Commentary Magazine

The World of Wilhelm Reich

That he would be ridiculed and persecuted seemed to Wilhelm Reich but one of the high prices he would have to pay for the range and depth of his advance beyond the analytic attitude as it had been developed by Freud. Afraid to venture out of their traps, sick men could only turn on the one healthy man of understanding who showed The Way Out (to mimic Reich's oratorical style) and strike down this liberator. The Freudian world was not ready for him; and even the political revolutionaries of the Soviet Union had chosen, finally, to back down before the psychologic of revolution. To a moral revolutionary, therefore, the only hope was a destruction of politics as such, whether of the Right or of the Left. Reich started on the Left, but kept going, until he found himself making the most radical rejection of politics—a rejection so radical that it must be called religious.

Even before his strange religious conversion, however, respectable anti-Freudians repudiated Reich no less firmly than the respectably Freudian. He had ventured outside both camps—indeed, outside the frames of reference that permit argument between them. Yet Reich took an almost maniacal pride in his isolation. Excluded from the international psychoanalytic movement in 1933, he accepted the terms of exclusion as essentially correct. He had ceased to be an analyst. He had passed beyond the analytic attitude to a polemical one. He had become a “Freudo-Marxist” whose aim was to use psychoanalysis for revolutionary purposes. In contrast, like a possessive father, Freud had ardently sought to prevent the marriage of his beautiful brainchild to any political doctrine. As an analyst, he was neither on the Left nor on the Right, nor in the middle. Freud's is the iron law of analysis: culture develops at the expense of the instincts; and neither revolution nor religion can save man the eternal wear of conflict. Thus for Freud political questions can be treated psychoanalytically, but psychoanalysis cannot be treated politically. To treat it politically was Reich's original heresy; for this he was read out of the movement.

If Freud was the classical economist of the sexual life—its Ricardo—then Reich aspired to be its Karl Marx, or at least a utopian forerunner of some later more acceptable revolutionary, who would place the fantasia of a healthy man in a free society on a practical basis. In that society, therapy itself, like the state in the Marxist myth, would wither away for lack of patients; power and the repressions would yield; love would be free; and the necessity of ruling, even benignly, would have disappeared.

But Reich not only tried to play Marx to Freud's Ricardo; he also tried to play Lenin. At this point the government of the United States took notice. Wilhelm Reich, M.D., self-proclaimed discoverer of Orgone Energy, the very stuff of life,1 was prosecuted as a quack, accused of peddling across state borders empty boxes (Orgone Energy Accumulators), in which buyers (patients) sat as if they might be cured—of cancer, of impotence, of everything, Reich said; of nothing, the government decided.

Reich would not defend himself. “Nobody can examine me who does not know more than I.” Nobody could know more. Can the sick argue with the healthy, when it is their sickness that they are defending? How could he argue his case before scientifically incompetent and emotionally disturbed judges? The fraternities of respectable science would not defend him. How could they, when all their sciences were in the service of domination and death rather than equality and life? He died in 1957, in a federal penitentiary.

Whatever the competence of the courts to judge what Reich called his “strictly scientific” work, trained opinion has yet seriously to confront that work. But to confront Reich is not easy, for he is even harder to read than Jung. Certainly, he was so moved by his vision that he wrote like a madman. But the brilliance of that vision is such that he can no longer be dismissed as a figure of fun. Respectable men of moral science and letters will at least have to admit the seriousness of Reich's challenge—and the fine subversive quality of it.


Reich Repeats the charge made by D. H. Lawrence (whom he resembles in so many ways): that Freud did not go deeply enough. Below the Unconscious of repressions, with its “cruel, sadistic, lascivious, predatory and envious impulses,” Reich, like Lawrence, discovered the Unconscious of “primary biological impulses.” Instinct is pure, good, and beautiful—until it becomes adulterated by the repressions through which it must pass on the way to action. On the level of action there is the “sham social surface” of the super-ego, where the human appears “restrained, polite, compassionate and conscientious.” But this hamming by the super-ego is the rubber glove with which repressions maintain their sterile grip on character. In Reich's terms the tragedy of being moral occurs because the polite social surfaces of character are separated from the “deep, natural core” by repressions masquerading as the very instincts that they repress. The lesson to be drawn was clear: abolish the repressions. This was the therapy and tactic of Reich's Freudo-Marxism. If, and only if, a therapeutic aim—the dissolution of the super-ego—could be added to a political aim—the dissolution of the state—could a revolution truly occur. The instincts and the proletariat must triumph together, or not at all.

