petition against the Nazis, and making a "Judaizing" study of the 16th-century German Christian mystic Jakob Böhme. All the charges are true. The Nazi investigator, Julius Rothe, finds Hladík's name attached to a translation in a publisher's catalogue and is thus convinced the arrested man is important and must therefore be executed. His execution is set for the morning of March 29.

Hladík reacts with "horror." He spends nine nights in jail awaiting his execution. Imagining his execution again and again, he reasons things never turn out the way one imagines, so he hopes imagining his execution might be the same as preventing it. In line with this principle, he spends his days in jail "invent[ing], so that they might not happen, the most atrocious particulars." He then imagines he is immortal and invulnerable, so long as the 29th has not yet dawned. He tries to hold onto time, but every night he slips into sleep.

On the 28th he thinks about his tragedy in verse, The Enemies, and about his intellectual and literary career. He doesn't think much of his other works, except a philosophical work, Vindication of Eternity. The first volume of that work gives the history of the ways other thinkers have envisioned eternity. The second "denies ... that all events in the universe make up a temporal series." Although some arguments claim "a single repetition" is enough to refute time, they are flawed and perplexing.

Hladík thinks The Enemies is his best chance of "redeem[ing] himself from his equivocal and languid past" in which he wrote mediocre works. The Enemies begins with the clock striking seven. A complex plot unfolds, and at a certain point the clock strikes seven again. "The time of day has not advanced," a character in the play notices. The first speaker in the play reappears and repeats the first line.

Hladík still needs to write the next two acts. He addresses God, asking for one more year in which to finish his play. Hladík falls asleep on his "last ... most atrocious night." Although he wants to stay up, sleep sweeps "over him like a dark ocean and drown[s] him." He dreams he is in a library, looking for the one book containing the letter that stands for God. Someone enters carrying an atlas. Hladík looks at a map in it and hears a voice say, "The time for your work has been granted." Hladík wakes up.

He is brought outside to face the firing squad. The soldiers have a casual attitude. It is 8:45, and it seems important to execute Hladík at nine on the dot, so Hladík is forced into an undignified wait. The hour arrives, and the soldiers line up. The sergeant gives the command to fire. Then "the physical universe" stands still. The sergeant's arm remains raised. A puff of smoke remains stationary. The soldiers do not move. A drop of water lies motionless on Hladík's cheek.

Hladík considers various possibilities: perhaps he is mad or dead. After a full day of thinking he realizes his wish has been granted. He is motionless, but he can think. In his mind he finishes writing The Enemies, working steadily, adding, refining, and adjusting. He "grows to love the courtyard, the barracks." As Hladík finishes The Enemies time begins again. The drop of water rolls down his cheek and the soldiers' bullets strike him. The narrator adds Hladík "died on March 29, at 9:02 in the morning."

Analysis

Jaromir Hladík seems to be a writer after Borges's own heart. Among his obscure works is a translation of the Sephir Yezirah or Book of Creation, the ancient Hebrew text that seems to be part of the inspiration for "The Library of Babel." Hladík is past 40, as Borges was at the time he wrote this story.

The idea of stopping on the brink of an execution also recalls the story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by 19th-century American writer Ambrose Bierce. In that story a soldier in the Confederate army is sentenced to hang. As the rope breaks, he plunges into the water and makes his way home. But at the end of the story he is hanging from the rope, dead. His escape is a hallucination. In "The Secret Miracle" it is difficult to tell whether Hladík's reprieve is real or not. He cannot move or speak. No one witnesses Hladík's extra year of life; the people around him are frozen. He doesn't finish The Enemies on paper or send it out into the world. His miracle occurs only in his mind, as he writes without pen or paper.

Hladík is also one of the more extreme idealists in Ficciones. He lives for literature: "the problematic practice of literature constituted his life." Indeed, Hladík lives in his mind. While in the cell he imagines the way to the execution site will be "a labyrinth of passageways, stairs, and connecting blocks." On the day of the execution he finds "reality was less rewarding"—only "a single iron stairway." With regard to his own literary output, too, Hladík focuses on the imaginary—his planned but unfinished works. The narrator gently mocks Hladík for this, though he says every writer judges other writers by their finished works, and themselves by "what [they] conjecture or plan" to write. The abrupt, imminent death is a crisis for such a writer. Hladík does not want to die, but he especially does not want to die a failed writer.

However, an "idealist" is not just someone with their head in the clouds. It is a philosophical position, and Hladík is an idealist in matters of time. The miracle Hladík experiences—unless it is a dream or hallucination—is of time stopping and then resuming. But his own intellectual and literary work is concerned with time repeating. These seem to be opposed concepts. Wouldn't it be neater, more symmetrical, if Hladík's miracle were the proof of his own ideas about time repeating? The connection between time stopping and time repeating is in Hladík's book Vindication of Eternity. Its second part is about denying "that all the events in the universe make up a temporal series." In this book Hladík argues "a single 'repetition' suffices to demonstrate that time is a fallacy." While standing before the frozen firing squad, unable to tell whether he is mad or dead, Hladík continually recites "the mysterious fourth Eclogue of Virgil." At the start of the fourth eclogue, Virgil, the ancient Roman poet and author of the Aeneid, invokes a cyclic time: "the majestic roll / Of circling centuries begins anew." The play Hladík is writing in his head, as he lives an extra year on the brink of death, is about a repetition in time.

However, because these intellectual deliberations are confined to Hladík's head, it is impossible to know whether his miracle really occurs. Does he, alone, live an extra year? Or does he hallucinate the experience? The narrator notes Hladík died "at 9:02 in the morning." His execution was scheduled for nine. It is thus most probable his miraculous year was telescoped into the two minutes between his wounds and his death.

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