Adventures in the Orgasmatron

This review of Christopher Turner’s Adventures in the Orgasmatron appeared in the Irish Times.

‘IN PSYCHOANALYSIS nothing is true except the exaggerations.” So wrote Theodor Adorno in his Minima Moralia, neatly acknowledging the scandalous, frequently paradoxical nature of Freud’s insights into our psychosexual makeup.

As Christopher Turner’s detailed and luridly engaging biography of Wilhelm Reich attests, no analyst was more extreme nor singleminded than Freud’s sometime protégée and subsequent apostate. On the publication of Reich’s Function of the Orgasm in 1927, Freud wrote to the analyst Lou Andreas-Salomé: “We have here a Dr Reich, a worthy but impetuous young man, passionately devoted to his hobbyhorse, who now salutes in the genital orgasm the antidote to every neurosis.” Toward Reich himself he was acidly laconic when presented with the 206-page volume: “That thick?” It was the first of many affronts to Reich’s “orgastic” obsession, but seemed only to convince him of the rightness of his cranky but hugely influential conjectures.

Haunted by a melodramatic and psychoanalytically fascinating childhood – his mother killed herself after Wilhelm was forced by his father to reveal her adultery – Reich had risen swiftly through the ranks of Freud’s disciples in Vienna, turning up on the master’s doorstep in 1919 and being assigned patients at the age of 22. His speciality was character analysis, according to which the infantile stages of oral, anal and genital eroticism gave rise to specific personality types; the analyst’s job was to assail the patient’s defences and bring him or her to a fully adult sexuality. Reich was well suited to the task, possessed of a bullying temperament that led colleagues to christen him “the character smasher”.

It was his literally hands-on method and his peremptory insistence on the centrality of the orgasm to psychic health – the fixation gave rise, Herbert Marcuse later wrote, to a “sweeping primitivism” in his thought – that led to his systematic exclusion from Freud’s circle. Reich left Vienna for Berlin’s bohemian paradise, but soon his books were being burned by the Nazis. Sojourns in Denmark and Norway were only marginally less fraught, and in 1939 he fled to the United States.

Turner sketches vividly the nascent counterculture, centred on Greenwich Village, where Reich’s ideas thrived. America had experienced its first sexual revolution in the 1920s, partly in response to Freud’s writings. (Such was the giddiness of this early enthusiasm for erotic liberation, Turner recounts, that the arts patron Mabel Dodge named her dog Climax.) While Freud had turned to a less consoling view of human sexuality, in which the death drive vied with erotic vitalism, his bruised apostle seemed to promise a new orgasmic utopia, and by the mid-1940s he was being profiled (with a deal of suspicion) in Harper’s and The New Republic as the prophet of a “new cult of sex and anarchy”.

By this time Reich’s thinking, always eccentric even by the standards of heterodox analysis, had taken a curiously DIY turn. He had contrived, and begun to sell or rent, a device for the concentration and therapeutic direction of “orgone” energy: a wooden box about the size of a telephone kiosk, lined with metal and insulated with steel wool, in which the patient sat and awaited the onset of orgasmic intensity.

Though he tried hard to give it a scientific imprimatur – Einstein, invited to sit in the box, quickly dismissed its inventor as a quack – the “orgone accumulator” was to be Reich’s downfall. Enthusiastically taken up by the likes of Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs (who claimed the contraption had indeed worked on him to its advertised extent), the box attracted the attention of the FBI and the Food and Drug Administration. After many years of investigation, by which time the floridly paranoid Reich was chasing UFOs and firing an elaborate “cloudbuster” at imagined agglomerations of bad energy, he was imprisoned for medical fraud. He died in prison in 1957.

The story of Reich’s decline from politically radical pseudoscientist to raging paranoiac and fantasist (he thought he’d found the origins of organic life in a foetid soup of his own devising) would be just an anecdote in the messy marginalia of psychoanalysis, were it not that his ideas penetrated the mainstream so thoroughly in the postwar period. Turner reminds us that a good deal of the sexual revolution of the 1960s was directly predicated on Reich’s belief in orgasm as universal panacea. There is much to applaud in his early attacks on sexual puritanism, even if they led, as Marcuse and Michel Foucault argued, to a kind of repression through liberation: late capitalism’s demand that we fulfil our (supposedly subjective) desires above all else.

Christopher Turner has been unstinting in his research, interviewing Reich’s children and extracting quotes from Mailer about what made him the postwar hipster’s sexologist of choice. Visiting an analyst trained by Reich, Turner finds himself turning therapeutic somersaults on the analytic couch before he can ask his first question. He doesn’t shrink (admittedly, the evidence is overwhelming) from his subject’s frequently vile character – Reich was among other things a bully, misogynist and homophobe. He also invented, in part, our modern attitudes to sex. Though as Turner asks dryly: “What does it tell us about the ironies of the sexual revolution that the symbol of liberation was a box?”


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