What to create at world’s end?
Tuck in threads and rework the song,
Craft ends into hidden rebirth.
We are here to work, here to listen,
Tie off ends towards memory, towards forgetting –
Snip arteries, tie off the vein.
In the needle, the weft – the warp and the hum
You may lose the art of beginning again.
Let it go. Sometimes you must lose pain,
But all artists donate themselves. Today I give you my heart.
(Original version posted in Fragments, (c. 2020 PC)
What does it mean to complete your work?
Or rather – what does it mean to undertake your work, when you are aware that it may remain incomplete?
Memory and looking forward are both essential to living a human life. That is to say, humans – more than any other creature we have been able to determine – experience time as defined by that which falls either side of now. When tomorrow is no longer a certainty, we lose a handy mental compartment for all experiences labelled “not today – but someday.” We are forced to understand that some experiences are actually labeled “never.”
This loss of infinite tomorrow is a defining moment for most humans. It shapes us, far more than the moments we’re supposed to remember – first bike, first day of school, first pet, first kiss. First understanding of mortality: now there’s one for the family album. It definitely has that Hallmark appeal.
The reason this is such a defining moment is because of what follows. Almost immediately, the question becomes: what are you going to do about it?
What are you going to make with this life that is not infinite? What are you going to craft out of precious minutes and uncertainty? Are you brave enough, humble enough, to begin what you may not see to completion? Are you willing to work with no guarantee of leaving a legacy?
Jorge Luis Borges’ story, “The Secret Miracle,” is one of the most concise and memorable explorations of these questions. (It is, incidentally, the piece I think of whenever I am feeling sorry for myself over a stubborn piece of writing – or my own excuses about said piece of writing. I digress.) This story stays in my mind for two reasons: first, its plot, and second, a burning question the plot raises for me.
The piece begins with disaster and ends with a foregone conclusion. In between lies the story, the space where miracle is shaped. It has a certain amount of realism (magical or otherwise), and along with that realism goes a necessary fatalism.
The story’s protagonist, Jaromir Hladík, is a Jewish playwright in Nazi-occupied Prague; you see where the fatalism comes in. He has spent his life wrapped in his work, but has never achieved the artistic merit he is convinced he can produce. Yet his life seems to be ending.
Seconds away from death, he is granted a divine intervention. He is granted one year to finish his last, greatest play. The year, however, occurs only inside his head. It is time secured by the suspension of everything else, including bullets poised in flight. Between the order to fire and the end of his life, Jaromir Hladík must decide what “complete” means for him and his work.
You see, Hladík is convinced that this is the play by which history will judge him. He is certain that this is his work of record, the achievement that will secure his name and memory among the great playwrights. That is the rationale given for his single-minded pursuit of the play’s completion, even in the face of a death sentence. He is determined his work will live on.
But like many of Borges’ pieces, this story seems to fold inwards on itself. Hladík’s miracle directly contradicts his stated impetus. His chance to complete his play is contingent on circumstances that guarantee no outside validation. His masterpiece is completed in his head. In short – no one else will ever see it. It’s completion is literally between him and God.
Why does Hladík continue to work under these circumstances?
Why do any of us continue our work? We are all facing imminent death; not, perhaps, in such a dramatic or unsubtle fashion, but certain death.
In Hladík’s case, the relationship between creator and created is repeatedly blurred and re-worked. He begins as a creator unsatisfied with his work – a creator stripped of satisfaction in his creation. His creative capacity is threatened by the Nazi forces of anti-creation (destruction, repression, conformity).
The real struggle, however, is between Hladík and his wish for completion on his terms. It is the struggle of a Self trying to create an Other.
It isn’t a comfortable process. Most Selfs don’t want to give life to Others – they only want to extend Self. But most Others are determined to exist – especially the ones trapped inside a Self. To paraphrase Barbara Kingsolver’s words on parenting (High Tide in Tucson, “Civil Disobedience At Breakfast”), the job of a Self is to make themselves redundant, by giving the Other the ability to survive without them. It is the job of a creator to make themselves irrelevant to their creation.
Hladík’s struggle is resolved through the agency of a miracle which strips away the necessity of his Self. With no tomorrow, he can afford to release his ego. He can allow his expectations to become irrelevant to his purpose.
The final letter he envisions seals both his play and his demise: existence and eternity in a single point, erasure of the line between creator and created.
It is not Hladík who completes the play, but the play who completes Hladík.
While the world may judge his play and his body of work to be unfinished, Jaromir Hladík is complete.
Now – what are we to take from this?
Obviously this narrative – powerful though it is – is far more polished and refined than the real lives each of us grapple with. Hladík has the benefit of considered editing, an advantage denied most of us who live outside works of fiction. So what I say here is an intentional simplification of a complex thing.
Here’s an opinion. Self is not – itself – meaningful.
Let me clarify – each life has value, but value is not quite the same thing as meaning. Lives acquire meaning through interaction with Other. Each interaction with Other forces a life to confront it’s Self. Each confrontation with Self – when resolved – yields a Self more prepared to assist the being of the Other. And the more a Self focuses on Other, the more prepared a Self is to work without assurance of completion. In short, a Self who makes peace with its need for posterity is much better equipped for the business of living a generous life.
Yes, it’s almost a tongue-twister. Just wait till I put it in rhyme.
I’m sorry it’s taken me this many words to say this simple thing: we work without assurance of completion because we are part of an existence that we cannot comprehend. We cannot comprehend what part we may play in that existence, what secret miracle we may be granted or grant others. The process of working in the face of no tomorrow is the process of returning our Self to Other, until – like Hladík – the line between creator and creation dissolves.