If any city is old enough to house within it ruins of previous civilizations, those ruins are doubtless presented as one of the main things to see and experience for any and all visitors. In Borges’ short story The Circular Ruins, a long forgotten temple is at the forefront of the story. Analyzing the way Borges constructs his world around that space provides insight into how humanity in general perceives ruined landscapes and why they figure so highly in mankind’s collective consciousness.
When the unnamed protagonist of the story enters the titular ruins, he notices a “figure of a horse or tiger, which had once been the color of fire but was now the color of ashes” (Borges, 1999, p. 51) and realizes that he is in “a temple to dead, incinerated gods” (Borges, 1999, p. 52). Here, a sense of wonder and majesty is evoked; the gravity of the ruins as a space does not necessarily stem from what remains, but by imagining what once was.
Andreas Huyssen (2006), Villard Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, writes about nostalgia for ruins – an accumulation of positive feelings toward a past something that in its true state remains unknowable to those who only observe the ruin and have not interacted with what that ruin once was. A core concept of ruins thus becomes “the idea of authenticity” which is “tied in literature and art to eighteenth-century notions of authorship, genius, originality, selfhood, uniqueness, and subjectivity” (p. 9).
The privileged position of ruinous landscape stems from an endless chase after that which is ‘authentic’ or ‘original’. Thus, ruins exceed the confines of mere architectural products of the past and become infused with additional significance. If one observes the pedestal on which classic literature stands compared to contemporary fictional writings, one can see a similar pattern. It is, therefore, clear that historicity and passage of time affect the intrinsic value of an occurrence.
It is thus of particular interest to consider the central premise of this short story: a man with innate magical powers dreams of other people and chooses one of them to dream into reality. The protagonist assumes the role of an educator who passes his knowledge of life and magic onto his pupils in an effort to make them akin to living beings and bring them into the real world. A being thus summoned remains a phantasm, but none except its creator and the patron god of the ruined temple in which the summoning occurs can see it as such – to all others, the created being seems entirely human.
At the very end of the tale, the protagonist uncovers that he himself is a phantasm: “he realized that he, too, was but appearance, that another man was dreaming him” (Borges, 1999, p. 54). He is but one of a series of phantasms that keep creating one another in perpetuity – beings without a past, beings whose entire existence is based on repeating that which already happened.
Borges’ juxtaposition of a temporality-marked structure with an atemporal, eternal cycle of creation addresses the notion of the past being necessary to be preserved. The mysticism of the ruined temple is what keeps it relevant; the fact that the god of Fire still lurks in its shadows is evidence to its significance. However, the temple would have forever remained idle and ruined had it not been given attention by both the protagonistic phantasm and the people who fed him and seemingly feared him.
Stephen E. Soud (1995), a PhD alumn of the University of Florida, notes:
There is a general scholarly agreement that “The Circular Ruins” represents a recasting of the golem legend. Inherent in this legend, however, is an unavoidable metaphysical implication: the creation of a golem re-enacts the primal moment of divine creation (p. 741).
The ruins seem to function as a summoning portal, a passage where dreams have the power to summon phantasms so uniquely real that none but their creators can discern them as non-human. Here, Borges’ tale provides unique insight into the state of the contemporary world which places ruins and ruined landscapes on a pedestal; it is as if in such spaces, every human being is capable of summoning the images, beings and auras of times that are long gone.
Pondering ruins necessarily evokes imagery of antiquity, of ancient Greece and Rome, which function as quintessential representations of ruinous beauty in the West. The Roman Colosseum is a true architectural wonder; yet, the true majesty of the building does not simply stem from its physical attributes, but also from its cultural weight and symbolic value. Heide Estes (2017), a Professor of English at Monmouth University, wrote on the significance of ruined landscape for Anglo-Saxon societies:
Anglo-Saxon descriptions of their own buildings, and particularly their focus on ruins, gives us a view into a culture that sees itself as built on the remains […] of previous cultures (p. 61).
Such a statement is not far removed from the truth of our own contemporary society, however. There is an underlying sense that today’s achievements are not only a product of present-day minds but a continuation of a long tradition of progress that spans centuries of human interaction with the world. In that sense, ruins stand as a remembrance of times long since passed; perhaps they are so cherished because they serve as a reminder of how far we have progressed as a species. Yet, the past of such objects is certainly not as glorious as it seems nowadays; for ruins to remain, someone had to build – and many of the greatest and most impressive structures were not built in the most ethical of ways.
