Fourth Estate, £25, 532pp. £20 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness