In February 1943, 75 years ago last month, the Argentine literary magazine El Sur published a work of short fiction by Jorge Luis Borges. “The Secret Miracle” recounts the agonizing end of an imagined Jewish life, at the same time that his real counterparts in Europe faced systematic annihilation. The protagonist, Jaromir Hladik, is about to be executed by firing squad for the crimes of resistance to the Anschluss, his translation of the mystical Sefer Yetzirah, and his Jewish identity. He accepts his impending death, but asks God for the time to complete his unfinished verse play, The Enemies. God answers his prayer: “German lead would kill him, at the determined hour, but in his mind a year would elapse between the order and its execution.”
The story is not a political statement. It offers no solution or explicit warning to an indifferent world. Instead, “The Secret Miracle” contains a microcosm of Jewish spiritual and artistic resistance. It speaks to us today, as we read daily reminders of how democracy is threatened by incompetence and ignorance more than by the conscious embrace of totalitarianism. The contempt for creativity of Hladik’s tormentors, and his stubborn insistence on artistic production, resonate more than ever.
During his long career, Borges was often accused of lacking political convictions. According to this dismissive view, Borges’s obsession with intellectual problems and arcane literary puzzles was inexcusable while Latin Americans were confronting oppression and existential threats. At the same time, his work is marked by deep engagement with other cultures: Ancient Greek, Indian, East Asian, and Islamic, as well as European. This lends it new value from the perspective of ideological wars over multiculturalism and cultural appropriation. Jewish readers and scholars have long appreciated Borges’s “philosemitism.” From “The Aleph,” in which the narrator finds a Hebrew letter containing the entire universe in his basement, to “Death and the Compass,” a detective story which uses kabbalah to solve the murder of a rabbi, Borges’s work is imbued with Jewish history and tradition. In “The Secret Miracle” Hladik is obsessed with finishing his last work, intent on polishing its hexameters within strict rules of dramatic unity. His translation of a profound mystical book seems meaningless by comparison, because he has already completed it. His publisher’s exaggerated praise had brought this work to the attention of an ignorant Nazi official, who will now subject Hladik to the same nameless death as other Jews, “machine gunned by various soldiers …killed sometimes from far away, sometimes up close.”
So this is the life which Hladik needs to save for eternity in the one minute granted him by God. It is the life of an ambitious artist, and of a powerless Jew. As Jews have always done, he argues with God: “If I exist in some way, if I am not one of your repetitions or errors, I exist as the author of The Enemies. To complete that drama, which can justify me and justify you, I need one more year.”
In his last night on earth, he dreams and creates another fiction. In a great library, he learns that God is one letter to be found in one of its four hundred thousand volumes. Hladik remembers what he always knew, that, according to Maimonides, the speaker in a dream may be God Himself. After this realization the soldiers arrive and escort him to his death, whose details seem pedestrian by comparison. They descend to a courtyard by one iron staircase, not through the elaborate labyrinths of his imagination. “The physical universe stood still,” and he reclaims his life through the only resistance available to him.
Is Jaromir Hladik an extreme example of the diaspora Jew, convinced that his spiritual and intellectual superiority compensate for degradation, even death? Later, Borges would celebrate the state of Israel and support its self-defense, both in poetry and in personal narratives. Yet this historical coda to Hladik’s destruction does not negate the value of his resistance through words, not ones of defiance, but of patiently constructed poetry. In his last moments, Hladik understands that he is not writing for those in the future, nor for God, whose “literary preferences” remain obscure. He is writing for himself, preserving the core of his identity. Today, as we are constantly compelled to defend the arts from accusations of irrelevance, Hladik’s fate seems less of a secret, if still a miracle.
Emily Schneider is a writer and educator in New York City who blogs about children’s literature at imaginaryelevators.blog.