From Sartre to Mailer: Civilisational Nothingness, Commitment, and the Immanence of the here-and-now in Allen Ginsberg’s 'Howl'

Harma, Tanguy. 2015. 'From Sartre to Mailer: Civilisational Nothingness, Commitment, and the Immanence of the here-and-now in Allen Ginsberg’s 'Howl''. In: 4th Annual Meeting of the European Beat Studies Network. Univversité Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium 28-31 October 2015. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

This paper will consider the ways in which Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ both integrates, and transcends, the Sartrean notion of commitment that stems from 20th century European Existentialism. I will start with a short analysis of the ‘Moloch’ section, which will be envisaged as epitomising a form of nothingness. This nothingness will be interpreted on a civilisational scale to reverberate the cultural argument that the poem encapsulates. As a form of consciousness of death, the Sartrean nothingness is instrumental in an Existentialist reading of the poem: it prompts a reaction in the form of a forceful engagement with socio-historical reality, as Sartre suggested in Being and Nothingness (1943). Sartre’s ontological system will be useful to show how the other parts of the poem may be conceived as an Existentialist response to Moloch, especially through the radical commitment to the here-and-now that the protagonists exemplify.
‘Howl’, however, displays a series of references to the divine that antagonise the Sartrean doxa stricto sensu. At this point, I will turn to Norman Mailer, who, influenced by Christian Existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, attempted to resolve the dichotomy between the atheistic form of French Existentialism and the American urge towards the divine in his essay ‘The White Negro’ (1957). Mailer will be useful to grasp the ways in which the poem encapsulates a form of Existentialism that is, in essence, spiritual, and that sheds lights upon an American variant of Sartrean Existentialism in Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


Allen Ginsberg; Howl; Sartre; consciousness; engagement; commitment; Norman Mailer; nothingness; Moloch; immanence.

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


31 October 2015["eprint_fieldopt_dates_date_type_shown" not defined]

Event Location:

Univversité Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium

Date range:

28-31 October 2015

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

31 May 2016 16:39

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 16:18


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