Saturday, March 24, 2007

Orgone, Or Not

The controversial psychoanalyst (some say, mad man) Wilhelm Reich was born on this day in 1897 in Dobrzynica, Galicia.

While studying for his medical degree in Vienna in 1920, Wilhelm Reich became a disciple of Sigmund Freud, who theorized that neuroses were caused by sexual repression, during an era in which psychoanalysis was still developing its legitimacy. After graduation, Reich became a psychiatrist (initially, as an assistant in Wagner-Jauregg's clinic) and joined the Austrian Communist Party.

In 1934, he published a seminal work of orthodox psychoanalysis, Character Analysis, but by the early 1930s, his interests in politics, sexuality and the mind had become intertwined in ways which marginalized him. In 1929, his interest in social revolution as a prerequisite to sexual revolution led him to form the Socialist Society for Sexual Advice and Sexual Research, through which he organized industrial clinics to address workers' emotional problems while providing political education. Reactionary elements within the Communist Party questioned his emphasis on sex, and when he published The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), in which he denounced party-line communism as the psychological equivalent of fascism, the Party expelled him.

In 1934, he broke from the Freudians (and was expelled by the International Psychoanalytic Association) when he began to argue that neuroses were the destructive result not merely of sexual repression, but more specifically of undischarged sexual energy. His unorthodox views on sexuality got him into hot water in Scandinavia, so in 1939 he moved to the U.S. and taught at the New School for Social Research until 1941. In The Function of the Orgasm (1927; reprinted in the U.S., 1942), Reich had argued that only total orgasm (including brief unconsciousness) rids us of the excess energy that encourages unhealthy drives.

In isolation in his home in Maine, he began to focus on what he viewed as the physiological effects of socially-imposed sexual repression -- muscular rigidity adopted by children in response to the threat of punishment which inhibited total orgasm -- and began to identify the pent-up sexual energy as a "pre-atomic" cosmic force present throughout nature, a force which he called "orgone." When orgone energy is blocked, Reich argued, all kinds of disease are caused -- even cancer. To correct the blockages, Reich built and sold "orgone boxes" -- wooden, metal-lined compartments in which a patient could sit, which would stimulate sexuality and, potentially, cure cancer.

In 1954, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seized his boxes and some of his writings and had them destroyed; in 1956, Reich was sentenced to 2 years in prison for contempt. He died in prison on November 3, 1957 in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

In the 1960s, some of his early writings on sexual revolution were embraced as prophetic by the youthful Left; today, there continues to be a small cadre of die-hard Reichians who believe that there exists a scientific basis of orgone therapy, although no serious biologist has supported Reich's theories. A number of musicians have been captivated by Reich's legacy, notably Gil Evans ("Orgone," also covered by Miles Davis) and Kate Bush, whose song "Cloudbusting" was inspired by a book about Reich by his son Peter, The Book of Dreams.

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