The Invisible War of “Howl”
In interpretations of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” it is common to find the assertion that this wild three-part poem is a diatribe against the evils of capitalism, personified in the poem as the ancient, child-devouring god Moloch. Marjorie Perloff’s essay from The Poem That Changed America: ‘Howl’ Fifty Years Later, argues that the violence and distress found in “Howl” cannot only be explained by resistance to capitalism, an “evil” which Perloff argues is equally as strong to this day yet has not inspired anything like “Howl” since (Perloff 16). Instead, she asserts that Ginsberg, like many of his contemporaries, was reacting to the horrors witnessed in World War II (Perloff 16). The world had been shocked by the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb, by the realization of what governments and mankind were capable of. In the eyes of Ginsberg, in this post-war era another kind of war was necessary, one against the machinery of American society, one which the heroes of “Howl” fight valiantly, endlessly. In this sense, “Howl” can be seen as a battle cry, a war epic with its own villains, its own heroes, and its own triumph of good over evil.
It is easy to find the enemy of “Howl”, as he is named and raged against repeatedly in part II of the poem. The section opens with the question of who is preying on the valiant “angelheaded hipsters” (9) of part I, who “bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination” (21)? The answer we are given is Moloch. Moloch can be seen as the “stunned government” (21) of post-war America. He can also easily be seen as capitalism, with his soul of “electricity and banks” (22). The mechanic, military imagery of capitalism is also seen in part I of the poem, with references to “the iron regiments of fashion” and the “nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising” (6). Yet the danger of Moloch is not simply capitalism or an inept government. Moloch is a demon whose “mind is pure machinery” and whose “eyes are a thousand blind windows” (Ginsberg21). The danger of Moloch is blindness, blindness to the evilness of corrupt governments and the soullessness of capitalism and its “demonic industries” (22). He is a monster that devours imagination and individuality, replacing it with a mechanic, unquestioning mind. In this one can see a reference to World War II, to the brainwashed public that blindly followed their leader to commit unspeakable acts. However, as Perloff mentions in her essay, “the violence of the war heroes was honored by the public; the violent acts of Ginsberg and his beat friends . . . were often ridiculed” (Perloff 17). This is because the evil “Howl”’s heroes are raging against is less overt, it is the evil of society that is so engrained in us, that “enter[s] [the] soul early” (22) so that many of the readers of “Howl” are blind to its existence. Those who are not blind to the evils of Moloch are called to fight against him.
As much as part II of “Howl” is an attack on the corruption of society, part I is a celebration and a praise of those brave heroes who fight it. These are the heroes who question the accepted, who seek an alternative to the norm, who look for a higher truth in the “ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo” (9). They are the “lost battalion” (11) who have “chained themselves to subways” (10), sacrificing themselves in this war against Moloch. The self-sacrifice of these heroes is clear in the diction of Ginsberg. These soldiers have “bared their brains,” (9) they have “cut their wrists” (16) and “burned cigarette holes in their arms” (13). Society has “expelled” (9) them and “burned [them] alive” (16) yet they continue to fight. In these descriptions of immense torture and sacrifice we get an overwhelming sense of Ginsberg’s incredible respect for these unsung heroes. We also get a sense of solidarity in Ginsberg’s writing as he speaks to Carl Soloman, one such hero thrown into a mental institution for his valiant acts. Ginsberg assures him in part I that “while you are not safe I am not safe” (19) and repeatedly in part III that “I am with you in Rockland” (24). This solidarity provides hope and meaning to the actions of the heroes. They are not engaging in random, reckless behaviors but are instead a unified force, fighting the blind machinery of society in every way they can.
If one looks at the structure of “Howl” as mimicking a battle and the content as a metaphor of war, the footnote is the final triumphant blow. The anaphora present throughout parts I-III, with their faithful repetition of “who,” “Moloch,” and “I am with you in Rockland,” creates the steady drumbeat of war, the constant push forward. The epizeuxis that starts off the footnote to “Howl” sets up the scene for the final height of action in this war, the last bullets being fired and bombs being dropped. The weapon in this final battle is hope, the belief the “everything is holy” (27), that mankind can be saved from the demonic grips of Moloch. While in the throes of World War II the world was exposed to the terror of what man is capable of doing, we were also reminded that good can triumph evil. Ginsberg holds on to this hope and passes it on to the reader, leaving us certain that the angelheaded hipsters can and will defeat the machinery of Moloch.
With his creation of a nontraditional war epic in “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg depicts the invisible war of post-World War II America, one against blindness and uniformity, against capitalism and the facets of society that were at the same time the most corrupt and the most engrained within the minds of the people. For Ginsberg and his contemporaries, war did not end when America’s soldiers defeated the evil machinery of Hitler, for these soldiers returned home to a society that was a brain-bashing machinery of its own. With “Howl,” Ginsberg offers a celebration of the unsung heroes who fought in that second war, who may still be fighting, and who, as Ginsberg’s footnote suggests, will one day be triumphant.
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In interpretations of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” it is common to find the assertion that this wild three-part poem is a diatribe against the evils of capitalism, personified in the poem […]