Antelope's Blog
The Altar of Modernity
Published 06/13/23 by Antelope [2 Comments]


Before you read this, I encourage you all to read or listen to Allen Ginsberg's poem 'Howl'. Ginsberg is not the focus of the topic below, however 'Howl' itself plays a big part and the post itself assumes familiarity with the poem.

Allen Ginsberg reads 'Howl'

tl;dr - Values and standards are sacrificed for some bent conceptualisation of optimisation and benefit to society, but are in fact, the opposite.

The Altar of Modernity

Allen Ginsberg’s eccentric poem ‘Howl’ is perhaps a singularly frightening work of art. Amongst the density of the poem, Ginsberg elicits the most profane aspects of our human propensities. The draw of modernity, the pitfalls; the very rapture of our material desires interweaves and translates a cruel facsimile of spiritual endeavours. Ginsberg feverishly embodies one thing and then the next, just long enough to horrify, amuse, or disturb, before the next amalgamation of a valueless stricken subject flaunts their desires… their needs.

The first question to ask would be, what state of the human condition is portrayed by Ginsberg? The first part of the poem is littered with words like screaming, vomiting, migraine, bone-grinding, battered, bleak, brain drained etc. There’s no doubt Ginsberg is portraying negative societal behaviour. If we take that the world, as portrayed by Ginsberg, is indeed in a negative state, then… why? What is it that draws the human condition to circle the drain? What could be so alluring to us that we can isolate behaviours, conditions and desires as negative, but persist in such a manner, regardless?

In the second part of Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ we are given the conceptualisation of Moloch. Now a pervasive horror begins to grow on the reader as Ginsberg reveals, not a default state of being, but a thing that acts upon us. Moloch, taken as an abstraction of part one’s human behaviour, can be viewed as an incentive towards said behaviour. We’ve all experienced the allure of this abstract of Moloch. Call it expedience, call it convenience, call it lust, desire or greed. Call it cowardice, call it fear, call it ignorance, easy or docile. Moloch, however, is nothing new. The roots of the terror of Moloch stretch back millennia. Personified by Canaanites as the god of sacrifice, or the name of a ritual of sacrifice, the history of Moloch is clear enough for us to understand. We offer up to the abstract, knowingly and unknowingly, whatever it is we have to sacrifice, in order to obtain that which we desire.

At this juncture I should make it clear, this doesn’t require spiritual belief to understand. In fact, it is probably easier to swallow from a secular perspective. What follows is an answer to the why and how of the decline in societal standards, which will continue until such a time that there is little left to be offered up for sacrifice, and the journey to rediscover values begins anew.

We believe our society to have grown beyond the bounds of pagan sacrifices. The antiquated idea that we could lay something of value on the altar of sacrifice to be bestowed a better gift in return. A fanciful notion practised by our ancestors who didn’t know any better? Or a modern ritual carried out by the masses in pursuit of their own goals? Sure, we did away with the goats and the children (though, I won’t completely rule out the esoteric practices of the elite. Thank you, Kubrick) but we are very much making sacrifices about ourselves in an ever-accelerating fashion. Ginsberg does a lot to portray the sacrifices being made during the mid-20th century, but as we hurry through the 21st century like an overworked commuter making their way through London, we lose sight of the sacrifices we are still making. We are living through a firesale of our human values for the expediency of modernity. This modern world requires that we carve away at the foundations of ourselves in order to optimise our future. All of this is self-inflicted, sanctioned by the victims who dash their values against the wall if it will allow them to persist as they are for just a while longer. Our freedom of movement, dashed and bloody. Our freedom of voice, dashed and bloody. Our freedom of thought, sailing through the air head first toward the crimson wall. We are promised in return safety, security, plenty, peace, and calm. On an individual level, I’ve watched colleagues dash whispered values against the wall because they were incapable of measuring what little they had against what they stood to gain. This is true of everyone on a societal scale. What’s a little sacrifice to the terrible Moloch now if it gets me by to tomorrow? Tomorrow is a barren field, bereft of seeds, moisture or hope. The saline tears of realisation won’t save you either.

