Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560

“I have always come to things after coming to books,” Jorge Luis Borges has written. This insight suggests that the meaning of “The Secret Miracle” lies in the questionable primacy of literature. The protagonist, Jaromir Hladik, is a writer. The action of the story is propelled by his literary reputation; he is sentenced to death based on a misreading of his importance as an author. At the same time, Hladik’s preoccupation is to be redeemed by one of his works.

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The choice of religious terminology suggests the values that guide Hladik. He dreads death because it will prevent him from producing a work of art tailored to his strengths and weaknesses, that is, his verse play. He does not question his life as a morally responsible human being—he does not even reflect on the inherent value of the play to which he would devote himself. In his bargain with God, Hladik goes so far as to suggest that his redemption through his play would result in God’s own justification.

The uses and creation of literature dominate the story. The Nazis deem it necessary to determine how dangerous certain works of literature may be and to eliminate their authors. Hladik’s final minutes, whether two or however many a year comprises, are spent plotting out and revising his play. Much of the narrative is taken up with describing Hladik’s works.

One of these is a translation of the Sepher Yezirah, “The Book of Creation,” which invests the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet with cosmic significance. All beings are created and sustained by their connection to these letters, and everything that exists somehow contains them. Some believe that the text was used for magical purposes, based on the creative powers of the letters. Significantly, the vehicle through which the voice of God speaks to Hladik is a letter. The library that houses the book containing this letter may be interpreted as the meeting place between God and human beings. It is a place of revelation.

Just as these associations with God and the creation of the universe would appear to exalt literature, the story also works to undermine this view. The author who is its protagonist is evidently an incompetent one. His scholarship is described as “a product of mere application”; Hladik’s translation of Sepher Yezirah is “characterized by negligence, fatigue, and conjecture.”

Borges refuses to resolve these contradictions, just as he remains ambivalent regarding the actuality of the year granted Hladik. Literature, like dreaming, possibly like life itself, is both hallucination and reality. Quantum physics, with its uncertainty principle and its parallel universes, would seem to support Borges’s view of the world as a web of time whose strands embrace every possibility.

The miracle of creation is, at heart, a secret. Can the human desire to emulate creation through literature ever be realized? Borges seems to agree that literature is a vain pursuit, and, winking, admits that he is compelled to pursue it. In his story, “Borges and Myself” (1957), the narrator bemoans his association with the writer Borges, to whom he attributes “a habit of falsification.” The story ends with the confession, “Which of us is writing this page I don’t know.” Borges, it would seem, intends to sow seeds of doubt in his readers, reveling in the confounding thoughts they will produce.

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