The Circular Ruins (Las Ruinas Circulares) by Jorge Luis Borges, 1944
THE CIRCULAR RUINS (Las ruinas circulares)
by Jorge Luis Borges, 1944
In the story "The Circular Ruins" ("Las ruinas circulares") Jorge Luis Borges offers a fascinating perspective on the ontological question of causa sui. Can someone or something be its own cause? Some critics have seen the story, collected in Ficciones (1944), as a metaphor for the creative process and others as a parable concerning the fallibility of a less than omnipotent God.
The tale's simplicity conflicts with the profound statements and paradoxes it proposes. The epigraph "And if he left off dreaming about you…." from Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass sets the tone for the arrival of the "gray man" from an imprecise South where "lepers are rare." Such an onset catapults the reader into strange and exotic surroundings, where the baroque style and the erudite vocabulary submerge him in an alien world while suggesting a timeless, Eastern setting. Reality is suspended and the reader is ready for the uncanny. The gray man establishes camp near ancient circular ruins and begins his toil, which is to dream a man. This task, resembling a mystic quest, requires that he dream for long periods of time, searching for the perfect pupil. Among many "dream students he selects one who seems promising and begins an arduous pedagogical undertaking." Unfortunately, the gray man suffers prolonged, acute insomnia, rendering him unable to continue dreaming. He decides to follow another method as the shaping of dreams is among the hardest things that anyone can attempt. Before resuming his labors he awaits the full moon, cleanses himself in the waters of the river, and worships the gods, ultimately falling asleep. These mystic, ritual actions draw upon various religions, ancient and modern, Oriental and Occidental. The gray man dreams about a beating heart. From this heart the rest of the body slowly develops in successive dreams until finally the heart becomes a whole man, sleeping within the dreamer's dream. Eventually the dreamed young man awakes and thereafter the magician spends two years instructing him in the mysteries of the universe and the worship of fire. When this apprenticeship is complete and the time comes for the spiritual son to be born, the creator-magician kisses him and orders the young man to proceed to a distant temple. So he might never know he was just a dream, the sorcerer erases all memory of the apprenticeship years. Curiously, during the extended pedagogical process the gray man has been haunted by the impression that all this had already happened. After several "half-decades" he hears of a magic man in a northern temple who walks on fire without being burned. Believing him his offspring he worries that his son will discover his origins and be humiliated at the realization that he is merely someone's dream. The cessation of his trepidations arrives one day in the form of encircling sheets of flame that devour everything around him. As a result of the conflagration he discovers that the fire did not affect his flesh and draws the logical conclusion that he too is the product of someone's dream.
Some critical studies have suggested the parallel between the magician and the magical process of creating or dreaming a son with the situation of the writer and process of creating a text. As the author struggles to "procreate" or "give birth" to the characters, some are discarded and others developed, and eventually the finished product appears. The result, in some instances, is a reflection of the author who in turn has a similar parallel relationship with his God (who, Borges implies, might in turn have his own God, and so on ad infinitum). The notion of a sleeping deity dreaming creation is drawn from the idealist philosophy of Berkeley and was echoed for Spanish readers by Miguel de Unamuno with his prayer, "Dream Us, Oh God." Although Borges was certainly familiar with Unamuno's works and Berkeley's speculations, his approach lacks the anguished personal involvement of the former and is more accessible than the intellectual abstractness of the latter. Indeed, it approaches the ludicrous.
Borges declared once that he took up the same idea in a pair of sonnets about chess. The chessmen do not know they are guided by the players; the players do not know they are guided by God; and God, in turn, is not aware of being directed by other gods, and so on. Just as the closed circle is infinite because it has no end, the implied regression (dream within a dream or game within a game within yet another more encompassing one) is susceptible to infinite repetition. Similarly if one imagines ever-decreasing concentric circles, the number that will fit inside a given circular configuration extends to the infinitely small. The central conceit of the masterful Borges tale alludes by analogy to the concept of infinite concentric circles.
Furthermore the title of the story—with its reference to the circle—evokes ramifications of the geometric figure considered the most perfect by philosophers and also held sacred by many religions. The circle as a mystical figure carries within it a myriad of connotations and denotations. Significantly, as a sphere the circle suggests the Pythagorean and Eastern concepts of time and thus by implication extends the analogy beyond the spatial to the temporal plane.
Calderón, the seventeenth-century Spanish playwright whose play entitled Life Is a Dream fascinated Unamuno and was incorporated into the latter's concept of dreaming life, is also an inescapable intertext for Borges. Unlike Borges, however, Calderón does not suggest any control over dreams. In "The Circular Ruins" Borges attempts to validate his theme of controlled dreaming and regulated hallucinations. Such oxymorons imbue the magician's attempts to create a being. He must "manage" his dreams and also rationally control the irrational and produce a result—a product—that can transcend the dreamworld and the dream, carry over into the wakening world, and by implication outlive the dreamer.
—Genaro J. Pérez