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The Case of Wilhelm Reich

There are two popular views of Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957), farmer’s son, army officer, physician, psychoanalyst, communist, discoverer of orgone energy, inventor of orgone therapy and of a new science, orgonomy, and finally inmate of the Federal Penitentiary, Lewisburg, Pa. He was either a madman or a genius, a half-baked, sex-crazed crank or one of the liberators of mankind. In the hope of deciding whether either of these conceptions is true, I have attempted in the following to construct a synoptic picture of his ideas. While doing so I have leaned heavily on his Selected Writings (Farrar, Straus),1 a work edited by Mary Boyd Higgins, a trustee of the Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust Fund, and have assumed that her selection constitutes a definitive and accurate statement of Reichian theory, as left by him and accepted by his present followers. I have also used Ilse Ollendorf Reich’s recent biography of her husband (St. Martin’s Press)2 and Paul A. Robinson’s essay on Reich in his The Freudian Left (Harper & Row).3 I conclude with some comments of my own.

Our civilization produces two types of human being, mechanists and mystics. Mechanists are interested in material things and the natural sciences but have no sense of life. Mystics, on the other hand, have a sense of life but interpret it supernaturally by reference to a “soul,” which they conceive to have only an accidental and regrettable connection with the body.

The division of mankind into mechanists and mystics is the result of an unexplained “original sin” which led mankind to develop a defensive armor against his own life forces. Mechanists have turned completely against themselves and have totally repressed their life forces, and have as a result no awareness of their own true nature. Mystics have retained some sense of life but deny its connection with their bodies and locate it in a hypothetical soul.

Since both mechanists and mystics have turned against the life of the body, science and religion have both failed to recognize the significance of orgasm, that bodily experience in which physical pleasure and spiritual union with the infinite are at one with each other.

Furthermore, since orgasm unites the bodily and the spiritual, understanding of its essential nature makes it possible to break down the dichotomy between the mechanical and the mystical, and to arrive at a Weltanschauung which combines both. Anyone who succeeds, as Reich did, in achieving such understanding finds, however, that he is in the embarrassing position of having

stepped beyond the intellectual framework of present-day human character structure and, with that, the civilization of the last 5,000 years.

He also incurs the hostility of both mechanists and mystics and becomes a threat to the established order. Reich’s two anticipators, Jesus Christ and Giordano Bruno, were indeed both martyred.

The new form of thinking, feeling, and experiencing which arises when the significance of orgasm is fully understood was named by Reich “functional,” this term being chosen to differentiate his position from that of the mystics. It indicates that organisms function the way they do simply because it is their nature to do so and not, as the mystics maintain, at the behest of some higher purpose. In particular, it is the nature of man—and indeed, as Reich eventually came to believe, of all living organisms and even parts of organisms—to strive for recurrent orgasm. A rose is a rose is a rose, and an orgasm is an orgasm is an orgasm.

It was not, however, Reich’s belief that the orgasms which occur in our society were examples of the fusion of the mechanical and the mystical. On the contrary, he held that defensive armoring against sexuality and life forces was so widespread that most human beings never experience orgasm in his sense.

I say on the basis of ample clinical experience that only in a few cases in our civilization is the sexual act based on love. The intervening rage, hatred, sadistic emotions and contempt are part and parcel of the love life of modern man.

Reich’s descriptions of orgasm and his interpretations and analyses of its function contain two assumptions which are at times explicit: that the subjective and the objective are identical, and that the whole is contained in the part.

Man cannot feel or phantasy anything which does not actually exist in one form or another. For human perceptions are nothing but a function of objective natural processes within the organism.

The most general functioning principle is contained in the smallest, special functioning principle.

If we see spots in front of our eyes, there must really be spotty things somewhere; and, a fortiori, all the subjective impressions of yearning and excitement experienced during orgasm correspond to real processes occurring both in the body and in nature at large. In other words, there is “functional identity” between what takes place in the microcosm and the macrocosm, and between the imaginable and the observable. As a result, even the verbal imagery used to describe the subjective sensations occurring before, during, and after orgasm is valid evidence for elucidating what actually does happen during it, both inside the organism and throughout the cosmos. The functional mode of thinking not only takes literally Blake’s statement that the innocent (i.e. the unarmored) can “see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower”; it also gives it dynamic reality. One wonders what Reich would have made of the recent discovery of holographs, in which representations of the whole are contained within the part.

