Borges: Mythmaker/Deconstructor of Myths | an Essay by Ioana Radulescu

This essay draws on ideas about the aesthetic of brevity to infinity and our relation, as particulars, to it. Also central to the essay is Deconstruction, a form of philosophical and literary analysis founded by Jacques Derrida, which questions the fundamental ‘oppositions’ inherent in Western thought: binary oppositions which assign more value to one of the elements in the pair, such as, presence over absence; form over meaning; speech over writing. To ‘deconstruct’ is to explore the tensions inherent in this hierarchical ordering, to reveal the more peripheral aspects of a text, to displace the centre of interpretation. Also significant to this approach is the idea that language is an imperfect tool of expression, predicated on a system of infinitely deferred signs – what we intend to express is never fully contained in the words we employ. With these ideas in mind, Borges’s Fictions casts us in labyrinthine spaces, back to mythical times, in hazy dreams and infinite corridors of thought, forcing us to imagine the impossible. Enjoy!

Work by Marzieh Dickson

In line with his Kabbalistic affinities, Jorge Luis Borges places his Fictions in labyrinthine dreams that are underwritten by the existence of an absolute idiom, the original word, underlying ‘the fabric of all human tongues […] and the entirety of human knowledge and experience.’ In this post-Babel world of imperfect language, any epistemic project is doomed to remain an illusion, for we are immersed in a system of infinitely deferred signs. Since we are immersed in language, our world is always a narrative, and in many ways, a work of fiction. This impossibility of distilling the essence of meaning constantly denies us access to a pure understanding of the world and is the reason why Borges privileges the short-story form. Borges attempts the impossible task of condensing his fictions to the absolute essential, in a quest to reach ‘the Aristotelian concept of the “necessary.”’ With that in mind, this essay will contend that The Secret Miracle and The Circular Ruins are metaleptical meditations upon the impossibility of escaping the frames of our reality as dreamers, whilst the short-story form analogically enacts its hermeneutic purpose.

Although it preserves features of the short-story form, The Circular Ruins proposes a return to the origins of storytelling itself – ‘the art of repeating stories.’ The myth has a special temporal quality, which is oriented both towards the distant past and its archetypal story, and towards the future of recounting. In this sense, the storytelling act inevitably ‘suggests thematic expansion through a redevelopment of ideas and situations.’ Grounded in a collective history of ideas, an ‘intertextual knowledge […] encompassing all the semiotic system the reader is familiar with’, the myth points to a future of infinite series of variation. Such qualities become representative of the overarching structure of infinite recurrences underpinning Borges’s universe; what he set out to do is to recreate the loss of the cosmic word and of the original story, and the futility of any attempt of escaping this order. In many ways, Borges’s project is similar to Kafka’s subversion of the notional convention – ‘the rejection of’ myth ‘as message’ or as truthful ‘is itself presented in the form’ of a myth (Head, p. 16).

In line with the modern short-story conventions, The Circular Ruins begins ‘late’, in medias res, with a lengthy description of a dark, archaic setting wherein a mysterious figure, ‘the taciturn man’, makes his apparition. Like most of Borges’s preferred fictional spaces, this topos is described as having geometrical qualities, using mathematical concepts such as ‘infinite villages’, ‘the circular enclosure’ and ‘that ring was a temple.’ Through repetition, the ‘ruins’ become indexes of a mythical past, carrying at once the memory of a monument, as well as the reality of its decay. Similar objects pervade the narrative – totemic figures of idolatry reminiscent of a laic past, ‘dead, incinerated gods’, the ‘stone figure of a horse or tiger’, as well as references to an ‘ancient holocaust’ have a ‘captivating and static’ effect, ‘and yet are not outside man’ (Circular Ruins, p. 44).

Furthermore, ambiguity and brevity of form imply that the story reveals more than it conceals. Using ambiguity, Borges ensures that our understanding of the story is deferred well until a page and a half through the narrative, when we are finally informed that the dreamer is led by the goal of ‘dream(ing) a man’ (Circular Ruins, p. 45). Ambiguity is also present in the figure of ‘the dreamer’, whose name is never disclosed, only referred to as ‘the foreigner’ or simply ‘the dreamer’, which in turn seems to allude to a generic figure, as opposed to that of a specific character (Circular Ruins, p. 45). The covert repetitions and allusions to the idea of a ‘goal’ or a ‘plan’ coupled with the dreamer’s ascetic lifestyle suggest that our figure resembles a hermit, and that his ‘sole task of sleeping and dreaming’ requires the fulfilment of a prophecy (Circular Ruins, p. 45). The use of ellipses and ambiguity not only creates the same disorienting effect experienced by dreamers, but also invariably signifies beyond themselves, to a series of infinite interpretations. Borges’s universe is itself an index of the storytelling project, which was once fire but now has ‘the color of ashes’ – ‘Each tale is, in this sense, a memory of the loss of the fire.’ In this respect, Borges’s story suggests a crossover between his philosophical project and the chosen form, thus engaging in a metafictional analysis of exactly what it aims to represent.

The Secret Miracle is a modern short story centred on the apprehensive days leading up to a single event – the death of Jaromir Hladik. Embedding an intricate series of narrative frames, the story sets out to blur the line between the reality of fiction and the dream. It commences with a concise sentence traversing two narrative dimensions – the extradiegetic time and space of the dream, ‘March 14, 1939, in an apartment’ in Prague, and the intradiegetic dream of ‘a long game of chess.’ The dream vision vanishes at the crucial moment when the dreamer realises that he has forgotten both ‘the figures’ and ‘the rules of chess’ (Secret Miracle, p. 124). This interruption of a potential revelation of lucid dreaming, we shall see, will establish a pattern of epistemic uncertainty in both stories.

