A Disappointing Second Look at Borges' "Sect of the Phoenix" - Jorge Luis Borges
Originally when I read The Sect of the Phoenix I thought that the story referred to the temptation throughout history for gnostic groups and knowledge. While I certainly thought that was a quite an interesting way to look at it, and an interesting topic in general, after reading the story a few more times I think I was totally wrong. Here's my original post. I was doing some reading on the internet about Borges and I saw an explanation of The Sect of the Phoenix as referring to the universal act of sexual intercourse and reproduction. Once began to reread the story again with this in mind, the whole story began to make sense. Here's a few examples ...
that at first the Secret struck them as something paltry, distressing, vulgar and (what is even stranger) incredible. They could not reconcile themselves to the fact that their ancestors had lowered themselves to such conduct. 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." Of course this makes sense in terms of reproduction.
The second half of the short work gets even more specific, pointing out that there is no sacred book for its members, but only an ancient account of the universe and a command to continue the sect's rite and continue in each generation. This rite is all that's really survived of the Sect, and it's the only action that they do, passing it on as "the secret." "...they scarcely him 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." The secret rite, though, is not passed down from mother's to sons, nor by priests. "Initiation into the mystery is the task of individuals of the lowest order. A slave, leper, a beggar plays the role of mystagogue. A child can indoctrinate another child. In itself the act is trivial, momentary, and does not require description."
Here is it very clear that the secret that is passed down is sexual intercourse. Mothers do not teach their sons such things, nor those who are dedicated to celibacy. It does not requires status or money to engage in the rite. Borges then alludes to ancient forms of contraceptives that have been used in the rite. "The necessary materials are cork, wax, or gum arabic. (In the liturgy there is mention of silt; this, too, is often used.) There are no temples specially dedicated to the celebration of this cult; a ruin, a cellar, an entrance way are considered propitious sites. 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, that they inevitably allude to it, and thus, in dialogue with initiates, when I have prattled about anything at all, they have smiled enigmatically or taken offense, for they have felt that I touched upon the Secret."
There is no special place where the rite is conducted, but it is done in private, and yet life giving and furtive. Every culture has its own references to it and expression around it. And then there are those who give up the secret so that they can commune more directly with God. Anyway, overall once you look at the story with the lens that he's talking about sex, all the references begin to make sense. Personally, I was a bit disappointed when I realized this. I much preferred my original interpretation regarding gnostic sects throughout history...
1 - Borges, Jorge Luis. The Sect of the Pheonix