Both the “Circular Ruins” and “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain” play with our perception of reality. They are similar stories in that they both deal with the creation of a character. The interconnectedness of the two stories remind the reader of the importance of imagination and the fickle nature of our perception of the universe with our own awareness at the center.
Jorge Borges asserts that one’s perception of reality could be an elaborate illusion. One’s consciousness could just be another being’s imagination. He is not the first person to allude to this idea. Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass makes this argument when Tweedledee tells Alice that by waking the Red King she would end her life. Supposedly Alice is just a character in the King’s dream and imagination. When Alice wishes to wake the Red King Tweedledee states, “Not you! You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream! (Carroll 168). Alice is effectively a figment of another creature’s imagination and yet she is entirely unaware of her connection to this person. In fact, at the end of the story she wakes up from her own dream leading the audience to believe that she was actually the one who was dreaming up the Red King. There is an ambiguity that prevails over this entire exchange. One is never entirely sure whether Wonderland is the real universe or the world that Alice knows is indeed the true universe.
The Circular Ruins is a story built around a similar concept. At the end of the story the Sorcerer, “with relief, with humiliation and terror, understood that he, too, was but appearance, that another man was dreaming him “(Borges 100). Borges states that The Circular Ruins is based largely if not entirely on Herbert Quain’s fictional collection of stories Statements. In his review of this fictional piece he writes that the reader is “blinded by vanity” and that he is convinced that “he himself has come up with [his son]” (111). The Sorcerer is stunned to learn that his existence is merely the extension of another being’s existence. He believed it he was he that was creating the man. He thought of the man as so perfect and educated that he remained ‘blind’ to the fact that he was in fact much like his own creation. Just like as his creation discovers its true nature he too discovers that he is really just an idea in the mind of another.
Borges, in his early twenties, wrote a book called Inquisitions which had an article that summarized and identified with the work of Bishop Berkeley. Bishop Berkely maintains that there is no matter in the universe. What we think of as matter is merely a projection of our minds. While this philosophy is not widely held today, it was the grounds for many a discussion among authors just like Borges. Extrapolating on Berkeley’s idea Borges wrote a paper titled, “No hay tal yo de conjunto” (“There is no Such Thing as an Overall Self”). In Borges Ficciones personality plays a small role in the plot of the story. In “A New Refutation of Time” Borges argues that if matter and space are merely figments of the imagination then time itself must also be an illusion. In “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” Borges maps out an “idea permeated” universe with all the “logical ramifications” that would go along with it (Bell-Villada 29). The intellectuals in this story are able to turn their thoughts into physical manifestations.
Another philosopher who Borges admired was Author Shopenhauer. Borges was able to read many of Shopenhauer’s works in their original German print. Borges said of Schopenhauer, “Today, were I to choose a single philosopher, I would choose him. If the riddle of the universe can be stated in words, I think these words would be in his writings” (Bell-Villada 30). What Borges appreciated about Schopenhauer’s philosophy was the idea that the universe was a cosmic uncertainty where one’s personality was merely an illusion, much like Bishop Berkeley’s hypothesis. For Schopenhauer everyone is connected in some way as they are all part of the same person’s illusion. For this reason pain and pleasure are essentially the same thing. As Schopenhauer states, good and evil are, “but different sides of the manifestation of the one will to live.” Shopenhauer’s favorite parable comes from the Upanishads where every creature parades in front of a man and announce “Tat twam asi” (“This thou art”) (Bell-Villada 31). Borges interoperates this idea as meaning that one’s personality may be part of a massive illusion. Two people may very well be one in the same (much as one never knows if Alice is part of the Red Kings dream or vice versa).
Herbert Quain is Borges fictional creation and he crafts him in a similar way that the Sorceror crafts his son. He gives him a definite personality through his writing. He praises his writing ability highly and compliments him on his own modesty. The ironic part is that the story which he claims this fictional writer wrote mimics his own creation of Herbert Quain. Borges is stating that he created Quain from his own imagination, yet he may just as easily be the fake character in the real Herbert Quain’s fictional story. Borges is trying to illustrate the concept of perception’s fragility with fiction and fantasy. According to Borges there is one goal of the author and that is to exercise a reader’s imagination: “Of the many kinds of pleasure literature can minister, the highest is the pleasure of the imagination” (111). The idea of fantasy and the imagination are important to both Borges and Herbert Quain. Borges states that the best work Quain ever did was a fantasy story. In the fantastical story, “The Circular Ruins,” the boy that is created through imagination is said to be perfect because he is a fantasy. When the sorcerer tried making a boy with a model he failed to keep his heart beating. Finally he had to craft his son, “with painstaking love, for fourteen brilliant nights. Each night he perceived it with greater clarity, greater certainty. He did not touch it: he only witnessed it, observed it, corrected it, perhaps, with his eyes” (98). In much the same way Borges values the imaginary Quain as an actual person. Taking Borge’s, Berkeley, and Schopenhauer’s philosophies literally Quain may be just as real as Borges himself, and thus equally beautiful.
By making himself much like the sorcerer in his own story Borges makes the fantastical elements of that story more palpable. We are able to see an actual person creating another in our own physical world. In this way the theme of the story becomes more apparent and believable. We are questioning the tangible nature of Borges ‘the man’ rather than the sorcerer ‘the character.’ In fact many descriptions in the story and of the characters lead one to have a rather “misty” impression of the story as a whole. As Gene Bell-Villada argues, “The Dreamer is a “gray man” (the vaguest of colors); his son and the workmen who bring the Dreamer rice and fruits are not described at all. The faces of the two oarsmen, who bring the Dreamer the wondrous news about his son cannot be perceived in the dark. The story begins with a suggestion of the end of the story by describing the night as “unanimous” (Bell-Villada 86). This suggests that the universe may in fact be one vast soul.
By stating that Quain wrote the Circular ruins the idea that Borges sees the world not as physical but rather as metaphysical is reinforced with the reader. Though Borges uses fantasy to help the reader come to this conclusion it is not fantasy for fantasy’s sake like the stories of J.R.R. Tolkien. Nor is it fantasy reminiscent of the surrealists’ psychoanalysis of dreams which were prevalent of this time. Borges depicts unrealities by quietly suggesting the reality of our own world. Borges has stated that his fantastic tales are “parables, veiled comments on real human problems” (Bell-Villada 43). Even when the fantastic elements of Borge’s stories begin to overtake the normalcy one is able to see the story’s application to the real world. In the Ficciones Herbert Quain helps ground the reader. Quain gives hints to the reader that this is not just a fantastical, fun story but that the universe may in fact be structured like the story suggests. One’s perception of one’s universe could be just as fleeting as the Dreamer’s.
Bell-Villada, Gene H. Borges and His Fiction: a Guide to His Mind and Art. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1981. Print.
Carroll, Lewis, and Helen Oxenbury. Alice through the Looking-glass. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2005. Print.
Borges, Jorge Luis, and Andrew Hurley. Collected Fictions. New York [u.a.: Penguin, 1998. Print.