Moloch and Destruction in
Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"
Part II of “Howl” focuses mainly on the destruction of society. Ginsberg uses many metaphors and symbols to emphasize his points and most of these metaphors have something to do with Moloch. Ginsberg establishes Moloch as the destroyer, the one who devours the present. He constantly calls out “Moloch!” as if naming him arrantly will expose his evildoings (Breslin). Moloch represents authority, those who tell us how we can and cannot live. Ginsberg proclaims this when he calls Moloch “the heavy judger of men,” (“Howl” Line 81) meaning he has the power to give and take, a reference to capitalism, which is a system where the means of production and distribution are owned by private corporations. Ginsberg was strongly against capitalism. He grew up with a communist mother, and found the government having complete control of the country detrimental to society. Subsequently, he did not like capitalism because, once again, much of the power was out of the hands of the people (Breslin). He reiterates this when he says Moloch is “the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows!” (“Howl” Line 82) which seems to say Moloch is the power of the government or the private organizations and its control over the people. He is, on one hand, calling Congress an actual place of sorrows and on the other, saying Congress focuses solely on the peoples’ sorrows and failure to progress, rather than their hopes and needs (“Howl”, Part II).
It is easy to see that Ginsberg views the government as one of the main problems in society; however, Moloch symbolizes much more than the government. Moloch is inside everyone, even Ginsberg, who says, "Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body!” (“Howl” Line 87). Moloch, who devoured children, represents the greed and jealousy devouring society and Ginsberg shows even himself, the one criticizing society, is not free from his grasp. It is an internal drag, something that keeps people from moving on: something the people may have created. Ginsberg uses the figure of Moloch to suggest a destructive authority that requires sacrifice of human life and freedom. On one level people are victimized by this external force, which are alternately social norms and governments. But on the other level, Ginsberg emphasizes their willing submission to this authority and the ways they are responsible for their own destruction. However, his use of Moloch is confusing in that he could have easily chosen Satan or some more renowned deity to represent destruction; to understand Ginsberg’s Moloch, one must understand the actual Moloch.
The reader knows Moloch is something sinister yet there are several Molochs Ginsberg could be referencing. One interpretation of Ginsberg’s Moloch could be the Moloch from the silent film Metropolis. The film is set in a dystopian society (much like the society Ginsberg criticizes) where two classes of people live: those who are poor and work underground, and those who live in giant skyscrapers which Ginsberg references when he says, “Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs!” (“Howl Line 84)). These two classes resemble the government Ginsberg despises and society, in that the people “upstairs” essentially rule the people below. Moloch comes into the film when a machine, known as the M-Machine, kills workers in a freak accident and the main character sees the machine as a beast: Moloch (Metropolis).
Ginsberg even calls Moloch, “pure machinery,” (“Howl” Line 83) which not only relates to the Metropolis Moloch but also to the modern definition of Moloch. Moloch, in the 1950’s, had come to signify anything that requires sacrifice; this, in turn, means that everything Ginsberg mentions in the poem is being sacrificed: our banks, minds, children are all being sacrificed. But for what reason? Here, Ginsberg brings readers back to machinery; it seems as if people sacrifice everything for technology, which makes sense considering society is so dependent on technology today. Ginsberg also relates back to sacrifice or more importantly, the ultimate sacrifice: war. He exclaims, “Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!” (“Howl Line 83”) which relates to death and fighting, and the sacrificing of lives at war. Governments desire to further power, results in the death of many young men’s lives, which shows the willingness of our nation to sacrifice valuable lives for domination. Or perhaps even “the best minds of my generation” were sacrificed to Moloch in that Moloch represents normalcy and the poets, or Ginsberg’s “best minds”, (“Howl” Line 1) were smothered by rejection and social conformity (Breslin).
The third and most likely interpretation of Ginsberg’s Moloch is the religious one in which Moloch is a false god that convinces people to sacrifice their children to him. God tells the people not to listen to Moloch, as he is evil and by listening to him they are fundamentally going against His ten commandments. They are putting Moloch before God. In the poem, one can see the materialistic things, or Moloch, that are being put before God and Ginsberg says, “They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! Lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!” (“Howl” Line 89). Ginsberg is saying that everything the people want, their greed, is being held above God. Instead of worshipping God, the people are worshipping their possessions and in doing so, they sacrifice their faith and trust in God.
