TODAY THE NAME WILHELM REICH EVOKES a dim memory of the orgone box fad, or, more likely, nothing at all. But odd though it may seem (and it is far from the oddest thing about him), there was a time when Wilhelm Reich enjoyed enormous prestige on both sides of the Atlantic.

Reich was once Sigmund Freud’s star pupil and an important player in the radical psychoanalytic movement of the 1930s. His diagnosis of the neurotic roots of fascism would influence thinkers from Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. And his ideas about the transcendent power of the orgasm inspired an astonishing number of postwar American writers and critics–Paul Goodman, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs–who would become central figures in the cultural upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s.

But leaving an intellectual legacy of this kind would not have interested Reich, who late in his career came to believe that he had unraveled the secrets of the universe, and that he could cure the ills of body and mind, nature and society. All that stood in his way were the combined forces of social and sexual repression–and a global conspiracy involving The New Republic, Joseph Stalin, and the U.S Food and Drug Administration. This conspiracy–or at least the zeal of the FDA–would turn this self-declared prophet into an outlaw and, ultimately, a martyr: After defying the FDA, Reich died in a federal prison at the age of sixty.

At the core of Reich’s peripatetic career is a venerable, if unfashionable, belief: Under the mantle of social convention lurks a natural, instinctual self, and the release of that self’s energies from society’s repression is the only way to achieve psychic health, political justice, and spiritual well-being. This notion finds few serious takers today. Inside the academy, the descendants of French poststructuralism mock the very idea of a natural self, while outside the academy conventional wisdom has rediscovered the virtues of repression. To find devoted Reichians one must travel to remote outposts in Oregon or Maine, where his most colorful–and most loyal–intellectual acolytes quixotically strive to communicate with extraterrestrials and disprove the basic tenets of twentieth-century science and medicine, while maintaining a lonely vigil against Stalinist threats.

Though the academy may have banished Reich to the margins, his name continues to surface in the stew of postmodern popular culture. A memoir written by his son, Peter, enjoys a cult following among British schoolboys; Dusan Makavejev’s 1971 film, WR: Mysteries of the Organism, turns up from time to time at art houses; and the British singer Kate Bush even wrote a song called "Cloudbusting" about Reich’s persecution by the U.S. government. Who was Wilhelm Reich? A social critic or a snake-oil salesman? A visionary or a madman? A misunderstood scientific genius or a dangerous quack? Or all of the above?

THE BIZARRE LIFE of Wilhelm Reich began in fin de siècle Europe and ended in Cold War America. He was born in 1897 to secular Jewish parents in Austrian Galicia. His father owned a successful cattle ranch, and his mother came from an extremely wealthy landowning family.

Reich acquired sexual knowledge at an early age. At twelve he watched his tutor seduce his mother. He was also twelve when he revealed this fact to his father–a jealous and brutish man who regularly referred to his wife as "whore" anyway–resulting soon after in his mother’s suicide. A year later, young Wilhelm bedded a household servant. In his university days, he was an insatiable womanizer; by most accounts, he never gave up the habit. Nor was it separated from his work: He met his first wife, Annie (a noted psychoanalyst in her own right), when she came to him for therapy; he was known to have seduced several of his other patients; and he had an affair with the wife of his assistant Myron Sharaf (who would nonetheless go on to write a sympathetic biography of Reich).

Reich was an officer in the Austrian army during World War I, which he came to see as the watershed event in the history of Europe (and thus of humankind); he returned from service a devout socialist. He enrolled in college in Vienna as a law student, but he quickly switched to medicine and became interested in mental health. By the time he was in his twenties, Reich had entered the Vienna psychoanalytic circle, where he quickly made his mark, earning a reputation as one of the most insightful therapists in the group. Freud would soon be referring patients to this precocious protégé, whom he declared to have "del beste Kopf" (the best head) of all the Vienna psychoanalysts.

