1950s America was a time of censorship, economic growth, consumption and racism, where the system was benefitting only a privileged few. Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, amongst others, were revolting against the dictation of their lives that infringed on the freedoms they wished to enjoy, as a result of the external forces that threatened the American Utopia the government hoped to achieve. The power depicted comes in many forms; from power over yourself (and your own personal freedoms) and your own addictions (such as succumbing to sex and drugs), to power over another, and enforcing your authority over others. In both Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, the theme of control as a means to gain power and authority are presented as suffocating and infringing on personal rights and freedoms as they institute conformism.
The instilling of conformity was primarily done through political control, as the major fear factor faced by the US was the threat of Communism, which went against the meritocratic values the government of the time revered. The political control of society is portrayed by both authors as infringing on their lack of free speech and actions. In 1050s society, the fear was instilled through the witch hunts that prosecuted communists (McCarthyism ), and their mentions of free speech. The terror created by the Second Red Scare , and the spreading of Communism worldwide were major influences for the Beat’s anti-capitalist stances, particularly for Ginsberg, as his mother had been an active member of the Communist Party USA and took her sons to meetings of the radical left dedicated to the cause of international Communism during the Great Depression of the 1930s . The title and opening line of Ginsberg’s Howl is a cry out against being silenced- a recurring motif in Ginsberg’s poetry, of breaking free of the “incomprehensible prison”. Its connotations of being a long, mournful cry, building up as the rebelling members of society felt more and more ostracised, sets up a theme of escape for the poem. Consumerism and capitalism are embodied in Howl part III as the concept of ‘Moloch’, who would have been part of a successful pursuit of the American Dream, but against the Buddhist practices the Beats felt more represented by. Moloch’s blood is ‘running money!”, alluding to the financial obsession that those living in 1950s America would have been fuelled by. The metaphor encapsulates Ginsberg’s distasteful feelings towards capitalism, representing the corrupted American Dream, the industrialised world and the internal aggression Ginsberg had at being socialised into adhering to capitalism. It also represents a rebellion against the “endless oil and stone!” which was promoted in order to succeed in their admittedly meritocratic society. Moloch was “the terror” that their consumerist society had created, one that manufactures and engulfs without any further thought. To contrast their Buddhist teachings, who valued simplicity and a lack of materialistic goods with Moloch, who represented constant consumption and expenditure another deviation from the traditional American Dream, fuelling their sense of alienation and isolation from the rest of society. However, while Ginsberg presents a very anti-capitalist stance with the “Congress of sorrows!”, Burroughs presents governmental control as partly a reaction to Communism, it could be argued that he presents the government as inherently flawed, whilst creating a tyrannical presentation of society. The three political parties in Naked Lunch are all fighting for the same results- total population control- but going about it in different manners, highlighting the power struggles between those in charge and the population as a clear theme in not only Burroughs work but his (and arguably other Beat writers’) depictions of society. The Liquefactionists, Senders, and Divisionists all represent various political ideologies who have corrupt means of gaining power, (through eradication of the enemy, elimination of divergent thought and through sheer domination through numbers, respectively) could be a comment on how the government control, however it is approached, has results that infringe on personal rights of the society. By “flooding the planet with ‘desirable replicas’”, Burroughs parallels the conformity and repression the Beats and other ostracised members of society felt with the political parties in Naked Lunch. The ‘desirable replicas’ implies a result of a single identity, devoid of any individuality, which the Beats were inherently against. Although the political parties have differing techniques of gaining their goals and there would be dire consequences if they were achieved in Naked Lunch, we can read it as a metaphor for governmental control in the society they lived in, with Burroughs describing the Senders as “the most evil” and “dangerous” men in government. Furthermore he presents a government that is not only dangerous in its ruling methods, but also those who are in it aren’t entirely trustworthy, as “only a very few Senders know what they are doing”. Burroughs’s metaphor of these parties reflects his feelings towards those in power at the time- in Naked Lunch they strive to achieve the “eventual merging of everyone into One Man”, while the reality faced by Burroughs arguably similarly repressive. He describes America’s obsession with control as inherently latent, “it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting”. By personifying America, Burroughs adds the reader to the equation, putting them in the problem for partaking in the capitalist regimes almost as much as those in power.
