'A Spenglerian Re-reading of Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl''

Harma, Tanguy. 2013. 'A Spenglerian Re-reading of Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl''. BAKEA - History in Western Literature, pp. 519-526. [Article]

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Abstract or Description

This article approaches Ginsberg’s poem as symptomatic of the dialectic exposed by historian Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) in The Decline of the West (1918), which posits the decay of Western civilisation and the birth and rise of a new model of civilisation as a sequel.
After a brief re-contextualisation of ‘Howl’, the first part focuses on the first two sections of the poem, in which I show the ways in which its contents and aesthetics parallel, to a certain extent, Spengler’s notion of downfall of the West: as the protagonists engage with modernity in an intense yet tragic way, modern subjects become largely alienated by the new socio-historical conditions of their environment. This movement is epitomised by the figure of ‘Moloch’: it stands for a metaphor of the material, rational world of civilisation that stifles the primeval, essential relationship of men to nature. Innocence and wisdom are replaced by a desire to knowledge (referencing the myth of Faust) and to increasingly control and measure the human experience. This chasm will be analysed through its philosophical origins as well: the methods of modern civilisation will be underlined (philosophy of the Lights, Rationalism) and opposed to the Dionysiac flavour of the myth of the primitive and the intuitive modality that the Spenglerian dialectic promotes.
The second part focuses on the last two sections of the poem, where the malevolent influence of Western civilisation dissipates and a new tone sets in: it is the one of humanistic hope and cosmic transcendence. Destruction has infanted creation: echoing the Spenglerian dynamic of fall and rise of civilisations, ‘Howl’ heralds, in its final parts, a poetics that exemplifies the reconnection of men between themselves and with the divine. Beyond the social dimension of Part 3, the 'Footnote to 'Howl'' in particular shares, through its call for the transcendent, many similarities with what historian Spengler termed the ‘cosmic rhythm’ of human experience, which corresponds to a spiritual incentive located at the core of the selected writings.

Item Type:



Allen Ginsberg, Oswald Spengler, Moloich, modernity, Rationalism, primitive

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature



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Date Deposited:

16 Mar 2016 22:41

Last Modified:

26 Jun 2017 09:10

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.



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