1973 - The Deathbird

The SPIDER Symposion: in-depth discussion of specific Ellison stories and works.

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Postby Jan » Wed Jan 12, 2005 12:26 pm

JohnG wrote:Here's what I mean: I don't think the spark(either in TD or in reality)is the power to give life or death.

As I said myself in my correction (Wed Jan 12, 2005 6:02 am), which you have missed. You are quite correct in your own assumptions.

I'm asking myself why Harlan used the word wisdom (the spark), and my answer would be that he couldn't use the word intelligence. Animals are intelligent, too. However, what I think he meant was the potential for wisdom (i.e. intelligence). Hm.

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Postby BrianSiano » Wed Jan 12, 2005 1:44 pm

I don't think I can add much to the discussion, but here are a few comments.

1. The story can be read on at least two levels. The first is, of course, a case against the account of Man and God as set down by received authority. In that sense, it's an argument, an essay, a philosophical statement. But it can also be read as a moral story for an individual, urging us to refuse accepted wisdom, to question myths, and to follow our sense of ethics and compassion instead of demented morals.

2. The "spark" is a metaphor for something which doesn't stand up to too much intense scrutiny. The spark could be, variously, the drive to reshape the world, the hearfelt compassion for one's fellow man, the creative ability, the improvement of the self, rebellion against unjust authority, or even a simple, kind gesture. It's all of these, but not one of them. If Ellison had spelled it out beyond calling it 'the spark,' it'd make the story less, not more.

3. The story has a _happy_ ending. Despite all of the labors of the Mad One, Mankind-- as represented by Stack-- sees through the screaming lies, and acts according to compassion and a sense of justice. Perhaps Mankind did not become a galaxy-spanning species like Dira's... but in the end, mankind shows that it was always good _enough_. The Mad One fails, at the end. This is a _happy_ ending.

4. This last point is buttressed by the passage where Stack is described as _not_ being one of history's greats. He's not an Everyman... but he is _not_ a hero by conventional measures. And he is most certainly _not_ one of those goofy SF immortals who are revealed to have been Mozart, Da Vinci, and Einstein at various stages of his long life.

5. The story also makes the case for gods meaningless. It's not that Man is the "true" God of Earth-- why do we even _need_ a god, anyway? Couldn't we say that the notion of a God-- the creator-father, the unquestionable authority, the all-powerful who inspireres fear-- came from the Mad One? There's a distinction between Man being a God, and being _as_ a God. The former assumes that we need gods. The latter says that 'god' is merely a metaphor for something greater than we are now.

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Postby sjarrett » Wed Jan 12, 2005 4:43 pm

BrianSiano wrote:The "spark" is a metaphor for something which doesn't stand up to too much intense scrutiny.

Yes, exactly. And I would suggest that the best metaphors never do. Any metaphor that will sit still without complaint for the full hermeneutic proctoscope routine probably isn't worth the trouble. The really fine ones are like Proteus -- if you can catch them and bind them, they'll prophesy for you, but you'll have a hell of a time securing the shackles before they morph into someting else altogether, rendering your analysis suddenly moot.

I wanted to throw out one other question: has anyone else noticed a kind of kinship between Nathan Stack and Trent, the main character from "Demon With a Glass Hand?" Both must live out many lifetimes in order to fulfill a momentous destiny entailing awesome responsibility. To be sure, their destinies are very different, almost opposite. One is the last hope of sustaining the human race, while the other is charged with bringing about its doom. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they are bookends, or mirror images.

Steve J.

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Postby Jono » Wed Jan 12, 2005 6:07 pm

Hi Guys,

Couple of quick thoughts:

Paula: Many thanks for ‘Shaverasse’ and ‘Rova’. Tricsky, tricsky, Harlan!

I don’t know much about the Gnostics except that my beloved has informed me that ‘gnosis’ is Greek and directly translates as ‘wisdom’, which is the ‘spark’ that was given to man (‘We have only one gift to leave them…Wisdom…only you can give them the wisdom to defeat him in their own good time...and Dira gave them wisdom...so Dira made his selection. A man, one of them, and with the spark’, p. 311, line 12-23).

