Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes,
While I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up
all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud
listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phono-
the rhythm the rhythm – and your memory in my head three
years after – And read Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas
aloud – wept, realizing how we suffer –
Written over the course of forty sleepless hours and fuelled by morphine, coffee, speed, boiled eggs, and methamphetamine1, Ginsberg’s prose poem Kaddish is primarily an elegy dedicated to his mother Naomi. Naomi had died three years previously, after a long decline into severe mental illness, and had been buried without the Kaddish, (the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning) being said for her. Ginsberg wrote this poem in part as a form of spiritual and emotional closure, a sorely-needed conclusion to her life.
As well as honouring her memory before God, Kaddish serves as a biography of Naomi, chronicling her descent into a paranoid, delusive state that destroyed the last remnants of the Ginsberg family’s cohesion. Recollections of Naomi’s former grace and youth, such as the image of the “Communist beauty” playing the mandolin cross-legged on the grass in “left-wing summer camps” give way to recounts of her paranoia and suspicion, where she sees “mystical assassins from Newark” and “Hitlerian invisible gas” in every shadow, emphasising the tragedy of her transformation into the “varicosed, nude, fat, doomed” and eventually lobotomised ruin of her former self.
However, it would be wrong to claim that the poem is solely about Naomi and her degeneration into madness – Ginsberg traces his own emotional and personal development over the course of the narrative, displaying his characteristic uses of irregular meter articulated to his breathing and cadence2 while speaking, as well as “eyeball kicks” – incongruous and irreverent words placed next to each other. More obvious when listening to or reciting the poem aloud, these devices help to channel the fragmented, stream of consciousness tone of Kaddish, delivering an immensely personal – yet universally relatable narrative of insanity, lust, loss, disillusionment, and finally, acceptance.
In order to fully understand the impact of Naomi’s death upon the poem’s surviving protagonists, it is essential to follow the emotional development of Ginsberg’s persona across the poem’s chronology. From here on in, “Ginsberg” will refer to him in his capacity as the poem’s creator, whereas “Allen” will refer to him as the persona who narrates it. If you’ll forgive the psychoanalytic tone, insight into Allen’s thought processes are crucial to developing a complete understanding of his relationship with Naomi.
Although the grotesque imagery of Naomi’s empty-socketed skull conjured up by the opening line’s funereal “gone without corsets & eyes” may suggest that Allen has rationally accepted her death from the poem’s outset, the bizarrely unemotive “strange” makes it clear that he has not yet come to terms with the emotional impact of her loss. Indeed, it is not until he looks to the external, rather than the internal, world for emotional solidarity that the despair sets in – through reading “Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud” (Shelley’s poetic elegy for Keats), Allen begins the journey towards a true understanding of the nature of loss. In Part I of Kaddish, before commencing his narration of his mother’s life, Ginsberg adopts a metaphysical and contemplative tone as Allen attempts to make sense of death from a philosophical perspective – as if Naomi’s life can only make sense in the broader theological context of her death. Reflecting briefly on her childhood, when she arrived in America as an immigrant from Russia, Allen proceeds to explore the concept of death as an escape, claiming that Naomi is “done with [her] century” and that “Death let [her] out.” He finds solace in death as an end to her suffering. From this decidedly nihilistic perspective, Kaddish could almost be interpreted as a celebration of death (“that remedy all singers dream of”), were it not for the intense displays of grief and mourning that suggest no more positive an approach than acceptance of its inevitability – loss is personified as “a lion that eats the soul”, a fearsome and predatory image rather than one of stoic acceptance. Allen expresses a clear emotional conflict between grief for the loss of his mother, and relief that she is no longer suffering – the shifting balance of these two opposing sentiments is the crux of his personal development as the poem progresses.