Since orgasm exemplifies and indeed contains within itself all living activity, analysis of its nature and course leads to complete understanding of the nature of life. The orgastic experience consists not only of tension followed by relaxation but also of a subjective sense of excitation followed by a feeling of discharge; something must therefore actually be generated during the period of mounting tension and discharged during the climax. This something cannot be semen, since the feelings of tension, excitation, and relaxation are not restricted to the genital organs and occur in women as well as in men. At first Reich seems to have thought it was electricity, but later he decided that it was a previously unknown form of energy, “orgone energy” or “bio-energy,” which he conceived concretely and claimed actually to have observed. Unlike Freud’s libido, Reich’s orgone energy is putatively an observable biological phenomenon (not an explanatory psychological concept) and according to Reichians it is

universally present and demonstrable visually, thermically, elecscopically and by means of Geiger-Müller counters.

It can also be stored in accumulators (orgone boxes). Almost all Reich’s researches consist of attempts, in his view consistently successful, to demonstrate the real and universal presence of orgone energy and to prove its efficacy in the treatment of cancer and psychosomatic disease.

Following the lead given him by quantum physics—and by Freud’s idea that psychic energy exists in mobile and bound forms—Reich asserted that orgone energy exists in two forms: a mobile form consisting of mass-free pulsating vesicles (orgones), and a frozen or structured form, which has mass and is alive. Mobile orgone energy is ubiquitous and identical with cosmic energy; structured orgone energy arises as a condensation or precipitation of mobile orgone energy into living organisms (orgonomes). Since it is the nature of orgones to pulsate, it is also the nature of orgonomes to pulsate. In doing so they generate further orgone energy, the accumulations of which are responsible for the recurrent need of all organisms for orgastic discharge.

Since part of the subjective experience of orgasm is the longing “to reach out beyond the narrow sack of one’s own organism” and to merge with the “beyond of ourselves,” the orgone energy discharged during orgasm is also love. The space-occupying but weightless vesicles discovered by Reich are quanta of the love proclaimed by the mystics and denied by the mechanists. Love then is no longer an idea or an ideal but a thing demonstrable “visually, thermically, electroscopically and by means of Geiger-Müller counters,” and storable in accumulators. And since orgone energy is ubiquitous and resides both inside and outside ourselves, love too is everywhere, had we but Reich’s faith to see it. Love is literally what makes the world go round.

The physical Life Energy had been discovered in consequential pursuit of the functions of what is called “LOVE” in the whole animal kingdom.

As a result of this discovery of the functional identity of orgone energy and love,

All boundaries between science and religion, science and art, objective and subjective, quantity and quality, physics and psychology, astronomy and religion, God and Ether, are irrevocably breaking down, being replaced by a conception of the basic unity, a basic common functional principle of all nature which branches out into the various kinds of human experience.

If the universe consisted solely of love (orgone energy), it would be a happy, joyous place, but as Reich well knew it isn’t. He had therefore to locate another form of energy, functionally identical with the subjective sense of evil. This he found in nuclear radiation, which he conceived to be an entirely destructive, life-denying force. Fortunately, however, he succeeded in persuading himself that it could be neutralized by orgone energy, that the forces of love are, in the long run at least, more powerful than those of evil.

According to Robinson, this conception of the universe as a battleground between life-giving orgone energy and destructive nuclear radiation is a modern, would-be scientific version of manicheism, but, as I understand Reich, his position remained basically within the Judaeo-Christian tradition; he also, or perhaps alternatively, postulated a destructive form of orgone energy (DOR). This becomes “sequestered” from creative orgone energy and turns against it, being used by the defensive armor in its struggles to repress its creative, orgastic strivings. This concept of DOR, which Reich must have derived from Freud’s idea that repression is maintained by “healthy” aggressive energy being turned back against the self (i.e., the superego using id-energies to combat the id), seems to me to be “functionally identical” with the idea that the Devil is an angel cast out of heaven.

Reich’s discovery of the objective reality of love led him inevitably but reluctantly to God. For years

he balked at admitting that true religion could, in spite of all its mystical distortions, be so very rational; that there could be such a thing as a rational core of all religious beliefs in an objective rational power governing the universe.

However, Reich’s conception of God was not that of a person who created the world but remained external to it but

a physical power in the universe at the roots of all being; a power or whatever you may call it, which finally has become accessible to being handled, directed, measured, put to useful purposes by manmade tools such as thermometer, electroscope, Geiger counter, etc….”God” appeared to be the perfectly logical result of man’s awareness of the existence of an objective, functional logic in the universe.

  1. 1

    557 pp., $7.50, 1960.

  2. 2

    224 pp., $5.95, 1969.

  3. 3

    253 pp., $5.95, 1969.

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