I wrote this back in 2001 when I was a Masters student at BYU. I've decided to post it unedited. It was supposed to be a journal entry about the reading; I wrote it as if I were writing Borges a letter (you can roll your eyes at me now). My ideas in the conclusion have since changed a little, but it's still a good read.
Master Borges, June 4, 2001
Upon reading your short story “The Circular Ruins,” I cannot help but see parallels between it and “The Mysterious Stranger” by Mark Twain and “The Satanic Verses” by Salmon Rushdie. The question that arises in my mind is one of religious ontology and skepticism in these stories. In your story and Rushdie’s there is a definite question of ontology that defies Western Christian beliefs on the nature of the soul. The Persian magician in your story worships a fire god in order to create a son, yet in the end, at the moment of his death, he realizes that he too is the creation or dream of someone else. Is this ontological awakening merely the demonstration of religious skepticism of the magician?
Christian and Muslim ontology declares monotheism and the eternal nature of the soul. Although there might be a fragmented Self, either by choice or mental defect, all Selves can be contained within the soul. In Rushdie’s novel, we find that the Koran is not the angel Gabriel speaking to Mahound the prophet, but an Indian voice over actor named Saladin Chamchawalla, who is dreaming strange dreams about some guy in a cave asking him questions about the true nature of God (Al-lah). When Chamchawalla tells him that Al-lat (mother goddess) is al
so as powerful as Al-lah (father god) he believes him and writes these prophecies down too. Upon review with the other members of Islam, Mahound comes back to the cave and questions the supposed Gabriel about these discrepancies, and the quick thinking (dreaming) Chamchawalla tells him that he wasn’t the one there when those verses were given, that it was Satan, and that Mahound should have known that they weren’t from Al-lah, because “he is the one true god, and Mahound is his prophet.” From thereon those verses are known as “the Satanic verses.” Much like the outlawed cults in “The library of Babylon” they are still mentioned by the older folk as proof of the existence of Al-lat, or to refute the veracity of Islam. For although submission was required of all, the conversion procured by the sword is never one of faith.
The Persian magician had faith in the fire god, yet we must examine the source of his faith. Did he, as a creation, have any freewill, or were his ideas merely the extension of the dreams of his creator? If he did have freewill, then he is very nearly our equal, from a Christian ontological point of view. If he did not, then he is more like the persons in Twain’s short story. In this work, everyone is the invention of the main character. Even Satan, who comes to town, being the nephew of the Great Deceiver, is another child of his imagination. He being an entity in the void, alone throughout the eternities, inventing worlds and systems for all time to amuse himself. The whole system collapses when one of his creations addresses him and tells him of his true nature, thus making everything into nothing, perceiving Ortega y Gasset’s glass, the painterly brushstrokes of the Impressionists instead of the greater image impression. Christian ontology is uniquely generous in that it tells us that we are given freewill, our souls are eternal, there is no end of existence, and that we can even become equal to our Creator through obedience.
In Antonio Muñoz Molina's “El invierno en Lisboa,” the character named Billy Swann says:
“Qué sabes tú de los viejos tiempos muchacho. Ocurrieron mucho antes de que nacieras tú. Otros murieron en el momento justo y lleven trienta años tocando en el Infierno o dondequiera que mande Dios a la gente como nosotros. Mírame. Yo soy una sombra, yo soy un desterrado. No de mi país, sino de aquel tiempo. Los que quedamos fingimos que no hemos muerto, pero es mentira, somos impostores.”
In the above quote we can see how death is not an end for the Christian believer. For the Christian this life is the dream, because of the veil laid over our eyes to block our understanding of the divinity of God. If we had knowledge of God, then faith would be an impossibility. Since His plan for us required faith in order to succeed, he placed this cloud over us to promote faith. In Rushdie’s story, the myopic (can’t see past this life) poet named Baal, refuses to submit to Islam, and instead takes refuge in a whorehouse, where he convinces the 12 whores that it would be more profitable to act as the twelve wives of Mahound. They begin to do so, to such a point that they actually begin to believe that they are his very wives, and when they are discovered and executed for blasphemy against Mahound and not Al-lah (there is humor is this fact, for how can a man be blasphemed?) they do not understand because their madness or convincing of their roles has lead them to ontological crisis. Are they not his wives in every act but a ceremony?
This is a question that requires further debate. Monotheistic ontology is one of the eternal soul. Pagan ontology is one of crisis and questioning one’s own existence.