There's a story by Jorge Luis Borges called The Sect of the Phoenix. In it he describes an order of people purported to have their origins millenia ago, in Egypt in the time of Hellenic Greece. They have been associated with the Phoenix not through their own action, for they refer to themselves as People of the Custom or People of the Secret.

They are universally pervasive, he says. They are associated with Jews, gypsies, Creoles; with minorities. However, the "sectarians" have never been persecuted or even treated as a group in history - for wherever they are present in the minority, they also pervade the majority.

And there is only a single thing that unites these diverse people - their Secret, their Custom, their Rite. They have no mythology - if there was one once, it is forgotten, and members follow "the obscure tradition of a punishment, of a pact or of a privilege," believing diverse reasons for God's bestowing the Rite on the Order. Borges suggests that the reward for performing the Rite is that the Order itself would continue for all time, that the "pact" with whatever deity had enacted the Custom is that simple.

The Custom is a base thing, Borges tells us; it is "trivial, momentary, and requires no description". It is performed furtively with cork, wax, gum arabic or mud, but aside from that Borges declines to describe it - and, indeed, he attests that the members of the Sect do not discuss it, aside from possibly when they are demonstrating it to one newly inducted into the sect. And it is freely taught; it is passed from parent to child, though it is preferred to be taught by a stranger of low status, or by another child. Some think nothing of it, some are embarassed by it, some particularly dislike it or react with shock and wonder to the nature of it and to the fact that people actually do such a thing - the more severe responses, we read, are more peculiar, given the Rite's triviality.

Borges concludes with another allusion to the Act's reward being its own immortality - "What is odd is that the Secret was not lost long ago... Someone has not hesitated to affirm that it is now instinctive."


Sometimes I feel that half of the things I do are like this.
We learn things to do from our parents, because it's just what you do. Some of it sticks and some of it doesn't. Sometimes it seems like people who are polite, who have manners, are a Sect apart from people who don't. Like people who hold the door for someone behind them and people who don't will never really understand each other. Things as simple as saying hello to people you've met before, even if you don't know or care about each other - it can baffle me sometimes. Why we're supposed to do these things, and why people, especially myself, sometimes can't quite figure out when and whether to do them. Some people can get incredibly anxious over issues of courtesy; some perform all the little idiosyncrasies of politeness without thinking; some people think the idea of being polite to strangers as an affront to their individuality. Understand that I'm not refuting or disparaging etiquette here; I'm simply taking it as an example of something that is a part of most people's behavior but is rarely discussed or questioned.

I shall not even begin to relate this to the cult of beauty; there are so many meaningless things people believe they must perform with regard to their appearence today that I am not surprised there is no actual mythology or scripture of beautification - it would be difficult to find justification for practices like the application of mascara other than "that's how it's done". Rather than personal standards of beauty, many people have one person's standard, disseminated through innumerable and diverse agents.

Today, I feel like I'm a member of a hundred different sects. There is great complexity in my behaviors that I feel I need to employ around strangers and acquaintances; which I only do because I'm used to the actions, I'm conditioned to them and they're comfortable and automatic. Aside from that, I become different when I am around different friends - I do things they are accustomed to, change my mannerisms, tone and demeanor, innumerable little customs that make things fit together again.

And it doesn't feel like I'm going to become immortal. I can hardly even refer to these things I do because I never think about them. They certainly don't do anything; I don't think politeness has an effect on strangers (and I know it doesn't have an effect on me), and the little rites involved in talking to my friends are only for their temporary benefit. I subconsciously alter my behavior in ways every bit as mysterious, indescribable and useless as the sectarians' Rite, and I don't even get the benefits of belief in something, because it's instinctual and not a conscious practice.

I wish I would do and say exactly what I think instead of those little things that we all do and never mention. But it's all too easy to do everything that's been done before. I'm trying, though. I'll perform the Rite with pride if I find it represents what I believe, whether or not it meant that to the one who taught me.


Quotes from Labyrinths p. 101-104, New Directions Publishing Company, 1964

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