And God had him die for one hundred years
And later revived him and asked:
‘How long have you been here?’
And he responded: ‘One day or part of one day.’
The Koran, II, 261
On the night of the fourteenth of March 1939, in an apartment on Zeltnergasse in Prague, Jaromir Hladík, author of the unfinished tragedy The Enemies, of The Vindication of Eternity, and of an examination of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Boehme, dreamt of a long chess game. It was not, however, a dispute between two individuals, but between two illustrious families; the match had been started many centuries ago; no one was able to name the forgotten prize, but it was rumored to be enormous and perhaps infinite; the pieces and the board were in a secret tower; Jaromir (in his dream) was the firstborn of one of the hostile families; in the clocks resounded the hour of the unpostponable game; the dreamer ran through the sands of a rainy desert and could not manage to recall the figures nor the rules of chess. A rhythmic and unanimous noise, cut off by certain voices of command, rose from Zeltnergasse. It was daybreak; the armored vanguards of the Third Reich were entering Prague.
On the nineteenth, the authorities received a denunciation; that same nineteenth, at dusk, Jaromir Hladík was arrested. They led him to an aseptic, white jail on the shore opposite the Moldau. He could not refute a single one of the Gestapo’s charges: his mother’s maiden name was Jaroslavski, his blood was Jewish, his study about Boehme was Judaizing, his signature was spreading the final census of a protest against the Anschluß. In 1928, he had translated Sepher Yezirah for the publishing house Hermann Barsdorf; the effusive catalog of this publishing house had commercially exaggerated the renown of the translator; this catalog was leafed through by Julius Rothe, one of the bosses in whose hands Hladík’s fate lay. There is no man, outside of his specialization, who is not credulous; two or three adjectives in Gothic lettering sufficed for Julius Rothe to admit Hladík’s preeminence and to argue that they condemn him to death, pour encourager les autres. The day March 29th was fixed, at 9 a.m. This delay (whose importance the reader will appreciate later) was owed to an administrative wish to act impersonally and deliberately, like vegetables and planets.
Hladík’s first sentiment was that of sheer terror. He thought that the gallows or decapitation would not frighten him, but being shot to death was intolerable. In vain he repeated to himself that the pure and general act of dying was frightful, not the concrete circumstances. Absurdly trying to exhaust all the variations, he never grew tired of imagining these circumstances. He anticipated the process infinitely, from the sleepless dawn to the mysterious firing. Before the day set by Julius Rothe, he died hundreds of deaths in courtyards whose forms and angles exhausted all geometry, machine-gunned by various soldiers, in a changing number which at times ended up quite far, other times very close. In real terror (perhaps with real courage), he confronted these imaginary executions; each one lasted only a few seconds; the circle closed, Jaromir interminably returned to the tremulous eves of his death. Later he mused that reality tended not to coincide with what one saw coming; with perverse logic, he inferred that to see a detail beforehand was to impede it from happening. True to this feeble magic, he invented, so that they would not occur, atrocious features; naturally, he came to fear that these features would turn out to be prophetic. Miserable in the night, he tried to convince himself of the fleeting substance of time. He knew that this was all precipitating toward the white dawn of the day on the twenty-ninth; he reasoned aloud: today is the night of the twenty-second; during this night (and six more nights) I am invulnerable, immortal. He thought that nights with dreams were deep, dark pools in which he could submerge. Sometimes he longed for the actual firing, that it would redeem him, for worse or better, from his vain task of imagining. On the twenty-eighth, when the last sunset reverberated in the metal bars, the image of his play The Enemies separated him from these abject considerations.
