Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Marcuse And The Politics Of Eros
by Jonathan D. Katz

In 2006, Howl, that epoch-defining poem by Allen Ginsberg, turned fifty. It is one of the queerest works in the American literary canon; but a few lines are sufficient to establish its homoerotic credentials:

Who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly
motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim,
the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose
gardens and the grass of public parks and
cemeteries scattering their semen to
whomever come who may.1

Howl offers a veritable laundry list of iconic gay tropes: anal sex, motorcycle trade boys, sailors (the ubiquitous “seafood”), promiscuity, public sex—just add the YMCA and we’d have a brand new Village People song. On the evidence of the above-quoted lines, it seems easy to call this an early and important gay poem. And yet my point will be very much the opposite: that Howl is not a gay poem at all, at least not as we use the term today, and that Ginsberg is not really a gay poet—homoerotic to be sure, but not gay. By this I mean to suggest he refutes our modern notion of a gay identity defined in opposition to straightness, as well as the concomitant invocation of in-group practices or customs, and the defining ideal of sexuality as an ur-difference. Howl instead frequently invokes a social margin deliriously unconcerned with sexual differentiation, a ragtag band united by the loosening, not tightening, of gendered and sexual differentiations. Far from modeling increasingly specified, essentialized distinctions as generative of the modern LGBT movement, works like Howl are important in part because they allows us to redefine our understanding of sexuality at the very emergence of what would become gay and lesbian liberation. In place of the seemingly historical dichotomy between closeted and out, Howl makes clear a more nuanced, but less politically useful, distinction between essentializing and universalizing visions of sexual difference—both equally “out.” The point is that the historical opposite of gay need not be either straight or closeted—it could in fact be polymorphous perversity, bohemian libertinism or even simply sex—and it’s hardly less radical politically for its refusal to engage a category of identity initially coined, to say the least, without the interests of “gay” people in mind.

Ginsberg annotates his alienation from queers in his first published poem, the 1947 In Society (CP, 3). It begins,

I walked into the cocktail party
room and found three or four queers
talking together in queertalk.
I tried to be friendly but heard
myself talking to one in hiptalk.

Immediately, Ginsberg takes pains to telegraph his difference from queers, mapping it linguistically; significantly, he sees himself as the passive agent of this difference—“found myself talking.” His hosts seem to pick up on his disdain and respond in kind, for the poem continues, “‘I’m glad to see you,’ he said and looked away. ‘Hmm,’ I mused.” Now, with their mutual hostility more out in the open, Ginsberg next insults his hosts,

The room
was small and had a double-decker
bed in it, and cooking apparatus:
icebox, cabinet, toasters, stove;
the hosts seemed to live with room
enough only for cooking and sleeping.
My remark on this score was under-
stood but not appreciated.

So Ginsberg becomes awkward, self-conscious, even abject as the poem continues.

I was
offered refreshments, which I accepted.
I ate a sandwich of pure meat; an
enormous sandwich of human flesh.
I noticed, while I was chewing on it
it also included a dirty asshole.

Here ramifying metaphors of self-consumption, as in the clichéd “to eat oneself up”, or “put one’s foot in one’s mouth,” signify shame and self-abnegation, while the dirty asshole ensures that his alienation cannot pass for a normative
heterosexual estrangement from all that signifies as queer.

Yet Ginsberg ends the poem having nicely recovered his footing through the time-honored masculinist ruse of performing a dominant masculinity over and against women. In response to a perceived slight from someone he terms a “fluffy female who looked like a princess,” Ginsberg palpably, puffs his chest and retorts,

I said, “What!”
in outrage. “Why you shit-faced fool!”
This got everybody's attention.
“Why you narcissistic bitch! How
can you decide when you don't even
know me,” I continued in a violent
and messianic voice, inspired at
last, dominating the whole room.

And so the poem ends as it began, a narcissistic invocation of a reified masculinity mapped over and against those who constitute its other—women and queers.

In an interview discussing the gay scene at Columbia when he was a student, at exactly the same period in which he wrote In Society, Ginsberg said, “Well, there were a lot of gay people around at Columbia. There was one guy who was very much out of the closet… And he was quite a noble and dignified, accepted member of our gang except that he also ran with a gang of gay people or queens or fairies. People who were queer in those days at Columbia… They weren’t big men on campus. They were a group on their own, sort of.”2 With his “they” and “their,” his references to queers and fairies, Ginsberg is again marking out gayness as external to his conception of self—and this in 1989, twenty years after the advent of the modern gay liberation movement.

