Beatdom Content

Insanity in Ginsberg’s and Epstein’s Howl from a Foucauldian Point of View

…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

-Jack Kerouac

Almost 70 years after it was first published, Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” stands as a colossal monument dedicated to the “best minds” of his “generation destroyed by madness” (Ginsberg, 1).  It is a manifestation of the madness and insanity of a whole generation after the Second World War, whose great hopes of long-term peace, and of prosperity and relief, had been annihilated, and of a generation that was decentralized politically, morally, emotionally, and existentially. These were the children and grandsons of the Lost Generation, who were raised in the desperate barren lands of T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland”, who “cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, / And the dry stone no sound of water” (Eliot, 5), and whose holy souls were burnt down under the incendiary light of “Moloch”, who were defying the norms of the status-quo and “machinery of the night” (Ginsberg, 1). The main and sole purpose of this essay is to concentrate on the bliss of madness in Ginsberg’s “Howl”, and thus in the film Howl by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, as a confrontation and defiance of the status-quo and tools of power – the very tools that strip the population of thinking, dreaming, and experiencing life to its fullest extent whilst governing the minds and souls by stifling the space of mind, physical existence, and also thinking capacities in the general sense. Hence, the focus of the essay will be the concept of insanity in both the poem and the film as being a defiance of power in terms of dispositif (apparatus), great confinement theory and governmentality.  The first term is used by Foucault to indicate the various institutional, physical, and administrative mechanisms and knowledge structures that enhance and maintain the exercise of power within the social body. The second theory is the confinement of the unwanted and unnecessary individuals that have been judged in need of confinement for the prosperity and wealth of the majority, thus creating the notion of “insanity”, while placing authoritative power into the hands of mental institutions and doctors. The final theory is the sum of all techniques and procedures that are designed to govern the conduct of both individuals and populations at every level, beyond just the administrative or political.

Naturally, there are many academic works on the poem handling it within a historical context, and also focusing on its imagery in terms of homosexuality, eroticism, and also insanity and popular heroism, such as “Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’: Sexuality and Popular Heroism in 50s America” by Nick Selby, or “Madness and Modernism: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”—Fifty Years Later” by Sherry Lutz Zivley. Furthermore, the book American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation by Jonah Raskin stands as a detailed work on Ginsberg’s poem and will also be used as a secondary source for this essay. However, this essay focuses on the concept of insanity both in the poem and the film from a Foucauldian point of view. Also, it is found that there are very limited sources and research on the film directed by Epstein and Friedman. Therefore, the main purpose of this essay is to provide a philosophical basis and background in terms of power/knowledge relations and sanity/insanity dichotomy as a way of existence within the social bodies, society, and systems that also incarnate in both the poem and film.

First of all, in order to understand the burning soul of the poem, one must grasp the background and historical context of 1950s American counter-culture and, moreover, the Beat Generation. After the Second World War, including the massive destruction as well as the first devastating use of the atom bomb in the Far East, the psychological nuclear fallout did not show its face until 1948. As Ginsberg puts it, “There was the splitting of the atom, and the splitting of the old structures in society and also a sense of the inner world splitting up and coming apart” (Raskin, 15). The atomization, fragmentation, and decentralization of the children of the Cold War Era dictated a new language in order to express bittersweet mixture of disappointment, mistrust towards authority, and the future, as well as the pain and angst as a response to these emotions. There was a generation whose sanity was sacrificed to the great “Moloch”, the glutton, greedy, and consuming machinery of capitalism that rejected or marginalized each and every individual who refused to be a part of its own, to obey authority and tradition, and to be subordinated.

Accurately termed by Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation was the reflection of a backlash to this suppression, which was composed of the residents of a sub-culture, the hipsters of San Francisco, angry black and white men and women who were beaten down by the cruelty of facts such as irreversible hunger of war demonstrated by their government, the hypocritical norms and conventions of their society, and more importantly, the ones whose souls were yearning and crawling to light up in the darkness, refusing to fade away. Plunged into sex, drugs, and a bohemian life, the beats tried to alleviate the pain of existence in a way that was not approved of by the general public. In the words of John Clellon Holmes:

The origins “beat” are obscure, but the meaning is only too clear to most Americans. More than mere weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, invokes a sort of nakedness of mind, and ultimately of soul; a feeling reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. In short, it means being pushed up against the wall of oneself. A man is beat when he goes for broke and wagers the sum of his resources on a single number; and the young has done that from early youth (Tamony, 2).

