Channeling Anarchy after Whitman
Poets to Come “Arouse! for you must justify me.”
“One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person,/ yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.” One’s Self I Sing
“A new race copiously appears, with resolute tread, soon to confront Presidents, Congresses and parties, to look them sternly in the face, to stand no nonsense” Counteraction of a New Race of Young Men
Excerpts from “Who are [the politicians] personally”: Robbers, pimps, spies, body-snatchers, bribers, compromisers
“Are not political parties about played out? I say they are, all round. America has outgrown parties; henceforth it is too large, and they too small.” The Eighteenth Presidency
Specimen 3: Howl, threnody for a generation
Threnody: ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from Greek threnos ‘wailing’+ oide ‘song’
It is 1955. The Korean war, supported by American capital interest ended two years ago, or came to a tense and endless silence. Last year in Guatemala, the CIA overthrew the democratically elected Jacobo Guzman in the interest of protecting the land assets of the top wealthiest 2.2 percent of the public. The Cold War has left masses burning ‘subversive books’ and headed for their television sets. The society of the spectacle sets down its seed. A tranquil violence hums underneath the hot pavement of San Fransisco. They’re testing nuclear alarm speakers. Children, in their classrooms, duck under their tables dead serious.
It is in this atmosphere in which “Howl” is born. Whitman’s warnings to his country to protect democracy are becoming ‘idealistic rants’ largely unheeded by the growing mainstream and middle-class public. Instead of experiencing the world with their own excursions of geography, they cede responsibility to the decisions that would affect their lives to a large government and to a growing manipulative corporate influence. For the first time in American history, they turned to watching Television, experiencing history only vicariously, hanging by every thread of McCarthy’s propaganda. This decade marked the very height of the agro-military-industrial complex. Meanwhile, a group of youth take to the streets and railroad lines, reliving an old America through wild young eyes, and ripping through social convention in an attempt to liberate themselves from an ever-growing consumptive society. They turn to their bodies. They turn to other men. They take long car rides fast to the edge of death. They recite verse. They perform acts of insurrection on hierarchies. If an animal lashes out against its dominator, does it have to have intellectual backing? Ginsberg sings for his generation, making do in an alienating capitalist landscape.
Throughout the poem, Ginsberg calls on several Whitmans. The most important Whitman seems to be the Voice for the Voiceless. Ginsberg speaks for a subculture that was raging so hard, it did not have time to describe itself and the problems it was lashing out against. Ginsberg seems also to channel Whitman the homosexual and Whitman of the Body. Stylistically, the poem employs long lines and a heavy use of catalog. It also addresses an individual at times, while seeming to be in different geographies and different times embodying different voices.
But something is different here. Whitman’s call (for democracy, for community, for personal freedoms) has been left unheeded far too long. Apocalyptic elements seize the poem like nothing in Whitman. The struggle of capitalism, the dominance of Industry, and the constant fear of a real nuclear war brings the poem to levels of despair heretofore unchallenged in American verse to this point.
I. Discontents of the marginalized
Dynamo: a. Electr. A machine for converting energy in the form of mechanical power into energy in the form of electric currents, by the operation of setting conductors (usually in the form of coils of copper wire) to rotate in a magnetic field.
“the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising”
Reading the first two lines of this poem is always an exhilarating experience. Last night, they came accompanied by the post-apocalyptic sounds of Godspeed you dark emperor! –music coming from the days after the fall of America…
“The car is on fire.
And there’s no driver at the wheel.
And the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides
And a dark wind blows.
The government is corrupt.
And we’re on so many drugs with the radio on and the curtains drawn.
We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine.
And the machine is bleeding to death.
The sun has fallen down. And the billboards are all leering.
And the flags are all dead at the top of their poles.”
These lyrics come out of the specter of Howl. But Howl comes from the belly of the beast at its glorious height. In such times, just like the Roman Empire, the marginalized are oppressed harder to make a shiny tranquil Imperial veneer. The poem’s first two lines summarize the marginalized voices Ginsberg embodies: “The greatest minds” who are driven to the edges of sanity by their knowledge of corruption. I have statement of ecology I’ve built in my relation to Anarchy: for every seed of despair, an empowering liberating insurrection. This generation had to level out its despair with insane, pleasurable, urgent, and immediate experiences. And yet, these youth misguided as rebel lashing out blind, resorted to narcissism at the hands of drugs and constant traveling and indiscriminate sex, a constant searching for something vivid and sensual. While these acts may have been liberating at times, they certainly were not always empowering. Not did they lead to larger social change or to revolution. But I never condemn the victims of capitalism.* Whitman empathizes with seemingly hopeless victims all the time: “The kept-woman, sponger, thief, are hereby invited“. In other words, the marginalized are important to political diversity, just like an ecological system (see Murray Bookchin). The Beats were seekers of spiritual truth in an age of spiritual deficiency at the hands of consumerism.