Almost reflexively, we assume such refusal of self- identification to be rooted in the closet, to be an aspect of concealment or self-loathing, but clearly this can’t be the case for Ginsberg. He was, after all, the man who concluded his poem America (CP, 148) with, “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel”—writing that line in 1956, amidst the so-called “Lavender Scare” when same-sex sexuality was illegal and still subject to massive witch hunts and stiff penalties. So if his dismissive refusal of queens or gays or fairies isn’t self-loathing, what is it?

In fact, Ginsberg’s refusal of a demarcated sexual identity is hardly idiosyncratic, but part and parcel of a larger cultural
discourse gaining strength throughout the late 1950s and early1960s—though it has largely escaped subsequent critical notice as such, in part because of its vast difference from the common understanding of sexuality, much less same-sex sexuality, today. Few continued this discourse into the post- Stonewall period, but with remarkable consistency, Ginsberg did. As a kind of shorthand, I’ll be labeling this historical attitude “Eros,” after the usage of the term by perhaps its most famous exponent, Herbert Marcuse, in his groundbreaking book Eros and Civilization. Importantly, there is no women’s Eros, nor men’s Eros in Marcuse’s demonstration; it’s neither gay nor lesbian nor heterosexual Eros; it’s never so specified or made coterminous with an identity—rather it’s always simply Eros, and proclaimed a universal human capacity. We tend to understand universals, rightly I think, as inherently oppressive constructs meant to shore the status quo, to keep power in the hands of those who already wield it; but importantly this one understood itself as both dissident and liberating. It’s hard to wrap our heads around this vision of Eros because it flies in the face of so much of what we assume to be true: that it is difference and not commonality that constitutes the ground of our identity, that rights are pursued and won on a basis of a minoritizing, not universalizing discourse.

After all, since the publication of Howl, the human subject has become increasingly particularized, concentrated into a specific body, the materialized node of multiple social differences in gender, race, sexuality, social class, and now, increasingly, in subsidiary differences such as size, geography, ability, and even religion. Being now accrues meaning largely through difference, and the body’s social situatedness condenses our increasingly complex three-dimensional array of divergent social trajectories into what we now understand as our identity. It is identity that constitutes the root of our being, the gravitational pull of our notion of community; it is both the sum of our interiority and the outer membrane that we assume segregates us from all that is non self-identical.

The intellectual and discursive development of an identity rooted in difference has been of inestimable importance towards decentering the presumptively singular, universal subject of old, a universality that, it just so happened, mimicked rather astonishingly well the particular social situatedness of its creators—overwhelmingly white, male, heterosexual, Euro-American, etc. We know all this like a catechism. And it is precisely the power of this catechism to
evacuate the Cartesian male subject of any claims to universality, to pinpoint precisely its social and political investments that have made it so useful.

But the very discursive success of an identity model has obscured other, competing paradigms of dissidence not premised on the articulation of difference. My point here is to recover in Ginsberg a very particular universalizing vision of Eros as a mechanism of comprehensive social dissent and activist engagement. The term Eros, as defined by Marcuse, suggests a society that no longer represses the pleasure principle, a society no longer organized around the denial of libidinal relationships, but that celebrates the libido in everyone as an end in itself. The payoff—and this is worth underscoring even in advance of the historical argument—is that it was precisely this particular and still understudied notion of a universal Eros that helped make visible the body as potentially dissident and deeply politicized, the first step towards its subsequent establishment in race-, gender- and sexuality-based social movements as the ground for contestation.

Of course, as In Society underscores, Ginsberg can easily seem the poet of difference par excellence: his repeated announcements of his same sex activities, his aggressively first-person poetry, his (at best) inattention (and, at worst, hostility) to entire populations such as women—these are hardly universalizing constructs. Yet, while Ginsberg adopts a largely normative, masculine voice in In Society, his very next published poem, The Bricklayer’s Lunch Hour, is a prose poem with an unmistakably homoerotic theme, evoking a vision of a “yellow hair[ed],” “young subordinate bricklayer,” “bare above the waist” (CP, 4). Rather than naming a singular, delimited erotic, Ginsberg, Whitman-like, repeatedly casts himself as lover to the world, his poetry often (though by no means always) suffused with an Eros unconcerned with gender or sexual difference. Here, in the last two stanzas of The Shrouded Stranger (1949-51) (CP, 26), the poet’s first- person voice makes no distinction between “Maid or dowd or athlete proud”:

Who’ll go out whoring into the night
On the eyeless road in the skinny moonlight
Maid or dowd or athlete proud
May wanton with me in the shroud

Who’ll come lie down in the dark with me
Belly to belly and knee to knee
Who’ll look into my hooded eye
Who’ll lie down under my darkened thigh?

