The Theologians  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

"The Theologians" (original title: "Los teólogos") is a short story by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. It was featured in the collection Labyrinths. It was originally published in Los Anales de Buenos Aires in April 1947.


In typical Borges style, the author weaves a web of historical and semi-historical references of Christian heretical sects into a palimpsest on which orthodoxy and heresy overwrite one another. Borges does not commit a travesty of muddling the history of Christian Gnosticism (as that history is more or less a mish-mash and hodge-podge of speculation by first, second and third hand accounts anyway), instead sparse, tightly crafted sentences set a stage on which an author competes with a rival author of orthodoxy, by writing different versions of truth. Both fictitious characters are denouncing heresies. Upon this landscape of self-doubt and right and wrong Borges brilliantly brings to life the very real struggle one faces in life, specifically in one's own pursuit for spiritual truth.

A strict reading of the story deals with morality and heresy, but a broader reading deals with the internal pathos man struggles with when questioning truth and one’s own life's importance. The obolus, along with the mirror, is a symbol of one of the new schisms in the story, perfect symbols to appear in a compilation already possessing the title of such a potent esoteric symbol as a labyrinth. After all, the mirror is not simply a device that creates a double, but an object that one uses to examine oneself. The obolus, the coin used to pay the Ferryman Charon of Greek myth to reach the Land of the Dead, is demonstrative within the story of one heretical sect's belief in the transmigration of the soul through several bodies. However, the obolus is additionally a symbol of a journey (such as the main character's introspection, and thus the reader's own journey of introspection). The author uses a quote of Luke 12:59, that points to reconciling with one's apparent enemy, translated as "no one will be released from prison until he has paid the last obolus." These symbols of self-examination and of death (be it a quest into eternity, or simply a voyage without end) are used in this short story that ultimately concerns the main character's pursuit for personal recognition competing beside another man. Both men are in the business of denouncing heresy, or, in other words, are authors of Truth.

Meditating over the author's use of symbols is not overindulgence into speculation or academic over-analysis because Borges' attention to symbols in the story appears purposeful. The story's premise, that the orthodoxy of ancient Christianity feared groups breaking away from the Christian world, is first expressed in the story by stating that certain symbols were being exalted by a group of people ("In the mountains, the Wheel and the Serpent had displaced the Cross. ...all were afraid...."). Use of a different symbol is not just the author visually explaining that one group in the mountains has a different version of Truth. The author's attention to symbols (such as the wheel, the cross, the mirror, the obolus, and even the "iron scimitar") suggest that the battle between orthodoxy and heresy is a war between these physical objects that provide a doorway to esoteric spiritual truth. The author Henry Corbin wrote that symbol was the clothing that must not be robbed from us, nor ignored by us, as the symbolism of the physical world is our only entry way into intellectually the divine. The stark physical nature of the world is expressed in the story's first symbol, the "iron scimitar" worshiped by the barbarians as a god. Such a preposterous and seemingly ridiculous notion is asserted at the story's beginning so that the reader carelessly overlooks it, only to re-examine one's own reaction later. "The Theologians" is a story about our own reactions to Truth, and our own reactions to competing ideologies concerning Christianity, but well-beyond such strict versions of dogma, and into we are similar to the main character, and are in competition with our fellow man in our struggle to discern truth, and the folly that befalls us when we casts aside other notions of truth, however barbaric, only later to see that we had cast our own selves into the flames countless times into eternity.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Theologians" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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