By this deconstruction of the fierce emotional conflict that haunts the reader throughout Kaddish, we can better understand both protagonists in the context of Allen’s emotional development. One critic suggests that despite problems with the method, a “suspicious” literary approach, wherein the reader holds the text and the narrator to be unreliable, and looks for meaning more through what is omitted or presented strangely (as in the case of my own analysis of the choice of opening word, “strange”), can give us valuable insight into the poem.6 Certainly, adopting a suspicious approach is vital when dealing with Naomi’s schizophrenia – the reader has no choice but to dismiss her paranoid visions of “fascists!” and “murderers!” as delusions of persecution; in order to be able to follow the narrative coherently, one cannot afford to indulge Naomi in her hallucinations. From this pre-existing angle of suspicion the reader holds with respect to Naomi, it is no great leap to apply a similar attitude to Allen’s behaviour as we stray from the traditional literary idea of the narrator as the infallible voice of reason, and strive to gain a deeper understanding of Kaddish through our skepticism.
Rather than purely a celebration or a condemnation of death, as a literary construct Kaddish is perhaps best viewed as an act of catharsis – Ginsberg’s declarations of grief through the medium of verse serve to release the emotions he is initially unable to express, having been repressed under the flat and impersonal “strange” and through philosophical meditations on death. As Part II of the poem nears its conclusion, Allen no longer conceals his loss through attempts to celebrate death, nor does he try to understand it through the lens of Hebrew theology; instead he openly mourns for his “holy mother” and “longs to hear her voice again”, immortalising the happier image of her as the “Communist beauty….crowned with flowers” through his acceptance of her decline and death. This signals Allen’s progression to the final form of mourning – rational and emotional resignation to her loss, while preserving his memories of her in her most pure and joyful form.
In this respect, Kaddish could be read structurally as a contemporary literary example of the concept of katabasis in comparative mythology – a mytheme in which the protagonist descends into the underworld and returns with heightened wisdom or virtue – a spiritual rebirth, so to speak. Psychologist Carl Jung applied this concept to psychoanalysis through the idea of Nekyia – the attainment of wisdom and insight “through the introversion of the conscious mind into the deeper layers of the unconscious psyche”, and this is one way through which Allen’s emotional journey over the course of Kaddish can be interpreted.3 Throughout the poem, Allen represses his conflicted sentiments for Naomi through the use of what Freud termed “ego defence mechanisms” – projection, the transference of negative emotion onto others such his father Louis and brother Eugene, reaction formation (acting in a manner antithetical to his repressed emotions) in his philosophical celebration of her death, and self-deprecation – diverging from the main narrative to ridicule his childhood ambitions to be “President, or Senator…”. In his 1977 paper “Allen Ginsberg: The Origins of ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish,’” Breslin suggests that Allen’s response to his mother’s attempts to seduce him, that of viewing the interaction through a psychoanalytic lens himself – “seemed perhaps a good idea to try – know the Monster of the Beginning Womb….Would she care? She needs a lover” is in itself an act of rationalisation – “pretending to be open and at ease about incestuous desire…affecting sophisticated [psychoanalytical] awareness” is just another way for Allen to repress his conflicted emotions towards Naomi.4 In any case, it is clear that Allen’s journey from stoicism and repression, through grief and mourning, then finally to acceptance and newfound spirituality is an archetypal example of Jungian katabasis – a descent from relative stability into chaotic emotional turmoil, then the rebirth and rejuvenation of the psyche once insight is obtained.
Interestingly, Ginsberg’s most famous poem, Howl, has also been interpreted as an example of Jungian katabasis or nekyia5 – the anonymous “best minds” of Ginsberg’s generation are alienated and sacrificed at the altar of capitalist, conformist society, its evils personified as the Biblical deity Moloch. The collective protagonists of Howl are trapped in a downward spiral of hedonistic self-destruction as an escape from social oppression, but their metaphorical death is presented as a Messianic act of sacrifice, “with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.” Although the protagonists may be “destroyed by madness”, their deaths are not in vain, as the art and literature they created both redeems them in the eyes of society, and redeems society in the eyes of the sacrificed.