Hladík had passed forty years of age. Apart from some friendships and many habits, the problematic study of literature constituted his life; like every writer, he measured the virtues of others by what was done by them and asked that others measure him by what he glimpsed or outlined. All the books he had given to the press infused him with utter remorse. In his examinations of the oeuvres of Boehme, Abenesra, and Fludd, he had essentially taken part in mere application; in his translation of Sephir Yezirah, in negligence, fatigue, and conjecture. The Vindication of Eternity he judged to be perhaps less deficient; the first volume recounts the diverse eternities that men have devised, from the motionless Parmenidean One to Hinton’s modifiable past; the second denied (with Francis Bradley) that all the deeds of the universe integrate a temporal series. It argues that the number of man’s possible experiences is not infinite and one sole “repetition” would suffice to demonstrate that time is a fallacy... Unfortunately, the arguments that demonstrate this fallacy are no less false; Hladík used to go over them again with a certain scornful perplexity. He had also written a series of Expressionist poems; these, to the poet’s embarrassment, figured in an anthology of 1924, and no anthology after that failed to inherit them. From all of this equivocal and languid past Hladík wanted to redeem himself with the play in verse The Enemies (Hladík praised verse because it impeded spectators from forgetting unreality, which is the condition of art).
This play observed the unities of time, place and action; it took place in Hradčany, in the library of Baron de Roemerstadt, on one of the last late afternoons of the nineteenth century. In the first scene of the first act, an unknown person visits Roemerstadt. (A clock shows seven, the vehemence of the last sun exalts the crystals, air carries a piece of passionate and familiar Hungarian music). After this visit, others follow; Roemerstadt does not know the persons who bother him, but he retains the discomforting impression of having seen them before, perhaps in a dream. Everybody praises him lavishly, yet it is well known – first by the spectators, then later by the Baron himself – that they are secret enemies sworn to ruin him. Roemerstadt succeeds in checking and eluding their complex intrigues; in dialogue, they refer to his fiancée Julia of Weidenau, and to a certain Jaroslav Kubin, who once importuned her with his love. This one has now gone mad and believes himself to be Roemerstadt. ... The dangers worsen; Roemerstadt, at the end of the second act, finds himself obliged to kill a conspirator. Then the third, and last, act begins. The incongruities gradually increase: actors return who appeared discarded from the plot; for a moment, the man that Roemerstadt killed returns. Someone notices that it has not gotten dark: the clock shows seven, the western sun reverberates in the old crystals, the air carries a piece of passionate and familiar Hungarian music. The first interlocutor appears and repeats the words he pronounced in the first scene of the first act. Roemerstadt talks to him without astonishment; the spectator understands that Roemerstadt is the miserable Jaroslav Kubin. The play has never taken place; it is the circular delirium that Kubin lives and relives interminably.
Hladík had never asked himself whether this tragicomedy of errors was trivial or admirable, rigorously exact or happenstance. In the argument that I have sketched, he guessed the means more apt for hiding his defects and bringing out his happiness, the possibility of rescuing (symbolically) the basis of his life. He had already finished the first act and one scene from the third; the oeuvre’s metrical character allowed him to examine it continually, rectifying the hexameters without looking at the manuscript. He believed that two acts were still missing and that he was soon going to die. In the darkness, he spoke to God: If I exist in any way, if I am not one of Your repetitions and errors, I exist as the author of The Enemies. To come to the end of this play which can justify me and justify You, I require one more year. Grant me these days, You who are the centuries and time. It was the last night, the most atrocious, but ten minutes afterwards, sleep had washed over him like dark water.
Toward dawn, he dreamt that he had hidden himself in one of the naves of the library of the Clementinum. A librarian with black eyeglasses asked him: What are you searching for? Hladík answered him: I am searching for God. The librarian said to him: God is one of the letters on one of the pages of the four hundred thousand volumes of the Clementinum. My parents and their parents have searched for this letter; this searching has rendered me blind. He removed his glasses and Hladík saw his eyes, which were dead. A reader entered and gave an atlas back. This atlas is useless, he said, and he gave it to Hladík. The latter opened it at random. He saw a map of India, a vertiginous map. Suddenly sure, he touched one of the smallest letters. A ubiquitous voice said to him: The time for your work has been granted. Here Hladík woke up.
