Paul Breslin: On "Howl"

It is "Howl," completed in 1955 and published the following year, that marks the beginning of Ginsberg as we now know him. "Howl" also presents, in a remarkably complete form, a sensibility (if that Eliotic word will serve for such an un-Eliotic temperament) that we associate with a later time. The title and first line alone, closely considered, are packed with signs of things to come. In the mid-fifties, a poem might have a title such as "Speech for the Repeal of the McCarran Act" (Richard Wilbur, 1956); "The Dancer's Reply" (Howard Nemerov, 1958), or "Argument" (Elizabeth Bishop, 1955). In such poems, the title implies that a voice is speaking aloud, but doing so for a socially defined purpose, or on a socially defined occasion. More commonly, one might give a poem a sharply nominalized title, so as to hold up an object or landscape as a central symbol for contemplation: "The Beacon," "The Sunglasses," "The Bight" (Wilbur, Nemerov, and Bishop again, from the same collections). Titles of that period typically emphasize the act of seeing or contemplating; if they emphasize speech, then it is considered speech, fitted to an occasion. But a "howl" is unconsidered speech, prompted by overwhelming desperation or rage; indeed, it is not speech at all, but pure inarticulate sound as uttered by an animal. Nor can one rule out the possibility that "Howl" is an imperative verb addressed to the reader, in which case it is opposed to the more usual noun-phrase title in form as well as spirit. The conception of poetry as an expression of preverbal states akin to the consciousness of animals or perhaps even matter itself, the rhetoric of expressiveness or exhortation, the preference for titles that invoke actions or processes (often with a nominalizing -ing suffix)—all of these widespread tendencies of poetry in the next decade were curled up, latent, within Ginsberg's title.

It takes the benefit of hindsight to extract all that from Ginsberg's title, but one can hardly make too much of his first line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked . . ." (AG, 126). The opening "I saw" does not startlingly violate period style; as it happens, Lowell's "Where the Rainbow Ends" opens with the same words. But the "I" this poem, we soon discover, is more literally Ginsberg than the "I" of Lowell's early poem is Lowell. Moreover, Ginsberg is not seeing in the usual sense; one does not "see" minds being destroyed by madness. Even more than Lowell in "Where the Rainbow Ends," which also speaks a language of visionary prophecy, Ginsberg uses seeing as if it meant knowing, as if moral knowledge were as immediate as sensuous intuition, an as self-evident. To say that one believes invites argument, but to say that one sees places the matter beyond dispute.

Like the campus New Leftists of the sixties, (and, as we shall find, like John Berryman and Robert Lowell as well), Ginsberg perceives himself as art of a "generation," victims sharing a collective historical fate. The best minds among them, Ginsberg says in passive voice, were "destroyed by madness"—as if madness were some sort of danger abroad in the world, like a hurricane or a virus, and could descend upon the individual mind to destroy it. Moreover, "madness" seems choosy about its victims, singling out the best minds to destroy; perhaps they go mad because they are the best minds. The three adjectives perched on the end of the line—"starving hysterical naked"—may at first seem mere overwriting. But they suggest that these elect "best minds" are "starving" not only for food, drugs, and sex, but for spiritual transcendence, for "the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night" (AG, 126) Such yearning seems mystical only to a society that represses its own hunger for spiritual (as well as sexual) exploration. They are "naked" not only in their refusal to wear the clothes of social convention, or in preparation for lovemaking, but also in their vulnerability. In refusing all covering, they refuse protection also. The best minds have no Reichian character armor. And although "minds" stands metonymically for persons and emphasizes consciousness rather than the body, these "minds" are presented in predominantly bodily terms: one thinks of the body in connection with the words "naked" and "starving," and even "hysterical" derives from the Greek word for "womb." The hysterias that Freud decided to treat psychologically had previously been considered somatic ailments. The effect of Ginsberg's language is to sexualize the concept of "mind," making it more bodily and instinctive, while simultaneously spiritualizing the body, making its hunger and nakedness into emblems of religious yearning.

