The Circular Ruins
The Circular Ruins
JORGE LUIS BORGES
Jorge Luis Borges wrote "The Circular Ruins" in 1939, and the story was first published as "Las ruinas circulares" in the journal Sur in December 1940. The following year it was included in Borges's short fiction collection El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths), and in 1944, it was published again in Ficciones. Anthony Kerrigan first translated the story into English for the American publication of Ficciones in 1962.
"The Circular Ruins" encapsulates many themes important to Borges, including labyrinths, infinite regression (the idea of a thing reflected upon itself endlessly—like two mirrors facing each other), and the intersection between dreams and reality. The story tells of a "gray man" whose boat washes ashore near the ruins of a circular temple. His self-appointed task is to create a man by dreaming him into existence, a process that requires ascetic solitude and concentration. In the end the man realizes that he is the product of someone else's dream. The plot contains elements of magical realism (a literary style in which psychological truths are depicted through elements of supernatural fantasy) and narrative traditions ranging from the Golem of Jewish folklore, in which a simple being created from clay is controlled by his creator, to the Buddhist philosophy of enlightenment, which states that a person has awakened from the sleep of ignorance. Many critics consider the story a meditation on the creative process and
the idea of causa sui—an object being the cause of itself. The story also illustrates the concept of the transformation of things as outlined by the butterfly paradox of fourth-century b.c.e. Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi: A man dreams he is a butterfly and awakes, but then wonders if he is really a butterfly dreaming he is a man. "The Circular Ruins" has been widely reprinted and can be found in the 1999 Penguin edition of Borges's Collected Fictions.
Jorge Luis Borges was born on August 24, 1899, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and was educated at home in his early years by his parents and his grandmother, who spoke and taught English. During a family trip to Europe in 1914, Borges was stranded in Geneva, Switzerland, by the outbreak of World War I; he attended secondary school there for several years. By 1919, he was already intent on being a writer, and when his family moved to Spain, he became part of the Ultraist literary movement, a group of poets influenced by Symbolism and opposed to Modernism. He returned to Argentina in 1921 and continued to write and publish poetry in literary magazines. Borges's first book, Fervor de Buenos Aires, was a collection of those early poems.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Borges published essays in addition to his poetry, and in 1933 he became the literary editor for the Argentinean newspaper Critica. In 1937, he accepted a position with the Municipal Library in Buenos Aires, which he held for nine years. He wrote his first short stories in 1939, shortly after the death of his father and during his convalescence following a bout of septicemia from a head injury. "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," one of his earliest stories, exhibited many of the traits that came to define his style, such as metafiction and circularity. "The Circular Ruins" followed shortly thereafter and was first published in the journal Sur in December 1940 and was collected in The Garden of Forking Paths—one of his most notable books—the following year. With his literary prominence on the rise, Borges partnered with fellow Argentinean writer Adolfo Bioy-Casares and they published work under the joint pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq.
When military leader Juan Perón came to power in Argentina in 1946, Borges was re-assigned to a position inspecting poultry, from which he promptly resigned. He lectured and taught widely and was ultimately elected the president of the Sociedad Argentina de Escritores (Argentine Society of Writers). The first translation of his work came in 1951, when a French version of Ficciones was published in Paris.
After the fall of Juan Perón in 1955, Borges became director of the National Library and was awarded Argentina's National Prize for Literature. Around that time his eyesight began to fail; he eventually went blind. Recognition in the English-speaking world came in 1961 when, after receiving the Prix Formentor, he was invited to be a visiting professor at the University of Texas. A period of international travel and teaching followed, including a visiting position as the Charles Eliot Norton lecturer at Harvard University. When Juan Perón became president of Argentina again in 1973, Borges resigned from the National Library. The 1970s and 1980s was a time of great popularity for Borges; he traveled widely, teaching and accepting literary accolades while continuing to write both fiction and nonfiction.
Borges was devoted to his mother for much of his life and lived with her almost continuously until she died at the age of ninety-nine. He was briefly married to Elsa Astete Millan beginning in 1967, and shortly before his death, he married his long-time assistant Maria Kodama. Borges died of liver cancer in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 14, 1986.
Under cover of darkness, a "gray man" arrives by boat to the shore of a sparsely populated jungle region, far away from his native home in the unidentified South, a village on a mountain-side where they speak Zend and leprosy is rare. The injured man crawls from the shore through the dense vegetation to the center of a round temple topped by what appears to be a stone tiger or horse; the temple has been destroyed by fire and partly subsumed by the jungle. The man falls asleep; the morning sun wakes him and he finds that his wounds are healed. The sole purpose of his journey is to dream; indeed, he considers it an "obligation," and he decides to remain in the temple because it will protect him from the jungle's "unrelenting trees." Through intense mental fortitude, he sleeps throughout that first day on the stone pedestal in the center of the temple. At midnight, he is awakened by a loud bird and discovers that the natives have left him food and drink. Fearful of their expectations from him, he finds an alcove in the temple wall, hides behind overgrown vines, and goes back to sleep.
The dreamer's goal is described by the narrator as "not impossible, though … supernatural." The dreamer wants to create a real man from nothing but his nocturnal imagination. He is so determined in this goal that he can no longer remember anything else that has happened in his life. Day in and day out, all he does is sleep and dream.
The man's dreams become focused and "dialectical" over time. He imagines himself in the center of a circular amphitheater, surrounded by a multitude of students, all of whom are perfectly detailed and visible. He lectures and the students listen intently, eager to understand how they might be made real by the man's dream. The dreamer tries to discover which of the pupils is worthy of becoming real.
After ten or so such nights of dreaming, he realizes that the students who refuse to challenge him are not worthy of becoming real—their acquiescence precludes them from becoming individuals. Instead, he places his hope in those students who challenge him. Eventually, he chooses the most promising of these and banishes the rest. The narrator describes the pupil as "a taciturn, sallow-skinned young man" who physically resembles the dreamer. The dreamer pursues his goal so intently that he is awake for only a couple hours a day, and the pupil proves to be a quick learner. Unexpectedly, the dreamer is plagued with insomnia and his task is interrupted. He is distraught; his brief episodes of sleep are dreamless and he cries in anger.
The man realizes he will not be able to return to the dreams of his pupil, and he decides to take an entirely different approach. Before that, however, the dreamer takes several weeks to rest and prepare. Then he eases back into sleep, taking it easy and letting go of his frustrations. He waits until the day of the full moon then washes himself in the river, prays to unspecified gods, and falls asleep.
- The Borges Project is a stage adaptation of "The Circular Ruins" that premiered in May of 2006 at the International Theatre Institute World Congress in Manila, Philippines. The play consists of eight stage adaptations of the story by writers from eight countries—Belgium, Cameroon, Croatia, Germany, Japan, the Philippines, Switzerland, and the United States.
- An audiocassette version of "The Circular Ruins" is included in the four-cassette Collected Fictions by Borges, translated by Andrew Hurley, read by George Guidall, and released by Penguin Audiobooks in 1998.
He dreams of the nucleus of a human body—a heart—red and beating. For two straight weeks he keeps this entity in his dreams, bestowing love upon it. It becomes more defined, but he does not touch it. On the fourteenth night, he touches the heart and is pleased with it. Then he takes a night off from dreaming. He returns to his task the next night and proceeds to envision the next vital organ of the being. He proceeds slowly; it takes him an entire year to work his way toward imagining the man's bones and the individual hairs on his head. Slowly, the being becomes a sleeping young man.
The narrator compares the creation of the dreamer's man to that of the creation of Adam according to the Gnostic gospels—a being that is awkward and unfinished. The dreamer becomes discouraged and almost destroys the man; the narrator reveals that it would have been better if he had. But instead the man prays to the god of the ruined temple, and that night the god comes to him in a dream. It is the god Fire, and it is both a colt and a tiger, as well as a bull, a rose, and a storm—all simultaneously. Fire tells the dreamer he will awaken his sleeping young man. The man is instructed to teach his creation in the many religious rites before sending him downriver to inhabit another ruined temple, where no one except the old man and the god Fire will know he is a phantom and not a real man. Then "in the dreaming man's dream, the dreamed man awoke."
The man looks forward to spending time with his son each night and spends two years teaching him as Fire has told him to, sleeping and dreaming the better part of each day. At one point, he decides the son's shoulder is defective and he remakes it. He is tormented by the thought of their inevitable separation. The man acclimates his son to reality by giving him a test; he is to place a flag on a distant hill. The next day the dreamer awakes and spots the flag waving in the wind. He regrets that his son is now ready to be born. He kisses him for the first time, erases the son's memories of their time together so he will not realize he is a dream, and sends him off to the temple downriver.
