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Wilhelm Reich’s Social and Political Insights


Presented at the Institute for Orgonomic Science Conference, entitled: “Science, Love and Society: an Introduction to Orgonomy, the Work of Wilhelm Reich”
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, April 11, 2015

I’ve been studying Wilhelm Reich’s social and political thought for the last ten years. Here is some of what I’ve learned.

Wilhelm Reich was a psychoanalyst but also a profound psychoanalytic theorist, an orgone therapist and social activist, a laboratory scientist exploring physiology and biology, a natural scientist making profound observations and experiments in biophysics and meteorology, a cosmologist and philosopher of science, a social theorist and in one sense a theologist–I’m thinking of one of his later books, The Murder of Christ.

In her Foreword to the compilation Selected Writings, Mary Higgins, the Trustee of Reich’s estate, said: “The vastness of Wilhelm Reich’s scientific accomplishments has always created a problem of too muchness.”

In her Foreword to the compilation Selected Writings, Mary Higgins, the Trustee of Reich’s estate, said: “The vastness of Wilhelm Reich’s scientific accomplishments has always created a problem of too muchness.”

The reference to “too muchness” is an allusion to some comments Reich himself made towards the end of his life in his book, Ether, God and Devil, where Reich noted that he was forced by the facts, especially the discovery of orgone energy, to cross boundaries typically viewed as sacrosanct by scientists.

“As a consequence, I often had to defend myself against the reproach that I did not respect my proper scientific boundaries, that I had undertaken “Too Much At Once.”…No one has felt the TOO-MUCHNESS as painfully as myself.”

In the face of the “too much” I am going to limit myself (mostly) to a single work, Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism. (Hereafter, MPF.)

But even here, I will be forced to ignore a wealth of material: we could easily spend an entire conference on just this one work.

I want to begin by emphasizing the importance of Reich’s social and political thought in his work. Reich first referred to orgone energy in the Spring of 1939. After that his press published twelve titles, including Contact with Space, brought out after his death. At least six belong squarely in the social and political camp.

Here is a list of the titles; those in BOLD I consider social and political:
Further Problems of Work Democracy
The Function of the Orgasm
Character Analysis
The Sexual Revolution
The Mass Psychology of Fascism
The Cancer Biopathy
Listen, Little Man!
Ether, God and Devil
Cosmic Superimposition
The Murder of Christ
People in Trouble
Contact with Space

In what follows I’m going to limit myself by following a script and avoiding examples and other asides, thereby providing what I hope will be ample time for interaction with you all.

Here are the themes I will address:

  • Reich’s understanding of fascism
  • Reich’s answer to fascism: work democracy
  • The determining role of sexuality in all this

Here are the themes I will address:

  • Reich’s understanding of fascism
  • Reich’s answer to fascism: work democracy
  • The determining role of sexuality in all this

Reich on fascism:

Originally, Fascists were members of the Italian political party, The National Fascist Party (Partito Nazionale Fascista; PNF) created by Benito Mussolini in the 1920s.

But for Reich, and many other progressives, fascism is not the name of a party or necessarily a political government or state. He is obviously using the term in a wider sense as did those on the left during the 1920s and 1930s in Europe and as some progressives now refer to the United States as having “fascistic tendencies.”

One theme in MPF is the strong connection between the authoritarian patriarchal family structure and fascism. The stronger the role of the authority the more likely the child will become a good follower or mindless rebel, neither of which moves society forward, and both of which contribute to a fascist like society. For Reich it might be best to speak of a fascistic character structure.

One theme in MPF is the strong connection between the authoritarian patriarchal family structure and fascism. The stronger the role of the authority the more likely the child will become a good follower or mindless rebel, neither of which moves society forward, and both of which contribute to a fascist like society. For Reich it might be best to speak of a fascistic character structure.

While authoritarian family structure remains a dominant one world wide, there has arisen, in reaction perhaps, the anti-authoritarian family, which often takes the form of parents refusing to set any limits at all for children.

Reich dealt with this in a way in his correspondence with Neill, the famous progressive educator and then head of Summerhill school in England. Both had children born in the mid 1940s. (Peter Reich was born in 1944; Zoe Neill in 1946.) In their correspondence we see the two elderly parents struggling to foster a climate which would permit their children to self-regulate their behavior but in less than ideal circumstances.

As for those parents who are fearful of setting limits, I am reminded of the Ancient saying:

Without a firm bank the stream becomes a swamp.                     

(Actually, I made this up but it could be an ancient saying, and now, with time, may become one!) Ideally, those limits would be self-imposed, if a person were truly capable of self-regulation.

Psychoanalysis speaks of transference, where feelings, both positive and negative towards one’s parents, get put on one’s therapist; but there is also transference in real life. From family to school to political affiliation to political engagement: the obedient child becomes the obedient student and later the obedient citizen…or the rebel without a rational cause.

Children go from authoritarian families into authoritarian educational systems and end up incapable of taking responsibility for their own lives, incapable of critical thinking, unable to live freely and fully, fearful of standing out, driven to mindless conformity.

Children go from authoritarian families into authoritarian educational systems and end up incapable of taking responsibility for their own lives, incapable of critical thinking, unable to live freely and fully, fearful of standing out, driven to mindless conformity.

People want to be told what to do.  A brief aside: When I was in therapy with Dr. Sobey, who was trained by Reich (this goes back to the 1960s), Sobey would never give me advice, even when I announced in therapy I was about to do something that was rather silly. (He couldn’t hide his reaction completely: I noticed him flinch slightly, but he didn’t say a word.) Later when it came time to undo that silliness (it had to do with an impulsive marriage), he said, “I wondered how long that compulsive thing would last!”

