1973 - The Deathbird

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JohnG
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Postby JohnG » Mon Jan 10, 2005 8:48 pm

Jan, I'm making no claims to authority here by any means. As a matter of fact, the story does have some caveats reminding the reader about viewpoint and equal time, so you actually have a really good point about evolution, too.

My take is that the Mad One did lie and rewrite history, first by writing Lillith out of memory, and the Serpent had to sit quietly and allow it all to happen. The actual story will never be known, so the legacy of the Mad One is just lies--exactly what Christians are taught is the way of Satan. The point made earlier about myth and analogy makes a lot of sense to me now--when there are no "facts" can there still be a truth as expressed in myth?

Barney: thanks for the direction on the books. I'm somewhat shamed to admit that most of my knowledge about Clemens the man is what I read in the Riverworld books so what you said is vaguley familiar to me--ditto with Richard Burton, but in that case I actually went out and read everything biographical I could on him...

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Postby P.A. Berman » Mon Jan 10, 2005 11:08 pm

Rereading and posting random thoughts as they occur to me, much as I would if we were all in the room reading together. Pardon the meandering nature of this post. I have a lot to say about this story, so I'm just going to throw it all out there.

--This story is framed as a test. Who exactly is being tested? Some have posited that the story in Genesis 3 depicts God's test of man's obedience. What is this story a test of? Why would God create a test that he knew Man would fail? No religious folks have ever been able to explain that to me.

--First test question: Is the omniscient narrator the equivalent of God, or does it transcend God because it offers a perspective on even his (mis)behavior? Are those specific portions of the Genesis story omitted in this story because they offer the truth about the nature of the fruit? Is the version of Genesis 3 in this story the expurgated version of the story that the Mad One would have released if he were the "omniscient narrator"? Or that his spin doctors would release if he and Dira were both running for President? :twisted:

--Quisling encouraged the Germans to occupy Norway, and when they did, he proclaimed himself the new head of state and ordered the Norwegian troops to stop fighting the Germans. This didn't work, but actually stimulated resistance. When the Germans surrendered, he was executed. Is Adam the Quisling of Genesis? If so, what does that say about Stack? About Eve?

--The spark the snake gave to the man happened during his first visit, so I have to deduce that the spark is wisdom, the knowledge of right and wrong. This fits in with my final interpretation of the story.

--The Faust story, from the original 1587 chapbook, has Faust making a deal with the Devil: Mephistopheles will do Faust's bidding, always tell him the truth, and provide him with great knowledge... in exchange for his soul at the end of 24 years. Faust becomes a famous astrologer, travels everywhere (even Heaven and Hell), is even with Helen of Troy, but at the end, he still had to die and give up his soul. Seems to me that where the Mad One's spin doctors went to work is that bit about stealing Faust's soul, because if dying is the only downside to all that power and knowledge, I'd still take the bargain, wouldn't you?

--Why did the replacement of Lilith with Eve indicate to Dira that the fate of the world was sealed and the need for The Deathbird was inevitable? I was left with all kinds of questions about Lilith. She has been depicted as a demoness who maked with animals and gave birth to monsters... but what was she really? Why did God/The Mad One take her away? What threat did she pose?

--Ahbhu refused to be anthropomorphized. Does this mean that God also does not allow himself to be anthropomorphized? Or that it's somehow missing the point to insist on the false anthropomorphizing of great beings who are not human? Are we anthropomorphizing when we say "Thou art God," or are we deifying ourselves? And which is more inaccurate?

--Can love for an animal equate with love of a man for a woman? a mother for a child? a son for a mother? a botanist for plants? an ecologist for the Earth? Is is possible to compare and contrast types of love, or is this a trick question? Would you be a damn fool for even trying to measure love?

--Clearly Harlan intentionally parallels the Ahbhu story to the story of Stack with his mother. "She died; and he cried; and that was the extent of the poetry in it." The Ahbhu story had a hell of a lot more poetry than that in it. What is the significance of this contrast (or isn't there one)? There is no ambivalence in the story about Ahbhu, just love and grief, while inevitably the death of one's mother will carry a load of mixed emotion. What does that mean? My guess: relationships with animals are more pure and simple, reaching different depths in the human heart, whereas human relations trade that ineffable purity for complexity.

