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The Sect Of The Phoenix

by Jorge Luis Borges

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There exists a relatively small amount of commentary on this short riddle-like tale written by the Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). Perhaps the reasons have to do with the impenetrable, sphinxlike nature of the secret cult he speaks of and the existence of what Borges refers to as the Secret (that’s with a capital S) of this secret cult being, well, a secret. So, with all the secrecy, I will keep my comments brief. Below my comments I have included the tale itself.

From the tone of this Borges tale, we are given the unmistakable impression the Secret is revealed only through direct experience. Without such immediate first-hand initiation, anybody, no matter how well read or intellectually savvy, not matter how well traveled or wise in worldly things, will forever remain on the outside looking in.

Terence McKenna, an American ethnobotanist and field researcher who has made a lifetime study of the use of plants with psychedelic properties by tribespeople and indigenous cultures, upholds the Secret refers to religious practice based on the use of hallucinogenic plants that have existed for millennia. Considering the large number of tribes and indigenous peoples both prior to and in the year 1952 when Borges wrote this tale along with the author’s including such language as: “since there is no human group which does not included partisans of the Phoenix” McKenna’s interpretation makes abundance sense.

A close cousin to imbibing powerful hallucinogens are the intense physical practices within the yogic and tantric traditions from the East. Usually many years of vigorous, demanding discipline is required to receive higher teaching to activate one’s subtle energy body (these traditions use such technical terms as kundalini and chakras). I refer to these practices since a number of interpreters of The Cult of the Phoenix point to specific passages within the text as evidence the Secret that Borges is citing is sexual intercourse or even more specifically, homosexual intercourse

And what, you may ask, is the link between sexual intercourse and these Eastern physical practices? These esoteric traditions speak of the union of male/female, Shiva/Shakti energies within one’s own physical body and subtle energy body. To maintain secrecy, many times the gurus, rishis and teachers of these esoteric practices have used conventional sexual language to represent what is happening on the spiritual level. Additionally, since the practitioners are awakening both male and female subtle energies within their one-and-same body, in this sense there is also a homosexual component.

Perhaps another distant cousin are the mystics and the path of mysticism within the three great Western monotheistic religious traditions as well as the esoteric teachings within Buddhism, most especially Tibetan Buddhism. Matter of fact, in the tale Borges mentions Buddhism specifically. We need only think of those Buddhist monks and solitary hermits in the land of snow with their chanting, visualizations and hyperphysical practices such as tummo meditation.

So, is Borges’ secret Cult of the Phoenix really about hallucinogenic plants, esoteric Eastern traditions or religious mysticism? Aren’t we as far distant as we can possibly be from the reflections and storytelling of a refined, bookish aesthete such as Jorge Luis Borges? Yes and no. Unless biographers have missed something, it doesn’t appear the author had initiation into any of these practices or traditions. However, Borges being Borges, he had sometime that in many respects was even stronger medicine: an unbounded, creative imagination.

THE CULT OF THE PHOENIX by Jorge Luis Borges
Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix originated in Heliopolis, and make it derive from the religious restoration which followed the death of the reformer Amenhotep IV, cite texts by Herodotus, Tacitus, and inscriptions from the Egyptian monuments; but they ignore, or try to ignore, the fact that the denomination of the sect by the name of Phoenix is not prior to Rabanus Manrus, and that the most ancient sources (the Saturnalia, or Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of Custom or the People of the Secret. Gregorovius had already observed, in the Conventicles of Ferrara, that any mention of the Phoenix was extremely rare in oral language. In Geneva, I have spoken to artisans who did not understand me when I asked if they were men of the Phoenix, but who admitted, in the next breath, that they were men of the Secret. Unless I am mistaken, the same phenomenon is observable among the Buddhists: the name by which they are known to the world is not the same as the one they themselves pronounce.

Miklosie, in an overly famous page, has compared the sectarians of the Phoenix with the gypsies. In Chile and in Hungary there are sectarians of the Phoenix and there are also gypsies; beyond their ubiquity, they have very little in common. The gypsies are horsedealers, tinkers, smiths, and fortune tellers; the sectarians tend to practice the liberal professions successfully. The gypsies are of a certain definite physical type, and they speak – or used to speak secret language; the sectarians are indistinguishable from the rest of the world; the proof of it is that they have not suffered persecutions. Gypsies are picturesque and inspire bad poets. Narrative verse, colored lithographs, and boleros pay no heed to the sectarians . . . . Martin Buber declares that Jews are essentially pathetic; not all sectarians are, and some of them despise pathos, this public and notorious fact suffices to refute the vulgar error (absurdly defended by Urmann) which sees in the Phoenix a derivative of Israel. People think more or less as follows: Urmann was a sensitive man, Urmann was a Jew, Urmann associated with the sectarians in the ghetto at Prague; the affinity felt by Urmann serves to prove a fact. I cannot in good faith agree with this judgement. The fact that sectarians in a Jewish environment should resemble Jews does not prove anything; the undeniable fact is that they resemble, like Hazlitt’s infinite Shakespeare, all the men of the world. They are everything to all men, like the Apostle. Only a short time ago Doctor Juan Francisco Amaro, of Paysandu, marveled at the ease with which they became Spanish-Americans.

I have mentioned that the history of the sect does not record persecutions. Still, since there is no human group which does not included partisans of the Phoenix, it is also true that there has never been a persecution which they have not suffered or a reprisal they have not carried out. Their blood has been spilled, through the centuries, under opposing enemy flags, in the wars of the West and in the remote battles of Asia. It has availed them little to identify themselves with all the nations of earth.

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 color and features only, one thing – the Secret – unites them and will unite them until the end of time. Once upon a time, in addition to the Secret, there was a legend (and perhaps also a cosmogonic myth), but the superficial men of the Phoenix have forgotten it, and today they conserve only the obscure tradition of some cosmic punishment: of a punishment, or a pack, 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. I have compared the testimony of travelers. I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians; and I can testify that the performance of the rite is the only religious practice observed by the sectarians. The rite itself constitutes the Secret. And the Secret, as I have already indicated, is transmitted from generation to generation, but usage does not favor mothers teaching it to their sons, nor is it transmitted by priests. Initiation into the mystery is the task of individuals of the lowest order. A slave, a 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. The necessary materials are cork, wax or gum Arabic. (In the liturgy there is mention of silt; this, to, is often used.) There are not temples specially dedicated to the celebration of the 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 it 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 have touched upon the Secret. 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.

As stated by DuCange in his Glossary, by way of apocryphal proverb. Orbis terrarium est speculum Ludi. A kind of sacred horror prevents some of the faithful from practicing the extremely simple ritual; the others despise them for it, but they despise themselves even more. On the other hand, those sectarians who deliberately renounce the Custom and manage to engage in direct communication with the divinity enjoy a large measure of credit. To make this commerce manifest, these latter sectarians have recourse to figures from the liturgy, thus John of the Rood wrote:

May the Nine Firmaments know that God is a delightful as cork or muck.

I have enjoyed the friendship of devotees of the Phoenix on three continents; it seems clear to me 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 be lost long ago; despite the vicissitudes of the world, despite wars and exoduses, in its tremendous fashion, to all the faithful. One commentator has not hesitated to assert that it is already instinctive.
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  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
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