The Difficulty of Reading Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish" Suspiciously




Ginsberg, Kaddish, Poetry, suspicion, Beat Generation, Beat poet

How to Cite

Scholes, N. (2011). The Difficulty of Reading Allen Ginsberg’s "Kaddish" Suspiciously. M/C Journal, 15(1).
Vol. 15 No. 1 (2012): suspicion
Published 2011-11-06

The difficulty of reading Allen Ginsberg's poetry is a recurring theme in criticism of his work and that of other post-WWII "Beat Generation" writers. "Even when a concerted effort is made to illuminate [Beat] literature," laments Nancy M. Grace, "doing so is difficult: the romance of the Beat life threatens to subsume the project" (812). Of course, the Beat life is romantic to the extent that it is romantically regaled. Continual romantic portrayals, such as that of Ginsberg in the recent movie Howl (2010), rekindle the Beat romance for new audiences with chicken-and-egg circularity. I explore this difficulty of reading Ginsberg that Grace and other critics identify by articulating it with respect to "Kaddish"—"Ginsberg's most highly praised and his least typical poem" (Perloff 213)—as a difficulty of interpreting Ginsberg suspiciously. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur's theories of interpretation—or "hermeneutics"—provide the theoretical foundation here. Ricoeur distinguishes between a romantic or "restorative" mode of interpretation, where meaning is reverently reconciled to a text assumed to be trustworthy, and a "suspicious" approach, where meaning is aggressively extrapolated from a text held as unreliable. In order to bring these theories to bear on "Kaddish" and its criticism, I draw on Rita Felski's pioneering work in relating Ricoeur's concept of "suspicious reading" to the field of literature. Is it possible to read "Kaddish" suspiciously? Or is there nothing left for suspicious readers to expose in texts such as "Kaddish" that are already self-exposing?

In "Kaddish," Ginsberg tells the story of his mother Naomi Ginsberg, a Russian Jewish immigrant, who died in a mental hospital in 1956. It is a lengthy prose poem and spans a remarkable 19 pages in Ginsberg's Collected Poems (1984). In the words of Maeera Y. Shreiber, "Kaddish" "is a massive achievement, comprised of five numbered parts, and an interpellated 'Hymmnn' between parts two and three" (84). I focus on the second narrative part, which forms the bulk of the poem, where the speaker—I shall refer to him henceforth as "Allen" in order to differentiate between Ginsberg's poetic self-representation and Ginsberg-the-author—recounts the nervous breakdowns and hospital movements of his mother, whom he calls by her first name, Naomi.

I begin by illustrating the ways in which Allen focalises Naomi in the text, and suggest that his attempts to "read" her suspicious mind alternate between restorative and suspicious impulses. I then take up the issue of reading "Kaddish" suspiciously. Acknowledging Ricoeur's assertion that psychoanalysis is an unequivocal "school of suspicion" (32), I consider James Breslin's psychoanalytic criticism on "Kaddish," in particular, his reading of what is easily the most contentious passage in the poem: the scene where Naomi solicits Allen for sex. I regard this passage as a microcosm of the issues that beset a suspicious reading of "Kaddish"—such as the problem posed by the self-exposing poem and poet—and I find that Breslin's response to it raises interesting questions on the politics of psychoanalysis and the nature of suspicious interpretation. Finally, I identify an unpublished thesis on Ginsberg's poetry by Sarah Macfarlane and classify her interpretation of "Kaddish" as unambiguously suspicious. My purpose is not to advance my own suspicious reading of "Kaddish" but to highlight the difficulties of reading "Kaddish" suspiciously. I argue that while it is difficult to read "Kaddish" suspiciously, to do so offers a fruitful counterbalance to the dominant restorative criticism on the poem. There are as yet unexplored hermeneutical territories in and around this poem, indeed in and around Ginsberg's work in general, which have radical implications for the future direction of Beat studies.

Picking her tooth with her nail, lips formed an O, suspicion—thought's old worn vagina— (Ginsberg, "Kaddish" 218)

Ginsberg constructs Naomi's suspicion in "Kaddish" via Allen's communication of her visions and descriptions of her behaviour. Allen relates, for example, that Naomi once suspected that Hitler was "in her room" and that "she saw his mustache in the sink" ("Kaddish" 220). Subsequently, Allen depicts Naomi "listening to the radio for spies—or searching the windowsill," and, in an attempt to "read" her suspicious mind, suggests that she envisages "an old man creep[ing] with his bag stuffing packages of garbage in his hanging black overcoat" ("Kaddish" 220).