There is a clear link between the control of people and the institutions who instilled this control, thereby paralleling those in charge as incapable of leading a free and successful society. The creation of laws against homosexual behaviour and sodomy contributed to the prosecution and alienation of gay people, who were one of the targets of the perceived threats against the American society. Specifically, the character of Benway in Naked Lunch represents the infringement of personal freedoms. Benway is described as “a manipulator and coordinator of symbol systems, an expert on all phases of interrogation, brainwashing and control”, thereby paralleling him to the Doctors who were sent to ‘fix’ homosexuality. Burroughs was unashamed of his sexual orientation, in a way that affronted readers. Chicago Review editor Irving Rosenthal was fired for publishing excerpts of Naked Lunch, though, in 1966, courts rejected the obscenity charges against Naked Lunch – the last major censorship hearing against written literature in America . Senator McCarthy was at the forefront of the witch hunts, and provided a clear link between the institutions who instilled conformity into the population and some of the characters in Naked Lunch, where the villains are doctors. A connection between homosexuality and anti-nationalism, The Lavender Scare , often combined with the second Red Scare, fed into the fears of the people. The federal and state governments investigated and fired thousands of employees who were suspected of being gay or lesbian, claiming that they were “security risks” who were vulnerable to Soviet blackmail . Benway represents the extreme approaches to tackling homosexuality, and the lengths to which people would go to prevent it. During the chapter of Benway, his Reconditioning Centre is presented as a torture chamber, a commentary on the sadistic hypocrisies hiding behind the façade of science, reflecting the attitudes towards gay people. Even the name ‘reconditioning’ implies an improvement, and the patients themselves are broken down into experiments and dehumanised through “sexual humiliation”, much like the treatment of gay people. Burroughs’ graphic imagery of how they carry out “in a straitjacket when they planted Vaseline in his ass” erases the existence of gay people using torturous experiments under the guise of science to parallel the treatment they faced.
Ginsberg’s implicit allusions to homosexuality in A Supermarket in California shows the controversy surrounding the presentation of homosexuality. Many perceived the taboo as another way of ensuring deviance from the traditional Christian and conservative familial values was stopped, and conformity was instilled. The sexual imagery of the “peaches”, “pork chops” and “bananas” as euphemisms for sexual organs allude to an idea of primal sexuality, implying it cannot be healed or fixed, unlike the actions that were being taken against gay people at the time to ‘fix ‘them. He argues how these sexual desires are rooted in our human nature but have been degraded and villainised by the profit-driven motives of a rapidly-industrialising society, who sought to combine the scares of capitalism and homosexuality together in order to ostracise those members of the community. As Heath described in his ‘The Sexual Fix’, the “much vaunted “liberation” of sexuality, our triumphant emergence from the dark ages, is … not a liberation but a myth, an ideology, the definition of a new mode of conformity (that can be understood, moreover, in relation to the capitalist system, the production of a commodity “sexuality”) . The link between sexuality and Communism was a way to alienate two groups who went against the conformist attitudes, so society would fear them. However, although in A Supermarket In California the references are hidden and metaphors, it is arguable that Ginsberg’s constant references to homosexuality in Howl offer a relief from the all-consuming nature of hiding, and its unapologetic references in “who copulated, insatiate and insane” to homosexuality and sodomy were a rebellion against the perceived crime of homosexuality.
