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.

Although Reich has here reversed the relationship traditionally assumed to exist between God and Man—Man seems to have created God, and Reich asserts that it is he who can handle and use God, not that Man is a tool in God’s hands—this passage has a curiously familiar ring about it. It is reminiscent both of the “new theology” and of eighteenth-century natural religion (deism).

In spite of Reich’s claim to have discovered a mode of thinking which resolves all antitheses and to have demonstrated experimentally the material existence of phenomena traditionally conceived in purely religious or psychological terms, it must not be thought that he claimed to have solved all the riddles of the universe. On the contrary, there remained two which continued to puzzle and baffle him.

One was the differentiation of organisms into male and female. This defeated him completely.

The division of the living orgonomes into male and female individuals still remains a riddle from the viewpoint of orgone physics.

His theories would indeed fit a unisex or homosexual universe as well (or as badly) as it does a heterosexual one, and it is remarkable that all his accounts of orgasm are modeled on the male’s experience. He is also consistently “phallocentric,” to use Ernest Jones’s word for Freud’s attitude toward female sexuality; he always emphasizes the outgoing, thrusting, penetrative aspects of sexual desire and never enclosing, receptive longings; he explains desire solely by reference to the subject’s mounting internal tension without regard to the desirability—or desires—of the object; his emphasis on cosmic longing and on the need to escape from the bonds of self makes his accounts of orgasm curiously impersonal.

In her biography of her husband Ilse Ollendorf Reich reports that in practice Reich subscribed to the Victorian “double standard” of sexual morality. He had affairs in her absence but insisted on her being faithful to him. He was also irrationally jealous—“I almost had to take an oath of fidelity before he would be satisfied.” In view of the well-known connections between jealousy, paranoia, and unconscious homosexuality, it is also relevant that she reports that he never knowingly accepted a homosexual for treatment—“Ich will mit solchen Schweinereien nichts zu tun haben.”

The second problem to which Reich found no satisfactory solution was the origin of man’s tendency to turn against himself and to imprison himself in defensive armor. His failure to do so was undoubtedly a source of intellectual embarrassment, since he realized clearly that his whole position depended on the assumption that man’s original sin of self-rejection was unnecessary and reversible.

The question of how the armoring of the human animal as the only animal species [to do so] came about remains with us, unsolved, overshadowing every theoretical and practical step in education, medicine, sociology, natural science, etc. No attempt is made here to solve this problem. It is too involved. The concrete facts which possibly could provide an answer are buried in a much too distant past.

Nonetheless he does proffer a solution, albeit with surprising and unusual tentativeness. It is that armoring is a side effect of the development of reflective self-awareness. By becoming conscious and, furthermore, conscious of his capacity to be conscious, man began to treat himself as an object and to regard his urge to fuse with the beyond as a threat to his capacity to be conscious. “In thinking about his own being and functioning, man turned involuntarily against himself.”

Although this explanation is, I suspect, correct as far as it goes, it comes as something of an anti-climax. It amounts to little more than saying that self-awareness contains within itself the risk of becoming alienated both from others and from the instinctual self, and that losing ourselves in the Other can be experienced as a threat to one’s own identity. It seems sad that Reich should have spent a tormented, persecuted, and futile life finding out something so obvious.

It is also a conclusion which makes nonsense of his belligerence toward the mechanists and the mystics, since on his own showing they are not villains, but victims of an inescapable aspect of the human condition. A new note of tolerance which can be detected in his later writings was presumably the result of his having realized this.

Since Reich is still regarded in some circles as a prophet and liberator of mankind, it is necessary for me to justify having described his life as “tormented, persecuted, and futile.”

The evidence that Reich was a tormented personality is provided by Ilse Ollendorf Reich’s biography—a disenchanted but sympathetic and loyal book which rings true throughout. His adored mother committed suicide when he was fourteen, his less loved father died when he was seventeen, his only sibling, a younger brother, died before he was thirty. From an early age he broke off all contact with his origins in Bukovina. Although he became a psychoanalyst while still a medical student, his own experience of being analyzed was unfortunate; his analyst emigrated unexpectedly, leaving him, it is said, in the middle of a depression. He was restless, overactive, jealous, suspicious, and possessive, smoked and drank excessively, and suffered from two diseases—tuberculosis and eczema—which may have been psychosomatic. He had little sense of humor and always took himself and his work dead seriously.