This weary “beat” was transformed into a schizophrenic scream and act of defiance in Ginsberg’s “Howl”. The insanity of the minds confined behind the bars and asylums of the modern age was embodied and sanctioned in Ginsberg’s stanzas: “yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars” (Ginsberg, 2). “Howl” was a lamentation for the lost souls and naked minds of the twentieth century. On the other hand, it was a celebration of madness and insanity, which was liberation from the manipulative and normative conforming side of society. In order to understand this liberation as a whole, it is inevitable to look closely at the tools and power relations between this generation and the state of their position within the society. In order to do that, the first concept to be utilized is apparatus.

First of all, the definition of the term of apparatus or dispositif (with a closer meaning to its origin in French), used by Foucault first appeared in Histoire de la sexualité, in a chapter called “Le dispositif de sexualité” (Foucault 1976, 99-173) needs to be elaborated upon. The clearest meaning of the term can be explained by Foucault’s own words when he was asked about it during an interview:

What I try to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions – in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements. Secondly, what I am trying to identify in this apparatus is precisely the nature of the connection that can exist between these heterogeneous elements. […] between these elements, whether discursive or non-discursive, there is a sort of interplay of shifts of position and modifications of function which can also vary very widely. Thirdly, I understand by the term “apparatus” a sort of – shall we say – formation which has as its major function at a given historical moment that of responding to an urgent need. The apparatus thus has a dominant strategic function (Foucault 1980, 194-195).

Ginsberg’s “Howl” in that sense is a celebration of the madness and Dionysian side of the mind that confronted the status quo, and that disturbed the flow of the mainstream mindset of the society of the era. Furthermore, it challenged the repression via apparatus in relation to the expression of insanity. The poem is an exclamation and the collective saga of a generation that sacrificed its sanity to the machinery, as is evident through these lines in the poem:

who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night (Ginsberg,1)

The choice of words and the imagery is a challenge to the status quo in a sense: “who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull” (Ginsberg, 1). This is the voice of the outcasts, as well as a stance against the apparatus—all of the subtle and unsaid, all the institutions, discourses, traditions, and mainstream customs that constituted the zeitgeist of the era. In order to clarify the era’s zeitgeist, it can be said that it was an atomic age marked by McCarthyist red scare and conformist conservatism. In that sense, the imageries in the poem are in direct opposition to the apparatus of these notions in terms of power relations—that is, the very power relations that drew the generation that challenged the government and its power tools out to the borders of the society, thus leaving them isolated and dysfunctional. The insanity in that sense becomes a way of emancipating the mind, soul, and thoughts from the stifling dispositif of the suppression tools. Consequently, the celebration of insanity is the beatification of the essence of the mind and soul in the poem. It is a salvation from the “Moloch” (Ginsberg, 4).

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in Howl

On the other hand, in Epstein and Friedman’s film, the imagery of insanity is abundant in relation to the challenge against the apparatus in terms of power relations between the government and the subcultural environment of the Beats. The smooth lap dissolves between the Ginsberg’s typewriter and the character played by James Franco, and the animation of the imagery of the poem is a visual feast reflecting and illustrating the essential feeling of the poem. For instance, the atmosphere of insanity as a challenge to the suppression tools and dispositif of the government is visualized with copulating couples in the womb falling from the heaven among the skyscrapers to the city naked accompanied with the lines of the poem: “who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz” (Ginsberg, 1).  This is the representation of a return to essence and innocence in a way; the primal one is the soul that connects the individual to the collective one that is on the verge of insanity, on the outer borders of society. Also, another visualization of the imagery in relation to the insanity in the film can be well exemplified with the lap dissolves in the animation from the mountains, and with piles of books to the valleys of dim, dark skulls synchronized through the lines of the poem “who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war” (Ginsberg, 1). This again is a reference to the scholastic war that has been conducted against the opponents of the era: the leftists, beats, hipsters, people of color, and so on. Epstein and Friedman’s film Howl furthermore explores the visual imagery of the apparatus defined in the poem. These included the tools that surrounded the society through academic, mental, social, psychological, institutional, and constitutional channels. The sanity of a whole generation became so unfit and unacceptable that it had to be confined through dispositif, and labeled insane. It had to be tamed and controlled, or else it had to be outcast or isolated from the society.

