Ginsberg dealt both literally and metaphorically with insanity throughout his entire life. His mother, Naomi Ginsberg, was institutionalized on several occasions, which left a young Allen without his mother or full family for much of his early life. He would later admit that this absence left a stain on his development and was responsible for both his fascination and disgust with the mentally ill.
Insanity, however, is not a state of being true genius is able to escape, Ginsberg argues. This is the fate of the "best minds" from Ginsberg's poem, "Howl:" the "best minds" are driven insane by their inability to accept the models of normality and conformity imposed on them by modern life, and their inability to escape these same strictures.
Ginsberg saw the economic commodification of society as one of the great ills of modern life. In his poem, "A Supermarket in California," Ginsberg goes into a supermarket to try and find the natural beauty of the fruits and vegetables there. Instead, his final conclusion is that modern humanity is no longer able to see the history of a particular object, fruit being his example. For instance, a peach is picked from somewhere across the country or around the world and then shipped directly to that supermarket. The consumer is no longer able to know where it came from, who it was that picked that particular fruit, and what social and economic context that fruit represents.
Ginsberg posits Walt Whitman as one of his heroes and predecessors in his assessment of modern life. Whitman explored the natural world and the natural self and all of the desires -- spiritual, sexual, physical -- that made humanity what it was. The commodification of society means the loss of this natural meaning and, in Ginsberg's poem, Whitman's vision is lost amidst a river of forgetfulness.
The Holy Bum
Several beat writers use seemingly opposing symbols to show how society is never as normal or advanced as it seems. In Ginsberg's writing, this symbol is the "holy bum." Though this holy bum can go by several different names in his poetry, the idea of the holy bum is always the same. The holy bum has had everything that is valuable to him taken away by modern society. Some of these things can be abstract, such as freedom, liberty, or the ability to express oneself artistically or sexually. Other times, the holy bum has had his literal property or freedom taken by a justice system bent on destroying him and the things he stands for.
Ironically, it is in the act of destruction that the bum then becomes holy. He becomes holy because he is detached from the "normal" things of this world. He is then able to embody the sacred values of humanity, such as mercy, kindness, charity, and freedom. The holy bum is holier than anything in religion or government or respectable society because those respectable things have lost the truth of their being.
Ginsberg's holy bums resemble religious saints. Saints in the Catholic Church, for instance, usually attained their sainthood because they rejected some aspect of human nature or society in order to follow God's more perfect way. The holy bums do the same. They feel they cannot live in respectable society and denounce the evil that such respectability shrouds. Instead, they are made holy by following a purer path towards enlightened art and "kindness of the soul."
The Natural World
Ginsberg grew up and remained for much of his life a city dweller. He was brought up in a New Jersey industrial town, he moved to New York, and after several years of traveling he settled in New York City and lived there for the rest of his life. Yet, Ginsberg saw himself as belonging to a tradition of poetry that stretched back to the Romantic Age, a period that posited the awe of the natural world as the highest and holiest forum of artistic and social expression. Ginsberg attempted to denounce in his poetry the acts of humanity that sought to circumvent and tame nature. The atom bomb is one example Ginsberg uses in several of his poems, including "Howl" and "America."
Ginsberg's poetry often attempts to compare the natural world with the monolithic military industrial complex that characterized the social and political life of Americans after the second World War. In "A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley," for example, Ginsberg uses imagery of modern conveniences like toilets or coffee pots as a contrast to the wild everyday beauty of the plants he finds in his backyard. In Part II of "Howl," Ginsberg denounces the industrialized world that destroys nature and ultimately destroys the soul of humankind.
Moloch represents the modern institutions of finance, war, industry, and government that have conspired to destroy all good for the sake of profit. Ginsberg's Moloch, like the ancient middle eastern god, is a creature of sacrifice. Moloch asks all individuals to sacrifice their souls, their freedom, and even their lives for a false patriotism and devotion.
Moloch appears in Part II of "Howl." After Ginsberg has described the destruction of his generation's "best minds" in Part I, he turns to describing the thing that caused such destruction. Moloch is "unobtainable dollars" and a "judger of men!" It is "pure machinery," and "armies," and "poverty." Moloch, in short, is all of the devastation that Ginsberg sees in American society caused by greed or war or blind patriotism. What makes Moloch so powerful is not just its evil, but also the way in which profit and war and pollution are lifted up as ideals of advancement and cultural power. In Moloch, Ginsberg sees a generation sacrificing its soul to a set of false values.
The Prophetic Tradition
Though Ginsberg did not remain a particularly devout Jew, the tenets and traditions of Judaism -- and of other world religions -- did serve as major themes in much of his work. The prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible is an especially important theme.
In the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible, a prophet is called by God to announce to the people of Israel that they have been wicked and that they must repent in order to call on God's favor and save their people. In some of the prophetic stories, the people do turn back to God and are saved. In some of the other stories, they do not and destruction and captivity are the result. In "America," Ginsberg used that same prophetic tradition to proclaim an end to divine favor for his country.
Ginsberg called on America to repent for its reliance on greed and industry, its propensity for war and political witch hunts, and its inherent hate for those who fell outside of the white middle-class mainstream. Ginsberg sees nothing but more war and destruction on the horizon if America does not change its ways. He uses himself as a prime example of the intolerance the country exhibits toward its own people. Like a prophet himself, Ginsberg is the wild and untamed visionary calling down destruction on a world that has rejected hope and love.
Hypocrisy of Modern Society
Romantic poetry often denounced the modern world's ability to create a more perfect society through enlightened thought and technology, and Ginsberg's work extends this tradition, positing a false sense of "progress" as indicative of society's hypocrisy. Ginsberg aimed much of this criticism specifically toward his own country, the United States. The US claimed to be the most dominant and progressive society on the face of the earth in the aftermath of World War II. Yet, when Ginsberg looked at his country he saw nothing but injustice in the most dominant institutions. Government sought only to advance its own militaristic conquests, leaving some of its people literally starving and impoverished. Universities rejected anyone who did not support the dominant interpretations of culture or art. The media glorified celebrity and encouraged shallowness at the expense of serious problems. All of this represented a country's misaligned values and, for Ginsberg, a flagrant display of hypocrisy.
Allen Ginsberg’s Poetry Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Allen Ginsberg’s Poetry is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.