Having fulfilled his life's quest, the man becomes bored. He no longer dreams; he has no sense of purpose. After a certain amount of time, either years or decades according to the narrator, two travelers tell him a story about a man at a temple to the north who walks on fire without burning himself. The announcement torments the old man; the firewalker is obviously his son. He is afraid his son will discover the reason he is able to walk on fire is because he is not a real man.
Soon a similar fire encircles the man's already charred temple. He considers jumping into the river to escape, but decides instead to let the flames consume him. After all, there is no more reason for him to live. He walks into the fire but to his "relief … humiliation [and] terror," the flames do not harm him. He realizes he is also the product of a dream and not a real man.
The dreamer is variously referred to as a sorcerer, a gray man, a wizard, and a magician; it is suggested that he is old but his age is never given. When he first arrives at the temple he is "faint and bloody" from his arduous boat voyage and subsequent trek through the dense jungle. He falls asleep and when he wakes he is healed. He comes from the ambiguous "South" and remembers nothing of his previous life. He is a solitary figure who appreciates the natives' gifts of food but wishes to have no direct contact with them. In fact, he appears to be slightly frightened by the natives and conceals himself in a crevice in the temple's wall in order to pursue his quest undisturbed.
The dreamer is diligent, persistent, and methodical. He invests considerable time in his first attempt at dreaming and tutoring a promising student. He enjoys lecturing his pupils in science and religion and spends his waking hours contemplating their capacity for learning. When insomnia interrupts this process, he exhibits "tears of anger." But he persists, knowing that his task is "the most difficult work a man can undertake." He acknowledges his false start, regroups, purifies himself in the river, prays to a god, and waits for the full moon before embarking on an entirely different tactic. The dreamer's knowledge of religious rituals and cosmogony (the creation of the universe) suggests a belief in a particular religion, although it is not named and the details remain murky.
The dreamer experiences a full range of emotions. Twice he experiences bitterness; once when he realizes his unquestioning pupils are not worthy of his time and attention, and once when he realizes his son is ready to enter the world. He also suffers despair and feels happiness; he is happy when he is dreaming of his creation, and he despairs of his creation's eventual independence. He is determined, caring, self-reliant, prizes his isolation, and is thankful for the locals who provide him with food. He loves his son enough to send him into the world (although he never reveals why he feels compelled to create him) and destroys all his son's memories before sending him away so his son will never realize he is not a real man. Following the success of his endeavor, the dreamer continues to reside in the abandoned temple for a period of years (possibly decades) and becomes bored. When travelers relate the tale of a man uninjured by fire in a distant abandoned temple, the dreamer knows it is his son. He is horrified by the possibility that the phantasm may contemplate his supernatural ability and realize his true nature as a phantasm. In the old man's opinion, this would be an unendurable fate. In the end, the old man experiences terror and humiliation when he attempts to kill himself by walking into fire and realizes that he himself is not real—the flames do not burn him.
The Dreamer's Son
In various translations of "The Circular Ruins," the dreamer's creation is referred to as a youth, stripling, and a phantasm. He begins as a beating heart in the old man's dream, and over the course of a year he evolves into a sleeping "fully fleshed man" who is eventually awakened by the god Fire. He remains in the dreamer's imagination for two years while the man teaches him the rites he needs to know. He becomes impatient to be sent out into the real world; to prove he is ready, he successfully completes all the tasks the dreamer requires of him. But before the young man is sent downriver to another abandoned temple (ostensibly to perpetuate the cycle enacted by the dreamer), the father erases all the son's memories so he will not realize he is a phantom. However, news of his ability to withstand fire travels back to his creator, and the old man fears his son will be humiliated by the realization that he is not flesh and blood, but "the projection of another man's dream." Whether the youth does indeed discover this and/or is troubled by it is not revealed.
Fire possesses anthropomorphic traits in "The Circular Ruins." It first appears as a charred, weathered statue of a colt or a tiger on top of the ruined temple. When the dreamer cannot awaken his sleeping creation, he prays to the statue to help him. The statue comes alive in the man's dream in the form of "those two vehement creatures plus bull, and rose, and tempest, too." Fire tells him he will bring the youth to life so realistically that only the two of them will know he is a phantom. He also tells the man to send the son to another abandoned temple downriver to glorify its forgotten god. This single action reveals Fire to be a trickster—a stock figure in literature and mythology who plays cruel jokes on others. The cruel joke in this case is that in this single gesture, Fire gives the dreamer what he desires most—success in dreaming a man into reality—and the knowledge to discover what he fears the most—that he himself is the product of a dream. Thus, Fire both gives and destroys life.
Dreams versus Reality
Borges considered "the contamination of reality by a dream" to be one of the main devices of fantastic literature, wrote Andre Maurois in the introduction to Borges's Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. Such a "contamination" is an obvious device in "The Circular Ruins."; the dreamer desires to turn his dreamed figure into a real person, without realizing that he is also a dreamed person in a real world. The crossover—or contamination—of dreams into reality and vice versa is a theme Borges uses to comment on the similarity between the two states.
The Creative Process
"The Circular Ruins" can be interpreted as an allegory of the creative process. That is, it illustrates an artist's thought process as he or she goes about making a work of art. Frequently, this process requires isolation, solitude, concentration, and time, just as the dreamer requires. And as the dreamer does, artists often feel a sense of maternal pride over their works and consider them their "children." Also, once works of art have been sent out into the world, they take on a life of their own and cannot be destroyed. The man works on creating his son much as an artist would labor over a painting, or an author over a novel, complete with false starts and mental anguish. Even the act of the dreamer reshaping his son's shoulder evokes the revision process common to so much art. Finally, the idea of an unshaped object slowly coming into focus over many nights' work suggests the creative process, as does the man's final act of sending him out into the world, as well as his subsequent feeling of completion and emptiness.
Circularity: The Circle of Life
The story's title tells the reader that the idea of circularity is important to the narrative. Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), whose work Borges was familiar with, wrote in his most notable work Tragic Sense of Life:
And on the other hand, may we not imagine that possibly this earthly life of ours is to the other life what sleep is to waking? May not all our life be a dream and death an awakening? But an awakening to what? And supposing that everything is but the dream of God and that God one day will awaken? Will He remember His dream?
Elsewhere, Unamuno, who was deeply religious, was concerned with the human desire for immortality in the face of death, the inverse of Borges's concern—in "The Circular Ruins," immortality comes at the cost of not being real, and is met with a sense of humiliation and terror by the old man. With religion guiding him, Unamuno wrote in Perplexities and Paradoxes: "My religion is to seek for truth in life and for life in truth, even knowing that I shall not find them while I live." This sense of futile circularity was adopted by Borges, but for the opposite reason. As he told Israel Shenker in the New York Times: "Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity…. I have a sort of fear of not dying, of going on. And I have also a personal fear about the immortality of the soul, because I wouldn't care to go on and on."
This idea of circularity encompasses the notion of infinite regression; that is, a dream within a dream, within a dream—on into infinity as when two mirrors are placed facing each other. The old man dreams another man, but he himself is dreamed by another. Borges suggests that this pattern continues indefinitely. In many religions, particularly Buddhism (which Borges knew a great deal about), the circle is a sacred geometric form. This fact, combined with the story's overtones of religion in its mention of purification rites, the god Fire, the temple, and Gnostic cosmogonies, may signify that Borges believed the ideas of circularity and infinite regression had a spiritual component.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- A mandala is a circular representation of the universe that aids an individual in meditating on his or her oneness with the universe. Research three major world religions that incorporate mandalas in their symbolism and beliefs. Write a paragraph on how each religion would relate their concept of the mandala to the notion of circularity in "The Circular Ruins."
- "The Circular Ruins" is often considered the story of a Golem, as is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Discuss three differences between the two works, taking into consideration the themes most important to Borges and those most important to Shelley.
- Look at the drawings of Dutch artist M. C. Escher. Name three of his works that represent the idea of infinite regression and write a short essay on how those works compare to Borges's "The Circular Ruins."
- Throughout history many cultures have devised ways to interpret dreams. In the early twentieth century, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud popularized the notion that dreams represent unconscious forms of wish fulfillment. Freud's one-time protégé Carl Jung came to believe that dream symbols are often influenced by the collective unconscious (a repository of all human knowledge that resides within each person) and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Write a paragraph on how a Freudian would interpret the dreams in "The Circular Ruins" and another on how a Jungian might interpret them.
