Ginsberg’s Howl as Neuro-Queer manifesto: The Sphinx, Rockland and “the worm of the senses”
In Part II of his masterpiece poem Howl, the great queer mad bohemian poet Allen Ginsberg asks us “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” (7). Many readers still ask, “What sphinx…?” But the sphinx conceals itself rather poorly. In the ancient Greek mythological tale of Oedipus, many of us can remember the sphinx distinctly as a creature whose main job constituted the asking of difficult question and the killing of those who answered it wrong (Daly, 2009). The main question the Sphinx is reputed to ask is What goes on four feet, on two feet, and three, But the more feet it goes on, the weaker it be? (Daly, 2009)”
A queer and disabled reading of the Sphinx is in fact rather obvious; the Sphinx is an asker of a question which determines whether the answerer’s life will be peaceful or will contain arbitrary violence. Similarly, both those who are queer and have neurological differences are regularly asked questions which determine their fate. “Are you of sane mind?” “Are you okay?” “Are you married?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” Queerness and neurodivergence are inherently unstable identities. Many walk around with those identities as a secret. The closet contains people with both deviant sexual desires and people with alternative neurologies. For these groups, the “correct” answer to the multitude of moments of seemingly simple questioning determines our fate.
The question asked by the sphinx in mythology is inherently about the physical form that a human takes, considering that the question focuses on that human being’s number of legs. The way one walks is an inherently performative attribute; not all babies, adults and elderly people follow the Sphinx’ above guidelines. Certainly many babies are able at one time to walk on two legs, many adults do use a cane or a wheel chair and many elderly folk may be in either a wheel chair or be capable of walking on two legs. The sphinx, in Ginsberg’s poem, is made of cement and aluminum. These substances are known mainly for their intractability. While aluminum is physically weak, its color is grey-silver, making it a colorless void.
What Ginsberg describes in his second part of Howl is an experience inhabited uniquely by neuro-queer individuals, something I would like to call the “anxiety and despair of identification”. For our communities, the majority of the social world is not made in our image. We must constantly “break our backs lifting Moloch to heaven” or put extreme effort into a livable optimism about daily life, that in its course, isolates us from our true identities. Moloch here is a variant of the Sphinx; it is the name of a large ancient mythological body that commits arbitrary violence. Moloch in fact is the name of a deity mentioned in Hebrew mythology as an eater of children. The Moloch/Sphinx that Ginsberg imagines is described through terrifying institutions. In lines like “Moloch the cross-bone soulless jailhouse and congress of sorrows” and “Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen”, Moloch is invoked as both industrial and governmental, as a great edifice that we are within and surrounded by. Moloch is also described as a destroyer of sexuality by Ginsberg. One can then understand that for Ginsberg, who goes on in great detail in the next verse about a madhouse called Rockland, Moloch is the name of the combined force of ableism and heteronormativity which deprives people of their twin life forces of creative and sexual passion.
Allen Ginsberg’s identity is important here: Allen was both an open homosexual as well as a neurodivergent whose mother was assuredly neurodivergent and who was locked in mental hospitals for various periods of his life. Allen serves as a powerful role-model for young neuro-queers who seek happiness. Ginsberg became a center of the counter cultural movements of the 1950s to 70s and was an amazing poet, a spiritual Buddhist and a political activist.
I believe Ginsberg’s identity is represented well in Howl. His demons which are both the institutional devourers of passions and the authoritative askers of questions who freeze us in a position of repression or self-denial are my demons, as a bisexual autistic.
In part 3 of Howl, I believe Allen extends a hand to me and to our community through repeating the slogan “I’m with you in Rockland” in an extended echolaliac poetic outburst. What is Rockland and who is Allen with? Rockland was a mental hospital in up-state New York within which Allen was incarcerated and Carl Solomon was the main voice that Allen expressed cohabitation with. Rockland was likely the prison of both people who were queer (because alternative sexuality was pathologized as a mental disorder in the time that Howl was written) and the prison of people who were neurodivergent or so-called “mad”. The statement “I’m with you in Rockland” rings with a meaning that disability justice blogger Mia Mingus describes as “access intimacy”. Mingus offers two excellent sentences which define “access intimacy”. Mingus says that Access Intimacy is A. “that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs” and B. “the intimacy I feel with many other disabled and sick people who have an automatic understanding of access needs out of our shared similar lived experience of the many different ways ableism manifests in our lives”. I believe that Ginsberg specifically planted these sentiments in his poem to inspire future generations of neuro-queers to fellowship. In lines like “I’m with you in Rockland, where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to the cross in the void” and “I’m with you in Rockland, in my dreams you from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night”, one observes Ginsberg’s instant recognition of Carl Solomon’s access needs of liberation from Rockland and less electro-shock therapy. In other lines like “I'm with you in Rockland, where there are twentyfivethousand mad comrades all together singing the final stanzas of The Internationale” and “I’m with you in Rockland, where we hug and kiss the United States under the bed sheets the United States that coughs all night and won’t let us sleep”, one can witness Ginsberg’s activist and sometimes more intimate fellowship with his fellow neurodivergent individuals, the first of whom being Carl Solomon.
Ginsberg’s access intimacy is an amazing literary moment to observe; community and solidarity are formed right before the reader’s eyes. I think it is useful for overly literal and biographical readers to note that Solomon is only mentioned once in the last verse, leaving the person addressed as possibly being all neuro-queer individuals for most of that section of the poem. Furthermore I would like to highlight one last verse of Ginsberg’s as being one that transcends the taxonomizing and classifying compulsions in psychiatry and heteronormativity. Ginsberg states that “faculties of the skull” no longer admit “the worm of the senses” (9). I’d like to state that neuro-queerness would properly house the worm of the senses as an essential part of what neuro-queer means. Ginsberg’s “worm of the senses” seems to refer to a world of alternate sensation that is not present in the medical world whose focus is on the head. In poetry, in free-writing, in philosophy, in so many other areas, that worm of alternate sensation crawls across our experience and spins a silken rope ladder for us that escapes the locked binarisms and universalisms that characterize normative science and practice.
I dedicate this post to that worm; it is that worm which has awaken me from my deep self-loathing and self-denial.
Daly, Kathleen N. Greek and Roman Mythology A to Z, Third Edition. Chelsea House, New York, NY. 2009.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl. City Lights, 1956.
Mingus, Mia. “Access Intimacy: The Missing Link” 2011. http://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/access-intimacy-the-missing-link/