*Anarchist philosophy abandons psychology and laws precisely because they are born in, and reinforce an already hierarchical structure. Psychology takes the victims actions as errant, and prescribes a treatment to normalize the individual. In the 50s, lobotomy and shock therapy were still practiced, mind you. In other words, psychiatry took mainstream tranquilized consumer culture as a given. On the other extreme, misanthropists and pentecostal Christians blame human nature. Anarchists philosophy and empathy always seeks to transcend these two dichotomies, putting the blame on the oppressive tendency of the society which raises that adolescent.
This subculture, at least, took control of their environment in a spirit akin to the Situationalists in France a few years later. They stepped outside of their suburban upbringings, hijacking cars and hopping trains across the land. They confronted the “starry dynamo in the machinery of night“. Ginsberg’s juxtaposition of natural and mechanic diction seems unprecedented in light of Whitman. Correct me if I’m wrong. This tension between the industrial and the natural (or lack thereof) haunts the poem. Usually, the poet reconciles this by describing voluntary poverty, as in the description of the squat in line 4: that “supernatural darkness of cold-water flats“. Squatting is a technique of many anarchists to make do off the grid while empowering themselves to confront the grid. The beats had it at least half right. Given the gift of hindsight, I praise their resourcefulness. Their skills and poor lifestyles could come in handy for the eco-activists of our times.
I’m also interested in the insurrections against academia in the Beat generation because they resonate strongly with Anarchist thought. In its most simple level, institutional academia is another power trip. The Beat generation in Howl is portrayed as a collective of autonomous individuals engaging in small but symbolic acts of insurrection, which is coincidentally the hallmark of post-Left Anarchy. These individuals were “expelled from the academies” by voicing a dissident opinion, “publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull“**. The acts are symbolic of a better alternative to current lifestyles and power distribution, and sometimes they’re symbolic because they point at corruption. When they painted slogans on their foreheads, when they burned “their money in wastebaskets”, when they “threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism” they were doing both. They were destroying the academy, saving Dada from Dadaism, Anarchy from Anarchism. But what they got in return were horrible acts of societal and governmental repression: they were labeled mental and thrown in cold sterile institutions, given “the concrete void of insulin Metrazol electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy occupational therapy pingpong & amnesia.” Whitman is often obsessed with remembering (or not forgetting). He had such hopes for America. And it repays him only in clinical psychiatry, designed to objectify what is the complex human, forcing the great minds of Ginsberg and his comrades into forgetting through largely untested procedures and pharmaceuticals.
**Just like Subcommandante Marcos of the Zapatistas in the Chiapas region of Mexico: who incanted “Marcos does not exist. I am a window. I am a mirror. I am you. You are me.” March 6, 2001. His reclaiming of poetry at the service of revolution is a hallmark of Post-Left Anarchy. He is very Whitmanian as he destroys the self to empower those without a voice.
These are the subverts who “burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism”. They knew the gravity of the dilemma but they were trapped by their own hypocrisy. The counter-act to their despair was often neither liberating nor empowering. You need a cigarette to protest the narcotic haze, and you buy it from the corporations who conglomerated tobacco production a long time ago.
These subverts find themselves in so many unique mental geographies, “listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox.” Again, there is here a sense of an imminent downfall as well as a fear of industrialization. Nuclear warfare and industrialization go hand in hand like lovers. As anarchists contend with the possibility of the downfall of the hand that feeds them.
What is it about bridges and anarchy? It has something to do with voluntary poverty. Just as Suttree (in Cormac McCarthy’s novel so-called) forsakes his privileged Knoxville family in 1945 to live in a dilapidated houseboat on the Tennessee River near Knoxville, so too did the beats sit “in boxes breathing in the darkness under the bridge.” This image of life on the outskirts is alluring to Ginsberg and to Anarchists alike. I was discussing this individualist strain of Anarchy with a line cook last night. He strongly advised me to let go of my notion of counter-cultural groundswell in the Food Not Bombs movement. He told me, if you don’t want to be the CEO of an organization, why try to take on leadership in Food Not Bombs? Instead, he added, you should cook free food whenever you have it, and give it to a few people on your street. He was implying, rather than making a rhetorically heavy spectacle downtown, one should cut through political alienation and help someone individually. He was also implying that the Gnostic transcending paradigm shift from complacent bliss to painful awareness of the prison in which one lives must come from inside. I brought up Suttree, and we agreed, that Suttree does just that. He doesn’t start a groundswell of revolt, but instead lives and shares in the lifestyles of the slums, while keeping his dignity. He is an anti-hero who teaches himself to fish and live away from significant hierarchies, preferring relationships with drunks, visionaries, travel bums, and the like. I don’t think Anarchy could ever blossom without first rejecting the affluence that we take for granted, and opening ourselves to the same vulnerabilities shared by the oppressed. There is no doubt that Subcommandante Marcos did just that, raised in a middle class family in Mexico City, only later to take up the cause of the indigenous Chiapas in the Zapatista uprising. According to a native, “he sits among us and eats what we eat.” His do-it-yourself ethic is strong, as it was among the beats who “build harpsichords in their lofts.” We grow resourceful again, like the hunter-gatherers, yet this time scavenging on the wasteful abundance of the Western world. We don’t build bridges across the political discourse of the dominant culture, we squat under the bridge counting on its collapse.
