Short story: “The Circular Ruins”

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“The Circular Ruins”  (“Las Ruinas Circulares”) by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby and others

Wikipedia says this first appeared in Sur; Spanish text found online here; an uncredited translation very similar to Irby’s, though not identical, found online here (edit: here’s another and another to make up for the broken link)

2,201 words in the translation linked

It took me a ridiculous amount of time to realize that the title and setting are not just awesomely evocative. The story itself is circular. The ruins are “a temple, long ago devoured by fire,” destined to be burnt again. “For what was happening had happened many centuries ago.” I love the title for that reason.

But the best part of this story is its vision of a tremendous, prolonged creative effort. (Worth noting: Borges never wrote a novel.)

He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality. This magical project had exhausted the entire content of his soul; if someone had asked him his own name or any trait of his previous life, he would not have been able to answer.

These lines are themselves a magic spell. Later, the failure of the main character’s “dialectical” efforts rings true to a certain type of creative failure. His first draft was going fine for a while, the main character was taking shape, but somehow the momentum died. He had to start over from a completely different angle (from the heart outwards, instead of from the outside in).

Although the story suggests an endless cycle of magicians, each passing on life and forgetfulness to his son, it also suggests a single magician who renews himself, phoenix-like, again and again. Characteristically of Borges, linear time is already destined to be cyclical, making the difference unimportant.


I wonder if anyone has psychoanalyzed this story as being about womb envy. Lots of womb-like imagery (the enclosing ruins, the touching of every surface of the heart) and an unbroken chain of womanless fatherhood. From that perspective, the tragedy of the ending is that the man is cut off not only from reality but from his own feminine potential for true creation. I was half joking when I started this paragraph but now I guess I’m mostly serious?

I learned the word “lustra” (plural of “lustrum,” a five-year period) from Irby’s translation. (Presumably the exact English equivalent of the “lustros” of the original.) An odd term to use, unless Borges meant to invoke what it meant in ancient Rome, a ritual purification.

The epigraph is a little too obvious, I think. I would have omitted it. But I’m no Borges.