I recognize that there all sorts of exceptions to this general characterization, but even among less restrictive, more human families and schools, the big “don’t touch it” of sexuality typically remains and continues to be highly problematic.

The repression of emotional expression generally and sexual longing in particular produces anxiety, and one way to lessen that anxiety is to follow the leader, to give up one’s individual responsibility in favor of buying into the all knowing ideology of a political party or a church or a new-age guru.

The repression of emotional expression generally and sexual longing in particular produces anxiety, and one way to lessen that anxiety is to follow the leader, to give up one’s individual responsibility in favor of buying into the all knowing ideology of a political party or a church or a new-age guru.

Reich: “The individual brought up in the authoritarian way does not know the natural laws of self-regulation; he is afraid of his sexuality because he has never learned to live it naturally; he has no confidence in himself. Therefore, he declines responsibility for his actions and decisions and demands guidance.”

It is in the Family that the seeds are planted: Think of the role of the family authority in the context of emotional repression and specifically sexual repression.

At one point Reich refers to the authoritarian family as “the factory of reactionary ideology and structure.”

At one point Reich refers to the authoritarian family as “the factory of reactionary ideology and structure.”

Now our natural emotional responses are quite strong, instinctual, and unless a child has endured all kinds of horrible experiences in utero, we can easily see these responses in a healthy baby:

  • They don’t just cry: they wail
  • They yawn and stretch
  • If startled, they shake all over
  • They smile and soon learn to laugh
  • They have a will of their own, and when thwarted they get furious [terrible twos]
  • They are sexual beings

Think for a moment as to how we repress our natural urges. Take crying for example.  If you are crying, and you are told that big boys don’t cry, or you are told, stop that crying or I’ll give you something to cry about, what do you do? There is only one way: you hold your breath, you stifle the spontaneous movement of your diaphragm, the heaving of your chest.

So early on armoring forms against emotional expression accompanied by the internalizing of an ideology of repression. Once internalized it is then reinforced by the social structures and later acted out against or to one’s own offspring.

So early on armoring forms against emotional expression accompanied by the internalizing of an ideology of repression. Once internalized it is then reinforced by the social structures and later acted out against or to one’s own offspring.

How many of us now yawn freely, not just tear up but wail, get truly furious, long for something, shake when we are terrified? Most of us have learned to keep a tight lid on all such expressions.  

All of this is gendered as well: in our society women are given more slack to cry (harkens back to the 19th century notion that women are emotional and incapable of rational thought), while men are allowed to express anger…but certainly not sadness.

Think of the ways in which we pathologize crying. Our language reflects this. We speak of  losing it in public; when I hear this I want to say, “no you were about to gain it, you were about to discharge some of your sadness.” Or we speak of feeling vulnerable. When are knights of old vulnerable? When they take off their armor! Some of us are old enough to remember the brouhaha about Edmund Muskie’s tears and how this undermined his presidential ambitions in 1972.

Fascism is in the body, so to say. That is, muscular armor, originally developed to repress emotional response and then later sexual urges: we carry fascism within us, in our tight muscles, in our inability to give into the natural, in our inability to take complete responsibility for our lives and our environment. 

In his book Function of the Orgasm, Reich uses very telling terms: he refers to “the encrustations and rigidifications of human emotional life.”

With the repression of natural sexuality the organism has to handle the energy in some way. It gets bound up in muscular armor. In some cases it seems bound up completely, leading to lower energy levels and all sorts of biopathies, or patterns of illness. Here Reich refers to the quiet neurotic, homo normalis.

In others when impulses encounter the armoring the impulse comes through in distorted fashion. Instead of the longing for the loving and respectful embrace of an emotional equal, the now distorted secondary layer impulse becomes a longing to dominate the other, to act sadistically towards the other, etc.

These are just examples, but for Reich all so-called “perversions” are due to armoring, in the absence of which we wouldn’t need to worry about foot fetishists, masochistic fantasies (think of the popularity of Fifty Shades of Gray) rape, pedophilia, and the like.

but for Reich all so-called “perversions” are due to armoring, in the absence of which we wouldn’t need to worry about foot fetishists, masochistic fantasies (think of the popularity of Fifty Shades of Gray) rape, pedophilia, and the like.

This armoring affects more than our sexual impulses: it also effects our thinking, reinforcing the authoritarian attitudes instilled in us as youths.

How else to explain the widespread irrationality we see in the world? Either people are inherently foolish, or something has happened to inhibit our natural good common sense and curiosity about the world.

How else to explain the widespread irrationality we see in the world? Either people are inherently foolish, or something has happened to inhibit our natural good common sense and curiosity about the world.

Reich assumes the latter: he has a positive view of human nature, unlike the later Freud and others, who felt that human nature must be repressed because of our inherent evil impulses. I’m thinking specifically of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, a book which Reich suggests was written in response to Reich’s arguments about preventing neuroses rather than trying to cure it.

And at times these irrational thoughts collude with others, and give rise to what he called “The Emotional Plague.” This phenomenon seems inseparable from fascistic tendencies, so we should pause and describe it a bit.

While Reich uses the phrase throughout MPF, he only defines it once and in this way.

“What philosophers, poets, vacuous politicians, but also great psychologists call “human nature,” is absolutely identical with the sex-economic clinical concept of the “emotional plague.” It is the sum total of all irrational life functions in the animal, man.

His thinking on the emotion plague evolved and later he used it to refer to a particular social phenomenon.

