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).