--The idea that Dira resembles Satan reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End.

--When Stack fights off the pain inflicted by The Mad One, he is able to obviate his pain by thinking it away. Does this indicate that the material world doesn't really exist, that it's an illusion that The Mad One has power over? Does this not tie into a Gnostic reading of the story? "There is nothing, but thinking makes it so"; if we are all just the playthings of an angry, supernal child, then maybe all this is just a really annoying baby game that we could just wish away if only we knew enough to try.

--The word is "shaverasse," not "shiverasse." My bad. I think I'm trying to block those words out because that and "rova" seem so disgusting to me for some reason and did before I knew that they didn't have any inherent meaning. Not ever knowing what they mean somehow allows them to be more revolting because my mind imagines worse on its own than it can be told to imagine.

--The Multiple Choice section: For #1, I would be tempted to answer a variation on B., "a small cat dead in a box."

--God is dead = Thou art God. Is that equation as nihilistic as it seems to me?

--Clearly, the answer is "None of the above," though. Sometimes you have to think outside the box, a skill I am still working on. My mind dwells endlessly on the box, but to quote Stoppard's Rosencrantz, "Life in a box is better than no life at all."

--The Earth wants the needle, just like Stack's mother, but doesn't want to be left alone with The Stranger, just like Ahbhu. Is the message that all love is the same, ultimately? And is the greatest show of love being able to let go, to save the beloved from misery even when no one wants the love to be over? Damn, that hits home, and it smarts.

--The Zarathustra story: The old man has given up on man and now loves only God. Zarathustra knows that God is dead, but leaves before he tells the old man. Is the old man happy? Can one only be "happy" in this world if one is deluded enough to give up on love for others and devote oneself to loving God, who really is our tormentor? The old man says love of Man would kill him, but he's going to die anyway, probably in pain. Love giveth, and love taketh away. That's the price of love: all that joy and wonder will always end in tears. But would you really rather sing songs and hum to yourself alone in the woods?

--The Deathbird is The End, final consummation-- to give up that which you love the most, to set it free even when it doesn't want to go and you don't want to let it go, because it's the right thing to do. If you really love someone or something, you can do that, which is most selfless thing possible (it's not the sacrifice of self, because that's easy).

--I've shed enough tears for tonight. He never fails to do it to me. That's why I love the guy. Harlan, long may you run.

PAB
I don't know. I don't care. And it doesn't matter anyway. ~Jack Kerouac

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Postby Jan » Tue Jan 11, 2005 12:07 am

Brilliant remarks from Berman, but as you will see, we're on entirely different trains.

My interpretation of the theme of the story and the role of the Deathbird seems to indicate what the spark is. There has been some speculation about this, but none of it fits in with my own plans. Will, first of all, a spark goes from one person to another. It's not a gift, it's a spark. Since Stack is Adam, and Stack has the spark, we all have the spark because Adam has passed it on to us. The spark is the ability to give life and death. The Mad One obviously does not have that ability, although he claims to. We can see that when he tries to kill Stack. This is where euthanasia comes in again. No one but us has the power to give death, and this is not meant in the sense of taking a life, but rather granting a request for final peace, out of a respect and love that outweighs the fear of one's own pain and sorrow. Many people would not grant a request of this sort, because they believe there is a superior being who hold exclusive rights to deciding who dies, when. Harlan's story dispels the rumor that there is such a being. It is us who are powerful, who give life, and it is us who can shorten a period of otherwise interminable pain. That is the thread that runs through the story, which has two mothers dying, but it's really the same mother.

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Postby Steven Dooner » Tue Jan 11, 2005 12:10 am

Structurally, the story invites us to be conscious of who is telling the story. The tests, essay and commentary all force us to confront our idea of the narrator for this story. Even the test questions are humorously slanted, and they too become a filter on the experience. The level of consciousness that we must arrive at will not come about by answering one or all of the questions. Yet, the proces of trying to answer will force us to interact with the story in a way that might be the real point of the story. In this way, Harlan is the serpent giving us the fruit.