But while Freud regarded the struggle between repression and instinct with great ambivalence, Reich unhesitatingly took the side of instinct. In various works that would later be collected in Character Analysis (1933), Reich worked out his first, and perhaps most influential psychoanalytic idea: character armor. He believed that all people–even (or rather, especially) polite and apparently straightforward people–exhibit defensive character traits; and he recommended that the analyst identify and dismantle this armor, thus (contra Freud) controlling the direction of therapy and forcing the patient to express, even violently, his deepest impulses. "Human beings live emotionally on the surface," he explained. "In order to get to the core, where the natural, the normal, the healthy is, you have to get through that middle layer. And in that middle layer there is terror." Culture, he believed, alienated people from their true selves, which meant that any civilized individual was by definition neurotic. This premise led Reich to two conclusions: First, everyone needs therapy; second, to create truly healthy individuals, therapy is insufficient–society itself must be changed.

It was not long before Reich took another step away from Freud. He concluded that character armor physically manifested itself in "muscular armor"–that is, actual somatic tension. Freud believed that physical maladies were often the result of psychological problems, but Reich came to believe the inverse: that the etiology of psychological illness (and thus of psychological well-being) was located in the body. While Freud treated neuroses in order to alleviate physical problems, Reich reversed the causality and worked to relieve bodily tension in order to remove neuroses. Thus the twofold nature of Reichian therapy was established: The talking cure would be directed at dismantling a patient’s character armor and allowing the natural self to emerge, while deep breathing, rhythmic movements, and the therapist’s physical contact with the patient would relieve the patient’s muscular armor and thus alleviate the related neuroses.

Even now, with psychoanalysis in eclipse, some claim that Reich’s insights inform the basic premises of psychotherapy. "To the extent that there is any real psychology around today," says Dr. Richard Schwartzman, a Reichian therapist who practices in Philadelphia, "it is character analysis." Reich, he explains, "was the first to recognize that the content of what a patient communicated was secondary to the way a person presented himself, which is always some form of defense." Meanwhile, alternative therapies of the 1970s, such as primal scream, bioenergetics, emotional release, massage, and bodywork, owe Reich a profound debt. Many non-Reichian psychologists and psychiatrists still make use of his therapeutic techniques–deep breathing, rhythmic body movements, and so on–as part of an array of treatments.

Not surprisingly, Reich’s efforts to release his patients from their muscular armor led him toward Freud’s work on sex. In books like The Function of the Orgasm and Genitality, both published in 1927, he argued that sexual dissatisfaction was tied to all physical tensions and thus to all neuroses. Muscular tension–tightness in the hips, buttocks, stomach, thighs, and other parts of the body–prevented the freedom of movement that was required for a good orgasm. So, in Reich’s model, the ability to achieve "orgastic potency" became the key to a healthy psychological life, for both men and women. The relief of neuroses and the achievement of superior orgasms became synonymous. Put simply, Reich believed that people who have good sex are happy and productive and that happy and productive people have good sex; anything undermining this equation was a pathology.

Of course, Reich was not the first to notice that having orgasms tended to have a positive effect on people, but never before had the orgasm enjoyed such a privileged place in therapeutic practice; Reichian orgasms were not a means, they were the end. For all his frankness, however, Reich says little about his criteria for evaluating a good orgasm. He is generally of the "you’ll know it when you have one" school. And these orgasms could only occur in certain circumstances: In spite of his reputation as a sexual radical, Reich was in some respects quite conventional. He insisted that a good orgasm could be achieved only by genital-to-genital contact between a man and a woman. He had no problem with masturbation per se but considered it nothing more than a healthy expression of desire; there was no good orgasm to be had that way. Similarly, while he was tolerant of various kinds of sexual contact, he dismissed "homosexuality, sexual intercourse with animals, and other forms of perversion."