In Jewish folklore, the Golem is the creation of a man formed by mud. Adam is described as a Golem in the Talmud, and the specter of a large, brutish, slow-moving monster has been a fixture in Jewish art for centuries. The most famous of these legends is the Golem of Prague, said to have been created in the sixteenth century by Prague's Rabbi Loew from clay and brought to life by Hebrew incantations. The Golem was created in order to protect the
Jewish ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks ordered by the emperor. In some versions of the story, the Golem still exists in a secret attic in the Jewish quarter of the city. Borges's poem "The Golem," which recounts the legend of Rabbi Lowe, was written several decades after "The Circular Ruins" but contains a similar preoccupation with a man's relationship with the being he creates. In fact, Borges acknowledged the relationship between the two works in an interview with Richard Burgin: "I'll not forget the one who pointed out in class that my story ‘The Golem’ was a reworking of ‘The Circular Ruins.’ I was amazed! ‘My God,’ I said, ‘you're right! I've never thought of it, but it's true. Well, I only wrote it—once. You've probably read both stories many times.’"
The Labyrinth and the Paradox
A labyrinth is a maze; in Greek mythology the Labyrinth was the home of the half-man, half-bull Minotaur on the island of Crete. The labyrinth was intended to keep the Minotaur in and mortals out. As a literary device, a labyrinth signifies a type of structural complexity in which elements of the narrative double back upon each other in a puzzle-like way, often creating a sense of disorientation in the reader. Borges was obsessed with labyrinths, although his tend to be metaphysical rather than physical. In "The Circular Ruins" a labyrinth is suggested in the infinite regression of a man dreaming a man who is being dreamed by another. It presents a psychological puzzle of concentric circles in which a solid reality is as elusive as the mythological Minotaur.
A paradox is a statement that appears contradictory but which contains some truth. In "The Circular Ruins," Borges creates a paradox as part of his theme of circularity and the idea of causa sui, literally something that is "the cause of itself." In philosophy and religion, the idea often refers to the omniscience of God: If God created everything, did He create Himself? The same self-referential idea underlies Borges's story: How can a man who is only a dream create another man who is also a dream? And is the man who is dreaming both men himself a dream? By presenting such a conundrum, Borges reveals his interest in the illusory nature of reality.
Magical realism is a literary style in which supernatural elements appear in an otherwise realistic setting. As a genre, it evolved in the 1960s during the Latin American boom that popularized the work of Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and other South American writers. Though "The Circular Ruins" pre-dates this boom by several decades, it (and much of Borges's other writing) laid the foundation on which the movement was based. In works of magical realism, external reality is juxtaposed with psychological reality through the use of fantastic elements, dreams, and supernatural occurrences. Through these devices, the author emphasizes internal reality over external reality. Mirrors, labyrinths, and dreams are typical symbols used to dramatize the philosophical concept of "the Other." Interpreting these symbols often requires the reader to undertake a significant amount of intellectual engagement with the narrative.
Also inherent in magical realism is a sense of culture, geography, and history, combined with an emphasis on spiritualism and mythology. Plots are often nonlinear, time is irrelevant, and ideas about life and death take center stage. Magic realist elements in "The Circular Ruins" include the personification of the god Fire, the man's ability to dream something into being, and the ability to walk through fire unscathed.
Ultraist Movement and Postmodernism
Borges was a founding member of the Ultraist movement, which began in Spain in 1918 and lasted until their journal Ultra ceased publication in 1922. The Ultraists, who included the poets Guillermo de Torre, Juan Larrea, and Rafael Cansinos-Assens, opposed the modernism popular in Spanish literature of the day. Borges defined the goals the Ultraists strove for in their writing: reducing prose to its most basic metaphor; deleting useless prose; avoiding ornamental prose; and synthesizing images to maximize symbolism. Borges continued to adhere to many of these ideas in later years when he began writing short fiction. In "The Circular Ruins," for instance, Borges gives five meanings to the temple's statue: a tiger, a colt, a bull, a rose, and a storm—a more efficient use of imagery than creating five separate statues or gods. Postmodernism is a literary genre that arose after World War II, primarily as a reaction against modernism. Its precursors include Surrealism, Dadaism, and Existentialism. It is often pessimistic in nature, a reaction to the horror and carnage of war and the knowledge that violence and brutality is intrinsic to human nature. Postmodern literature often includes nonlinear narratives, shifting narrators, and elements of magical realism and metafiction—all of which can be found to some extent in "The Circular Ruins."
Metafiction is writing that calls attention to itself as writing. Borges incorporated many techniques into his writing to establish a sense of metafiction, including using himself as a character, punctuating his texts with footnotes, and writing stories within stories, thus creating puzzles from words that require the reader to actively question what is real and what is not. "The Circular Ruins" is less metafictional than, say, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," but it still contains elements of metafiction in the sense that the narrator breaks the flow of the story to mention the Gnostic cosmogonies and the story of Adam's creation. Possibly the most metafictional line is "One afternoon, the man almost destroyed his creation, but he could not bring himself to do it. (He'd have been better off if he had)." Here, the narrator steps in to comment on the action. How does the narrator know the man should have destroyed his son? Presumably because this metafictional voice, which is jarring because it appears nowhere else in the story, already knows the terror that awaits the man when the fire reveals his true nature. This omniscience is metafictional; it momentarily propels the reader from one level of the story into a completely different level of the story. This serves to make the reader acknowledge that the story has been "written," and it also adds another ring of circularity to the labyrinth-like narrative. Additionally, these metafictional elements serve to establish the story as a metaphor for the creative process.
An epigraph is a quotation that precedes a work and suggests the work's frame of reference or its theme. The epigraph of "The Circular Ruins" comes from Lewis Carroll's 1871 book Through the Looking Glass: "And if he left off dreaming about you. …" Known as a work of literary nonsense, Through the Looking Glass features a game of chess in which real beings are used as the game pieces. Its sense of playful puzzlement appealed to Borges, and he chose it to alert the reader to the theme of dreaming in the work at hand. As an epigraph, it is frustratingly incomplete, but it hints that the "you" may indeed be the reader.
Beginning in childhood, Borges was fond of Lewis Carroll's fiction. As he told Richard Burgin, he was attracted to the "eerie," "uncanny," and "nightmare touches" of both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. A closer look at the epigraph for "The Circular Ruins," which comes from a conversation between Alice, Tweedledum, and Tweedledee, proves revealing:
"He's dreaming now," said Tweedledee: "and what do you think he's dreaming about?"
Alice said "Nobody can guess that."
"Why, about YOU!" Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. "And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be?"
"Where I am now, of course," said Alice.
"Not you!" Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. "You'd be nowhere. Why, you're only a sort of thing in his dream!"
Modernism in Literature
Modernism in literature is a loosely defined concept, but at its heart is the idea that one's understanding of the universe is both incomplete and ever-changing. Works credited with ushering in this new sensibility include James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925). These authors and many others, particularly in Europe, were influenced by the scientific advancements of the early twentieth century, including Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Max Planck's Quantum Theory, and the increasing brutality and machination of war—especially World War I. Modernist writing often exhibits stream-of-consciousness narration and is largely character driven, with ill-defined plots encompassing themes of alienation and a search for meaning in life. In 1939, when Borges wrote "The Circular Ruins," he had absorbed many of these ideas from his time in Europe, although he never described himself as a modernist or adhered to any such principles. In fact, the opposite was true. The Ultraist poetry movement he spearheaded was a direct reaction against the modernism of Spanish poetry following World War I. Borges and his cohorts were guided instead by the pre-modernist principles of Symbolism and eschewed the all-encompassing canvas of modernist literature for shorter, more intimate works exploring a single idea. When Borges embarked on his prolific period of short story writing in the late 1930s, these Symbolist ideas continued to guide him. Rather than the lengthy, rambling, sometimes disjointed prose style of the modernists, Borges preferred succinct language and a sharp focus on a specific, philosophical idea that often entailed vaguely magical or supernatural occurrences—something that the modernists, who remained rooted in scientific reality—would have never attempted.
Nacionalistas, Criollismos, and Juan Perón
By 1939, Borges was already one of Argentina's leading literary voices. He was also politically active in the criollismo movement to build a strong Argentine state based more on the pastoral tradition of the gauchos than on the staunchly nationalist agenda of the urban masses; toward that end he authored the political manifesto of Hipólito Irigoyen during the deposed president's second campaign. Borges disliked the nacionalistas who had orchestrated Irigoyen's downfall in order to usher in an era of strict immigration reforms and a corporate government. This era of upheaval in Argentina's politics came to a head when Juan Perón assumed power in 1946. But Borges wrote "The Circular Ruins" seven years earlier, when he was working at the Municipal Library in Buenos Aires, and Perón was still a military underling absorbing the ideas of Benito Mussolini. At this time, Perón and had not yet met and married the charismatic Eva Duarte. When Perón came to power in 1946 he "promoted" Borges from librarian to poultry inspector; Borges resigned in protest and remained an outspoken critic of the dictator for the rest of his life. Though "The Circular Ruins" is far removed from any possible political statement, politics was a frequent topic of Borges's essays.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1939: Leprosy is a common disease and exists in nearly every country; those afflicted are often segregated from the general population in leper colonies. There is no known effective treatment.
