What sphinx of cement and aluminium 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
Allen Ginsberg, Howl. 1956
Allen Ginsberg’s Howl underscored the disenfranchisement of a group of avant-garde white urban Americans of late 1940’s post war United States, a group that became known as the Beat Generation. The poem, both lauded and reviled, captured the dichotomy of life during the Cold War. Behind the pleasant exterior of idealised domesticity, suburban wealth ascent and nuclear families, an anxiety, paranoia and restlessness plagued the collective psyche of the West. Howl begins with an enumeration of various embodiments of middle American dissent—addiction, homosexuality, political radicalism — frequently invoking the social margins, deliriously unconcerned with sexual differentiation – the poem quickly shifts in tone in section two where Ginsberg evokes the Caananite god Moloch, the god who demanded child sacrifice.
For Ginsberg, Moloch is the industrialised metropolis; ‘whose mind is pure machinery’, ‘whose blood is running money!’, ‘whose fingers are ten armies!’, and ‘whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!’. Moloch is capitalism; ‘whose love is endless oil and stone!’, ‘whose soul is electricity and banks!’, and ‘whose poverty is the spectre of genius!’ Moloch is rationalism and order, with its ‘robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!’ Moloch is the grand narratives of modernity, faith in inevitable social, scientific and technological progress, rationalisation and secularisation, the development of the nation-state, representative democracy. ‘They broke their backs lifting Moloch to heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! Lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!’ The myth of Moloch, indeed the myth of the modernity project, is that human sacrifice will take us to Heaven.