Slowing Time Down - Trying to Stop the Bullets

 Book Excerpt: Jorge Luis Borges, The Secret Miracle (from Labyrinths)

Does time really speed up as we get older or do we just perceive it to? If it's a matter of perception then it should also be possible to slow time down. Maybe even way down like the main character in Jorge Luis Borges' short story The Secret Miracle...

"From behind the door, Hladik had visualized a labyrinth of passageways, stairs, and connecting blocks. Reality was less rewarding: the party descended to an inner courtyard by a single iron stairway. Some soldiers - uniforms unbuttoned - were testing a motorcycle and disputing their conclusions. The sergeant looked at his watch: it was 8:44 am. They must wait until nine. Hladik, more insignificant than pitiful, sat down on a pile of firewood. He noticed that the soldiers' eyes avoided his. To make his wait easier, the sergeant offered him a cigarette. Hladik did not smoke. He accepted the cigarette out of politeness or humility. As he lit it, he saw that his hands shook. The day was clouding over. The soldiers spoke in low tones, as though he were already dead. Vainly, he strove to recall the woman of whom Julia de Weidenau was the symbol…

The firing squad fell in and was brought to attention. Hladik, standing against the barracks wall, waited for the volley. Someone expressed fear the wall would be splashed with blood. The condemned man was ordered to step forward a few paces. Hladik recalled, absurdly, the preliminary maneuvers of a photographer. A heavy drop of rain grazed one of Hladik's temples and slowly rolled down his cheek. The sergeant barked the final command.

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 flagstone a bee cast a stationary shadow. The wind had 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.

Then he reflected that in that case, his thought, too, would have come to a halt. He was anxious to test this possibility: he repeated (without moving his lips) the mysterious Fourth Eclogue of Virgil. He imagined that the already remote soldiers shared his anxiety; he longed to communicate with them. He was astonished that he felt no fatigue, no vertigo from his protracted immobility. After an indeterminate length of time he fell asleep. On awakening he found the world still motionless and numb. The drop of water still clung to his cheek; the shadow of the bee still did not shift in the courtyard; the smoke from the cigarette he had thrown down did not blow away. Another "day" passed before Hladik understood.

He had asked God for an entire year in which to finish his work: His omnipotence had granted him the time. For his sake, God projected a secret miracle: German lead would kill him, at the determined hour, but in his mind a year would elapse between the command to fire and its execution. From perplexity he passed to stupor, from stupor to resignation, from resignation to sudden gratitude.

He disposed of no document but his own memory; the mastering of each hexameter as he added it, had imposed upon him a kind of fortunate discipline not imagined by those amateurs who forget their vague, ephemeral paragraphs. He did not work for posterity, nor even for God, of whose literary preferences he possessed scant knowledge. Meticulous, unmoving, secretive, he wove his lofty invisible labyrinth in time. He worked the third act over twice. He eliminated some rather too-obvious symbols: the repeated striking of the hour, the music. There were no circumstances to constrain him. He omitted, condensed, amplified; occasionally, he chose the primitive version. He grew to love the courtyard, the barracks; one of the faces endlessly confronting him made him modify his conception of Roemerstadt's character. He discovered that the hard cacophonies which so distressed Flaubert are mere visual superstitions: debilities and annoyances of the written word, not of the sonorous, the sounding one… He brought his drama to a conclusion: he lacked only a single epithet. He found it: the drop of water slid down his cheek. He began a wild cry, moved his face aside. A quadruple blast brought him down.

Jaromir Hladik died on March 29, at 9:02 in the morning."

I find this story fascinating not only for exploring the subjective nature of time, but also the intangible value of human endeavor and experience. Why was it satisfying or worthwhile for the playwright to finish a play that no one would ever read? When he prayed for the opportunity to finish his play surely he meant the opportunity to write it down and leave it for posterity. But, in his reprieve from death he grew to love the act of creativity in and of itself and to appreciate the beauty of all the details around him that he wouldn't even have noticed in the normal flow of time.

This story takes the idea that life's challenges offer its greatest rewards and turns the screw one rotation further - giving actual shape to a man's answered prayers.  We throw around many vague notions of fulfillment and the steps we think we must take to get there, but if each of us were granted our own secret miracle, what form would it take and would we immediately recognize it?

This reminds me of the many times I didn't have a camera handy to capture a vista or sunset or a tape recorder or pen to record an inspirational song or story idea that later slipped away - even worse - when my camera was stolen in Baja with a full roll of undeveloped film in it and when a bad memory card obliterated a journey up the California Coast. I was obviously very disappointed, but faced with no other remedy, I decided to try  to make the best of what appeared to be a bad situation by paying extra attention to every detail - taking vivid mental pictures that only I would ever see.

This acceptance of my predicament, this letting go, was such a gratifying experience that it made me wonder how many times in my excitement to capture or share the perfect moment I'd diminished it by rushing to grab the camera or to tell a friend, "Look, look at how beautiful it is!" Perhaps, the playwright in Borge's story enjoyed the creation of that final play more than any of his previous plays precisely because he knew it was his alone.

Is this the secret to slowing time down? Was it truly a God given miracle or did the playwright freeze time of his own will? I've heard of stranger things. Like black holes smaller than the head of a pin and invisible fourth and fifth dimensions curled up all around us. Maybe the fountain of youth is not a drink at all, but a state of mind and some monk in the Himalayas has lived a millennium in the last fifty years.

We all have our own bullets. They were locked and loaded the day we were born. When they will be fired is impossible to know, but regardless of how much time we have remaining, it is ours to use as we choose and it may even be ours to bend.

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