In “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, what is the connection between insanity and conformity?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The poem "Howl" by the beat poet Allen Ginsberg is a celebration, or at least a documentation, of the counterculture of the 1950s. He writes about both insanity and conformity, and for him there is a direct causal relationship. One causes the other.

The first line of the poem begins his argument:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.

What follows is a long, descriptive list of those "best minds," in poetically condensed and compressed form. As we continue reading, we learn that he is referring to his friends and others he knows who broke with the restrictive conventions of the 1950s. This list of people is found in the first stanza of the poem, part I, and it is comprised of junkies, artists, students, madmen, drop-outs, and other twisted souls who have deviated from conventional society. 

As he recounts each one of these lost lives, he condemns all the things he believes are to blame for their demise into insanity. Notice that he berates all of society's common institutions, such as religion (churches), business, metropolitan cities, government, capitalism, education, and transportation systems. He also shows his disdain for racism, machines, money, authority, and movies. To Ginsberg and his acquaintances, these are the elements which comprise the conventions of society to which people are expected to blindly conform. 

Ginsberg's complaint on behalf of all the non-conformists is that there was no choice but to become part of the "system." Perhaps Ginsberg and his non-conformist friends have a valid point, considering the rather restrictive and rigid social, moral, and ethical constructs of the '50s. We all know that things that were considered "different" were not tolerated in most homes, and the same was true in the larger picture--particularly in terms of art, music, clothing, and entertainment. 

On the other hand, without the societal systems such as government, education, or capitalism (or things like them), a developed society could not survive, something Ginsberg and his ilk completely ignore. What he tacitly admits, however, is the truth that the alternatives his friends have chosen are even worse.

The interesting irony in Ginsberg's beliefs is that, while he believes that conformity caused his friends to rebel and turn to sex, drugs, and whatever else they could find, he also seems to understand that it is these lethal habits which actually cause them to become insane. Note the following from part I:

who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism,...

This example of Ginsberg's insane friends is actually one of the "tamest" in the poem, but it is clear that this particular protest against conformity (in this case capitalism) causes their own destruction. 

So, is the conformity that caused so much destruction or is it the alternatives?

A reporter and outspoken critic of Ginsberg's work, Norman Podhoretz, says that Ginsberg glorifies “madness, drugs and homosexuality, and...[shows] contempt and hatred for anything and everything generally deemed healthy, normal or decent.” He is right, but what Podhoretz does not admit is that everyone does not define "healthy, normal or decent" in the same way. The non-conformists were not insane because they did not agree with society's norms and chose to rebel. Instead, their insanity came from their wilds excesses and the things they chose to do and follow instead of society's norms--and Ginsberg, perhaps unwittingly, agrees.