While the good orgasm represented the health of the individual, Reich also came to believe it represented the health of society as well. In the late 1920s, once he had established himself as an important psychoanalyst in Vienna, Reich branched out on his own and created the sex-pol movement, combining his therapeutic interests with increasingly leftist politics. He began this work in Vienna, but after being expelled from the Austrian Social Democratic Party in 1930 because of his sexual radicalism, he moved to Berlin.

There he joined the German Communist Party and became active in the leftist psychoanalytic circle that included Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, and Otto Fenichel. By contemporary standards, and even by today’s, Reich’s sex-pol ideas were daring: He conducted frank workshops on sexual health, advocated free birth control and access to abortion, and endorsed adolescent experimentation with sex. A healthy and free society, he felt, would have to be composed of healthy and free individuals–sexually healthy, orgastically potent people. Such an erotic utopia required economic and labor conditions that allowed leisure time and living conditions amenable to unencumbered sexual relations (a subject about which conventional Marxist theory has little to say). This meant social and economic gender equality and the replacement of marriage with "serial monogamy" so that each partner could pursue the most satisfying sex life.

By 1931 Reich had convinced the German communists to establish the German Association for Proletarian Sex Politics, with himself firmly in charge: At its height, the organization had forty thousand members. The sex-pol movement’s ideology was crystallized in Reich’s treatise on social and sexual repression, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), a bold synthesis of Freud and Marx. In it he contended that rightist repressive forces in society did not operate by brute force or deception. Nor were they expressions of national destiny. Rather, the phenomenal success of both ideologies derived from their promise of release through violence and force, coupled with the countervailing promise of state suppression of that which the unenlightened masses feared in themselves and which was, for Reich, the key to everything: their sexuality.

Reich’s understandings of sexuality and power rank among his most important work. His ideas strongly influenced such important books of social criticism as Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom (1941), Theodor Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality (1950), and Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955). Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1972; tr. 1977) places Reich at the center of its discussion of the subterranean links between political authority and sexual repression. A latter-day heir to Reich was German literary critic Klaus Theweleit. His classic study, Male Fantasies (1978), gives Nazism a straight Reichian mass-psychology treatment and concludes that the fundamental characteristic of a Nazi was his fear of his own sexuality. Much as Reich had argued at the very dawn of the Nazi era, Theweleit asserts that Nazism’s "aim is not to give free rein to...drives, but to escape them. The eruption of...drives does not produce ‘satisfaction’; instead it helps stabilize... [character] armor."


REICH HAD reached the height of his European influence in 1931, but it took only a few years for everything to blow up in his face. He was tossed out of the International Psychoanalytic Association for being a communist; by that time, he and Freud were noton friendly terms–Reich ascribed this to Freud’s being "very much dissatisfied genitally"–and Reich’s influence in official psychoanalytic circles had dwindled to nil. In 1934 he was expelled from the German Communist Party (which Hitler had suppressed in 1933 anyway) for being a Freudian and for distracting young communists with his endless theoretical and practical discussions of sex. European politics and the challenge of making ends meet would drive him back to Vienna, then to Copenhagen, then to Malmö, Sweden, and finally, in the mid-1930s, to Oslo. To make matters worse, the authorities in his various Scandinavian homes were increasingly concerned with the morality of his therapies and the ever-present rumors that Reich was seducing his patients. (After all, Reichian therapy was conducted with the patient in underwear, involved laying on of hands, and had orgastic potency as a goal for both men and women.) Isolated from peer criticism, Reich became an outsider on every front.

In Oslo, Reich’s career took a fateful turn. All of his concerns–the therapy, the politics, the social theories–would soon lead to something much larger, as well as something significantly harder for the non-Reichian world to swallow. Despite an utter lack of relevant training, Reich transformed himself into a physical scientist.

Even Myron Sharaf, Reich’s generous biographer, concedes that the Reichian experimental method was problematic: "The unique features of Reich’s experimental approach have never been replicated, either by Reich’s own students or by traditional researchers.... Reich himself spent a good part of several years mastering the technical and clinical problems of achieving consistent results." There is also the troubling fact of "Reich’s way of reporting his results in narrative style and giving selective illustrative examples rather than supplying the details of a number of subjects and complete data."