From Character Analysis, 3rd edition, 1949:

“While the emotional plague is indeed a character neurosis or character biopathy in the strict sense of the word, it is also more than that, and this “more” distinguishes it from biopathies and character neuroses. We can define the emotional plague as human behavior that, on the basis of a biopathic character structure, operates in an organized or typical way in interpersonal, i.e., social, relations and in social institutions.

Here Reich distinguishes between the ordinary neurotic, who goes about his business, the typical little man, not making waves, but also not advancing things, etc, and the social organization of such neurotics acting together in ways that inhibit human freedom, and human growth. The attacks on Reich while he was alive and the continued dismissal of Reich as a crackpot are perfect examples of the emotional plague.

The source of this irrationality, whether expressed in the individual or in an organized manner is the same:

Reich:
“As social and clinical sex-economy has convincingly demonstrated, the mechanism which makes the masses of people incapable of freedom is the social suppression of genital love life in children, adolescents and adults.”

Reich:
“As social and clinical sex-economy has convincingly demonstrated, the mechanism which makes the masses of people incapable of freedom is the social suppression of genital love life in children, adolescents and adults.”

Sexual Repression; the authoritarian family; children and women having no say; education based on “rote” learning: if these are the seeds of fascism, then the seeds of liberation are easy to discern: egalitarian family structures; women (as well as men) as leaders; children having a voice; children educated to think critically; infantile and adolescent sexuality are recognized and supported in appropriate ways.

To summarize, the more sexuality is taboo, is forbidden or distorted, and when engaged in is rape-like (given the power dynamics between men and women in the authoritarian social setting), the more likely the political structure will be fascistic. And, conversely, the more egalitarian the family, the more sexuality has been allowed its natural expression, the less fascistic the government and society.

To summarize, the more sexuality is taboo, is forbidden or distorted, and when engaged in is rape-like (given the power dynamics between men and women in the authoritarian social setting), the more likely the political structure will be fascistic. And, conversely, the more egalitarian the family, the more sexuality has been allowed its natural expression, the less fascistic the government and society.

So, fascism is not so much a party political phenomena: you don’t get rid of it by banning neo-nazi political organizations, though that is not a bad idea. Fascism is in the blood of the average person. It gets expressed personally in the everyday neurotic; and it gets expressed socially in the emotional plague character structure.

So, fascism is not so much a party political phenomena: you don’t get rid of it by banning neo-nazi political organizations, though that is not a bad idea. Fascism is in the blood of the average person. It gets expressed personally in the everyday neurotic; and it gets expressed socially in the emotional plague character structure.

For Reich, the most important hallmark–road-sign, indiction–is the unfounded belief that someone else will solve your problems for you. Again and again in MPF he rails against the inability of homo normalis to take responsibility for his lived situation. 

As for what Reich means by sexual health, I’ve studied with care his various programs for “sexual hygiene” in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and I don’t think his later thought was in any way different on this score.

A SEXUALLY HEALTHY SOCIETY 

  • Personal control of one’s own sexual life
  • Access to technologies to support personal control
  • End of compulsory marriage [communal child rearing as on Israeli kibbutzes, complete lack of financial dependence of spouses...]
  • Adequate privacy for all
  • Fostering of infantile, childhood and adolescent sexuality [not encouragement nor mere tolerance]
  • Elimination of all forms of sexual exploitation
  • Support for “sexual minorities”

Reich very early on in the 1920s was a vocal supporter for decriminalization of homosexuality, and he was impressed with the fact that that did happen in the Soviet Union right after the revolution, but sadly, as Stalin solidified his power, laws prohibiting male homosexuality were reintroduced, and now we know that in the current day Russia homophobia is quite extreme.

Reich very early on in the 1920s was a vocal supporter for decriminalization of homosexuality.

A sexually healthy society is a prerequisite for a work-democratic one.

A WORK DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY

  • All work is “vitally necessary work,” as defined by Reich as work which meets human needs. [Reich was a vocal critique of advertising and its ability to create false needs: see People in Trouble and Further Problems of Work Democracy.]
  • No economic exploitation. [No private ownership or state ownership but social ownership: workers own and run their businesses.]
  • No environmental exploitation.
  • Work, not labor

This one requires some explanation. Labor is something you engage in in order to get something else, like food, shelter, or to meet your other needs. Work is something you engaged in out of your humanness: it is an expression of your being, comes from your heart or your loins, not from external need.

  • All leadership is local and revocable. 

This one requires some explanation. Labor is something you engage in in order to get something else, like food, shelter, or to meet your other needs. Work is something you engaged in out of your humanness: it is an expression of your being, comes from your heart or your loins, not from external need.

This too is not self-explanatory. At one point (in an essay entitled “Work Democracy in Action,” Reich discusses his leadership of the Orgone Institute. He there said that if someone came along who understood the functioning of the institute better than Reich did, then that person would be the new director. Leadership of a group is not a matter of garnering votes (indeed, voting has nothing or little to do with the kind of democracy Reich is promoting) but of figuring out the best person for the job. Assuming the workers are free of greed, longing for power, and other neurotic needs, they will easily recognize who is the best person for the leadership role. Whatever anarchist tendencies one finds in Reich’s work, he did not endorse the magical thinking that a group could miraculously function without a leader.

Finally,

  • Work is in harmony with nature.
  • Every individual worker takes complete responsibility for her or his living and work environment.

Work democracy can be understood as the natural way people relate in the face of social needs and demands: they naturally organize themselves to take on the task before them. Reich firmly believed that within humans is the natural urge/need to work and to do so cooperatively.

Work democracy can be understood as the natural way people relate in the face of social needs and demands: they naturally organize themselves to take on the task before them. Reich firmly believed that within humans is the natural urge/need to work and to do so cooperatively.