It seems as though Ginsberg’s Moloch might be a combination of several versions of Moloch; though each version is different, they are equally dark and destructive. However, Ginsberg uses his Moloch to symbolize much more than sacrifice and false gods; he represents a total ruin of society. Evil governments, economic hardships, and rejection are all a part of Ginsberg’s Moloch and he wants society to see the evil around them but he wants them to see it on their own. Ginsberg himself is almost like a god, always watching and leaving subtle hints, but never interfering with the natural order of things. If people are to see the real society, they will see it on their own. However, Ginsberg could also just be relying on the knowledge of his readers to know who Moloch is or simply know that he is bad. It seems more likely that Ginsberg is hiding his criticism of society behind this deity in order to spark an interest in this Moloch figure and one day have the people protest for acceptance, free will, and a helping government.
"Metropolis (1927)." Greatest Films - The Best Movies in Cinematic History. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2013. <http://www.filmsite.org/metr.html>.
Ginsberg, Allen. "Howl by Allen Ginsberg : The Poetry Foundation." Poetry Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2013. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179381>.
Breslin, James E.B. "From an Essay on "Howl" by James E.B. Breslin." From an Essay on "Howl" by James E.B. Breslin. University of Chicago, 1994. Web. 02 May 2013 <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/ginsberg/breslin.htm>.
Lee, Ben. ""Howl" and Other Poems: Is There Old Left in These New Beats."American Literature 76.2 (2004): 367-389. Database. Web. 16 Apr. 2013.
Part II of Ginsberg’s “Howl” was written separately from Part I, but within the same period of Ginsberg’s life in San Francisco. Ginsberg writes that Part I “names the monster...that preys on the Lamb.” The Lamb, in this case, are the “best minds” and “angel headed hipsters” of Part I.
Part II uses a great deal of metaphor and symbolism to make social and political points. Thus, it is different from Part I, which was mainly a fractured narrative of the lives of the Beat generation. Though one could certainly make social and political inferences from Part I, and Ginsberg does challenge the power authorities of institutions like higher education, mental health, and public safety, the social forces that cause the hardships, violence, and addiction in the lives of the “best minds” are not named beyond vague references. Part II, however, gives a very specific name for these social forces - “Moloch.”
The use of the name “Moloch,” a name traditionally associated with specific gods or rituals from ancient Middle Eastern and Mediterranean religion, is most commonly used to denote a power or force that demands great sacrifice. The figure has been used in a variety of modern artistic settings, including John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Fritz Lang’s pioneering film “Metropolis.” In Ginsberg’s poem, it comes to symbolize all of society’s great evils: corporate power and domination, militarization, governmental violence and oppression, just to name a few.
Ginsberg first thought of the name “Moloch” when out in the streets of San Francisco one evening with a friend and future life-long partner, Peter Orlovsky. Both took peyote, a drug with mind altering effects, and walked the streets, having hallucinations. As they walked, Ginsberg saw the St. Francis Hotel, a landmark building in downtown San Francisco. The lights and shape of the building and the effects of the peyote, made Ginsberg see, “robot upstairs eyes & skullface, in smoke....” Ginsberg names this monster Moloch. The became the symbol of social oppression, the cause of the demise and insanity of the “best minds.”
Ginsberg begins Part II with a reference to the death of his friend Bill Cannastra: “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up / their brains and imagination?” (1-2). Cannastra was a friend of Ginsberg’s from his New York days. One evening, while riding the subway train, Bill, attempting a humorous stunt, accidentally fell out of the window of the train they were on. He was dragged behind the train and killed. Ginsberg references Cannastra’s death in Part I as well, writing of a “best mind” who “fell out of the subway window....” Bill’s death, Ginsberg suggests, gives us the context for the power of the evil Moloch - the power to destroy and to drive one to insane acts.