Reich’s scientific work proceeded from a shaky premise–the psychological drive that Freud called libido and the physical release that accompanies orgasm were just different manifestations of the same energy. He did not mean this metaphorically: In Norway, he began conducting experiments on living human skin to measure this energy.(A young Willy Brandt served as a guinea pig in one of these experiments.) His experiments proved him right (although no non-Reichian has ever duplicated his results). Then, following his idiosyncratic logic, he began to examine dead leaves of grass under a microscope. He watched the leaves disintegrate into little bits, which he called bions. What they represented to Reich was nothing less than the spontaneous generation of life: "The bions are forms of transition from inorganic to organic matter; they can develop into organized living forms such as protozoa, cancer cells, etc. They are vesicles filled with fluid and charged with energy." These bions moved about, motivated by the same electrical energy that coursed through the orgastic human. And, in one last tantalizing observation, Reich found that whichever eye he viewed the bions through would invariably become sore, evidence that the bions were emanating some form of radiation. He called this energy orgone.

In 1939 Reich secured an appointment at New York’s New School for Social Research, which had become a haven for intellectuals driven out of Europe by the Nazis. His course, "Biological Aspects of Character Formation," drew students who would become his American disciples. And he continued his research, now attempting to isolate the orgone: He placed his bion samples in boxes that were made of metal, in order to contain the orgone radiation, and covered in wood, in order to insulate against external orgone interference. He noted that if he stared at the darkness in the boxes, he could see colored patches of light. (When Reich was granted an audience with Albert Einstein, the physicist was skeptical: "But I see flickering light all the time," Einstein said. "Could it not be subjective?")

Then, one dark night, Reich discovered that if he looked hard enough at the dark spaces between the stars, he could see the same light. In a characteristic leap, Reich decided that orgone must be all around. It was a "primordial cosmic energy." It was the same universal medium that physicists once believed filled empty space but whose existence had been decisively disproved by A.A. Michelson and E.W. Morley in 1887: Reich had discovered the ether. Reich laid down his new, all-encompassing orgone theory in The Function of the Orgasm (1942–not to be confused with his earlier book of the same title), set up a journal to publish his work, and established the Orgone Institute Research Laboratory in Orgonon (known to the post office as Rangeley), Maine.

In the early 1940s, Reich began placing patients in his metal-and-wood boxes–"orgone energy accumulators"–to improve their mental health and orgastic potency, and even combat cancer, as detailed in The Cancer Biopathy (1948). Boxes ranged from full-body models about the size of a phone booth to smaller models designed to accommodate specific body parts in need of treatment. Sometimes they included attachments that intensified and sprayed orgone like a removable showerhead. There were also orgone blankets that could be folded up for easy traveling. Since the boxes (and their many variations) were relatively simple to make, they became something of a fad at various times, and many people who had no real notion of what Reichian therapy was enjoyed the supposed energizing and aphrodisiac effects of the accumulators. Hipsters, beats, and early hippies all knew about orgone boxes. And though they were eventually supplanted by other New Age panaceas (and banned by the FDA), ads for instruction manuals still appear in magazines from time to time, and there are now a dozen or so Internet sites with blueprints and how-tos.

Meanwhile, by the early 1950s, Reich was getting weirder. In 1950, he settled permanently in Rangeley, where he lived with his wife Ilse, their son, Peter, and a fluctuating cadre of true believers. Displaying an increasing dexterity with acronyms, he conducted experiments combining orgone radiation with radium (the oranur experiments: ORgone And NUclear Radiation) and determined that orgone could be used as an antidote to radiation poisoning (which was actually caused by dor: Deadly ORgone). He drew up plans for a motor that would run on orgone. He built orgone lightning rods that could trigger rainstorms. These cloud busters, like so many of Reich’s experiments, only worked when conditions were just so: when there was no unforeseen dor interference, no radioactive breezes, and so on. Near the end, he observed unusual energy patterns in the sky and determined they were evidence of hostile UFOs (called EAs: Energy Alphas). He defended the oblivious human race using his cloud busters.