It seems to me that this story is about raising consciousness and making us think critically about how we interact with the bits of story information we are given. Everyone of the Genesis lines ommitted, for instance, shows us either our likeness to God or God's likeness to us. "Thou art That" is a Vedic statement that means we are the Brahman consciousness of the universe and that personal deities and theism become the great obstacles to awareness of ourselves.

The key question fore me is "who tells the story of Genesis 3," and that is a big question. Any 3rd person narrator is ultimately a first person narrator somewhere--third person omniscient narration is really only a convention that we tend not to forget about the second we start reading a myth or a fairy tale. Yet, the narrator of Genesis surely is clealry more conscious and more omniscient than the Lord God.

Another clue is that "Ishamel" isn't even the real name of the narrator that tells Moby Dick; that is just what we are asked to call him. Once the adventure is in full career, Ishamel is sbmerged into the general pattern of the book, and we forget about him. Just as we forget about the narrator of Genesis.

The name, Ahbu, with its Thief of Bagdad associations, shows again how story elements may become part of our lives--some times the deepest part of our lives.

If we are to do as Twain asks, at the end of Mysterious Stranger, that is, "dream other dreams and better." We must explore the ways in which truth is negotiated by narrative.
"First we feel, then we fall"
--Finnegans Wake

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Postby lonegungirl » Tue Jan 11, 2005 4:24 am

Other offhand thoughts:

Quisling seems a little harsh for Adam and actually looks more like the mad one of the story to me. Narking, on the other hand, does feel appropriate for the way Adam ratted out Eve.

I think the big deal about the Faustian bargain is not the dying, but the eternal damnation/burning in Hellfire (if you believe in such things, and if not--why bargain?) Personally I would pass, but I hate committment.

I think the point of Lilith is that she was supposedly created at the same time, by the same mechanism as Adam, and therefore considered herself something of an equal to him. The mad one takes her away and replaces her with Eve, created from the side of Adam, who is therefore given the role of the subordinate. Lilith is then cursed for her uppityness, and tossed out where she's given a rap for all sorts of nefarious things. This might be a general stab at independent thought, and an indication of the bad pr work that is to come, for Dira.

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Postby P.A. Berman » Tue Jan 11, 2005 9:23 am

Jan: Is there any textual evidence to support your claim that the spark passes from person to person? I got the idea that Adam and Stack and all the incarnations in between carried the spark, but they are all essentially the same person. This spark is awareness, IMO. Think about it: what would the Mad One fear the most? Man's awareness of his own power, which would destroy the illusion that the Mad One is omniscient/omnipotent and end the game. This knowledge is painful because of the vast responsibility it brings: the power of life and death, the authority to destroy that which you love the most if it must be done.

I think man and the Mad One have a co-dependent relationship: the Mad One gets to use the Earth and man as his playthings, in exchange for man being able to remain in denial about the awesome power and responsibility he has.

This fits with Genesis 3, where Harlan has excised the verses which indicate that the fruit of the tree gives Adamn the knowledge of good and evil, which is manifested by his consciousness of his own nakedness (the most primitive demonstration of self-awareness-- Man is the only animal who has this awareness). Then, in the Faust legend, Mephistopheles gives Faust the answers to all questions without a single falsehood: again, knowledge/awareness (and a better offer than God ever made man). Then, when Dira appears to Stack, Stack remembers everything: all his incarnations, his love for Lilith, etc. He is aware for the first time in all his lives of who he his, and everyone who he has been. Therefore, I have to conclude that the spark is the gift/curse of self-awareness.

As for the Faustian bargain: the story says that Dira made contact with the man, and when the Mad One found out, he had to spin the encounter to make the snake look bad. Clearly the spin is the whole "eternal damnation" concept, because merely dying is not enough to discourage any ambitious or inquisitive man from make the Faustian bargain. The Mad One had to add this amorphous but terrifying threat about the fate of this elusive enigma called a "soul" to take the thrill out of the deal.