Indeed, an even earlier poem, this one from 1949, Fie my Fum (CP, 23), seeks to evade gender difference entirely through substituting non-specific analogs for the inevitably gendered terminology of the body,

Pull my daisy,
Tip my cup,
Cut my thoughts for coconuts,

Ark my darkness,
Rack my lacks,
Bleak my lurking,
Lark m
y looks,

This period of the early- to mid-fifties—the height of the Cold War—was an historical moment of enormous consequence. Widely misread as the zenith of the grey-flannel suit and suburban conformity, it was in fact a moment in which these signs of traditionalism and orthodoxy were discursively mobilized precisely because such old school values were increasingly under threat.3 Ginsberg’s works contributed towards breaching the boundaries of the sovereign, knowable and natural body, the body as a privileged site of autonomous meaning outside of history and anterior to ideology. In defamiliarizing the body through Eros, these works disrupted the citational process through which social meaning was said to inhere naturally to bodies, to make them what they already “were.” As we’ll shortly see, Ginsberg’s poetics of the flesh were nothing if not anti- categorical, even incoherent, by the standards of the time, deeply phallocentric and yet sexually passive, calling, even begging, for penetration at the same moment they celebrated phallic mastery.4 For example, In Pull My Daisy (CP, 24-25, 1949), coauthored with Ginsberg’s friends and occasional lovers Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, polymorphous perversity becomes a full-throated call,

Say my opps
Ope my shell

Bite my naked nut
Role my bones
Ring my bell
Call my worm to sup
Pope my parts
Pop my pot
Raise my daisy up
Poke my pap
Pit my plum
Let my gap be shut

This newly dissident corporeality served to materialize a contemporaneous social constructionist project already under way in a raft of exceedingly influential, bestselling American sociological texts of the period like David Riesman’s 1955 The Lonely Crowd, and William Whyte’s 1956 The Organization Man, both of which claimed to have discovered a fundamental shift in Cold War selfhood from autonomous— “inner directed” in Riesman’s formulation—to fully relational. Reisman termed this relational self “outer directed” precisely because it seemed capable of achieving meaning only within the web of the social, and while it’s certainly the case that the “inner” self is no less a product of the social than an “outer” self, and that indeed the very dichotomy is, at best, overdetermined, what matters for my purposes is the newly articulate recognition of the Cold War self as inherently relational—no longer self-sufficient but born instead of and through social intercourse. As the highly policed, aggressively consensual culture of the Cold War put mounting pressure on the traditionally sovereign subject, it enforced an increasingly anti-bourgeois conception of the self as always already penetrated—materialized in a body described by Judith Butler as “a permanently unstable site where the spatialized distinction (between the interior and the exterior of the subject) is permanently negotiated: it is this ambiguity that marks the ego as image, that is, as an identificatory relation.”5

While I do not want ignore the erotic resonance of this body newly penetrated by numerous discourses that give it meaning, I don’t want to make too much of it, either. The point rather is that brute flesh is always historical, belonging to the social field well before the scientific. The body here stands less a material fact than ideological screen, a battleground in the discursive production of the self-as-image. Suffice it to say that we should not be surprised to find the sedimented imago that is the body newly ascendant as perhaps the ground for dissent and resistance, not only in the historical moment just prior to the sexual revolution, but quite precisely prior to second-wave feminism, and the Stonewall riots for lesbian, gay, bi and trans liberation as well.

According to Marcuse, before things got mapped and sorted out, and human differences particularized, specified, embodied, and made over into newly politicized identities, a single, universal human capacity—the capacity to experience and engender Eros—was elevated not only to defining status, but became the privileged ground of a powerfully articulated politics of social liberation. There is a great paradox in the fact that this universalizing discourse would then engender the now specific social categories—like feminist and gay— that today obscure its formative and foundational role.

Section One | go to Section Two