I also love that in the original hardback at the end of the story on the facing page there is a quote from Ambrose Bierce (probably from the Devil’s Dictionary):

“Impiety: your irreverence toward my deity”.

This is, no doubt, a coda for the whole book, but for me it is particularly apt after just finishing The Deathbird.

Barney: If I was a bettin’ man, I’d lay good money that you’re right; Harlan comes to this idea via Mark Twain rather than the Gnostics, but the man is so fuckin’ well-read, it wouldn’t surprise me to lose that bet.

Jan: Regarding capitalization, p. 332, line 15 ‘He went in search of the mad one who capitalized his name’.

Your idea about euthanasia is very interesting and I never really thought about it. However, after considering it, I am persuaded that this is still not the central concept of the story. If it was, why wouldn’t HE give Dira that ability? I still think that The Deathbird is all about the responsibility that comes with true love. To build on lonegungirl’s point about the similarity between The Deathbird and IHNMAIMS, I remember reading somewhere that Harlan’s original idea for the computer game was that there would be no winners; i.e. the only satisfaction in playing the game would be to play in an ethically correct manner as possible. However the fact of the matter is different readers will take what they need from each story.

Lonegungirl: Great point about Lilith! By golly I bet that’s it

John G: I was also looking at name games, but ‘Arid’ (Dira backwards) didn’t really fit. Oh maybe that was some sort of commentary on his lonely existence, or maybe Dira is an anagram for ‘Raid’, god as a giant bug that needs to be exterminated! Naw…

Dooner: I’ve always thought that the test is on ‘Life’ itself; you pass or fail depending on your ethical stance.

Steve J: Uhm, what’s a midrash?

Brian: I think you’ve nailed it in #5. I think Harlan is saying that the idea of ‘god’ is basically a ‘Big Brother’ is looking out for us mentality that we will outgrow. When humans develop a truly mature culture, there will be no reason for superstition or religion.

Last thought: What exactly is the Deathbird? Is it just a metaphor for peace? Although the bird on the original cover looks more like a crow to me than a dove.

Great discussion! Looking forward to reading more.

Luv to all,


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Postby P.A. Berman » Wed Jan 12, 2005 7:55 pm

Some thoughts:

I think the spark is more than just power, it's also the wisdom to wield that power righteously (hence the fruit of the Tree granting knowledge of good and evil; if you suddenly realized your own capacity for evil, wouldn't you want to cover up?).

Brian: I don't think it's a happy ending. It's like the end of Lord of the Rings for me-- the good guys won, but they don't enjoy any spoils. Nathan Stack defeats the Mad One, it's like getting rid of a parasite. Sure, you're better for it, but the situation has been so deteriorated that euthanasia is the only option for the victim. So the Earth is liberated, but it's a pyrrhic victory. The satisfaction lies in the standing up at last to the bully.

I get the sense that people are using the concept of "god" and "religion" interchangeably. I would say that Dira is a god, or has power and wisdom that I, as a mere human, would consider godly. That does not mean he is worshiped or has spawned a religion, which we all know has nothing to do whether or not the object of worship actually is a god. Conversely, I'd say that it's egomaniacal childish monsters like the Mad One who desire to be worshiped and create religions and all the attendant evils of said. Nathan Stack is proof that men could have been as gods on the Earth, and could have achieved much more good on this planet than they were allowed/allowed themselves to have.

Man being a god doesn't assume that we need gods. I'm not sure why you'd make that logical leap without a net. Man being a god means that he has the kind of power it takes to euthanize a planet and destroy a false god. Who needs God? Well, if you're God, you need God. You need the awareness of your power so that you can use it. And you need to recognize the God in everyone else, from your planet to your mother to your dog, so that you can use it righteously.


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Postby Jan » Wed Jan 12, 2005 8:21 pm

I think we're making steps backwards...

