The Ghosts of Radicalisms Past: Allen Ginsberg’s Old Left Nightmares

The Time is Out of Joint

On a night in 1954, peyote-entranced Allen Ginsberg gazed out the window of his apartment in San Francisco’s Nob Hill district and beheld “a ferocious building . . . looming in the cloudy wisp fog” (Ginsberg, Journals 61). The building was the Sir Francis Drake, a luxury hotel at 450 Powell Street. A year later, during another peyote experience on the streets of San Francisco with his lover Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg saw the “smoking building in red glare downtown . . . again” (qtd. in Raskin 138). Spellbound, Ginsberg rushed inside the hotel where, in a cafeteria on the ground floor, he furiously wrote the opening stanzas of a new poem. The hotel appeared before the young, still unpublished poet in the form of a monster, a “Moloch” that he shouted at, condemned, and even implicated in the death of a friend in the New York City subway: “Moloch! Molock! Whose hand ripped out their brains / and scattered their minds on the wheels of the subways?” (Howl 58). Ginsberg scribbled the lines at the foot of a draft of “Howl,” establishing the visual and rhythmic base of what would become the second of its four parts. When Ginsberg read the first part of “Howl” just a month later, minus the still underdeveloped Moloch section, at San Francisco’s Six Gallery, he launched his career as the most influential Anglophone poet since T.S. Eliot. But Ginsberg began backwards. For all the fame of its opening line—”I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness . . .”—the historical and thematic core of “Howl” is not Part I, composed in August 1955, but the Moloch vision of 1954.

On those surreal San Francisco nights, as fog descended and skyscrapers towered in the misty darkness, out of what historical alleyway did Moloch emerge? In this essay, I historicize Moloch and other apparitions for the sake of rethinking Ginsberg’s mid-century poetry and the American cultural and social histories it has helped define. Despite a recent surge in secondary and primary source materials, from biographies to comic books to full-length films, Ginsberg and Beat Generation scholars are only just beginning to correct several common oversights that have hindered a full appreciation of the politics of “Howl” and several other major Ginsberg poems of the 1950s. Scholars have generally overlooked residual political and aesthetic forms in Ginsberg’s early verse partly because their readings of the Beat Generation emphasize the Beats’ irreverence toward the past, their eastern religiosity, and what Jack Kerouac called their “wild selfbelieving individuality” (32). According to the standard historical narrative, the Beats challenged the postwar Age of Consensus by dodging and denouncing all traditions in the name of personal liberty. The historian Christopher Lasch crystallized this widely held view when he wrote that “pastlessness” is the Beats’ “very essence” (70). Accordingly, many commentators have portrayed Ginsberg’s standpoint in the 1950s as fundamentally private, personal, and influenced not by the leftist movements of the 1930s and 1940s, but instead by jazz, black hipster subcultures, and idiosyncratic writers like Walt Whitman, William Blake, William Carlos Williams, and fellow Beat Jack Kerouac, among others.[1] As Ben Lee notes, Ginsberg’s and the Beats’ hip, mystical individualism has been considered political only in a futural sense (if at all): a rebellious structure of feeling that refuses the lifestyles of the parental generations and sets the stage for the counterculture, the New Left, and the new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s (367). The Beats thus figure in the American imagination as catalysts for the generational shift from Little Red Song Book to rock and roll, from class struggle to tune in, turn on, and drop out.[2]

Ginsberg points at Moloch
Ginsberg points to Moloch. Tweeted by City Lights Books, Oct. 20, 2016

While containing many elements of truth, this narrative also simplifies the complex relationships between the Beats and the Old Left. In the following pages, I find my way back to Ginsberg’s leftist past by starting with a reconsideration of Marx’s concept of revolutionary repetition: “the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare [lastet wie ein Alp] on the brain of the living” (598). Written in response to Louis Bonaparte’s coup of 1851, Marx’s insight into the ironic persistence of tradition during revolution hints at a temporal peculiarity in radical political and cultural praxis. In calling tradition a nightmare, Marx aptly chose the archaic Germanic root Alp over the more common compound Alptraum (Albtraum), the former signifying a malevolent spirit who sits on one’s chest at night. In contrast to the term’s visual or mentalist connotations in contemporary usage, a nightmare was originally more somatic, referring to the sensation of suffocating in one’s sleep (s.v. OED). It is precisely in revolutionary times, Marx seems to say, that the past abides and bears down upon us with renewed gravity. Thinking both with and beyond Marx, I propose that revolution mimics the past not merely because we can fail to recognize our own historically specific circumstances, as Marx suggested, but because revolution can reveal an inheritance too great to overturn. Revolution is temporally structured like a night-mare (Alp): just as it pushes forward into the future, it doubles back and summons something old, a ghostly solidity that sits and refuses to melt into air. In a dialectical reversal, however, the nightmarish persistence of the past may then become the very condition of possibility for imagining a different future.