Is Adam Quisling? I don't know.. Did he, throughout the history of mankind, collaborate with the oppressor? Did he create religion after religion to glorify a being that wanted him to remain ignorant and docile? Did he kill his own kind in that being's name? Did he sell out Eve, causing her to be even more subjugated than she already was? Adam believed the lie, because it's easier to relinquish that painful self-awareness and give up agency to a being who wants it. It's the opium of the people, after all. I don't know, I think Adam more than qualifies for the title of "Quisling."

So Lilith was a true daughter of the Earth, just like Adam, and Eve was just an extension of Adam; therefore, the creation of Eve and the banishment of Lilith meant what exactly? That man would never have a companion that was his equal, that he would never brook anyone who could challenge his illusion of superiority, that he would be doomed to an eternity of blame-shifting and denial? That sounds about right.

PAB
I don't know. I don't care. And it doesn't matter anyway. ~Jack Kerouac

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Postby JohnG » Tue Jan 11, 2005 9:49 am

Great stuff, guys. Steve, you made my point about the naming-- though I totally missed the Ishmael connection. I like the points about the test questions, too; the narration issue is a key one and it loops the story back on itself, in a way. And very interesting points about Genesis 3.... Jan, the thought about euthanasia is really interesting, and it makes sense in context. Lonegungirl, you're right, that's the "take" on Lillith, that she was Adam's equal but refused to be subservient, but the small amount of reading on the subject makes me wonder what all that is supposed to mean, though you have a great point: it's first case of "spin".

I agree that Adam isn't exactly a Quisling, but I don't think he's nark, either; until they are thrown out he's simple and not capable of lying any more than an animal is. While in the Garden they interact with the environment like an animal does, with no doubts or questions.

PAB, the section where the Mad One throws the equivalent of plagues and whatnot at Stack: to me what it means is that while an animal would run from it, a human is unique in that it would endure the pain and efforts in order to reach an abstract goal, as it were. I believe the torments were real, but that of course leads one to ask why doesn't he just kill Stack, with the answer being he can't, he never really had that power. Maybe that's the revelation?

And, hey, PAB, the first step to thinking out of the box is understanding there *is* a box, or a cube, or a cone, or a really long tube. The next question is where's the door? :P

It occurs to me that it's actually Eve who first talks to the Serpent and who first eats the fruit (by the way, in the King James it doesn't mention "apple"), so why isn't the spark in her?

I know there is more to the Zarathustra story, but my take on it is you can bring people to the water but can't make them drink, for lack of a better phrase. You can only liberate yourself; the revelation must be found, it can't be given. That's kind of a Gnostic point of view, I would think....?

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Postby Jan » Tue Jan 11, 2005 10:17 am

P.A.: Interesting that you think the spark could be awareness. I tend to doubt that because we lack that awareness, and I still feel that the spark (i.e. the power) is in all of us. The alternative would be that indeed only Stack has the spark, but he's portrayed to be a normal person and does nothing unusual.

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Postby Micheal » Tue Jan 11, 2005 10:47 am

"The spark of life", as it is in the Atman sect of hinduism, is about US. We are those professed by both Ellison and this sect to posess the stuff of God, the power to change, to create, to improve ourselves and this world. The question is, will we awake from our sleep in time.
Stack serves only as the nexus for this argument, in the hopes the conditions the character exists within will connect to those of the reader.

With the possible exception of Margaret Atwood, I haven't read a writer that tries to challenge his audience the way Ellison does.

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Postby P.A. Berman » Tue Jan 11, 2005 11:26 am

Why is Stack singled out? Because he is Adam reincarnated? I felt like the spark was something special that Adam had, which was passed down to all of us as his descendants but originated and was strongest with him.

Perhaps I should amend my statement about the spark being awareness; rather, it is the capacity for awareness, the ability to realize that Thou Art God, with all that attends. If one accepts this awareness, one has the power of life and death in one's hands, which is clearly an awful and fearsome power to the wielder (hence the stories of the euthanasia of Ahbhu and Stack's mother). Man has consistently shirked that power and handed it off to the Mad One, which was convenient for both, but Dira from time to time is able to remind mankind of of who he really is.