Jono wrote:Jan: Regarding capitalization, p. 332, line 15 ‘He went in search of the mad one who capitalized his name’.

Well, god is a concept, not a name, it's like saying I'm Human, as if it's something bigger or there is only one of me. But names are capitalized (even Diras name). The quote by itself doesn't explain what you are doing to yor name.

Jono, you assume that every word you say will immedeately clear things up, but in reality it's hard to make sense of them.

Jono wrote:I am persuaded that this is still not the central concept of the story. If it was, why wouldn’t HE give Dira that ability?

You don't give me an argument to work with or contradict. I don't see how one must exclude the other. Dira may not have the abitlity, so what? So the story is not about euthanasia? I know, it isn't about euthanasia, but euthanasia is the element Harlan uses to make a point of wider range. The story is about power more in general, and euthanasia is one of those aspects of power we tend to not touch because it "interferes with Gods will". There are other aspects, including (as was pointed out earlier, as you know), I believe, the power of women, which is equal to that of men despite handed-down religious beliefs.

Jono wrote:I still think that The Deathbird is all about the responsibility that comes with true love.

I think you could absolutely say the story is about responsibility. I think it's more about that than about power actually, but it goes together.

What I don't get is this true love thing. We established that the story deals with love very early on, but what you're saying now doesn't make sense to me. I'm not sure I understand you. I'd take the vague "true love" thing out. We have a responsibility towards everyone, not only towards those we love, and the responsibility comes from possessing power and being aware of it. (Michael also said this earlier on.)

Brian wrote:2. The "spark" is a metaphor for something which doesn't stand up to too much intense scrutiny.

What about the fact that the text says it's wisdom? (Which I feel means intelligence.) I think, you're wrong guys (also sjarrett), the story is a metaphor, not the "spark".

Brian wrote:3. The story has a _happy_ ending.

To me it's a sad ending. Humanity has died and killed the planet with it. The damage has been done, humans never learned to exercise their responsiblity. If it's a happy ending, what's you feel so good about that?

P.A. Berman wrote:I think the spark is more than just power, it's also the wisdom to wield that power righteously

PAB, I already said that it's not power in a post I mostly addressed to you. It's "wisdom"/intelligence. You've got to keep up to date here. :-)

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Postby JohnG » Wed Jan 12, 2005 10:31 pm

Brian makes a series of great points, and I want to tilt a discussion in one of those directions. I agree that it's possible to overexamine ideas in a fiction story; it kind of kills the artistic aspect of a story if it's looked at too closely.

I don't read enough fiction to really do this justice, but what does everyone think of the actual story, the technique, style, etc., and how does this affect the impact? As was mentioned before, HE always challenges his readers--I know to keep a dictionary and possibly an encyclopedia handy when I tackle one of his stories, and that's one of the things I enjoy most about reading his stuff.

If I'm really looking at the writing style I often think about how the story would work if it was done differently--say no test questions, or dropping the Ahbhu section, or if say Dira remains nameless to Stack. The obvious answer is it wouldn't be the same story, but is anyone interested in any of the technique aspects as we look at the stories?

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Postby P.A. Berman » Wed Jan 12, 2005 10:50 pm

Jan: OK, but you know, intelligence and wisdom are not the same thing. A person or being can be vastly intelligent and vastly foolish (as the Mad One is, I believe), or wise as hell but not a genius. I'd go with wisdom, which is, according to dictionary.com, "The ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting; insight." Which is kinda what I said in the first place, awareness-- of one's power, of how to use it properly, of what is right and wrong. This isn't really a hard question, and I'm kinda ticked off mostly at myself for being led astray from my initial assessment, which I feel was right. I think responsibility rolls into wisdom-- it's part of the package. So is the capacity to do what is right, such as euthanize your mother, your dog/god, your planet, even if it hurts like hellfire and is an excruciation. All part of wisdom. Agreed?