Although the international psychoanalytic movement did not agree, Reich considered Marx as necessary to Freud as Freud was necessary to Marx. For only “under favorable social conditions” could the “deepest layer” be raised, and man become what he is, instinctually: “an honest, industrious, cooperative animal capable of love.” To his honor Freud had pulled off the “cultivated mask.” But a real, and revolutionary, therapist had to recognize the “natural sociality” of the instincts. By venturing no further than the “perverse anti-social layer” of character, Freud had supplied new reasons for slipping back on the mask that, having been worn so long, is more familiar to humanity than its own natural face.

As for Marx, lacking a psychology, he had neglected to include in his strategic calculations the established “character structure of the masses.” All political revolutions must fail so far as they remain strictly political, or economic, and do not extend to the repressive morality of everyday life. It was not enough for a socialist revolution to eliminate middle-class property holdings. However a revolution succeeded on the high levels, it would founder on the low and trivial ones. Family beer parties, wearing evening dress, the “middle-class bedroom”—these, and “thousands of other little things” would have to be changed in order for characters so to change that they could change the world. Habits of domestic living are concrete ways in which ideology internalizes authority. Unless a revolution conquers the bedroom it cannot conquer; without a rearrangement of intimacy, men will continue to identify themselves, if not with old rulers, then with old rules of conduct.

First, then, the revolutionary must cleanse himself. What was later called “the authoritarian personality” existed on the Left as on the Right. “Red fascists” were no better than black ones. The Russian revolution was a tragic case of politically revolutionary elites that could not muster the necessary moral ruthlessness to push the revolution beyond politics to a more profound moral level, where alone a revolutionary politics could be sustained. Reich rejected the Red god as yet another who inevitably had failed. When the Communists abandoned “Kulturbolschewismus,” the Bolsheviks handed back the opportunity that history had handed to them. For Reich understood that modern mass industrial societies converge, however their politicians may differ. Confronted by Oblomov, the Communists found more to admire in Henry Ford than in Don Juan.

Although not the last, Reich was the first Freudo-Marxist to play the game of relating the ideological to the psychological process. He was far more forthright than later players at the same game—say, Erich Fromm in Escape From Freedom. Thus, liberalism was understood to function in society as the super-ego functioned in the psyche, a sham of civility pulled over the reality of conflict, and therefore powerless against doctrines of conflict once these break through to the surface of social life. “Genuine” revolutionary doctrine, on the other hand, functioned in society as the pure biological impulses do in the psyche. Reactionary impulses came straight from the middle level of the psyche, as reactionary regimes came from the middle classes of society. Fascism was the most powerful expression on the political level of the repressed unconscious.

Unwittingly, through his doctrine of the repressed Unconscious, Freud served the aims of liberalism. Instead of scourging the beast in man, liberals after Freud could treat it therapeutically, as the repressed unconscious. But for both Freud and the liberals, the aim was the same: not liberation but better management of the instincts. In contrast, by liberating the instincts, Reich hoped at the same time to create the condition for a final and irrevocable liberation of man in society. Born free, men would remain free. Rousseau's conundrum could be solved by breaking the historic chains of repression. For the chains, which Rousseau saw but did not understand, were self-made. Men could break them if only the effort were ruthless enough. The social order had been built on the historic habituation of humans to their captivity. Mankind was like a prisoner so long confined that he no longer wanted his freedom. But once willed, freedom would suddenly break out. Here was a therapy that would change the world—but only by changing the self.

What results from repression, Reich calls “armoring.” It is his general term for all the defensive anxieties of the individual against the best that is in himself: his erotic impulses. Reich knew that repression was not merely social or acquired. It began automatically, first in “terror with the deep experience of the self.” To experience the power of desires was enough to create a profound fear of satisfying them. In this religious doctrine, fear of self, not disobedience of God, is the original sin. The historic disturbance of the social may begin with the destruction of primitive communism, in the division of labor, as Marx believed. But the more fundamental history of the disturbance of mind began, we may infer, with the alienation of the individual from his desires. What those who accept it call “the human condition” has come of enforcing calm upon the excitements of instinctual living, instead of letting the instincts literally play themselves out in satisfactions. Apprehensive before the intensity of his own impulses, primitive man destroyed his own “natural decency.” In the natural beginning were the impulses; in the historic beginning were the repressions. Political history began when some of the repressed—the ruling classes—discovered how to use repressions for their own material gain. Thus, through Freud, Reich revised the Marxist eschatology: to abolish the repressions would bring an end to political history—i.e., the history of mankind's division against itself. All emotions would become personal. Abstractions would disappear. Not that men would become angels. Enmities might occur, but not class enmities or group hatreds. At last, every man would be on his own, undisturbed by ideas, remote as they are from the play of his energies.

