The Image of Society in Allen Ginsberg's the Howl

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¨Man when you lose your laugh you lose your footing.¨ (Ken Kesey) A famous quote by the main protagonist with an underlying meaning which perfectly depicts what society can do to the individual. One Flew Over the Cuckoo´s Nest, a novel by Ken Kesey published in 1962, is a postmodern literary work, but also displays some modernist themes within the story. In today’s world thereiis no tolerance for the individual thinker. It is not acceptable to bend or modify the regulationsiof society. Society is civilized, andito be civilized there must be rules, regulations and policies that prevent. Individuality leads to a mess of chaos. To prevent disorder, institutions society keep these rules strongly enforced. Man creates these associations in order to provide convenience and stability in everyday life. Then instead of man running these associations, the associations begin to reverse the role of power. 

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In the poem ‘Howl’, written by Allen Ginsberg, society is also shown as a life-draining bloodsucker. It sucks, and sucks, and sucks, until there is nothing left of the individual, but a ghost of their former self. The poem, written in 1954-1955, is a postmodern work of art. There is an intimate relationship between these two works beyond that they are both tragedies; the protagonist in each lacks conventional hero qualities. Both the speaker in ‘Howl’ and Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, can be defined as anti-heroes making these two works of art comparable for study. Though the plot lines in One Flew Over the Cuckoo´s Nest and ‘’Howl’’ differ greatly, the two share a core theme: the individual versus society.

The poem is divided into three sections. The first sect on talks about ¨These People¨. “These People” are the cause of the protagonist his state of mind. ¨These people¨ can be compared to the patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo´s Nest. The second section of the poem answers the following question: what made the protagonist go insane? Ginsberg provides the answer to this question immediately: Moloch, an idolatrous god to whom children were sacrificed. A symbol of war, capitalism, government and mainstream media. We have a similar character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo´s Nest, the Big Nurse. The final section of the poem is addressed to a close friend of Ginsberg himself and answers where the destruction of the speaker his mind happened. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo´s Nest, this would obviously be the insane asylum. The novel and poem show similarities from the outset and throughout. Both criticize the mechanization and conformity of modern society but most importantly, both show the struggle of an individual fighting back against society.

“He knows that you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy.” (Ken Kesey) In One Flew Over the Cuckoo´s Nest we follow a native American man, Chief Bromden, his observations and his descent and climb in and out of insanity. The main protagonist is Randle P. McMurphy, a red-headed, broad-shouldered, self-confident ¨gambling fool¨. Randle represents individualism and power. We also have a third protagonist, Nurse Ratched. Nurse Ratched is a symbol for society. She weakens the patients by calling them names, by forcing them to live the same day every day and by sending them off on ¨a trip to the shock factory¨ whenever they disobey her. In the poem ¨Howl¨, we follow a person who has been a witness to the destruction ¨of the best minds¨ of his generation. Similar to how Randle sees patients, such as Chief Bromden, getting weakened, until there is nothing left of them. Both Randle and the speaker in ¨Howl¨ are starting off as bystanders in the deterioration of the mental health of their fellow people. A significant difference between the two stories is that the speaker in ‘Howl’ does not go insane; the speaker is merely a spectator during the event, while Randle is the victim of a cruel society and its despicable ways. This only shows that even the strongest individuals have no choice, but to submit to the exploitation, repression and subjugation of the outside world. “That ain’t me, that ain’t my face. It wasn’t even me when I was trying to be that face. I wasn’t even really me then; I was just being the way I looked, the way people wanted.” (Ken Kesey)

Madness makes the world go ‘round. Allen Ginsberg’s poem tells the story of a man who has been a witness to the destruction of some of the best minds of the 50s by madness. ‘Howl’ presents the picture of a nightmare world and as some predicted, the wasteland of its generation. The movement of ‘’Howl’’ is from protest, outage, pain, attack and lamentation to acceptance, love, affirmation and vision from alienation to communion. Similarly, Ken Kesey makes the reader question the established definitions of ‘’sane’’, ‘’insane’’, ‘’healthy’’ and ‘’sick’’. Some patients were not actually sick at all, their ‘’sickness’’ was just in the fact that they could not adjust to life. This brings for a subtle yet clever way of exposing what is wrong with society.

In a way, both of these works influenced society as much as society influenced them. In order to be part of a civil society, each individual must give up some measures of self-determination. These two works fit well together because they both not only deal with this topic, they also encourage the individual to fight back against the unfairness of society. But most importantly, it raises doubt over the possibility of true individuality and complete sanity as an achievable goal. All we can do, perhaps, is move between them. 

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