Machinery and The Soul: Subjection and Salvation in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”

by Rick Laurent Feely, University of Pennsylvania

Essay, Works Cited, and Footnotes

Allen Ginsberg composed all but the first draft of the poetic memoir, Howl, on his second-hand Remington typewriter in 1955, before performing the seminal piece at the celebrated Sixth Gallery reading in San Francisco on October seventh of the same year. Upon the texts first publication in 1956 by the small local press, City Light Books, Richard Eberhart, New York Times Book Review critic, lauded Howl as “ the most remarkable poem of the young group” anticipating the text’s future legacy as a modern classic and the defining poem of the Beat Generation (BR4). Though the text of Howl brims with references to the clash between various mid-century technologies, previous critical analyses of Howl have largely neglected this theme. By looking at the role of technology in Howl, we can see how the author locates the technologies of enforced conformity in tension with those of artistic production in the text. This is significant, for it offers insight into how these technologies may have been perceived to suppress or liberate new poetics in mid-century America.

Ginsberg begins his poetic Roman‘a clef with “Part I”  a glorification of anti-establishment art and drug-induced spiritual ecstasy, which he then juxtaposes against the machine forms of industrial capitalism in “Part II”. In “Part III”, he invokes the haunting imagery of psychiatric subjugation at the hand of machines, while repeating the ostensibly reassuring refrain “I’m with you in Rockland” to someone named Carl(7). Carl Solomon was an individual from Ginsberg’s life: another young, Jewish, homosexual beatnik with whom Ginsberg became intimate while incarcerated at the New York State Psychiatric Institute in 1949, and who Ginsberg believed had been remanded into the custody of Rockland Psychiatric Center at the time he drafted Howl in 1955.[1]  A person named Carl is referred to multiple times in the text.

In “Part I” of Howl, the form evolves from the fixed base of “Who”, from which every line builds (Howl, 153). Carl makes his first unofficial appearance in “Part I” through the fictionalized biographic adventures of Carl Solomon, which the textual subject had related to Ginsberg in the bleak institutional setting they shared, and which Ginsberg weaves into a larger, rhythmic tapestry of hyperbole that illustrates the frenetic hedonism and existential horror of the soul artists to which his “who” refers (Howl, 153). It is during one such adventure in “Part I” of Howl that psychiatric technology makes its debut as a tool of tyranny in response to individual expression in the line, “who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism and subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse, with shaven heads and harlequin speech of suicide, demanding instantaneous lobotomy, and who were given instead the concrete void of insulin Metrazol electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy pingpong & amnesia…”[2] (Howl, 5). As Ginsberg’s poetic metaphor, Carl appears to represent the artistic individual’s flight into insanity as an attempt to escape from the inevitable crushing rationalism and slavery to capital he expects will consume him after college. This is most evident in the line, “Who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside of Time, & alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade” (Howl, 5). However, “Part I” of Howl contains another instance where Ginsberg stresses the damages wrought by psychiatric technologies.

Ginsberg includes a subtle reference to his mother’s lobotomy in “Part I”, for which he signed the consent papers in the early 1950s-about halfway between the year of his own brush with the insane asylum, and the year he wrote Howl (Howl, 111).  The poem reads, “With mother finally fucked, and the last fantastic book thrown out of the tenement window, and the last door closed at 4 A.M. and the last telephone slammed at the wall in reply and the last furnished room emptied down to the last piece of mental furniture, a yellow paper rose twisted on a wire hanger in the closet, and even that imaginary”[3] (6). With this line we see the first portrayal in Howl of psychiatric technology stealing the soul of an individual, in this case, by the implied method of lobotomy (Howl, 6). It is in “Part III” of Howl, however, where the portrayal of a soul being stolen by psychiatric technologies reappears in more graphic and explicit detail.

“Part III” of Howl is largely devoted to addressing Carl directly, and begins with the chant, “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland”(Howl, 7). It proceeds to alternate this cadence with prophetic utterances about the central character’s degenerating condition. These include lines such as “I’m with you in Rockland/where you imitate the shade of my mother,”[4] and “I’m with you in Rockland/where the faculties of the skull no longer admit the worms of the senses” (Howl, 7). In this third section of the poem, Ginsberg indicates the need for Carl to liberate himself, both from the soul-snatching machines of psychiatric confinement and from his own insanity.

Nowhere in the poem is the nefarious purpose of a technology given more clarity than in the line, “I’m with you in Rockland/where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to it’s body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void” (Howl, 7). Here Ginsberg signifies the repeated attempts of electroconvulsive therapy as a form of spiritual torture, one in which Carl’s soul escapes from the trauma of its violated, helpless body only to find itself crucified in an abyss. A soul without which, the poem suggests, Carl can recover neither his consciousness nor identity. It is in this line, as well as the previous reference to Ginsberg’s mother’s lobotomy, that technology crosses an indelible boundary in Howl, beyond even the sacrosanct film of the skin whose presence defines an individual’s bodily autonomy, into the vast interior of the subjective core, where the machine is then able to strip the individual bare of even that. As noted by media theorist and contemporary of Ginsberg, Marshall McLuhan, technology is not simply an innocent tool; it is the “extension of man”.[5] Such is the extension of the psychiatric establishment into the reaches of the human soul in Howl.