The entire first section of "Howl" rushes forward in a single sentence. By line four, it settles into a litany of "who" clauses, each of which gets a long Whitmanian line to itself. Occasionally Ginsberg substitutes another initial word for "who," and he may have intended to signal the approach of closure by breaking the pattern in the last ten lines, only one of which begins with "who." The incantatory syntax, as many critics have remarked, draws attention to the poem as speech rather than as an object for contemplation; the sweep of the enormous sentence encourages the reader not to stop and savor nuances, but to surrender instead to the insistent rhythm. Moreover, the syntactical complexities one associates with nuance are missing. There is little variety of sentence construction and, therefore, little complexity in the relations among words. To say this is not necessarily to condemn the poem, which aims at force, not subtlety. But the effect of the steady accumulation of parallel subordinate clauses goes beyond the suggestion of passionate speech. Like the catalogue passages in Whitman, the first section of "Howl" implies by its syntax a view of reality: the many parts of the world simply exist, next to each other, without conflict and without hierarchy of greater and lesser, and they are unified not by complex relations among the parts, but by a simple and all-embracing relation between any part and the whole.

But if we ask what that whole is, we must return two answers. There is the demonic world, in bondage to "Moloch the heavy judger of men" (AG, 131), and an angelic world, in which, as Ginsberg flatly declares in the "Footnote to Howl," "Everything is holy!" (AG, 134). The two worlds, moreover, exist in the same place at the same time. We read of "holy Bronx" (AG, 126), "the supernatural darkness of coldwater Hats" (AG, 126) and "Zen New Jersey" (AG, 127), and we hear Ginsberg exclaim, "Holy the solitudes of skyscrapers and pavements" (AG, 134). Yet we also find the same urban reality treated as the embodiment of the unholy "Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs!" (AG, 131).

Ginsberg seems aware of this contradiction, and at points scattered throughout the poem, he attempts to resolve it. Although Moloch is demonic, there is nonetheless "the Angel in Moloch," stunned perhaps, but never killed or displaced. In a long letter to Richard Eberhart, later published as a monograph, Ginsberg compared "Howl" to "Sunflower Sutra." Just as, in the shorter poem, the poet recognizes and loves the sunflower beneath its coating of industrial grime, so he recognizes in "Howl" an essential self and an essential world beneath the distortions of Moloch. "The effect is to release self and audience from a false and self-denying self-deprecating image of ourselves which makes us feel like smelly shits and not the angels which we most deeply are."

One could justify this division of the world into two superimposed images by various mystical traditions known to Ginsberg: the Gnostic doctrine of the pneuma struggling through a world of darkness toward its home in a world of light; the contradictory higher and lower truths of Buddhism (that all dharmas are empty, yet all dharmas have a conditional existence), reconciled by the middle path; the Hindu belief in the Atman, an essential divine self beneath the secular ego. Supplying traditional precedents absolves Ginsberg from the charge of know-nothing anti-intellectualism. But the trouble with Ginsberg's dualism—as with Manichean dualism—is that it creates an utter chasm between secular intelligence and mystical knowledge. Having made his huge repudiation of existing social reality, Ginsberg has little interest in a more particular account of it, or in secular causality.

Although "Howl" anticipates later confessional poetry, including Ginsberg's own "Kaddish," in its equation of personal and collective crisis, Ginsberg's mystical speculations tempt him to solve the confessional poet's problem of engulfment in false consciousness by a leap of faith rather than by secular moral inquiry. Indeed, it may be his extreme version of the problem of false consciousness that makes the mystical way out so appealing to him. Whereas John Berryman thought that "current American society" was enough to drive people mad, Ginsberg seems at times to think that the problem is the unredeemed condition of the world rather than any particular social evil. There is thus, from the beginning, a conflict between Ginsberg as confessional poet and Ginsberg as religious seeker—or religious prophet. After all, the notion that one's vocation as poet is to be destroyed by madness, bearing witness to that destruction in one's poems, is not very encouraging; Ginsberg can hardly be blamed for wanting to escape from it if possible. But the escape from madness, since the entire secular world is saturated with madness, becomes disturbingly akin to a rejection of secular reality altogether.

