Tonight I finally got around to watching the James Franco film about Ginsberg's Howl tonight. It was pretty fantastically done all around. One thing that really did strike me is just how non-dialectical the poem is. Ginsberg's sensitive friends are driven to the despair chronicled in Section I of the poem entirely because of the repressive phenomena he articulates in Section II. Then Section III contains various identifications of himself with the suffering of Carl Solomon in a mental institution. The end of the poem proper imagines Solomon seeking solace in Ginsberg's cottage. The act of taking in the downtrodden, segues nicely into the poem's footnote, which presents a radically alternate view of the world as holy, the adoption of which is presented as liberation.
Despite the vulgarity, it's arguably a very Christian poem. The world is so depraved that it drives us to madness, and our only salvation is a kind of grace that we are then able to share with others and in doing so we somehow come to see everything as ultimately justified and worthwhile. Even though the poem is a canonical beatnik poem, it's clearly (along with Kerouac's much lesser work, Dharma Bums) a bridge to the hippy's Rousseaun sensibility where social structures are intrinsically evil and liberation comes from rejecting those.
But once you read enough (or maybe too much) Hegel, this kind of vision starts to slip away. It's radically non-dialectical, because escaping society is presented as an exception to the manner in which good things tend to be necessarily conditioned by things ostensibly bad. For example, Hegel (and Lovecraft, for that matter) notes that immortality of anything like life as we know it would be an absolute horror. The existentialists tended to recapitulate this, arguing that death is a necessary precondition to the meaningfulness we find or create in life. Nietzsche makes an analogous claim with respect to most forms of immorality. If some godlike being could immediately extirpate all evil from the human heart, what else would we lose? Nietzsche thinks we can't separate sins like pride, avarice, and a propensity to violence and control from virtues like the desire to understand the world and create beauty. Could we really have humor in a world without any cruelty at all?
The great Frankfurt school thinkers divide pretty evenly with respect to how Hegelian they are in this regard. From my undergraduate memories, Marcuse and Fromm were the least Hegelian. The Marcuse of Eros and Civilization writes as if some reconciliation of Freud and Marx is just waiting for us to take up and that we'll all be liberated, sexually and economically, once we've digested the concotion. Horkheimer and Adorno would have thought (or possibly did think, I don't know) this was nonsense. As good dialecticians, they very clearly saw how the very things that liberates us are most in danger of enslaving us. The sexual revolution ends up being a pretty raw deal for women raising children, trying to hold down a job with no support from the kids' father. The end result of liberation from all of forms of prudery would be the commodification of sex and sexuality, which is arguably a worse prison than the traditional hetero-normative values.
Appreciating the Rousseaun danger of the poem requires excerpts, which I've included after the jump (NSFW).
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch. Solitude. Filth. Ugliness. Ashcans and unobtainable dollars. Children screaming under the stairways. Boys sobbing in armies. Old men weeping in the parks.
Moloch. Moloch. Nightmare of Moloch. Moloch the loveless. Mental Moloch. Moloch the heavy judger of men.
Moloch the incomprehensible prison. Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows. Moloch whose buildings are judgment. Moloch the vast stone of war. Moloch the stunned governments.
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery. Moloch whose blood is running money. Moloch whose fingers are ten armies. Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo. Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb.
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows. Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs. Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog. Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities.
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone. Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks. Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius. Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen. Moloch whose name is the Mind.
Moloch in whom I sit lonely. Moloch in whom I dream Angels. Crazy in Moloch. Cocksucker in Moloch. Lacklove and manless in Moloch.
Moloch who entered my soul early. Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body. Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy. Moloch whom I abandon. Wake up in Moloch. Light streaming out of the sky.
Moloch. Moloch. Robot apartments. invisible suburbs. skeleton treasuries. blind capitals. demonic industries. spectral nations. invincible madhouses. granite cocks. monstrous bombs.
They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven. Pavements, trees, radios, tons. lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us.
Visions. omens. hallucinations. miracles. ecstasies. gone down the American river.
Dreams. adorations. illuminations. religions. the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit.
Breakthroughs. over the river. flips and crucifixions. gone down the flood. Highs. Epiphanies. Despairs. Ten years’ animal screams and suicides. Minds. New loves. Mad generation. down on the rocks of Time.
Real holy laughter in the river. They saw it all. the wild eyes. the holy yells. They bade farewell. They jumped off the roof. to solitude. waving. carrying flowers. Down to the river. into the street.