In his first sustained reading of Marx at the 1993 UC Riverside conference “Whither Marxism?” (later revised and published as Specters of Marx), Jacques Derrida argued that the radical imagination is founded on a non-sequential or “spectral” experience of time. He began his lecture by identifying a strange anachronism pervading his topic. Describing an “experience that belongs to my generation,” Derrida noted that the jubilatory discourse of the “end of history” triggered by the then recent collapse of communist governments in Eastern Europe and Russia was hardly novel: “All that started—all that was even déjà vu, indubitably—at the beginning of the 1950s” (15). Derrida went on to answer Francis Fukuyama’s proclamations of the final triumph of liberalism and capitalism by insisting on the “non-contemporaneity of present time with itself ” (29). Derrida claimed that only a disjointed experience of the present allows one to imagine radical novelty, and thus to escape from conceptions of the future which merely extend the present order (xviii-xix, 94). While rejecting historical materialism and the Communist Party, Derrida insisted throughout his lecture that deconstruction had always been compatible with at least one of Marxism’s “spirits,” namely, its utopian commitment to disrupting the hegemony of the present. For Derrida, ethical and political thought must “recognize in its principle the respect for those others who are no longer or for those others who are not yet there . . . whether they are already dead or not yet born” (xix). Justice belongs to a “spectral moment . . . that no longer belongs to time, if one understands by this word the linking of modalized presents (past present, actual present: ‘now,’ future present)” (xx). Derrida’s Marxism, if we can call it that, intertwined a retrospective politics of memory with an anticipatory politics of emancipation, a deconstruction of the self-contained is that opens it up to its temporal Others: the was of past injustice, and the will be of the redemptive future.

Born just four years before Derrida, Ginsberg shared the generational experience at the root of Derrida’s déjà vu. Both came of age during the postwar crisis of Marxism, marked on the continent by the expulsion of the French Communist Party from the Fourth Republic in 1947, and by the near simultaneous beginning of the Second Red Scare in the U.S. But the déjà vu runs even deeper, for like Derrida in the 1990s, Ginsberg faced the Cold War proclamations of the end of history and ideology with what might be called, using Derrida’s Shakespearian terminology, a temporally out-of-joint poetics. In 1955, Ginsberg, son of the communist Naomi Ginsberg and the socialist Louis Ginsberg, completed a poem that would revolutionize himself and things. “Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch!” he declared in the opening lines of “Howl,” Part II. For this red and pink diaper baby was indeed visited by a night-mare (Alp), a weighty inheritance that settled on his mind and bent revolution backwards. On the eve of the cultural and political upheavals of the coming decades, Ginsberg’s Old Left past returned. Ben Lee has shown convincingly that Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Other Poems simultaneously looks backward to the Old and forward to the New Left, offering a vision of history in which “the past and present can only be redeemed together” (385). Building on Lee’s path-breaking rereading, this essay interprets Ginsberg’s mid-century poetry as a disjointed temporal field, a spectral rift in sequential time that opens up emancipatory vision. In what follows, I trace Ginsberg’s Moloch to the leftist urban cinema and graphic novels of his parents’ 1920s and 1930s. These works, I argue, are the source of both the name Moloch and the totalizing visual and linguistic form of “Howl.” I then turn to the parental generations themselves, specifically Ginsberg’s aunt Rose and mother Naomi, the subjects of Ginsberg’s two great elegiac poems of the late 1950s. In “To Aunt Rose” and “Kaddish,” Ginsberg fashions a poetry of lost family and revolution that, for all its melancholy and regret, frees his work from what Paul Edwards has called the “closed world” of Cold War America. By privileging generational breaks in postwar histories, we have forgotten the liberating power of political-cultural and familial inheritance, the forward thrust of memory. For when all paths beyond his present seemed blocked, it was the ghosts of radicalisms past that led Ginsberg’s poetry back to the realm of historical possibility, and forth to radicalisms future.

Nightmare of Moloch

When Ginsberg set out westward from New York City in 1953, he was looking for a fresh start. He was an unknown young poet from New Jersey, a self-doubting homosexual whose mother had taken him to communist meetings and whose father was a Jewish socialist poet and schoolteacher. In the 1940s, he had attended Columbia University and had planned to become an “honest revolutionary lawyer” (Collected 214), before meeting Lucien Carr, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady, the original members of the Beat Generation. Under their influence, Ginsberg turned from studying labor law to exploring an artistic “New Vision.” The following years were increasingly turbulent. The young Ginsberg was suspended from Columbia for writing anti-Semitic epithets on his dormitory window, joined the Merchant Marines, got mixed up in a petty crime ring, was arrested, and ended the 1940s as a ward of the New York State Psychiatric Institute (Raskin 25-142). He settled in San Francisco by late 1954, found his first steady job as a marketing analyst, and met a new girlfriend, the hipster and jazz singer Sheila Williams. The two would soon share an apartment in the city’s Nob Hill district, “overlooking San Francisco’s downtown valley and the Drake Hotel” (Journals 5). It was here that Ginsberg’s new start would become a repetition. If he had wanted to forget his troubled past, he succeeded only in clearing a space in his mind for the lightning flash of Proustian involuntary memory, or what he himself called “prophetic images from the unconscious—like the scary image of Moloch” (Spontaneous 137).

On the night of October 17, 1954, Ginsberg, Williams, and Cassady took peyote together in the Nob Hill apartment. As Ginsberg looked out the window, he was seized by an unsettling vision of the Sir Francis Drake hotel, which he quickly recorded in raw, sporadic prose:

Came to the window to stare at the thousand eyed buildings . . . .and fixed eye & noticed the vegetable horror of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel—. . . edifices making a New York Gotham midtown Murray Hill unreal Wall Street miniature panorama toward Bridge— . . . .Found suddenly the Gothic eyes of the skull tower glaring out bleak blind blank smoking above in stillness . . . . —with horrible cross check Dollar sign skull protrusion of lipless jail-barred inhuman long-tooth spectral deathhead brick columns making abstract teeth. This phantom building robot was smoking in inaction as if it had been stuck there in eternity . . . .

Ginsberg’s journal entry contains both immediacy and anachrony, an uncanny and singular presence that is nonetheless reminiscent of distant places and times. The hotel wavers between San Francisco and New York City. It rises from the fluctuating ground with frightening visibility and yet translucency, a monster to be stared at with wide-eyed horror and, simultaneously, a hallucination, a “spectral” or “phantom” entity. Ginsberg looks out at a city of eyes, and the monster even seems to lock eyes with him. But despite the omnipresence of eyes in the entry, vision cannot find a stable object: Is this downtown San Francisco or Wall Street, a demon glaring in the living present or from the depths of eternity? Just what are the hotel’s spatial and temporal coordinates? 

