In this essay, I use a Marxist lens to examine Allen Ginsberg’s controversial and groundbreaking 1956 poem, Howl. Ginsberg, I argue, was surprisingly sensitive to the politics of class in this poem, setting up a dual class system which divided those who were part of Moloch from the “angelheaded hipsters,” who I argue were analogous to Marx’s proletariat. Ginsberg imagined himself as a revolutionary leader for the class of people oppressed by Moloch, who, like Marx’s proletariat, were working together towards the goal of a political revolution. Ginsberg’s angelheaded hipsters were oppressed by Moloch, Ginsberg’s trope for the machinery of Capitalism, which I explore along two political axes: sexual conformity and psychiatry.
In Howl, Ginsberg’s angelheaded hipsters were poets, writers, artists, the mentally ill, the impoverished, the unemployed, drug addicts, homosexuals, visionaries, the disillusioned, criminals, and disenfranchised workers. They were all enslaved by the dollar; they lost their loves “to the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar,” according to Howl. Their disillusionment with society led them to attempt suicide; they “cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully” and “jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge,” but no one cares; they “walked away unknown and forgotten.”
The angelheaded hipsters met Marx’s qualification for a proletariat truly ready for political revolution; they self-actualized, and were keenly aware of their oppression. They “burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism.” Not only did they realize their oppression, but they also recognized and named their oppressor, which was Capitalism, represented as Moloch.
Outside of the poem, Ginsberg and his fellow members of the Beat Generation were real-life versions of these angelheaded hipsters. Paul Whiston was interested in the term Beat as referring to “beaten down,” which he argued is most applicable to the Beat writers who were actually poor and from a working class background, Bukowski and Cassady. Whiston says, “The working-class Beats gave Beat culture its essential material base through which the educated Beats acted as the creative, philosophical and theoretical vanguards…” (4). According to Whiston, Ginsberg was in the perfect position to ignite social revolution because he was an artist. Whiston quotes Herbert Marcuse, who “gives an important role to the artist in assisting revolutionary action. [He] elevates artists into the position where they can challenge the domination of the repressive reality principal and lead the way into a new revolutionary discourse” (11). Through his writing, Ginsberg challenged the “repressive reality principal,” and, as a poet and natural leader, he gave a voice to the oppressed angelheaded hipsters and ignited their revolutionary instincts.
It is important to consider the political and cultural climates Allen Ginsberg and his angelheaded hipsters were rebelling against. After World War II, America became heavily driven by consumerism, which served Capitalism, or Moloch. With the men back from the war, the women now a permanent part of the workforce, and the need to manufacture war apparatuses over, it was necessary to put this hugely expanded labor pool and the factories to work creating “things,” and even more necessary to create a consumer base for these things in order to keep the machinery of Capitalism well-oiled. During World War II, advertising was used as propaganda and became firmly entrenched and fully believed by the American people. Advertising during this period encouraged Americans to plant victory gardens and buy war bonds as part of their civic duty. As a result, Americans came to equate listening to advertisements with patriotism. After the war, advertising created an enforced sameness; through advertising, which was now propaganda for the Capitalist system, you were coerced into thinking you needed the new oven, the new microwave, and the new toaster, because your neighbors had these things, and it was your patriotic duty to continually consume. With everyone focused on over-consuming the same mass-produced products, Ginsberg and his angelheaded hipsters felt “the society they faced was massifying and de-individualizing, while the state, the workplace, the media, and consumer culture appeared to be operating in tandem to require conformity in all times and places” (Johnston, 4).
To resist consumerism was dangerous and threatening. Communism was seen as the ultimate un-American system, and anyone who dared ally with it would be punished, as evidenced through the McCarthy trials and the HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities. A deep paranoia developed in Americans, who were being told they should not trust anyone who was remotely outside of the status quo. Ginsberg and his angelheaded hipsters were disenfranchised with this monotonous, isolated, massified, consumerist culture, and actively fought against it through their lives and their writings.