Allen's gaze thus filters Naomi's; he watches her as she watches for spies, and he animates her visions. He recalls as a child "watching over" Naomi in order to anticipate her "next move" ("Kaddish" 212). On one fateful day, Naomi "stared out the window on the Broadway Church corner"; Allen interprets that she "spied a mystical assassin from Newark" ("Kaddish" 212). He likewise observes and interprets Naomi's body language and facial expressions. When she "covered [her] nose with [a] motheaten fur collar" and "shuddered at [the] face" of a bus driver, he deduces that, for Naomi, the collar must have been a "gas mask against poison" and the driver "a member of the gang" ("Kaddish" 212).

On the one hand, Allen's impetus to recover "the lost Naomi" ("Kaddish" 216)—first lost to mental illness and then to death—may be likened to Ricoeur's concept of a restorative hermeneutic, "which is driven by a sense of reverence and goes deeper into the text in search of revelation" (Felski 216). As if Naomi's mind constitutes a text, Allen strives to reveal it in order to make it intelligible. What drives him is the cathartic impulse to revivify his mother's memory, to rebuild her story, and to exalt her as "magnificent" and "mourned no more" ("Kaddish" 212), so that he may mourn no more. Like a restorative reader "driven by a sense of reverence" (Felski 216), he lauds Naomi as the "glorious muse that bore [him] from the womb [...] from whose pained head [he] first took Vision" ("Kaddish" 223).

Critics of "Kaddish" also observe the poem's restorative impulse. In "Strange Prophecies Anew," Tony Trigilio reads the recovery of Naomi as "the recovery of a female principle of divinity" (773). Diverging from Ginsberg's earlier poem "Howl" (1956), which "represses signs of women in order to forge male prophetic comradeship," "Kaddish" "constructs maternity as a source of vision, an influence that precedes and sustains prophetic language. In 'Kaddish', Ginsberg attempts to recover the voice of his mother Naomi, which is muted in 'Howl'" (776). Shreiber also acknowledges Ginsberg's redemption of "the feminine, figured specifically as the lost mother," but for her it "is central to both of the long poems that make his reputation," namely "Kaddish" and "Howl" (81). She cites Ginsberg's retrospective confession that "Howl" was actually about Naomi to argue that, "it is in the course of writing 'Howl' that Ginsberg discovers his obligation to the elided (Jewish) mother—whose restoration is the central project of 'Kaddish'" (81).

On the other hand, Allen's compulsion to "cut through" to Naomi, to talk to her as he "didn't when [she] had a mouth" ("Kaddish" 211), suggests the brutality of a suspicious hermeneutic where meanings "must be wrestled rather than gleaned from the page, derived not from what the text says, but in spite of what it says" (Felski 223). When Naomi was alive and "had a mouth," Allen aggressively "pushed her against the door and shouted 'DON'T KICK ELANOR!'" in spite of her message: "Elanor is the worst spy! She's taking orders!" ("Kaddish" 221). As a suspicious reader wrestles with a resistant text, Allen wrestles with Naomi, "yelling at her" in exasperation, and even "banging against her head which saw Radios, Sticks, Hitlers—the whole gamut of Hallucinations—for real—her own universe" ("Kaddish" 221).

Allen may be also seen as approaching Naomi with a suspicious reader's "adversarial sensibility to probe for concealed, repressed, or disavowed meanings" (Felski 216). This is most visible in his facetiously professed "good idea to try [to] know the Monster of the Beginning Womb"—to penetrate Naomi's body in order to access her mind "that way" ("Kaddish" 219). Accordingly, in his psychoanalytic reading of "Kaddish," James Breslin understands Allen's "incestuous desires as expressing [his] wish to get inside his mother and see things as she does" (424). Breslin's interpretation invokes the Freudian concept of "epistemophilia," which Bran Nicol defines as the "desire to know" (48).

