Sentenced to death pour encourager les autres

Recently, I have been reading stories from Jorge Luis Borges Labyrinths for my comparative literature class. Actually, I took this comparative literature class largely in order to read Borges.

The second story we read was “The Secret Miracle.” It takes place during World War II in Prague, where Jaromir Hladik, a Jewish dramatist is arrested and sentenced to death. But the moment Hladik is about to be shot God answers his prayer, and “in his mind a year would go by between the order and its execution” for the author to finish his work.

Although it is not even 10 pages long, this story speaks to many of the “big questions”: Theology, politics, literature, and of course mortality. And the presentation of these issue is complex and open-ended, with a web of interrelated themes and problems. Yet, my professor likes to say, “All good readings are forced readings,” so with that in mind I will offer a discussion of the role of death in “The Secret Miracle” that departs from the one taught to me, and which likely has little to do with Borges’ intended message.

Literature brings out the solipsist, or perhaps more accurately egotistic adolescent, in me–I am partial to literature that I can identify with at a personal level, and where I can’t, I force a reading of a text that relates to my own life. And that is certainly what I have done with “The Secret Miracle.” I like reading the story as an allegory, a cautionary tale against a meaningless life. I’m hesitant to use these words because as a philosophy major I have been conditioned to cringe at their overuse and misapplication, but this is to say that it is an Existentialist story, a reminder to carpe that fucking diem. Before his sentence Hladik lived a bleak existence; middle-aged and, “aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life.” This is my favorite line in the story, solely because it feels so despairingly evocative of my own life. Under my reading that is what Borges intends–the author is obsessed with mirrors, and here Hladik functions as a mirror to our own existence, unfulfilling and even wasted. But the character is given an opportunity, a secret miracle, we are not; a chance to correct his misdirected life; a stop-time that gives him all the time to finish the work that gives him meaning. In the end Hladik dies, but Borges implies that the death of a man who has lived his life well is not a tragedy, that maybe it is even a victory, for he has won the game against time and infinity.

(Vasquez de la Horra, Sandra. Santa Muerte. 2009. Centre Pompidou, Paris, France; all quotations: Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Secret Miracle.” Trans. Harriet De Onís. Labyrinths, Selected Stories & Other Writings. New York: New Directions, 2007. 88-94. Print.)


2 thoughts on “Sentenced to death pour encourager les autres

  1. I was just talking about this with one of those hypothetical situations where you choose a crappy job that pays a lot or a job you love that pays a little. The moment you choose between the two, which I believe Hladik would have chose what he loved, is the moment you choose how you accept death when the time comes. A “victory”, as you put it, perhaps is going into death doing what you thought was a good life, I like the sound of that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for such a personal/thorough comment! Even though you haven’t read the actual story, I think your reading is a lot more brilliant than mine–the idea that choosing what you do in life amounts to choosing how you will except death is very profound.


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