Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)
On August 23, 1956, agents of the Federal Drug Administration (F.D.A.) seized six tons of scholarly literature from a Greenwich Village warehouse, transported it to the New York Sanitation Department’s Gansevoort Street incinerator, and burned it. This burning followed one that took place a few weeks earlier near Rangeley, Maine, at which 251 volumes and other materials were destroyed under F.D.A. direction.
These acts of destruction were the first state-sanctioned campaign of book burning to occur in the U.S. since efforts by Anthony Comstock in the late 19th century; Comstock claims to have destroyed 15 tons of books, 284,000 pounds of printing plates, and nearly 4 million pictures. The targets of the 1956 raids were the works of Wilhelm Reich, who some have dubbed “the father of the sexual revolution.”
Reich was one of the most original, idiosyncratic, and tragic characters of the 20th century. Born on March 24, 1897, in Galicia, within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he lived many lives. He was an early follower of Freud, a radical Marxist, a pioneering sexologist, a believer in UFOs, and the discoverer of “orgone energy,” the life force that he insisted united the earth to the cosmos, humans to nature, the psyche to the body, and individuals together to form a healthy society.
He died in the Lewisburg, Pennsylvania Federal Penitentiary on November 3, 1957, following a nearly eight-month imprisonment of a two-year sentence. He was convicted for crimes related to the promotion and sale of a truly harmless “medical” device, the orgone box. History and psychosis took their toll on Reich, leaving him a true, sad mad-hatter, one of the most unfortunate victims of the anti-communist and anti-sex campaign that marked the 1950s.
Christopher Turner’s new biography of Reich, Adventures in the Orgasmatron, is an invaluable replacement to Myron Sharaf’s 1983 hagiographical account. Turner, who writes for the Guardian and London Review of Books, has done his homework, masterfully detailing the ins and outs of Reich’s tortured professional and personal life. Equally important, he carefully places Reich within the internecine wars that characterized much of 20th Century psychoanalysis, Marxism, and post-WWII America. Turner’s book is a valuable tour guide to 20th century intellectual, political, and cultural history.
Reich was an early convert to psychoanalysis, seen by Sigmund Freud as a promising analyst. At age 23, he was admitted as a regular member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Association and, in 1930, became a founding member of the Berlin Psychoanalysis Association. He is author of Character Analysis, one of the classical texts in the psychoanalytic canon.
Though psychoanalysis is out of fashion today, in the decades preceding World War II, it represented a new, modern intellectual current. Not unlike Joyce in literature, Picasso in art, or Einstein in physics, Freud’s work was recognized as something altogether modern, a “scientific” breakthrough, a new way of understanding what it meant to be human.
Freud was an absolutist in terms of his “science,” psychoanalysis. Like a biblical pharaoh, anyone who did not adhere to his principles (or repeated revisions) suffered expulsion.
Freud knew how to accommodate to the requirements of theoretical revision and the dictates of the political status quo. Reich was, however, a true believer; he seized one of Freud’s first principles, the primacy of sexuality (and its repression) in the formation of selfhood and civilization, and never let go.
Reich contested social power, an early and fierce anti-fascist. A doctor, he joined the medical wing of the Austrian Communist Party following what is known as “the bloody day,” July 15, 1927, a day that saw 89 workers killed in a pitched battle with a neo-Nazi militia. Throwing himself into the workers’ struggle, he sought to achieve the reconciliation of personal-psychic and social-economic life by combining theory with practice. First in Austria, then in Germany, he established “sex-pol” clinics for working-class adults and, most threatening, for young people. His actions were assailed by the psychoanalytic leadership, climaxing with his expulsion from the official psychoanalysis movement in 1935. Too radical for Stalinist orthodoxy, he was earlier expelled from the increasingly Moscow-controlled German Communist Party in 1933.
Reich immigrated to the U.S. in 1939, joining many European anti-fascist exiles who had also relocated to New York. By the early ’50s, a new world order was remaking America, one fueled by the consumer revolution. Prosperity, however, fueled social destabilization and a counter-revolutionary movement led by J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy.