There is a sinister anti-intellectualism about Reich's theory of the origin of repression. Repression set in at the moment man made the mistake of beginning to think—too much and especially about himself—ceasing thus to trust his “instinctual judgment.” This reverses the naïve intellectualism of the liberal tradition, in which ignorance is blamed for the human condition, and only self-knowledge can cure it. But to Reich, the human suffered his first and most fundamental neurosis through an “overstrained perception of self-perception.” (I think, therefore I am neurotic). Mind turned against body. Body could not help but turn against mind. Love abstracted itself from sex. Sex could not help being restive in the trap of love.

Reich was accordingly certain that for any moral revolution to succeed, the entire aspiration after philosophical wisdom would have to be trained out of humanity, as it is trained out of a patient. “Know thyself” is a motto that, if taken in the Socratic sense, merely bundles a neurotic deeper in his or some therapist's foolish ideas. The happy few are not the thoughtful, but the satisfied. It is, indeed, a democracy of the satisfied that Reich, as a moral revolutionary, is after. Who will say that by this he does not express a revolutionary sentiment fairly widespread in our culture?

Reich emerges, then, as a figure whom we must learn to recognize when he appears in less exaggerated form: the man of the Left as an anti-intellectual. The notion of an anti-intellectual radical may appear a contradiction in terms; not to Reich. In fact, such radicals were the only ones he trusted, in particular if they came from the working class. Intellectuals will think up excuses, blame the revolution for failing them when in fact they have failed the revolution, cut and run, crying up their conscience against the politics of the revolution. “Leftists” are no less “armored” than “Rightists.” Doctrinal differences are symptomatic; each type grows rigid with anxiety, but in different postures of expression. Doctrine always simulates anxiety. The deeper, or more high-flown the doctrine, the more intense the anxiety of which it is the intellectual counterfeit


For the anxieties behind politics, Reich blamed all the familiar scapegoats: first, of course, the patriarchal, or authoritarian, family; second, “mystical” religion; third, the division of labor, or “requirements of civilization,” which necessitated that there be big and little men, to do the honors and drudgery of the world. In his own terms, Reich repeats the Marxist legend of an evolution from a primitive stage of undivided labor into various forms of the class society, with all the attendant injustice and crippling oppression, accompanied by ideologies justifying the oppression to the oppressed themselves.

The chief institutional bulwark of repressive authority is the family. As political revolution must overthrow the power of the state, moral revolution must overthrow the power of the family-all families. Reich makes the standard point: being the training ground of morality, the family is authoritarian by definition. However radical the revolution, so long as the family persists, authority creeps back. Rebellions of sons against fathers permit the return of the father in the character of the son. To destroy, then, the ancient mystique of fatherhood defines the revolutionary task.

As liberals, the anthropologists of the 19th century had gone in search of the primitive precisely because of their suspicion of contemporary social “regulation,” and from nostalgia for the fabled freedom of primitive society. But J. J. Atkinson found exactly the reverse of his liberal expectation.2 Freedom was not a condition of primitive or animal life. So far as the anthropologists could reconstruct it, prehistoric society appeared even more authoritarian than its successors. Reich, however, learned only what he wanted to know from anthropology. If primitive societies were rigid with regulation, then they were not primitive enough. Taboos, like all law, are a function of patriarchal authoritarianism. A triumphant father3 ended the primitive Utopia of freedom. Reich never bothered to argue against the probability that sex suppression functioned to hold societies together against the pressures of nature. It was dogma with him that nature and culture could not be in tension. Therefore, sex suppression could not be culturally functional.

Moreover, because he was a radical anti-dualist, Reich rarely noticed the cruel imbecilities of nature; its stupid side never showed itself to him. In its nature worship, Reich's writing has an old-fashioned edifying cast. He never confronts the horrible possibility, which obsesses all of modern art, that the reality behind the appearance may be even more unpleasant than the appearance. His natural man is a stale leftover of the 18th-century imagination.

Set in the context of Reich's attack on the family as the nucleus of all authoritative institutions, his repeated calls for sexual freedom for the young acquire political significance: the aim of this freedom is to divest the parents of their moral authority. Reich assumed that by encouraging freedom in pre-adolescent sex play, and free adolescent intercourse, a unique generation would be trained—one politically enabled by a general capacity for freedom. Believing that happily promiscuous children must grow up to be creatively democratic socialists, he led in fantasy a children's crusade against all authority, including the authority of the proletariat.

Reich's insistence that his theories are facts is so emphatic as to result in a parody of science grown absolutely certain of both its form and content. All the old theories are treated in the image of “plague,” as against the therapeutic of his new “facts.” The world is plagued with old ideas; they must be cauterized. No very comfortable distance separates the Hitlerian image of a “Jewish world plague” from the Reichian (and Nietzschean) image of an “emotional plague.” Indeed, the “plague” turns out to be the familiar enemy of fascists and libertarians alike: Judeo-Christian moralism, and all the philosophies that have been spun out to rationalize this ancient symbolism of repression.

