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

Section Two

Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization was published in 1955, the same year Ginsberg began Howl, and like the poem, the book was a cri de cœur, labeled “stirring” and “cheering” by its first reviewer in the New York Times.6 Like Howl, Eros and Civilization was concerned with those consumed and spit out by industrial capitalism—then at its literal peak. As the Cold War enforced a permanent war economy and with it receding fears of a return to depression, affluence became the watchword of American political thought. It secured, ahead of Marxism, Socialism, and of course Communism, the dream of a truly classless society that intellectuals had long nurtured. In abundance, it was thought, all finally could get what they needed. And the development of a discourse around Eros, we’ll find, was keyed to this post-war economic boom.In fact, Ginsberg’s refusal of a demarcated sexual identity is hardly idiosyncratic, but part and parcel of a larger cultural

These claims of spreading wealth were real. In 1956, the federal government issued figures that revealed that for the first time in American history more people were employed in middle-class jobs than in the traditional wage-earning tasks associated with manufacturing.7 Post-war America was now booming and the vast majority of its population had at least the hope of becoming economically enfranchised. And yet both Marcuse and Ginsberg viewed these developments with alarm. The capitalist wage-paying machinery, what Ginsberg labeled “Moloch” in Howl and what Marcuse meant under the term “civilization,” had quite simply crushed the prospect of resistance in America. The very affluence that promoted an American dream of a classless society had another, darker side, one dedicated to eliminating dissenters, casting aside those unable or unwilling to feed it. It had so completely taken over American life that to live outside the Cold War economy was to be labeled a communist, or to be thought mad—Howl’s “best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical naked.…” As Marcuse put it in Eros and Civilization, “the very progress of civilization leads to the release of increasingly destructive forces—destructive because economic progress thrives precisely on the control and containment of individual liberty” (EC, 54). Howl is a chronicle of the wages of these released destructive forces; it is above all a toll-taking and body count.

Both Ginsberg and Marcuse sought to craft a rallying cry, a heartfelt, moving ode in opposition to the pervasive social control of the capitalist economy—what Ginsberg in Howl personified through the pagan god who demanded human sacrifice, Moloch. Ginsberg wrote, “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money!... Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone.” (Any resemblance to the present political situation is purely coincidental.) Howl begins with an enumeration of various embodiments of dissent—addicts, homosexuals, political radicals, the poor, the black, etc.—then shifts its tone and subject matter in section II for the indictment of Moloch, and returns in its last section to a paean to solidarity and loving embrace, invoked in the Whitmanesque repetition of the line, “I am with you in Rockland.” I therefore once read the poem as contrapuntal music, Moloch on one hand, the human outliers on the other.

But Marcuse clarifies the deep intimacy between capitalism and the poem’s evocation and celebration of outlaw pleasures, for the means of resistance to this Moloch, for both Ginsberg and Marcuse, were to be found in the manifold pleasures of what Marcuse termed Eros. As Marcuse wrote, “The pleasure principle was dethroned not only because it militated against progress in civilization but also because it militated against a civilization whose progress perpetuates domination and toil” (EC, 40).

To Marcuse, the importance of Eros towards the attainment of complete human freedom could scarcely be overstated. In a society which foreclosed the prospect of individual resistance—what Marcuse would later term a “one- dimensional society” in an eponymous book for its collapsing of resistance and agency into the one dimension of our extant social order—Eros could be the motor for a new relation to the social, one which refused the productive imperative of our increasingly technological capitalism in favor of concentrating on what he understood to be genuine human needs. In a nutshell, Marcuse believed that technology had largely freed us to experience Eros, but that a capitalist imperative continued to enslave, such that the desire for freedom was sought not by working less but by working more so as to be able to purchase the automobile that, top down, signified the very freedom from work we had sought in the first place. His book, like the conceit of Eros itself, was an attempt to understand how to move out from the Cold War’s multiple repressions, how to fully understand and embrace the ostensible freedoms that were only now, two years after Senator Joe McCarthy’s downfall, finally coming to the fore. But these freedoms were a Mephistophelian bargain, for freedom had been purchased at the price of an ever increasing affluence, which meant that freedom had been won only by agreeing to work more—under ever tightening degrees of social surveillance and control.

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

Ark my darkness,
Rack my lacks,

Eros thus, for both Marcuse and Ginsberg, became an allegory for the pursuit of a non-productive, pleasure-driven engagement in life. It was a pure pleasure, which is to say an uncommodifiable pleasure, with a use value but no exchange value—a rare instance of desire not tinged with an impulse towards accumulation. Eros, as exclusively experiential, thus actively led away from participation in capitalist spectacle, for capitalism, which sought to substitute commodity pleasure for somatic pleasure, was inimical to its goal. For Marcuse and Ginsberg, as well as other roughly contemporary advocates of Eros like Norman O. Brown, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Wilhelm Reich, it was thus a route towards a deeper kind of freedom. Moreover, unlike commodified pleasures, Eros didn’t attempt to dictate in advance what the pleasure would be or feel like the predigested, packaged goal of commodity pleasure. Thus Eros was aligned with the messy, the unpredictable, the authentic, the mad, the seditious, all aspects of genuine social freedom, and all, significantly, tropes of Howl.

