Christopher Turner's Adventures in the Orgasmatron: Wilhelm Reich proselytized for the orgasm. What is his legacy?

Reading between the lines.
June 27 2011 6:48 AM

The Great Proselytizer of Orgasm

A new book explores the highly peculiar legacy of Wilhelm Reich.

(Continued from Page 1)

Sexual vigor is an ideal that is easily co-opted. Although Reich was an anti-fascist, his theories gained favor in some strains of Nazism. Turner cites a Party-endorsed sex manual that favored "child and adolescent masturbation and extramarital sex, calling for all young women to throw off the shackles of repression to enjoy the 'vibrant humanness' to which they were entitled." The quest for orgastic potency justified the extermination of the handicapped and homosexuals. As for capitalism, Herbert Marcuse foresaw that sex would be easily trivialized into a commodity in a system of mass-market production and consumption.

Adventures in the Orgasmatron.

On Reich's immigration to the United States in 1939, Turner's narrative becomes a picaresque tale of a madman's progress. Reich was to all appearances seriously mentally ill, prone to mood swings and persecutory delusions, and he drew unstable characters, including child molesters, to his inner circle. But in a post-war era of dull conformity, Reich became a counterculture hero, an avatar of sexual license as existential authenticity.

Paul Goodman, later known for Growing Up Absurd, publicized Reich's writing as "the psychology of the revolution." Through Reich, Goodman promulgated a philosophy that would gain force through the 1960s:

Reich promised, Goodman enthused, to restore a repressed populace "to sexual health and animal spirits" with apocalyptic orgasms, a condition of sexual bliss in which they would no longer be able to "tolerate the mechanical and routine jobs they have been working at, but turn (at whatever general inconvenience) to work that is spontaneous and directly meaningful."

Advertisement

Turner depicts Reich in America as a Zelig-like figure, playing cameos in writers' lives especially. Saul Bellow built an accumulator and found it cured his warts and improved his breathing. J. D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Keroac, and William Burroughs all claimed to have sat in orgone box absorbing the vibes. * Ginsberg wrote Reich requesting an appointment, but Reich refused to treat homosexuals. Mailer adopted and played out the idea that orgasm was character, although later on he confessed to Turner that "the apocalyptic orgasm had always eluded him."

As for how Reich's contributions add up, Turner is more cynic than romantic. He understands that organized society always limits autonomy, that sexual liberation has an uncertain relationship to political freedom, and that radical organizations and, even more, radical individuals, tend to go off the rails. Reich's precocity and productivity, his alignment with seductive ideals, and his strange charisma gave him a standing that persisted long after preposterous delusions had come to dominate his thought. The closest Turner comes to a summary is through Mailer: "What was important to me was the force, and clarity, and power of [Reich's] early works, and the daring. And also the fact that I think in a basic sense the he was right."

What is that basic sense? It does seem that our relation to sex is always a bit off. As a culture, we don't take sex seriously enough and don't take it lightly enough either. But the sexual ideal is hard to specify. Should sex be fun, deep, creative, caring, carefree, sublime, earth-shaking, apocalyptic? The list of ideals we fail to satisfy is endless but also contradictory. And as our political scandals suggest, it's hard to strip sex of its outlaw status. You don't need to be an evolutionary psychologist to imagine that, since rapine and infidelity are sometimes adaptive strategies for procreation, force and transgression are likely to remain stimulating, whatever the social surround. Sex may always be problematic.

Still, we haven't entirely failed, in the past half century, to make progress with sex, even if Reich did not triumph. Women are able to stand up for their erotic inclinations, pro and con. We're better at separating intercourse from pregnancy, which by most standards is a blessing. We speak frankly in many settings. Technique is passed on straightforwardly. At least these truths hold for the privileged.

In Saving the Modern Soul, the sociologist Eval Illouz describes what she calls emotional stratification. She writes about the passage in Freud's New Introductory Lectures in which he contrasts the caretaker's daughter—who lives in the basement, engages in sex play, goes on to a successful career, and flourishes—and the landlord's daughter—who lives upstairs, learns ideals of abstinence, turns neurotic, and flounders. Now, Illouz observes, the upstairs crowd receives training in social and sexual competence. We may scorn emotional education, but it delivers. Working-class interviewees are likelier than the well-off to complain of poor domestic communication and failed relationships.

Reading Illouz and then Turner made me think of Reich's legacy. It is largely in Oprah, in the broad dissemination of advice about intimacy and self-fulfillment. The culture of confession has not led to political nirvana, but we may—I do—see a link between Oprah's investment in emotional connection and her endorsement, and our election, of Obama, a community organizer, a concilator, and the finest memoirist to be elected president. This connection between personal and political awareness is tamer and more tenuous than anything Reich contemplated, but it may contain a hint of his influence.

Correction, June 27, 2011: This article originally misspelled Allen Ginsberg's last name. (Return to corrected sentence.)

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Doublex

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Use Facebook to Reconnect With Old Friends, Share Photos, and Serve People With Legal Papers

  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 1:50 PM Oh, the Futility! Frogs Try to Catch Worms off of an iPhone Video.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 11:00 AM Google Exec: Climate Change Deniers Are “Just Literally Lying”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?