Ginsberg’s vision is a trace of the past, an after-image of a particular historical and biographical moment. Ginsberg saw the “robot skullface of Moloch,” he explained, in the “red smoky downtown Metropolis” (“Notes” 81). The final word is crucial. In 1986, Ginsberg would acknowledge the influence of “cinema images” from Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, reproducing screenshots in his annotations (140). “I got the word Moloch,” he told Paul Portugés, “from the movies, probably Fritz Lang or someone like that” (Portugés 181). Metropolis was one of several path-breaking European and American silent films that made the 1920s “a period of fluid exchange between architecture and film” (Bruno 21). In films such as Metropolis, Manhatta, Berlin, Symphony of the Big City, and The Man With a Movie Camera, directors on both sides of the Atlantic focused their lenses on city space, using panorama and montage to capture the visual totality of modern urban landscapes. (Lang even claimed to have modeled his sets on the New York City skyline [McGilligan 108]). During this same period, European expressionist woodcut artists like Franz Masereel and Otto Nückel introduced the urban perspective of silent film to print culture, popularizing a genre called the “wordless” novel or “novel in pictures” (Beronä 19; Willett). The latter came to the United States in 1929 in the work of Lynd Ward, an American woodcut artist trained in Germany. Ginsberg would later write in his introduction to Illuminated Poems that Ward’s woodcuts of towering skyscrapers, his “images of the solitary artist dwarfed by the canyons of a Wall Street Megalopolis,” anticipated his “visions of Moloch” (xii). The two would collaborate in the late 1970s on a limited broadside edition of “Howl,” Part II, for which Ward produced an original wood engraving. Before moving on to “Howl,” Part II, we must revisit Lang and Ward, figures from a left-wing past that had returned and temporally disjointed Ginsberg’s perceptual field. For it is precisely this past that has been erased from American memory and Ginsberg scholarship alike.

After arriving in the U.S. in the 1930s, the Austrian Fritz Lang joined a group of émigrés who mobilized art against their fascist homelands. As allies in what Michael Denning has called the left’s “laboring of American culture” in the 1930s and 1940s, this group produced plays, orchestras, and films that advanced Popular Front politics through the culture industries (60). During his time in Hollywood, Lang associated with other exiles in German California, becoming close friends with T. W. Adorno and collaborating with Bertold Brecht on Hangmen Also Die (Claussen 162-75). Lang’s first Hollywood production, the 1936 film Fury, won the praise of left-modernist poet Kenneth Fearing for its critique of lynching (28).[3] In the earlier (failed) blockbuster Metropolis, Lang had tried to represent, though in a highly criticized form, the experience of the industrial working classes.[4] This “allegory of the future as the triumph of the machine” (Gunning 55) depicted the proletariat working the underground power grids of Metropolis, a dazzling city of skyscrapers and complex transportation systems. In the film’s opening sequence, legions of depressed workers march into Metropolis’s subterranean factories, their bodies bobbing to the robotic rhythms of the machine. An enormous skyscraper looms in the city’s center and houses Joh Fredersen, the bourgeois master of Metropolis and commander of the underground labor force. When Fredersen’s son wanders into the underground factory, he sees the M-Machine, a gigantic dynamo, transform into a demon that swallows workers as the word Moloch streaks across the screen.

From 1935 to 1942, Lynd Ward was a member of the American Artists’ Congress, a collective of left-wing painters, sculptors, cartoonists, woodcutters, and muralists joined in a project of creating anti-fascist mass art (Baigell and Williams). Ward was also supervisor of the New York City WPA Art Project in the early 1940s; the illustrator of numerous leftist novels, biographies, and children’s books; a contributor to New Masses and Art Front; and a key figure in the U.S. left’s visual culture, which in Ward’s case had roots in European expressionism, silent film, and especially the wordless novels of Masereel and Nückel, both discovered by Ward while studying in Leipzig (McNeer 18). When Cape and Smith published Ward’s Gods’ Man: A Novel in Woodcuts in 1929, most Americans were still unfamiliar with the genre, thus helping the book create a minor sensation and sell over 20,000 copies during its first four years in print (Beronä 21). Two of these copies ended up in Ginsberg homes in the 1930s: one in Naomi and Louis Ginsberg’s library, another in Rose’s (Howl 139; Tallmer).

The formal impact of Gods’ Man and Metropolis on Ginsberg’s poetry lies in their stark urban visuality: black and white images of lonely city blocks and overshadowing skyscrapers. Like in Metropolis, the city is not an organic “home for man,” as the quintessential critic of the American city, Lewis Mumford, would put it, but rather an alienating mass of brick and concrete. There are even several strikingly direct instances of intertextuality, or rather intervisuality, between Ward’s and Lang’s work. When the lone protagonist of Gods’ Man enters the city, he beholds a radiant skyscraper that recalls the giant tower at the heart of Lang’s Metropolis. Ginsberg’s hotel vision was an after-image, a night-mare, of these scenes.

