Short story reviews: The Circular Ruins, by Jorge Luis Borges

Short story reviews: The Circular Ruins, by Jorge Luis Borges

by Radhamani Sarma

The Circular Ruins by Jorge Luis Borges. (24 th August 1899 to 14 th June 1986
Jorge Luis Borges the noted Argentinean writer of poems, shortstories, literary
Criticism, and many translations to his credit was born in the year 1899. As a
Short story writer, he admirably weaves in to his story the elements of fantasy,
imagination and dreams and dream world a deliberate attempt.
The circular Ruins’ is yet another example of fantasy, imagination, a sort of
dream world projected by the writer in which the stranger or the protagonist
dreams which lead him to a belief of nothingness, a belief , everything is void.
The setting is a circular enclosure the ruined sides of a temple and the time is night.
The story begins with the disembarkation of a grey man when the bamboo canoe was
Struck in the mud’unseen by anybody. The man comes from a home from a village,
where the zend language had not been contaminated by Greek, where leprosy is infrequent’. The description of the temple and the surroundings where the stranger
sleeps is great.
“This circle was a temple which had been devoured by ancient fires, profaned by the miasmal jungle, and whose god no longer received the homage of men. The stranger stretched himself out beneath the pedestal.”
Both the title and the ongoing passage about the description of the dream scenario
tends, somewhat to make cryptic. Survived by a strong will power and surrounded
by jungle atmosphere where
“the incessant trees had not succeeded in strangling the ruins of another propitious temple downstream which had once belonged to gods now burned and dead; he knew that his immediate obligation was to dream.”
The readers should remember that the concept of dream is deliberately introduced
and it is not natural process, it looks as if he should dream.
The temple was the perfect chosen spot and he wanted to dream of a man and the
workers provided him with rice and food and his sole business was sleeping
and dreaming. Borges must have been fond of temples, hence the recurrent theme
of the temples here.
The dream man, the subjects he lectured in his dream such as magic and anatomy
the faces hung far centuries ahead, his longing for a space between illusion and reality
all these figure out in his story.
“At first, his dreams were chaotic; then in a short while they became dialectic in nature. The stranger dreamed that he was in the center of a circular amphitheater which was more or less the burnt temple; clouds of taciturn students filled the tiers of seats; the faces of the farthest ones hung at a distance of many centuries and as high as the stars, but their features were completely precise. The man lectured his pupils on anatomy, cosmography, and magic: the faces listened anxiously and tried to answer understandingly, as if they guessed the importance of that examination which would redeem one of them from his condition of empty illusion and interpolate him into the real world. Asleep or awake, the man thought over the answers of his phantoms, did not allow himself to be deceived by imposters, and in certain perplexities he sensed a growing intelligence. He was seeking a soul worthy of participating in the universe.”
The whole scenario in amphitheater which was akin to that of a burnt temple
envisages a vacuum in life, in man’s life in general, more or less, one can see,
that a sort of illusory world in general.
The process of teaching the students was indeed a stupendous task for the teacher,
he retained the ones who were inquisitive but not those who were content with
Passivity. Finally he decided to keep only one. But this total elimination did not
obstruct him from his progress.
“One day, the man emerged from his sleep as if from a viscous desert, looked at the useless afternoon light which he immediately confused with the dawn, and understood that he had not dreamed. All that night and all day long, the intolerable lucidity of insomnia fell upon him. He tried exploring the forest, to lose his strength; among the hemlock he barely succeeded in experiencing several short snatchs of sleep, veined with fleeting, rudimentary visions that were useless. He tried to assemble the student body but scarcely had he articulated a few brief words of exhortation when it became deformed and was then erased. In his almost perpetual vigil, tears of anger burned his old eyes”
What the writer tries to do here is a web world of dream, hallucination, insomnia, occurance in ruined temples to create atmosphere of weird, supernatural and suprasegmental to proceed to make a world of reality.
His attempt to reassemble the once vast illusory student body’ dismissed but in vain.
For one to write about a dream world replete with fantasy and fecundate
Imagination is not a joke. Similarly for the stranger to dream about and keep
Modeling is not easy.