He remembered that man’s dreams belong to God and that Maimonides wrote that the words of a dream are divine when they are distinct and clear and when the person who says them cannot be seen. He got dressed; two soldiers entered the cell and ordered him to follow them.
On the other side of the door Hladík had imagined a labyrinth of galleries, staircases and pavilions. The reality was less rich: they descended to a back courtyard toward a sole iron staircase. Various soldiers – some with their uniforms unbuttoned – were looking over and discussing a motorcycle. The sergeant looked at the clock: it was eight forty-four. He had to wait until it said nine. Hladík, more insignificantly than unfortunately, felt that he was in a mound of firewood. He noticed that the soldiers’ eyes avoided his own. To alleviate the waiting, the sergeant handed him a cigarette. Hladík did not smoke; he accepted it out of courtesy and humility. As he lit it, he saw that his hands were shaking; the soldiers were speaking in a low voice as if he were already dead. In vain he tried to remember the woman whose symbol was Julia of Weidenau ...
The squadron of soldiers mobilized and came to attention. Hladík, his foot against the wall of the jail, awaited the firing. Someone feared that the wall would remain stained with blood; so they ordered the criminal to advance a few steps. Absurdly, Hladík recalled the preliminary vacillations of photographers. A heavy drop of rain grazed one of Hladík’s temples and rolled down towards his cheek; the sergeant shouted the final order.
The physical universe halted.
The weapons converged upon Hladík, but the men who were going to kill him were motionless. The sergeant’s arm eternalized an unfinished gesture. On a stone tile of the courtyard, a bee protected a fixed shadow. The wind had ceased as in a painting. Hladík attempted a scream, a syllable, a twist of one hand. He understood that he was paralyzed. Not even the most tenuous rumor of a hindered world was reaching him. He thought: I am in hell, I am dead. He thought: I am crazy. He thought: time has stopped. Then he reflected that, in such a case, his thoughts would also have stopped. He wanted to put it to the test: he repeated (without moving his lips) Vergil’s mysterious fourth Eclogue. He imagined that those soldiers who were already distant shared in his anguish; he yearned to communicate with them. It astonished him not to feel any fatigue, nor even vertigo from his great immobility. He slept, at the end of an undetermined time. When he woke up, the world was still motionless and silent. The drop of water was persisting on his cheek; in the courtyard, the shadow of the bee; the smoke of the cigarette which he had thrown away never stopped spreading. Another “day” passed before Hladík understood.
He had asked God for an entire year to complete his work: His Omnipotence granted him one year. God operated through a secret miracle: Germanic lead would kill him, at the determined hour; but in his mind, a year would pass between the order and its execution. From perplexity he passed into stupor, from stupor into resignation, and from resignation to unexpected gratitude.
He had no other document at his disposal but his memory: the apprenticeship of each hexameter that he added gave him the fortunate vigor which those who risk or forget their ephemeral and vague paragraphs cannot suspect. He did not work for posterity, nor even for God, of whose literary preferences he knew little. Meticulous, motionless, secret, he made up in this time his old invisible labyrinth. He redid the third act two times. He erased the too obvious symbols: the repeated sounding of the clock and the music. No circumstance bothered him. He omitted, abbreviated, amplified: in some cases, he opted for the primitive version. He came to love the courtyard and the jail; one of the faces in front of him modified his conception of the personage of Roemerstadt. He discovered that the arduous cacophonies that so alarmed Flaubert were mere visual superstitions: the weaknesses and annoyances of the written, not the spoken word ... He brought his play to an end: and he managed to conclude it apart from a single epithet. He found it; the drop of water slid down his cheek. He began a mad scream, he moved his face, and the quadruple gunfire cut him down.
Jaromir Hladík died on the twenty–ninth of March, at 9:02 in the morning.