Poetry and Theodicy – Ben Sevart

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was not, I believe, written to be read in a book (much less off a screen) but told as a warning by a stark raving mad lunatic who accosts you on the street, his voice alternating between a conspiratorial whisper and a bellowing denunciation. Nonetheless I will quote a bit, and make you supply the voices:

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 judgment! 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!

Ginsberg is speaking of what evil ruined his friends, the people he saw “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging them through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” The culprit is Moloch, obviously—not the god of the Canaanites per se but his ideal: his manifestation as war, as murder, as avarice and ignorance and arrogance.

Surely a more thorough exegesis could and has been done, delving into the poet’s life to find the actual people and events who served as inspiration. Or one could provide a detailed political account, situating the poem and its author in the early rumblings of the gay liberation movement and a protracted controversy over obscenity and free expression.

Yet, this is not how I have come to understand this piece. When I read it, I feel more than anything a scream, a rising shriek—a howl. Yes, more so than a 70-year-old political context or a dead eccentric’s dead friends, I hear and feel a frenzied epiphanic shout. I realize it is not Moloch who stands in judgement above us, demanding sacrifice, but we who look down into the abyss on Moloch, imaging red eyes in the empty darkness.

Reading the laundry list of his crimes, I realize he is in fact innocent, for everything of which he is accused is done by us. He is an ancient fiction, powerless. He does not demand a sacrifice lest the crops fail; neither does he raise the edifices of torture or sit on war councils in the world’s great capitals. The laws of matter and energy make wheat grow, whereas the properties of concrete and gunpowder enable us to exploit them. No demon is involved, and nothing except the structure of society demands we act the way we do. This structure is itself our history, determined through conflicts long-ago settled and those that rage still today.

In this way we are both innocent and guilty—innocent of the crimes of our ancestors, but thoroughly and egregiously guilty of those of today and tomorrow. We are guilty for the crimes of Moloch, even as he is a stand-in for our society’s prevailing ideology. But to expect that the world’s evils could be ended today through the massive spontaneous adoption of the ‘correct’ religion, ideology, or principle is delusion. However, it is equally unwise to expect a meaningfully better world of tomorrow unless things change, that is, unless we change them.

This is how I understand evil in the world. How do you explain it?

3 thoughts on “Poetry and Theodicy – Ben Sevart”

  1. Thank you for your post, Ben! It was very interesting and insightful! I personally view evil in this world as a part of God’s plan for us. It comes from the influence of Satan, who chose to turn away from God and wants us to do the same and be miserable with him. The way I see it, the evil helps us to understand the good, because without it we wouldn’t have a comparison to understand what “good” is. So I believe that God allows evil to exist so that we can learn, be challenged, and ultimately turn to Him to find relief from the challenges it brings.

  2. I enjoyed reading your reflection, Ben. I appreciate your commentary on evil. I am an optimist to my core, and desperately attempts to give my peers the benefit of the doubt when their acts are hurtful. I believe we are all victims of our circumstances. People do wrong things because they were in an environment that impacted them in some way. Evil actions is a response to trauma that had previously occurred on the person committing the crime. I don’t think people are explicitly evil and I believe we need to better support and empower folks through their trying times.

  3. Ben,

    Your line, “In this way, we are both innocent and guilty—innocent of the crimes of our ancestors, but thoroughly and egregiously guilty of those of today and tomorrow” stood out to me. When I think about evil, I think about everything that comes into my own psyche. Experiences that I have never felt but only inherit through my own ancestors, grandparents, parents, and the society from where they came from. Hushed topics that should never be spoken again. However, I think evil is worse than how I think about it. I think about really unideal situations and maybe this is because I try to look at the world through a lens of optimism (which in Sikh Philosophy is Chardi Kala). I truly don’t know how I would deal with something if I knew it was pure evil because I believe everyone and everything has light within them. I’ve been told that whatever happens happens for a reason and things that are out of our control will exist as we choose to see them. If evil is one of those things that are out of our control, maybe dealing with it comes down to how we choose to let it affect us. Nice job, Ben! Really interesting post!

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