Processing the character development of Naomi over the course of Kaddish through this suspicious and psychoanalytic methodology can grant us similar insights into the poem and its message. As Naomi’s illness worsens and she transitions to and from psychosis and remission, Ginsberg’s use of imagery to construct a persona is altered significantly. After her first nervous breakdown in 1919, she journeys to New York to make her recovery, and it is here that Allen first discusses the image of Naomi he eventually memorialises as an example of her at her most lucid and maternal; a beautiful young woman sitting on the grass with her “long hair wound with flowers – smiling – playing lullabies on mandoline…in left-wing summer camps and me in infancy”. This vision is later returned to after Naomi’s final descent into madness, as Allen eulogises the “Communist beauty” with “long black hair crowned with flowers”, praying for her to “sit here married in the summer among daisies, promised happiness at hand.” After her death, similar images of nature and purity are invoked: Naomi’s final address to Allen prophesies over “the key in the sunlight at the window”, his final reply in Part IV refers to her “Death full of Flowers”, and his pleas of “Lord” for her salvation in the afterlife merge with the shrieks of crows to form a unified “Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord” in the poem’s conclusion. From this, Naomi’s death can be seen not only as a return to nature, but as a return to the harmonious and idealised symbol of purity she represented in Allen’s memories of her before her madness.
However, when dealing with the morbid and visceral progression of her schizophrenia, Ginsberg eschews natural imagery to instead focus on the artificial and the urban, the clinical and austere hell of the institutions and tenements in which the “communist sister loses her revolution.” Reflecting the traditional psychoanalytic model of neurosis as a result of conflict between natural human drives and the social demands of civilisation,7 manifestations of her illness are consistently paired with images of modernity, enclosure and institutionalism. Initial paranoia over “mystical assassins from Newark” and “invisible bugs and Jewish sickness” walking through Paterson soon descends into delusions of “cosmic financial murder plots”, “bugs of Mussolini” and thought control from “radio gossip thru the wires in her head”. Her madness culminates in accusing her family of being spies and plotters in a fascist conspiracy to have her killed, and she is institutionalised for the final time, having electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomy forced upon her until she loses her memory, becoming a “small broken woman….ward greyness on skin”.
This pairing of imagery could be seen as another literary example of Ginsberg’s distrust of psychiatry, and an embodiment of the Beat Generation’s broader sense of anti-establishmentarianism – Ginsberg was forced to spend several months in a mental institution after pleading insanity in a trial for possessing stolen goods8, which, along with Naomi’s illness and the inability of psychiatry to alleviate her symptoms, is likely to have influenced his perspective on institutionalisation. Howl also heavily criticises contemporaneous mental health practices, particularly in Part III, addressed to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met during his own institutionalisation. Allen’s persona in Howl declares his solidarity with Solomon who is incarcerated in the mental hospital “Rockland”, as they proclaim that “the soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse”, and condemns the electroshock therapy Solomon is subjected to, stating that “fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void”. Indeed, Part III concludes with the emotional climax of Solomon’s metaphorical liberation from Rockland, as they “wake up electrified out of the coma by [their] own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof”, and “the hospital illuminates itself, imaginary walls collapse”. Similarly to Kaddish, modernist attempts to enforce a subjective ideal of mental health through psychiatry are condemned as a confinement and repression of human nature, an enslavement of the “innocent and immortal” soul.
If Allen’s emotional progression over the course of Kaddish can be seen as an example of Jungian katabasis, the course of Naomi’s illness could also be interpreted this way; albeit as a subversion of the concept, in that her eventual spiritual enlightenment and release is only actualised through her death, when she finally finds “no more suffering”. Early images of her vitality, love, and beauty give way to the destruction of her psyche through schizophrenia, institutionalisation, electroshock therapy, stroke, and lobotomy – “learning to be mad in a dream” – until “death [has] the mercy” to bring her release and remedy from her suffering, transcending the trauma and misery of life to instead be immortalised in verse and memory as the “holy mother” with her world “born anew”.