I also don't think whether Dira had the power to euthanize the Earth is relevant. The point is, the Earth didn't want Stack to leave her with strangers. Maybe Dira could do it, but that would be like Harlan letting a stranger euthanize Ahbhu. It was Stack's job to do, not Dira's. He was her child, and it was his gift and curse to be with her at the end.

Where love comes in is this: wisdom is the ability to discern what is right, and when you have it within your power, to do what is right. What greater challenge to wisdom is the question of whether or not to destroy that which you love the most?

The Mad One did more than just capitalize his name-- he made his name sacred and forbidden, made it a word of power and mystery and taboo. This is the quintessential expression of his arrogance. I Am Who Am indeed-- we all are who are. Every man on Earth had the power within him to be God. There isn't just one God, because after all, thou art God. I don't think that's a meaningless statement nor that the point of the story is that there is no god, just maybe that there isn't some pie in the sky GOD. Being God means having power and the wisdom to wield it righteously, just as Stack does at the end of the story.

I still think it's a sad ending. A just one, but sad nonetheless.


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Postby Gary » Wed Jan 12, 2005 10:52 pm

I’m trying to tread water here, and I wanted to raise a few points:

Wisdom and ‘the spark’ seem to be handled separately: “…and Dira gave them wisdom, and time passed … So Dira made his selection. A man, one of them, and gifted him with the spark.” (Section 8) I’m leaning toward Brian’s assessment.

The edited passage from Genesis is in italics, save for a handful of words I keep chewing on: IS-WAS-WAS-ONE-ART-WAST-TO-BE-IS-THAT-ART. Tell me I’m chasing ghosts if I am… But within a word or two, this italic/regular split is the same in the three versions of the story I have, (Dreams/Teeth; Essential 35; Essential 50) so I'm looking for an interpretation of the intent.

I’m still thinking about how fair and just and creative the crickets’ arbitration is understood to be, and how it works with humanity’s fate in the story. Is this all a “test” devised by the crickets to determine humanity’s (the creation of Dira’s people) worth? They place an ultimate challenge in front of us (subjugation to the mad one), to see if we can go to the ultimate length to overcome it?

Thanks for setting up the discussions, Jan. I expect my participation will be mostly lurking&learning, but I'm looking forward to it.

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The Deathbird

Postby Barney Dannelke » Wed Jan 12, 2005 11:05 pm

I think it's a happy ending in the world of Ellison Happy Endings. Instead of humanity and mother earth - with Stack representing all that is left of humanity - continuing to be at the mercy of a mad and vindictive thing, essentially abandoned by those elements in the universe that represent reason and compassion and fairness and justice [Dirdir's race and that of the glass cricket people] - instead of continuing to endure ALL THAT - a euthenasia AND a suicide are performed.

When the alternatives are that awful - cancer, loss of faculties, madness etc. what is there to hope for other than relief and a peaceful death. Thus, Happy Ending. Works for me.

Here are some other random thoughts that came to me while re-reading it.

I'd be curious to know what the original incarnation of this ms. looked like. I re-read the story tonight in the old Dell PB edition. I just looked at 2 editions of Essential [thanks for that dedication in my 50th Harlan- wonder if this Pink's certificate is still good] but couldn't find any wraparound introduction. I thought this was the story that you showed Bob Silverberg pool side and he was, umm, unimpressed.

Which pissed Harlan off and he went back and re-wrote parts of it. Which - IF I HAVE ANY OF THAT RIGHT AND I MAY NOT - begs the question of what stayed and what went.

It's hard parsing the tense on that when i know Harlan/you/he might/may respond. Fuck it.

My re-reading was a delight. I had remembered it as being quite fragmentary but that's wrong. It is very much a whole with each section supporting and mirroring and re-inforcing the other. Kudos. I read more carefully and the story gets better. Not a surprise but a distinct pleasure nevertheless.

Nathan's sister seemed very much like many of Harlan's descriptions of his own sister but Nathan's mom [and dad] seemed more idealized and full of life than Harlan's memories of his own parents as written about in his non-fiction. I should go back and re-read MOM.