It seems always to have been Reich versus the Rest and, with the exception of Freud, there seems to have been no one from whom he felt he had ever got support or inspiration. Intellectually, he seems always to have gone it alone; his writings convey no sense of dialogue with other minds; his disciples followed his lead but there is no indication that any of them contributed to the development of his thought; his reading seems to have been directed toward finding support for his own ideas rather than toward learning from others. All this suggests, I think, that he was an intrinsically lonely man, driven and tormented from within. One can only suppose that he was engaged in a life-long struggle to escape from his own defensive armor.

He also seems to have been remarkably unself-aware. Ilse Ollendorf Reich says that he was socially naive and, expecially in someone who started life as a psychoanalyst, his obliviousness of his dynamic effect on others seems remarkable. It never seems to have occurred to him that suggestion may have been the reason why his patients improved or why his followers accepted so uncritically his often bizarre findings.

The fact that Reich was persecuted is shown by his career. He was expelled from the International Psychoanalytical Association and the communist movement. After he left Germany for political reasons, professional opposition made it impossible for him to work in Denmark and Norway. In the US the Food and Drug Administration placed an injunction on the distribution of orgone energy accumulators and later he was imprisoned for contempt of court.

Reich seems consistently to have interpreted this persecution as evidence of the correctness of his ideas. As Ilse Ollendorf Reich emphasizes, he identified himself with Christ, whom he regarded as the archetypal “genital character,” in direct communication with the cosmic orgone forces. He considered The Murder of Christ to be his most important book.

Finally, there are, I think, four reasons why Reich’s life must be adjudged a failure and futile—this in spite of the fact that in his lifetime he made a stir wherever he went and that he continues to be regarded by some as a prophet of sexual revolution.

In the first place, it is precisely those of his ideas by which he set most store that have to be dismissed as bizarre and absurd. His psychological ideas on defense and character armor have, after a fashion, been assimilated by psychoanalysis and have become part of the intellectual equipment of therapists who are often unaware of their indebtedness to him.

It is difficult, however, to assess to what extent the contemporary psychoanalytical idea that “character” is a defense requiring interpretation and dissolution derives from Reich. The received version of the history of the concept “defense” is that it was implicit in Freud’s The Ego and the Id (1923) and Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926) and received explicit and definitive formulation in Anna Freud’s The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (1936). Since the original version of Reich’s Character-Analysis appeared in 1928—as a paper entitled “On Character Analysis”—and his “The Impulse-Ridden Character” even earlier (1925) and both were originally accepted as orthodox, and since furthermore the Viennese analysts in the 1920s formed a close-knit group in frequent verbal contact with one another, it would be a nice point to decide to what extent Reich’s writings on character analysis were reflections of a general current of thought or a specific, active force which decisively influenced the precise direction that current took.

Nevertheless, it can be said with some assurance that two features of Reich’s analytical work failed to have much impact on the psychoanalytical establishment. These were its optimism and its therapeutic belligerence. Reich believed that the neuroses were unnecessary artifacts produced by bourgeois society and parental suppression of infantile sexual activity, but almost all analysts have followed Anna Freud in holding that “the hope of extirpating neuroses from human life is…illusory.” Nor have many analysts followed Reich in being forceful and aggressive in their attacks on their patients’ character armor. Reich blitzed his patients’ defenses with a relentlessness that most analysts would find offensive. And those few analysts who in private will admit that on occasion they do so, are generally reluctant to recommend such a technique publicly.

In view of the possibility that Reich’s contribution to the development of psychoanalysis may be greater than is generally recognized, it is of interest to note that in Reich Speaks of Freud (the transcript of a discussion between Reich and Kurt R. Eissler, published without the consent of Eissler or of the Sigmund Freud Archives Inc.)4 Reich gives a list of establishment analysts who in his opinion understood his message but elected to remain silent.

Reich’s would-be scientific ideas about orgones and cosmic energy, on the other hand, have rightly been rejected as fanciful. From a scientific point of view, there is something pathetic about Reich’s accounts of his experiments and theories. His experiments seem to have been designed and carried out in a hopelessly amateurish and gimcrack manner, with, in particular, no understanding of the need for adequate controls, while his theorizing is full of the most elementary mistakes in biology and physics. One is left with the impression that Reich lacked, even as a young man, any appreciation of scientific method and that his need to find things to correspond with ideas indicated some defect in his capacity for conceptual thinking.