Freud is one of "three masters" of suspicion according to Ricoeur (32). Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx "present the most radically contrary stance to the phenomenology of the sacred and to any hermeneutics understood as the recollection of meaning" (Ricoeur 35). They "begin with suspicion concerning the illusions of consciousness, and then proceed to employ the stratagem of deciphering" (Ricoeur 34). Freud deciphers the language of the conscious mind in order to access the "unconscious"—that "part of the mind beyond consciousness which nevertheless has a strong influence upon our actions" (Barry 96).

Like their therapeutic counterparts, psychoanalytic critics distinguish "between the conscious and the unconscious mind," associating a text's "'overt' content with the former" and "'covert' content with the latter, privileging the latter as being what the work is 'really' about" (Barry 105). In seeking to expose a text's unconscious, they subscribe to a hermeneutic of suspicion's "conviction that appearances are deceptive, that texts do not gracefully relinquish their meanings" (Felski 216). To force texts to relinquish their meanings suspicious readers bear "distance rather than closeness; guardedness rather than openness; aggression rather than submission; superiority rather than reverence; attentiveness rather than distraction; exposure rather than tact" (Felski 222).

For the most part, these qualities fail to characterise Breslin's psychoanalytic criticism on "Kaddish" and "Howl." Far from aggressive or superior, Breslin is a highly sympathetic reader of Ginsberg. "Many readers," he complains, are "still not sympathetic to the kind [sic] of form found in these poems" (403). His words echo Trigilio's endorsement of Marjorie Perloff's opinion that critics are too often "unwilling to engage the experimental scope of Ginsberg's poems" (Trigilio 774). Sympathetic reading, however, clashes with suspicious reading, which "involves a sense of vigilant preparedness for attack" (Shand in Felski 220). Breslin is sympathetic not only to the experimental forms of "Kaddish" and "Howl," but also to their attestation to "deep, long-standing private conflicts in Ginsberg—conflicts that ultimately stem from his ambivalent attachment to his mother" (403).

In "Kaddish," Allen's ambivalent feelings toward his mother are conspicuous in his revolted and revolting reaction to her exposed body, combined with his blasé deliberation on whether to respond to her apparent sexual provocation: 

One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her—flirting to herself at sink—lay back on huge bed that filled most of the room, dress up round her hips, big slash of hair, scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers—ragged long lips between her legs—What, even, smell of asshole? I was cold—later revolted a little, not much—seemed perhaps a good idea to try—know the Monster of the Beginning Womb—Perhaps—that way. Would she care? She needs a lover. ("Kaddish" 219)

In "Confessing the Body," Elizabeth Gregory observes that "Naomi's ordinary body becomes monstrous in this description—not only in its details but in the undiscriminating desire her son attributes to it ('Would she care?')" (47). In exposing Naomi thus, Allen also exposes himself and his own indiscriminate sexual responsiveness. Such textual exposés pose challenges for those who would practice a hermeneutic of suspicion by "reading texts against the grain to expose their repressed or hidden meanings" (Felski 215). It appears that there is little that is hidden or repressed in "Kaddish" for a suspicious reader to expose. As Perloff notes, "the Ginsberg of 'Kaddish' is writing somewhat against the grain" (213). In writing against the grain, Ginsberg inhibits reading against the grain.

A hermeneutic of suspicion holds "that manifest content shrouds darker, more unpalatable truths" (Felski 216). "Kaddish," however, parades its unpalatable truths. Although Ginsberg as a Beat poet is not technically included among the group of poets known as the "confessionals," "Kaddish" is typical of a "confessional poem" in that it "dwells on experiences generally prohibited expression by social convention: mental illness, intra-familial conflicts and resentments, childhood traumas, sexual transgressions and intimate feelings about one's body" (Gregory 34). There is a sense in which "we do not need to be suspicious" of such subversive texts because they are "already doing the work of suspicion for us" (Felski 217).

It is also difficult to read "Kaddish" suspiciously because it presents itself as an autobiographical history of Ginsberg's relationship with his mother. "Kaddish" once again accords with Gregory's definition of "confessional poetry" as that which "draws on the poet's autobiography and is usually set in the first person. It makes a claim to forego personae and to represent an account of the poet's own feelings and circumstances" (34). These defining features of "Kaddish" make it not particularly conducive to a "suspicious hermeneutic [that] often professes a lack of interest in the category of authorship as a means of explaining the ideological workings of texts" (Felski 222). It requires considerable effort to distinguish Allen, speaker and character in "Kaddish," from Ginsberg, celebrity Beat poet and author of "Kaddish," and to suspend knowledge of Ginsberg's public-private life in order to pry ideologies from the text.