What have you and I sacrificed, knowingly and unknowingly, to Moloch? The grimmest truth of all is that the Canaanite practice of child sacrifice is alive and well. These human values were not ours to sacrifice. We had no ownership of them, they were gifts to pass on to the next generation, and from them to the next. In that way, modern society is as guilty as the Canaanites of child sacrifice. Is there truly no limit to what we will present to Moloch? Will society strip itself naked, wailing and gnashing its teeth desperate to offer, finally, itself up to sacrifice before the end of the cycle?

Well. If it sounds for all the world as if I’ve damned society to its finality, that is because the ontological evil must be presented as it comes into the world. The rampant optimisation of modernity is a tireless beast with far too many eager to feed the demands. Further, there are those who have identified the propensity to sacrifice to Moloch, and have appropriated the behaviour of sacrifice to their own endeavours. “Sacrifice to us, the marginalised and the victims. More. More…”

How could this be true of humanity if here, in the 21st century, we still exist? Surely this desire to cut away the edges, to find an optimal shape for ourselves, the entropic nature of such an endeavour would have seen us sacrifice our last long before now? I won’t be the first, and I won’t be the last, to suggest that we move through cycles of human history. The warning has been passed down from bygone eras, long-collapsed societies and salient individuals with the gift of foresight. The cycle of the Yugas, from the Hindus. Abrahamic religions describe the washing away of corruption, from the flood to Sodom and Gomorrah. Again, these accounts do not need you to attend to a spiritual belief or faith. A secular conception of these stories is as simple as yet another abstract of what the sacrifice of values portends to the human condition. Our time of plenty invites us all into temptations. We can indulge in casual sex, and get ours while the goings good. We can consume endlessly, chasing the dragon of satiation. After all, it might be that the end of the cycle draws near so we may as well, right? What did you sacrifice on the altar of modernity for these returns? The seed of potential. In each case, the seed of potential.

A moment to consider the seed of potential. In each form of self-indulgence, consider that to be the least ideal form, and then conceptualise upwards to a higher resolution what that least ideal form would take if it was in fact, the highest ideal. The highest ideal must be one that retains the value structures of the human experience. If we can consider the mid-way point on a cycle to be the attainment of the ideal, what preceded it must be the journey attended to in order to arrive at that point. What follows, must then be something akin to optimisation of the ideal. The chiselling away begins. There is room to sacrifice this or that because there isn’t just one ideal, but plenty to spare. All of the potential is surely now currency to be spent, because what was it all for otherwise?

Ginsberg mercilessly entangles the spiritual into the deprivation of his experience, and aside from the lamentation of Moloch, gleans little in the way of resolution. That is ultimately where my wrestling with the profundity of his poem began. If these sacrifices to Moloch are real, which for all of my experience must be so, then how do we persist? Further, our persistence implies that the good, the ideal, is aware of this propensity toward evil, and by evidence of the cycles, surely sanctions the evil acting out its part in the cycle. How can that be so? How can the good be good if it allows evil to play its part? After some reflection, my church's Reverend delivered a timely sermon, part of which I’ll share here.

“The world told Barnabas that he should seek wealth and power. He responded by selling what he had to support the needy, and help the Church in its mission.

The devil fills us with pride, and tells us that we alone have the right ideas, that we are the protagonists of our own adventures.

Barnabas was content to be an encourager; supporting St Paul in his great business of Church building. Paul got the fame, but without Barnabas’ encouragement, perhaps Paul might have remained as a humble tent-maker, and we would not have his epistles today.

When we try to fight the powers of the world on their own terms – fighting evil with evil – we fail to make God known. But when this courageous spirit is stirred up, and coupled with wisdom and love, then God’s kingdom is always made present.”

When Moses came down from the mountain bearing the tablets, he witnessed the worshipping of the golden calf. The story, the cycle, doesn’t work if he had sacrificed the tablets to the golden calf and joined in the degeneracy. The salve then, to the horrific reality of Moloch, abstract or not, is to not fight on Moloch’s terms. If we build for ourselves the value structure, for our families, our communities, to those who choose to walk the same path, if we make no concessions on our values, and if we keep in mind our presence within the cycle, it must follow that we who hold fast to our values will persist beyond the end of this cycle and into the next. If we refuse to sacrifice, at every turn, to the altar of modernity, our values will be the truth that guides us into the future.


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