II. Like so many cogs in one wheel tumbling to the edge of the Earth
Moloch: 1. A person or thing to which extreme or terrible sacrifices are made. 3. Otherwise known as the Thorny Devil, a small orange and brown lizard of grotesque appearance that is covered with thorny spines.
“It was strangely like war. They attacked the forest as if it were an enemy to be pushed back from the beachheads, driven into the hills, broken into patches, and wiped out. Many operators thought they were not only making lumber but liberating the land from the trees.” Murray Morgan, The Last Wilderness
At safe estimates, three-quarters of the world’s original forests are gone, most of which were cut in the past century. In the United States, ninety-nine percent of its original forests are decimated. Gone. Single tree plantations or clearcuts with a single tree left are NOT what any would call forest. Along a street in Washington, DC, a tattered figure heralds the coming apocalypse, and we pass him like water. We may scoff at notions of apocalypse, but the apocalypse is already here, a slow evolution of growing alienation from Nature and from each other that spawned with the rise of Civilizations dominated by the “Great Men” of His-story. As Mao said, “Man must conquer nature.” In the words of Charles Simic, “The world doesn’t end.” It has been.
When Ginsberg writes, in section two, “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” does that not echo Yeats’ line “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” No matter how likely the intersection, the two poems both take on a tone of impending collapse. Ginsberg happens to be living in a much later version of the “widening gyre” that is Industrialized modernity. In fact, while Yeats wrote The Second Coming just after World War I, Ginsberg’s cries are vastly disproportionate within his time–a stifling and tranquilized Fifties. I think the greatest gift we can give to both Whitman and his progeny is to discover their whispers of rebellion and liberation for our generation. Ginsberg may have been swept off the rug if it weren’t for readers who could understand that his despair was not only valid but instructive for future generations.
As Ginsberg repeats “Moloch!” over and over again, I claim he is decrying industrialized and militarized civilization itself. And while his experiences come from America, wasn’t America in the Fifties at the fore of domination over nature? As we study charts plotting resource use and depletion, the Fifties in America marks an explosion, turning the tide from linear to exponential consumption. Ginsberg was well aware of this, and he was angry at the least. He was NOT just a quirky homosexual poet. Don’t you hear the whisper? The “cement and aluminum” is bashing open our skulls, industrial society is stealing our imaginations. The “dollars” are “unobtainable“. The “blood is running money“, just as it is today in our empire whose “love is endless oil“; the oil of Afghanistan, of Pakistan, of Iraq. Global capitalism has spawned a Society of the Spectacle, “whose eyes are a thousand blind windows“, who cannot see itself, living vicariously through conspicuous consumption and corporate media. It is Moloch who “frightened me out of my natural ecstasy.” The “robot apartments” seem only to destroy the webs uniting common human suffering. Some lines have two equally disastrous readings. How do we read “the incomprehensible prison!“? One way is to take it literally. Ginsberg is decrying the institution of the prison as inconceivable, an unnatural way to hide the unrest in society. The second way is to recall Kafka’s pervasive “prison” as our economic and political reality.*
*I call this the Kafka gap. No matter our spiritual beliefs, we are perpetually trapped in webs of unequal and injust power. The Kafka gap is a feeling that a vague minority is making decisions that directly affect my life. The Kafka gap is highlighted whenever we uncover the corruption of politicians at the hands of corporations. In the timber industry, the very system of “justice” and “sustainability” is deftly rigged from the start by the corporations who tell consumers that we need them (see Derrick Jenson, Strangely like War: The Global Assault on Forests). The Kafka gap comes to light when we realize that, in America, and the rest of the countries that have jumped on the global capital train, corporations are given the rights of individuals. Just this year, the Supreme Court has decided in favor of both overt and anonymous corporate donations of political campaigns. Not only that, political ad spending this year has been higher than ever before, reinforcing the Society of the Spectacle. What all this implies is that the corporation, an abstraction built only for profit, holds most of the power. Forget responsibility, corporations can go bankrupt. Forget accountability, if you blame the CEO he’ll point to the shareholders, the names of which he will not divulge; if you blame the shareholders, they’ll say they are just following the money. I call this the Pinball Machine: in a corporation, the accountability just gets passed around in a vast bureaucratic system. It is the poorest majority that suffers, and natural ecosystems not only suffer but wipe out completely. The Trial is not a work of fiction. Kafka was prophesying way ahead of the curve.
The section seems to position Nationalism as an implicit guardian of a system of domination. Ginsberg seems to be noting what Anarchists have long pointed out– Nationalism itself is a construct.*
Atheism (or, more accurately, the critique of religious institutions implicit in a dominating system).