Today: Over 400,000 new cases of leprosy are reported each year, though the number is steadily declining. Two of the hardest hit countries are India and Brazil. Many drugs are available to treat the disease, but millions remain permanently disabled by it.
- 1939: Juan Perón helps organize a military coup against Argentinean leader Ramon Castillo and then consolidates power as head of the Department of Labor, founding the Partido Justicialista political party, a pragmatic combination of nationalism and social democracy.
Today: Néstor Kirchner becomes president of Argentina after the Front for Victory party, a faction of Juan Perón's Partido Justicialista, wins the election.
- 1939: Sigmund Freud's The Interpretations of Dreams is the main text used by psychoanalysts to help patients understand their dreams. Freud explained that dreams depict repressed psychological feelings and wish fulfillment, and that analysis can provide the key to unlocking the unconscious.
Today: Dream research focuses on cognitive theory, which states that dreams are pictorial representations of emotions that correspond to those in the waking state, and neuropsychological theory, which correlates biological functions of different sections of the brain.
Borges enjoyed a close, life-long relationship with his mother but refused to see it in psychoanalytic terms: "I've rather forgotten the time I spent in my mother's womb—although, according to the Freudians, it must have been very important to me," Emir Rodriguez Monegal, in his book Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography, quotes him as saying. "The Circular Ruins" exhibits much of Borges's philosophy about dreams. For him, they are episodes of creativity that are barely distinguishable from reality. This notion stands in contrast to Sigmund Freud's theories outlined in his 1899 book The Interpretation of Dreams. Although Freud died the year Borges wrote the story, Freud's ideas had permeated Western culture and continued to gain strength for decades. Freud believed that dreams represented unconscious wish fulfillment fantasies, often of a sexual nature, that are repressed in everyday life and disguised in dreams in order to protect an individual's fragile ego. Borges called Freud a "madman" in an interview with Richard Burgin, and adhered more to the ideas of Freud's rival, Carl Jung, who believed dream symbols were much broader, less focused on sexual urges, and changed meanings with each dreamer. In "The Circular Ruins," for instance, the old man guides his own dreams, and sexuality, either overtly or symbolically, never enters
into the story. But the figure of Fire, appearing as a multitude of simultaneous symbols in the man's dream, adheres to many of Jung's ideas.
Critical analysis of "The Circular Ruins" focuses on the story as a prime example of Borges's favorite themes and literary devices. Borges's biographer, Emir Rodriguez Monegal, in his book Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography, characterizes the gray man of the story as an "Indian mystic who worships fire and creates a disciple to propagate his faith," although this seems too detailed; Borges writes nothing of the man's heritage and faith. Monegal explores the story as a precursor to Borges's later poem "The Golem" and concludes that "both the story and the poem suggest that all these characters are creations of the writer, the real god of his creatures." In his biography of Borges, Monegal also states that "the horror of the final discovery that we are all mere creations of dreams" was one of Borges's "most primeval fears."
Floyd Merrell, in his book Unthinking Thinking: Jorge Luis Borges, Mathematics, and the New Physics, concentrates on the geometric puzzle as a central concept in the story: "Contemplating a paradox has been compared to … entering momentarily into the realm of the infinite." In regard to "The Circular Ruins," Merrell continues, the physical space constructed by Borges for his characters is "reciprocally identical…. The spatial trajectories of father and son compose two symmetrical oppositions up(stream)/down(south) and down(stream)/up(north), which structurally produce a ‘cancellation effect.’" This space is everywhere and nowhere. Other "paradoxes entail an untenable collaboration of the infinite and the finite, time and timelessness, continuity and discontinuity, the One and the Many."
Some critics take a more psychoanalytic approach, suggesting the story is a parable about Borges and his father, who died shortly before the story was written. The story "reflected the destruction of Borges's Dantean dream of salvation," observes Edwin Williamson in Borges: A Life. "Love had passed him by once more, and, untouched as he was by the god of fire, he was little better than a phantom who had himself been dreamed by that other phantom, the ‘gray man’ who had been his father." The story, Williamson writes, expresses Borge's "disillusionment."
When asked about the story by Richard Burgin in Jorge Luis Borges: Conversations, Borges replied:
I can't say much about the conception [of "The Circular Ruins"], but I can tell you that when I wrote that story the writing took me a week. … I was working at a very small and rather shabby public library in Buenos Aires, in a very gray and featureless street. I had to go there every day and work six hours. … but all the time I felt that life was unreal. What was really near to me was that story I was writing.
In other words, Borges was consumed by the creative process, and as Jason Wilson notes in his Jorge Luis Borges: Critical Lives:
This is Borges's parable about creativity. He never liked analyzing his gifts, would usually say that he received the story as a dream, and found that reading was a bit like dreaming, an inner experience only half tied to outer reality.
… Much has been made of this story as a confession of Borges's debt to his father, but I prefer to see it as a story about the wonders and frustration of creating art, with the awareness that there is no originality.
Bruce Stiehm, writing in the West Virginia Philological Papers, suggests that Borges's concept of the dream is "a semantic trap"; a word that requires a new definition "to mean not just the passive reception of an imagined experience while sleeping, or the projection of imagined experience, but the active creation of the experience and the elements of which it is made." For all its talk about dreams and symbolism, the story is "not overwhelming in its citations," according to Elizabeth Beaudin in her essay in Jorge Luis Borges. Instead, "Borges speaks directly to the imagination of the reader." In an essay for the online journal the Modern Word, Barbara Joan Schaffer calls the tale "a chilling horror story" that takes place in a nebulous, surreal landscape evoked through the psychologically weighted, faintly exotic terms "Zend language," "Greek," "leprosy," and "infinite villages." The effect is "reminiscent of a Dali painting where the lines of perspective themselves are disassociated with the size of the ruined and distorted objects." The story's ultimate ruin, Schaffer concludes, is that "each individual is doomed to experience for the first time that which all his ancestors have gone through and all his progeny will go through: birth and death; love and loneliness; the quest for knowledge and disappointment; the circular ruin."
Kathy Wilson Peacock
Wilson Peacock is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she analyzes the influence of Carl Jung on Borges's work and the Jungian aspects of Borges's "The Circular Ruins," particularly those that relate to symbols, labyrinths, and archetypes.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1872) is the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The novel provided Borges with the epigraph for "The Circular Ruins" and includes much nonsensical and dream-like imagery.
- Miguel de Unamuno's best-known work, The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples (1913), is a philosophical treatise on the paradox of human nature, the function of religion and God, and the power of creativity over reason. Borges was familiar with Unamuno's work, and shared with the Spanish writer an affection for the multitudinous interpretive possibilities of Don Quixote.
- Jorge Luis Borges's short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" (1939) is a metafictional tale-within-a-tale about a mediocre scholar who claims that his version of Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote is superior to the original, even though it mirrors the original word for word. The story contains Borges's trademark footnotes and serves as a satire of academia.
- Adolfo Bioy Casares's Morel's Invention (1940) tells of a fugitive who happens upon an island of strange, invented beings created by a scientist. Borges, who often collaborated with fellow Argentine Bioy Casares, wrote the prologue to the novel and compared it favorably to the science fiction of H. G. Wells.
- Carl Jung's autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961) explores the psychologist's ideas of dreams and the mythic dimension of human existence.
- Robert D. Crassweller's Perón and the Enigma of Argentina (1987) is a biography of the leader that places him within the larger context of Argentine history.
Jorge Luis Borges's 1939 short story "The Circular Ruins" ("Las ruinas circulares") tells of a man's quest to dream a son. The man travels by boat from an unspecified location and claws his way through the jungle to the charred remains of a circular temple. He dreams methodically, intensely, and in isolation over the course of more than a year. At last his dreamed son is animated by the god Fire, who tells the man (in a dream, of course) that only the two of them will know the son is a phantom not made of flesh and blood. Then the man spends two years of dreaming nights instructing his son in the ways of the world. After he releases his son into the terrestrial world, a fire rages through the temple the young man has been sent to downstream. The father is tormented by the notion that the son's ability to walk through the fire unscathed has revealed that he is a phantom. This fact, and the doom the man feels from being alone, prompts him to commit suicide when a similar fire surrounds his temple. He walks into a wall of fire, but realizes with "relief" and "terror" that he does not burn. He, too, is a figment of someone else's imagination.