This difficulty of resisting biographical interpretation of "Kaddish" translates to a difficulty of reading the poem suspiciously. In his psychoanalytic reading, Breslin's lack of suspicion for the poem's confession of autobiography dilutes his practice of an inherently suspicious mode of interpretation—that of psychoanalysis. His psychoanalysis of Ginsberg shows that he trusts "Kaddish" to confess its author's intimate feelings—"'It's my fault,' he must have felt, 'if I had loved my mother more, this wouldn't have happened to her—and to me'" (Breslin 422)—whereas a hermeneutic of suspicion "adopts a distrustful attitude toward texts" (Felski 216).

That said, Breslin's differentiation between the conscious and unconscious, or surface and underlying levels of meaning in "Kaddish" is more clearly characteristic of a hermeneutic of suspicion's theory that texts withhold "meanings or implications that are not intended and that remain inaccessible to their authors as well as to ordinary readers" (Felski 216). Hence, Breslin speculates that, "on an unconscious level the writing of the poem may have been an act of private communication between the poet" and his mother (430). His response to the previously quoted passage of the poem suggests that while a cursory glance will restore its conscious meaning, a more attentive or suspicious gaze will uncover its unconscious:

At first glance this passage seems a daring revelation of an incest wish and a shockingly realistic description of the mother's body. But what we really see here is how one post-Freudian writer, pretending to be open and at ease about incestuous desire, affects sophisticated awareness as a defense [sic] against intense longings and anxieties. The lines are charged with feelings that the poet, far from "confessing out," appears eager to deny. (Breslin 422; my emphasis)

Breslin's temporary suspicious gaze in an otherwise trusting and sympathetic reading accuses the poet of revealing incestuous desire paradoxically in order to conceal incestuous desire. It exposes the exposé as an ironic guise, an attempt at subterfuge that the poet fails to conceal from the suspicious reader, evoking a hermeneutic of suspicion's conviction that in spite of itself "the text is not fully in control of its own discourse" (Felski 223).

Breslin's view of Ginsberg's denial through the veil of his confession illuminates two possible ways of sustaining a suspicious reading of "Kaddish." One is to distrust its claim to confess Ginsberg, to recognise that "confession's reality claim is an extremely artful manipulation of the materials of poetry, not a departure from them" (Gregory 34). It is worth mentioning that in response to his interviewer's perception of the "absolute honesty" in his poem "Ego Confession," Ginsberg commented: "they're all poems, ultimately" (Spontaneous 404–05). Another way is to resist the double seduction operative in the text: Naomi's attempted seduction of Allen, and, in narrating it, Allen's attempted seduction of the psychoanalytic critic.

Sarah Macfarlane's effort to unmask the gender politics that psychoanalytic critics arguably protect characterises her "socio-cultural analysis" (5) of "Kaddish" as unmistakably suspicious. While psychoanalytic critics "identify a 'psychic' context for the literary work, at the expense of social or historical context" (Barry 105), Macfarlane in her thesis "Masculinity and the Politics of Gender Construction in Allen Ginsberg" locates Allen's "perception of Naomi as the 'Monster of the Beginning Womb'" in the social and historical context of the 1950s "concept of the overbearing, dominating wife and mother who, although confined to the domestic space, looms large and threatening within that space" (48).

In so doing, she draws attention to the Cold War discourse of "momism," which "envisioned American society as a matriarchy in which dominant mothers disrupted the Oedipal structure of the middle-class nuclear family" (Macfarlane 33). In other words, momism engaged Freudian explanations of male homosexuality as arising from a son's failure to resolve unconscious sexual desire for his mother, and blamed mothers for this failure and its socio-political ramifications, which, via the Cold War cultural association of homosexuality with communism, included "the weakening of masculine resolve against Communism" (Edelman 567). Since psychoanalysis effectively colludes with momism, psychoanalytic criticism on "Kaddish" is unable to expose its perpetuation in the poem.

