The Great Proselytizer of Orgasm
A new book explores the highly peculiar legacy of Wilhelm Reich.
Today when sex combines with politics, the likely result is humiliation. We think of the crotch shot, the Sofitel suite, the airport restroom stall, the stained blue dress. The sex, which we see as sleazy and compulsive, is a sign of a defective self: risk-prone, greedy, compartmentalized, deluded, and hypocritical.
It's hard, perhaps, to recall that once sex was—in the ideal—radical politics conducted by other means. When Wilhelm Reich coined the phrase "the sexual revolution," he meant transformation in every sphere: health, marriage, economics, morality, and government. It was in sex, he believed, that we found the integrated self, liberated from the alienating culture and the authoritarian state. Christopher Turner's Adventures in the Orgasmatron is in part a report from that past, when sex held the promise of social reform. His book bears the subtitle, How the Sexual Revolution Came to America, but mostly what Turner offers is a sex-centered biography of Reich, the great proselytizer of orgasm.
Because of his belief in orgone, an imagined form of energy, Reich is now a figure of fun. (Orgasmatron is Woody Allen's name, in Sleeper, for a parody of Reich's orgone accumulator, a telephone booth-sized plywood and metal box said to store a healing and enlivening force.) But Reich is a fascinating, unfairly overlooked figure. If he had done nothing else, he would perhaps be known for the great work of his youth, Character Analysis, a book that forever changed the way psychotherapy is done. What he went on to do—crazily, confusingly—was to elaborate a dream of a society saved by sex.
At the end of the Great War, Reich, 22 and in medical school, showed up at Berggasse 19 to request a reading list. He became Freud's favorite. By the mid-1920s, Reich was the director of the technical seminar of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. His contribution is summarized in the adage, taught to generations of psychoanalysts, Interpret character before content. Reich had observed that his patients, as obedient Freudians, might share memories of the primal scene but conceal ordinary shameful feelings in torrents of talk. Reich concluded that he had to address what he called "character armor."
Doggedly, Reich challenged patients for using apparent cooperation as a way to sabotage change. Fritz Perls, the Gestalt therapist, found Reich "mocking and bullying." But one patient Turner quotes captured Reich's clinical genius:
His acuity to detect the slightest movement, the lightest inflection of the voice, a passing shadow of change in the expression, was without a parallel. … Day after day, week after week, he would call the patient's attention to an attitude, a tension in facial expression, until the patient could sense it and feel what it implied.
To the question of which line a therapist should pursue, Reich proposed a focus on signs of withholding and resistance.
Freud saw that he had fostered a rival intent on turning analysis on its head. In 1926, he interrupted a talk by Reich to object: "Of course one has to analyze and interpret incest dreams as soon as they appear." To Freud, with his interest in slips of the tongue, words were the principal expression of mind. But inflection is material, too, and it appears simultaneously with the dream report. The mainstream went on to adopt Reich's view that how patients act is as relevant as what they say. With Reich, the defenses—narcissism, passive aggression, and the rest—moved to the fore. Psychoanalysis has adopted other interests (notably, empathy), but Freudian therapy as conducted today is closer to Reich than to Freud.
If we ask what is defended against or what is repressed, the answer, in classical psychoanalysis, always involves sex. But what needs to happen with sex is uncertain. As he abandoned his own early faith in orgasm, Freud backed toward a position that favored some frustration of sexual energy, which might then be channeled into creativity. Reich embraced Freud's prior sex-as-health view, and he was a whirlwind. (Turner quotes Reich's daughter, Lore, to the effect that it was obvious from early on that her father was manic-depressive: "Is there any doubt?") Reich had grand plans for cultural reform through sex education.
Merging abandoned versions of Freudianism and Marxism, Reich saw repression and neurosis as causes and results of bourgeois property ownership and patriarchy. He established free sex clinics and roved the city in a van from which he proselytized for Communism and orgasm. The open expression of libido, beginning with free love between adolescents, would raise the proletarian political consciousness. Soon, Reich was drummed out of the analytic movement and the Communist Party.
Reich had admirers among the young analysts and the literary and artistic avant-garde. One observer of a Reichian lakeside gathering in 1930 described indulgence in "a voyeuristic exhibitionistic fashion of semi-public love affairs, dramatized promiscuity, risqué parties and play-acting, and bathing in the nude." As Turner also demonstrates, the idealization of sex had its victims. Reich took up with a former patient; months into the affair, she died, possibly of a botched abortion. Reich promptly pursued and then married and divorced another patient, Annie Pink, later Annie Reich. (She kept him from his children, out of concern over abuse.) The pattern of sex with patients, students, and acolytes—relationships that were often disastrous for the women—continued for the whole of Reich's life.