But amid all of the late advances in Reich’s research, trouble brewed. To counter the warm reception that many left-leaning American intellectuals were giving Reich in the postwar period, a freelance writer named Mildred Brady wrote a scathing article for The New Republic in 1947, called "The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich," in which she accused Reich of fraud and sex-cultism. (Reich thought she had an unspoken motive for lashing out: "Brady believes that I am the only man who could help her achieve an orgasm, which she so desperately needs.") The FDA was soon alerted to his activities, and it determined that the orgone energy accumulators were hoaxes that fell under its jurisdiction. This, despite Reich’s well-founded protestations that he was "investigating natural phenomena" that had nothing to do with foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals, or cosmetics.

The FDA, Joseph McCarthy claimed and Cold War hysterics believed, was infested with communists, and both Mildred Brady and the editorial staff at The New Republic were known to have left-wing sympathies. Reich, whose leftist political fervor had long since dissipated and who was now a card-carrying Republican, became convinced that "the slandering article by Miss Brady was the beginning of a chain reaction set into motion...by communist quarters." It was a conspiracy that involved The New Republic, the FDA, and maybe even Einstein. It was all orchestrated by Moscow’s global network, which Reich dubbed Modju (combining MOcenigo, who denounced the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno to the Inquisition, with DJUgashvili, Stalin’s original surname). Stalin, Reich was sure, knew that his discoveries would save the world from most–if not all–of its ills, something the Soviets could not abide. Reich wrote letters to Eisenhower and J. Edgar Hoover explaining his predicament but got no response. Reich’s books now bore angry and self-righteous titles like Listen, Little Man! (1948) and The Murder of Christ (1953). For Conspiracy: An Emotional Chain Reaction (1954), Reich feverishly compiled evidence that Modju was using the Hig (Hoodlums In Government) to destroy him. The conspiracy, in the opinion of many Reichians, survives today, evidenced by the continued failure of Reich’s ideas to gain mainstream currency, by the FDA’s continuing hostility to Reichian "hoaxes," and by the continuing success of the forces of evil (environmental destruction, disease, starvation, psychological malaise, and such) over good.

On February 10, 1954, the FDA–which was never able to produce a single dissatisfied patient, let alone one who had been harmed–requested an injunction against transporting orgone boxes across state lines; Reich refused to appear in court and the injunction–which still stands today–was granted. While the FDA nosed around (sans warrant) in Orgonon, one of Reich’s assistants transported an orgone energy accumulator out of Maine, in violation of the court order. When Reich again declined to appear in court, he was arrested for contempt. With uncharacteristic humility, he asserted his right only "to be wrong without being hanged for it." Acting as his own attorney, he pleaded guilty, conceding that he had indeed crossed the FDA but arguing that he had done so for the greater good of humankind.

Back in Orgonon, while Reich’s family, the laboratory’s staff, and Reich himself, who was awaiting sentencing, looked on, the FDA destroyed the accumulators and torched Reich’s books. In May 1956, he was sentenced to two years in the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Prison psychiatrists were split on Reich’s mental competency. He died of a heart attack in 1957, shortly before he was to be released.


