Wilhelm Reich, inventor of the original “orgasmatron”, by Matthew Sweet
Wilhelm Who? If you know the answer, I can probably guess your age.
Wilhelm the orgasm guy. Wilhelm the man who named the sexual revolution. Wilhelm the cantankerous Austrian doctor whose books, uniquely, were burned by both the Nazis and the US authorities. Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957), who died, humiliated, in a Pennsylvanian jail, but rose again to become the hero of a new generation of radicals.
The young Germaine Greer lived in a Reichian commune in Sydney. Jack Nicholson had Reichian therapy in order to develop a more holistic approach to relationships. (“We have ass men and tit men and leg men and cunt men and lip men,” Reich said, “these are all partialisms.”) Susan Sontag caught him in a few words: “mad old Daddy Wilhelm Reich, the original Freudian communist.” That line is from a 1969 issue of Ramparts. What’s Ramparts? Another thing that dates you, like saying “avocado pear” or owning the Pelican edition of Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism.
Some reputations survive the cycles of intellectual, cultural and clinical fashion. We’re still talking about Freud. We’re still talking about Foucault – even Liz Truss, though she speaks of him as a kind of Spring Heeled Jack who hops around university campuses, turning the milk sour and spreading moral relativism. Reich, however, has fallen very deeply down the back of the sofa of history. That he looms large in Olivia Laing’s new book, Everybody: A Book About Freedom, only marks him more strongly as a missing person. In Laing’s early twenties, she underwent a form of therapy that emphasised how the body bears the physical burden of our pain and sadness. Laing shed this burden on the couch and “tingled like a jellyfish”. It was only later that she realised her shrink was playing by rules formulated by Reich in the 1930s. Recuperate him, she now urges, and be liberated.
The joy of Reich, though, as Laing knows, is also the source of his trouble. His theories are founded on a chimera known as the orgone, a blue-grey bioelectrical force that he imagined thrumming inside the body, particularly at the moment of orgasm, and out into the stars. Reich attempted to measure orgone flow in his subjects. He built and sold orgone accumulators – wooden cupboards lined with sheet metal and acrylic felt that purported to amplify these energies. (Saul Bellow sat in one, screaming and gnawing his handkerchief; William Burroughs went cold turkey inside his, with similar results.) Reich bought a mountainous estate in upstate Maine, named it Orgonon in honour of his discovery, and used it as the base for a series of increasingly strange experiments. Hoping to prove the orgone mightier than the atom, he secured a supply of radium from a private laboratory, killed a lot of mice and gave his research staff and family the gift of radiation sickness. Later, trying to use the orgone to save America from drought, he constructed cannon-like orgone “cloudbusters” and aimed them at lakes and patches of sky. Somewhere towards the end, he decided that orgone energy was humanity’s best defence against the threat of UFOs.
The aliens proved less of a hazard than the US Food and Drug Administration, which declared the orgone a fraud and Reich’s published works examples of inaccurate commercial labelling. In June 1956, FDA officials arrived at Orgonon to supervise the destruction of his accumulators. Six tons of books were shovelled into the maw of the New York sanitation department’s incinerator on Gansevoort Street. Their author received a two-year jail sentence.
The ferocity of the state’s response, and Reich’s melancholy death in prison, lent energy to his posthumous revival. The Sixties counterculture saw itself reflected in his ideas – particularly those that asserted the more orgasms you had, the less likely you were to become a fascist. Reich was debated in sophisticated Broadway comedies. (“Wilhelm Reich is a fag,” declares the heroine’s sister in Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna’s Lovers and Other Strangers.) He was parodied by Woody Allen. (The orgasmatron in Sleeper is the orgone accumulator turned up to eleven.) In Yugoslavia, he was celebrated by the cinematic avantgarde. (And by the international audiences enticed by the flesh displayed on the poster for WR: Mysteries of the Organism.)
Today, his influence is harder to detect. The best example is hidden in plain sight. Most modern children have a slight and unknowing acquaintance with Reich through the work of William Steig, the creator of Shrek. Pixar’s cornichon-coloured troll, unimpressed by tyranny, at ease with his desires and the taste of his own bodily effluvia, embodies ideas that Reich preached in the 1930s as a founder of the German Association for Proletarian Sexual Politics (Sex-Pol). Shrek is the “unarmoured” man, who has burst from the stiff carapace of repression, and is free to satisfy his desire to fart, wallow in mud and eat his own ear wax.
Reich’s present obscurity is not all the work of his enemies. The people who loved him most can take their share of the blame. In his will, Reich exhorted his trustees to “safeguard the truth about my life and work against distortion and slander after my death.” In 1959, this responsibility fell to Mary Boyd Higgins, a well-to-do Vassar graduate who, while living rather aimlessly in New York, volunteered to manage the estate.
Later, trying to use the orgone to save America from drought, he constructed cannon-like “cloudbusters” and aimed them at lakes and patches of sky
When I spent a few days at Orgonon for a 2011 radio documentary, Mary was my host and guide. We waded through a snowdrift to examine Reich’s tomb and the cloudbuster mounted beside it. We toured the hut laboratories where he had failed to neutralise radiation with orgone energy. In the blockily modernist observatory on the highest point of the estate, she invited me to try one of the orgone accumulators. If she ever burned her finger on the stove, she said, the accumulator prevented it from blistering. She put her hand inside it, and professed to feel a tingle. I felt nothing.
We examined Reich’s consulting room, with vast desk and mountain views. We ascended stairs, past framed photographs of exploding nebulae, up to the flat, empty roof, where Reich intended to install a telescope to watch the skies for the blue-grey energy he’d first detected in the human body. Prison, Mary explained, put paid to that plan. The wind whistled around us.
Colin Wilson was one of the many essentially friendly writers to whom Mary denied permission to quote from Reich’s writings. His book, The Quest for Wilhelm Reich (1981), begins with a broadside against her, noting her devotion to the idea that, “all critics of his work were motivated by malice and dishonesty, and [she] would have been happy to see them suppressed.” I appreciated his frustration and, as I tried to ask some straight questions about Reich’s wilder notions, shared it a little. But when Mary died in January 2019, I was moved to read a detail that she had never mentioned in any of our conversations. When FDA officials tried to seize books that were not included on the destruction order, she had intervened physically to stop them.
That kind of courage deserves to be remembered. It wasn’t caused by a surge of orgone energy – because nothing is – but it was motivated by the same forces that propelled Reich, and remain in his writings, ready to crackle inside the sympathetic reader. Desire, feeling, hope, the muscles and sinews and tissues of the body, pulsing and moving together, towards the goal of freedom, which is timeless.
Matthew Sweet presents “Free Thinking” and “Sound of Cinema” on BBC Radio 3. His latest book is “Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers and Themselves” (Picador)