"The Circular Ruins" is quintessential Borges. It presents many of the writer's favorite themes: the labyrinth, circularity, dreams, infinite regression, the Gnostic cosmogonies, and fear of death. These themes are also quintessential Carl Jung. Jung, perhaps the twentieth century's second most famous psychologist, devised the ideas of the collective unconscious and universal archetypes, which were of great interest to Borges. At the time Jung was developing and publishing his theories in Switzerland, Borges was in Geneva waiting out World War I and reading various philosophers in the original German. As Borges told Richard Burgin in Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, "I've always been a great reader of Jung. I read Jung in the same way as, let's say, I might read Pliny or Frazer's Golden Bough; I read it as a kind of mythology, or as a kind of museum or encyclopedia of curious lores…. In Jung … you feel a wide and hospitable mind." Conversely, Borges disliked Sigmund Freud, the most famous twentieth-century psychologist, and called him "a kind of madman."
Jung began his career as a protégé of Freud after reading his The Interpretation of Dreams, which proposed that dreams are a window into the unconscious and that psychoanalysis can help an individual interpret those dreams. But by 1913, Jung had split with Freud as their theories of dream interpretation became incompatible. Jung felt that Freud was too rigid in his analyses of dreams as manifestations of repressed sexual desires, believing instead that they represent a much richer tapestry of feelings, thoughts, and symbols—some of which are influenced by the collective unconscious, a common reservoir of human experience that resides in each individual that is manifest in the common themes of mythology and religion worldwide.
Borges's theme of infinite regression in "The Circular Ruins" is encapsulated in the line "in the dreaming man's dream, the dreamed man awoke," and in the ultimate epiphany that the dreamer is also being dreamed by someone else (who in turn may be a dream of yet another). This idea is hinted at in Jung's concept of the collective unconscious, in which a person's knowledge of the world is informed by humankind's accumulated experience. Take as evidence the fact that the old man in the story cannot remember anything about his life prior to arriving at the temple; he only knows that his "immediate obligation was to sleep." Yet he understands the ruin is a temple to a god; he cures his insomnia by waiting for the full moon and purifying himself in the river; and he understands that the ability to walk through fire indicates that one is a phantom, not a real human being. He knows how to guide his own dreams, and he knows enough about the world to spend two years teaching it all to the young man. Ultimately, he understands the immense power of dreams—one can dream a son, and one can be a dreamed son. He also knows that this process is supernatural, but not impossible. Who told him? No one—apparently. This knowledge, in the absence of other information regarding the old man's origins and experience, can be attributed to the collective unconscious that resides in him, which he got from his creator and which he passed on to his own creation.
Borges, Emir Rodriguez Monegal wrote in an essay for Modern Fiction Studies, called the universe a "shared dream," or the "dream dreamt by all," a description that meshes nearly perfectly with Jung's definition of the collective unconscious. Both men's ideas owe much to the Buddhist mandala—a circular depiction of the universe in microcosm form, meant to initiate meditation leading to enlightenment. Although they were not practicing Buddhists, both Borges and Jung studied Buddhism for its history and symbolism. For Borges, his interest began with his reading of Arthur Schopenhauer, who himself was much influenced by Buddhism. However, as with Jung, Borges co-opted Buddhism in his own way. In Jorge Luis Borges: Critical Lives, Jason Wilson writes that "according to Borges's take on Buddhism, each of us is an illusion vertiginously produced by a series of momentary and solitary versions of previous selves. It's the theme of his fiction ‘The Circular Ruins.’"
Jung believed that symbols in dreams were common across time and culture but that they had no fixed meaning; rather, their meanings were specific to each dreamer. When the symbol was embodied by a certain type of person, he called that figure an archetype. Mythology and religion are full of archetypes—a fact that reinforces (and inspired) Jung's notion of the collective unconscious. In commenting on his landmark work The Psychology of the Unconscious, Jung wrote that myth connects people to a culturally shared past, and that those without this link are set adrift from their fellow men and, by extension, their own humanity. Take, for instance, the dreamer in "The Circular Ruins," who has no link with his past and who comes upon the ruins, a "temple to dead, incinerated gods" who went "unhonored by mankind." This "foreigner," as he is called, is "uprooted" in the Jungian sense, for "if someone had asked him his own name, or inquired into any feature of his life till then, he would not have been able to answer," Borges writes. He has no connection to the temple, its faded mythology, or indeed the "ancestral life which continues within him." The only glimmer of the collective unconscious that pulls him through to his final epiphany (i.e., his awakening from what Buddhists call the "sleep of ignorance") is the "sense that all this had happened before."
Jung described the labyrinth as an archetype of transformation and the mandala as a symbol of the universe and of psychological wholeness. Walking a labyrinth is akin to a religious experience that can bring a person to his or her own center by symbolically reaching the center of the design, after spiraling in ever smaller concentric configurations. While in Buddhism and Christianity (many cathedrals were built with inlaid stone labyrinths) this symbolic journey is meant to be a positive one, Borges's labyrinths seem more sinister, more akin to the mythological Labyrinth of the Minotaur. As Emir Rodriguez Monegal, Borges's biographer, wrote in an essay for Modern Fiction Studies on Borgesian symbols: "In the center of the labyrinth is the monster, or the god, since monstrosity is sometimes a divine attribute as shown by the metamorphoses in Greek mythology. There could be something else in the center of the labyrinth: a secret, a revelation, or an epiphany." For Jung, this epiphany is the integration of the personality; for Borges, as interpreted in "The Circular Ruins," this epiphany is the disintegration of the personality when the dreamer realizes he is a phantom.
Much can be made of the god Fire in the story as well. One possible Jungian interpretation of Fire is as the Trickster archetype. The Trickster often changes shape and/or appears as an animal and plays cruel pranks on people. In "The Circular Ruins," Fire appears as a colt, a tiger, a bull, a rose, and a storm—all at the same time. The prank Fire pulls is to give the dreamer what he wants and then gives him the little knowledge he needs to realize his whole life is a joke—he is not real. Thus, Fire helps the dreamer realize his plan by awakening his son and enabling dreamer and son to enjoy a long and fruitful tutelage, but then strips the dreamer of his sense of pride and accomplishment.
The story also includes elements of Jung's Divine Child archetype and the Wise Old Man archetype. In the dreamer's first attempt at creating a man, he is the Wise Old Man, the teacher of a large group of students who chooses the most promising pupil to whom to impart his wisdom. Usually, the Wise Old Man appears in a person's dream as a father or teacher, but in this case it is the dreamer who dreams of himself (albeit unsuccessfully, as he abandons it eventually). The Divine Child is the dream archetype Jung devised to represent a person's sense of vulnerability and potential. The Divine Child appears as a baby or child in a person's dream. In "The Circular Ruins," the Divine Child is the dreamer's son, who begins literally as a beating heart and then grows, inch by inch, into a complete being. The dreamer places great hope in this child: "He wanted to dream him completely, in painstaking detail, and impose him upon reality. This magical objective had come to fill his entire soul." Could it be that the dreamer unconsciously senses his own, vulnerable unreality and wishes to change it?
The tiger is another major symbol in "The Circular Ruins"; the charred and weathered adornment on top of the ruined temple appears to be a tiger, and when the god of Fire reveals itself to the dreamer, it is indeed a tiger (as well as a colt, a bull, a rose, and a storm). The tiger, according to English poet William Blake and Carl Jung, represents savagery; and indeed the god of Fire is savage in his ability to bring the dreamer's son into reality and give him the knowledge that leads him to understand he is only a dream. In his essay, Monegal summarized the meaning of the tiger in Borges's work: "If the tiger is admired and even envied by the poet, it is because it represents life in the raw, destruction as another way of creation, [and] death as a path to life."
Source: Kathy Wilson Peacock, Critical Essay on "The Circular Ruins," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following excerpt, Merrell examines Borges's use of paradox in "The Circular Ruins."
I don't like writers who are making sweeping statements all the time. Of course, you might argue that what I'm saying is a sweeping statement, no?
—Jorge Luis Borges
It has been said that paradox is truth standing on its head to attract attention, and that truth is paradox crying out to be transcended. The word comes from the Greek para doxos, meaning beyond belief, which is actually not befitting, for many paradoxes are the source of deep-seated convictions, if not "truth." More appropriately, then, we might say that paradoxes are trains of thought condensed into a point of time and space. Contemplating a paradox has been compared to meditating on a Zen Koan, gazing at a mandala, entering momentarily into the realm of the infinite. A world free of paradox is the stuff only dreams are made of, yet rationalism, even logic itself, in the final analysis "teaches us to expect some dreaminess in the world, and even contradictions" (Peirce 1960; 4:79). According to Kierkegaard, reason ultimately leads to paradox, and faith is needed to remedy it. But a paradox is not resolved by faith alone, nor can it logically be disposed of in many cases. It remains coiled at the very heart of our reasoning process.
