Marx drew the analogy between Moloch and capital at least once, in the economic manuscripts written between October and November 1862, which formed the last portions of Theories of Surplus Value. Here (in Notebook XV), he wrote, “The complete objectification, inversion and derangement of capital as interest-bearing capital—in which, however, the inner nature of capitalist production, [its] derangement, merely appears in its most palpable form—is capital which yields ‘compound interest’. It appears as a Moloch demanding the whole world as a sacrifice belonging to it of right…”. Here it was finance capital that reminded Marx most immediately of the Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice.
Moloch appeared in a more central way in a famous sequence of Lang’s Metropolis (1927), where its image is that of a terrifying machine, monster and deity all rolled into one. Here, Moloch is the heart of productive capital, since the whole setting is a gigantic automated factory.
But, if Marx’s Moloch allegorizes the “derangement” of capital in an abstract way and Lang’s Moloch is a powerful visual metaphor for the way fixed capital has blasted its way into Weimar industry by the 1920s, it is in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (written in 1955) that Moloch becomes the face of capitalism as a whole, capitalism in the more total sense of an all-consuming military state and industrial system. The poem was divided into three sections, and it was section two, written later, that laid out a vision of 1950s America as the preying ground of Moloch par excellence. Interestingly, Ginsberg’s own annotations to the poem indicate that he took the word ‘Moloch’ from Lang’s film, even if the image was triggered by drug-induced visions he once had of the upper stories of the Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco.
Howl is a powerful, revolutionary work. The poetry session in which it was first read late in October 1955 drew a line in the history of American literature. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix” is how the poem starts, before it catalogues the anguish of a whole generation of American youth that America actively sought “to resist, tame, jail, medicate, or hospitalize” (Vivian Gornick, “Wild at Heart”). Ginsberg’s own mother Naomi had been a Communist but one whose mental health issues dominated his childhood in a profound way. In Kaddish, the unbelievably beautiful elegy he wrote for her, he alludes to her paranoid fears; “The enemies approach—what poisons? Tape recorders? FBI? Zhdanov hiding behind the counter? Trotsky mixing rat bacteria in the back of the store?” In fact, in his biography of Ginsberg, Morgan notes, “Convinced that the members (of her local party cell) were out to get her, which in a benign way they were, Naomi stopped attending the party meetings”. And part 3 of Howl declares his solidarity with a friend, the writer Carl Solomon, who had been re-incarcerated in an asylum where he was “subjected to electric shock therapy or overdosed with insulin”. Revealingly, Ginsberg later stated, “I realized after I wrote it that it was addressed to her (his mum)…Howl is actually to her rather than to Carl in a sense. Because the emotion that comes from it is built on my mother, not on anything as superficial as a later acquaintance”. Childhood memories of his mother’s suffering merged in Ginsberg’s mind with the ghastly way the state treated mental “illness” in a country marked by racial oppression, repression, apathy and its concerted drive for conformity.
Howl was also Ginsberg’s coming out poem, “a work in which he clearly, for the first time, identifies his spirit, sympathies, and sexuality to anyone reading it” (Schumacher, Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg, p. 211). This was what the Beat poet Michael McClure probably meant when he said, about the first, Six Gallery, reading of Howl, “In all our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before”. The legal charge of obscenity brought against it was soon dropped (even if as late as 1963, when Ginsberg was travelling through India with his partner Peter Orlovsky and read the poem to students at the English Department in Benares Hindu University, some students were outraged by the “obscenity” of the poem and complained to the local CID, which then recommended that the government should deny any further extension of Ginsberg’s visa. It was Pupul Jayakar who got this decision reversed.)
It is section two of Howl that slams the devastation that Ginsberg sees as American capitalism. Moloch/capitalism emerges here as a total system that embraces everything from the ravaged landscape of cities, the murderous judiciary (“heavy judger of men”, a reference to the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953), the draft and war to “endless oil and stone”, “electricity and banks”, etc. Here are the first 9 strophes of this part. See how they read!
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination ?
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 judgement ! 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 smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities !
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone ! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks ! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius ! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen ! Moloch whose name is the Mind !
The whole poem can be read here: https://edisciplinas.usp.br/…/HOWL%20AND%20OTHER%20POEMS.pdf
The Moloch sequence in Lang’s film can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7-fINQZUIM (with Moloch appearing at 1:50ff.)
Gornick’s essay is in The American Poetry Review, March/April 2006.
On Kaddish and the imprint of an earlier American Left in Ginsberg’s poetry, see the brilliant paper by J. Jesse Ramírez, “The Ghosts of Radicalisms Past: Allen Ginsberg’s Old Left Nightmares”, Arizona Quarterly, 69/1 (2013), 47-71 (which the author graciously sent me).
By Jairus Banaji