REICH DIED AT the height of his mad-scientist phase, hounded by imaginary conspiracies and real-life federal agents, just when his influence in American culture was at its peak. In the 1950s Freudian ideas were all the rage, and many intellectuals–frustrated with the conformity of the society around them–were drawn to Reich’s earlier psychoanalytic stances (as they were to those of another Freudian heretic, Carl Jung). Through these literati, Reich reached his broadest audience. Indeed, his work seems to be a hidden thread running through the proto-counterculture of the 1950s. Paul Goodman, the anarchist critic and novelist who would become belatedly famous in the 1960s counterculture with the publication of Growing Up Absurd (1960), underwent Reichian therapy and became a proponent of Reich’s sociopolitical work; he cast Reich as a hero of anarcho-syndicalism and a champion of man’s return to his uncorrupted natural state. William Steig, whose drawings still appear in The New Yorker, was a friend of Reich’s and illustrated some of his works. Even the sober-minded critic Irving Howe was fascinated by Reich’s quest for Marxist-Freudian rapprochement and particularly by the notion that the individual’s need to repress his own sexual desire was the heart of fascism’s appeal.

In the late 1940s, the short story writer Isaac Rosenfeld convinced his friend Saul Bellow to undergo Reichian therapy. For Bellow it was a schizoid experience–at once liberating and belittling, celebratory and traumatizing–and one that would inform much of his fiction in subsequent years. Henderson the Rain King (1959), for example, is throughout an allegory (as well as a send-up) of Reichian therapy: Dahfu, the African witch doctor, methodically strips away the defenses of Henderson, an American traveling in Africa. At the climax, as Dahfu lies dying and Henderson is bruised, beaten, defenseless (and at the mercy of a hungry African lion), Bellow makes clear the pain and risk such exposure entails, and the extreme vulnerability it leaves behind. Similarly, the novella Seize the Day (1956) centers on a hapless protagonist–significantly named Tommy Wilhelm–who convulsively throws off the character armor that has been his protection and his prison. He too is left weeping and broken, though truer to himself. Bellow also wrote a play, The Wrecker (1954), on a similar theme, but with the violent aspects of his therapy more literally portrayed: The entire stage set is demolished by the protagonist’s unpent rage. Bellow even composed an entire novel–which is unpublished, its story having been transformed into Herzog (1964)–about a Reichian therapist. Although Bellow’s mature sensibility was formed by his experience of Reichian therapy, there’s no question that he ultimately turned against it. He would later blame his therapy for the breakup of his first marriage and for his friend Rosenfeld’s early death.

Norman Mailer’s enthusiasm for Reich was characteristically stronger. "If I were ever to look for a therapist," he wrote in a Village Voice piece that was reprinted in Advertisements for Myself, "I would be inclined to get me to a Reichian." Mailer understood Reich’s obsession with the orgasm in almost mystical terms. In what Mailer’s biographer Mary Dearborn characterizes as "a total lift from Reich," the blacks and hipsters in Mailer’s famous essay "The White Negro" (1957) are, by virtue of their alienation from square white society, freed from their armor, ready to experience the center of human experience: the orgasm. The hipster "seeks love...love as the search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it." Then there is the novel fragment "The Time of Her Time" (1959), Mailer’s purest distillation of Reich. In it, the narrator (who is described as a "phallic-narcissist," a Reichian term of art for a "self-assured, arrogant...energetic" sexual predator) forces an orgasm on an icy college student whose Reich-dabbling psychoanalyst has been unable to help her. Before returning to "love’s first hole," he penetrates her in "the seat of all stubbornness, tight as a vise," and calls her a "dirty little Jew." Her character armor shattered, she proceeds to have no fewer than five orgasms–"the first big moment in her life," in the narrator’s estimation.

Still, Mailer treats Reich as simply one inspiration among many. In "The White Negro," he wrote: "Energy, life, sex, force, the Yoga’s prana, the Reichian’s orgone, Lawrence’s ‘blood,’ Hemingway’s ‘good,’ the Shavian life-force; ‘It’; God.... To which a cool cat might reply, ‘Crazy, man!’" Mailer did pay Reich perhaps the ultimate compliment, though: in "The Hip and the Square: 1. The List" (1959), Mailer places "Wilhelm Reich as a mind" under "Hip," while placing "Wilhelm Reich as a stylist" under "Square." Mailer in the 1950s was highly susceptible to the intellectual gurus of the day. As Louis Menand recently put it in The New York Review of Books, he "brought Sartre and Reich together by making sex the site of existential struggle."