Ginsberg summed up the evils of this Capitalist, consumerist America with one word: Moloch. Moloch is, according to the second section of Howl, a “sphinx of cement and aluminum [who] bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination.” Moloch is “Solitude! Filth! Ugliness!” Moloch is “the incomprehensible prison…whose mind is pure machinery.” Moloch’s “blood is running money,” and Moloch’s “smokestacks and antennae crown the city.” Moloch’s soul is “electricity and banks.” The angelheaded hipsters “broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven.” These images call to mind the greedy industrialized world of Marx’s time, with endless factories, smokestacks, and filth, corrupted by money, prison, and banks. Little had changed for Ginsberg, who named Moloch in an attempt to take away its power, an act that stemmed from his Jewish background. In Judaism, words can have philosophical and magical significance. “To name someone is to know their secret, and thus to cancel their power” (Ramirez, 57-58). Naming Moloch was a way for Ginsberg and his angelheaded hipsters to limit its power over their lives.
Moloch and its agents form the ownership class and oppress Ginsberg’s angelheaded hipsters. These agents are the machinery of Capitalism, of which I explore two parts: sexual conformity and psychiatry.
The first arm of the machinery of Capitalism, sexual conformity, was a primary point of political rebellion for Ginsberg and his angelheaded hipsters. Sex is politically significant because it involves discipline and control of the body. In his 1955 work, Eros and Civilization, Herbert Marcuse synthesized the theories of Freud and Marx to come to a unique vision of a non-Capitalist society, and he argued that the proletariat can be liberated through the release of repressed sexual energy. Ginsberg’s angelheaded hipsters were seeking liberation through the release of their repressed sexual energies; they embraced sexual freedom and rejected societal and political sexual norms. In Howl, the angelheaded hipsters “balled in the morning and in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may.” The angelheaded hipsters broke multiple sexual norms here by having sex in public places and having multiple partners. Beyond this, though, the most important sexual norm Ginsberg and Howl broke was the cultural repression of homosexuality.
The angelheaded hipsters relished in the pure joy of homosexual relations: they “let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,” and they “blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love.” To speak openly about homosexual relations was a politically loaded gesture during a time when homosexuality was analogous with Communism and was considered a danger and threat to society. A Life magazine photo essay expressed the sentiment of the times when it posed the question, “Do the homosexuals, like the Communists, intend to bury us?” It goes on to describe homosexuality as a “social disorder.” Moloch, in the form of the State, forced sexual conformity by arresting homosexual men. Plain-clothes police hung out in popular gay gathering spots and made frequent arrests; however, they believed they were barely touching the surface of the gay “problem,” and thought, as Life magazine published, “for every obvious homosexual, there are probably nine impossible to detect.”
Ginsberg and the other male members of the Beat Generation were gay, bisexual, or pansexual. Ginsberg hid his homosexuality from his family and even himself for much of his life leading up to writing Howl. Being open about homosexuality with himself and his audience was a turning point. In her essay, Catherine Stimpson says, “In his rage against Moloch, the state, Ginsberg can shout out his anger against the structures that tried to repress the homosexuality he now valorizes” (388). Ginsberg and his angelheaded hipsters’ valorization of homosexuality in Howl openly challenged the dominant sexual paradigm, and, by extension, the dominance of Capitalism, working towards Marcuse’s non-Capitalist society achieved through sexual openness.
The second arm of the machinery of Capitalism is the psychiatric institute. The madhouse was a political institution because it suppressed non-normative behavior and enforced absolute conformity to the system, often through drastic measures, such as lobotomy or electro-shock therapy. In Howl, the angelheaded hipsters “were given…the concrete void of insulin Metrazol electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy” and received “eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals.” In the second section of Howl, Ginsberg specifically named the psychiatric institute as part of Moloch: “Moloch! Invincible madhouses granite cocks.”
Ginsberg was no stranger to madness. His mother, Naomi, was diagnosed as mentally ill, and his exposure from a young age to his mother’s madness normalized the experience for him. Naomi was termed a paranoid schizophrenic, and became convinced that everyone, even her family, was out to get her. In her paranoia, Naomi often trusted no one other than her young son, and Ginsberg’s dad would sometimes ask him to stay home from school with his mother when she was having a particularly bad day and could not be left alone. Eventually, Ginsberg authorized his mother’s frontal lobotomy.