That is the nature of the struggle between God and Dira-- one wants to keep man docile and ignorant of his power, the other wants him to be aware of who he is, aware of the spark inside him that gives him such power.

PAB
I don't know. I don't care. And it doesn't matter anyway. ~Jack Kerouac

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Postby sjarrett » Tue Jan 11, 2005 11:48 am

Wonderful thoughts, folks. You have sent me back to the story, which is the best compliment one can give in a discussion like this.

I have to agree with PAB as to the nature of the spark. It sounds to me like Jan and PA are defining "awareness" differently. Jan, when you say that we lack awareness, I assume that you are talking about total awareness. I think PA is talking more narrowly about the ability to grasp abstractions, especially good and evil, as well as simple [except that there's nothing simple about it] self-awareness. As Carl Sagan used to say, we are that part of the cosmos that permits the cosmos to know and contemplate itself. That's an astonishing and wonderful thing, but, like most wonderful things, it comes with a price. I think "The Deathbird" is, in part, about that price.

I'm also fascinated by the discussion of the nature of the narrative voice in the story. The questions the story poses about the nature of the narrative voice in "Genesis" certainly lead us to ask the same questions about "The Deathbird." Are there multiple voices side by side, as in, for example, epistolary fiction? Or is there just one overarching voice? The first words in the story are "This is a test." Does that mean just section 1, or does it mean that the whole story is a test? Some of the test questions throughout are open ended discussion questions, but others, like the multiple choice, imply that there is a right answer. But right according to whom, exactly?

One more question: is "The Deathbird" a midrash?

Steve J.

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Postby Micheal » Tue Jan 11, 2005 12:01 pm

I don't feel Stack is 'singled out', in the sense that he is a character and representation built by the author to serve the purpose of standing in for everyone in the audience.

Stack is part of the test; all of the story is the test.

The test is whether the reader can set aside the preconceptions, the programming that convention creates in us.

We are Dira, we are Stack, we are the insane Godthing acting out upon our world.

When do we access the spark within us?

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Postby P.A. Berman » Tue Jan 11, 2005 12:49 pm

Stack is singled out. He is the one who euthanizes his dog/god, his mother, and his Mother. In this sense, he is the real God, not the Mad One who is "playing god." He is the apotheosis of mankind and because he was there at the beginning, he gets to be there at the end.

I also don't think that man = the Mad One. The Mad One isn't part of the Earth; he is a force imposed on the Earth from without, which is why he's isn't the real God, he just plays one on TV. When Harlan says "Thou art God" in the story, he is pointing out the illusion of a God who is separate from us, a god depicted as a man in the sky with a big white beard, alaa the Mad One.

PAB
I don't know. I don't care. And it doesn't matter anyway. ~Jack Kerouac

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Postby Jan » Tue Jan 11, 2005 1:37 pm

sjarrett: >Jan, when you say that we lack awareness, I assume that you are talking about total awareness. I think PA is talking more narrowly about the ability to grasp abstractions...<

I have to correct you. It must become hard to follow my particular train of thought because it's stretched out over a number of posts.

What I said was that we lack awareness of the power to give live and death. (Because we assume that God owns that power to himself.) Therefore I assume that the spark is not that awareness (as claims PAB) but the power. We all have that power, we all have the spark, Stack is one of us.

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Postby Steven Dooner » Tue Jan 11, 2005 2:28 pm

Just ruminating on the names. "Nathan" means "gift" which seems straightforward enough. And Stack reminds me of "Shtarcker," which is "strong" in Yiddish. Though the name, "Stack," itself may be related to an old word for funeral pyre or burnt offering.

Dira is an interesting word. At first, it struck as female, but the use of the "A" ending here pushes me back to Indo-European culture where male gods had names like "Indra." There may be subtle suggestions of Dia, Dios, Divinos and Diabolos, which all come from the Sanskrit root, "Deva." Ironically, Deva is the etymological origin for both our "divinities" and "devils," if you go back far enough.

I'm not sure how much Harlan calls upon etymological tradition when he creates his names, but I put nothing past him.

He's riffed on the name "I am," for god in "I Have No Mouth" for instance.
"First we feel, then we fall"

--Finnegans Wake


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