Examples abound, but mainly in times of crisis. I was in Dresden when the Elbe last flooded in 2013. I watched as young people came from all over the areas to fill sandbags and place them along the river’s edge. No one appeared to be telling them what to do, or how to do it. They just did it. Immediately after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 “first responders” from all over the country, on their own, drove to NYC, parked their vehicles near the Javits Center on 34th Street, and walked to the site and began searching through the wreckage for survivors. Such examples–and their number can easily be multiplied–give us hints as to how we would behave all the time were we free of armoring. 

As for next steps: I’m in no better position than any of you to say something insightful here, but it seems to me that we have to use the current legislative structures to guarantee a future that will then permit us to evolve into a people who won’t need those very legislative structures.

In 1954, reflecting on his 1952 interview with a representative of the Freud Archives, Reich said: “The developments in science and education within the next one hundred years will be decisive in establishing whether this interview will have any meaning whatsoever, or whether the evasion of the issues of babyhood and motherhood will continue to mess up more centuries of human destiny.

In 1954, reflecting on his 1952 interview with a representative of the Freud Archives, Reich said: “The developments in science and education within the next one hundred years will be decisive in establishing whether this interview will have any meaning whatsoever, or whether the evasion of the issues of babyhood and motherhood will continue to mess up more centuries of human destiny.

Elsewhere I recall him saying something like it will take hundreds of years for people fully to appreciate his work.

But it seems painfully obvious to me that we can’t count on some future understanding if we destroy the planet in the meantime. The end of the state and its replacement by some form of self-governing work democracy, is possible, if Reich is right, but we have to evolve into it. In the meantime, we must clean our nest.

Reich’s discussion of work democracy as I’ve presented it may sound highly utopian. Yet there are many examples worker owned and worker managed businesses, so we know that such a vision is quite practical, at least on a small scale. (See for example the recently published What Then Must We Do: Straight Talk about the next American Revolution, by Gar Alperovitz.) As for the larger ideals, even if they seem darn near impossible, we need a vision of where we are heading:

“Where there is no vision the people perish.” Old Testament.

And we can take responsibility now and begin developing work democratic structures in the organizations to which we belong, and in other aspects of our lives.

We can also strive for sexual health and take on the responsibility for establishing loving, gentle deep natural sexual unions, or seeking therapeutic help that will make such relationships possible.

In The Mass Psychology of Fascism there is a passage in which Reich references his motto:

“According to work-democratic thinking, all politics which is not based on love, work and knowledge, and therefore is irrational, belongs in the field of the emotional plague. In this manner, work democracy provides a simple answer to the perennial question as to how to get at human nature: Education, hygiene and medicine, which always have been struggling with human nature without much success, have a powerful ally against the emotional plague: the rational functions of vitally necessary work.”

Or more succinctly, if you get confused or lost, here is the map that hopefully brings you back to reality of your–of all of ours–task:

Love, Work and Knowledge are the well-springs of our life. They should also govern it.

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From Psychoanalysis to Vegetotherapy


I first got interested in Wilhelm Reich in 1962 when I read The Function of the Orgasm, and in 1963 I started therapy with someone trained by Dr. Reich, someone known to people in this room, Dr. Victor Sobey. So I was familiar with the material, but I took a break from it for a long time. There was a period of my life when I felt knowing this stuff was useless, there was nothing I could do with it except weed my own garden and I was doing that. But in 2004, I got reenergized and for the last few years I’ve been working on a book on Reich’s social and political thought. It is that material which I’ve mostly spoken on in the past. Today I’m going to branch out a little bit.

I have a Ph.D. in philosophy from NYU, so we’re going to start with a philosophy class. There are four philosophical commitments that Wilhelm Reich manifests in his work. I would like to say a few words about each of them.

Reich was a naturalist. What this means is that he had a commitment to the belief that what is natural is good. In fact, he didn’t think you really needed to teach morality or teach people to do the right thing. He felt that if people were not interfered with, they would naturally do the right thing, and what they would do would be a good thing. So for example, with children his belief in self regulation wasn’t just about eating and sleeping; it was also about their interaction with other children. If the kids had not been emotionally and sexually repressed, they would naturally do the right thing. What is natural is good for Reich, but what is not natural is not only bad but also irrational. Here’s a quote from Reich Speaks of Freud. I went back and reread this carefully because I’m talking about psychoanalysis; this is the book where Reich is reflecting on his relationship with Freud. So if you haven’t read this book it’s a really interesting book. Basically, half of the book is an interview that Reich gave to Kurt Eisler to be stored in the Freud archive.

“If you have a stream, a natural stream you must let it stream. If you dam it up somewhere it goes over the banks. That’s all. Now when the natural streaming of the bio-energy, is dammed up it also spills over, resulting in irrationality, perversions neuroses and so on. What do you have to do to correct this? You must get the stream back into its normal bed and let it flow naturally again.”

So you here the word “natural” being used and the assumption that, if it’s flowing naturally that everything is fine, and it’s only when it gets dammed up and when you move away from what’s “natural” that problems occur. This puts Reich on a direct collision course with Freud as we will see, because Freud as you may know believed that repression of sexuality was absolutely necessary. It was necessary because the young child was polymorphous perverse, it was also necessary because he felt civilization was impossible without the damming up or what he called the sublimation of sexual energy.

