"The Secret Miracle" - A Short Story on the Nature of Time and Consciousness by Jorge Luis Borges
The Secret Miracle
The Secret Miracle is a short story by Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges. Within five pages, Borges is somehow able to pack such a vivid and relatable experience about a writer named Jaromir Hladik. Hladik, also being Jewish, has been rounded up by the Nazis in 1939 for execution. The night before his execution he makes a plea to God for more time to finish his magnum literary opus. What happens next is unexpected.
Clearly, though, Borges is reflecting on the nature of time, change, the universe, and consciousness. One way of looking at the universe, the Materialist worldview, claims that there must be an unending temporal chain of totally unique events, one following after the other without stop. Borges seems to be contesting this view, though, making a claim that reality is much more mysterious than one might first think. Could it be the case that time is not so linear, or maybe doesn't exist at all? He does reference the Greek Parmenides, who held that all change was simply illusion. And is every moment that different from the next? Are there not reoccurring essences and unities that we experience? What is more real, the physical world or the conscious world? Jaromir disappears into a moment of his consciousness for an indefinite amount of time as the bullets fly towards his body. Both of these themes, of the nature of consciousness and time and the relation between consciousness and reality, are similar to the stories that I have posted about from Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Kafka's Conversation with a Supplicant and Dostoyevsky's The Idiot explore similar questions. Click the titles to link over to those posts. Either way, there is something deeply mysterious that deserves reflection here in Borges' short story ... human consciousness, what the heck is it? I have embedded the PDF of the story at the bottom.
Jaromir Hladik's Execution and Journey Into Timelessness
The short story begins with a Jewish writer named Jaromir Hladik in 1939 Prague. He is having a dream in which two families have been engaged in a generations long chess match. A match which has a forgotten prize, and when the moment comes for him to take his part to play, he is awakened. The Third Reich is moving through Prague. Jaromir is brought up on charges by the Reich, charges he cannot deny as his Jewish faith pervades all that he has done. He is sentenced to be executed by firing squad fifteen days after the day of his dream. 1
In those fifteen days, Jaromir lived his execution in his mind over and over again. He imagined it happening in all types of ways and means. He even thought to himself, superstitiously, that if he imagined specific details about it that those details wouldn't come true. In his mind, time seemed to work differently. "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." Approaching the final night before the execution, Jaromir began to think of some of the books that he had been writing, The Enemies, Vindication of Eternity, and others. In the Vindication of Eternity he argues that time as a temporal series that continues on unendingly is a fallacy as man's experiences are not infinitely different from one another, there are "'repetitions'" in being. He also gives a history of thought on the idea of eternity, or what's most real. "... 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..." 2
Though some of his earlier works were failures, Jaromir was more confident in his last unfinished work, The Enemies. It was a drama performed in verse, a style which liked because it drew the spectator away from everyday reality. And indeed the play is a type of psychological drama dealing also with the concept of time, or lack thereof. A man is sitting in his study in the evening when a group of unfamiliar people begins to visit him, feigning kindness and sincerity. He doesn't know them, though maybe he possibly does from a dream he previously had. Then his wife's old suitor shows up. He has lost his mind in madness and believes he is the man. As the play unfolds, stranger things begin to happen. People who were gone from the play reappear, the opening lines are repeated at the end as though no time has passed, indeed the clock hasn't moved at all. Finally, the crowd begins to realize that the man and the former suitor are actually the same person. He is in an unending delirium of reoccurrences. "The drama has never taken place: it is the circular delirium which Kubin unendingly lives and relives." Jaromir is happy with his play, as this style and theme of time conceals any weaknesses or discontinuities in the play. In fact, somehow he saw the play as a symbol for his life and doing something meaningful with it. But was he going to finish before his execution? 3
Jaromir, on the night before his execution, calls out to God asking for more time to complete his play. He asks for another year from God, yet drifts off into sleep ten minutes after his prayer. In that sleep he dreamt that he was in the Clementine library in the Czech Republic. There amidst the 400,000 volumes he was searching for God.
A blind librarian comes to help him but offers little reassurance as he says that for generations his family has searched for God in the library, and know that God is in one letter of one of the 400,000 books. As they are talking, a man comes and returns an atlas. Jaromir opens it up to a page on India and glancing at a tiny letter has, as far as one can tell, encountered God. God says to him that his time has been granted to finish his work. Then he awakes from his dream to find two soldiers ordering him out. "He remembered that the words of a dream are divine, when they are all separate and clear and are spoken by someone invisible." He is led to a courtyard where his executioners wait. They have 14 minutes until the execution. Then the time comes and he is lined up against the wall. The command is given to fire, but then something unexpected happens... time stops. "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 glad stone a bee cast a stationary shadow. The wind 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. He thought: I'm in hell, I'm dead. He thought: I've gone mad. He thought: Time has come to a halt." 4
While everything physical was frozen, his consciousness was not. He even recited Virgil to himself to test it out. An unknown amount of time passes before he falls asleep. Later he wakes up and nothing has changed. Finally he realizes that God had granted him that year ... only it was a year in between the time of the firing of the guns and his own death. There, in his memory, he was able to finish his work, The Enemies. He was able to ponder, reflect, and work over the final acts of the play to his suiting. "There were no circumstances to constrain him. He omitted, condensed, amplified..." The final line of his play was completed with the return to time and his own death. 5
1 - Borges, Jorge Marie. The Secret Miracle. https://www.scasd.org/cms/lib/PA01000006/Centricity/Domain/1487/The%20Secret%20Miracle.pdf . Pg 1
2 - 2
3 - 3
4 - 4
5 - 5