The first and second parts of Howl are, in a way, a question and an answer. One cannot read the terrible things that happened to real people and not think, "Why were these brilliant thinkers driven to madness? What could make a man jump off a bridge, unloved and alone, before despairing of even the certainty of death? What could make someone drink themselves to death? What in the name of sanity could drive people to tear their clothes in protest in the streets?" As Ginsberg himself asks later on,
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch. Moloch is the answer to all of these questions, and the others which Ginsberg convinces us to ask as we read Howl, Part I. In its original incarnation, Moloch was a child-sacrifice-demanding god who would strike fear into worshippers' hearts. It is, then, no surprise that he was the choice to describe the social and industrial machine that Ginsberg believed was devouring his generation. Those intellectuals had done nothing wrong, yet vices and society were killing them. So what, specifically, is Moloch?
I encourage anyone who desires to answer that question to read Part II, over and over. Every word, every sentence, every plea has the essence of the hell the author sees around him. Yet in the chaos, several repeated themes arise.
1. The industrial machine
Cold metal and steel crush humanity's individuality, as each worker is forced to sacrifice their own thoughts and minds for the sake of industrial efficiency. Anyone who has seen Fritz Lang's Metropolis may recall the shock the protagonist, Freder, feels when he witnesses the workers moving precisely in unison to ensure that the gigantic machine, Moloch, continues to run. The horrifying scene that follows explores the view of an outsider realizing for the first time what workers must sacrifice for the good of humans as a whole: Their own humanity.
There are, of course, quite a few lines which support this symbolism:
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery!
Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! . . . Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen!
Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations!
Ginsberg views Moloch as the antithesis of his generation. Its "mind is pure machinery" while the artists and writers of the Beat generation are the exact opposite. Its "love is endless oil and stone", cold and deathly, while the love of a human is soft and gentle (see also the sex in Part I, to some extent). Its gods are skyscrapers and factories, quite unlike most modern-day religions.
It's quite easy for members of my generation, young and collectively blind, to consider the Beat generation and the counterculture movement to be two aspects of the same underlying societal response. The onset of American involvement in the Vietnam War seems to be our image of the anti-war movement in the 1960s. Indeed, we do see some references to what may be the scorning of individuality and free thought in the military in several lines:
Boys sobbing in armies!
Moloch the vast stone of war!
At the same time, there are general references to government and the enforcement of social norms. Part III of Howl is largely about the psychiatric confinement of Carl Solomon in mental institutions, but the same theme pops up in Part II. Some general anti-government, anti-authority phrases are
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows!
Moloch the stunned governments!
spectral nations! invincible madhouses!
It's clearly not evident from these lines alone what some of these phrases mean, but I'm a bit more convinced from Part III. The entire poem needs to be taken into account to understand any part of it.
Ginsberg's work is an attempt to throw off the shackles of the societal Moloch, to shout against it, and thus defy and destroy it. However, he cannot. He decries "Moloch whom I abandon!", but he cannot abandon it, because the madness is inside him already. I'd like to point you do two consecutive lines:
Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream Angels! Crazy in Moloch! . . . Lacklove and manless in Moloch!
Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body! Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy! Moloch whom I abandon! Wake up in Moloch! Light streaming out of the sky!
It is one thing to be destroyed by society, and it is another thing entirely to destroy yourself. Think back to Tuli Kupferberg, who jumped off a bridge, or Bill Cannastra, decapitated while drunkenly jumping out a subway window, or any other member of that generation who nearly reached death by their own hands. They drank and they lived wildly and they stuck their heads in ovens, and it is so easy to just blame Kupferberg and Cannastra and Carr and the others for what was, or was almost their ruin.
But it wasn't their fault. The agony, the anger, the frustration, the madness was thrust upon them by their experiences with society, and even afterwards, it stuck with them. Emotional turmoil drove them to self-destruction, yet its seeds came from without, not within. Moloch was inside them all.