When Ginsberg scholars have noticed Lang and Ward, they have done so only in passing, thereby overlooking key historical and formal components of “Howl.” For it was the cinematics of Gods’ Man and Metropolis, an expansive filmic view of the American and European city as it dwarfs the individual, that provided the lens through which Ginsberg imagined the Sir Francis Drake hotel towering over him in 1954. Indeed, the journal entry describes the vision as a “miniature panorama.” Ginsberg’s vision reproduced the panoramic form of urban cinema and the wordless novel, that is, their formal capacity to span multiple places and times and to unify them in a single observational space. Fittingly, as Ginsberg reworked the first drafts of “Howl,” he developed a distinctly visual-spatial poetics. Combining insights from dreams, Cézanne’s paintings, and literary imagism, Ginsberg wrote in June 1955 of a new method that would guide the editing of his manuscript: juxtaposing discordant images and thereby creating “ellipses of Space” (Journals 140). He would keep to this interpretation for the rest of his life, often describing poetic technique as observation of the mind’s internal “movie” (Spontaneous 251). Poetry was the mind’s movie for Ginsberg partly because his imagination had begun to make the sweeping, elliptical, synthesizing movements of the expressionist camera. Ward, too, had said making art was like imagining a film (Willett 129). The final version of “Howl,” Part II, further combines cinematics with totalizing language, allowing Ginsberg to sweep across his own urban-industrial landscape and to assemble the pieces into a monster named Moloch.

“Howl,” Part I, begins with the words “I saw.” It bears witness. The poet, like Tiresias in Eliot’s The Waste Land, sees all and suffers all, and in his eyes flash scenes of madness that are personal and idiosyncratic. Jazzheads, junkies, tramps, bums, schizophrenics, and other “angelheaded hipsters,” including Ginsberg himself, fill this section of the poem with their beat biographies. In the opening line of “Howl,” Part II, Ginsberg asks a question that changes the perspectival structure of the poem: “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” The question initiates a shift from descriptions of first-person experience to causes; it widens the field of vision beyond the inter-subjective and personal and toward the trans-subjective and social. Now Ginsberg names not just his generation’s madness, but its source:

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!

Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!

(Collected 131)

Ginsberg’s voice is grand, comprehensive, and civilizational. He answers his opening rhetorical question with four universal nouns (“Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness!”), and continues to use the noun throughout the poem as the basic unit of description. Although his vivid imagery shows mindfulness of W. C. Williams’s dictum “no ideas but in things”— the leftist Williams, it should be recalled, mentored the young Ginsberg and wrote the preface to “Howl” and Other Poems—Ginsberg’s diction suggests dissatisfaction with the imagists’ minimalism. This poet does not hesitate to use weighty abstractions: “judgment,” “money,” “mind,” “war,” “governments,” etc. In “Howl,” Part II, the abstraction (universal noun) unifies the heterogeneity of things; the truth, to borrow a phrase from Hegel, is the whole. Through a series of synecdochic leaps, the single building of the 1954 vision has expanded into Moloch, the evil face of the industrial city (“Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities”); of poverty (“ashcans and unobtainable dollars,” “children screaming under stairways”); of militarism and imperialism (“Moloch the vast stone of war,” “Moloch whose fingers are ten armies”); and of impersonal bureaucracy (“Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows”). The term Moloch functions as the genus under which all particulars are made intelligible and named as a totality.

In Ginsberg’s own Jewish tradition, words have not only philosophical, but even magical significance: to name someone is to know their secret, and thus to cancel their power. Yet critics who have privileged religious readings of “Howl,” focusing on Ginsberg’s biblical references and what an early reviewer called his “profoundly Jewish temper” (Eberhart 25), have often missed the connections among naming and leftist visual culture. Ginsberg’s was indeed a “visionary poetics,” as Paul Portugés argues, but in the 1950s his visions were not just mystical and Blakean. “Howl,” Part II assembles “disparate archetypes of electric modernity” (Howl 56) through a series of camera-like verbal flashes of scenes from the widest reaches of modern life. Vision and language work together: like his universal nouns, Ginsberg’s expansive vision synthesizes particulars into visual wholes or “archetypes.” Moloch, the supreme archetype, is a visual-linguistic composite. It brings together pieces from a larger city imaginary, a shared picture of urban modernity that originated among leftist visual arts circles from Weimar Germany to New York City. When Ginsberg looked out his apartment window and tried to define his historical situation, he perceived the scene with the fresh eyes of a new generation as well as through the representations of city space he had seen in Metropolis and Gods’ Man. From these sources, Ginsberg borrowed specific images (reproduced in his annotations) and the name Moloch, a trope for the city and modernity at large. Moreover, he inherited a totalizing, synthetic perspective, and it is this perspective that gives “Howl,” Part II its political form. “The positing of global characterizations,” writes Fredric Jameson, “was always a radical intervention in the here and now and the promise of resistance to its blind fatalities” (400). Naming the essence of modern life “Moloch” is a political act, as the New Left would affirm in its later project to name the system, because every utterance of the name has the potential to limit Moloch’s psychic power, thus breaking the spell of resignation cast by a world that often seems too large and multiform to comprehend, too overwhelming to change.

Drooker, Moloch cover
Cover of The New Yorker by Erick Drooker, Oct. 10, 2011.

Instead of locking Ginsberg in the past, this very indebtedness to leftist history cannot be separated from the forward momentum of “Howl.” Past and future are fused in the poem. Ever since Ginsberg first publicly read “Howl” in 1955, adding the Moloch section to his readings the following year, generations of readers and critics have felt that the poem expresses a distinctly post-World War II social and existential condition. Through “Howl,” and later, Kerouac’s On the Road, a new poetic and narrative voice blasted into American culture that was spontaneous, fluid, restless, intensely private and yet unashamed of confession. This voice would speak of a new generation confronted with, on the one hand, atom bombs, cold wars, consumerist materialism, and rampant social conformism, and on the other, the freedom-enhancing possibilities of drugs, jazz, Eastern religions, and tabooed sexual practices. When Ginsberg claimed later in “Howl,” Part II that Moloch’s “name is the Mind,” he captured a nascent countercultural view of consciousness and resistance that the Beatles would put succinctly in their 1968 song “Revolution”: “you tell me it’s the institution / . . . You better free your mind instead.” When Ginsberg confessed that he was a “Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch!” he linked heteronormativity and oppression in a way mostly unknown to the Old Left mindset, and yet inspirational for the gay liberation movements of the coming decades. When he shouted “Moloch whom I abandon” (Collected 131) he indeed signaled a new strategy of (at least partial) disengagement and disaffiliation, a rejection of orthodox politics that turned away with equal disgust from postwar capitalism and actually existing socialism. Accordingly, the generational language of “Howl” would inspire the Port Huron Statement (Katz 190), and SDS activists would claim the word Moloch in their project to name, i.e., totalize, the system.