Indeed, Marcuse repeatedly bemoaned the fact that the multivalent experiential pleasures of Eros had been reduced to mere genital sexuality—a substitution he understood as yet another form of repression. He claimed that even the act of sex itself was diminished if made entirely genital, arguing in 1964, “For example, compare love-making in a meadow and in an automobile, on a lovers’ walk outside the town walls and on a Manhattan street. In the former case, the environment partakes of and invites libidinal cathexis and tends to be eroticized. Libido transcends beyond the immediate erotogenic zones…”8 For Marcuse, Eros was definitionally an activation and eroticization of the entire body and not just the genitals. He understood the focus on genital sexuality as a reduction of our erotic potential, a restriction of it to a certain part of the body, to a certain population, to a certain time of day. Indeed, Marcuse argued that the triumph of genital sexuality was being promoted as a means of containing the much more free floating, unproductive and disruptive tendencies of Eros. In Marcuse’s influential formulation, then, one aspect of human experience, the sensuous engagement of Eros, became the ur-human experience, capable of restoring a lost balance to the human community.

If this notion of sexuality as both a means of dissent and a genial route towards recuperation strikes a familiar cord, it’s
because of the 60s. Perhaps no other cultural moment cited sexuality as so defining, and the construction and repeated citation of the “sexual revolution” in the 60s became a populist media darling, structuring the decade as surely as the Red Scare did the 50s. But for all its common law status, the counterintuitive marriage between sex and revolution is a
remarkably unstudied affair. I call it counterintuitive because for the bulk of human history, sex, as that aspect of human behavior most singled out for social control, and revolution— by definition the loosening of that control—have at best worked at cross purposes. But in the mid-50s that began to change as capital’s perceived suppression of pleasure-for- profit began to reorient the understanding of sexuality from a purely privatized exchange to a public protest. Allen Ginsberg was among the first to capture this shift in sexuality’s valence, though by 1967, when he led the chanting of the teeming hippy throngs at the first Human Be-In near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, the relationship between sexuality and social liberation was common knowledge—indeed deemed common sense. But when Howl was published in 1956, as Barbara Ehrenreich has shown, sexuality was still not widely perceived as available for pleasure alone, but had to be made acceptable as a mechanism of the stable and productive relations of the heterosexual family unit.9

In this respect, Ginsberg’s 1954 Love Poem on Theme by Whitman (CP 115) is instructive. It begins “I’ll go into the bedroom silently and lie down between the bridegroom and the bride.” Much bed play then ensues, but the poem consistently refuses to specify who does what to whom, for lines like “legs raised up crook’d to receive cock in the darkness” could as well apply to either sex. But following, as the poem continues, “moans of movement, voices, hands in the air, hands between thighs…throbbing contraction of bellies…,” we get to the poetic and physical climax:

and the bride cry for forgiveness, and the groom be covered with
tears of passion and compassion,
and I rise up from the bed replenished with last intimate gestures
and kisses of farewell --
all before the mind wakes, behind shades and closed doors in a
darkened house
where the inhabitants roam unsatisfied in the night,
nude ghosts seeking each other out in the silence.

In short, the poem concludes with Eros as a dream, as an unspoken yet pervasive, polymorphously perverse longing unsatisfied by the productive and reproductive imperatives of monogamous heterosexual coupling.

For Marcuse in Eros and Civilization, indeed the one un- co-opted pleasure, the sole bulwark against capitalist enslavement was what he called “the perversions” (EC, 49). They are deemed perversions because they exist as uninstrumentalized pleasures, pleasures that don’t serve another, socially redeeming purpose. Holding out the promise of heterosexual, missionary position sex once a week, late at night, promoted the illusion of freedom and pleasure in everyday life within conditions of total enslavement. It made capitalism tolerable. Instead, polymorphous perversity exists only for its own sake. As Marcuse wrote,

In a repressive order, which enforces the equation between normal, socially useful, and good, the manifestations of pleasure for its own sake must appear as Fleurs du mal. Against a society which employs sexuality as a means to a useful end, the perversions uphold sexuality as an end in itself: they place themselves outside the dominion of the performance principle… they establish libidinal relationships which society must ostracize because they threaten to reverse the process of civilization which turned the organism into an instrument of work. (EC 50)

Between Love Poem on Theme by Whitman and Howl approximately two years later, there is an important shift in Ginsberg’s evocation of Eros. No longer, in the Whitmanesque manner presented as a dream or distant memory—and thus safely sequestered from the present, the scene of the reading—Eros is now fact, as evocatively invoked in the present as possible. Compare these lines from Howl to Love Poem on Theme by Whitman:

Who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a package of cigarettes a candle and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness.