Guillermo Sucre (1970, 469) correctly remarks that Borges's writing is a "fusion of contradictions." What he fails to note is that such fusion is inescapable, for the knowledge paradox inheres in all viable thinking, whether one be a nominalist, realist, idealist, Vaihingerian "fictionalist," Meinongian, or whatever. That is, the fusion of one's knowledge (what one believes one knows) with one's "meta-knowledge" (one's knowledge about one's knowledge) breeds paradox, for, like the "preface paradox" that marked the beginning of this book, at the second level one ultimately knows one does not, and cannot, be in possession of absolute "truth"; some of one's knowledge is, unfortunately, always either inconsistent or incomplete, yet at the first level one tends to persist in believing it may well be absolute. Rather than "truth" standing on its head, then, the knowledge paradox is "truth" as an asymmetric object looking at itself in a mirror. It sees its own inverse, its right side becomes its left side: its mirror image is its own falsity, and it can do no more than oscillate between the two poles of the contradiction ad infinitum.
Richard Burgin (1968, 115) observes that Escher's work in visual terms compares favorably with some of Borges's cherished themes. Indeed, some of Borges's stories elicit what Douglas Hofstadter (1979, 94-95; 688-89) calls the "authorship triangle." There are three authors, A, B, and C. A exists in a novel by B, B in a novel by C, and, strangely, C is to be found in A's novel. This tangled triad is analogous, Hofstadter tells us, to Escher's well-known print of a hand drawing a second hand which is in turn drawing the first hand. How are such puzzles explained? Authors A, B, and C, necessarily unaware of their predicament, will, we must presume, happily tred through life believing they are real people. But another author, say, D, from a "meta-perspective," knows that they are mere imaginary beings. So assume D writes his own novel about those three unfortunate souls who think they are real people. Fine. But how is he to know that he is not a character in another novel by author E? We can gaze at Escher's hands drawing themselves and with confidence remark on the anomaly from our "superior" vantage point. We know that behind this print lurks Escher's invisible hand drawing the two appendages. But the problem is not resolved thus, for, like the knowledge paradox, from a "meta-perspective" there is still no guarantee that what we know is not false (or fictitious). There is no recourse but to oscillate between the two horns of the dilemma.
On speaking of such dilemmas, we are introduced to one of Borges's finest stories, "The Circular Ruins," which I will treat in some detail here in order that its paradoxical force may be effectively highlighted. In an exotic setting, a magician-priest arrives at the charred ruins of an ancient circular temple. The purpose which guided him "was not impossible, though it was supernatural." He wanted to dream a human being and insert him into reality. After failing in his initial attempt to dream a multitude of young boys and select from them the most promising candidate, he embarked on a second effort: to dream an individual, starting with the heart, and creating outward to the skeleton and finally to each of the innumerable hairs. After gradually accustoming this arduously dreamt boy to reality, the magician sent him downstream to the north "to be born." His son was now, for practical purposes, a part of "reality": in fact, "all creatures except Fire itself and the dreamer would believe him to be a man of flesh and blood." One night the magician was awakened by two boatmen who told him of another magician to the north who could walk on fire without being burned. As any good father, the dreamer feared for the emotional well-being of his son, for if he meditated on his rare privilege and discovered that he was a mere image it would be humiliating. However, his thoughts were cut short, for a jungle blaze threatened from the south. The old man, cognizant of his imminent death, walked boldly into the "concentric" blaze only to realize "with relief, with humiliation, with terror," that the flames could not consume him, for "he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another."
"The Circular Ruins" reveals one of Borges's strategies for creating contradictions, paradoxes, and infinite regresses, which will have a bearing on later sections of this inquiry. The first step entails a set of apparent oppositions. The magician came from the south, where he had dwelled in "one of the infinite villages upstream." On the other hand, after sufficiently preparing his "unreal" son for integration into "reality," the magician sent him downstream to the north, where there lay the ruins of "another propitious temple, whose gods were also burned and dead." The conditions of the son's environment are reciprocally identical to those of the magician. Only the infinitely repetitive trees of the jungle separate one temple from another. Hence, the spatial trajectories of father and son compose two symmetrical oppositions, up(stream)/down(south) and down(stream)/up(north), which structurally produce a "cancellation effect." As a result, the action of the story terminates simultaneously everywhere and nowhere: at the center of the charred ruins of a circular temple where the magician created his dream image. This symmetry of space reveals the fallacy of what Alfred North Whitehead (1925, ch. 4) calls "simple location." The story alludes not to precise geographic points but to vague notions of circular surfaces, which become almost as haptic as they are visual.
In contrast to these spatial indices, at the outset it appears that time is linear, and it accumulates with increasing torpidity. The magician required fourteen days to perfect the heart of his subject, one year to create the skeleton, a little less than two additional years to complete his project, and two more long years to prepare his son for "birth." The son's development, then, is first decelerated and finally halted altogether when the magician interpolates him into the world. However, this effort to annihilate the past is ultimately futile. Temporal recurrence is foretold by the magician's impression that "all this had happened before." If the obliteration of "simple location" of space coupled with vague images of spatial circularity implies a denial of linear movement, concomitantly, the attempt to annihilate the past and establish an eternal "now" stems from an implicit attempt to deny temporal irreversibility.
The "invincible purpose" that drives the magician can be explicated on two levels: concrete and abstract, On a concrete level, the magician strives to coordinate his activities with those of his son. He daily prostrates himself at dawn and at twilight "before the stone figure, imagining perhaps that his unreal child was practicing the same rites, in other circular ruins." By means of these ritualistic acts, he gradually becomes "as all men," and his absent son is nurtured with the progressive diminution of his maker's own soul. When the magician's purpose in life is finally completed, he assumes that his son's immortality is now projected into the physical world, an event that at once symbolically represents the concretion of the "unreal" (dream) and the eternal coexistence of the "real" (physical) world. On an abstract level, the coexistence of "real" father with "unreal" son coheres with the symbolic coexistence of space and time. Spatial and temporal synchronicity portrayed in Borges's story is a condition quite unlike the linear temporal existence of the physical world. In this sense, physical existence, which presupposes human finitude, is opposed to the dream world of spaceless and timeless coexistence. In the material sphere of existence, the contradiction between life and death is presumably irreconcilable. On the other hand, in the nonmaterial order, governed by spatio-temporal synchronicity, this contradiction is nonexistent.
Consider the possibility that in "The Circular Ruins" a projection of spatio-temporal synchronicity into linear existence entails a symbolic abolition of the life/death dichotomy. This assumes an implicit attempt to overcome temporal existence wherein spatial hierarchy and temporal linearity predominate. In more concrete terms, the magician's "purpose" stems from a desire to make his "unreal" son part of tangible "reality" and vicariously to transcend mortality himself, for even though all fathers "are interested in the children they have procreated," this interest is at the same time self-interest. Therefore, the constraint in the text subjected to potential restructuration is the life/death duality, perhaps the most intransigent of all. For obvious reasons, the protagonist is a "magician" and the story reads like a "myth."
The relation between father and son ("reality" and dream) can be illustrated by an abstract scheme, in which the sequential and parallel planes intersect where there is potential movement in the narrative toward a more complex level of organization. The desired goal entails actualization of relations of similitude between father-son and "reality"-dream. By inserting dream image into "reality," the son can become a "man" and the magician can vicariously transcend the finitude of his physical existence. In order to accomplish this goal, the magician must activate a fusion of opposites wherein the son's timelessness predominates over the father's temporality and the father's essence over the son's materialessness. However, the "logical" end prevails: the magician realizes he is an integral part of dream existence, which discounts the son's supposed entry into "reality," and the "unreal" enjoys synonymity with the "real." …
According to the reading I have proposed, this impossible intersection of the "unreal" and the "real" becomes manifest at the end of the story. The magician assumes that his monumental task is completed, but when the parallel and sequential axes converge, the paradox underlying his project potentially becomes apparent. His status as the object of yet another dream is obviously a proposition embedded in his mind, since his own maker had instilled in him, as he in his son, complete oblivion of his apprenticeship. Hence, from the very beginning, it may be conjectured, the magician's grand design is doomed to failure. In the first place, he strives to force the dreamt image into his own supposedly tangible form of existence in order to concretize the sequential chain of mental events (dream "reality") that are the product of unlimited semiotic activity and to establish lines of similarity where ordinarily there would exist only lines of opposition. In other words, he tries to make dream "reality" denote something other than what it would ordinarily denote. In the second place, realization of the magician's desire would be equivalent to a desiring subject's becoming part of the imagined world he has created and at the same time a prisoner of/in his own desires. The fusion cannot be actualized, however, and what the magician presumed to accomplish at one level backfires at another level.
