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The Image of Moloch

The original group of Beat Generation poets' views post World War II America as a surrender to collective action and as the acceptance of the loss of individualism. Many of their poems express anger and sadness at the disappearance of the self-made man in favour of the concrete corporation. Works by poets such as Allen Ginsberg reflect a rebellious response to this shift. (Asher, 1994) Beat Generation writing challenges the accepted standards for poetry by using long, run-on sentences and measuring rhythm in human breaths instead of syllables or more conventional writing meters. Beat poetry imagery is wildly flamboyant and provocative, a product of overt drug use and a deliberate attempt to grab public attention. Beat poetry highlights the so-called outcasts of the day – artists, musicians and drug addicts – as the “best minds of [the] generation”. (Ginsberg, line 1)”howl” is a heartfelt and angry reaction to societal changes in the United States after World War II. Ginsberg contrasts portraits of his vocal and proactive past with images of a bland and automated present to show how drastically his world has been altered. In Part II of “Howl”, Allen Ginsberg expresses his anger and hatred towards capitalism and industrialization by comparing the regime to “Moloch: an infamous Biblical figure to whom children are sacrificed and a notorious movie machine (Wikipedia, 2011) which kills workers while sparing company owners. This essay examines Ginsberg’s use of Moloch as a symbol of the loss of innocence, the rise of industrialization and the evidence that society changes forever after World War II. The essay also comments on the fact that “Howl” as a whole is a tribute to a society in transition – their triumphs, their challenges and their concessions.

In the Bible, children are sacrificed to an idol named Moloch. In Part II of “Howl”, Allen Ginsberg uses Moloch to give a name to the evil that ostracizes his counterparts because they do not fit in to the new, post-war version of society. The repetition of Moloch in Part II emphasizes Ginsberg’s hatred and the fact that he blames industrialization for the downfall of his peers. This section of the poem opens with a graphic image of a mighty force robbing people of “their brains and imagination.” (Ginsberg, Part II, lines 2-3) Ginsberg portrays Moloch as “loveless.” (Ginsberg, Part II, line 9) To Ginsberg, Moloch condemns people to either a life of slavery or destruction. Similar to the figure in the Bible, Ginsberg sees innocence and creativity being sacrificed to Moloch in “Howl” in favour of industry. In light of Part II, readers gain a better understanding of the depth of the lament in Part I. The friends who seek the “starry dynamo” (Ginsberg, Part I, line 6) become victims to a “cannibal dynamo.” (Ginsberg, Part II, lines 18-19) The contrast in characters between Part I and Part II demonstrates how much of a sacrifice Ginsberg and his friends make to Moloch. The “cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities” (Ginsberg, Part I, line 10) are replaced by “smokestacks and antennae crown the cities” (Ginsberg, Part II, line 25) indicating a transition from drug-induced tranquility to mechanical obedience. Artists and musicians are no longer free to express their views unless it contributes to revenue and urbanization.

For Allen Ginsberg, the post-war world represents the loss of creativity and the rise of capitalism as the world around him is reduced to commercial buildings and business transactions. Part II of “Howl” is a “cement and aluminum” (Ginsberg, Part II, line 1) portrait of how Ginsberg sees the change in society after World War II. Ginsberg chooses the figure of Moloch to personify this new world because of the M-Machine in Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis. (Wikipedia, 2011) In the movie, the M-machine rules the underground to which workers are confined while owners and management live in skyscrapers above ground. Ginsberg’s claim in Part II of “Howl” is that “Moloch”, or those who promote industrialization, is a “judger of men” (Ginsberg, Part II, line 10) who discounts art and music as worthless to capitalism. Thus, artists, musicians and addicts become outcasts unless they conform. The figure of Moloch contrasts sharply with the characters described in Part I. Ginsberg describes the eyes of Moloch, or industrialization, as “blind windows” (Ginsberg, Part II, line 21) implying that industrialization lacks emotion and disregards the fate of those who fail to fit in. While the first part of the poem is alive with colours and movement and voices, the second part of the poem is filled with drabness, machinery and fog.

Allen Ginsberg positions Moloch, and his disparaging impression of industrialization, between a lament for a more vocal and creative past and fond recollections of time spent with his friend, Carl Solomon. This makes readers aware of how negatively industrialization has affected Ginsberg and the Beat Generation poets. Ginsberg deliberately uses Moloch, a cruel and demanding figure in religion and film, to impress upon readers that the changes inflicted upon society after World War II are harsh and inconsiderate of individual desires and concerns. In Part I readers hear about people who “were expelled from the academies for crazy &/ publishing obscene odes on the windows of the/ skull” (Ginsberg, Part I, line 18-20) who “floated out and sat through the stale beer after/ noon in desolate Fugazzi's, listening to the crack/ of doom on the hydrogen jukebox. “ (Ginsberg, Part I, line 47-49) The people in Part I share ideas and are not afraid or ashamed to stand up for what they believe. With the arrival of industrialization, individual perspectives are marginalized. The hydrogen that powers music and thought in Part I fuels factories in Part II, where copies of the sane product are mass-produced by people who perform the sane task without question or complaint in factories. Part III of “Howl” reveals that Ginsberg sees a parallel between his time in an institution and his plight in post-war society. He identifies with feeling very "strange" (Ginsberg, Part III, line 4) and being in a place where he doesn’t fit in. The words “we are great writers on the same dreadful/ typewriter” (Ginsberg, Part III, lines 12-13) draw a similarity between being classified with all the lunatics in the institution despite his intelligence and his marginalization by Moloch because he asserts his individualism instead of joining the masses.

Throughout “Howl”, Allen Ginsberg uses repetition to mark pauses or new trains of thought in his rant. “Moloch” is repeated more often in Part II than the repeated words in other parts of the poem. This demonstrates that Moloch is inescapable and imposing. Moloch invades any space it wants, whether it belongs there or not. Moloch chases the expression of other ideas, constantly reminding readers that it is there to stay. The frequent repetition of “Moloch” also emphasizes Ginsberg’s rage. The word has a harsh sound to it and this onomatopoeic quality underscores the sense of evil and despair that Ginsberg endeavours to convey in Part II. The repetition of “Moloch” contrasts with the repetition of “who” in Part I, which is meant to direct readers to the variety of adventures embarked upon by the Beat Generation. There is a sense of excitement and action in the use of “who”. “Moloch” also contrasts with the refrain “I am with you in Rockland” in Part III of “Howl.” “I am with you in Rockland” has a tone of reverence to it, a sense of reassurance.

(c) Kristy Kassie, April 7, 2011

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