Howl • 1957 Obscenity trial • "filthy, vulgar, obscene, and disgusting language.” • Judge: “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?” • 2007 Obscenity fear • Pacifica radio planned to broadcast in order to commemorate 50th anniversary of Howl’s protection under First Amendment • But feared fines from the FCC, put it online • Differing basis of censorship: public morals vs. “offensiveness” and affordability of free speech
Howl • Clear American identity • Influence of Walt Whitman • Similar mystical and political concerns • Brotherhood, spirituality, equality, repression • The title • What is a howl?
Background to Howl • Look up any references that you don’t understand • Poetry derives a part of its power from allusion to other sources • Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi Livergant Ginsberg • Politically radical and mentally unwell, hugely influential on Ginsberg’s life & work • His other most famous poem, “Kaddish”, written at her death • Carl Solomon • Ginsberg met him at Rockland mental institution during a period when each was briefly institutionalized. Formed lifelong friendship.
The poem • “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” • Who are the best? What is meant by “best minds”? What does it mean that they are the ones destroyed? • Reflected in word choice: the use of coarse language in high art • Frames all of part I of the poem • Who… • The actions of part I are those of these destroyed minds, efforts to escape and transcend. • Ironically, those most despised by society at large are in fact its best
Transcendence • A spiritual overcoming of the world in which we find ourselves • To reject and vault above the material world, to access some higher spiritual good (union with God, truth, salvation, true self, enlightenment) • Emphasized in the mystical aspects of many world religions
Transcendence • Modes of transcendence • Spirituality • Humiliation of the flesh • Sex • Drugs • Art • Violation of taboo
Transcendence • Over a world of power, materialism, and time: • “Who threw their watches off the roof/to cast their vote for Eternity outside of Time, & alarm clocks/fell on their heads every day for the next decade” (16) • Desperate attempts to transcend end in failure • “…or were run down by the/drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality” (16) • What could be more crudely real than that?
“Who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism…” (18) • Carl Solomon • Is this not a better appreciation of Dada than a lecture? • Beauty and meaning in art that transcend rational analysis • Resistance against the dominance of unreason by the rational
“an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone/cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio” (20) • “with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered/out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand/years.” (20)
Howl pt. I • “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” • Transcendence • Failure & destruction
Howl, pt. II • What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? (21) • “the best minds of my generation” • Inhuman, monstrous • Crudely material, vs. the spirit
Moloch! • Rashi, 12th c. French rabbi & commentator: • “Tophet is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.”
Moloch! • Leviticus 18:21: “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.” • A divine commandment to disdain • Worship of Moloch equated to profaning the name of God. • Cannibal-god of the Canaanites, the enemies of the children of Israel • The enemies of the few, the chosen, the faithful • Idolatry and abomination
Also a reference to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which depicts industrial society itself as Moloch, a concept that Ginsberg expands in pt. II
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! • Brute materialism • Repression • Cannibal • Blasphemy, unholy • Loveless, sexless
“They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven!” (22) • The best minds of my generation • Failed attempt, not to themselves transcend, but to elevate the profane into transcendent holiness • “Heaven which exists and is everywhere around us!” • The transcendent is not fantasy, it is as real as the material brutality that has displaced it
Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies!/gone down the American river! • “down the river” • Betrayed, cheated: “sold down the river” refers to the way in which difficult slaves in the Northern slave states would be sold into harsher conditions in the South • Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole/boatload of sensitive bullshit! • Un-rational aspects of human existence, bringing meaning to life • A sincere embrace of what the calculating, materialistic Moloch deems a “boatload of sensitive bullshit”
“They bade farewell!/ They jumped off the roof! to solitude! waving!/ carrying flowers! Down to the river! into the street!
Part III • “Pyramidal” structure: lengthening responses to “I’m with you in Rockland” structure • Rockland a mental institution • Real institution Columbia Presbyterian Psychological Institute • What is suggested by the name of Rockland? • But even there there is love & friendship
I’m with you in Rockland • where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul/ is innocent and immortal it should never die/ ungodly in an armed madhouse • The spiritual elevated over the material • But it can be killed • Ungodly armed madhouse sounds a lot like Moloch • The asylum is the world in microcosm
I’m with you in Rockland • where you accuse your doctors of insanity and/ plan the Hebrew socialist revolution against the/ fascist national Golgotha • Inversion: inmates in charges of the asylum • Though Solomon is “madder than I am” • Plans of the ultimate victory of the few, the holy, and the oppressed • Moloch = “fascist national Golgotha” • The place of the skull • Martyrdom & crucifixion
I’m with you in Rockland • where you will split the heavens of Long Island/ and resurrect your living human Jesus from the/ superhuman tomb • Emergence of the transcendence into the mundane • Superhumanity is death, the tomb • The Chief of Police, the image, and the tomb • Life and the miracle of resurrection are properties of the human • Resurrection the definitive triumph of the spiritual and divine over the material world
I’m with you in Rockland • where we wake up electrified out of the coma/by our own souls’ airplanes… • Fantasies of the final triumph of the soul over the material world, vision of what that world would look like • O victory forget your underwear we’re/ free
I’m with you in Rockland • in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-/journey on the highways across America in tears/ to the door of my cottage in the Western night • In Rockland the only consolation is memory and imagination • Though the speaker is with Solomon in Rockland, they are not physically present to each other • Though some small comfort is possible, the speaker remains within the godless, armed madhouse
Footnote to Howl • A footnote • Separate from, below the text • Either • Provides clarification for the text • Provides additional understanding and context for the text that are not strictly needed in the text itself
Footnote to Howl • Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! • Radical tonal shift, from sadness and solitude, futility and self-destruction, cannibal-gods and insane asylums to ecstatic recognition of universal holiness • Holiness =/= sacredness • Holiness is the mark of the presence and/or favor of God
Footnote to Howl • The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy!/ The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand/ and asshole holy! • Continues theme that the despised are in fact the elevated • But begins to attack the duality present in the poem so far, as both the spiritual and the material are presented as of like holiness
Footnote to Howl • Holy time in eternity holy eternity in time holy the/ clocks in space holy the fourth dimension holy/ the fifth International holy the Angel in Moloch! • Fifth International • Unity of opposites • Sacredness present even in the most profane
Footnote to Howl • Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours!/ bodies! suffering! magnanimity! • Holiness here is achieved, as the “best minds” failed to do • Not in transcendence, but in immanence • Not “lifting Moloch to Heaven,” but recognizing the “Angel in Moloch” • It is not about elevating the earthly into the divine, but recognizing the presence of divinity in the mundane. The world, good and bad, spiritual and material, is itself holy.