The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something entirely new, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names . . . .Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
So it would be necessary to learn spirits . . . to learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company, or the companionship, in the commerce without commerce of ghosts. . . . And this being-with specters would also be, not only but also, a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations.Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx
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 The hotel appeared before the young, still unpublished poet in the form of a monster, a "Moloch" [End Page 47] that he shouted at, condemned, and even implicated in the death of a friend in the New York City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 [End Page 48] political only in a futural sense (if at all): a rebellious structure of...