Alternatively, the development of Naomi could be interpreted as a postmodern twist on the concept of a tragic hero in classical Greek drama, in fitting with the idea of Kaddish as a form of literary catharsis for Ginsberg, and with Arthur Miller’s concept of tragedy of the common man, arguing that every individual is capable of becoming a tragic figure through their struggle for identity in a chaotic world.9 The commonly accepted definition of a tragic Aristotelian hero10 describes several narrative devices to be archetypal: an unsuccessful struggle against fate or external forces, a fatal flaw leading to their downfall, catharsis of the reader or narrator, the eventual enlightenment, redemption, or insight through their defeat, and a revelation of the hero’s true identity. The character of Naomi fits the majority of these criteria, while subverting the final one.
Allen’s interpretation of Naomi’s mental struggle as being against seemingly predetermined external forces fulfils the first criterion of tragedy; in the days leading up to her first episode of institutionalisation, she is left “to Parcae in Lakewood’s haunted house”. The Roman parallel to the Moirae of Greek mythology, “Parcae” refers to the three Fates, (Nona, Decima, and Morta) – feminine personifications of destiny, who wove and cut threads to control the lives of mortals. Naomi is also referred to as “doomed”, reiterating the concept of her illness as a constant struggle in a losing battle against her own personal fate. Her fight is unsuccessful in the context of both the poem’s narrative and her personal delusions – in reality, she fails to maintain her precarious grasp on her own sanity and the Ginsberg family’s stability, while in the narrative of her hallucinations, she fails to protect herself from the multitude of threats that conspire to kill her – “Hitler, Grandma, the Capitalists, Franco, Daily News, Mussolini”. Naomi’s fatal flaw, or hamartia, is her “mad idealism” – the heroic quality of her boundless love for her family and her sympathetic and altruistic devotion to the Communist ideology – this idealism precipitates her inability to accept information inconsistent with her worldview, which eventually causes the onset of her delusions, setting the events that lead to her downfall in motion. Catharsis, as previously discussed, occurs through Allen’s own emotional development over the course of Kaddish – the katabasis of his descent from repression into turmoil, followed by his rejuvenation from grief towards acceptance; Naomi’s eventual redemption takes place through her death, delivering her from suffering and insanity to be reborn as the immortal “holy mother”.
It is the final criterion for tragic heroism that Kaddish subverts – rather than a revelation of Naomi’s identity as Part II draws to a close, a destruction of her identity takes place as electroshock therapy, worsening schizophrenia, stroke and lobotomy destroy the last remnants of the former “blessed daughter come to America” and the sanity she fought desperately to keep. However, this criterion for tragic heroism is fulfilled if we interpret Kaddish as an attempt to reconstruct and memorialise her identity in its purest form – the image of maternal tranquillity that is epitomised in the “Communist beauty”. If we are to interpret the poem this way, and Naomi as a doomed Aristotelian tragic heroine, philosophical questions of fate and predestination become vital – can acts carried out through one’s own volition, but based on a delusional view of reality, be classed as free will?
The final aspect of the poem which we shall examine through a suspicious approach is Ginsberg’s alleged motive for memorialising Naomi in this way – his claim that Kaddish is an exorcism of sorts, written to put her memory to rest, to “talk to you like I didn’t when you had a mouth”. However, as we analyse the poem more closely, many other motives are suggested. Kaddish could be interpreted as a work of confessional poetry – flaunting traditional social taboos by tackling issues of mental illness, sexuality, family and the psyche in great personal detail in order to come to a deeper understanding of the individual. There are several aspects of Ginsberg’s life that Kaddish can be read as confessional, some of them even on a more literal level, as in a “confession” and atonement for his perceived shortcomings or misdeeds.