It’s interesting that Freud’s clearest statement of this is in the book Civilization and its Discontents. The last time Reich spoke in Freud’s inner circle was Thursday, December 12th, 1929, when he spoke of the prevention of neurosis. (The next night Reich caused a riot, and you’ll hear more about this in the third talk of the day.) It is in this book that Freud discusses at length the necessity for repression in society; and in Reich Speaks of Freud, Reich claims that Freud wrote Civilization is response to what Reich said about the prevention of neurosis in December, 1929.

In any case, It’s clear that there is a big difference between Freud and Reich on this issue of what’s “natural.”

Now there’s a related concept that’s not philosophical but there was a movement in Europe called Naturism. Naturism is this notion that being exposed to the sun is very good. It gave rise to nude sunbathing in a very popular way, not at all in the way it sometimes gets translated in more repressive cultures like ours, like how the nude beach is hard to find. Naturism was about getting out into the woods, etc, etc. There’s this great picture of Reich with Elsa and Eva and they are stripped to the waist dancing on the beach, and there are these wonderful pictures of Reich sitting and you have the impression from the way he’s sitting that he himself is probably naked, etc. That’s different from Naturalism. So I think this movement of Naturism which was very popular in Europe may explain the easy move towards having patients disrobe. Having patients disrobe, which he stared around 1937 or 38, was not such a big deal in Europe the way in this country–you’re going to jail, you’re abusing your patients, you’re doing this terrible stuff. Naturism is different from naturalism; naturism is about going out into nature and taking off your clothes. Naturalism is this whole notion that what is natural is good.

Reich is also a materialist. That is, he clearly believes that there are no disembodied psychic entities, there’s no such thing as a mind, there’s no such thing as a soul. Whatever psychological entities we talk about, like thoughts, emotions, and feeling, he had a philosophical commitment to the belief that those were instantiated in some physical way, even if we didn’t know quite how they were instantiated. That is for Reich, and he ultimately comes to believe this, psyche and soma are one, they are just two different ways of thinking about one thing. You know the famous orgonomic symbol (you have it on your schedule today), you see these two arrows pointing at each other. Well you can put psyche and soma on those two antithetical but nonetheless identical beings or aspects of the underlying reality. This means that if you recognize something on a psychological level, for example characterological armor, he had to believe that this would be manifested physically somehow. And he eventually develops this concept of muscular armor. He came to believe that when working with patients you could work either way, you could work characterologically, or you could work on the musculature, but you would be working on one and the same thing: it’s not like there two different things, they are just two different ways of working on the one thing.

In any case, he was a materialist. Next he was a rationalist, and this is more complicated. It combines with his naturalism; as I said earlier for Reich, what is natural is also rational, and what is irrational is unnatural. Reich believed that there was a rational universe the secrets of which one could come to understand, could uncover through scientific investigation. He had certain fundamental commitments, for example he believed that if two things appeared the same, there was probably a reason that would explain it and thus he draws incredible analogies between the formation of galaxies and the formation of hurricanes. etc… He also talks as if he’s an instrument of the logic of his discoveries. It’s funny language, let me read it, it’s from The Function of the Orgasm; “Everything owes its existence to the remarkable course of scientific logic. It is not false modesty when I say that I feel myself to be merely an instrument to thislogic.”

That language could be very confusing or sound mystical. Like someone or something is guiding Reich, but he’s not saying that. He’s just saying that he was following this thread, and that lead him to great inferences, but there was a logic to the world and a logic to his uncovering the world. He’s also a rationalist in the sense that he has certain fundamental commitments such as this notion of antithetical aspects being at the heart one, so you have two things like sexuality and anxiety they seem antithetical, but they are both expressions of life energy, and the life energy can either express one way or another, so beneath the antithetical there’s a unity, and that’s almost a direct quote from Reich. This is a quote; “Out of a unitary force a splitting, an antithesis develops, that is my way of thinking about natural scientific things.” Well that’s what I’m calling a rationalist commitment which he then has to instantiate empirically, he has to get out and do the work.

And finally he was an empiricist. From everything I’ve heard, Reich was incredibly intuitive as a therapist; he was brilliant that way and I think also intuitive about the universe. He might attributed that to his contact-fullness or to his orgonomic sense, but what ever intuitions he had, they then needed to be substantiated empirically. He was a scientist.

I want to now move to the relationship between Freud and Reich and then I’ll turn to the movement from psychoanalysis to vegetotherapy. First, both Freud and Reich were natural scientists. Freud’s laboratory was the treatment room initially in hospitals and then later in his own private treatment room and then his incredible intellect; he just read a lot and synthesized a lot. Reich’s laboratory was the private treatment room, the clinic, because in addition to working in Freud’s free clinics he started his own clinics in Vienna in 1929, the streets because he was in the streets, the political organizations he belonged to and his non-political organizations, but eventually the laboratory. And of course his great intellect; he also read a lot and synthesized a lot.

In terms of the sciences relevant to both Freud and Reich, Freud was very much interested in chemistry and the biology of his day, he even considered at one point that psychology could be put on a neurological basis. Some of you may know The Project for a Scientific Psychology, that he wrote in 1895; it was never published in his life. All this is discussed at length in Frank Sulloway’s book, Freud: Biologist of the Mind. He was very much interested in evolutionary biology, Freud that is.

Reich read widely on chemistry, physics, biology and when he comes to the U.S. he develops orgone biophysics, but that’s beyond our talk today– we’re going to stay in Europe. They were both materialists. Freud never doubted for a second that there was some physical basis to libido, that there was some physical basis to the unconscious, etc..He just didn’t know exactly what it was, he looked various places. Neither Freud nor Reich believed that there was such a thing as a mind trapped inside the body or that it could somehow live beyond the body except maybe through their works. (There was a guy in Germany who makes accumulators who insisted that for years he was channeling Reich, he would go into séances and speak to Reich. Well he didn’t agree with Reich because Reich was clearly a materialist.) Though there were some points at the very end of his life when Reich said things that sounded potentially mystical, but I don’t see him as a mystic.