The world of fact is summed up by Reich in the first of his god-terms, “Life.” He regularly capitalizes and italicizes the word, as if thus to express the ultimate power he has captured in it. In one place, the use of the word as a god-term becomes explicit: “God is Life,” he announces. But if we reverse the relation of the terms—“Life is God”—we more nearly get Reich's meaning. There is all the difference between the two statements. Another way of saying that “Life is God” would be: “The end of life is merely to live”—as Reich did in fact say. Any other statement describing the religious apprehension was to Reich a mere “mystification,” serving the purposes of an authoritarian culture even more powerfully than the property laws.

“Mystification” is an old Marxist standby. It is ideology with incense, helping the “masses” not only to think and feel in ways contrary to their own best interests, but to believe in these ways wholeheartedly as well. To develop the polemical idea of mystification in psychoanalytic depth one need only link it, as with everything, to the family. All religions are understood as varieties of mystical experience, and mysticism derives in turn from what Reich calls the “family fixation.”

The primary function of the family, we learn, is “the inhibition of sensual sexuality.” Since, for Reich, sexuality is the mode of freedom, it follows that religion is always in the service of authority. With religion, the “masses” first mystified themselves. Theology was the first of all “forms of fascist, imperialistic, dictatorial mysticism,” because in religious speculation there first occurred the “mystification of vegetative life sensations” by which men originally alienated themselves from their natures. There is only one form more inhibiting than religious thought: family sentiment. “Mystical distortion” is brought about first by the patriarchal authoritarian order of the family, which the state duplicates and religion projects. More fundamental than political economy to the understanding of society is sex economy. With Freud added to Marx, science and revolution join forces. Reich had no doubt that, as the first Freudo-Marxist, he was the scientist of the revolution to end all necessity of revolutions.


When the revolution finally did come, how would the new man differ from the old? Already, in one of Reich's early books, Character Analysis, the vision of an ideal “genital character” is posed against the well-established reality of the neurotic character.

Freud altered the classical conception according to which character was assessed in terms of response to external challenges. A man was courageous or cowardly, weak or strong, depending upon his discernible actions. Freud drove the standard inward: how men respond to internal danger—to the instinctual drives—was the key to their characters. The visible traits of character—how we walk, look, talk, gesture—become symptomatic expressions of how this inner threat is handled. In the Freudian definition, character is the congeries of typical ways in which each man defends himself—mainly against his deeper self.

Freud never considered the transformation of character as necessitating the elimination of repression. Not all repressions, but only those that led to symptoms instead of to adequately functioning character traits, had to be replaced. Reich, however, aimed at the entire range of character as symptomatic and in need of transformation. Change character, change the world. Through the release of the “armoring,” of defenses against libidinal impulses, therapy had emerged as revolutionary. The act of liberation was to be the orgasm.

There is a line leading straight from the still respected Character Analysis to Reich's much-derided later work, The Function of the Orgasm. In the one he is the moral scientist analyzing the repressions; in the other, the moral revolutionary advocating their abolition.

The often praised technical brilliance of the Reich who wrote Character Analysis is due mainly to the heat of his argument. That book is composed upon one polemical motif, elaborated in tendentious detail: various innocent impulses are consumed in the formation and maintenance of the wall between the id and the ego; they are repressed, and suffer in the purgatory of the Freudian unconscious. In the process of repression, the impulses are transformed and reversed; the price is a rigid and overcomplicated character structure. The ego grows more and more remote from its instinctual resources. The result is not merely a neurosis; rather, a neurotic. The entire range of character has been infected.

There is not much here that is not vintage Freud—except for the important point that Freud never trusted the instincts. Character Analysis has been much overpraised, the better to dispraise Reich's later books. His critics are up to the old and dubious interpretative trick of dividing a writer's earlier work from his later in order to disparage one or the other. To accept Character Analysis as a solid piece of scientific work, while rejecting its successors as fantasy, is to avoid confronting the significant continuity of science and fantasy in Reich's mind. This is not to praise his later work or dispraise what came earlier, or vice versa. For from a certain point of view, they are all of a piece-including not least the illustrations with which Reich relieved his dull verbosity of style; increasingly these became pure Thurber, so economic in line, and yet so grand in their reference, that they can only be called comic. Reich was an unconscious cartoonist, lampooning the intricate mechanical drawing of science by peppering his books with diagrams, mainly fertile female circles and potent male arrows lying down together; or heavy lines superimposed atop one another in clumsy but sincere embrace.