To understand the complex temporal and political structure of “Howl,” we need to think of the past as night-mare (Alp). As I use the term here, the night-mare is a trope for out-of-joint or spectral time, such as Ginsberg experienced when he saw Moloch. The trope attends to the phenomenal and affective weight the past suddenly and ironically acquires in times of change, disrupting what some philosophers of time describe as the “flow” or “arrow” of time as it comes toward the present from the future. In 1954-55, the future no longer flowed from some reservoir of non-yet-actual time waiting in front of Ginsberg, but instead looped around from the rear: the future happened out of the past. Old Left names and aesthetic forms meet New Left politics in “Howl” because Ginsberg, like the French revolutionaries whom Marx had criticized a century earlier, was caught in an historical loop. But while Marx was right to caution against replacing one’s current circumstances with those of the past, we should not dismiss Ginsberg’s repetitions as mere folly. Ginsberg was able to imagine the collective situation of the “best minds” of his generation, fashioning a poem that would politically electrify the next, precisely because he sidestepped Marx’s prohibitions in The Eighteenth Brumaire and drew his poetry from the past. (Indeed, one can read the nineteenth-century Marx today only by making a similar refusal.) The return of old screenshots and memories ruptured Ginsberg’s present, reversing his imagination and liberating his poetry from both the widespread defeatism and triumphalism of Cold War figures who regarded their present as an inescapable factum brutum. As consensus settled over American political discourse, and writers on both the right and left declared the “end of ideology” and the inevitability of liberal democracy and capitalism, the past opened for Ginsberg like a doorway out of the tyranny of facticity and back into the realm of difference, change, and possibility—that is, into the properly historical realm from which the future is born. Inspired by the imagination of the Third and Fourth Internationals, Ginsberg could then exclaim “holy the fifth international!” in his footnote to “Howl.” This he described as a future collective of “workers, entrepreneurs, peasants and indigenous communities of world” that must unite against “imperial private and state monopoly capital’s near-absolute and potentially suicidal power” (Howl 146). For Ginsberg, change was possible only when the doors of time opened on both ends, and the ghosts of radicalisms past returned to name radicalisms future. As he put it in a journal note on “Howl”: “And the Future: / Let there be Communist Revolutions” (Journals 194).

“The Key is in the Sunlight”

Following “Howl” and Other Poems, Ginsberg’s poetry began to focus more intensely on family history. The late 1950s were not kind to the Ginsbergs. As the Second Red Scare intensified, the aging socialists and communists in the family died, went mad, or both. Ginsberg responded with his most poignant works of this period, the elegiac “To Aunt Rose” and “Kaddish.” In these poems Ginsberg bids farewell to the dead, their revolution, and, in a way, his own troubled childhood. Yet instead of simply parting with the past, Ginsberg’s goodbyes are night-marish. They wish the departed redemption from what Max Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno called the “most grievous curse” for Jews: “to thee shall no thoughts be turned” (179). Ginsberg ended the 1950s with deliberate acts of remembrance, following his Moloch visions back to their points of origin in his aunt Rose’s apartment, where he first saw Lynd Ward’s artwork, and back to the memory of his mother Naomi. His elegies for these women hold the past firm in his conservative present, pull time backward to Old Left family histories, and open the past to futures in which defeated leftist projects might rise from the pyre transformed.

“Aunt Rose—now—might I see you,” Ginsberg begins in “To Aunt Rose,” the line balanced in the center by the heavy stress on the word now. From the time of the now the poet casts his gaze backwards:

with your thin face and buck tooth smile and pain

of rheumatism—and a long black heavy shoe

for your bony left leg

limping down the long hall in Newark on the running carpet

past the black grand piano

in the day room

where the parties were

and I sang Spanish loyalist songs

in a high squeaky voice

(hysterical) the committee listening

while you limped around the room

collected the money—

Aunt Honey, Uncle Sam, a stranger with a cloth arm

in his pocket

and a huge young bald head

of Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

(Collected 184; see print version for accurate format)

Between Rose’s living room in the 1930s and Ginsberg’s present is a yawning elegiac distance. Around the time of the Spanish Civil War, Ginsberg considered himself a “combination of Jeffersonian Democrat [and] socialist Communist” (Book of Martyrdom 14). By now he has certainly stopped singing for the Spanish loyalists. Rose, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and the politically enthusiastic (“hysterical”) Ginsberg all seem marooned in the past, trapped inside a Popular Front era that has become hopelessly defunct now that the war is over and “Hitler is dead, Hitler is in Eternity” (Collected 184). In the final line, Ginsberg takes leave of his deceased aunt and the Popular Front together, as though the two shared a life whose time has long been up: “The war in Spain ended long ago / Aunt Rose” (185). Ginsberg’s family and its politics seem to be objects of Freudian melancholy, which the very writing of the poem transforms into normal mourning by helping Ginsberg let them go.