Firstly, the poem could be seen as an admission of guilt for their collective inability to hold the family together in the face of adversity and tragedy. The remnants of her husband Louis’ spirit are “killed by [her] ecstasy”, and he enters a state of deep depression, with Allen recounting that he “ate grief, forlorn” until he re-established himself with another girl, scarred by “20 years Naomi’s mad idealism”. Allen’s brother, Eugene, is portrayed as lost and directionless, drifting between the “failure doorsteps” of law, teaching, and the army before coming home “changed and alone” and ending up in an unfulfilling, dead-end career “hiding at 125th street, suing Negroes for money on crud furniture”. A theme of guilt for repressed resentment of Naomi can also be detected, as Allen is driven to disgust by his mother’s stubborn paranoia and delusion, on one occasion wishing “she were safe in her coffin”. It is also likely that any guilt also stems from his inability to emotionally connect to her while she was still alive, meaning to talk to her “as [he] didn’t when [she] had a mouth”, and sitting with her in “comfortless lone union” during one of her last periods of mental clarity. The narrative also serves as a way for Allen to openly admit his homosexuality, stating that if his teenage affection for the unnamed boy “R” was a crush, what came later was a “mortal avalanche.” A literary exorcism of Naomi provides Ginsberg with a convenient vessel for the admission of his sexuality to his family – as an adolescent, he had been led to believe by his psychotherapist that it was a result of his tumultuous relationship with his mother (alluded to in his 1959 poem Mescaline: “I can’t stand these women all over me/ smell of Naomi). Finally, Allen addresses themes of distance from his ancestral Jewish faith and culture throughout the poem, but this is suggested to be overcome over the course of Part II’s arguable emotional climax. After Allen’s shocked, cold reflections on Naomi’s attempt to “make [him] come lay her”, he lapses into a passage from the traditional Jewish Kaddish hymn: “Yisborach, v’yistabach, v’yispoar, v’yisroman” (“blessed, praised, glorified, exalted”), suggesting a reconciliation between him and his faith has begun to take place. This theme of spiritual reunification is emphasised by the interlude between parts II and III, “HYMMNN”, in which the refrain “Blessed be” accompanies Allen’s meditations on Naomi’s life. At any rate, the motives for writing Kaddish are likely to be much more diverse than Allen initially claims.
Elegy, biography, prayer, confession, admission, meditation, memorial, celebration, catharsis, plea. Ginsberg’s mastery of language, narrative, and emotion is never more perfectly demonstrated than in Kaddish, as our understanding of life and death develops in parallel with Allen’s personal and spiritual rebirth. Immortalising the holy Naomi through verse, Kaddish is a shining example of the triumph of hope in the face of great tragedy – though loss may be the lion that eats the lamb of the soul, we cannot help but emerge stronger on the other side.
Blessed be Thee Naomi in Death! Blessed be Death! Blessed
Blessed be He Who leads all sorrow to Heaven! Blessed be He
in the end!
Blessed be He who builds Heaven in Darkness! Blessed Blessed
Blessed be He! Blessed be He! Blessed be Death on us
1: Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish”: Life on stage after death – blog post written for The Economist by “E.S.”, accessed at
2: Drugs and the ‘Beats’: The Role of Drugs in the Lives and Writings of Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg – J. Long, p. 168, accessed at https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=9iQjOkc8VwUC
3: Analytical Psychology – C.G. Jung, 1976, p. 41
4: Allen Ginsberg: The Origins of “Howl” and “Kaddish” – J. Breslin, 1977, p. 99, accessed at http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2207&context=iowareview
5: Classical myth in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” – J. Albrecht, 2014, p. 41, Ghent University Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, accessed at http://lib.ugent.be/fulltxt/RUG01/002/162/600/RUG01-002162600_2014_0001_AC.pdf
6: The Difficulty of Reading Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” Suspiciously – N. Scholes, 2012, written for M/C Journal, accessed at http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/view/394
7: Civilization and Its Discontents – S. Freud, 1929.
8: Allen Ginsberg, Biography on Poetry Foundation website, accessed at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/allen-ginsberg
9: Tragedy and the Common Man – A. Miller, 1949, accessed at http://www.nplainfield.org/cms/lib5/NJ01000402/Centricity/Domain/444/tragedymillerandaristotle.pdf
10: Tragic Hero Classical Definition, article by California State University, Sacramento, accessed at http://www.csus.edu/indiv/s/santorar/engl190v/trag.hero.htm
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