The only people in the urban landscape of "Howl" are the isolated "best minds," glimpsed in one-line tableaux as they jump from fire escapes, wander at midnight, or seek transcendence in drugs or "ultimate visions of cunt and come" (AG, 128). The various persons of the opening section are all-but-interchangeable avatars of the Universal Beat, "mind leaping toward poles of Canada and Paterson" (AG, 126), who migrates in the course of the poem from New York through New Jersey, Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas, Colorado, the Southwest, Mexico, Tangiers—only to end up back in New York with Carl Solomon in Rockland. These isolated persons are, as Ginsberg put it in "The Green Automobile," "hidden / like diamonds / in the clock of the world" (AG, 84). The square or Molochian world is a mechanism like a clock; in "Howl" it appears not in persons but in images of buildings or machinery, or it is abstractly summarized as the "shocks of hospitals and jails and wars" (AG, 127). Through this unremittingly hostile environment the "best minds" wander, like awakened Gnostics, looking for a way out, "waiting for a door in the East River to open to a room full of steamheat and opium" (AG, 128). Society and its artifacts are but an elaborate prison, and nature, in this overwhelmingly urban poem, does not exist as an alternative. The world offers nothing for loving contemplation except one's fellow angelic victims.

The entire intersubjective realm of culture, and with it the very landscape, has been devoured by "Moloch." The litany against Moloch in the second section of the poem so easily accommodates a wide range of pent-up grievances against society that one might forget to ask the hard question: what, after all that cathartic frenzy, is Moloch supposed to represent? Capitalism ("Moloch whose blood is running money")? Industrialization ("Moloch whose mind is pure machinery")? Aggression ("Moloch the vast stone of war," AG, 131)? Reason ("Mental Moloch") exalted at the expense of feeling ("Moloch the loveless," AG, 131)? Or denial of religious transcendence, of "Heaven which exists and is everywhere around us" (AG, 132)? Ginsberg's catch-all bill of indictment lacks incisiveness, although it allows him to work up a good rhetorical head of steam.

Peter Michelson, in an article cast in the form of a dialogue between himself and "G. Graph," whom "the reader of critical prose may be tempted to identify . . . with one Gerald Graff," allows "Graph" to argue that Ginsberg's diatribe against Moloch amounts to nothing but "fake" emotion and the sophomoric belief that

if you walk safely with the light across an intersection it's a sign of moral obtuseness, whereas if you walk against the light and get flattened by the bourgeois steamroller it's a revelation of your exquisite moral sensibility. Everything is levitated to a simplistic war between good and evil, and your medal of honor is insanity. Ginsberg's Moloch, when it's not pure bombast, is just paraphrastic sophistry.

Although I find that "Graph" has the better of his antagonist here (and it's just possible that Michelson intended him to), this summary of the case against "Howl" fails to take into account Ginsberg's uncertain attitude toward the concept of madness. Even though the poem does for the most part regard insanity as a "medal of honor," it also raises, if only fitfully, the question of whether "madness" is only society's name for resistance to Moloch, or whether some "madness" really deserves to be called madness. Insanity in this sense would be undesirable to Ginsberg as well as to the squares and would signify the triumph of Moloch rather than rebellion against him. Ginsberg finds it hard to decide whether madness is the helpless internalization of destructive social norms or the defiant refusal to comply with those norms.

As an example of Ginsberg's equivocal attitude toward madness in "Howl," one might follow the progression of thought in the eighth line of Section Two:

 

Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream angels! Crazy in

    Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch!

 

The line begins with a complaint of loneliness. The second exclamation can be understood as arising from this initial thought: nowadays, people who dream angels usually dream alone. But whereas the first exclamation is a cry of pain, the second is more ambiguous. Is it a cry of pain or a cry of triumph? If being lonely is the price of seeking connection to "the starry dynamo in the machinery of night," then perhaps loneliness is better than company. Next comes the thought: "Crazy in Moloch!" To be lonely is bad enough, but to be "crazy" is worse. Is one "crazy" because one dreams angels or because Moloch frustrates the chance of making such a dream into reality. Then the last two exclamations turn to Ginsberg's homosexuality, which in the less tolerant era of "Howl" was itself often considered a form of craziness. The slang pejorative "cocksucker," moreover, reminds us of the contempt with which homosexuality was regarded. In the last of the exclamatory phrases, the loneliness of the first phrase becomes explicitly sexual.

