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.

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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."

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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.)

Peter D. Kramer is the author, most recently, ofFreud: Inventor of the Modern Mind. His blog In Practice considers matters of brain and mind.

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