The Temptation of "Secret Knowledge" - The Sect of the Phoenix - A Short Story by Jorge Borges

The Sect of the Phoenix

The Sect of the Phoenix is a short story reflecting the human temptation towards "secret knowledge." In the collapse of societies or belief systems, people are left without any grand narrative to guide them in their lives, something unbearable to the human condition. Here Borges' light heartedly writes about the continuous rebirth throughout history of these gnostic groups. All of them are different, and yet the same. There is some secret knowledge that will save them, an initiation into the secret which is simple yet profound, and an ultimate desire to commune with the "divine." My own personal interpretation is that Borges' is criticizing the absurd occult Nazi beliefs and rituals which he encountered in post-WWII Argentina as large numbers of high ranking Nazis found safe haven under Juan Peron. 
PDF available below.

The Story
Borges begins by telling a supposed history of an ancient secret group called the "Sect of the Phoenix." In actuality, the Sect was preceded by something much older and more widespread, "The People of Custom" or the "People of the Secret." These sectarians of this secret organization exist all over the world. They have normal jobs and are often indistinguishable from your everyday man. They are not a clear cut group like Gypsies or Jews, but blend in with the rest of humanity. 1 "They are everything to all men..." and a part of every group. What makes these people to be connected, then? The Secret ...

"Lacking a sacred book to unify them as the Scripture does Israel, lacking a common memory, lacking that other social memory which is language, scattered across the face of the earth, differing in colour and features, only one thing - the Secret - unites them and will unite them until the end of time." Along with the Secret there used to also be a origin myth which explained the universe, but most today have forgotten it, only retaining a basic understanding. "... today they conserve only the obscure tradition of some cosmic punishment: of a punishment, or a pact, or a privilege, for the versions differ, and they scarcely hint at the verdict of a God who grants eternity to a race of men if they will only carry out a certain rite, generation after generation." 

This rite is the only part that is left and constitutes the passing on of the Secret from generation to generation. 2 It is not passed on in special temples, by priests or with wealthy rites. Rather, it can be passed on by the lowest member or society, or even children. It can take place in ruined buildings, a doorway, a cellar, or whatever simple place is available. To complete the rite only the simplest materials are needed, like "cork, wax, or gum arabic" or even mud. "The Secret is sacred, but it is also somewhat ridiculous. The practice of the mystery is furtive and even clandestine, and its adepts do not speak about it. There are no respectable words to describe it, but it is understood that all words refer to it, or better, inevitably allude to it, and thus, in dialogue with initiates, when I have prattled about anything at all, they have smiled enigmatically or taken offence, for they have felt that I touched upon the Secret." 

A motto that fits their belief is, "the world is a mirror of the game." Some find the simplicity off putting and choose to seek to commune directly with the divinity. 3 At first its members found the Secret to be vulgar or beneath them. Some could also not believe that this is what their ancestors passed on to them. While at other times a sense of awe at it all hit them as well. The Secret has never died out despite all that has transpired in the world. ... or rather, can it die out? "The odd thing is that the Secret has not been lost long ago; despite the vicissitudes of the world, despite wars and exoduses, it extends, in its tremendous fashion, to all the faithful. One commentator has not hesitated to assert that it is already instinctive." 4

Interpreting the Story
"In Germanic literature there are poems written by sectarians, whose nominal theme is the sea, say, or the evening twilight; but they are, I can hear someone say, in some measure symbols of the Secret." This line in particular stood out to me when I was thinking about the meaning of this story. Borges (1899 - 1986) was from Argentina. It was this post WWII time in Argentina where there was a large influx of Nazi presence, fleeing from Europe. While there were Nazi communities going back to the 30's in Argentina, it increased after the war. I can't help but thinking that this story is a critique of sort of the strange occult beliefs of the Nazis.  

The immediate context of the story is clearly about Gnosticism. Gnosticism refers literally to a type of "secret knowledge," and in every period of history there have been groups to have claimed to have some type of secret knowledge that was salvific in some way, juxtaposing themselves with the uninitiated masses. Here we can see Borges clearly making the case that while each Gnostic group thinks that it is special, there is actually really something about human nature that generates these types of beliefs systems in every age and every place. There's always some type of secret knowledge, clandestine initiation into the cult, and ultimate reckoning which the knowledge bolsters them against. 

The Nazis were no exception, many of the thinkers in the 19th century who inspired the beliefs of the Nazi party were "adepts" claiming to possess lost knowledge of the universe from when their superior Atlantean race was lost ages ago. Look up examples like Helena Potrovna Blavatsky, Jorge Lanz, or Guido Von List. These beliefs gave rise to extremely strange rituals and social structures. I have posted on this more here. Needless to say, Borges is right, there is something about human nature which recognizes its incompleteness. We desire to understand our origin, identity, and purpose as human beings and to seek for "salvation." We long for perfect beauty, truth, goodness, love, and home. It's something deep inside our soul and so if we do not have authentic answers to these desires we will inevitably generate false ones to fill the void. 
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2 - 132
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