11 April 2009

Ginsburg & Dante, Part III

Continued from here:

Of course, Ginsberg does raise before us the demonic figure of ‘Moloch’, the fire-god of the Ammonites to whom children were often sacrificed (e.g., II Kings 21:6), and, similarly, ‘Rockland’ constitutes a type of Dis (see Inf. 34:20-1), alluded to in Part I, but described at length in Part II in terms of Solomon’s experience. I believe these are, certainly, truly infernal entities. But I don’t think they are what Williams intends by his references to hell and horrors in the introduction. ‘Moloch’ certainly, despite the horror it holds for Ginsberg, is after all only the comfortably unreal reality of bourgeois America. It is as much ‘invisible suburbs’ as it is ‘monstrous bombs’, and even the poet admits that it ‘entered my soul early’ (p. 22) and that it entails ‘epiphanies’ as well as ‘despairs’ (p. 23). Rockland too, while it gorges itself eternally on the damned but ‘innocent and immortal’ (p. 25) soul of Solomon, is composed as much of ‘the spinsters of Utica’ (p. 24) as of electroshock therapy, while the latter even provides an opportunity for another apparent mystical experience (p. 25). Solomon himself is very reminiscent of Brunetto Latini in Inf. 15 (a sinner who, as a literary man and one placed in Hell for the ‘sin of Sodom’, would have particular appeal for Ginsberg), who, despite his damnation,

the one who wins, not the one who loses. (Inf. 15:123-4)

Furthermore, the whole section, apart from the ‘Footnote’, is the most positive of the entire poem, forming a deliberate contrast with the ‘Moloch’ litany of Part II. The poet’s jubilation erupts at the end in particular, where he describes the collapse of the walls and exclaims, ‘O victory forget your underwear we’re free’ (p. 26).

So where does all of this leave us? While I can’t claim enough knowledge of Williams to comment in depth on his own personal reaction to the poem (although I find his statement on p. 7 that he was ‘disturbed’ even by the young Ginsberg rather significant), his introduction strikes me as surprisingly non-Beat. While the reading of ‘Howl’ as, on its surface, a type of Inferno may well coincide with the intentio auctoris vis-à-vis the reader, it does not to my mind agree with the way the Beats themselves would understand the experiences it describes and is undermined throughout the text by the poet himself. For the Beats, morality is very nearly exhausted by the imperative to experience, to seek authenticity, to consume, as Kerouac says, ‘everything at the same time’. It matters little to Ginsberg whether the experience is a vision of God (as implied on p. 17) or burning ‘cigarette holes’ in his arms (p. 13). Both constitute a fundamental rebellion against the Moloch that is 1950’s American society. But while the Beat critique of that society is a deep one that can leave few thinking, feeling persons completely satisfied with the status quo, it is also at the same time a glorification of self-destruction, a promotion of a lifestyle that led many of its most prominent devotees to a sad and premature death. To my mind, the Beat life and the bourgeois one are a Scylla and Charybdis. When I read ‘Howl’, it is truly, for me, a journey through Hell (one of which I too have ‘partaken’ to an extent) and indeed, a prophecy of conflagration. It is a description of a Holocaust that can be justified neither by the fleeting ecstasies and elations of its tormented subjects, nor by their dramatic escape from the other, more widely accepted flames of Moloch.

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