Allen Ginsberg was also institutionalized. He was deemed schizophrenic during his psychiatric hospital stay, a label psychiatrists partially based on an auditory hallucination and vision Ginsberg had in 1948 while masturbating and reading the poetry of William Blake, a typical summer afternoon for the young poet. During his time in the mental hospital, Ginsberg met Carl Solomon, another patient, to whom Howl was eventually dedicated.
The auditory hallucination and vision Ginsberg had were not signs of schizophrenia. The auditory hallucination of William Blake reading his poetry to Ginsberg was very formative for the budding poet, and he later talked about its importance in his artistic development. However, because auditory hallucinations and visions are non-normative and exist outside of the accepted states of consciousness in mainstream society, this was labeled as “crazy” and the psychiatric hospital attempted to categorize, treat, and cure Ginsberg.
Ginsberg’s hallucinatory experience was simply non-narratable in American society. Trigilio says, “For Ginsberg, madness is an institutional name for alienated states of consciousness that are non-narratable in the modern world” (6). This idea arises from the antipsychiatry movement, “a postwar shift in mind science that investigated whether the demonized experiences of mental patients might actually model visionary states of consciousness” (Trigilio, 2). Martin Wasserman offers the idea that madness is actually a four-stage developmental process ultimately culminating in a religious experience and the betterment of the individual if allowed to progress (145). By stopping people in the early stages of madness, psychiatric institutions sought to “normalize” them, but kept them from reaching the final stage of madness: “The reconstruction with insight world view” (Wasserman, 146).
Ginsberg was lucky to be discharged from the mental hospital and have his schizophrenia label retracted due to the efforts of a bright young psychiatrist who strayed from the established position of his institution to recognize that Ginsberg’s hallucination was “not a form of insanity but a consequence of alienation” (Wasserman, 149). Hearing this helped Ginsberg come to terms with his hallucination, and he began to embrace it instead of suppressing it and his feelings surrounding the occurrence. Thus, Ginsberg was able to reach the final “reconstruction with insight world view” stage of madness, and he used the religious experience of the hallucination to propel his career as a poet forward.
Most other people to pass through the doors of 1950s madhouses were not so lucky, though, and were labeled as insane and stayed that way for the rest of their lives, which were very often cut short by barbaric psychiatric treatments, like insulin shock therapy, which induced coma and seizures in patients through insulin injection. In this way, psychiatric institutions enforced cultural hegemony and acted as an agent of Moloch by literally destroying the minds through medication and treatments of perfectly sane people who simply saw the world differently from the mass conformist populous of America. Imagine if Allen Ginsberg had retained his label of schizophrenia and remained a prisoner of the psychiatric hospital for the rest of his life. We would have lost one of the best minds of his generation, and the angelheaded hipsters would have lost their voice.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1959. Print.
Johnston, Allan. “Consumption, Addiction, Vision, Energy: Political Economies and Utopian Visions in the Writings of the Beat Generation” College Literature 32.2. (2005): pages 103-126. Online.
Ramirez, J. Jesse. “The Ghosts of Radicalisms Past: Allen Ginsberg’s Old Left Nightmares.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 69.1 (2013): pages 47-71. Online.
Stimpson, Catharine. “The Beat Generation and the Trials of Homosexual Liberation” Salmagundi 58/59. (1983): pages 373-392. Online.
Trigilio, Tony. “Sanity a Trick of Agreement: Madness and Doubt in Ginsberg’s Prophetic Poetry Strange Prophesies Anew: Rereading Apocalypse in Blake, H.D, and Ginsberg.” Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000. Print.
Wasserman, Martin. “Madness as a Religious Experience.” Journal of Religion and Health 21.2 (1982): pages 145-151. Online.
Whiston, Paul. “The Working Class Beats: a Marxist Analysis of Beat Writing and Culture from the Fifties to the Seventies.” Sheffield Online Papers in Social Research 2 (2000): pages 1-37. Online.