Both Freud and Reich focused on human irrationality in a variety of ways. For Freud the focus was on the neurotic symptoms, for Reich it was more character structure, etc. They were both therapists, and they used a variety of therapeutic modalities. Freud used cocaine initially. He then studied with Charcot in France and became interested in hypnosis, so he then used hypnosis. Later he hears of this incredible case from his friend Breuer about this poor young women Anna O. and she in fact says what went on between them was a “talking cure”, and out of that grows psychoanalysis. So he moves from cocaine to psychoanalysis.

Reich also was a therapist who used different modalities. Reich started as a psychoanalyst as you know: his therapeutic mode was initially psychoanalytic though he quickly adapted psychoanalysis into what can be called character analysis, and then developed this embodied form of therapy which came to be known as vegetotherapy. But they were both therapists using a variety means and a variety of modalities.

If you read the book Freud: Biologist of the Mind, you can see clearly that Freud assumed that there was some physical basis for all this stuff. But there’s a difference between believing there’s a physical basis of something but then what kind of explanation do you use. Let me give you a quick example. It’s actually from my Ph.D. dissertation; you can go to NYU and read it. I’m going to bend over. When I did that, certain muscles tensed certain muscles relaxed, neurons fired, so you could explain what I did from a purely physiological level, but you can also explain it psychological, why did he do this, he was looking at his shoes, he wanted to greet his Japanese business partner and was showing respect, he was stretching his lower back… In other words, you could explain what I did in a variety of ways, but clearly what I did was a physical thing. Thus Freud offered psychological or psychoanalytic explanations for human behavior, but he certainly believed that beneath them or behind them was some physical reality even if he didn’t know what that reality was.

In this first talk, I’m going to focus just on therapy, I’m not going to talk about Reich’s problems with the psychoanalytic organization, I’m not going to talk about the history of that, I just want to focus on therapy.

One key feature is the existence of infantile sexuality. A second key feature is repression. Freud wrote a book called, The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement, and in this book he said “repression is the corner stone on which the whole of psychoanalysis rests.” Originally Freud believed that all neurosis were sexual in origin; Reich never gave that belief up. Freud does eventually when he introduces the concept of a death instinct that might explain human behavior, but originally, Freud and Reich were on the same page about the sexual origin of all neurosis. For Freud, we live in a culture where the repression of that sexual energy or libido is necessary, and this gives rise to an unconscious which often motivates our beliefs and actions and this unconscious has it’s own kind of language and reveals itself often symbolically. So through the use of free association to get past the censor, dream analysis, slips of the tongue, etc., the psychoanalyst interprets or looks at what the patient is saying and comes to understand the hidden meaning, and through this, the coded language of the unconscious. For example, as I recall, if you have a dream about a train, that’s always about sex. There are these standard kind of symbolic elements. You try to bring the unconscious to consciousness and hopefully when that occurs, the client has some kind of emotional expression, some kind of emotional release, abreaction, and then the symptom is diminished, that’s sort of psychoanalysis in four minutes. Takes a little longer to learn it and to practice it.

As for Reich’s relationship to psychoanalysis, Reich was born in 1897, so in 1918 he’s 21. He’s in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He develops psoriasis and is given a furlough and goes to Vienna to get treated for his psoriasis. He’s in Vienna when it’s clear that the war is over, and while still a soldier because he was never formally removed, he enters the University. The University had an arrangement where if you are a veteran you could do courses in a less time consuming way. He enters law school, quickly decides that that’s not for him, then enters the medical school and almost immediately starts practicing psychoanalysis. In those days you didn’t have to go through formal training, you would do it and then consult with your therapist. So he starts doing psychoanalysis while he’s a medical student. Reich’s major contributions to psychoanalysis
The first contribution was the movement from symptom to character structure, and this shows up in his very first book. The first book that Reich publishes is in 1925, The Impulsive Character, and in the introduction, let me read a sentence, this translation is by Dr. Koblenzer. This is Reich in 1925: “For a long time, psychoanalysis has not been a merely symptomatic treatment, rather it has consistently been evolving into a therapy of the character. This technical change dates from Freud’s first realization that what is essential in the analytic work does not consist of guessing the unconscious meaning of the symptom and communicating it to the patient but a detecting and removing resistances.” It’s interesting he attributes this to Freud, but actually Reich continues to focus on resistance, and if you think about resistance, that’s something that underlies the symptom, and that’s how he saw the resistance. There was a characterological way of resisting life energy that gives rise to the symptom, but Reich begins to see the importance of character structure as opposed to symptomology as early as 1925.

Here’s a quote from Reich speaks of Freud where Reich is looking back on psychoanalysis, he says “You see in the psychoanalysis of the early 20′s, the neuroses or the neurotic symptom was considered to be something sick in an otherwise healthy organism. That was the idea then. It was my character analysis which introduced the basic concept that the character structure is ill or sick while the neurosis, the neurotic symptom, is only an outgrowth of a general characterological condition.”

It’s very interesting, there’s this interesting parallel between symptom and character structure like the symptom is a growth of the deeper character structure. It is analogous to Reich’s later work on cancer, where the cancer tumor is a symptom of a deeper pathology. In any case, there is an interesting parallel you see between saying that the tumor is an outer symptom of a deeper illness and in saying the neurotic symptom is one sign of a deeper characterological structure. In any case you have Reich’s movement from symptom to character.

