Review: Biography: Adventures in the Orgasmatron: Wilhelm Reich and the Invention of Sex by Christopher Turner
Fourth Estate, £25
Published 13/08/2011 | 05:00
When Sigmund Freud arrived in New York in 1909, as he watched the waving crowds on the dock, he turned to Carl Jung and said: "Don't they know we're bringing them the plague?" They didn't and, despite the best efforts of anti-Freudians, they still don't.
Wilhelm Reich, a former pupil of Freud's who arrived 30 years later, is another story. On the outbreak of war, he was interned as a suspected communist, and his FBI file runs to 789 pages. In the Fifties, his books were burnt and he was sent to prison, where he died of a heart attack in 1957. The reason for this persecution, as Christopher Turner explains in this definitive biography, is that while Freud came to view sexual repression as inherent to the human condition, Reich regarded it as the great evil, and thus became the father of the "sexual revolution".
In The Function of the Orgasm (1927) he argued that the orgasm was, as Turner puts it in a thumping tautology, "the panacea to cure all ills".
The only thing wrong with neurotics, he wrote, was "the lack of full and repeated sexual satisfaction". He subsequently discovered "orgone energy", a mysterious orgasmic force that apparently circulates in the atmosphere, and invented the "orgone energy accumulator", a wooden cupboard lined with metal, which he claimed could cure, besides impotence and frigidity, such illnesses as cancer and radiation poisoning.
The authorities sensibly denied him a patent, and Einstein, whom he approached at Princeton, dismissed the orgone accumulator as completely unscientific. James Baldwin was similarly sceptical: "The people I had been raised among had orgasms all the time, and still chopped each other with razors on Saturday nights."
But Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, JD Salinger, Saul Bellow and even Sean Connery became fans of the orgone box, and it entered popular culture.
In Roger Vadim's film Barbarella (1968), the evil scientist Durand-Durand, who bears a passing resemblance to Reich, uses a form of orgone accumulator to try to kill Barbarella with pleasure, and in Woody Allen's Sleeper (1973) it features as the Orgasmatron.
Reich was born in 1897, in what is now Ukraine, to a landed family subsequently dispossessed by Bolsheviks. Nonetheless, 'Willie' became an ardent communist, and remained one until the Soviet invasion of Finland.
In Vienna, he became Freud's most promising pupil, until they fell out and he moved to Berlin, where in 1931 he synthesised the doctrines of Marx and Freud and founded the German Association for Proletarian Sexual Politics (Sex-Pol), which soon had 40,000 members.
Two years later, he left Berlin, after Nazi stormtroopers raided his apartment and stole a book of erotic Japanese woodcuts and a copy of the Kama Sutra, and in 1934 he fled Vienna for Denmark, then Sweden, Norway and, finally, the US.
Reich emerges from this book as a figure at once charismatic, sinister, comic and, as the shrinks say, profoundly conflicted -- brilliant but mad. Compared with his hipster disciples, he was irredeemably square, with a puritanical disapproval of pornography and homosexuality.
Spectacularly promiscuous himself -- "a sexual scoundrel in the bourgeois sense" -- Reich was fiercely jealous of his wives and mistresses. He was a bully to his patients and family, a nasty drunk, bi-polar and borderline schizophrenic. "Am I a spaceman?" he wrote in his journal the year before his death. "Do I belong to a new race on earth, bred by men from outer space in embraces with earth women?"
Turner has done an exhaustively thorough, if somewhat humourless job. He makes some interesting points about Reich's unwitting influence on the arts ("The sex instinct will be eradicated," says a government spokesman in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, " ... We shall abolish the orgasm"), and about the way advertising absorbed erotic liberation into what Eli Zaretsky called "a sexualised dreamworld of mass consumption".
But Turner never quite answers the question with which he begins: "What does it tell us about the ironies of the sexual revolution that the symbol of liberation was a box?" And he misquotes Philip Larkin.