The Circular Ruins

In which a wizard attempting to carry out a difficult magical project comes to learn a disturbing truth.

Originally titled “Las Ruinas Circulares”

By Jorge Luis Borges

First published in 1940

Anthologized in Ficciones

Available online at the University at Buffalo (the translator is uncredited, but is likely Anthony Bonner)

Jesus said, “Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all.” — from the non-canonical “Gospel of Thomas,” early 2nd century A.D.

Jorge Luis Borges loved paradoxes. This was possibly because he wrote what he knew:

One of his many gifts was an ability to look aslant at the world, to see the familiar as strange and then to convey that radical change of perspective.  Borges knew that appearances are often the constructs of those who hold power, and was obsessed by the ways in which ideas, people, and things can become their apparent polar opposites.

Take, for example, the following quote of his:

“Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant.”

I can’t imagine most people using agnosticism as a support for Christian orthodoxy, but when Borges does it, it seems reasonable and strange at the same time.  Much of his writing produces a similar effect.

“The Circular Ruins” is one of the seventeen pieces that appear in Ficciones, which, along with Labyrinths, was the one of the first collections of his writings to be translated into English. At first, the story almost seems like high fantasy; the setting is long ago and far away, and the main character has come to a ruined temple in an underpopulated jungle in order to carry out a difficult magic spell. He’s far from his home, which is described as having been “one of those numberless villages upstream in the deeply cleft side of the mountain, where the Zend language has not been contaminated by Greek and where leprosy is infrequent. ”

(If, at this point, you’d like some quick info on the Zend language, you can rapidly discover that it’s a form of Persian used in Zoroastrian religious commentaries written between the third and seventh centuries A.D.   This places the story in a jungle in the vicinity of modern-day Iran. It’s at this point that you might suspect that Borges is pulling your leg. Cast such suspicions aside: here, he really is pulling your leg. He was known to do that sort of thing.)

The wizard’s project is to dream a man into existence. He wants to envision another individual so thoroughly and completely that the imagined person develops the freedom to act and solidity that a real person possesses. In only a few hundred words, “The Circular Ruins” transforms this project into an internal epic, as the nameless protagonist battles his own weaknesses and indecisiveness in order to achieve his goal.

The idea of creating another being entirely via mental effort is reminiscent of a number of Gnostic myths, and Borges even references one of these in “The Circular Ruins.” Not surprisingly, Borges was fascinated by the Gnostics throughout his life, which makes sense for a man whose work focused on seeing everyday phenomena from the viewpoint of an outsider.  He was especially interested in the fact that the Gnostics had fallen into obscurity due to their having lost a cultural war with mainstream Christianity. As he wrote in one of his essays on Gnosticism,  “Had Alexandria triumphed and not Rome, the extravagant and muddled stories that I have summarized here would be coherent, majestic, and perfectly ordinary.”

In Gnostic mythology, the creation of a god by a goddess, who is in turn the creation of God Himself, is the occasion of a cosmic tragedy. The agnostic Borges has a much more ambiguous fate in store for his wizard. After you read the story, ask yourself if you think it had a happy ending or not.

Actually, it might have.

One final thing: Andrew Hurley, the translator of many of Borges’s works for Penguin Books, wrote that “The Circular Ruins” has one of the most famous opening lines in Spanish-language literature:

Nadie lo vio desembarcar en la unanime noche.
[“No one saw him slip from the boat in the unanimous night.”]

I can see why.