By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Sect of the Phoenix’ is one of the shortest stories by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, published originally in 1952. In some respects, ‘The Sect of the Phoenix’ is a sort of extended riddle, although unlike traditional riddles, its definitive solution is never revealed. However, there is a proposed solution which fits the story’s details well. What does this puzzling little narrative mean?
You can read ‘The Sect of the Phoenix’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the story below.
‘The Sect of the Phoenix’: summary
Over the course of a few pages, Borges summarises the details of a mysterious secret society, the fictional ‘sect of the Phoenix’, whose members are found all over the world.
The members of the sect have not suffered persecution for being part of the sect, but since its members are found in every human society, its individual members have suffered persecution (but for other reasons than their membership of the sect). This makes them unlike Jewish people or gypsies, who have been persecuted because of their ethnic origin and for belonging to a persecuted group of people.
The sect of the Phoenix has no holy book. Indeed, the only thing which unites its members – who belong to a diverse number of different races – is ‘the Secret’, which is so secret that even Borges himself doesn’t (or cannot?) reveal what it is. There used to be another thing which united its members, a legend; but that has long been forgotten.
However, the sect’s members do all perform a rite, and the rite is the Secret. The rite is the only religious practice the sect’s members perform. The members pass the Secret on from generation to generation, but it is preferred that mothers do not teach it to their children (nor should priests). The ‘act’ which constitutes the initiation into the sect, Borges tells us, is trivial, momentary, and requires no description. Cork, wax or gum arabic, and mud are all used in the initiation.
The performance of the Secret is not usually talked about, but is always rather ridiculous, and is practised in a furtive or secretive way. Borges remarks that there are no ‘decent’ words to refer to the Secret, but if one person uses words which suggest the Secret to another ‘adept’ who is in the know, that other person will smile to show that they know the original speaker has ‘touched upon’ the Secret. Some poems in Germanic literature may be about something else, such as the sea, but they seem to be alluding to the Secret, too.
Many devotees of the Phoenix cannot believe their parents had ‘stooped’ to such manipulations to become part of the sect. But as Borges concludes in the story’ closing words, the Secret has endured because it has become ‘instinctive’.
‘The Sect of the Phoenix’: analysis
‘The Sect of the Phoenix’ is, as we remarked at the outset of this analysis, a riddle. But what is the solution? Have you solved it? Let’s recap some of the details: members of this sect are found the world over, and pass its sacred Secret on from one generation to the next; and yet mothers should not teach it to their children, nor should priests. It’s instinctive. People don’t talk about it, but often allude to it in poems and through innuendo in conversation.
One more piece of the puzzle may help to confirm any suspicions concerning the riddle’s supposed solution. Why the sect of the Phoenix? As we have previously discussed, phoenixes are mythical birds which symbolise regeneration: in legend, they build their own funeral pyres and then climb on top of them, to be consumed by the flames, but then they rise from the ashes of their own pyre.
That’s correct. ‘The Sect of the Phoenix’ is widely regarded as being a subtle and oblique reference to human procreation and sexual intercourse. Sex is the ‘Secret’ which people learn when they are initiated into the sect of the Phoenix, and the act itself is often ridiculous and trivial, not to mention brief (though that presumably depends on which members of the sect you practise the ritual with).
It isn’t talked about openly in society, and there are no ‘decent’ words for it: think how many words we have for lovemaking and procreation, in the English language alone, which are swear words or taboo. Yet indirect references to sex can be found in everyday speech through puns, double entendres, and suggestive innuendo (indeed, think of all the bawdy jokes in Shakespeare’s plays, or the way pantomimes often feature ‘rude’ jokes which the children will find innocent but adults – who have been initiated into the ‘sect’ – will laugh along to, with a knowing wink).
And of course, mothers and priests don’t tend to discuss this topic with children. Indeed, it’s socially prohibited. Yet the way the Secret is passed on is through the generations, through mothers giving birth having conceived. This is a trademark feature of Borges’ writing: the paradox.
It’s also a nice coincidence (assuming it is pure chance) that the plural of ‘sect’, ‘sects’, in English sounds close to the word ‘sex’; indeed, even in Borges’ original Spanish, secta and sexo are not exactly poles apart.
But does this solution tell the full story? What about the mud, cork, and wax (or gum arabic) which Borges informs us is part of the initiation ritual? Well, the wax might be analysed as a coded reference to lubricants, while gum arabic suggests sticky bodily substances (of which we will say no more).
Mud is harder to fit into the puzzle, but it may be a reference to the idea that humans were created from earth or soil (in many religious origin stories), reminding us of the fleshy nature of the Secret. ‘Cork’ is even more baffling, though as Gene H. Bell-Villada has pointed out in Borges and His Fiction: A Guide to His Mind and Art (Texas Pan American Series), the Spanish corcho (‘cork’) can also refer to a mattress: i.e., a bed.
Although the story itself never reveals the nature of the Secret, Borges himself did, after years of refusing to tell anyone. Eventually, he answered that the Secret was related to ‘fatherhood’ and ‘immortality’. So the mystery was, it seems, solved: ‘The Sect of the Phoenix’ is about copulation.
This solution may put an end to otherwise infinite speculation about what the Secret is, but the solution is still in keeping with another key Borgesian trope: the infinite. Because what is more infinite than the constant regeneration of life, from one generation to the next?