That is exactly what brings us to the second concept, which was comprehensively elaborated by Foucault in his book, History of Madness, in relation to the main theme of insanity, which this essay focuses on through the poem and the film. First of all, the great confinement theory must be understood in order to do that. Foucault contends that at the dawn of the age of reason, in the mid-seventeenth century, the rational response to the mad, which until that point had been consigned to society’s margins, was to separate them completely from society by confining them—along with prostitutes, vagrants, blasphemers and the like—in newly created institutions all over Europe through a process he calls “the Great Confinement”. It was a response and mechanism to confine, isolate, tame, control, and contain those who were unwanted, mad, insane, and sick, including the dysfunctional individuals of society. Anyone who does not serve the better needs of the society or the greater good of the general needed to be contained or controlled. He argues that the conceptual distinction between the mad and the rational was, in a sense, a product of this physical separation into confinement. Confinement made the mad conveniently available to medical doctors who began to view madness as a natural object worthy of study, and then as an illness to be cured.

Ginsberg’s “Howl” in relation to the great confinement theory is the voice of those who were confined in 1950s America. It is actually the Ship of Fools that gently floats through the time with its madmen, crazy outcast academics, writers, homosexuals, “angel-headed hipsters”, and so on (Ginsberg, 1). The second and third sections of the poem completely deal with the concept of confinement. It is the epitome of the confinement theory of the modern age.

This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #19, which can be purchased on Amazon as both paper and Kindle publications.

Beatdom #19 Cover
Ginsberg Essay

While trying to confine or to outcast madness and insanity, society also produces and germinates the madness itself. Foucault’s conceptualization of this binary relation between madness and the rationale is well-illustrated by his words: “…the relationship of a culture to the very thing that it excludes, and more precisely the relationship between our own culture and that truth about itself which, distant and inverted, it uncovers and covers up in madness.” (Madness, the Absence of Ouvre, 2). The stigmatized “mad” persons were the very children of the society who were created by the society itself through the institutions, asylums, madhouses, and abandoned corners of the well-preserved cities. Foucault’s great confinement theory’s poetic reflections find their places remarkably in the third section of the poem, which is dedicated to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met in an asylum. Solomon underwent shock therapy and drug therapies in order to be “cured”. Ginsberg calls out to his confined friend Solomon in the asylum with such lines “I’m with you in Rockland / where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse” (Ginsberg, 6).

In the film, the imagery of the insanity in relation to the great confinement theory is embodied with the visualization of the Moloch, which seems to be a great metallic and capitalistic monster standing in front of the people where they offered their children among the flames to it. The scenery accompanying the lines “Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body! Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy! Moloch whom I abandon! Wake up in Moloch! Light streaming out of the sky!” (Ginsberg, 5) visualizes the young boys who are watching the Moloch in awe, and who turned into soldiers with helmets suddenly fallen upon their heads from the sky and eventually marching as troops. This is the exact visualization of confinement theory argued by Foucault; it is the modern confinement of individuals whose minds and souls have been captured by Moloch. These are people thrown into jails and asylums, where attempts are made to convert their minds into something acceptable to the mainstream conventions, and to the customs of the era’s society. Fortunately, this attempt was unsuccessful, and the voice of that generation was raised and reflected in both the poem and thus in the film.

Lastly, the concept of insanity in both the poem and the film will be analyzed as a confrontation against Foucault’s notion of governmentality. The concept essentially means “the conduct of conduct”, encapsulating the organized practices such as mentalities, rationalities, and techniques through which the subjects are governed. Foucault explains his concept as follows:

The contact point, where the individuals are driven by others is tied to the way they conduct themselves, is what we can call, I think government. Governing people, in the broad meaning of the word, governing people is not a way to force people to do what the governor wants; it is always a versatile equilibrium, with complementarity and conflictsbetween techniques which assure coercion and processes through which the self is constructed or modified by himself (Foucault 1993, p. 203-4).

Therefore, the main theme of insanity in Ginsberg’s poem appears as a stance against governmentality in a broader sense. This is the mentality that forces the generation into the outer borders of the society, not just by the government or institutions, but also its subjects, who had internalized the concept of governmentality. One of the most distinct instances of this governmentality apart from the imagery in the poem or film in the real life is the obscenity trial brought against City Lights, which published Howl and Other Poems in 1956. The books were confiscated, and the charges were pressed against the chief editor of the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for obscene content. This was an exact reflection of the governmentality of the era, the government rationale, and also the general public opinion, which stated that the poem was indeed heterodox. However, after a long trial the charges were dropped, and City Lights was exonerated. Actually, it was public hysteria that condemned a poem for being too open and containing obscene words without holding any social value. On the other hand, the insanity theme throughout the poem was a naked truth that was ignored for far too long. Now, the elephant in the room could no longer be overlooked. Strangely enough, the trial made the poem even more famous.