At first glance, this line would seem to be a series of parallel outcries protesting the suffering that Moloch has inflicted. But one can read it in two mutually irreconcilable ways. One might conclude that Ginsberg himself thinks it is a misfortune to be crazy, lonely, and homosexual; he would rather be sane, surrounded by friends, and heterosexual, but Moloch has twisted him, (To make "homosexual" parallel with "lonely" and "crazy" already implies an introjection of the judgment that these adjectives are near-synonyms.) Or one might conclude, with equal warrant from the poem, that to be crazy, lonely, and homosexual is, as Michelson put it, a medal of honor, the sign of one's solitary resistance to Moloch within a subjugated culture. But Ginsberg wants it both ways. He berates Moloch for turning him into a "cocksucker," but he also portrays homosexuality as rebellion against Moloch when he laments, in Section One, that the homosexual contingent of the "angel-headed hipsters"

 

lost their love boys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew

    of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the 

    womb and the one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass 

    and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman's loom.

 

The words "heterosexual dollar" momentarily align heterosexuality with capitalist greed, although Neil Cassady's "innumerable lays of girls" are elsewhere cause for celebration.

Through the eighth line of Section Two, Ginsberg has imagined himself inside Moloch, "the incomprehensible prison," but in the ninth, this spatial relationship is reversed with the cry: "Moloch who entered my mind early!" Moloch's "name is the Mind," but he is an acquired mind; one of his other names is culture. In order to "abandon" Moloch, as Ginsberg claims to do at the end of the section, one must first exorcise him from the self. Thus insanity can be understood, in its laudatory sense, as the refusal of acculturation. If Moloch's name is the mind, and one must abandon him, then one must literally go out of one’s mind.

The question remains, however, whether abandoning the acquired mentality of Moloch restores one to a natural sanity that Moloch had usurped or leaves one so radically estranged that only an innocent but ineffectual holy madness is possible. In the third section of the poem, we find the poet in the madhouse with Carl Solomon, whose insanity is sometimes presented as an affliction. Ginsberg cannot think it entirely angelic that Solomon imagines he has "murdered [his] twelve secretaries," or that "the faculties of the skull no longer admit the worms of the senses." And no reader of "Kaddish" would wish on anyone that he should "imitate the shade of [Ginsberg's] mother." At other times, however, Solomon’s madness becomes a Christ-like redemptive sacrifice, or political revolution, or, as in these lines, both at once:

 

I'm with you in Rockland

    where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body

    again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void

 

I'm with you in Rockland

    where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew 

    socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha

 

I'm with you in Rockland

    where you will split the heavens of Long Island and resurrect your 

    living human Jesus from the superhuman tomb

 

I'm with you in Rockland

    where there are twentyfive-thousand mad comrades all together

    singing the final stanzas of the Internationale. . . .

 

Ginsberg's praise for this wisdom of Solomon—in which madness becomes equated with the "living human" in an inhuman world or with the political alienation of revolutionary "comrades"—echoes through the poetry and politics of the 1960s.

The indictment against Moloch is essentially the one that began to emerge in the conformity critiques of the 1950s and was more completely formulated in more radical writings of the following decade. Like Marcuse and Laing, Ginsberg envisions a repressive social determinism so all-encompassing that the idea of individual agency is lost. The ego has been totally socialized, and only by abandonment to the involuntary impulses of the unconscious id can we act from our own motives rather than those of one-dimensional society. But in this extreme position, the crucial difference between madness and rebellion is lost. The rebel chooses to rebel, being somehow able to make a choice between accepting the demands of society and rejecting them. But the mad go mad because they cannot help it. Madness resists authority only in a minimal way. Once classified as mad, one is no longer held responsible for understanding authority and is therefore excused from compliance with it. The dissenter or revolutionary wants it known that he understands perfectly well what is demanded but does not consent to it. Declare him mad, and you deny the meaning of his resistance. That is why the Soviet government sometimes puts troublemakers in the madhouse rather than in prison. If "madness" could be understood as enclosed in ironic quotation marks, then Ginsberg's affirmation of it as political rebellion might be easier to accept. But sometimes it is madness not only in Moloch's judgment, but in Ginsberg's own. And then it means estrangement from knowledge rather than attainment of gnosis. It becomes an emblem of defeat rather than defiance.

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Criticism Overview
Title Paul Breslin: On "Howl" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Paul Breslin Criticism Target Allen Ginsberg
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 15 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties
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