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Destruction of Society in Ginsberg’s Howl: a Critique of Capitalist America

Ginsberg profoundly begins Howl, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked” (1), presenting, what Sarah Kuxhausen argues as, “a vision of people destroyed by the effects of the social repression of individualism in Howl” (1), and so from the very first line, Ginsberg is establishing what the main force of this poem will be: a critique of the American social system. Following in the footsteps of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Ginsberg uses paratactic phrasing and long lines to surpass the natural rhythm of breath induces an “oxygen deprived elation” (Kirsch, 446) effectively shocking the reader into seeing his profane vision of a society fragmented by the evils of Moloch, and what that represents. Ginsberg’s use of free verse to narrate the tempestuous lives of the people of America without camouflaging their sordid realities successfully depicts an ostentatious but broken existence, with this story-like realism highlighting the genuine social issues that plagued post-war America.

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In the ‘Golden Era’, an augmented level of economic prosperity began, capitalism was producing an affluent bourgeois whose non-consumerist culture was being duplicated by the middle class in order to create an image of flourishing prosperity, resulting in a ‘mass culture’ of social idealism. In Howl, Ginsberg reminds the audience that this ‘mass culture’ idealised by mainstream society is not faultless and that person who is in, “…tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities…” (4), is as much a product of the same fragmented, capitalist America as the brainwashed reader, depicting lifestyles viewed as socially non-acceptable to inspire the reader to acknowledge the sordid aspects of society that are often repressed because they do not fit into the same hegemonic social institutions that produced them.

Ginsberg epitomizes the total ruin of society with his depiction of Moloch, a running motif of capitalism within the second part of the poem. He establishes Moloch as the destroyer who devours the present, with the constant anaphoric calls of “Moloch!” representing authority. Moloch connotes an omnipotent figure as “the heavy judger of men” (2) meaning he has the power to give and take, which again could also be considered a critique of capitalist America as Ginsberg’s marxist stance can be traced back to his childhood. Having a fervent marxist Russian emigree as a mother (Naomi Ginsberg née Levy) led to Ginsberg attending communist party meetings with from a young age and so it is evident that this early introduction to the political climate of 20th century America had a significant impact on his writing. It could be argued that in Howl, Ginsberg sculpts capitalism into an oppressive machine through his description of Moloch; a metaphorical portrayal of hegemony, describing his mind as “pure machinery” (2) and whose “blood is running money”, critiquing the despotic nature of capitalism, with even the word “Moloch” being immediately displeasing verbally and mentally, sounding like a blunt profanity.

The modern twist on the personification of Moloch as “machinery” (being made out of cement and aluminum) implies it as a product of the Industrial Revolution and its catalyst: capitalism. Ginsberg’s juxtaposition of the layering of Moloch with human anatomical parts and then mechanical non-human features, “pure machinery…whose blood is running money…whose fingers are ten armies… whose breast is a cannibal dynamo…whose ear is a smoking tomb” depicts Moloch as a metaphor for capitalism, with the ‘human’ parts of Moloch characterised by war, money, and death; a perturbing and continuous unfolding image with a “love” that “is endless oil and stone,” and a “soul” that is “electricity and banks”. Moloch is a heartless and soulless machine; an oppressive and unforgiving system that Ginsberg calls capitalism (Ginsberg “The Art of Poetry No. 8”). Ginsberg observes that the people of America “broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven”, not realising heaven already “exists and is everywhere about us!”, and so implicitly states that capitalism is a lie and has tricked American society into praising a false idol, thus the fitting name “Moloch”. The tone of the poem abruptly changes in the final stanzas after Moloch has vanished.

The utopic list of good things Ginsberg sees in a world “gone down the American river” creates a flowing rhythm as each thought melts into the next once the repetitive blunt ‘Moloch’ is removed. Ginsberg’s pessimism morphs into a tone of hope, listing “Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies!…Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions!…Breakthroughs!…Epiphanies! Despairs!…New loves! Mad generation!…Real holy laughter…” - the internal drag of “Moloch” that keeps things from moving on, like a dam, is contrasted to these new short exclamations that flow like a “river”. Ginsberg replaces all the sombre imagery of Moloch with esoteric and colourful ideas, advocating capitalism as an ideology that affects the majority as well as the individual - a system that “bashed open [the] skulls” of “the best minds of [his] generation” and “ate up their brains and imagination”; the complete destruction of American society.

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