I thought Nathan's "why me" remarks were very personal. Harlan would have been working on this ms. right around his 40th birthday. That alone sort of boggles my mind. I know if I had something like this cooking I'd be thinking "oh, this is gonna generate a shitstorm". This was only a couple of years removed from the time John Lennon was singing lyrics like "they're gonna crucify me" in The Ballad of John and Yoko. Stories like this, when they get off the ground, when they take flight if you will, breed consequences. That cry of "why me?" felt a little like foreboding.

On a much lighter note - there is a very quick story [story fragment? I forget] in Halan's FROM THE LAND OF FEAR with a lunar moth, and although it's gotta be 20 years since I read that, The Deathbird reminded me of the moth, flying away and then returning as it does.

And a last thought on structure. The "questions regarding the material" sections are very smart without being precious. First they avoid the impossible answers by couching the knowledge as weighted, but unknowable questions rather than pat answers. Secondly, they kind of bulletproof it from BAD teaching, of which there is a boatload. And lastly, I SUSPECT they were a commentary on the period. Early 1970's was when the first wave of academic attention crashed up against the shores of speculative fiction and this looks [a little] like tongue in cheek backlash - even while serving the purposes of the story.

So I'm gonna hit send now and pray to some unnamed deity that I'm not posting at the same time as Harlan.

Oh, and teach, here's an apple. Or a date, or a fig...

- Barney

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Postby Steven Dooner » Thu Jan 13, 2005 12:25 am

Yeah Barney,

1. The happy ending comes as the surface of the world is destroyed, humanity is long dead, the cold of space is pressing in like a deathbird to embrace the planet in its wings, and mother earth's molten core is sputtering out. As existence ends, there is one last being with a little resolve, a liitle dignity, who wil not give in to the charlatan god who has ruined the earth.

Now that's a Harlan Ellison happy ending!

2. I love that the Faust reference is posed as a true or false question. The answer, I'm guessing, is true and false, depending on what version of the Faust story you read, Marlowe's or Goethe's. Marlowe's Faust is a weakling, Goethe's Faust has the spark.

How intersting too, that the exam questioner's voice unites with the narrator's voice right at this point.

3. One of the best Twain-like moments is the story about the cricket-like creatures who obviously made a mistake, but no one would wish to see these beautiful creatures destroy themselves over it, so the mad deity is allowed to take over the earth. That seemed like it could come out of "Letters From Earth" or "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven."

4. Is the divine spark the wisdom of compassion? We must be compassionate because we are the universe, mother earth and even, I suppose, the Mad One? The opening says it is the spark that recognizes" "Thou art God." It is contained in the profound love that will allow Harlan to stay with Ahbu and Stack to stay by his mother.

5. Remember that it is Ahbu who finally defeats the Grand Vizier in Thief of Bagdad, as Toto defeats the Wizard. The DOG will counter the GOD, eventually.

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Postby Chuck Messer » Thu Jan 13, 2005 4:09 am

I decided to compose and post first, then read the discussion. It's a bit raw, roughly finished. I hope it's not too confusing or chaotic.

The Deathbird

Is it a funeral dirge? For who? The world, or is it for Ahbhu? It has nihilistic imagery to it, but yet it doesn't feel nihilistic. There's no, "Aw, fuckit. Let's just burn the whole thing down and forget about it."


God is the mad spirit and Satan is the sane guardian of...what? The Earth is toast when the story opens. Dira/Snake/Satan has not been able to keep the Earth from physical destruction. The insane god has held the world in thrall and reduced it to a sick, dying creature that is longing for death. Begging for release. Begging for comfort. Use the needle. Don't leave me with strangers.

Is it about saying goodbye, letting go? "Then the Deathbird raised its head to the star-filled sky and repeated the sigh of loss the Earth had felt at he end." Maybe The Deathbird was Harlan's way of letting out the sigh of loss he felt when Abhu passed. Not just for Abhu but for all those who passed from his life. The loss of his father comes up several times in his work, and he seems to feel each loss keenly. It's also the feeling I get from The Function of Dream Sleep. That sigh of loss that issues from the Thanatos mouth.