When it comes to the imagery in the poem, “Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!” lines reflects such governmentality that re-shapes and re-creates an individual’s mind, body, and soul. In that sense, it can be said that this is a conduct not only controlled by the state or the government but also domination by the subjects over the others, too. “It follows that Foucault identifies three types of power relations: strategic games between liberties, government, and domination” (Lemke, 5).At this point, the insanity becomes again a way of emancipation against governmentality, not in an escapist form but rather in a confrontationist form. It defies the power tools of govermentality and the power relations. The confrontation ends up with a transcended finalization, thus recovering the soul and mind of the madmen from the hands of Moloch – i.e. the capitalist suppressing dominant machinery of modern age- with such lines:

Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!

The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!

Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel! (Footnote to Howl).

It is the total celebration of the maddened soul and mind which, in one sense, is a total celebration of the defiance of the victory of humanistic values, the saved soul at the cost of a sacrificed sanity.

In the film, the defiance to govermentality is much more significant in the scenes of the obscenity trial. In the scene where the prosecutor asks the witness “What are angel-headed hipsters?”, the court reflects the exact governmentality when contrasted with a real scene of bebop youth dancing high in the footage. This is the contrast between the reality and governmentality of the age. Moreover, the other witnesses who have been called to testify against the poem reflect upon the “control of others by others” in such a way that even a poem can be disturbing to a whole society, and can be collectively responded to in a negative way.

The symbolism and imagery of govermentality is well articulated in the film through animation. For instance, the scene that accompanies the lines of the poem “who demanded sanity trials accusing the radio of hypnotism & were left with their insanity & their hands & a hung jury” (Ginsberg, 4) shows Masonic symbolism and the judge’s gavel, which condemns the unorthodox conducts and way of existence. It also alludes Ginsberg’s own paranoia of radio hypnotism, as well.

As a conclusion, the poem and film of “Howl” may only seem a chronicle of a certain generation or a literary movement, but also it is a liberation movement and victory of insanity over sanity in time, defying the apparatus of the state, government, the modern age confinement theory, as well as governmentality, not only in the state sense but also in the sense of a stance against the subjectivation of the masses. The philosophical background to the poem and the film also suggests that the main theme of insanity in both works serves as a tool for the positioning the individuals, and as a social and literal group of people outside the mainstream, rendering them as part of a literal generation in the years to come. Also that very philosophical basis reveals the relationship between this generation and the authorities, between the position of the poem and the film within the historical context in terms of the power/knowledge relation from the point of view of sanity/insanity.


Eliot, T. S., The Waste Land: and Other Poems. London:Faber and Faber, 1999.
Epstein, Robert P., et al. Howl.

Foucault, Michel. 1993: About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self (Transcription of two lectures in Darthmouth on Nov. 17 and 24, 1980), ed. by Mark Blasius, in: Political Theory, Vol. 21, No. 2, May, 1993, pp. 198-227.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Foucault, Michel. “Madness, the absence of anœuvre” In History of Madness, edited by Jean Khalfa, pp. 541-549. Routledge, 2006. Original Publication: Histoire de la folie à l’âgeclassique (Gallimard, 1972)

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge. a Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-77. Pantheon Books, 1980.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl. Museum of American Poetics Publications, 2006.

Lemke, Thomas. Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016.
Raskin, Jonah. American Scream: AllenGinsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Tamony, Peter. “Beat Generation: Beat: Beatniks.” Western Folklore, vol. 28, no. 4, 1969, pp. 274–277. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Türkü Naz Altınay

Türkü Naz Altınay is a graduate student of American Culture & Literature at Doküz Eylül University in Izmir, Turkey. In addition to having completed her undergraduate studies in the same field at Ege University in 2014, she has also translated numerous books and scholarly literary articles from English into Turkish.

Recent Posts

Review: The Beats, Black Mountain, and New Modes in American Poetry

The latest in Clemson University’s Beat Studies series is The Beats, Black Mountain, and New…

2 weeks ago

New Release: High White Notes

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Hunter S. Thompson’s landmark “Fear and…

4 weeks ago

Fear and Loathing at 50: A Misunderstood American Classic

Fifty years ago today, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was first published on the…

4 weeks ago

Corso Preferred America

Scholar Glenn Sheldon puts Beat poet Gregory Corso on trial in his book, South of…

1 month ago

Spring and Autumn Annals / Revolutionary Letters (Reviews)

Spring and Autumn Annals: A Celebration of the Seasons for Freddie, by Diane di Prima…

2 months ago

The Birth of a Writer

The following is a short excerpt from David S. Wills' forthcoming High White Notes: The…

2 months ago

This website uses cookies.