And then there is William Burroughs, whom Mailer himself declared "the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius" Like Bellow and Mailer, Burroughs built himself an orgone box, but unlike them, he made the box and the orgone central to his thinking. In 1949 he wrote to Jack Kerouac (who, like Allen Ginsberg, would submit to Reichian therapy at Burroughs’s insistence) that Reich "is the only man in the analysis line who is on the beam.... The man is not crazy, he’s a fucking genius." He declared that he would "not consider spending one hour of my time" in therapy with a non-Reichian. But it was Reich’s science that riveted Burroughs. "What interests me," he wrote to Ginsberg, "is his factual discoveries.... My own experiments with the [orgone] accumulator have convinced me that many of his conclusions are correct." (His experiments included building a small orgone box out of a gas can, which he tested in this way: "One day I got into the big accumulator and held the little one over my joint and came right off.")

Both the novels Junky (1953) and Queer (1985) originally contained extensive discourses on Burroughs’s interest in Reich and "his orgones," but Burroughs was unable to justify their inclusion stylistically. Reich always held a prominent place in the odd cosmology of Burroughs’s literary imagination, along with virus theory, Egyptian hieroglyphs, shamans, Mayan codices, the Time-Life image bank, flying saucers, and Scientology. But Burroughs was not always reverent–not that anyone would expect him to be. He did not much care about Reich the social theorist ("Reich’s social and political theories...bore me"). And in a 1952 sketch for a short story based unflatteringly on Paul Bowles, he wrote:

Like many homosexuals, Keif decided, periodically, that he wanted to be "cured" and lead a "normal life." To this end he had been analyzed by a Freudian, a member of the Washington group, a Horneyite (he chicly avoided Jungians and Adlerians), and finally by a female Reichian who attached electrodes to his penis, stuck an orgone sprayer up his ass, urging him, at the same time, to relax and let the "orgasm reflex" take over. The result was a dislocated spinal disc which required prolonged chiropractic treatment.

If the writers of the 1950s were fascinated by Reich, the actual sexual revolution of the 1960s did not necessarily proceed on Reichian premises. The overcoming of repression–which for writers like Bellow and Mailer was a desperate, dangerous struggle with internal neuroses and external conventions–was by the late 1960s a commonplace. And as the sexual revolution unfolded in American society at large, interest in its early theoretical proponents waned. The feminist and gay rights movements of the 1970s may have synthesized left-wing politics with sexual radicalism, but they did so largely without the benefit of Reich.

Michel Foucault, the leading theorist of sexual politics to emerge in the wake of the 1960s, was of a distinctly un-Reichian persuasion. He used Reich as an ideological foil–a thinker who, for all his daring, remained mired in conventional ways of thinking. "There was formed, around Reich," Foucault wrote in The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (1978), "the historico-political critique of sexual repression. The importance of this critique and its impact on reality were substantial." But after granting Reich’s historical importance, Foucault is less than generous regarding his theoretical sophistication. In the Foucauldian model, revolutionary or subversive talk about sex, no less than repressive talk about sex, only makes sex an occasion for anxiety, surveillance, and self-surveillance. "The very possibility of [the Reichian critique’s] success," wrote Foucault, "was tied to the fact that it always unfolded within the deployment of sexuality, and not outside or against it." Reich had occasioned nothing more than a "tactical shift...in the great deployment of sexuality" that makes modern society a carceral nightmare. Of course, Foucault had a gift for understatement; Reich signaled the coming of a "tactical shift" that, to many people (perhaps including Foucault himself), felt like a cultural revolution.