The second contribution is Reich’s continued focus on resistance. This is very important because one of the things that Reich quickly observed is that while you could bring the unconscious material to consciousness–the patient can recall “the primal scene” (“Oh I remember now when the dog bit me”), but if there was no emotion, there would be no relief from the neurotic symptom–there had to be an emotional expression. So what was getting in the way? Well the resistance to giving in to the emotions. So Reich just kept focusing on the resistance, and that was also one of the roots of later vegetotherapy. What do I need to do to get this person capable of expressing emotion, if for example, their chest is constricted or something else is getting in the way of their expression.

So you have the movement from symptom to character structure, you have the focus on resistance, and then of course Reich felt it was incredibly important to focus on the negative transference, that is, all of the ways in which the therapist in the eyes of the patient becomes the abusing parent or whatever. Most of my time in therapy with a certain therapist who will remain nameless involves hating his guts and trying to kill him. And that’s the negative transference part. (He and I’ve come to a reconciliation; I only mildly loath him now.) So that’s Reich’s contribution to psychoanalysis. To the body The movements of the body has three major players. First there is Sandor Ferenczi, a Hungarian. He was part of the original circle of Freud’s, dismissed by Jones of being mentally ill. I don’t know if he had any basis for that dismissal, but then the use of the phrase “mentally ill” for people in that circle was pretty liberal. As you know it was used to describe Reich. So Ferenczi is one of the sources. Another source is a name that may be new to you and that’s Elsa Gindler, and then the third source is Elsa Lindenberg.

Reich refers to Ferenczi in The Function of the Orgasm. Reich says, “Ferenczi was that talented and outstanding person who was perfectly aware of the sad state of affairs in therapy. He looked for a solution in the somatic sphere and developed an “active” technique directed at the somatic tension states but he did not know of stasis neuroses and failed to take the orgasm theory seriously.”

In 1928, Otto Fenichel, Reich’s good friend at the time, wrote an article called, “Organ Libidinization Accompanying the Defense Against Drives.” In it he summarizes all the ways in which people have hinted at a muscular basis for neuroses. This is as early as 1928, and Ferenczi was the main person Fenichel is summarizing in this article.

Obviously Reich read what Fenichel had read, so he knew this literature; moreover it’s inconceivable he didn’t read this article by his then close friend, Fenichel (a friendship which disappears some years later. I just want to call your attention to some aspects of this article. This is Fenichel about Ferenczi: “In the study of the organic phenomena accompanying instinctual conflicts of the psychic apparatus, Ferenczi talked about what he called “pleasure physiology.” He observed that with progress in the analysis and the consequent resolution of psychic tension, the somatic tensions may also vanish.” So he’s beginning to see some correlation between musculature and psychoneuroses. This is again quoting from Ferenczi in the Fenichel article: “Sometimes we find it necessary to call the patients attention to his bearing, the tensions of his musculature, and through this to some extent to mobilize him. As a result, he usually begins to talk about something that was hidden or unconscious.” And he actually used “relaxation” exercises. Ferenczi also came out from behind the couch. You know in the classic psychoanalysis the patient is lying and the therapist is back here sleeping or texting, writing letters.

Ferenczi had the therapist sitting right next to the patient and he saw therapy as much more of a collaborative effort between patient and therapist, so you see a lot the roots of what later becomes standard in Reich’s therapy is in Ferenczi’s work. And maybe it’s no accident that Jones, who from all that I’ve learn was one of the most rigid, uptight Britishers, dismissed Ferenczi as being mentally ill. (Jones’ behavior in regards to Reich was just unbelievably lacking in integrity. But that’s another story.)

One of the things that Ferenczi noted was a pelvic block; he said, this is again Ferenczi’s observation, “The most extreme degrees of cramp occur in the musculature of the pelvis.” An observation which is in agreement with the fact that what succumbs to repression is in the main representative of sexual drive. So Ferenczi is seeing all this stuff but he never develops a therapy around it. But he’s making these observations. If you’ve read Reich or if you’ve been in therapy, this whole idea of a pelvic block being very important. There’s two other names I want to quote. One is Vilma Kovacs, another Hungarian psychoanalyst. In a 1925, Kovacs says, “The continuing spasm of her [that is, a patient's] total skeletal musculature served the purpose of maintaining and hiding sexual excitement.” So here is the insight that not only is psychoneuroses manifested muscularly but it has to do with sex, it has to do with a way of binding up sexual excitation. Again this will become incredibly important to Reich’s therapy. Also Felix Deutsch had talked about somatic health: he said it “means, in the psychoanalytic sense, freedom from pathologically bound organ libido.” So you see all of these fascinating things. Sometimes people think Reich was a genius, which he was, but he didn’t make this stuff up, he was a very smart reader. He absorbed and took in so many different things, and out came his unique therapy. I really encourage you to someday read this Fenichel article. Now Reich clearly read all of this.

Now movement therapy. This woman Elsa Gindler who I mentioned a moment ago, and that may be a new name to some of you, she developed a form of therapeutic movement and breath. She like Reich suffered at one point from TB. I don’t know if you’re aware that both Reich’s father and brother died of tuberculosis, and Reich himself got tuberculosis early in 1927; he went to Davos where he finished writing The Function of the Orgasm, the first one. While she was curing herself from tuberculosis she made observations about breath, and the way movement could facilitate breath. So that’s Elsa Gindler. Now she wasn’t doing this out of yoga, she was doing it this with her own body.