The ’50s was witness to the first stirrings of what became America’s third sexual revolution that took place between the 1960s – ’70s. Simone de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking study, The Second Sex, was published in 1952; the second volume of Alfred Kinsey’s monumental study, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, was released in 1953; and Herbert Marcuse’s radical rethinking of Freud, Eros and Civilization, was released in 1956. During the ’50s, Reich released The Cancer Biopathy, Listen, Little Man, and The Murder of Christ.
Together, these works—along with many others—began to challenge the “Ozzie and Harriet” mindset that suffocated the nation. Radicals offered a new vision of sexuality and human relations. They sought to reintegrate the mind and body dualism; they encouraged free, consensual non-exploitative relations based on pleasurable engagements. In the ’50s, a new critical discourse about sexuality, self, and social relations began to be articulated.
Yet, Reich became a casualty of capitalist modernity. Reich went on trial in 1956 and, after his final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court failed, he went to prison for refusing to accept the F.D.A.’s authority to regulate what he insisted was legitimate scientific research. While formally charged with illegally selling medical devices, he was found in contempt for refusing to participate in the criminal proceedings against him.
Ironically, the American left played a less than admirable role in Reich’s fate. First, the New Republic (then, like today’s Nation, a liberal magazine) published one of the earliest and most sensational exposés on Reich. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) refused to take up Reich’s original case; it did protest, as part of his final appeal to the Supreme Court, the burning of his publications, but not his Constitutional rights of freedom of expression. Marcuse’s assessment of Reich is perhaps the most telling, published only a year before his death: “The critical sociological insights contained in Reich’s earlier writings are thus arrested; a sweeping primitivism becomes prevalent, foreshadowing the wild and fantastic hobbies of Reich’s later years.”
A critical sub-theme of Turner’s book is the growing acknowledgement of Reich’s psychosis. Hints of it were evident in his relations to Freud and the orthodox psychoanalytic movement. It intensified during his struggles against the Nazis, Stalinists, and, ultimately, the U.S. government.
More disturbing, Turner details the deterioration of Reich’s psychic and personal life. He turned increasingly to drink, favoring brandy; he had odd, if not perverse fetishism, like taking showers wearing his underwear. He struck out against those who were closest to him, repeatedly beating his ex-wife and lovers. Toward his patients and colleagues he increasingly appeared as an autocratic, paranoid, pathetic man. As government pressures on him mounted, Reich increasingly turned to exaggerated claims, including that he offered a cure for cancer, was a rainmaker, and had weapons to fight extraterrestrials.
Turner’s book provokes a troubling question: What if Reich had died before immigrating to the U.S.? Would history have been kinder to him?
For many, his formative life in Europe, especially his challenge to Freud and his fight against the totalitarianism of Nazism and Stalinism, was his most original, consequential period; everything after was a symptom of increasing psychosis. The Mass Psychology of Fascism, originally published in 1933, should be reread by every generation, its insights particularly appropriate today.
For others, his nearly two decades in the States was a period of “scientific” discovery. Reich’s radical empiricism was marked by mechanical reductionism; his latest hypotheses based on evermore biomechanical analysis, offering increasingly grandiose and cosmic technological solutions. Sadly, no reputable scientist, neither Albert Einstein nor Mayo Clinic researchers, could validate Reich’s claims. No one has yet found the life force, Reich’s great quest.
For centuries in the West, philosophers and others have wrangled over the relationship between the mind and the body. With Descartes in the 17th century, the split or dualism between mind and body was formalized as a defining feature of Western life. Modernism was an attempt to overcome this dualism, promoting technological advancement while holding onto nature’s wildness. Modern art, music, and dance are testaments to repeated attempts to resolve this dialectic. Picasso and the atom bomb represent its antinomies; so too the work and life of Reich.
During the ’50s, but especially after his trial and death in a federal penitentiary, Reich became a cult figure. While a core group of true believers tried to uphold the master’s official, orthodox wisdom, he was discovered by the bohemian, hipster culture, and his ideas and practices transformed into a hedonism that would have challenged him.
Cultural figures of the ’50s and ’60s like Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg, and the founders of the Living Theatre, Julian Beck and Judith Malina, embraced Reich like a psychedelic drug. They incubated his ideas, in bastardized forms, into what became the ’60s sexual revolution. Reich came to “father” a movement he would have embraced as a spirited youth but rejected as an aging adult.