Opposition is never enough; ideologists of the moral have to offer new ideals in the very act of diagnosing the failure of the old. In the ideal of a “genital character,” Reich mounted all his admiration for strength and disgust at weakness.

Actually, according to Reich, we are all “mixed types”; but very little genital and mainly neurotic, for rather like the perfect neurotic, we have built our defenses so high as to be enclosed by them. Character is the prison of impulses; inside it, we learn stiffness, until we grow so immobile that we no longer wish to move around and take what is needed to feed the soul. The neurotic, whatever he appears on the outside, is poor inside. Health is to the individual as revolution is to society—a taking of what is needed. Being definitely “unafraid,” the ideal character “satisfies his strong libidinal needs even at the risk of social ostracism.” The neurotic character, on the other hand, has a fear of freedom. Weakness once built into his own psyche, his impulses safely exhausted in the building, the neurotic grows proud: he calls his weakness “character.” This is the sharp impression Reich wished to convey of our inherited moral condition; it is an impression more politely conveyed by the Fromms and Horneys. The moral revolution led by Reich may have softened by now, but its softness and spread is understood all the better when examined in all the mantic fury of a Reich.

Reich portrays the genital character type as:

very gay but also intensely angry; he reacts to the object-loss with depression but does not get lost in it; he is capable of intense love but also of intense hatred; he can, under appropriate conditions, be childlike but he will never appear infantile; his seriousness is natural and not stiff in a compensatory way because he has no tendency to show himself grown-up at all cost; his courage is not proof of potency but directed toward a rational goal . . . he can open up to the world as intensely in one case as he can shut himself off from it in another.

The “genital character” can lose himself in ecstasy and find himself in rejection; he can charge and retreat, give and take—all at low cost to himself. In short, the perfect external man, successor to the self-conscious and yet unknowing figure of the neurotic, trapped in his inwardness.

Externality is the quality without which the portrait of Reich's new man would not be complete. Being so outgoing, the public man is “capable of criticizing and altering the social situation,” but without producing in himself or others that most dubious of all incitements to change: moral indignation. In Reich, the ancient ideal of the man of power, as described to Socrates by his young friend, Callicles, was dreamed again. Now, however, the superior man has become a democrat. He may live his full life, allow his desires to become as mighty as may be and never repress them, serve his passions in full maturity without contradicting either his conscience or reason, gratify every fleeting desire as it comes into his head—and all without cost to others. A better nature will not have to suffer inferiors, as Callicles imagined, and finally be defeated by them. In the Reichian vision, there will be no inferiors, none (in the words of Callicles) to “sing the praises of temperance and justice out of the depths of their own cowardice.” All men will follow the same lordly impulses. Self-fulfilling, they will not need the consolations of religion; rather, each will be his own prophet of pleasure.

It is in the nature of psychotherapy that a certain number of patients should become disciples. Yet, hard as he worked on them, none of his patients ever became, in Reich's estimate, anything like “genital characters.” Such failure was, of course, understandable. Working together in their therapeutic community at Rangeley, Maine, even the therapists could not help but bring some repressions with them.

The atmosphere being what it was, they could not rid themselves of the “plague.” There were times when even a therapist

is apt to say of himself: “I'm no good today, I have the plague.” In our circles, such attacks of the emotional plague, if slight, are handled by one's withdrawing for a while until the attack of irrationalism subsides. In serious cases, where rational thinking and friendly counsel are not enough, one clears up the situation orgone-therapeutically. . . . to me and the close coworkers, the acute attack of the emotional plague is such a familiar phenomenon that we take it with calm and master it objectively. . . . It happens, of course, that such an attack of the emotional plague is not mastered. . . . We take such accidents in the same manner as one takes a serious physical disease or the death of an esteemed co-worker.

We have met this “death” in older communities, when a member no longer lives up to his vocation; he has died to God.

Because therapy and theory are always so closely linked, it is not surprising that Reich understood his therapeutic community as a scientific research center. People came to assist Reich in his research, and in this work they elaborated their cure. Although he was not himself aware of the fact, Reich was thus making the characteristic religious effort to found a community in which vocation was itself therapeutic. Thus, Reich's work, while remaining in his mind scientific, was also of a religious nature, as he finally admitted. For as he continued his highly personal and unverifiable experiments, the basic concept of orgone energy expanded, until he himself recognized that this was indeed God and that humans, if they would be saved from destruction, must conform to God's laws. His fantasy system enlarged, and in the process grew more and more internally coherent. From the earliest theoretical break with Freud, on the beneficent nature of instinct, to the last years of preaching the divinity of instinct in its cosmic expression, Reich achieved a continuity of thought which satisfied at least himself. Freud's theory of libidinal impulses led Reich to the therapy of the genital embrace (orgasm). In time, he discovered that matter, too, embraced and created more matter. Then he discovered that even in the heavens there was embrace. His doctrine was complete. Everything had meaning and value. From the microcosmic level of the “genital embrace” to the macrocosmic “cosmic super imposition,” the world sought to reconcile itself to itself, in a dutiful Hegelian unity of dualities. The All had been reconstructed by a science, Orgonomy, which, being at once biological and moral, did not fragment reality as its mechanistic predecessors had done. And finally, with the discovery of the creation of the ring of the aurora, of the meaning of hurricanes and galaxies, Reichian psychotherapy expanded into a full-fledged system of cosmological belief. Science and religion were at last reconciled, as Reich had reconciled man to his nature. Therapy had led beyond community—to cosmic order, and thus to theology.


