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The Hounds of Love

A new book on the pioneering but deeply eccentric socialist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich is full of lessons on the links between the body, trauma, and politics.

The life and work of Wilhelm Reich, the twentieth-century psychoanalyst, is the subject of a new book by Olivia Laing. Credit: IBI / Getty Images

‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.’ It’s an aphorism that could have been coined for Wilhelm Reich, the twentieth-century psychoanalyst whose extraordinary life and work is the subject of Everybody: A Book About Freedom by the author and novelist Olivia Laing. Today, Reich’s public image, where it even exists, rests almost entirely on the image of the mad professor, replete with tweeds and frizzy hair, as depicted by actor Donald Sutherland in the video to Kate Bush’s 1985 single ‘Cloudbusting’. Bush wrote ‘Cloudbusting’ after discovering A Book of Dreams, the memoir of Reich’s son, Peter. In the video Sutherland and Bush, playing Peter, are seen pushing Reich’s invention, the ‘cloudbuster’, to the top of a hill before Reich is dragged away by unidentified G-Men. The cloudbuster was a real device built by Reich; based on his pseudoscientific theory of the ‘orgone’, a sort of universal energy or libidinal life force that flows through the universe, it attempted to absorb and capture orgone energy from the atmosphere by sucking it through a series of metal chambers. This space-age gun, pointed at the sky, would help bring an end to drought.

Sucking cosmic sex energy from the sky using a giant gun may be an almost absurd act of eccentricity, but in following Reich’s life and work, Laing demonstrates that it’s possible, with incremental steps, to understand how he got to such a position. Reich was born in Galicia, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1897. He had a traumatic childhood marked by sexual abuse, and a father who pushed his mother to take her own life. By the time he was 17 the First World War had broken out, and his father was dead too. After serving three years in the Austro-Hungarian army Reich moved to Vienna to study medicine. Vienna was the home and hub of the psychoanalytic movement, started at the end of the nineteenth century by Sigmund Freud, and despite being an undergraduate, Freud permitted Reich to start practising as an analyst.

While Reich had started his career as Freud’s precocious protégé, he soon began to alienate him by breaking away from their traditional theories of the psyche. Reich started to put more emphasis on both the importance of libidinal energy and on the physical orgasm as a moment when sexual energy is discharged, tying both to psychosomatic theories of a muscular and a character ‘armour’, where the physical body attempts to disguise neuroses and manifests symptoms of the trauma. In layman’s terms, people’s anxieties prevent them from achieving a full orgasm, and the lack of energetic release during sex just compounds those anxieties. Meanwhile, the political situation in Germany and Austria was growing increasingly dark. While most of his fellow analysts made efforts to represent the discipline as apolitical, Reich became increasingly engaged with leftist politics. Psychoanalysis had previously been the preserve of the bourgeoisie; Reich realised that psychosexual disorders were no less prevalent amongst working-class people, and opened six free clinics in Vienna offering analysis, sexual education, and basic obstetric care, such as contraceptives. On moving to Berlin in 1930, his politics became increasingly Marxist; he joined the Communist Party and began developing new theories of the influence of sex on politics, as well as agitating for increased sexual freedoms. He took an increasingly materialist perspective towards sexual disorders; the problems of Freud’s bourgeois patients were not the same as those faced by workers struggling under long hours and living in cramped conditions. For Reich, Marx’s concept of alienation became a useful tool for understanding neuroses and psychosexual problems.

Reich was forced to flee Germany upon the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. He fled first to Denmark, where he published The Mass Psychology of Fascism, an examination of the role of sexual repression in the rise of fascism in Europe. But as his sexual politics led to ostracism from his comrades in the Communist Party, his political commitment led to him being expelled from the International Psychoanalytical Association. In exile, his work drifted further into pseudoscience as he began conceiving orgasms as discharges of electrical energy. By 1939, he was living in the United States, where he developed this further into a theory of a cosmic bioenergy called the ‘orgone’, and began building contraptions such as the ‘orgone accumulator’, a chamber to increase and harness the power of orgone energy.

His work started to attract the attention of the US Food and Drug Administration, a federal agency that monitors both food and medical goods and services, who star- ted investigating the putative medical effects of orgone treatments. The attention drove Reich further into his burgeoning paranoid delusions. An injunction was placed on him selling orgone accumulators across state lines, and when it was breached, he was jailed for contempt of court. His accumulators were destroyed, and the US government ordered that six tons of his papers, research journals, and books be burnt. Having lived through the rise of Nazism, the destruction of his work must have been all too painful to witness. Reich died in prison in 1957, his death unmarked by any psychoanalytic journal, despite his groundbreaking early work. Yes, Reich may have died paranoid; but after a life of being forced out: out of psychiatry, out of Germany, and, finally, out of society, can we blame him?