When Fenichel moved to Berlin in 1922 (I don’t know what took him to Berlin), a woman named Clara Nathenson who later becomes Clara Fenichel studied with Gindler and apparently Fenichel himself studied with this woman. Apparently when Annie and Wilhelm Reich moved to Berlin in the fall of 1930 (they moved together though there relationship wasn’t too strong) according to Eva Reich (I don’t know if this is correct), Annie studied with Clara, together with Eva. Eva must have been 6 years old, and when they would come home, Reich would always ask questions, what is this thing that you’re doing, what is this movement stuff, so if this is correct Reich is getting this idea through Annie and Eva and through the Fenichels that there is some kind of muscular, there’s a way of addressing this muscular correlation or correlative of neurotic symptomology or neurotic character.

Mayday, 1932, Reich meets Elsa Lindenburg, who becomes his second “wife;” he never legally married her but she was his wife. She was a dancer, she studied with Laban in Berlin, and he believed in democratizing dance, dance for the masses. He also developed this elaborate notation system for noting the choreographed piece. (He was also a Nazi, but we’ll leave that out.) So you have this sense that perhaps Reich, through his relationship with Elsa, through his learning about this Elsa Gindler, is developing this notion that we can do therapy on this bodily level.

Indeed, in turn he is influencing Elsa. So Reich leaves for the states in August 1939, Elsa stays behind in Norway, and this was a pretty iffy thing even though she wasn’t Jewish, but she was certainly a communist, and you know the Germans occupied Norway pretty easily and quickly. My buddy, known to some in this room, Bjorn Blumenthal, after the war when Blumenthal entered the University, he took classes with Elsa Lindenberg and it was through taking these classes that he first came to Reich; that’s how he learned about Reich and now he runs the Norwegian Institute of Vegetotherapy– I guess it’s one of the main training institutes in Oslo for new therapists. So his contact with Reich was through Elsa Lindenberg and again this bodily therapy.

So you have a theoretical commitment, things must be instantiated on the body, you have the influence of Ferenczi and these other people I mentioned, also this notion of breath, and slowly Reich begins to develop this therapy. In 1937 he writes an article about the respiratory block, so he’s already noticing a correlation between the musculature and breathing and the way this is inhibiting the flow of life energy. And by 1938 his patients are disrobing so he can more clearly see the armor, but also call it to their attention perhaps by touching or something of that sort. Reich by the way, I forgot to mention this earlier, was an incredible mimic: he was a very very good actor, so he could play back to his patient their typical facial or bodily expression or something like that to try to make it public. When Neill comes over, Neill and Reich meet in Oslo, Neill comes over in the summers for therapy, he talks about disrobing. So this disrobing begins around 1938, but remember folks were much more casual about nudity than they are in the U.S.

When Reich first comes to the U.S., he puts out his English language journal, The Journal of Sex Economy and Orgone Research. The first issue occurs in 1942, and the opening article is The History of Our Institute, and in that article he says, “We’re relatively new here, there is as yet no pedagogical group nor anyone doing therapeutic gymnastics.”

What is this therapeutic gymnastics? Well, the following year, and article appeared in the IJSO, by Lucille Bellamy, and I’ll just read a few paragraphs: “The principles of vegetotherapeutic gymnastics was first worked out by Elsa Lindenberg, a coworker of Dr. Reich’s in Norway, beginning in 1936. Thus although I developed my method independently, during a time I myself underwent vegetotherapy, I am not the first to use such a method.” And then she says, “The underlying principle of vegetotherapy is the establishment of the orgasm reflex. This is also my goal as a teacher of vegetotherapeutic gymnastics, however it would be untrue for me, to assert that orgastic potency may be achieved through gymnastics; it must be plainly understood that I consider such results for my work impossible. It is only through the treatment of the vegetotherapist that orgastic potency is made probable. I consider vegetotherapeutic gymnastics as a correlate of vegatotherapy.” The point here is that Reich recognized the need for or possibility of a correlative to the ongoing therapy in the form of exercises of various sorts, at least at this point.

My final thing I would like to show you, In Reich Speaks of Freud, there is an article of Reich’s from 1938 where he distinguishes vegetotherapy from psychoanalysis. And you can read it yourself. Where psychoanalysis talks about repression, vegetotherapy talks about vegetative block. Where psychoanalysis talks about sexual origin of neurosis etiology, vegetotherapy talks about the function of the orgasm and emotional disturbances caused by disturbances to this function, etc. So the goal of psychoanalysis is the discovery of unconscious emotional mechanisms, the goal of vegetotherapy is discovering the vegetative physical mechanisms, etc. All of this is in Reich speaks of Freud, I strongly encourage you to read it in that book on pages 270-274.

 

Dr. Philip W. Bennett Biography:

Philip W. Bennett, PhD, has a long standing interest in Wilhelm Reich which began in the mid-sixties and included therapy with Dr. Victor Sobey. His main focus these days is on Reich’s social and political thought, in an attempt to understand fully what Reich means by work democracy. His recently published article, “Wilhelm Reich’s Early Writings on Work Democracy: A Theoretical Basis for Challenging Fascism Then and Now,” appears in the current issue of Capitalism. Nature. Socialism. (March, 2010). His article, “The Persecution of the Dr. Wilhelm Reich by the Government of the United States,” appeared in the International Forum of Psychoanalysis, earlier this year (Vol 19, #1, 2010). His article, “Double-Blind Controlled Experiments and the Orgone Energy Accumulator,” will appear in the next issue of the Annals of the Institute of Orgonomic Science. Prof. Bennett has spoken a summer conferences at Orgonon and at one-day conferences in New York City, sponsored by The Institute for the Study of the Work of Wilhelm Reich.

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Wilhelm Reich – Founder of Orgone Therapy

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