Part II is a lengthy description of this “Moloch.” Ginsberg begins by describing the economic hardships of those who do not have the luxuries and life of wealthier people. Moloch, representing the values of capitalism, has the power to give to certain persons and to take away from others. Moloch becomes a “heavy judger of men!” (7) Ginsberg, who kept a lifelong affiliation with communism, found such values to be abhorrent and destructive to society.
Moloch also represents the immoral power of government. In lines eight through eleven Ginsberg describes Moloch as “the crossbone soulless jail- / house and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judg- / ment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned govern- / ments!” The word “Congress” is used in a double sense here. It references both the actual Congress of the United States, a place of “sorrows” in Ginsberg’s thought, but it also means a collection, or gathering. The United States government, a body ultimately “of the people” and “by the people” does not collect the people’s hopes and ambitions as much as it collects their sorrows and inability to advance.
Moloch is also the soulless dominance of industry and corporate power. Ginsberg’s ideas of industry, explored more fully in other poems such as “America,” were drastically different from the capitalism of the United States. Ginsberg often references leftist politics and policies in his poetry - worker’s rights, socialist activism, and the distribution of wealth. Ginsberg references the great cities of the world that industry had built But they are not signs of beauty and progress as others might see them. They are landscapes of nightmares. “Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrap- / ers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs!” (15-16). Industry and capitalism are not just symbols of American values, Ginsberg suggests. They are the deities of American culture. The attainment of wealth is a religious pursuit. It is a devotion of the American people.
Moloch’s soul is “electricity and banks,” two of the cornerstones of industry and business. Ginsberg writes that Moloch’s “poverty is the specter of genius!” (20). This is to say that American progress, created and sustained by a particular kind of American ingenuity and “genius,” is actually a force to impoverishes the American spirit. But it is not only the spirit that is impoverished. It is a force that creates actual poverty.
No one is immune from the power of Moloch, not even Ginsberg himself. He writes, making a self reference, “Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness / without a body!” (25-26). Ginsberg did not necessarily mean “Howl” to be a poem of protest, though protest certainly plays a part. “Howl,” however, is not a specific call <i>against</i> the Molochs of the world. Instead, this Part II is meant to show us how we are all part of the powers of Moloch. When Ginsberg suggests that Moloch entered his soul early, he means that the values of industry, capitalism, patriotism, etc. were engrained in his being from an early age just as those same values become a part of the lives of almost all Americans at some point. Resisting Moloch is useless. All are a part of its consciousness. It is the act of trying to disentangle one’s self from the power of Moloch that drives one insane. Moloch becomes a problem for these “best minds” in two ways, then. First, by being entangled in Moloch’s power they risk losing their own souls and their own vision. Yet, by trying to escape the cultural hegemony of Moloch, they can only turn to lives of destruction: alcohol, drugs, or violence.
Lines 29-31 give the most complete description of who Moloch is in the poem. “...Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! / blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible mad- / houses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!” These lines name all of the perceived evil in society - the desire for suburban wealth, a national economy without values or morals, government that seeks only its own interest in policy, a society that places its geniuses in madhouses and who elevates to the status of genius those that only create more wealth, industry, and war.
These things have been the death of America. Ginsberg often believed himself to be a continuation of the American vision of the poet Walt Whitman. Ginsberg incorporates some of Whitman’s style and structure in “Howl.” Lines 35 - 38 strongly echo Whitman’s aesthetic. The “visions” and “miracles” of the American experience have “gone down the American / river!” The “Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive / bullshit!” Ginsberg means here to suggest that Whitman’s vision of America - that of open spaces, nature, and individuality in the face of the growing industrialism of the United States - did not win in the end. Moloch has won. It is a part of all their lives.
But the “best minds” made a choice about how to live in the shadow of Moloch and Ginsberg ends Part II with this choice in lines 43 through 45. They chose to leave. Yet, their choice drove them to insanity. Ginsberg sees both blessing and curse in such a journey. He calls their laughter “holy,” yet it is still the laughter of a madman. He writes that the “best minds,” “bade farewell!” to Moloch’s America. Their farewell only led them to destruction, however. As they left “Down to the river! into the street!” they also went into insanity and destruction. They “jumped off the roof! to solitude!”