Elegy, however, is a performative paradox. Those who commemorate the dead can do so only because they remain “there,” on this side of life and death, able to speak for those whose silent absence is the starting point of public speech and memory. While elegy is constituted by this boundary between those there and not-there, the “now” of life and the “then” of death, its utterance throws the speaker’s present out of joint, inviting in a past upon which memory confers afterlife. Writing “To Aunt Rose” did not make Ginsberg forget. Such are the wages of silence, not of commemorative writing, and certainly not of a nephew’s love. Silence abandons the failed past, but commemoration sees a promise in it, just as Ginsberg still saw his aunt as “a ghost on Osborne Terrace” (184). Poetry gave that ghost a solid form, reifying memory on the page. Every time we read “To Aunt Rose,” we encounter that durable memory and elegiac paradox. The poem performs both burial and resurrection, announcing that the past is irreversibly gone, yet holding the past’s failure beyond itself, into the post-mortem future, where it weighs on the conscience of the living and calls out for atonement.

In the late 1950s and beyond, nobody elicited Ginsberg’s memory more than Naomi Ginsberg, his schizophrenic mother. About the famous anti-hero of The Stranger, Camus wrote in his notebooks that “the curious feeling [Meursault] has for his mother constitutes all his sensibility” (qtd. in M. Ward vii). Ginsberg’s own “curious” feelings about Naomi were equally formative for his poetry, though that word fails, as Camus intended of his indifferent protagonist, to describe the agonies of love. “Howl,” though officially dedicated to Carl Soloman, is also a howl for Naomi (Howl 110; Lee 382-83). When in the poem’s third section Ginsberg expresses solidarity with Carl Soloman in the asylum, he adds: “where you imitate the shade of my mother” (Collected 132). Naomi was the muse of Ginsberg’s mid-century poetry, the creative inspiration who once played mandolin and sang and invented stories, who had poetic hallucinations of God and from whose “pained head” Ginsberg “first took Vision.” She was his “Communist beauty” (223), the one who took the family to radical summer camps in upstate New York (see photos above), and the reason Ginsberg could write in “America”: “I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry” (146). But Naomi’s inspiration was also dark. She was first admitted to Greystone Mental Hospital in 1932, certainly a damaging event for Ginsberg, who was a mere boy of eleven at the time (Raskin 28-29). Naomi’s Stalinist politics fused with a psychotic fear of capitalists, Trotsky, and her own family members, who in her confused mind were fascist spies. Unable to recognize her own son, the deranged Naomi once shrieked at him: “‘I’m not a bad girl—don’t murder me!'” (Collected 223). Ginsberg cherished his mother but dreaded her madness; he loved her “spirit, her moxie, and her communism,” as Ginsberg’s therapist put it (qtd. in Raskin 154), but loathed the chaos and heartbreak she brought into his life. It was he who authorized Naomi’s lobotomy in 1947, and thus he, in a way, who destroyed her. And yet when Naomi died and was buried without the Jewish prayer of mourning, it was he who redeemed this silence in “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg.”

“Kaddish” is a wounded, betrayed, vengeful poem, and for this reason critics have tended to read it less as elegy and more as exorcism. As defined in Jewish tradition, the Mourner’s Kaddish is a multivocal prayer, and thus cannot be recited if, as was the case for Naomi, fewer than ten males participate. The prayer focuses not on the deceased individual, but instead glorifies God and looks forward to the day when the dead will be raised collectively (Diamant 22-23). Ginsberg thoroughly revised these traditions. His Kaddish is univocal, personal, and at times shockingly disrespectful of the dead, prompting early reviewers to call the poem an “illegitimate use of Jewish tradition,” a “brutal, obscene story” in which “there is nothing blessed, only pain” (Cohen 101; Shapiro 89; Wilson 98). In the opening proem of “Kaddish,” Ginsberg walks the streets of New York’s Lower East Side, following the footsteps he imagines his immigrant mother took “50 years ago, little girl—from Russia, eating the first poisonous tomatoes of America—frightened on the dock.” He casts his memory “back thru life, Your time,” striving to connect his own moment with “the mind itself that saw an American city” (Collected 209). But the more Ginsberg focuses on his mother’s past, the more he introjects it, forging the proposed biography of Naomi with his own autobiography. In a letter to Robert LaVigne, Ginsberg explained that the “death of my mother has brought me more close to understanding inevitability of death feeling that already I see a part of me my childhood in the grave” (Letters 139). The thought would return in the final section of “Kaddish”: “Lord Lord Lord Naomi underneath this grass my halflife and my own as hers” (Collected 227). “Kaddish” is an elegy for both mother and son, for her tortured existence and for his tortured childhood—the memory of which is so terrible that Ginsberg appears determined only to bury it.

In the long second section of “Kaddish,” the poem’s substantive core, Ginsberg returns to childhood traumas. He tells of reversals of parenting and the untimely responsibilities they placed on his shoulders, of “long nights as a child in Paterson apartment, watching over [Naomi’s] nervousness.” When Naomi attempts suicide, Ginsberg is there to experience it all: “Once locked herself in with razor or iodine—could hear her cough in tears at sink” (218). The poet revisits events with brutal honesty, sparing no detail, no matter how unflattering. He catalogues Naomi’s “scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers—ragged long lips between her legs” (219). When Naomi has a psychotic breakdown, Ginsberg’s parataxtical phrases, shorn of all connectives save the breathless Dickensonian dash, almost struggle to keep up with the uninhibited flood of memory:

One night, sudden attack—her noise in the bathroom—like croaking up her soul—convulsions and red vomit coming out of her mouth—diarrhea water exploding from her behind— on all fours in front of the toilet—urine running between her legs—left retching on the tile floor smeared with her black feces—unfainted.


