Adventures in the Orgasmatron: Wilhelm Reich and the Invention of Sex, By Christopher Turner

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The Independent Culture

Slice them where you will, any collection of psychoanalysts is as mad as a parliament. Novelty beards, whirling eyes, twitches, deranged clothing, tics, jitters and habits you wouldn't want to go into. But Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was the maddest of the lot. His mainspring theory was that all human ills stemmed from not enough orgasms, and, in particular, not enough proper orgasms, which he plotted on graphs from foreplay to the molten afterglow of WH Auden's "Lullaby" (1940): "Soul and body have no bounds:/ To lovers as they lie upon/ Her tolerant enchanted slope/ In their ordinary swoon."

As an undergraduate, I was made to read Reich's Function of the Orgasm (also published in 1940) by my Experimental Psychology supervisor. I'd complained about having to read Sidney Siegel's Nonparametric Statistics and Reich was the prescribed corrective. Like Auden, Reich saw in the miraculous orgasm, the grave vision "Venus sends/ Of supernatural sympathy,/ Universal love and hope".

But, pursuing his abstract insight to its logical end, Reich went cuckoo. It wasn't just free love and interfering with his patients. He started seeing things. Little coloured flashes of light in the cosmos, and later in the sand: rays. Something new and primordial.

He believed he had discovered a universal energy, "orgone". He started building "orgone accumulators": Heath-Robinson contraptions, wooden boxes with steel-wool linings and then zinc linings, repeated layer after layer. The organic wood captured the orgone and the zinc somehow retained it. You sat in it or squirted the rays at yourself, and it could cure cancer and everything else you might think of.

Except, of course, it didn't. Reich solicited Einstein's approval, but Einstein did some experiments and said he thought Reich should learn scepticism. The rebuff didn't bother Reich. But (he was by then living in the US) the thing did bother the Food and Drug Administration. They had him down – unfairly – as a quack, in it for the money. All the books and patients and quasi-learned articles were just (they said) sales pitches for flogging orgone boxes, satirised as "Orgasmatrons" in Woody Allen's Sleeper.

As so often, the collision between The Man and the individual had an undercurrent of hilarious absurdity. Chris Turner's Adventures in the Orgasmatron would be worth the price just for the small picture of the FDA man sitting in his suit pointing an "orgone shooter" (a tiny orgone box with a funnel and hosepipe) while wearing an orgone blanket and a pointed orgone-collecting hat, like a bemused grey-flannelled Orgasm Wizard.

Reich's story is a captivating mixture of anguish, comedy, delusion and utter blithering single-mindedness. Even his own beginnings are the stuff of a psychodrama. His mother has an affair with the tutor. Reich grasses her up to his bullying father. Mama drinks Drano, not once but three times, eventually successfully expiring. His father decides to do away with himself: taking out life insurance, he stands waist high in an icy lake for hours on end, pretending to fish. He gets TB and dies but there's no payout.

Then Reich's first real girlfriend apparently gets pregnant, possibly has an attempted abortion, perhaps by Reich, gets blood poisoning and dies, following which her mother kills herself. Just when you think it can't get worse, Gavrilo Princip assassinates Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914...

Reich goes in for psychoanalysis. The semi-anointed heir of Freud, he's nevertheless chucked out of the psychoanalytical brotherhood in Vienna. He "discovers" orgone. He sits in his orgone box in his Vienna basement and sees blue rays "radiating at the hands, palms and fingertips, at the penis... Marie Curie may have died of it... But I'm radiating." There are rows with his colleagues, fallings-in-love (and lust), rows with women, fallings-out with women. In his dark basement box, he's lonely.

He falls out with his various analysts (all psychoanalysts are analysed themselves, often for life) or they declare him crackers. In 1939 he gets his passport, issued by the German embassy. "JEW" is stamped across it. Reich goes to America; whence his fame; whence his downfall; whence his influence.

To see Reich's fascinating and compelling trajectory simply as a descent into failure and obsession (he was wrong about almost everything, and died in jail, where the FDA finally succeeded in putting him) would be a terrible error, though thanks to Turner's masterly and humane storytelling an unlikely one. Reich's legacy was not in psychoanalysis, nor in the silly orgone accumulators or the even madder "cloudbuster": aluminium tubes and hosepipes and buckets of water which could move the evil sort of orgone around the sky and indeed make it rain.

It was instead in the hippy movement of the Sixties (which changed far more than we even now realise) and in gay rights: the idea that a person was, by law of nature, not only entitled to but right to seek some degree of erotic honesty in order to live a human life were both rooted in Reich's work, even if often unacknowledged. But you don't have to be interested in psychoanalysis or hippies or Reich himself to be seduced by this wonderful book. Any three pages at random would provide an enterprising novelist or screenwriter with a couple of years' of pleasurable inspiration. It's far more than a life of Reich; far more than a life of one who truly could be called, in the old term, a "sex maniac". It's a tale of human life, in its excitability, curiosity, gullibility, hope and disappointment. Turner is to be congratulated.