In 1957, in a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., a man passed away who had done more than anyone else to earn the title “father of the sexual revolution.” His revolution was intended to liberate people from sexual repression. But it had no provision for personal love. Inevitably, it led to its own opposite — a tyranny of the flesh that repressed man's spiritual potentialities for love and community.
Wilhelm Reich was born in Austria in 1897. His mother committed suicide when he was 13, as did his father four years later. He had three marriages and as many children. Nonetheless, for the better part of his career, he railed unrelentingly against parental authority and marriage as a social convention.
Reich studied medicine at Vienna University. In 1922, Sigmund Freud selected him to be a first assistant physician for his newly formed Psychoanalytic Polyclinic. He was also an avid student of Marxism. In 1930, he abandoned his first family in Vienna, went to Berlin and joined the German Communist Party.
Reich became the world's first Freudo-Marxist. Since he felt that, by themselves, neither Freud nor Marx could provide the comprehensive therapy that the world needed, he was ultimately ejected from both Freudian and Marxist circles. Yet Reich was enthralled by the grandeur and scope of his own revolution, one he accused the Freudians and Marxists as being too timid to launch. “There can be no doubt,” he exclaimed. “The sexual revolution is underway, and no power in the world will stop it.”
The revolution Reich envisioned was far more sweeping than that of any Marxist. His war against repression went further than that of any Freudian. His aim was to strip away all cultural and social “masks” — all forms of authority — so that a total revolution would be achieved in which the real human being would emerge, whole and clean.
All traces of what Freud called the “super-ego” had to be dissolved. In this regard, Reich saw “conscience” as the first “tyranny.” With the dissolution of conscience, morality would also disappear, as well as any lingering voice of authority. With all this stripping away, what could possibly remain? For Reich, it was man's “primary biological impulses,” the bedrock that lay at his “deep, natural core.”
To Kill a Thought
Jean-Jacques Rousseau had maintained that the source of all evil is civilization. He rejected the Christian notion of original sin as “blasphemy.” For Rousseau, man would find his beatitude in a primitive state of innocence. Rousseau had a deep influence not only on the “flower children” of the 1960s, but also on Reich. But Reich went further.
For him, original sin is fear of self.
Yet the self, for Reich, is essentially the erotic impulse, an instinct that is far below the level of either personality or community. Man begins to “armor” himself against himself at the moment he begins to think. “I think; therefore, I am neurotic” became Reich's anti-intellectual, yet self-identifying logo. He feared that the act of thinking would divide the individual, separating thought from body at the expense of his primal urges.
Thinking, therefore, was a disease. The ideal character for Reich is the unafraid, unthinking individual who has “satisfied his strong libidinal needs at the risk of social ostracism.”
Reich saw the family, with its inevitable patriarchal authority, as the chief source of repression. Therefore, the family had to be dismantled. His rejection of the role of the father gave him a certain stature as a feminist. He proclaimed that his heroines were “courtesans who rebel against the yoke of compulsive marriage and insist on their right to sexual self-determination.” In rejecting the authority of both parents, he allied himself with a broad spectrum of secular sex educators.
He insisted that we must free young people from “parental ideas.” He urged the practice of adolescent intercourse and inaugurated a children's crusade against all authority. In 1930, when he was ejected from the Austrian Communist Party, he complained that “Irresponsible politicians who had promised the masses a paradise on earth … expelled us from their organization because we are defending children's and teenagers’ right to natural love.”
In his book The Tyranny of Pleasure (1999), Jean-Claude Guillebaud said that for this “rebellious son of Freud, dissenting Marxist, Jewish anti-Nazi, supposed victim of American ‘repression,’ every detail of Reich's life came together almost miraculously into what Max Weber called ‘a social pathos,’ the chaotic and romantic pathos of the Sixties.”
Ever the empirical scientist, Reich wanted to discover what was at the core of the erotic impulse. His great discovery, he claimed in 1939, was that at the heart of all matter is a hitherto unknown energy that he called “orgone,” and described it as “the basic life-stuff of the universe.”
Three years later he founded the Orgone Institute where the “science” of Orgonomy would be studied.
Reich claimed that he could measure and collect this “orgone” in an “orgone box” and use it as a form of therapy. Although hitherto unknown, Reich stated that at favorable times he could actually see the orgone.
He alleged that it gave off a “bluish-green” color that flickered vibrantly as if it were vitality itself.
Representatives of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, did not see the orgone. They charged Reich with fraud and prosecuted him as a quack, peddling across state borders empty boxes for purchasers to sit in while awaiting a cure for whatever ailed them.
The government decided that Reich's orgone boxes cured nothing and sentenced him to two years in prison for contempt of court and violation of the Food and Drug Act.
Sociologist Philip Rieff has said of Reich that this unusual man, who saw himself as the only healthy person in the world, “does seem more than a little sick himself.” Some contend that, toward the end of his career, Reich lapsed into insanity.
Although Reich talked about “love,” what he had in mind was nothing personal or free or directed to the good of another. He imagined love as something like electricity bouncing off the insides of boxes.
His quixotic adventure in healing the world led him to his own isolation in prison. His revolutionary attempt to rid the world of repression led to the repression of personality and love. The culture of life that he proposed was clearly more consistent with a culture of death. His alleged discovery of “deadly orgone energy” (DOR), late in his life, cause him to worry about its negative effect on the cosmos.
One critic of Reich has said that “he lacked that sense of humor which can protect even messiahs from becoming arrogant with the grandeur of their own vision.” Reich lacked much more than a sense of humor; he lacked common sense.
Disciples say he died imprisoned for his beliefs. He became an unlikely martyr. Despite his arrogance, his unscientific claims and his ultimate nihilism, Reich continues to maintain considerable influence on modernity.
His influence is particularly evident among radical feminists, left-wing university students, secular sex educators, enemies of the family and in various cults, works of art and publications. The Orgone Institute Press continues to publish his works. Plans for constructing Reich's Orgone Energy Accumulator (as well as other orgone “therapies”) can be purchased through the Internet. A movie star has written a book in praise of Reich's Orgone therapy.
A two-act musical, Wilhelm Reich in Hell, and at least two additional songs and at least one motion picture have been produced in his honor. Also available are Wilhelm Reich videos, tapes, CDs, photographs and tee shirts.
Reich's ill-conceived therapies warrant his inclusion among the architects of the culture of death, primarily because he succeeded in finding no shortage of followers to advance his warped, loveless revolution in the 1960s and well beyond.
Don DeMarco teaches philosophy at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario.