Allen Ginsberg's Poetry Summary and Analysis

"Howl," Part II

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Summary

Part II of Ginsberg’s “Howl” was written separately from Part I, but within the same period of Ginsberg’s life in San Francisco. Ginsberg writes that Part I “names the monster...that preys on the Lamb.” The Lamb, in this case, are the “best minds” and “angel headed hipsters” of Part I.

Part II uses a great deal of metaphor and symbolism to make social and political points. Thus, it is different from Part I, which was mainly a fractured narrative of the lives of the Beat generation. Though one could certainly make social and political inferences from Part I, and Ginsberg does challenge the power authorities of institutions like higher education, mental health, and public safety, the social forces that cause the hardships, violence, and addiction in the lives of the “best minds” are not named beyond vague references. Part II, however, gives a very specific name for these social forces - “Moloch.”

The use of the name “Moloch,” a name traditionally associated with specific gods or rituals from ancient Middle Eastern and Mediterranean religion, is most commonly used to denote a power or force that demands great sacrifice. The figure has been used in a variety of modern artistic settings, including John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Fritz Lang’s pioneering film “Metropolis.” In Ginsberg’s poem, it comes to symbolize all of society’s great evils: corporate power and domination, militarization, governmental violence and oppression, just to name a few.

Ginsberg first thought of the name “Moloch” when out in the streets of San Francisco one evening with a friend and future life-long partner, Peter Orlovsky. Both took peyote, a drug with mind altering effects, and walked the streets, having hallucinations. As they walked, Ginsberg saw the St. Francis Hotel, a landmark building in downtown San Francisco. The lights and shape of the building and the effects of the peyote, made Ginsberg see, “robot upstairs eyes & skullface, in smoke....” Ginsberg names this monster Moloch. The became the symbol of social oppression, the cause of the demise and insanity of the “best minds.”

Analysis

Lines 1-22

Ginsberg begins Part II with a reference to the death of his friend Bill Cannastra: “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up / their brains and imagination?” (1-2). Cannastra was a friend of Ginsberg’s from his New York days. One evening, while riding the subway train, Bill, attempting a humorous stunt, accidentally fell out of the window of the train they were on. He was dragged behind the train and killed. Ginsberg references Cannastra’s death in Part I as well, writing of a “best mind” who “fell out of the subway window....” Bill’s death, Ginsberg suggests, gives us the context for the power of the evil Moloch - the power to destroy and to drive one to insane acts.

Part II is a lengthy description of this “Moloch.” Ginsberg begins by describing the economic hardships of those who do not have the luxuries and life of wealthier people. Moloch, representing the values of capitalism, has the power to give to certain persons and to take away from others. Moloch becomes a “heavy judger of men!” (7) Ginsberg, who kept a lifelong affiliation with communism, found such values to be abhorrent and destructive to society.

Moloch also represents the immoral power of government. In lines eight through eleven Ginsberg describes Moloch as “the crossbone soulless jail- / house and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judg- / ment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned govern- / ments!” The word “Congress” is used in a double sense here. It references both the actual Congress of the United States, a place of “sorrows” in Ginsberg’s thought, but it also means a collection, or gathering. The United States government, a body ultimately “of the people” and “by the people” does not collect the people’s hopes and ambitions as much as it collects their sorrows and inability to advance.

Moloch is also the soulless dominance of industry and corporate power. Ginsberg’s ideas of industry, explored more fully in other poems such as “America,” were drastically different from the capitalism of the United States. Ginsberg often references leftist politics and policies in his poetry - worker’s rights, socialist activism, and the distribution of wealth. Ginsberg references the great cities of the world that industry had built But they are not signs of beauty and progress as others might see them. They are landscapes of nightmares. “Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrap- / ers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs!” (15-16). Industry and capitalism are not just symbols of American values, Ginsberg suggests. They are the deities of American culture. The attainment of wealth is a religious pursuit. It is a devotion of the American people.

Moloch’s soul is “electricity and banks,” two of the cornerstones of industry and business. Ginsberg writes that Moloch’s “poverty is the specter of genius!” (20). This is to say that American progress, created and sustained by a particular kind of American ingenuity and “genius,” is actually a force to impoverishes the American spirit. But it is not only the spirit that is impoverished. It is a force that creates actual poverty.

Lines 23-45

No one is immune from the power of Moloch, not even Ginsberg himself. He writes, making a self reference, “Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness / without a body!” (25-26). Ginsberg did not necessarily mean “Howl” to be a poem of protest, though protest certainly plays a part. “Howl,” however, is not a specific call <i>against</i> the Molochs of the world. Instead, this Part II is meant to show us how we are all part of the powers of Moloch. When Ginsberg suggests that Moloch entered his soul early, he means that the values of industry, capitalism, patriotism, etc. were engrained in his being from an early age just as those same values become a part of the lives of almost all Americans at some point. Resisting Moloch is useless. All are a part of its consciousness. It is the act of trying to disentangle one’s self from the power of Moloch that drives one insane. Moloch becomes a problem for these “best minds” in two ways, then. First, by being entangled in Moloch’s power they risk losing their own souls and their own vision. Yet, by trying to escape the cultural hegemony of Moloch, they can only turn to lives of destruction: alcohol, drugs, or violence.

Lines 29-31 give the most complete description of who Moloch is in the poem. “...Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! / blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible mad- / houses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!” These lines name all of the perceived evil in society - the desire for suburban wealth, a national economy without values or morals, government that seeks only its own interest in policy, a society that places its geniuses in madhouses and who elevates to the status of genius those that only create more wealth, industry, and war.

These things have been the death of America. Ginsberg often believed himself to be a continuation of the American vision of the poet Walt Whitman. Ginsberg incorporates some of Whitman’s style and structure in “Howl.” Lines 35 - 38 strongly echo Whitman’s aesthetic. The “visions” and “miracles” of the American experience have “gone down the American / river!” The “Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive / bullshit!” Ginsberg means here to suggest that Whitman’s vision of America - that of open spaces, nature, and individuality in the face of the growing industrialism of the United States - did not win in the end. Moloch has won. It is a part of all their lives.

But the “best minds” made a choice about how to live in the shadow of Moloch and Ginsberg ends Part II with this choice in lines 43 through 45. They chose to leave. Yet, their choice drove them to insanity. Ginsberg sees both blessing and curse in such a journey. He calls their laughter “holy,” yet it is still the laughter of a madman. He writes that the “best minds,” “bade farewell!” to Moloch’s America. Their farewell only led them to destruction, however. As they left “Down to the river! into the street!” they also went into insanity and destruction. They “jumped off the roof! to solitude!”