The founder of this religious science had few fully committed followers. A number followed because Reich satisfied their religious yearnings. But others followed, for other reasons. Among those who were not propelled into the therapeutic community by their own religious inclinations, the most interesting by far were writers and artists. That some first-rate talents-Norman Mailer, for example, among the writers; Rudolf Kolisch, among concert artists; and, of course, William Steig, who became a devoted personal follower—were attracted to Reichian doctrine, gives it the importance of symptom, if not the stature of truth.4

Reich seems an unlikely sort to attract artists. Seeing everything, as he does, in terms of domination and freedom, nothing has aesthetic significance. There is the unmistakable straightness of an aesthetically blind man about Reich's argument, a two-term analysis without room between for ambiguity and surprising turns. But Reich did not attract portraitists of the conventionally beautiful, or commercial artists; rather, he attracted men who, proud in their alienation, draw and write against the grain of society. It is the poor shape of little people that William Steig, as the most devoted of Reichian artists, translated from the angry diagnoses of his master into the cathartic laughter of cartoon. Unlike the scientist, the modern artist believes he must live in opposition to his society, or go down to defeat in his work. Reich supplied some artists with a way of opposing.

There are other reasons why Reich attracted artists. Flattery, if it can be built into a doctrine, will always attract those who succeed in finding themselves there. The successful of the 17th-century world of business managed to associate Calvin's idea of election with themselves. Reich made it easy for the artist to be flattered by his doctrine: that type comes nearest, in his understanding, to being a “genital character.” The artist was downright lucky in his work. “That which is ‘natural’ in man, which makes him one with the cosmos, has found its genuine expression only in the arts, particularly in music and painting.” Because “all that . . . is genuinely revolutionary, all genuine art . . . stems from the natural biological nucleus,” the artist is, merely by being himself a “genuine revolutionary.”

To be a revolutionary, and yet not in any political sense, must have appealed to a generation of artists who, having lost faith in Marx without resigning themselves, with Freud, to the world as it is, hankered after a doctrine that would transform the world by a new feeling for it. For the artists and writers who followed Reich were, like him, defeated men of the Left; for the defeated who, nevertheless, retain their pride of alienation, Reich's,, brave announcements of an end of politics turned failure itself into a kind of victory. To declare, as Reich did, that politics was the gravest symptom of a sick society hinted at the cure; as a first step toward sanity, it was useful to become anti-political. Moreover, the symptom being ever more grave, the cure was ever more imminent. Political society had reached its crisis of sickness in Hitler, who was “political genius” incarnate. “With Hitler, politics reached a peak of development.” This “magnificent unmasking of the essence of politics in general” brought the end in sight. A new dispensation was near at hand. “I believe,” Reich concluded, writing in 1933, “that the twentieth century, with its gigantic catastrophes, ushers in a new social era, an era free of politics.”

Reich's anti-political sexualism was part of the artist's and intellectual's arsenal of ideas against the very idea of politics. Sex, as an anti-politics, can be seen idealized in Orwell's representation of the “proles” in 1984; more significantly, not intellectual insight, but sexual appetite permits his heroine, Julia, to reject the ideology of the party. Another example of sexuality seen as the essential quality of the ideally anti-political man is in Lawrence's Mellors, in Lady Chatterley's Lover.

More than he helped to create it, Reich exhibited in his own career the extremes of a fundamental shift in the sentiment for revolution: away from the classical aim of public social correction, toward the present transitional aim of private self-transformation. Put differently, the shift is from that conception of society in terms of justice and injustice which connects Plato and Marx, conservatism and Communism, toward a conception of society framed in terms of health and sickness. That latter conception is not new; a study of it would reveal the inevitable connection between religion and psychotherapy. That Reich was emphatically anti-Christian does not diminish the peculiarly modern religiosity (as distingished from true faith) of his therapeutic preaching.