Due to the fear of Communism and the Soviet Union, and fear of divergence, much of American life was under scrutiny and CONTROL. Many people felt their lives were under surveillance- apparent especially in keeping the population ‘sane’- where those who were accused of diverging from the norm (ie through mental illness, homosexuality, or having a political inclination that didn’t match with capitalism) to be going against the American Dream, hindering development for all. This transpired into a control of madness, where the idea of insanity is portrayed as repressed genius in Ginsberg’s poetry, and as product of creative genius furthered by drugs in Naked Lunch. The parallels between madness and control in Burroughs’ wiring is highlighted to show the fear many people lived in- of being categorised as mad would mean revoking their agency as people would simply lock them away in institutions and not take their feelings and opinions seriously. The government’s ability to incarcerate easily is highlighted in “that is, anyone who can be broken down by such means would succumb to the puerile methods used in an American precinct”, showing the government’s ability to denounce someone’s opposing opinion by presenting their mental instability. Heroin is a metaphor for control systems in Naked Lunch and shows the theme of power as a means of absolute control in the extracts; negating the individual of any will. Burroughs presents the relationship between drugs and madness to show how divergent thoughts are treated as mad, and those who partake in them are silenced. The consuming nature of power illustrated in Naked Lunch makes the reader aware of his own ability to be controlled and conned, and the reader’s control over succumbing to that addiction resist it is questioned. By showing us both sides of drug addiction, we can understand why drug users let go of control and escaped the oppressive society they lived in, going against the 1950s conformism. The way in which Burroughs’ drug addiction has been romanticised in later interpretations is very different from the reality he portrays in his book- the graphic and often grotesque descriptions reinforce the idea that this addiction is overwhelming and often life-ruining.
Right from the opening line “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”, The opening line of Howl begins the cry out against the silencing of genius, and society’s perceived madness of those who had creative and often non-conformist attitudes. Ginsberg introduces themes of military, conformity and repression to set the tone for the rest of the poems. Howl refers to ‘madness’, a cry out of pent-up anger and frustration at the inability to change their situation, and has almost a guttural and animalistic tone. Ginsberg spent 8 months in a psychiatric hospital, which arguably comes through in his suspicious and conniving depictions of doctors and hospitals- “where you accuse your doctors of insanity “. By reversing the image of the doctors’ authority and expertise, he is calling out the corrupt care that was forced onto people for simply being perceived as mad. Ginsberg asks his reader, where is the line between madness and reality? Hallucinations, amongst other things, were part of the alternative forms of spirituality that the Beats and other members of society adopted to further their own existential questions and answers, and ‘offered each writer a method for reconnecting to the lost sense of spiritual nourishment their traditions and culture failed to provide’ . Ginsberg refers to his hallucinatory experiences in “what sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”. He and many others would have looked to other schools of thought in order to find solace from the oppression they received (“I can’t stand my own mind”). Ginsberg’s metaphor of the stone and concrete alludes to a manufacturing and industrialising society, juxtaposing the Buddhist meditative and simplistic teachings that the Beats adopted and appropriated. Once again, the rhetorical question explores the value of conformity over artistic licence, as expression was often linked to madness and its repression, especially where the connection between madness and intelligence was highlighted.
The depiction of control and conformity as a means to gain power and authority in Ginsberg and Burroughs’ writing can be argued as a reaction against the societal conformity faced by, and enforced on, the writers, and much of the population at the time who did not adhere to the stereotypical American Dream. . By paralleling homosexuality, Communism and madness as all parts of divergent thoughts, the government was able to successfully villanise those who fell into the categories, and successfully ostracise them, with the goal of creating a homogenous population who thrived in the meritocracy the US created, as a reaction against communist values that threatened the American Dream. The literary, and to some extent cultural, revolution that Ginsberg, Burroughs and other Beat writers started encapsulated the fears of Communism, madness and homosexuality by those higher up in power, and paved the way for a more open depiction of these in the future. They present a governmental obsession with conformity and conservatism, to help pursue social norms of the time, and the adherence to familial and traditional values as suffocating and infringing on personal rights and freedoms, with allusions to their own schools of thought and experiences.