It is this duality and mysticism of ruined landscape that Borges captures so well in his short story. Kate Wagner (2020), an architecture and cultural critic, painted an evocative image: “the dilapidated factory, crumbling and overgrown by vegetation, now inhabits that strange space between natural and man-made, historical and contemporary, lovely and sad” (p. 92). Regardless of whether one speaks of ruins from the industrial age or ones from antiquity, they present this liminal space where works of humanity merge with nature in a unique way. There is order and there is chaos; there is an eternal reminder that things humanity builds are not eternal and will eventually succumb to nature’s relentless efforts to reclaim lost land.
The temple of the Fire god that Borges creates carries significance due to the act of its destruction; it is the motif of engulfing fire that gives it credibility and gravity as a relic of something extraordinary that came before – ruination makes it. John A. Pinto (2016), a Professor of Art and Archaeology Emeritus at Princeton University, writes on the perception of Rome:
For many visitors – and this was certainly the case for artists and writers in the period of Romanticism – ruins are what make Rome Rome; their ubiquity, scale, and resonance combine to give the city its identity (p. 3).
It is not the present day Rome that one seeks to visit; it is the promise of a Rome that once was. It is the relics of history and the foundational ruins on which it was built that arouse excitement and wonder. The boons of frozen temporality, encased and preserved tokens of a distant past from which all negative connotations are removed – one simply marvels at romanticized ideals of what those ruins represent.
The short story manages to address both sides of the coin; ruins and ruined landscapes are tokens of that past, eternal reminders of things long gone, but of things that will never be forgotten – metaphorical memory banks, the value of which is immeasurable. The ruins of our society will one day be the flower pots for the sprouting of a new world. All one can do is hope that 'the new' will cherish the legacy of the contemporary world as much as that of the Greeks and Romans is cherished today.
Borges, L. J. (1999). The Circular Ruins (Andrew Hurley, Trans.). In J. L. Borges Collected Fictions (pp. 51-54). Allenlanethe Penguin Press.
Estes, H. (2017). Ruined landscapes. In Anglo-Saxon Literary Landscapes (pp. 61–88). Amsterdam University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1zkjxx3.6
Huyssen, A. (2006). Nostalgia for Ruins. Grey Room, 23, 6–21. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20442718
Pinto, J. A. (2016). Speaking ruins: Travelers’ perceptions of Ancient Rome. SiteLINES: A Journal of Place, 11(2), 3–5. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24889511
Soud, S. E. (1995). Borges the golem-maker: Intimations of “presence” in “The Circular Ruins.” MLN, 110(4), 739–754. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3251202
Wagner, K. (2020). Staring at hell: The aesthetics of architecture in a ruined world. The Baffler, 49, 88–101. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26866590
Cover figure: Robert, H. (1783). Ruins of a Doric Temple [Painting]. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hubert_Robert_-_Ruins_of_a_Doric_Temple.jpg
Figure 1: Henderson, J. M.. (n.d). Tarbert Castle [Oil on Canvas]. Bukowskis. Retrieved from: https://www.bukowskis.com/en/lots/1377155-joseph-morris-henderson-oil-on-canvas-signed
Figure 2: Corrodi, H. (circa 1800). Tiber Landscape with Ancient Ruins [Oil on Canvas]. Pamono. Retrieved from: https://www.pamono.se/tiber-landscape-with-ancient-ruins-oil-painting-by-hermann-corrodi-late-1800-late-19th-century
Figure 3: Cotman, J. S. (circa 1800). Ruins and Houses, North Wales [Watercolour on Paper]. Tate. Retrieved from: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/cotman-ruins-and-houses-north-wales-t00971
Figure 4: Wilson, R. (circa 1760). Strada Nomentana [Oil on Canvas]. Tate. Retrieved from: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wilson-strada-nomentana-n00301
Figure 5: Savery, R. (circa 1608). Landscape with ruins [Oil on panel]. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roelant_Savery_-_Landscape_with_ruins.jpg