That this excerpt, like the poem itself, seems to be written from a fundamentally phallic perspective is, I think, incontestable. It largely retains what Sedgwick and others have noted as that traditional format that fundamentally depends on male transcendence on and over a range of female embodiments.10 What I find compelling, nonetheless, is this vision of desire—now no longer a dream or some inchoate longing—that tries to move fluidly between cunt and come, male and female, top and bottom, gay and straight—or perhaps better said: a vision of Eros that in its ecstatic wholeness, refutes such specificities and particularities, and celebrates its Marcusian perversities. To copulate with a candle or a beer bottle is to be penetrated—to be female or
queer—yet terms like sweetheart and last “gyzym” of consciousness are surely normatively phallic. In terms of our contemporary identity categories, the who in this poem is often indecidable. Granting its limitations, I still find it revolutionary—in the sense of causing things to revolve, to turn over such that the bottom would be on top and the top bottom.

Yet, the still pervasive influence of minoritizing models of identity have caused us to misread or misunderstand the political valence of poems like Howl. Or, to personalize it, they caused me to misread him, as I found to my dismay when I first interviewed Ginsberg for a Chicago gay newspaper in early 1989. My brief was to get him to talk about the relation of his poetry to the gay rights struggle, then of particularly pointed newsworthiness as we battled a homophobic city council for the passage of the local human rights ordinance guaranteeing equal rights for LGBTQ people. I was deeply involved in that struggle and his poetry had been for me a source of inspiration and courage. But every time I so much as used the word “politics” or “issue” in asking a question, he became enraged at me, saying,

No, who are you, some kind of naïve mirror… First of all, I don’t like that language. It isn’t an issue, it’s a human matter and you make it into an inhuman thing when you use that language. I think when you use the language ‘issue’ that’s politics. That’s not human emotion. Are human emotions issues? It’s kind of a buzzword,… It’s what distorts everything, from any angle.11

At the time, I didn’t understand what he was getting at, for Howl then seemed to me a chronicle of identities and personal struggles. But when I asked him about this, he said, “What about [being] engaged in play with the world instead of struggle,… If it got to be play, you might win. You want to be a loser, struggle. If you want to be a winner, play. Yeah, go on. You want to be a loser forever?” Unwilling to shake my specifically gay interpretive frame—he was after all my adolescent hero—I persisted, asking him about what I then understood to be the prescient gay politics of poems like Howl, about the expression of joy at being fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists. This is what he had to say:

It may be that as soon as you begin seeing it as personal politics or politics in a liberationist vein, it becomes inauthentic as spontaneous mind. It no longer is. It may not even represent yourself, but represent what you think you should be. See the difficulty. You’re just adopting instead a macho ideal, a macho front. You adopt another kind of macho front which is a political one—when all you want to do is get laid.12

In my tortured, panting adolescence, reading Ginsberg was not only eminently erotic, it seemed the right kind of eroticism, a proud, very gay eroticism, one linked to a politics of outness, of the shameless (I was so ashamed then) declaration of being gay. It has taken me years to reframe a moment in cultural history so easy to misread through the lens of our current political investments in constructions of difference.

If this sounds very 60s transcendentalist, that is precisely my point. Can we imagine an Eros that invites, as Howl sought to do, the interchangeability of seductive identifications and a corollary loss of subjectivity in its most intensified state—arousal, an Eros that loses the specificity of the body in and through the body’s specificity? In such a state there might be nothing foreign about lesbianism or gay male desire or heterosexuality or any of countless other ways of dividing up Eros—and is that not our goal? Ginsberg told me,

I’m not sure that the stereotyping of those gestures makes them, explains them very well, but perhaps even makes them less genuine and less authentic. What you could say is that with Whitman or with Howl it was just authentic, straightforward statements that were clear, unambiguous— certainly meant to encourage other people to liberate their own natures and acknowledge themselves.13

Tellingly, the artists beyond Ginsberg who made Eros the touchstone of their aesthetic are themselves such a notably heterogeneous bunch that they give credence to Eros’ refusal of an identity-based particularity and its subjective correlates. In closing, I want to look at two vastly different visual artists, one a contemporary and one a near contemporary of Ginsberg, the first a heterosexual American woman, the second a British heterosexual man—both ample evidence that
the art of Eros was hardly a uniquely gay construct.

Carolee Schneemann began crafting Meat Joy in 1960, four years after Howl, and first performed it in 1964. It stands as of one of the earliest non-literary visualizations of Ginsberg’s dream of Eros, a perverse performance in the Marcusian sense of the term. Imagine, if you will, this scene: A large group of near naked young women and men writhe on the floor of a crowded hall, the audience but a few feet away. They paint one another’s bodies, playfully clamber over one another with abandon, carry and caress while playing with chicken carcasses, sausages, and fish. Waste paper and paint
clings to their bodies.