IF THAT REVOLUTION IS now history, the scientific revolution that Reich believed would be his greatest contribution has yet to take place. This is not for lack of effort or enthusiasm on the part of his followers. Given that the most extreme ideas are often the ones that attract the most devoted adherents, it should not be surprising that Reich’s contemporary disciples are especially attracted to his scientific work. And given the information free-for-all that is the Internet, it should surprise no one that Reich’s UFO chasing and panaceas and conspiracies and alternative physics have not quietly faded into history. Indeed, Reichiana flourishes. A group in Canada called Another Orgone Research Laboratory concentrates on Reich’s scientific work with orgone itself, conducting research on interactions between orgone energy accumulators and tesla coils, observing orgone in interplanetary space, and investigating the possibility of creating an orgone vacuum. In Ashland, Oregon, "high above the stagnant atmospheric dor-layer which often affects the West Coast...with no significant sources of atomic or electromagnetic oranur in the vicinity," there is the Orgone Biophysical Research Laboratory (OBRL). Run by James DeMeo, who managed to earn both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Reich-related scientific research, the OBRL uses cloud busters in desert-greening and drought-abatement experiments. The OBRL has also attempted to demonstrate that AIDS transmission is not related to HIV.

Each year, the lab gives out several thousand dollars to undergraduates and graduate students who are studying Reich’s work. But those who plan to put Reich in his social and intellectual context should think twice before applying. Last year, a notice in The Chronicle of Higher Education announcing the availability of this money–the Lou Hochberg Award for students working on "the social aspects of Reich’s discoveries"–caught the attention of Benjamin Kafka, a senior at Brown who had just completed an honors thesis called "Signs of Conspiracy: Wilhelm Reich and Anti-Communism in the United States." The paper is a historical consideration of Reich’s final years in America, but when Kafka sent it to the judges, he discovered it was not quite what they had in mind. Indeed, the anonymous reviews Kafka received accused him of "assuming wrongly that there was no rational basis to Reich’s last works...[on] cloud busting, UFO observations, orgone motor, etc.," of "trying to apply his own pro-Stalinist...positions" to Reich’s story, and of "willful blindness...[to] the facts." Odd criticisms, perhaps, of a student who takes no scientific positions, whose politics intrude no further than to suggest that the Rosenberg case was "tragic," and whose research is thorough and well documented. But Kafka had written about the historical Wilhelm Reich, and the award was adjudicated by people who understood "social aspects" to mean the practical applications of Reich’s cosmological theorizing. To them, Kafka had been duped by Modju. He did not win the award.

So Reich stands before us, his achievements forgotten by the mainstream and his nuttiness apotheosized by the fringe. Without him, postwar American literature and European social theory, as well as the sociopolitical movements they defined and inspired, would have been quite different. Yet while character analysis, sex-pol, and Reich’s literary influence remain his most interesting and enduring legacies, the irony is that, in the end, Reich had left all three behind. The work that he did care about–the orgone, cancer biopathy, and the like–has served only to marginalize his followers and ensure that the larger world thinks of him as an oddball or a crank, when it remembers him at all. Historians may place him next to Carl Jung, Norman O. Brown, R.D. Laing, and others who tried to make psychology a basis for prophecy. In his own mind, though, Reich was something more–a latter-day Jesus, or a modern Prometheus, condemned by the gods for his theft of their power. In a document called "My Unlawful Imprisonment," composed in his cell near the end of his life, Reich declared:

I have "done wrong" to have disclosed to mankind the cosmic primordial mass-free energy which fills the universe. This energy rules all living processes and the lawful behavior of celestial functions. It determines our emotions, our first sense of orientation, judgment, and balance. I have "done wrong" in having discovered and made accessible the basic force in nature which for millennia was called "God" in many tongues.

Hal Cohen Is A Freelance Writer Living In Brooklyn. His Article "God Only Knows" Appeared In The July/August 1998 Issue Of Lf.

Return to Home Page

Copyright © 1999 Lingua Franca, Inc. All rights reserved.