Ginsberg also portrays the technologies of industrial capitalism in service to the soul’s oppression. In “Part II”, Ginsberg describes the nightmare landscape of Moloch[6], “whose mind is pure machinery” (Howl, 6). Ginsberg admits this is a reference to McLuhan’s article, “The Medium is the Message”(139). He begins “Part II” with the question, “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imaginations?” (Howl, 6). Here the machines of capitalism tear the souls from the bodies of the mad artists depicted in “Part I” and consume them. Ginsberg then proclaims the answer to this question, as if invoking a demon, “Moloch, whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!” and, “Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!” (Howl, 6). The text lists here the casualties of Moloch as the author levels accusations at his pagan symbol of Western greed and profit, not least of which is the charge, “Moloch, heavy Judger of men”(Howl, 6). Ginsberg notes the latter line is an oblique reference to the 1953 New York City electric chair executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted as communist spies, and who evince a more literal example of capitalist technology stealing the souls of mid-century non-conformists (Howl, 139). These instruments of control and conformity in service to capital echo those of the psychiatric institution: in the belly of the beast the individual’s will is bent, the soul is stolen, the non-conformist is broken and destroyed.  Yet not all is concluded within the poem’s subtextual narrative of machine mythology.

Though individuals in Howl succumb to the technological forces of psychiatry, capitalism and the state, the poem also retains sources of redemption for its victims. The technologies of artistic production in Howl not only arouse resistance and express grief, but also signify the ability of art to redeem the soul and return it to the body.  Howl exhibits numerous images of musical instruments whose preternatural expressive capacity upholds them as vehicles of liberation. One of the more significant instances, in “Part I”, evokes Jesus Christ as a culturally salient symbol of both the soul’s agony and immortality, “And rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio”(Howl, 6). This echoes the New Testament verse which depicts Jesus Christ on the cross offering the plaintive cry, “Eli Eli Lama Sabacthani,” an Aramaic phrase whose English translation reads as “my God my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” as his only form of struggle before submitting to his destiny as a religious sacrifice (The Celebrate Jesus Millennium Bible, KJV, Matthew 27:45-46). Ginsberg’s imagery of a jazz saxophone wailing the renowned lament of a sinless, suffering Christ-the central figure of America’s founding and predominant religion- illuminates the saxophone’s purpose in the text on multiple levels.

According to the Bible, nearly two thousand years before Ginsberg wrote, Jesus was sacrificed in a state-sanctioned crucifixion, and the Gospel of John emphasizes the political convenience of his execution. Perceived as a threat to national security because he could foment a rebellion against Rome, and having violently expelled the Jewish money-lenders from Herod’s temple for their commercial activity, Christ was seen a radical political figure during the time period in which he lived (John 11:47-50).  This reference to Christ’s execution in Howl mirrors that of Rosenberg’s: both are metaphors for the various soul artists of Howl who meet their doom in “Moloch” or “Rockland”, respectively.

The metaphor of Jesus extends beyond this parallel however, as Christ’s most notable characteristic (as understood in Christianity) is not his murder but his resurrection, here epitomized in a garment of jazz. The proximity of the saxophone and jazz to Christ in the text serves to relate them as symbols of salvation. Ginsberg also introduces another musical instrument in his motif of salvation, when he reassures Carl that he is with him in Rockland, “where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse”(Howl, 7). In this line, both the soul and the piano are mentioned together, uniting the redemption of the soul with the means of artistic production more explicitly.

Another symbol with which Ginsberg articulates the union of creative technologies and redemption is the typewriter. He includes only two explicit references to this literary invention in the poem. In “Part III”, he writes, “I’m with you in Rockland/where we are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter”(Howl, 7).  This line reveals that the connection between the author and Carl, his poetic metaphor and subject of the poem’s dedication, is not just one of psychiatric imprisonment. Both are writers, poets, theorists, and visionaries, regardless of where each exists in time and space. It is this identity Ginsberg bids Carl’s soul to return to from the cross on which it has been sacrificed. The typewriter later occurs again in the text, embedded in a string of rejoices that comprise the “Footnote to Howl”. Here, the mechanical invention Ginsberg employs to write, is found leading the charge in a line of sacred nouns, including the names of Ginsberg and his friends, “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” (Howl, 8). This final admission of the typewriter into the procession of Ginsberg’s saintly heroes corroborates with previous textual indications that the technologies of art can resurrect, reclaim and redeem the soul, before returning it to its rightful place and person. The last line of this sequence “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul,” references this concept directly (Howl,8).

