Friday, November 09, 2007

Wilhelm Reich

There really aren't a lot of people with the distinction of having been officially condemned by the Nazis, the Communists, and the United States government. Somehow the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich pulled off this unfortunate trifecta, having been hounded by the Nazis who burned his books, formally drummed out of the Communist Party, and finally arrested by the US government, who also burned his books. I doubt many of us would want to share these particular accomplishments.

Reich is a controversial figure in the history of psychoanalysis, a field that is itself controversial. As an undergraduate at the University of Vienna, he met Sigmund Freud and soon became a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Association. His early work is most important because he argued for treating the character en tout instead of focusing on individual symptoms. He also developed the concept of character armor and indicated how neurosis could lead to distinct physical symptoms. Incredibly, Reich was one of the first psychoanalysts to study the body language of his patients as well as what they said.

In The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Reich deals with fascism as the result of sexual repression. The book is still worth reading for Reich's perceptive analysis of the erotic content of fascist rituals, costumes, and culture, which prefigure Marcuse's writings on repressive desublimation. After reading Reich's book, it's impossible to watch Triumph of the Will in the same way again.

Reich published the book in 1930 while in Berlin. The Nazis were, understandably, upset, and he fled the country while his books were being burned. At the time, Reich was a Marxist; he believed that sexual repression was at the root of all neuroses and was bourgeois in character. He famously wrote that, ''if you control their genitals, you control the world.'' He fell out with the Communists however because Reich advocated measures such as abortion on demand, free sex ed, and coed housing for sexually-curious adolescents. The Party expelled him in 1933.

He also fell out with Freud, which happened to a number of Freudians. Reich was not a believer in the Death Instinct and believed in adding touching to the talking cure. According to Reich, sexual repression was at the heart of human pathology and possibly made one sick. In the 30s, he was already attempting to measure and quantify the energy of orgasms, and in 1936, he first discussed the idea that there are death-promoting and life-promoting organisms. At this time, he also put forth the idea of primitive life-forms called bions, which are animated by an energy known as Orgone energy.

Orgone energy is central to everything that Reich wrote from this point on, and for non-believers, this is the point at which Reich went off the rails. He literally saw Orgone energy everywhere. It colors the sky, controls the weather, and in humans is the bio-energy that gives life. Reich called it the ''universal life energy''. Charles R. Kelley defined Orgone as ''the creative force in nature'' and compared it to Bergson's ''elan vital''. Supposedly, orgone energy can be easily measured; however, it has so far only been measured by Reichian researchers.

Sickness results from depletion or blockages of orgone energy. To harness this energy, Reich developed a chamber known as the Orgone Accumulator, that one sat in. The Orgone Acculumator is built from alternating layers of ferrous metals, insulators, and wood, and the subject sits inside to harness positive Orgone energy. William S. Burroughs conducted several experiments with an Orgone accumulator and believed that it worked. Albert Einstein did the same and believed that it did not work.

Reich decided that the anti-matter to Orgone Energy was a life-destroying energy called Deadly Orgone Radiation, or DOR. Having relocated to the United States, Reich began experimenting with an instrument called a ''Cloudbuster'' that he believed could cause rain during drought by directing positive Orgone Energry. He also claimed to have done battle with UFOs using a Cloudbuster.

By the 40s, Reich was increasingly paranoid and had insulated himself with a core group of devotees in Rangeley, Maine. At this time, he rewrote his earlier work to include the Orgone and remove any Marxist content as he had become extremely anti-Communist. In 1947, a freelance writer named Mildred Edie Brady wrote an article entitled ''The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich'' for the New Republic arguing that the ''growing Reich cult'' was claiming to cure cancer, which it could not do. In 1948, Reich wrote Listen, Little Man! one of the all-time greatest rants committed to paper.

The Federal Trade Commission got involved and the Food and Drug Administration started considering the Reichian Orgone Accumulators as constituting a large-scale fraud. Reich fought the feds and accused Mildred Edie Brady of being a Stalinist agent. The US Attorney for Maine filed an injunction against Reich, who then failed to appear in court, and so Judge Clifford ordered all published materials that mentioned Orgone be destroyed.

In 1956, Reich was arrested for a technical violation of the injunction when an associate moved some Orgone equipment across state lines. In March. 1957, he was jailed in Danbury State Prison. As has been pointed out, Reich was soon moved however to the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. He died in this penitentiary, of heart failure, on November 3, 1957.
Reich has continued to compel as an example of a persecuted thinker and, perhaps mistakenly, as an advocate of free love. It is possible to visit The Wilhelm Reich Museum in Rangeley, Maine at the former site of his Orgonon retreat. Patti Smith, Kate Bush, Pop Will Eat Itself, and Hawkwind have all written songs inspired by Reich. Robert Anton Wilson wrote a play about him, entitled Wilhelm Reich in Hell. The Yugoslav filmmaker Dušan Makavejev made a classic film about Reich, entitled W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, which is pictured here, in case you were wondering.

While Reich's Orgone ideas seem far-fetched, it's hard today to understand the vehement reaction they provoked. Having found a few articles on Reich in 50s men's magazines, it seems that he was widely perceived as an advocate of free love and ''orgasm boxes''. Similarly, when you read about the investigation against Reich, what you notice is that they seem to focus on the idea that he was taking sexual advantage of women; a sort of concupiscent Cagliostro. Meanwhile, he was widely shunned by the scientific community and considered to be something of a cult leader, although many of the charges against him could also be leveled at any number of psychoanalysts. He was seen as a charlatan, although he clearly believed what he was saying. Ultimately, if he was wrong, he went to jail for it. In the end, it seems that what most enraged the 50s prosecutors was not the idea that he was a con artist or a crank; it was the idea that he was a pervert.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Thank you.

I think he died in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary.

Rufus said...

Ah, so he did. Thanks, I'll fix that.

I should probably also put some links to the museum in Maine.

Holly said...

While individuals often have no real problem with folks who want to hustle a little ass, it seems to be socially important that advocates of "deviant behavior" come to a bad end.I'm not endorsing the handling Reich got, but in order for any given society to continue existing, it has to make choices about what is inside and what is outside the society. He directly criticized, challenged, and tried to overturn aspects of several societies, and it's not at all surprising that his efforts were unwelcome with the leadership. Particularly given that he was addressing the genital region of social structure, which in all societies is a complex and thorny fruit to peel.

Rufus said...

No, I totally agree that societies need to exclude certain behaviors, just in order to define themselves. Traditionally, I think culture served as a sort of sacred circle, enclosing certain behaviors and people, and excluding others. And, ultimately, I'd prefer to live in a society where certain behaviors- rape and molestation being the big two- are forbidden.

I think there's something dangerously amorphous about sexuality. It's hard to define and it seems to be connected to the most shadowy parts of our subconscious. It seems like, if we open the door to something like extra-marital sex, for example, we have no idea what else will come strolling in with it. As if any number of other behaviors could suddenly be accepted and society would ultimately collapse. This is, of course, an irrational fear. But, sexuality is not a branch of reason. And I don't know that the 'sex-positive' paladins aren't sort of missing the uncontrollable and irrational side of sexuality in their attempt to make it more suitable for general consumption.

Holly said...

Is there a name for behaviors that are publicly disallowed, but practiced extensively? For instance, there are cultures where marriage is monogamous, but everyone gets a mistress or lover anyway, and it's no big thing.

Rufus said...


Okay, so I'm kidding, but that is pretty much what I've heard called a 'French marriage'.