February 2, 2022

The Descent into Hell: "Moloch," from New York: A Documentary Film (2001)

Throughout this series I've looked at different ways in which classic television has depicted a society descending into Hell, as a kind of warning against what could happen to us. But what if it turns out we're already there?

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According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Moloch was "a Canaanite deity associated in biblical sources with the practice of child sacrifice." Traditionally, Moloch has been depicted as a grotesque figure, a bronze statue having "the body of a man and the head of a bull," inside which children would be consumed by fire. The Old Testament viewed Moloch as "a foreign deity who was at times illegitimately given a place in Israel’s worship as a result of the syncretistic policies of certain apostate kings," and Moses delivered harsh warnings to the Jews against the cult of Moloch; "You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Moloch, and so profane the name of your God." (Leviticus 18:21) Despite such stern admonitions, several kings, including Amon, worshipped the pagan god, gathering at Topheth, a hilled site just outside the walls of Jerusalem, until Josiah the reformer destroyed the site. 

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In 1956, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg published Howl, a monumental work that caused a sensation (and, for a time, was banned as obscene). It's not for the faint of heart; the poem begins, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked. . ." and proceeds from there. It is, in the words of one critic, "a revolutionary manifesto," both autobiographical and a chronicle of the times. 

In part II of Howl, Ginsberg uses Moloch as a symbol of an all-enveloping materialism and greed that was consuming America just as the pagan god had consumed the lives of young children. What would we not sacrifice to this great "idol of consumerism"? Ginsberg's Moloch is a "sphinx of cement and aluminum [that] bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination," resulting in "Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!" Not a pretty sight. 

And when you think of consumerism, power, wealth, big business, avarice, lust, teeming throngs living in quiet desperation—everything, in other words, that goes into Ginsberg's conception of Moloch—there's no place that typifies it quite like the Big Apple itself, New York City. 

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In 1999, Ric Burns (brother of Ken), debuted a remarkable documentary series; a biography, if you will, of America's most storied city. New York: A Documentary Film took viewers from the city's Dutch roots to the fall of the World Trade Center.* And if The Children's Story was the most subversive program ever shown on television, there's a moment in New York that may well be the most prophetic.

*The series was originally scheduled to comprise five two-hour episodes; however, when it premiered in 1999, the ten hours only took the story up to 1931, with the remaining two episodes scheduled to run at a later date. They did: at the end of September 2001. Burns and his crew then reassembled to produce an eighth episode, airing in 2003, that told the story of the birth and death of the WTC.  

The story of New York is one of constant development, constant change, and as the city grows it begins to overshadow the people who live in it, until they assume the size of ants in a colony, moving rapidly this way and that but never getting anywhere. And soon the point that Burns is making becomes apparent, as the character and the flavor and the people itself become a mere impediment to be knocked down by the wrecking ball in favor of progress, industry, and above all, money: it is that New York is Moloch itself, steamrolling, destroying, consuming all under its wheels like wheat under the crusher. And as architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable describes the price that the people pay, the cameras pan over the canyons of the concrete behemoth, while the planners and the financiers and the industrialists try to wring every bit of humanity out of it in the name of profit:

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! 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! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!

They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!

It was, for me, the most powerful, the most evocative moment in a powerful and evocative series. Perhaps it was Brian Keane's soundtrack; perhaps it was Josh Hamilton's narration; perhaps it was Allen Ginsberg's words. Or perhaps it was all of that, along with a realization of what it all meant.

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As I've said, Moloch can be used as a metaphor for many things, none of them good. There is one description I'm particularly fond of, a critic who describes Moloch as the greed and jealousy devouring our society; "everything the people want, their greed, is being held above God. Instead of worshipping God, the people are worshipping their possessions and in doing so, they sacrifice their faith and trust in God."

And so I wonder, if we are in Hell, how many different ways we see our own version of Moloch? And how many things we'll do for him, not in his name, but in our own?

Moloch, for whom we murder the unborn, to maintain our lifestyle. 

Moloch, for whom we inject ourselves and our children with strange drugs in search of eternal life. 

Moloch, for whom we mask our faces, wondering if we are not ashamed to see our own reflections in the mirror.

Moloch, for whom we send our children to fight wars on foreign lands, in order to make the oil flow and the cheap labor and the profits and the power and the glory.

Moloch, the social media apps that erase our individuality. Moloch, the alternate realities that hide our shame. Moloch, the technocrats that seek to control us and trace our every movement. Moloch, the scientists who seek to controls us. Moloch, the wealthy who seek to exploit us. Moloch, the governments who seek to dominate us.

Moloch, in whom we trust, above all.

What's the old saying? If the shoe fits, wear it? TV  

1 comment:

  1. I have always had a very soft spot for Moloch! I always had some doubt as to whether people would actually sacrifice their own children and of course there is some dispute about what the biblical passages refer to or whether the God Moloch ever existed. However I now have no doubt that people definitely would have sacrificed their own children. What a world....


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!