In Reich's later work the preaching grew louder and explicit—more desperate, less hopeful. The Freudo-Marxist phase reached a climax with the publication of his Character Analysis and The Mass Psychology of Fascism (both in 1933) and The Sexual Revolution in 1936. After 1936, the religious apprehensions grew, until, at his death in 1957, they displaced both his Freudian-ism and his Marxism. During his last years, Reich's bio-therapy developed into mysticism, complete with its surest sign—the “Oceanic” feeling. Being, above all, a scientist, Reich was very precise about the ocean: it was an “orgone ocean . . . from which . . . all being, physical as well as emotional, emerges.” Individuals were redefined as bits of “especially varied and organized cosmic energy.” In this way Reich was able to find God—hiding, but only to be the more easily found—within man. At the same time, the “cosmic orgone ocean” is God. That ocean is the heavens, not symbolically but literally. Thus Reich returned unawares to one of the most primitive of all conceptions of God, in which deity does not reside in heaven but is, rather, identical with it. When accused of being a primitive, Reich proudly accepted the accusation as a sign of superiority. His passion was for recapturing what he considered the organic sense of wholeness characteristic of the primitive, as against the mechanistic sense of fragmentation he considered characteristic of the modern and scientific world view. The “primitive animistic view was closer to the (truth)” of “natural functioning” than the modern scientific. Reich merely “rediscovered” in his self-therapy the “true religion” with which primitive man had first asserted not himself but his oneness with the universe.

Behind the “mystical distortions,” therefore, Reich found a “rational core” within all forms of faith. Now, in the science of Orgonomy, that core had been recovered and, at last, made rational: the existence of God had been demonstrated; “it,” not “he,” was the objective rational power governing the universe. Pre-scientific men had imagined that this objective power was a spirit, or a person, or three persons. Reich knew what every scientist knows: that God is power—physical in the universe, at the “root of all being and identical with it.” He decided to worship what he knew. Thus science became his religion.

Now that the existence of God had been demonstrated (in experiments which only Reich appeared able to conduct), “it” could be put to work instead of being merely worshipped. For this old Marxist and strict scientist, use was the highest adoration. Certainly, “it” was there to be used; the cosmic power had “finally become accessible . . . [could] be handled, directed, measured, put to useful purposes by man-made tools.” Indeed, God was good because He was useful. Although “it” could be misused, and thus turn wrathful, even deadly, naturally “it” was therapeutic, for the life of the universe affirms itself. Man need only accept the universe, and his religious problem, no less than all others, would be solved. Already in theory, partly in practice (for the techniques were not yet perfect), God could be used “to treat certain diseases” which were otherwise incurable—cancer, for example. The power that is God could be used “to lift a weight, or to blast rocks, or to penetrate matter with rays so that the inside becomes visible.” Ultimately, “it” would be used to cure the illness of living itself.


With his discovery of God, Reich, in his own case, brought the therapeutic process to a successful conclusion. But again mankind refused to follow. By 1945, the doctor had completely lost his patience; the Reichian canon grew rhapsodic as much in hate as love. Reading the late Reich is like going to a pacifist meeting: one is a little frightened to witness so much aggression displayed by men pleading an end to aggression. As the one true physician, Reich lords it over the patient, addressing himself in the third person, although not in capitalized letters; after all, he is a Scientist, and Rational.

It is while talking about himself that Reich appears most moved. There is more than a trace of Jack London's Sea Wolf, if not of more superior men, in Reich's posturing. He describes himself, first of all, as a “great and lonely man.” Then, this description is not accurate enough: “a very great man” will do better. He asks himself personal questions of worth, and answers in a way that would embarrass even a mirror on a wall: “You are likened to the intellectual giants in the history of science. You have made the greatest discovery in centuries.” Yet despite the love that this very great man bears, not merely for himself, but for all ordinary living animals around him, they are afraid of him; they actually resent him. “The great man suffers for your misdeed in your place.” He is a “pariah . . . driven . . . into loneliness,” into “exile,” into being “queer,” into “decades of heartbreaking suffering.”

This identification with Jesus exhibits Reich's main image of martyrdom. But from his various references, a pantheon of “true friends,” all martyrs, can be reconstructed; with these he confidently expected posterity to put him on familiar and equal terms. After Jesus comes Giordano Bruno; then Socrates, Rathenau, Liebknecht, Marx, Lincoln, Nietzsche, Lenin, Galileo, Wood-row Wilson (that “great, warm person”).

