Wilhelm Reich: Climax To Happiness!
On the 24th of March 1897, eccentric psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich was born in the village of Dobzau, part of the old Austro-Hungarian empire (present-day Ukraine). An anti-Fascist Marxist, Reich is primarily considered the inventor of the notion of ‘sexual revolution’ who coined the phrase in the 1930s in order to illustrate his belief that a true political revolution would be possible only once sexual repression was overthrown. His books were burned in Germany by the Nazis and then again years later by the Americans, who imprisoned him and set fire to six tons of his publications by court order in one of the most notable examples of censorship in history. Now that is enough to ignite anyone’s curiosity about the fuss he created in the scientific, as well as socio-political arenas of his time!
In the late 1920s, “Reich developed his theory of the orgasm, holding it as the most important form of release in human life, capable of transforming both the self and society. Freud thought this a grotesque oversimplification, but Reich came to believe that he had hit upon the perfect mechanism for liberating humanity. He pledged his loyalty to both psychoanalysis and socialism only to meet as much resistance among Marxists as among Freudians.” (David Allyn, review of Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America by Christopher Turner, The Journal of American History, Vol. 98, No. 4, March 2012).
Reich was a sexual campaigner who believed that a truly satisfying orgasm could determine the difference between sickness and health and, on a much wider scale, between political oppression and social liberation. He actually thought that it was the definitive cure from all evils, be it corporeal or ideological, such as the fascism that caused him to flee from Europe to America. In his study The Function of the Orgasm (1927), he concluded that “there is only one thing wrong with neurotic patients: the lack of full and repeated sexual satisfaction”, also that “Orgastic potency is the capacity to surrender to the flow of biological energy, free of any inhibition; the capacity to discharge completely the damned-up sexual excitation through involuntary, pleasurable convulsions of the body.”
In an interview with Christopher Turner, the writer Norman Mailer said, “The Function of the Orgasm was like a Pandora’s box to me. It opened a great deal because – to speak personally – I’d been struck with an itch in my own orgasm. So much was good in it; so much was not good in it. And his notion that the orgasm in a certain sense was the essence of the character, which came out and was expressed in the orgasm, gave me much food for thought over the years. So there were many years when I felt that, to a degree, when your orgasm was improving, you were improving with it . . . 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 that he was right.”
Reich attempted the impossible task of merging psychoanalysis and Marxism, arguing against Freud that repression could in fact be eliminated. His critics mocked him as the chaser of a ‘genital utopia’ and both the psychoanalytic movements and Communist party ejected him as a member. Perhaps the most shocking of all his theories involved an apparatus he created in the 1940s which he called Orgone Energy Accumulator. This consisted of a wooden cupboard about the size of a telephone booth, lined with metal and insulated with steel wool; the box’s organic material was meant to absorb ‘orgone energy’, and the metal lining stopped it from escaping, creating a raised temperature, a greenhouse effect meant to trap the energetic goodness. This magical device could improve its users’’”orgastic potency”, increase general health and mental stability by charging the body with orgone energy, the life force that circulated in the atmosphere. He went as far as to suggest that, in concentrated form, these enigmatic currents could treat cancer, radiation sickness and other minor ailments.
Reich even managed to convince Einstein to investigate his box, but the latter dismissed its function after 2 weeks of research. His orgone box became the physical embodiment of the sexual revolution, “fashionable in America in the 1940s and 50s, and Reich grew increasingly notorious as the leader of the new sexual movement that seemed to be sweeping the country. The accumulator was used by such countercultural figureheads as Norman Mailer, JD Salinger, Saul Bellow, Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Dwight Macdonald and William S Burroughs. In the 1970s Burroughs wrote an article for Oui magazine entitled ‘All the Accumulators I Have Owned’. In it, he boasted: “Your intrepid reporter, at age 37, achieved spontaneous orgasm, no hands, in an orgone accumulator built in an orange grove in Pharr, Texas.” At the height of his James Bond fame, Sean Connery swore by the device, and Woody Allen parodied it in Sleeper (1973), giving it the immortal nickname the Orgasmatron.” (Christopher Turner, ‘Wilhelm Reich: the Man Who Invented Free Love’, The Guardian, Friday 8 July 2011).
Reich’s lifelong obsession with the curative powers of the orgasm culminated in his orgone boxes, which ultimately may have cost his life, as he died of cardiac arrest while serving a prison sentence for distributing them throughout the States. Interestingly though, his ideas have since become ingrained in therapeutic culture, mainly the idea that the body carries psychological tensions in the muscles. Reich knew that the healthy recognition of one’s own body and the unfettered natural expression of sexual desire led to improved general, as well as mental health; this was progressive in his time and stays valid in contemporary biological theories.