Secondly, if one takes Reich’s life and works not as a scientific career but as a spiritual progress or a peculiar form of theological enquiry, his conclusions were hardly original enough to justify the torment and persecution he went through in order to reach them. The ideas that God is not the creator of the universe but is it and that the objective and subjective are identical can both be found in the theological tradition of Western civilization. His failure to realize this provides an example of his inability to engage in dialogue with other minds. He pursued a solitary and at times heroic path, oblivious of the fact that others had explored it before him.

Thirdly, the prophetic, evangelical, and often strident tone of Reich’s writings has led to his being remembered as more of an extremist and revolutionary than he probably ever really was—and certainly than he was in his later years. In the 1920s and 1930s Reich was both a communist and a psychoanalyst. His intransigent advocacy of Marxism in psychoanalytical circles and of psychoanalysis within the communist movement inevitably got him into trouble with both and gave him a reputation for intellectual bloody-mindedness that in retrospect hardly seems justified. Nowadays we find nothing incongruous or outrageous in attempts to reconcile Marx and Freud or in suggestions that there may be some intrinsic connection between the economic structure of a society and the psychological structure of its component units, but in the Twenties and Thirties in Central Europe Marxism was politics not sociology and in the minds of the professional middle classes communism was linked with Nazism, both being regarded as part of a general revolt of the masses which was threatening civilization; while most communists saw psychoanalysis as an effete and decadent manifestation of the decay of bourgeois society.

As a result, when Reich asserted, as he did in The Sexual Revolution (Copenhagen 1936, New York 1945), that the capitalist system was maintained by sexual repression within the family, he appeared to the Marxists to be undermining their hard-won insights into the psychogenesis of mental illness. But in fact, or so it appears to me, he was groping toward holism, by asserting that in society the whole is contained in the part and that it is artificial to divorce the psychology of the individual from the sociology of the society in which he lives. But he was only groping, since he was no more successful in demonstrating how it comes about that family structure and social structure display “functional identity” than Blake was in explaining how the innocent succeed in seeing the world in a grain of sand.

Reich’s unacceptability to both the communists and the analysts must have been enhanced by his assertions that a “deep-reaching revolution of cultural living” was already in progress, which was the result neither of the class dialectic of history nor of the impact of psychoanalysis. This revolution, which is “without parades, uniforms, drum or cannon salutes” and has led to “thorough disintegration of moralistic, ascetic forms of living,” Reich attributed to technological changes which were reducing the authoritarian role of fathers and loosening family ties (and hence the need for repression) by taking women out of the home into industry. This is a thesis which today has become commonplace; variations of it can be found in Marcuse’s accounts of “late industrial society” and in Alexander Mitscherlich’s Society Without the Father (Tavistock 1969).

The later Reich’s repudiation of his early political and sexual revolutionary position, however, seems to have been absolute. He became virulently anti-communist and a fervent admirer of Eisenhower, with whom he believed he had a special, though secret relationship, and he came to believe that attempts to introduce sexual freedom rapidly would do more harm than good.

If anyone had the guts and power to decree that freedom and self-regulation be established overnight, the greatest disaster in the history of mankind would inevitably swamp our lives like a flood.

It is not a matter of “proclaiming truth” but of living truth ahead of one’s fellow men…Don’t preach truth. Show people by example how to find the way to their own resources of truthful living…We must, by all means, nip in the bud the flourishing of a new kind of social nuisance, the Truth peddler. He will do more harm than any lie has ever done.

But it is precisely the truth peddlers who remember him and quote him.

Fourthly, Reich’s insistence on making orgasm the foundation stone of his theories makes them liable to distortion and vulgarization. Although he seems, even in his revolutionary days, to have believed that the liberation of man depended on society’s attitude toward its children and adolescents—the former should be granted the freedom to explore their own bodies and the latter the privacy to establish pre-marital relationships—his theories can be construed as a justification for adult promiscuity, which he abhorred. At the end of his life he realized this threat to his ideas and feared that his authority would be invoked to unleash “a free-for-all fucking epidemic.” He even went so far as to justify St. Paul’s strictures on the Flesh on the ground that

He had to build strong dams against the pornographic, filthy, sick mind of man in sexual matters, even at the price of killing the true Christ.


Reich’s Therapy February 12, 1970

  1. 1

    557 pp., $7.50, 1960.

  2. 2

    224 pp., $5.95, 1969.

  3. 3

    253 pp., $5.95, 1969.

  4. 4

    Noonday Press, 1968.