Reviewing the evidence of these earlier martyrdoms, it occurred to Reich that perhaps humanity was not worth saving. Listen, Little Man (1948) is one long scream of outrage at the sick of the sick society, determined, as they are, to remain sick. What infuriated Reich, mainly, was that although he had broken the monopoly on greatness, making it available to all, none chose it. The theoretical way was now clear; all men could be superior, do as they pleased, enjoy. Yet even those he had personally “freed” in the “belief of being free,” felt lustful rather than loving. Rejected, the redeemer threatened to reject mankind. They had failed him, as they always failed their redeemers, infallibly choosing little men, often in the name of the great: Paul over Jesus, Hitler over Nietzsche, Robespierre over Danton, the Freud of culture over the Freud of sex—the examples are all Reich's. The little man cherishes his tyrants, as he does his character; he is not “alive inside and healthy.”

Nevertheless, Reich reassures us, in parables, that he will not abandon the unredeemed. Addressing a hypothetical St. Peter, Reich advises him, as the representative figure of the sick, on how to heal himself: “The answer is: Build your house on rock. The rock is your own nature which you kill in yourself, the bodily love of your child, the dream of love of your wife, your own dream of life at the age of sixteen.”

Finally, as much in anger as in sorrow, Reich turned away from saving the sick, or even the sick society. The “plague” was killing the planet. As an emergency measure, Reich hastened to the saving of this small lump of the cosmos. Not that he lacked colleagues. Other scientists, from other worlds, were undoubtedly at work on the very same problems, and with the same ideas, with whose discovery he had been burdened on earth. In this manner, the therapeutic doctrine of Character Analysis was fully elaborated into the scientific theological fantasia of Reich's last years. The original god-term, Orgone Energy, successor to Freud's libido, acquired a complementary devil term, “DOR,” successor to Freud's death instinct, which Reich, in an earlier period, had denounced as unscientific and speculative. DOR was “Deadly Orgone Energy”—made deadly by the efforts of mechanist scientists in the service of sadistic politicians.

Toward the end of his life, Reich's eschatological sense grew into panic: the last emergency was upon us. Mankind was spreading the plague into nature itself. The good earth was being laid waste—becoming infertile and, finally, desert—as men projected outward the emotional desert of their inner lives. To Reich, the “waste land” was no poetic image but the planetary counterpart of human “armor.” As a scientist in this emergency, his vocation must be not merely finding out about nature but saving it. If he could not save souls, then he would save matter. Reich became a “Cosmic Orgone Engineer,” making rain and other fertility devices.

Other characters, undoubtedly genital, from other planets, were similarly at work. The cosmos was threatened; the devil, DOR, had been getting stronger, sustained by atomic blasts, which were poisoning the atmosphere. It was possible, of course, that, in order to protect life on their own planets, the Cosmic Orgone Engineers in outer space had decided to help earth-man destroy himself. Deadly Orgone Energy was apparently due not only to the work of our mechanist scientists, but also “to cosmic orgone engineering by the people who have been visiting our planet in spaceships (‘flying saucers,’ as they appeared to some) from other worlds.”

These “CORE men,” as Reich called them, familiarly, although from another planet, were his last hope. Surely they intended to save, not destroy. “Obviously they are concerned about the far-reaching effects of our periodic explosions” on their own worlds. “They could stop these harmful explosions by either destroying us through DOR illness and desert development in our world or by pushing us towards health and good sense.” Since, unlike earthlings, “CORE men are in touch with orgone functions and undoubtedly unarmored, it's easier to believe their intentions towards us are benign.” The only fully accredited Cosmic Orgone Engineer on earth continued, despite provocation, to harbor only the most benign intentions.


It is not at all clear that when Reich died, martyred, in prison, he suffered from the suspicion that his martyrdom was absurd. On the contrary, he could see that even if the revolution he had preached went deliberately unheard, the age itself was revolutionary and that not merely in the superficial sense. He expected a showdown: for Life or against It. Was he, then, in his foolishness, completely mistaken?

Despite his doctrinal eccentricities—perhaps rather because of them—Reich is not alien from the moral revolution of our time; rather, he is an expression of it. Of course, that revolution is not being conducted on Reichian terms. Man the “preserver of higher values” does not yet understand himself as the same man who is “an orgonotic energy system,” but he is more and more inclined to believe that once he has fused the two conceptions of himself—the moral and the natural—his problems will be solved. Whether men will ever understand themselves in the specifically Reichian way is not the issue; rather, the issue is how far Reich's eccentricities reveal something important about the less flamboyant efforts of science to solve the ethical question which the Greeks and the Jews long ago set for us.


1 Nothing mysterious about this stuff. At favorable times, it could be seen in the air. It gave off a “bluish-green” color, flickering and vibrant, as if it were vitality itself. It could be seen, by those with seeing eyes; its warmth could be measured, its colors separated.

2 See his Primal Law (1903), specially Chapter II, on “Sexual Relations of Animals.”

3 Or a defeated one, in Freud's famous version.

4 I would also include Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse, and Norman O. Brown among our leading contemporary neo-Reichian polemicists.

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