The Great Proselytizer of Orgasm

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

Christopher Turner, author of Adventures in the Orgasmatron

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.

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.

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.”

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.)