Gone in these lines is the encomium of traditional elegy. As Jahan Ramazani argues, “Kaddish” registers a postwar transformation of the genre in which American poets increasingly violate ancient taboos, “warring on the dead with unforgiving violence” (xii). The woman in whose name Ginsberg’s Kaddish is performed is irresponsible, physically and emotionally ugly, broken, too pathetic even to faint. When Ginsberg visits Naomi in the asylum for the last time, “a scar on her head, the lobotomy—ruin, the hand dipping downwards to death” (223), the horror he feels is shot through with recognition not only of his responsibility, but of the fulfillment of a secret desire for her death. After returning home from Naomi’s mental hospital one night, the young Ginsberg had wished “she were safe in her coffin” (214).

Ginsberg family
left to right: Eugene, Allen, Naomi, and Louis Ginsberg

To be truly free of Naomi, Ginsberg must pull himself out from under the yoke of her world, which for him is nothing other than that red turn in American culture and politics known simply as “The 30s.” Ginsberg cannot imagine his mother outside her historical moment, and for this reason Naomi is one of the most richly historical figures in all of American poetry. Her life and times are so tightly bound together that she embodies the Old Left in her “mouth of bad short stories,” her “belly of strikes and smokestacks,” her “chin of Trotsky,” and her “voice singing for the decaying overbroken workers” (226). Naomi is history in the most tangible and intimate things: face, mouth, voice. Her mental collapse is a figure for the downfall of the 1930s as such, as though the two were fused inextricably: “Naomi reading patiently, story out of a Communist fairy book—Tale of the Sudden Sweetness of The Dictator—Forgiveness of Warlocks—Armies Kissing . . . Paterson Press printed them up in the 30’s till she / went mad, or they folded, both” (214). With the closing of the fairytale comes the demise of its heroes. Naomi’s madness, the failure of Paterson Press and its proletarian literature, and the broader collapse of the Left’s laboring of American culture occur all at once, initiating a postwar condition marked by lost parental love and historical projects.

Is Ramazani right, then, to read “Kaddish” as Ginsberg’s attempt to “exorcis[e] from his mind an insane, guilt-inducing specter” (251)? Critics who stop here overlook the poem’s density of feeling, its consistent counterpoising of grief and love, hell and flashes of utopia. “Kaddish” labors to forgive just as much as it condemns, a dialectic that keeps the poem from becoming pure bathos. Like the footnote to “Howl,” in which Ginsberg announces that everything is holy, the “Hymmnn” section of “Kaddish” blesses the whole narrative: “Blest be your failure! Blest be your stroke! Blest be the close of your eye! Blest be the gaunt of your cheek! Blest be your withered thighs! / Blessed be Thee Naomi in Death! Blessed be Death! Blessed be Death!” (Collected 225). Only by accepting pain can Ginsberg escape the crushing weight of guilt and regret. Just as he insisted that “Howl” was more than a “negative howl of protest,” Ginsberg intended “Kaddish,” too, as an affirmative attempt to “forgive another and love another” (“Letter to Eberhart” 211).[5] Moreover, given the intimacy of Naomi and her historical world, the one cannot be blessed without the other. In contrast to its stories of defeat, “Kaddish” recovers the Ginsberg family’s summer vacations at the communist Camp Nicht-Gedeiget (Yiddish for “Camp No Worries”) in upstate New York in the 1920s:

O Russian faced, woman on the grass, your long black hair is crowned with flowers, the mandolin is on your knees—

Communist beauty, sit here married in the summer among daisies, promised happiness at hand—

holy mother, now you smile on your love, your world is born anew, children run naked in the field spotted with dandelions,

they eat in the plum tree grove at the end of the meadow and find

a cabin where a white-haired negro teaches the mystery of his rainbarrel—

blessed daughter come to America, I long to hear your voice again, remembering your mother’s music, in the Song of the Natural Front—

O glorious muse that bore me from the womb, gave suck first mystic life & taught me talk and music, from whose pained head I first took Vision—

Tortured and beaten in the skull—What mad halluci nations of the damned that drive me out of my own skull to seek Eternity till I find Peace for Thee, O Poetry—and for all humankind call on the Origin

Death which is the mother of the universe!—Now wear your nakedness forever, white flowers in your hair, your marriage sealed behind the sky—no revolution might destroy that maidenhood.

(Collected 223) 

In faded Old Left utopian spaces, in the fleeting glimpses of happiness, freedom, artistic creativity, and community they once offered, Ginsberg finds his most tender and enduring memories of Naomi. He freezes both like so many photographs, removing them from the decay of time and granting them a kind of eternal presence. Their influence on Ginsberg’s political imagination lasted well into the late 1950s, when Ginsberg wrote to his father that “what needs to be done & what needed to be done for 50 years . . . was a raising of standard of living over the whole world, & shift to cooperative socialism, an abandonment (perhaps) of money itself, of the whole profit motive, as the socialists said, to each according to needs” (Family Business 88). If Ginsberg did abandon any of his parents’ political beliefs, it was the more liberal socialism of his father, who answered Allen’s letter with the disapproving observation that his son had been too heavily influenced by his mother’s communism. Yet, as though reminding the reader of the impossibility of simple identification, the very next stanza in “Kaddish” following the utopian vision banishes Naomi once again: “Back! You! Naomi! Skull on you!” (Collected 223).