The typewriter does not only exist as tool of salvation in Howl; it frames the text from its earliest inception. Though Ginsberg wrote his first draft of Howl by pencil, the rhythms of his typewriter subsequently shaped it. These rhythms, conceived within his own soul, found a vehicle in that connection between the mind and the body, his breath. Charles Olson writes in Projective Verse, a 1950 essay on poetic theory at the height of the typewriter age, “the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination” (2). The breath captured by Howl is from the poet’s own soul, and this is confirmed by Ginsberg himself when he discusses his work. In “Notes Written on Finally Recording Howl” he concurs, “Ideally each line of ‘Howl’ is a single breath unit. My breath is long — that’s the measure, one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of a breath.”(416). Rising out of this sublime origin myth, Howl becomes a redressing delivered by the union of breath and typewriter, the animate soul freed in its expression by the cogs of the inanimate machine.

In The Iron Whim: A fragmented History of Typewriting, Darren Werschler Henry writes of the novelist William Burroughs, a contemporary to whom Ginsberg served as both literary agent and editor, “Burrough’s typewriting was capable of articulating queer desires, in a style and language that left no doubt that was being articulated was different from what had gone before it”(117). Similarly, Ginsberg’s typewriting articulated truths in Howl in words that, without the typewriter, could have never before been strung together this breathlessly: words about the situation of mid-century America, about technology, about twentieth century Manhattan psychiatric wards, about drugs and beatniks and capitalism, about the agony of the madhouse and the ecstasy of homosexual love. In this sense Ginsberg’s second-hand Remington typewriter has itself served as a machine of liberation, for the legions of madmen, radicals, junkies, homosexuals and soul artists he depicted in Howl, for the kindred legions of souls who digested Ginsberg’s text over the last fifty-seven years, and perhaps even for him.

Works Cited

Eberhart, Richard. “West Coast Rhythms.” New York Times (1923-Current file): BR4.             ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007). Sep 02 1956.             Web. 18 Dec. 2011.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: original draft facsimile, transcript &variant versions, fully             annotated by author, with contemporary correspondence, account of first public             reading, legal skirmishes, precursor texts & bibliography. New York: Harper Collins,             1995.

Ginsberg, Allen. “Notes for Howl and Other Poems'” The New American Poetry: 1945-             1960. Ed. Donald Merriam Allen. Berkely: University of California Press, 1960.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: The MIT             Press, 1964.

The Celebrate Jesus Millennium Bible. King James Version. Ed. Calvin Miller. Nashville: Holmen Bible Publishers, 1999.

Morgan, Bill. I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat private Life of Allen Ginsberg. New York:             Penguin Group, 2006.

Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse”. Poetry Foundation. n.d. pag. 2. Web. Dec             18 2011.

Solomon, Carl. “Afterthoughts of a Shock Patient”.  Ed. Allen Ginsberg. Howl: original draft             facsimile, transcript &variant versions, fully annotated by author, with contemporary             correspondence, account of first public reading, legal skirmishes, precursor texts &             bibliography. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.

Wershler-Henry, Darren. The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting.             Toronto:  McClelland & Stewart Ltd, 2005.

[1] Allen Ginsberg notes that Carl Solomon was at Rockland while he was writing Howl (Howl, 11). Carl Solomon denies he or Ginsberg had ever been to Rockland (Howl, 143).

[2] According to Carl Solomon’s statement in Ginsberg’s edition of Howl in Works Cited, Carl’s protest of the rational took the form of interrupting a lecture of neo-dadaists, landing him in the psychiatric facility where he met Allen Ginsberg. In Carl Solomon’s article “Afterthoughts of a Shock Patient” (which Ginsberg also includes in the aforementioned edition), as part of his psychiatric treatment, Solomon was put into insulin-induced comas from which he awoke starving, hysterical and naked (descriptions which, in the poem Howl, are applied to “the best minds of my generation”), flapping his arms and screaming “Eat!” or “Help!” Solomon notes he survived fifty of such comas, which caused him lapses of memory and physical disfigurement. In regard to the electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) he experienced, he notes, “So great was the sense of tangible loss that I later insisted upon an electro-encephalographic examination, to reassure myself that no organic damage had resulted from the convulsion.” Solomon also notes the ECT freed him of all homosexual desires (115).

[3] Allen Ginsberg notes the line is a reference to his Mother, Naomi Ginsberg, who (post-lobotomy) was enduring her last days of life at Pilgrim State Hospital. Ginsberg also notes the line includes associations he had of his mother’s clothes closet (Howl, 132)

[4] Allen Ginsberg notes this is also a reference to his mother, Naomi Ginsberg (Howl, 143).

[5] McCluhan’s Understanding Media: The Extension of Man contains many essays on this theme and he was one of the first to popularize the concept.

[6] Ginsberg notes Molech was a Caananite fire god found in the biblical Old Testament, who’s worship was marked by parents burning their children in sacrifice to him (Howl,139)


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