“He understood that modeling 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. He swore he would forget the enormous hallucination which had thrown him off at first, and he sought another method of work. Before putting it into execution, he spent a month recovering his strength, which had been squandered by his delirium. He abandoned all premeditation of dreaming and almost immediately succeeded in sleeping a reasonable part of each day. The few times that he had dreams during this period, he paid no attention to them. Before resuming his task, he waited until the moon’s disk was perfect. Then, in the afternoon, he purified himself in the waters of the river, worshiped the planetary gods, pronounced the prescribed syllables of a mighty name, and went to sleep. He dreamed almost immediately, with his heart throbbing.”
In the initial stages it was an obligation to dream, then dreaming and sleeping,
Now it is abandoning all premeditation of dreaming and again sleeping.
In a highly intellectualized passage he describes he makes a new venture of how
he is going to dream and create. First time it was only a set of taciturn’ students
but now evolving a new methodology . The process is rather like a creation, a make,
a pouring a new lease of life. It is similar to that of an embryonic growth
steady and safe.
“He dreamed that it was warm, secret, about the size of a clenched fist, and of a garnet color within the penumbra of a human body as yet without face or sex; during fourteen lucid nights he dreamt of it with meticulous love. Every night he perceived it more clearly. He did not touch it; he only permitted himself to witness it, to observe it, and occasionally to rectify it with a glance. He perceived it and lived it from all angles and distances. On the fourteenth night he lightly touched the pulmonary artery with his index finger, then the whole heart, outside and inside. He was satisfied with the examination. He deliberately did not dream for a night; he took up the heart again, invoked the name of a planet, and undertook the vision of another of the principle organs. Within a year he had come to the skeleton and the eyelids. The innumerable hair was perhaps the most difficult task. He dreamed an entire man-a young man, but who did not sit up or talk, who was unable to open his eyes. Night after night, the man dreamt him asleep.”
Sometimes we feel whether it could be due to some occult phenomenon.Repeated
references to sleep , awake, see something mysterious in the circular ruins of the
temple all give us feeling of awe as if some offering is to be done.
“That evening, at twilight, he dreamt of the statue. He dreamt it was alive, tremulous: it was not an atrocious bastard of a tiger and a colt, but at the same time these two fiery creatures and also a bull, a rose, and a storm. This multiple god revealed to him that his earthly name was Fire, and that in this circular temple (and in others like it) people had once made sacrifices to him and worshiped him, and that he would magically animate the dreamed phantom, in such a way that all creatures, except Fire itself and the dreamer, would believe to be a man of flesh and blood. He commanded that once this man had been instructed in all the rites, he should be sent to the other ruined temple whose pyramids were still standing downstream, so that some voice would glorify him in that deserted edifice. In the dream of the man that dreamed, the dreamed one awoke.”
Slowly he closed his eyes to feel that he would be with his son and alongside his hours
Of dreaming he developed his wish that his engendered’ son and him should be together. He sent his son to a far-off place in the circular ruins of the temple.
Yet, he started to think of his son (phantom) to do similar rituals like him :
Suddenly he remembers the words of the Fire god, who only knew his son to be a
“He feared lest his son should meditate on this abnormal privilege and by some means find out he was a mere simulacrum. Not to be a man, to be a projection of another man’s dreams-what an incomparable humiliation, what madness! Any father is interested in the sons he has procreated (or permitted) out of the mere confusion of happiness; it was natural that the wizard should fear for the future of that son whom he had thought out entrail by entrail, feature by feature, in a thousand and one secret nights.”
The man had a foreboding that everything was coming to an end. The vision of sky and
Clouds all appeared to be in blurred vision. Strangely enough it is not the deluge but it
is the fire engulfing everything. The cycle is repeated the patter is, perpetual.
He walked toward 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 also was an illusion, that someone else was dreaming him.
As the title aptly says the circular ruins’ is not merely the setting, but also refers
to the recurrent theme of destruction, and change and evolution.

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