The imagery is remarkable and the manner in which this contributes to the poem's overall conceit is brilliant. Pace what psychiatry had done to him and Carl Solomon (and Ginsberg only escaped Solomon's shock treatments because over an eight months period of confinement he managed to convince the doctors that he would be heterosexual) the extent to which you are a little bit nuts in modern society is a symptom of moral, epistemic, and spiritual virtue. Psychiatrists define mental health in terms of functioning well in society. By representing society in terms of the fire deity Moloch, who demanded sacrifice of first-born, Ginsberg is sending up the psychiatric definition of mental health. If it's healthy to sacrifice your children, then for Ginsberg it's better in every respect to not be healthy.
But, while this is a great poetic conceit, as a bit of metaphysics it's way too pat. Hegelians rightfully reject such a dichotomy between the system and freedom. Zizek's great example is the medical industry. The freedom to have to navigate such a system as consumer would afford you vastly less time to do things that are valuable to you. The freedom to do valuable things requires less freedom in multiple other areas of your life. In addition, the system isn't unified in the way presented. And finally even it makes sense to talk about a system in this unified way nobody should be expected to follow the Neal Cassidy's of this world to an early death. Kerouac did, but Ginsberg didn't. And, once again, as the dialecticians remind us, today's liberation easily becomes tomorrow's enslavement.
I think Ginsberg was way too smart not to be aware of some of this, and that he invokes a kind of negative theology of holiness precisely to try to circumvent all dialectics. Consider the footnote to the poem:
Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy.
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.
Everything is holy. everybody’s holy. everywhere is holy. everyday is in eternity. Everyman’s an angel.
The bum’s as holy as the seraphim. the madman is holy as you my soul are holy.
The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy.
Holy Peter holy Allen holy Solomon holy Lucien holy Kerouac holy Huncke holy Burroughs holy Cassady holy the unknown buggered and suffering beggars holy the hideous human angels.
Holy my mother in the insane asylum. Holy the cocks of the grandfathers of Kansas.
Holy the groaning saxophone. Holy the bop apocalypse. Holy the jazzbands marijuana hipsters peace peyote pipes & drums.
Holy the solitudes of skyscrapers and pavements. Holy the cafeterias filled with the millions. Holy the mysterious rivers of tears under the streets.
Holy the lone juggernaut. Holy the vast lamb of the middleclass. Holy the crazy shepherds of rebellion. Who digs Los Angeles IS Los Angeles.
Holy New York Holy San Francisco Holy Peoria & Seattle Holy Paris Holy Tangiers Holy Moscow Holy Istanbul.
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.
Holy the sea holy the desert holy the railroad holy the locomotive holy the visions holy the hallucinations holy the miracles holy the eyeball holy the abyss.
Holy forgiveness. mercy. charity. faith. Holy. Ours. bodies. suffering. magnanimity.
Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul.
Remember that the touching image of the end of the poem, prior to this footnote, is Ginsberg welcoming Carl Solomon to his cabin. Prior to that he enumerates various ways that he shares Solomon's various sufferings in the mental instution. It's touching, but the picture you get is that the best one can do is hide away from victorious Moloch, enjoying physical pleasures and companionship and maybe not go nuts.
The footnote is a weird, weird transformation of the poem into a kind of mysticism. Somehow just the act of being humane transforms the whole world. Somehow everything is now worthwhile, everything (including Moloch) is ultimately justified. I'm sure that Adorno or Horkheimer would have something to say about this. You get a kind of longing for that in Adorno, but he might have hated the footnote nonetheless.
On a ceratin reading of Hegel, dialectics ultimately lead you to a place where the footnote's sensibility is rational. But I think Ginsberg is enough of a romantic that he would take the footnote's sensibility to only arise when dialectics are exhausted. He's probably right insofar as Moloch is pretty good at commodifying new age sensibilities, at least for those who can afford yoga retreats. Remember Martin Heidegger's controversial late period claim that only a God could save us? For Heidegger, the progress of science and technology operates much the same way that Moloch does in Ginsberg's poem, and he too couldn't see any way out of it using the same kind of reason that leads to technology and science.
Again, I think this works better for me as poetry better than as philosophy. There are just too many implausible absolutes floating around. Moloch/technology is absolutely successful at destroying our souls and destroying genuine normative space (both with respect to our reasoning and the world about which we reason). If this were true, then our only salvation would be a kind of transformation that makes no sense from the perspective of our current explanatory standards. But this may just be a reductio of the premises.
Anyhow, it's a great film. Franco is spot on as Ginsberg, the courtroom scenes are great, and the animation accompanying the poem is wonderful. Joe Bob says to check it out.
*The original has all of these exclamation points. As Ginsberg read the poem over and over again he came to read it in a less incantory manner. Especially with respect to the footnote, if you replace the exclamation points with periods you end up reading it in your head much more like even the early Ginsberg.]