To determine more precisely the nature of the magician's dilemma, let us return to the implicit purpose guiding his action. After the magician's preliminary effort to create a "real" son fails, he realizes that his project will be much more arduous than "weaving a rope of sand or coining the faceless wind." This passage reveals two metaphorical (oxymoronic) images, which on a local level represent the impossible conjunction of distinct classes of things: rope (fibered) out of sand (nonfibered) or coin (malleable-solid) out of wind (nonmalleable-nonsolid). The magician now attempts to construct a solitary dreamt image by means of another approach. The problem is that to integrate the attributes of this image into his own world logically implies a simultaneous rupture of boundaries. In other words, two distinct classes, A and B, are governed by different logical orders, and they cannot be integrated while maintaining intact the logical order of either A or B, but both, on becoming members of the same class, must be subjected to a different order. Hence, the magician cannot conjoin two distinct spheres of existence into his own without altering both. If, on the other hand, the magician had conceived of his dream world as does primitive man, as merely another facet of the same "reality," his project would nonetheless have been equally futile. For to make a dream coexist with "reality" would be nonsensical, given the fact that in the primitive's animistic conception of things, the two entities could not represent an intractable dualism in the first place.
Fire might have been construed as a potential mediator between the "reality" of the magician and the "nonreality" of the boy, since fire symbolically "converts" essence to nonessence (matter to energy). Following this metaphorical line of reasoning, the magician would be attempting to reverse the process and convert his "unreal" son (nonessence) to "reality" (essence). Moreover, only fire would be able to discern the created being's lack of essence, since it cannot consume that which is the final product of its consummatory process. In fact, fire appears as an earthly god in one of the magician's dreams and offers to give life to his inert dream image. However, the fire deity is helpless against that over which it presumably exercises dominion: its very sanctuary, as in centuries past, is destroyed by fire. This destruction recapitulates the paradox inherent in the magician's project. That is, the god of fire is the "symbolic," or "archetypal," expression of fire, and as such it rests at a distinct level of organization. The symbol can be representative of fire but cannot coexist on the same logical level as fire; it cannot be fire itself. When the magician assumes he possesses the ability to annihilate the boundaries between logical categories, all distinctions between symbol and referent, dreamer and dreamt, become nonexistent, and he loses his capacity, as Homo symbolicus, to create an ideal world that rests in contradiction to "real" reference.
"The Circular Ruins" is merely one exemplary instantiation of Borgesian paradoxes. Like the Aleph itself, most of these paradoxes entail an untenable collaboration of the infinite and the finite, time and timelessness, continuity and discontinuity, the One and the Many. These are "hyperfictions" in the extreme; that is, they imply oxymoronic collusion at the deepest level. Weaving a rope of sand or coining the faceless wind serve as microcosmic embellishments of the larger tragedy being played out, which is equally oxymoronic, but, in addition to its poetic qualities, it is also metaphysical—cosmic metaphors, which place Borges's fictions in the same orb with the range of Vaihingerian fictions and scientific models-fictions …
Source: Floyd Merrell, "According to the Eye of the Beholder," in Unthinking Thinking: Jorge Luis Borges, Mathematics, and the New Physics, Purdue University Press, 1991, pp. 32-42.
L. S. Dembo and Jorge Luis Borges
In the following excerpt, Dembo talks with Borges about the author's philosophy, themes of his work, and the influence of dreams on his writing.
Q…. Anyway, let me continue with this question: One of your chief themes seems to be the ability of the mind to influence or recreate reality. I am thinking of the consummate recreation of the world in "Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius." The philosophy of idealism prevalent on the imaginary planet Tlön seems to be vindicated when the actual world begins to transform itself in Tlön's image. Are you in fact a philosophical idealist or do you simply delight in paradoxes made possible by idealistic reasoning, or both?
A. Well, my father—I seem to be referring to him all the time; I greatly loved him, and I think of him as living—my father was a professor of psychology, and I remember—I was quite a small boy—when he began trying to teach me something of the puzzles that constitute the idealistic philosophy. And I remember once he explained to me, or he tried to explain to me, with a chessboard, the paradoxes of Xeno, Achilles and the Tortoise, and so on. I also remember that he held an orange in his hand and asked me, "Would you think of the taste of the orange as belonging to it?" And I said, "Well, I hardly know that. I suppose I'd have to taste the orange. I don't think the orange is tasting itself all the time." He replied, "That's quite a good answer," and then he went on to the color of the orange and asked, "Well, if you close your eyes, and if I put out the light, what color is the orange?" He didn't say a word about Berkeley or Hume, but he was really teaching me the philosophy of idealism, although, of course, he never used those words, because he thought they might scare me away. But he was teaching me a good many things, and he taught them as if they were of no importance at all. He was teaching me philosophy and psychology—that was his province—and he used William James as his textbook. He was teaching me all those things, and yet not allowing me to suspect that he was teaching me something.
Q. But you would say that you more or less were brought up on idealism?
A. Yes, and now when people tell me that they're down-to-earth and they tell me that I should be down-to-earth and think of reality, I wonder why a dream or an idea should be less real than this table for example, or why Macbeth should be less real than today's newspaper. I cannot quite understand this. I suppose if I had to define myself, I would define myself as an idealist, philosophically speaking. But I'm not sure I have to define myself. I'd rather go on wondering and puzzling about things, for I find that very enjoyable.
Q. That reminds me of the image of the labyrinth that recurs throughout your work.
A. Yes, it keeps cropping up all the time. It's the most obvious symbol of feeling puzzled and baffled, isn't it? It came to me through an engraving when I was a boy, an engraving of the seven wonders of the world, and there was one of the labyrinth. It was a circular building, and there were some palm trees near. Anyway, I thought that if I looked into it, if I peered into it very closely, perhaps I might make out the minotaur at the center. Somehow I was rather frightened of that engraving, and so when my mother said, "Since you like the book, you can keep it in your room," I answered, "No, no, it better stay in the library," because I was afraid of the minotaur coming out. Of course, I never told her the reason. Children are very shy. You don't say those things when you are really afraid of something happening. It really was an uncanny picture.
There was also an English dictionary, with a picture of the sphinx. Then I would play with my terrors; I would say to myself, now I will look up the word "six" and see that very tiny little illustration, and then I opened the book and closed it at once.
Q. Has the minotaur ever come out of the labyrinth?
A. Well, I have written two sonnets; in the first, a man is supposed to be making his way through the dusty and stony corridors, and he hears a distant bellowing in the night. And then he makes out footprints in the sand and he knows that they belong to the minotaur, that the minotaur is after him, and, in a sense, he, too, is after the minotaur. The minotaur, of course, wants to devour him, and since his only aim in life is to go on wandering and wandering, he also longs for the moment. In the second sonnet, I had a still more gruesome idea—the idea that there was no minotaur—that the man would go on endlessly wandering. That may have been suggested by a phrase in one of Chesterton's Father Brown books. Chesterton said, "What a man is really afraid of is a maze without a center." I suppose he was thinking of a godless universe, but I was thinking of the labyrinth without a minotaur. I mean, if anything is terrible, it is terrible because it is meaningless.
Q. Yes, that's what I was driving at …
A…. Because the minotaur justifies the labyrinth; at least one thinks of it as being the right kind of inhabitant for that weird kind of building.
Q. If the minotaur is in the labyrinth, the labyrinth makes sense.
A. Yes, if there's no minotaur, then the whole thing's incredible. You have a monstrous building built round a monster, and that in a sense is logical. But if there is no monster, then the whole thing is senseless, and that would be the case for the universe, for all we know.
Q. Doesn't Thomas Hardy express a similar idea in one of his poems—I think it's called "Hap"—in which he says that if he knew that the universe were malevolent, he could resign himself, buthe knows that it's haphazard, and that is the real cause of his despair?
A. I admire Hardy's poems but I haven't come across that one. You see, I lost my sight in 1955 and, of course, I had to fall back on other readers and young minds—young eyes and young memories—and so I depend on things already read. But my consolation lies in the fact that my memory's rather poor, so when I think I'm remembering something, I'm surely distorting it and perhaps inventing something new.
