The Sect of the Phoenix
|"The Cult of the Phoenix"|
|Author||Jorge Luis Borges|
|Original title||"La secta del Fénix"|
|Genre(s)||Fantasy, short story|
|Published in||Ficciones (2nd ed)|
|Published in English||1962|
The Sect of the Phoenix (original Spanish title: "La secta del Fénix") is a short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, first published in Sur in 1952. It was included in the 1956 edition of Ficciones, part two (Artifices). The title has also been translated as "The Cult of the Phoenix."
Borges gives an enigmatic description (or at least, assertion of the existence) of a secret society dating back to ancient times, the members of which "resemble every man in the world" and whose membership consists simply of the performance of a strange ritual.
Discussion on Meaning
Essentially the story is an extended riddle, the mysterious description referring to a commonplace fact (as Borges points out in the prologue to Artifices). The probable and common answer is that the riddle refers to sexual intercourse, and Borges himself confessed as much. However, in relation to the debate on Borges' sexual orientation, it is argued by some that the secret Borges had in mind was, more specifically, homosexual intercourse or homosexuality in general; to support this, they point to such clues as “scattered across the face of the earth, […] only one thing — the Secret — unites them and will unite them until the end of time”. Against this reading, however, one might observe the story's claim that "the history of the sect records no persecutions", which cannot be true if the 'Secret' is homosexual intercourse. Moreover, the name of the sect associates it with the mythological Phoenix, suggesting regeneration and renewal of life: the more obvious analogy, therefore, would be with procreative (that is, heterosexual) intercourse. According to Terence McKenna’s comments in a conference in December 1982, the Secret refers to a religious community based on the use of hallucinogenic plants, which has existed for millennia. It is also referred to in El Aleph, a precursor to this story.
The odd materials mentioned by Borges(*) as employed in the Secret act were given to him during a conversation with his friend 'the poet Betina Edelberg': cork, wax or gum arabic or silt were all meant as a joke making allusion to the odd materials that could be employed in innumerable varieties of sexual practices.
(*)[“...A slave, a leper or a beggar could act as mystagogues. Also a child can indoctrinate another child. The act itself is trivial, momentary and requires no description. The materials are cork, wax or gum arabic. (The liturgy speaks of silt; this is also often used.) There are no temples specially dedicated to the celebration of this cult, but a ruin, a basement or hall are considered propitious sites. ”]
Prof. Daniel Balderston, the director of the Borges Center, brought up Borges' erotic drive when he interpreted 'The Sect of the Phoenix' as an autobiographic tale of 'male bonding' and 'anal penetration' (Fénix in Spanish sounds close to penis, in this case seen as a metaphor of the rebirth of the penis from its ashes after every performance). It is thought that Borges may never have had coitus with any woman, but he acknowledged in a TV interview with journalist and writer Antonio Carrizo to have had experienced sexual intercourse in adulthood with at least a man. Borges added: “what a horror when the next day I was told that what that man did to me was an act of pederasty”; surely he was told thus by his authoritarian mother who treated Georgie as an underage boy all her life.
In 'Borges beyond interpretations...' Anders Johansson questioned Balderton's interpretation thus: “... the latter passage in particular does not harmonize with Balderston’s idea that the sect of the Phoenix is constituted by ”‘male bonding,’ anal penetration” . How would cork, wax, gum Arabic or silt fit into that interpretation?” Johansson's take on the story further posits a lack of concrete meaning, in lieu of a riddle with a satisfactory solution.
- Williamson, Edwin (2004). Borges, a Life. ISBN 978-0-670-88579-4.
years later Borges would tell Ronald Christ that he meant the Secret to refer to sexual intercourse
- Balderston, Daniel (8 September 2004). "The "Fecal Dialectic": Homosexual Panic and the Origin of Writing in Borges". Borges Studies Online. University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved 3 January 2015.
1.bis. 'Borges in the Couch' by David Foster Wallace, writer and literary critic, published in The New York Times (November 7, 2004), regarding Williamson's 'Borges: A Life'.
3. 'Borges Beyond Interpretations.Changeability and Form in ”La secta del Fénix”' by Anders Johansson [University of Gothenburg]