Over this classic play of frames, Borges superimposes another important dimension, which is that of Hladik’s imagination, thus drawing the narrative universe inwards, within the mental space of the character. Borges employs this technique both for its formal qualities of immersion, but most importantly, for its capacity to alter the boundaries between the real and the imaginary. This effect becomes all the more uncanny when the different frames act upon each other, such as when Hladnik performs the mental exercise of ‘foresee(ing) every variation’ of his death. We are told that ‘he faced his imaginary executions with true fear […] with true courage’, and that before the set date he ‘died hundreds of deaths’ (Secret Miracle, p. 125). Just as the dreamer in The Circular Ruins hopes to impose his dream upon reality, so too does Jaromir ‘infer, with perverse logic’ that his thoughts will affect the course of his future death (Secret Miracle, p. 126). It is not the plot that is central to this short story, for we already know where it leads and how it ends; it is the series of possible variations of the plot which become the sole purpose of our quest as readers. Thus, Borges implies that the dreamer, like the storyteller who recounts the same story ad infinitum, participates in the creation of the meaning of one’s own dream, and by doing so, ‘weaves the dream through which’ he is woven (Wolfson, p. 377).

In his quest to represent the impossibility of escaping the dream world, Borges echoes in both of his stories a mathematical concept known as ‘transfinity.’ Some critics have even referred to Borges’s Fictions as representing a genre entitled ‘fractal realism.’ Tranfinity represents a branch of mathematics which theorises infinity, a theme of central importance in Borges’s work and particularly salient in The Aleph. Fractality represents the ‘partially glimpsed shape of the universe which is self-similar at infinite magnitudes.’ This theory holds profound implications for the nature of the world, for it implies that every particle in the universe contains within it a microcosm identical to the world at large. Borges would have most probably been aware of such scientific discoveries, and many of them found their way in his fictions. In The Secret Miracle and The Circular Ruins, this concept is particularly visible.

In The Secret Miracle, this theory of the world is contained threefold: in the structure of narrative frames; in Jaromir’s play called The Enemies; and in that one ‘tiny letter’ which he finds in the Clementine Library. Firstly, the play within the short story acts both as a mirror of the diegetic world of Jaromir, but also as a portal which will allow for a communication with God. The play is presented as being similar to Jaromir’s own situation – ‘on one of the last evenings of the nineteenth century’ – and most importantly, as resembling the structure of a dream by virtue of its genre – ‘a tragicomedy of errors’ (Secret Miracle, p. 128); it is characterised by the same contradictory elements of tragedy and comedy that usually permeate a dream. The passage of the play that exhibits an absurdist piece of theatre full of plot incoherencies resembles the outer frame of Jaromir’s predicament. ‘The play has not taken place; it is the circular delirium that Kubin endlessly experiences and reexperiences’ mirrors his initial imaginary variations of his death (Secret Miracle, p. 128). The play creates the effect of mise-en-abyme – the mimesis of the play is contained within the illusion of a dream, itself a product of a narrative; the microcosm of the play envelops the whole structure of the diegetic frame.

Whilst these patterns expose their artificiality, Borges denies his characters the possibility of escaping the simulacrum. At the moment where the play coincides with Jaromir’s life the most, namely when ‘it occur(s) to him that he still had two acts to go, yet very soon he was to die’, he decides to address God and inquire about his own status as a character within the narrative which he deems life (Secret Miracle, p. 128). Unlike the dreamer in The Circular Ruins, we never learn whether Jaromir recognises the simulacrum, yet there are moments where this impending revelation seems on the verge of occurring. In both these stories, the protagonists alone do not forge Golems or miracles – they are a product of a divine order intervening as a saving power. By introducing the deus ex machina device, Borges confirms once again that the human mind cannot exceed certain limits; it is denied any attempt to establish authorial power. Although Jaromir supposedly ‘completed the play’, the use of semicolons confesses the defeat of the author, leaving him unable to confirm whether he is ‘not one of Thy repetitions and errata’ (Secret Miracle, p. 128). Not even upon reaching the end can the reader fully determine whether Hladnik has been granted the time for his labour; his death pulls us back to the start, where Jaromir Hladnik is introduced as ‘author of the unfinished tragedy’ (Secret Miracle, p. 124).

Finally, the similar pattern of infinite recurrence is conveyed in The Circular Ruins, this time with the bitter revelation that one is but a dream of someone else’s dream. As the dream ‘morphs into a double delusion’, the only ‘triumph’ the dreamer can afford is a simple lucidity in the face of simulacra. The reader is left wondering whether he would have been better off had he killed his creation.



Agamben, Giorgio, The Fire and the Tale (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017)

Benjamin, Walter, ‘The Storyteller’, in Selected Writings, ed. by Howard Eiland and

Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006)

Borges, Jorge Luis, ‘The Circular Ruins’, in Fictions, trans. by Andrew Hurley (London: Penguin Books, 2000)

Borges, Jorge Luis, ‘The Secret Miracle’, in Fictions, trans. by Andrew Hurley (London: Penguin Books, 2000)

Eco, Umberto, The Role of the Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979)

Head, Dominic, ‘The Short Story: Theories and Definitions’, in The Modernist Short Story (Cambridge University Press, 1992)

Kefala, Eleni, ‘Borges and Narrative Economy: Conservative Formalism or Subversion of Signification?’, in Variaciones Borges, 18 (2004)