October 18, 1994
Borges: “The Sect of the Phoenix”
The Borgesian idea that “each writer creates his precursors” is perhaps dominant in all of his work, yet in his essay-like “The Sect of the Phoenix” it echoes with subtler meanings and effects (xi). This idea challenges traditional interpretations of literature, as well as provides a foundation for further interpretation, most poignantly the reader’s own. “The Sect of the Phoenix,” as is evident by the title, deals with the creation of archetypes and their perpetuity. The archetype in question here is Christianity, or, more generally, all religion.
A Phoenix, says the OED, is unique, cyclically creating and destroying itself. The Phoenix, according to fable, fans its funeral pyre with its own wings, only to emerge from the ashes with renewed youth. Generally, when a religion ceases to be useful to all of its devotés, heterodox movements spring forth and offer a new salvation to those who choose to embrace it: Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, to name a few. The new followers of a new religion embrace the “Secret,” a secret that “will unite them until the end of time.” All of these religions begin with the “Apostle” who teaches his followers the “rite” which will allow them to realize the “Secret.” This rite will assure “eternity to a lineage of its members” who will faithfully acknowledge it. The generalities end here, but Borges has discovered a pattern in the faithful.
The Phoenix is also a person of unique excellence, a paragon; Jesus, the mythical creator of Christianity, fits this definition. Jesus preached a way of life during his lifetime, but “shallow men … have forgotten it and now only retain the obscure tradition of a punishment.” Rather than studying and choosing to embrace the path of Jesus, the modern devotee of Christianity, suggests Borges, simply acts on his/her desire to be saved and not damned eternally; the teaching, therefore amounts to nothing more than rote, “banal” rituals and/or, even worse, instinct. Instinct suggests action without contemplation that is performed out of the intrinsic need to survive, or saved; therefore, even the rituals mean nothing. No thought is required: just do the right thing. Ironically, the Phoenix becomes a myth embodying his teachings (and nothing more), the components of which are to be gazed upon and handled with obeisance: “May the Seven Firmaments know that God / Is as delectable as the Cork and the Slime.” The “cork, wax or gum arabic” are now earthly representations of God in the “Rite” that is to be performed for the granting of the “Secret” solely through the use of these surrogate materials.
These sectarians “resemble all men in the world” the narrator states. This is just the antithesis of the phoenix. It seems ironic that such a unique, archetypical presence could inspire such mundane mediocrity. It is also amusingly suggested that these sectarians have infiltrated all societal groups rather than members of those respective groups having been converted. Yet this would seem unlikely if the “Secret” is as “banal, embarrassing, and vulgar” as the narrator would have the reader believe. Perhaps the “Apostle” was in reality not a phoenix, but a somewhat boring specimen that someone named Matthew lionized in “a sacred book to join them … without that other memory which is language, scattered over the face of the earth, diverse in color and features.” Like a disease, the faithful of the Phoenix have foisted the “Secret” throughout the people of the planet making a “sort of ubiquity.” Yes, ignorance is ubiquitous. It is no wonder that “a slave, a leper, [a child,] a beggar serve a mystagogues,” that “initiation into the mystery is the task of the lowest individuals,” for these individuals are the conquered, the unfortunate, the choiceless, the ignorant. “The Secret is sacred but is always somewhat ridiculous” because it is passed on though the naive and holy fools that are paragons of faithful acceptance. Just do it.
So the Sect of the Phoenix provides it initiates with ontological security with simple rites of cork and gum. This seems to be the object of Borges acerbic lampoon. He sees devotés creating images of Jesus and his teachings through their apathy and the ways they desire to live, not paying heed to his actual teachings, or interpreting them to fit their comforts and lifestyles. When the narrator states that it “is odd that the Secret was not lost long ago” he is being ironic: why would the recipe for such an easily achieved paradise fall be the wayside? It will not; it will become “instinctive.” Perhaps Borges is suggesting, by the use of the Phoenix, that messiahs bringing answer is a cyclical process that never ends but rejuvenates itself every now and then. When the purple phoenix can no longer remain aloft it brings about its own destruction, only to be reborn, this time green or red or blue…
Or it could just be about sex.
- Ironically, the OED offers no explanation as to why. Perhaps this is one of the reasons, or the reason, why Borges took up the subject. Like “The Library of Babel” the Phoenix exists, perhaps within a greater order, but one in which humans do not figure, or are within meaningless.
- This interpretation would be closely akin to Mikhail Bulgakov’s messiah-starved Matthew the Levite in The Master and Margarita, whom Jesus attributes to writing down things that he never said but upon which Christianity is based.