A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain and The Circular Ruins share a powerful bond, both in the content of the pieces, and in the context of real life. The Circular Ruins questions whether or not anyone is actually real, and whether or not reality is necessarily better. This question becomes all the more relevant and intriguing when we consider that The Circular Ruins was a story of a man creating another man from scratch, and was "authored" by Herbert Quain, a fictional writer created from the imagination of Jorge Luis Borges. The symmetry flows seamlessly, as the man in The Circular Ruins who creates a student with magnificent aptitude follows in line with Borges, who creates Quain in a similar, though somewhat less literal, manner.
Early in Circular Ruins, a man who is presumably an educator travels to an ancient circular structure that he believed to have been a temple years before, where he believes he can uncover the secret to creating a man through dreaming (Borges 96). He begins to mediate and eventually sleep in front of this structure, where he dreams of teaching a large class in an amphitheater (Borges 97). As he lectures this class, he finds that the students who display the most potential are the ones who tend to question him (Borges 97). After a while, the man chooses one student from the crowd who he believes is worthy of being imagined into reality, but eventually discovers he is not actually dreaming, and that it was just a hallucination. Frustrated, the man creates a being from scratch, starting with what he deems most important, a heart (Borges 98). The being that comes to life as his de facto son is a strange red figure, who the man trains before sending off. After awhile the man imagines being told stories of his son by other men, before finally realizing that he himself does not exist as anything but a part of another person's dream (Borges100). The man in the story essentially believed that nothing was really, as he came to view his imagined son as better than anything that was part of reality. When he comes to believe that he is a figment of someone's imagination, he pushes that point even further, by questioning whether or not anyone or anything is actually real, similar to the way some of the characters in the movie Inception did. The point he raises is actually rather plausible, especially in the sense that some spiritual people who believe in God or another form of intelligent design already consent to this viewpoint, although their phraseology would probably differ a bit.
A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain seems to answer the questions raised in Circular Ruins, as Borges showers praise on his alter ego in comparison with real authors (Borges 107). Basically, Borges asserts that Quain is a superior author, while also praising him for his modesty (Borges 107). This essentially implies that Borges considers himself to be arrogant, and not as talented as the Quian persona he creates. In addition to his views on Quain's talent, the writing style he adopts as Quain reinforces the thyme of questioning of reality, by having three different worlds represented by three long chapters co-existing within the same basic framework outlined in a preliminary chapter (Borges 109). In Quain's last work, The Secret Mirror , Borges clarifies his argument about the existence of reality, saying, "There is no European man or woman, that's not a writer, potentially or in fact"(Borges 111). He justifies this by saying that an author's main purpose when crafting literature is to spark the reader's imagination, which he believes gives the reader the greatest amount of pleasure (Borges 111). Likely due to the condition the world was in with World War II and a worldwide depression, when Borges wrote, he says that most people do not get to experience genuine pleasure in their own lives, making the author's job that much more important (Borges 111). Being that Borges is a fiction writer and he views his success based on his ability to create pleasure by intriguing the imagination of others, it seems pretty clear why he places a low premium on the value of reality.