Macfarlane's suspicious reading of "Kaddish" as perpetuating momism radically departs from the dominant restorative criticism on the poem. Trigilio, for example, argues that "Kaddish" revises the Cold War "discourse of containment—'momism'—in which the exposure of communists was equated to the exposure of homosexuals" (781). "Kaddish," he claims, (which exposes both Allen's homosexuality and Naomi's communism), "does not portray internal collapse—as nationalist equations of homosexual and communist 'threats' would predict—but instead produces […] a 'Blessed' poet who 'builds Heaven in Darkness'" (782). Nonetheless, this blessed poet wails, "I am unmarried, I'm hymnless, I'm Heavenless" ("Kaddish" 212), and confesses his homosexuality as an overwhelming burden: "a mortal avalanche, whole mountains of homosexuality, Matterhorns of cock, Grand Canyons of asshole—weight on my melancholy head"("Kaddish" 214).

In "Confessing the Body," Gregory asks whether confessional poetry "disclose[s] secrets in order to repent of them, thus reinforcing the initial negative judgement that kept them secret," or "to decathect that judgement" (35). While Allen's confession of homosexuality exudes exhilaration and depression, not guilt—Ginsberg critic Anne Hartman is surely right that "in the context of [the 1950s] public rituals of confession and repentance engendered by McCarthyism, […] poetic confession would carry a very different set of implications for a gay poet" (47)—it is pertinent to question his confession of Naomi. Does he expose Naomi in order to applaud or condemn her maternal transgressions? According to the logic of the Cold War "urge to unveil, [which] produces greater containment" (Trigilio 794), Allen's unveiling of Naomi veils his desire to contain her, unable as she is "to be contained within the 1950's [sic] domestic ideal of womanhood" (Macfarlane 44).

"Ginsberg has become such a public issue that it's difficult now to read him naturally; you ask yourself after every line, am I for him or against him. And by and large that's the criticism he has gotten—votes on a public issue. (I see this has been one of those reviews.)" (Shapiro 90).

Harvey Shapiro's review of Kaddish and Other Poems (1961) in which "Kaddish" first appeared illuminates the polarising effect of Ginsberg's celebrity on interpretations of his poetry. While sympathetic readings and romantic portrayals are themselves reactions to the "hostility to Ginsberg" that prevails (Perloff 223), often they do not sprout the intellectual vigour and fresh perspectives that a hermeneutic of suspicion has the capacity to sow.

Yet it is difficult to read confessional texts such as "Kaddish" suspiciously; they appear to expose themselves without need of a suspicious reader. Readers of "Kaddish" such as Breslin are seduced into sympathetic biographical-psychoanalytical interpretations due to the poem's purported confession of Ginsberg's autobiography. As John Osborne argues, "the canon of Beat literature has been falsely founded on biographical rather than literary criteria" (4). The result is that "we are for the immediate future obliged to adopt adversarial reading strategies if we are to avoid entrenching an already stale orthodoxy" (Osborne 4).

Macfarlane obliges in her thesis; she succeeds in reading "Kaddish" suspiciously by resisting its self-inscribed psychoanalysis to expose the gender politics of Allen's exposés. While Allen's confession of his homosexuality suggests that "Kaddish" subverts a heterosexist model of masculinity, a suspicious reading of his exposure of Naomi's maternal transgressions suggests that the poem contributes to momism and perpetuates a sexist model of femininity. Even so, a suspicious reading of a text such as "Kaddish" "contains a tacit tribute to its object, an admission that it contains more than meets the eye" (Felski 230). Ginsberg's own prophetic words bespeak as much:

The worst I fear, considering the shallowness of opinion, is that some of the poetry and prose may be taken too familiarly, […] and be given the same shallow treatment, this time sympathetic, as, until recently, they were given shallow unsympathy. That would be the very we of fame. (Ginsberg, Deliberate 252)


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Author Biography

Nicola Scholes, The University of Queensland

Nicola Scholes is writing a PhD on Allen Ginsberg's Maternal Poetics at the University of Queensland. Her article, “Adapting Kali: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Stotras to Kali Destroyer of Illusions,’” appears in Issue 17 of U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal. Nicola is also the author of a collection of poems, Dear Rose (Small Change Press, 2009).