Sometimes it feels like the whole world is saying goodbye. It feels like it's fading away in the distance, like a ship leaving the harbor, everyone on board waving as they dwindle toward the vanishing point on the horizon.

And there you are, wishing you were on that boat, that they didn't have to go. Wanting to jump into the water and swim after them. Knowing you can't, knowing that you have to stay there and wave and let them go.

Knowing you're powerless to stop it.

"Use the needle. Put the suffering Earth out of its misery. It belongs to you now."

I was there when my stepfather, Hugh died. His heart, after a quadruple bypass, and then another, botched bypass operation that reduced his heart to thirty-eight percent capacity, finally just gave up. He'd been brain dead for about a day when I booked an emergency flight to Seattle and rode with my second cousin to the hospital in Everett. I was there when they turned off the life support. I was there with my mother, grandmother, aunts, cousins. We were all around him when he went.

"Don't leave me with strangers."

It took me a long time to let go. Many visits to the Fort Lupton cemetery among the field of white marble headstones, row upon row of them like crops.

It's that - I don't know if it's a theme or if it's a feeling - but that's what gets me where I live, what I took away with me from The Deathbird. A part I keep with me, something I own.

Some people are wedded to their ideology the way nuns are wed to God.

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Postby Jan » Thu Jan 13, 2005 7:39 am

PAB wrote:I'd go with wisdom, which is, according to dictionary.com

Good thinking to look it up. I thought that wisdom is defined as knowledge. The thing is, that I feel "The ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting; insight" can only come from knowledge and experience. Anyway, we were both proven wrong by Gary.

Gary wrote:Wisdom and ‘the spark’ seem to be handled separately

True. Thanks for pointing that out, for it means that the spark is not wisdom. I do think it is something specific, though. Steven's idea about compassion sounds good. However, wouldn't that make Stack the only person with compassion?
What about the ability to remember previous lifetimes in his dreams? Dira wanted Stack to be ready to confront the mad one, and what he needed were things like self-confidence, experience and intelligence. This is may be why the Faust tale comes in as well, a tale about an intellectual gaining life experience. If you stack up the experience of several lifetimes, you are more ready to realize that god is mad. How does that sound?

Great words from P.A.:
PAB wrote:What greater challenge to wisdom is the question of whether or not to destroy that which you love the most?

JohnG wrote:what does everyone think of the actual story, the technique, style, etc.

If you ask a question, why not throw your own answer out there first to give us something to agree or disagree with. We said something about the style in the beginning, but it wasn't picked up on because the matter of the meaning of the story seemed more pressing at the time.

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Postby Micheal » Thu Jan 13, 2005 9:03 am

Sorry for the stab at personal, but as to an end:

I talked to patients so sick, so in agony from the constant pain of both treatment and cancer that they begged to die.

I and other patients knew of physicians who did assist terminal cases to end their lives, out of pity or kindness. With laws the way they are, there's no wonder.

The ending isn't about happiness, it's about the end of sadness, pain, loss; the great things about existence that are slowly eroded in a clinging miserable drawn out end, with those who love the sufferer dying themselves in helplessness.

The end is about peace and release.

The Earth dies; we die. The universe goes on.

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Postby David Loftus » Thu Jan 13, 2005 11:57 am


"Midrash" is the Hebrew term for a genre of storytelling that fills in some of the blanks in Torah (or, for that matter, the Bible) -- such as what Moses was doing all that time between the departure from Egypt and seeing the burning bush, or how he came to be married to a Midianite woman (a tribe which the Hebrews basically slew).

But it's often storytelling that tries to explain the gaps and puzzlements of the "authoritative text."

So yes, SteveJ, "The Deathbird" is a sort of midrash. Except that most of it is not midrash about history or roots, but the future completion of what has come before. Midrash of the future, of endings. (What's the "ology" word I'm looking for -- concerned with endings. . . ?)

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