On vacation last week, I did what vacating people do: I read. Short stories, mostly. (Pro Tip: when the most free time you’ll ever have to read ever in your whole life is 30 minutes or less due to the parenting of little people, go with short stories rather than novels.) Ok, it was short stories entirely. And it was a steady diet of Borges, Labyrinths.
“Deutsches Requiem” is a first-person narration of the death of the Third Reich and its dream. As the teller recounts his tale, he is spared from lamenting this death by one central conviction: the downfall of Hitler’s Germany is a martyrdom of sorts, the death of the first grain of wheat that is necessary for a truly new world to be brought into being.
This appreciative resignation is only possible because the narrator has been deeply transformed.
“I will say little of my years of apprenticeship. They were more difficult for me than for others, since, although I do not lack courage, I am repelled by violence. I understood, however, that we were on the verge of a new era, and that this era, comparable to the initial epochs of Islam and Christianity, demanded a new kind of man.”
It would be hard to imagine a more succinct distillation of the frightening theology of National Socialism. The idea that a new era, with a new humanity, was being brought into existence by the violence of Hitler’s wars and concentration camps was a devastatingly powerful metanarrative.
Violence, in fact, is how our narrator typifies the coming era he has, in the end, helped bring into existence:
“An inexorable epoch is spreading over the world. We forged it, we who are already its victim. What matters if England is the hammer and we the anvil, so long as violence reigns and not servile Christian timidity?”
Whenever violence is victorious, Christianity is defeated. Whenever we play the part of the crucifying centurions rather than the crucified Christ, our profession of faith is undone.
Now, we might well think that Borges is ridiculous to think that “servile” Christianity was the norm before the 1930s or ’40s. We might find ourselves wishing he were right!
But in the worlds created by Borges, time does not move in a straight line. The narrator himself recounts the glorious deaths of his forebears in the opening lines of the story.
If there is incongruity between reality and the narrator’s words, it comes from an irony that Borges has deeply planted.
Borges has told a story of anti-Christ, something that is only possible when once you’ve grasped well who the Christ is. The irony continues as the narrator goes on:
If victory and injustice and happiness are not for Germany, let them be for other nations. Let Heaven exist, even though our dwelling place is Hell.”
“Heaven” is the world of happiness–happiness that comes to pass not only through violence, but injustice. Hell is simply to be on the wrong side of the violent wielding of power.
The beauty of the story is that it draws us into a loathsome rejection of the narrator’s view of the world, a place where wielding the sword is the great new era, only to send us back to the reality that this, truly, is the world in which we live and the means by which we judge it.
The words of Jesus that the world is least willing to hear have always been, “It shall not be so among you.”