"The Circular Ruins" A Short Story by Jorge Luis Borges
The Circular Ruins
I have to be honest, I am still contemplating the meaning of this story ...
PDF of the story available below.
The story begins in a land untouched by the influence of Western culture. A man arrives by his canoe at an ancient spot in the jungle in which there used to be ruins to pagan gods, now half destroyed and overgrown. He drags himself to the ruins, cut, bloodstained, tired, and dirty. There he sleeps and finds that his wounds have been healed when he awakes. Even though he is rested and healed, he feels his duty is to continue to sleep, for then he may dream. 1 The dreams offered him a supernatural ability to bring into being another man ... a man designed by him down to the finest detail, though it would take all of his energy and mental capacity to accomplish this. "The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though supernatural. He wanted to dream a man; he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality. ... He was seeking a soul worthy of participating in the universe." In his dreams he was at the center of an amphitheater with faces extending out from his in space and time like phantoms but with clear detail. He lectured them, teaching them different topics, listening to each of their responses to his questions. He found that only those who not only learned from him, but dared to oppose him with ideas were worthy to be considered to be called forth into existence. After a week and a half or so of dreaming, he sent away all the disciples except for one. 2
"He was a taciturn, sallow boy, at times intractable, and whose sharp features resembled those of his dreamer. ... after a few private lessons, his progress was enough to astound the teacher ..." All was going well for the dreamer until he began to realize that he was no longer dreaming. He was suffering from insomnia, and couldn't conjure his dreams or his student. He tried many things to recover his hallucinatory sleep. He tried tiring himself out, taking a drug to put him to sleep, but to no avail. "He understood that modelling the incoherent and vertiginous matter of which dreams are composed was the most difficult task that a man could undertake, even though he should penetrate all the enigmas of a superior and inferior order; much more difficult than weaving a rope out of sand or coining the faceless wind." So he tried a new method. For a month he recovered his strength and put the worries out of his mind. He ignored any dreams that he had for that time. Then, when it was a full moon, he cleansed himself, worshiped the gods, and performed the rituals. Finally, falling asleep, his dreams returned. 3
For a year he dreamed of the young man that he wished to bring into reality. He dreamed of every detail of the formation of each individual part of him, from the heart to the spine, and so on. He finally finished the entire man, but dreamed him still asleep, not yet living. "One afternoon, the man almost destroyed his entire work, but then changed him mind. (It would have been better had he destroyed it.) When he had exhausted all supplications to the deities of the earth, he threw himself at the feet of the effigy which was perhaps a tiger or perhaps a colt and implored its unknown help. That evening, at twilight, he dreamt of the statue. He dreamt it was alive..." The man encountered this ancient deity, a mix of creatures, but more importantly, whose name was Fire. Fire told the man that he would animate his phantom for him, but that he, Fire, and the dreamer would be the only ones who knew that this was not a real man that was created. Likewise, the dreamer must teach this new man the rites of worship and send him to another abandoned temple to bring glory to that forgotten god. 4
The dreamer spent two years teaching the new man "the mysteries of the universe and the cult of fire." He tested his new son by giving him tasks to accomplish. Finally, he was ready to be sent off to the next temple. Before sending him off though, to make sure that he son would only think of himself as a regular man, the dreamer erased the son's memory of everything that had taken place so far. The dreamer had fulfilled his purpose in life by generating, forming, and sending off this new man. Until one day he is awoken by two men who tell him of a special man who is immune to fire a distance away. 5
"The wizard suddenly remembered the words of the god. He remembered that of all the creatures that people the earth, Fire was the only one who knew his son to be a phantom. This memory, which at first calmed him, ended by tormenting him. He feared lest his son should meditate on this abnormal privilege and by some means find out the was a mere simulacrum. Not to be a man, to be a projection of another man's dreams ..." He was worried about his son. Eventually, though, he dreamer's life came to an end. The sanctuary of the god, Fire, was burning again. He was going to flee but then realized that his time had come in old age to give in. "He walked towards the sheets of flame. They did not bite his flesh, they caressed him and flooded him without heat or combustion. With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he was also an illusion, that someone else was dreaming him." 6
1 - Borges, Jorge Luis. Ficciones. (New York: Everyman's Library, 1993). 39
2 - 40
3 - 41
4 - 42
5 - 43
6 - 44