The ineluctable tensions in “Kaddish” between sorrow and love, remembrance and rejection, cannot be erased. The poem itself cannot solve these problems, only preserve them and hold them out to the future. In the final analysis, “Kaddish” is like the key in the strange letter written by Naomi shortly before her death and rendered into verse by Ginsberg: “The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window—I have the key” (224). Ginsberg reads Naomi’s letter as a secret message, a moment in which madness glimpses mystical truth. He takes “the key is in the sunlight” to mean that the light of poetry is itself a key, illuminating the darkness of his mother’s mind, enabling him to recount her story. The key is Naomi’s final gift to him, the gift of poetic remembrance left by the dead for the living:

But that the key should be left behind—at the window—the key is in the sunlight—to the living—that can take

that slice of light in hand—and turn the door—and look back see Creation glistening backwards to the same grave, size of universe.


Ginsberg has taken Naomi’s key, looked back through the door of memory, and composed a remarkable elegy. The poem is his return gift, a “Psalm, from me, burst from my hand in a day, some of my Time” (212). He, too, has left the key in the window. To read “Kaddish” is to be called to retrace Ginsberg’s path through time, to take up the key, unlock the doors of the present, and look back. Then, as though feeling the key tremble under the weight of posterity, we must also turn to face the window—the future—and those who will need the key after us. All interpretations of “Kaddish” as pure exorcism of the past fail to take notice of this temporal complexity. Such readings are blind to the ambiguities of Ginsberg’s night-mares, the curvature of their mnemonic and emotional horizon. In their place, our readings should insist that even if Ginsberg had wanted to free himself absolutely from his past, his attempt would have been doomed. The past is like that spirit that the ancient Greeks called daemon, that aspect of ourselves that we can never get a handle on because it peers out at the world as though from behind our backs. If we choose violently to reject our past, it only becomes a taboo that sets defining limits on who we are and may become. More crucially, our readings of “Kaddish” must be sensitive to the forward momentum of Ginsberg’s memory. The performative paradox at the heart of his leave-taking invests his poetry with the future, making every utterance of goodbye, a word that contracts the original phrases “God buy you,” “God redeem you” (s.v. OED), an act of hope. We must, in short, seek the key in the light at the window.

Goodbye, Old Left

After settling into New York City’s lower east side in the late 1980s, Ginsberg, now a distinguished poet and professor, began collecting posters by a local radical artist named Eric Drooker. The posters’ bold political imagery “shocked” the old poet, for in them he saw “the same dangerous class conflict I’d remembered from childhood, pre-Hitler block print wordless novels by Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward” (Illuminated xii). Even after his Buddhist turn in the 1960s, the new political sensibility of poems like “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” and his eye-opening visits to Cuba and the Soviet bloc, Ginsberg’s Old Left night-mares kept coming. The past had once again burst in on his present, just as it had done on that foggy San Francisco night in 1954. Drooker’s “graphic illustration of economic crisis similar to Weimar-American 1930’s Depressions” (xi), Ginsberg explained, sharpened his sense of the political stakes in the Reagan era. As I have argued in this essay, Ginsberg’s greatness lies not in individualism, novelty, or pastlessness, but in his persistent experience of non-sequential time, the night-marish attunement of his imagination to those moments when time slips out of joint and the ghosts of radicalisms past return. For all their insight, postwar histories of generational rupture lead us to forget what Derrida calls our “being-with specters,” the untimely and potentially liberating afterlife of familial and cultural heritage. When all paths beyond the present seem closed, and one can imagine the world, as Wittgenstein said in another context, only in terms of what is the case, the past can become a secret doorway back to the future. Though we must say goodbye to the Old Left and its failures, our goodbyes, like Ginsberg’s, should also mean God buy you, I shall keep your memory dear, I shall redeem you.


* This essay was published in slightly different form in Arizona Quarterly. Download here.

[1] Representative entry points into the vast literature on the Beats include Charters, Jackson, Parkinson, and Tytell. Readings of Ginsberg against which the current essay is aimed include Foster, Genter, Merrill, and Portugés. For a more politically nuanced view of Ginsberg’s religiosity, see Trigilio.

[2] On the connections among the Beats, the New Left, and the counterculture, I am particularly indebted to Gitlin, Isserman, Katz, Lee, and Starr and George.

[3]Fearing would play a much larger role in a broader argument. His may very well be the ghost of radical poetics past in Ginsberg’s work. It is interesting to note, for example, that while Ginsberg admitted the influence of Fritz Lang’s and Lynd Ward’s imagery, he explicitly rejected a more explicit link to Old Left poetry, despite the striking rhythmic, and sometimes thematic, similarities between his early verse and Fearing’s. See Ginsberg’s evasive remarks on Fearing’s influence in Spontaneous Mind (20).

[4] It must be acknowledged that Metropolis cannot be easily claimed as a leftist film. Germany’s leading communist periodical Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) set the critical tone early by dismissing Lang’s ambiguous political messages. “There is something for everyone,” the reviewer wrote disapprovingly, “the ‘Metropolis’ for the bourgeoisie, the storming of the machines for the workers, the cooperation of labor and the bourgeoisie for the social democrats” (R.A. 248). Yet the film’s depiction of rebellious workers, although repeatedly questioned for being ideologically vague, also inspired a New York City theater to hail it as “the tremendous drama depicting the revolt of the workers against the master class” (Film Guild Cinema).

[5]By the 1970s, Ginsberg would even defend Naomi’s madness. He claimed that there was something profoundly right about her paranoia; Naomi had a visionary’s sense of that which is indefinite but pervasive. “She had a great grasp of the transient and irrational nature of the modern capitalist world,” Ginsberg explained, “and a clear idea of the brainwashing that was going on in this country.” He continued: “she was no madder than me or my father, or for that matter, than Schlesinger, or Roosevelt himself.” Ginsberg saw madness as beginning “with a grand universal insight,” only Naomi lacked the proper outlets to express it (qtd. in Lester).

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