Here finally was Eros not simply evoked but made spectacle. In photographs of the original performance of Meat Joy in New York—it had earlier been performed in Paris and London at free expression festivals—we see incarnate something unimaginable at the time Howl was published, yet tellingly, realized only shortly thereafter. Schneeman has described the performance as, in her words, “flesh jubilation.” And she tells us that,

Meat Joy has the character of an erotic rite: excessive, indulgent, a celebration of flesh as material: raw fish, chickens, sausages, wet paint, transparent plastic, rope, brushes, paper scrap. Its propulsion is towards the ecstatic, shifting and turning between tenderness, wildness, precision, abandon—qualities that could at any moment be sensual, comic, joyous, repellent.14

Her very language emblematizes this vision of Eros—ecstatic, joyous, sensual, comic, repellant—and she could just as well be describing Howl.

Note, too, that, like Ginsberg’s poem, Meat Joy is notably untroubled by gender or sexual difference, with who’s doing the watching and who’s being watched, holding out the hope that even biological gender differences could evaporate—that male and female could become one pure body—“physical equivalences are enacted,” as she put it in her notes.

In our highly identitarian times, we no longer read in Meat Joy the ecstatic impulse to recover what was lost, to bind and equalize all its participants—men and women, gay and straight, audience and players—in a common restoration of a lost human community through the shared language of Eros. Here was a public expression of desire that was for a change collective, unmarked, that served to aggregate people in contradistinction to desire’s usual disaggregating impulse. In its deliberate refusal of boundaries and differences—including sexual and gender difference—in its flouting of proscriptions and customs, it pursued a loss of specificity, of particularity, of that very social situatedness of the self which today we elevate as the chief means to combat repression. Like Howl, Meat Joy is testament to the fact that before the notion of sex became the ground for difference, Eros was the cradle of commonality. Such ecstatic refusal of difference was radical at the time, but its radical politics have been blunted by a putative sexual revolution that in fact postdated it by several years.

A collage by the British artist Richard Hamilton called Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (1956) is exactly contemporaneous with Howl. Like Howl, it too turns on an evocation of Moloch, but capital now ventriloquized through the sensuous come-on of a Madison Avenue pitch. The putative first work of pop art, Just what is it… was made specifically for display at the groundbreaking exhibition This is tomorrow at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The collage was originally reproduced in the catalog for the exhibition opposite a very strange drawing, the drawing is itself bizarrely coherent with the collage in their shared investment in the polymorphous perversities of Eros. Both images—and especially the drawing, which has never before been discussed in the literature on this defining image—are reminiscent of both Howl and Meat Joy in their highly unusual, early refusal of sexuality and gender as binary constructions. There is to be sure both gender and sex in both images. But in the drawing is black penetrating white, or white penetrating black, what’s going where, what’s male, what’s female—is it hetero or homo, vaginal, oral, anal? And in the collage, there is a similarly curious code switching, an indecideable commingling of female and male, heterosexual and homosexual, nature and technology—binaries today generally locked into a boundaried, familiar, knowable difference. The traditionally female-dominated interior space now scopically male, the emblematically phallic masculine icon “poppingly” queer in his self-conscious fetishistic display, the housewife endowed with an improbably long vacuum hose. There are so many oppositions contained and suspended in this small picture, neither housewife nor pin up, neither nature nor culture, neither male nor female—it’s all here, more salad than soup. Today, such a skewing of the traditional structuring binarisms of sexuality and gender could be termed queer, Hamilton’s “identity” as a white British heterosexual male notwithstanding.

From a Marcusian perspective, it’s a nightmare image, a testament to the ease with which capital can and will colonize even that which is said to oppose it, Eros in the pursuit of more market share. Yet, years later Marcuse would distance himself from the utopian aura of Eros, coining the phrase “repressive desublimation” to suggest the degree that even Eros could be coopted and corrupted by capital, the very vision prefigured in Hamilton’s prescient collage.

Let me close by simply noting that shortly after the Stonewall riots, a lesbian was asked by a reporter in the Village Voice what she hoped the riots would accomplish. She replied, “We’ll be queer as long as you continue to be straight, then I hope we can finally all just be people together.” Her formulation, sounding so presciently like our contemporary queer dream, was even at this, the triumphantly dawning moment of lesbian and gay liberation, already a wistful backward glance, a nostalgic look back to a time over a decade in the past when a gay man like Ginsberg could deny his gayness—but not out of shame. As Ginsberg wrote towards the end of Howl in one of that poem’s few valedictory lines—“O victory, Forget your underwear, we’re free.

Section One | Section Two