Q. Perhaps that's what it means to be an artist.
A. Yes, well, if I could verify every one of my memories, I should be less fanciful than I am or less inventive.
Q. Well, you're apt to turn into Funes, the Immemorious.
A. No, in the case of Funes I think of a man being killed by his memory and of a man being unable to think, since he can possess no general ideas; that is, in order to think, you must forget the small individual differences between things. Of course, Funes couldn't do that. But that story came to me as a kind of metaphor for sleeplessness, because I suffered greatly from insomnia.
Q. Yes, you speak about the "terrible lucidity of insomia."
A. The terrible lucidity of insomnia. And there is a common word in Argentine Spanish for "awaken": recordarse, to remember oneself. When you're sleeping, you can't remember yourself—in fact, you're nobody, although you may be anybody in a dream. Then suddenly you wake up and "remember yourself"; you say, "I am so-and-so; I'm staying in such-and-such a place; I'm living in such-and-such a year." But recordarse is used as a common word and I don't think anybody has worked out all its implications.
Q. Getting back to the labyrinth, it seemed to me that this image was not only generally appropriate to your work but represented the central paradox in it; that "the rich symmetries" of the mind, and of history, and of the world, end only in confusion or mystery.
A. But I really enjoy that mystery. I not only feel the terror of it; I not only feel now and then the anguish, but also, well, the kind of pleasure you get, let's say, from a chess puzzle or from a good detective novel.
Q. In other words, you don't feel "angst"?
A. No, I don't. Or if I feel it, I feel it now and then, but I don't try to cherish it nor do I feel especially proud of it. It comes on me, let's say, as a headache or toothache might come, and I do my best to discourage it.
Q. I notice that from time to time the narrator of a story will identify himself as Borges, but, as the parable "Borges and I" seems to illustrate, Borges is more than one man. Are the characters of the ficcionessometimes Borges' nightmares or dreams or are they in fact the works of a detached creator intellectually interested in their dilemmas?
A. Sometimes I have been influenced by dreams. But only twice have I written down actual dreams. One was in the sketch called "Episode of the Enemy"; and the other dream I had I gave the Norse name of Ragnarök, "The Twilight of the Gods." And those two dreams were written much as they occurred. I worked in a few details to make them more credible. In other cases I may have been influenced by dreams without being quite aware of it.
Q. I meant dreams in the broader sense of the word.
A. Well, I don't think of literature and dreams as being very different. Of course, life has been compared to a dream many times over. But I think that in the case where you're imagining a story, you are actually dreaming it; at the same time you're dreaming it in a rather self-conscious way. I mean, you're dreaming and you're trying to direct the dream, to give it an end. Now, it is quite a common experience of mine—I suppose it has happened to you also—to dream and to know that I am dreaming. And also this has happened only during the last few years of my life: to begin dreaming before I begin to go to sleep. I know, for example, that I am in bed; I know where I am, and that somebody has come into the room, that somebody belongs to a dream; and then I know that very soon I will fall fast asleep. That's a sign that sleep's coming on. I asked one of my nephews and he told me that he had the same feeling. Sometimes he had dreams not only the moment before waking up but before going to sleep.
When one dreams before going to sleep, one knows that one shouldn't worry about insomnia because in two or three minutes one will be fast asleep, and then one will be dreaming in a more intricate way, with different characters, different people speaking, and so on …
Source: L. S. Dembo and Jorge Luis Borges, "An Interview with Jorge Luis Borges," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1970, pp. 315-23.
Beaudin, Elizabeth, "Writing against Time," in Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 2004, pp. 56-57.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Jorge Luis Borges, Chelsea House, 2004.
Borges, Jorge Luis, "The Circular Ruins," in Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley, Viking, 1998, pp. 96-100.
———, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, edited by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, New Directions, 1962.
Borges, Jorge Luis, and Richard Burgin, Jorge Luis Borges: Conversations, University Press of Mississippi, 1998, pp. 33, 100.
Carroll, Lewis, Through the Looking-Glass, Macmillan, 1872.
Cohn, Heather, "How to Dream a Man: Eight Countries Collaborate in the Philippines on the Borges Project," in American Theatre, Vol. 23, No. 7, September 2006, p. 50.
Merrell, Floyd, "According to the Eye of the Beholder," in Unthinking Thinking: Jorge Luis Borges, Mathematics, and the New Physics, Purdue University Press, 1991, pp. 32-42.
Monegal, Emir Rodriguez, Jorges Luis Borges: A Literary Biography, E. P. Dutton, 1978, pp. 22, 137, 360.
———, "Symbols in Borges' Work," in Modern Fiction Studies, Autumn 1973, pp. 325-40, 360-61.
Pérez, Genaro J., "The Circular Ruins: Overview," in Reference Guide to Short Fiction, 1st edition, edited by Noelle Watson, St. James Press, 1994.
Schaffer, Barbara Joan, "The Circular Ruins," in the Modern Word, http://www.themodernworld.com/borges/borges_paper_schaffer.html (accessed September 20, 2007).
Shenker, Israel, "Borges, A Blind Writer with Insight," in the New York Times, April 6, 1971.
Stiehm, Bruce, "Borges: Iconoclast, Dissident, Creator of Semantic Traps," in West Virginia Philological Papers, Vol. 44, 1998-1999, pp. 104-11.
Unamuno, Miguel de, Perplexities and Paradoxes, translated by Stuart Gross, Philosophical Library, 1945, p. 2.
———, Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples, translated by J. E. Crawford Flitch, Macmillan, 1926.
Williamson, Edwin, Borges: A Life, Viking, 2004, pp. 254-55.
Wilson, Jason, Jorge Luis Borges: Critical Lives, Reaktion Books, 2006, pp. 108-109.
Barnstone, Willis, and Jorge Luis Borges, "The Nightmare, That Tiger of the Dream," in Borges at Eighty: Conversations, edited by Willis Barnstone, Indiana University Press, 1982, pp. 135-52.
Borges explains that he is more interested in the nightmare than in traditional dreams, such as that which is represented in the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Havelock Ellis. Borges's own nightmares include being trapped in a labyrinth within the city of Buenos Aires and gazing into a mirror and seeing himself reflected as a different person.
Barrenechea, Ana Maria, Borges the Labyrinth Maker, translated and edited by Robert Lima, New York University Press, 1965.
Barrenechea's book-length criticism of Borges's writing (one of the earliest) concentrates on many of the themes present in "The Circular Ruins," including dreams, identity, and circularity.
Coetzee, J. M., "Borges's Dark Mirror," in the New York Review of Books, Vol. 45, No. 16, October 22, 1998, pp. 80-82.
Coetzee, himself an established fiction writer, concentrates on the mirror imagery in Borges's stories and the liberties taken by various translators that have resulted in meanings different than those intended by Borges, including Andrew Hurley's translation of "The Circular Ruins."
Dubnick, Heather L., "‘Mirrors and Fatherhood’: Doubling, Mise en Abîme, and the Uncanny in the Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges," in Romance Notes, Vol. 44, No. 1, Fall 2003, pp. 69-80.
Dubnick focuses on Borges's technique of writing a story within a story (mise en abîme) as a strategy for creating a sense of dislocation and timelessness in his short stories.
Freud, Sigmund, Interpreting Dreams, translated by J. A. Underwood, Penguin Classics, 2006.
This is a recent edition of Freud's landmark book, The Interpretation of Dreams, which is still regarded as essential reading for those studying the history of psychology, even though many of Freud's notions, especially the idea that dreams are manifestations of repressed sexual desires and wish fulfillment, are no longer held in high esteem.
Moacanin, Radmila, The Essence of Jung's Psychology and Tibetan Buddhism: Western and Eastern Paths to the Heart, 2nd edition, Wisdom Publications, 2003.
Carl Jung helped popularize Buddhism with Western audiences, Borges among them. This book explores Jung's ideas of the collective unconscious, archetypes, and mandalas, all of which were influenced by his studies of Eastern religion.
Ormsby, Eric, "Jorge Luis Borges and the Plural I," in the New Criterion, Vol. 18, No. 3, November 1999.
Ormsby theorizes that, as Borges aged, his notion of personal identity as manifested in his writing became increasingly less individualistic and more collective, so that his work appeared to be written "by Everybody and Nobody."
Wheelock, Carter, The Mythmaker: A Study of Motif and Symbol in the Short Stories of Jorge Luis Borges, University of Texas Press, 1969.
Wheelock, a frequent writer on Borges, produced one of the first full-length studies of the symbolism of Borges's fiction, including an analysis of "The Circular Ruins." Wheelock also places Borges within the context of his literary and philosophical predecessors.
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