Friday, May 05, 2006

Under sentence

There is a story by Jorge Luis Borges called “El milagro secreto” (“The Secret Miracle”). It concerns a Czech writer, Jaromir Hladík, who is arrested by the Gestapo in the early days of the German occupation of Prague. Accused of a variety of “crimes” — that he has Jewish blood, that he has translated the Sepher Yezirah — he is condemned to be executed by a firing squad, the sentence to be carried out at 9 o'clock in the morning on the 29th of March, 1939.

Hladík's first reaction, when he is returned to his cell to spend the few days left to him, is simple terror, as he repeatedly imagines the horrific details of his execution. Then he begins to bargain:
He reflected that reality never coincides with what one expects to occur; with perverse logic he thus inferred that to foresee a circumstantial detail is to prevent it from taking place. Faithful to this feeble magic, he invented, so that they would not take place, atrocious eventualities; naturally, he ended by fearing that those eventualities were prophetic. Miserably, in the night, he managed in some way to convince himself of the fugitive nature of time. He knew that time was rushing onwards towards the dawn of the 29th; he reasoned aloud: This is the night of the 22nd; as long as this night lasts (and six nights more) I am invulnerable, immortal.
As the days pass, Hladík reconsiders his unfinished masterpiece, a verse drama called The Enemies, the completed portions of which he has committed to memory. Deciding that he would need a year's time to revise and finish the work, he prays to God to be allowed the time required. Later that night he has a dream in which he is told that God resides in one letter of one book in the library of the Clementium in Prague; he finds the book, touches the letter, and hears a voice declare that his prayer has been granted.

On the morning set for his execution Hladík is led outside where his executioners await. There is a delay of a few moments; then, as Hladík feels a drop of rain rolls down his temple, the sergeant gives the order to fire.

The next paragraph has only one sentence: “The physical universe comes to a halt.”

Everything, including Hladík, even the shadow of a bee that had been flying nearby, is instantly frozen, paralyzed. In quick succession various thoughts race through Hladík's mind: he is dead and in hell; he is crazy; time has ground to a stop. But then he notices that his thoughts are continuing, and he realizes that what he asked for has been granted.

For a year he stands motionless, mentally completing The Enemies. The moment he finishes the work he feels the raindrop resume its path towards his cheek. The rifles aimed at him discharge, and the story is over. The miracle is accomplished, though the only person who will ever know it is dead.

Hladík, in one sense, is a stand-in for his creator. Like Borges, he has published early poems that he later came to regret; like Borges, he has written an attempted refutation of time (or a vindication of eternity — which comes to the same thing). Hladík's anxiety under the weight of his uncompleted masterpiece could be any writer's mingled anticipation and apprehension in the face of the tasks yet to be undertaken, some of which may never be accomplished.

But to me, the story is something else as well; it is a parable about the essential liberty of the mind. Hladík is seized against his will and can not control his own fate; the Gestapo can at whim revoke his freedom and deprive him of life. Yet Hladík retains the one thing that can never be commanded.

You can interpret that narrowly, if you like. The tyrant who exacts outward obedience may believe that he also commands the allegiance of his subjects, but he will never know. The true despot of genius is the one who is not satisfied with mere acquiescence but seeks to shape the mind as well, for he knows that independence of thought is the seed of potential resistance. But in the end it all crumbles the moment he relaxes his grip.

Though Borges was not generally inclined to comment on political events, I don't think he chose his setting at random. When he wrote the story, in 1943, he would have been well aware that, for millions of people, Hladík's fate — or something comparable — was in quite concrete ways their own. And he would have also known that for them there were few miracles, secret or otherwise.

But just as K., the hero of Franz Kafka's novel The Trial is at once a victim of a bureacracy gone mad and a representative man condemned by the universal sentence under which we are all are forced, unjustly, to live, so “El milagro secreto” is a story written in the shadow of an evil time but it is something else besides. It is a defense of meaning, of mind, of art, in the face of mortality and oblivion.

I am not religious and thus can not say with any assurance that the word “soul” is anything more than a metaphor used to name a flickering state of consciousness that can be snuffed out at any moment. I am aware that free will may well be nothing but an illusion, that the mind is bound to the body and constrained by infinite chains of cause and circumstance, that it can be swayed and degraded in any number of ways. And yet the mind is at liberty enough to recognize that its own nature is contingent and ephemeral and nevertheless imagine it otherwise. Perhaps that imagining is its own and only vindication.

(Translations, which are a bit free, are my own.)

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