Freud’s Unconscious & Wilhelm Reich

Article by Stephan Simonian M.D.

Freud’s Unconscious & Wilhelm Reich
In 1952, an interview took place between Kurt R. Eissler M.D. (a psychoanalyst himself) representing Sigmund Freud’s archives, and Wilhelm Reich. The interview took place over the course of two days at the Organon in Rangely, Maine, on October 18th and 19th, 1952. Later, its full, transcribed text was published as the book Reich Speaks of Freud. The conversation began with the following question:
Dr. Eissler: Dr. Reich, the question I want to ask you is a very simple one. It is a very comprehensive question, but it is a simple one. I would like to know everything you know about Freud, everything you observed and everything you thought. Even if it is not based on a correct observation, the mere fact that you thought it about Freud would be so important for us to know.
Dr. Reich: That is quite a big order. I know a lot about Freud. I would like to start with a basic theoretical difference in the approach of psychoanalysis and my work, not to propagate my work, but to explain how I saw Freud.
The questions and answers continue in the book.  Reich’s answers are concise and condensed; the information in each paragraph can be elaborated and expanded over many pages. In one point, Reich said the following; “Freud was the Moses who never reached the promised land. His unconscious was only an idea, it’s not real. It was never real. You know where it becomes real?”
Dr. Eissler:  No.
Dr. Reich: In the twitchings which we get out of the organism in our work.   Do you know anything about that? You don’t?  The unconscious comes out in orgone therapy, in actions of the protoplasm. He didn’t reach that. I think he was a very eager physician, he wanted to cure people, but it didn’t work. It just didn’t work.  So you see, there were many reasons for Freud’s resignation.
For a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, psychologist, a physician practicing a different specialty, or even for a lay person with an interested in psychology but not altogether familiar with Reich and his theories, these statements may look strange. How can the unconscious show itself in the twitching of muscles? The most submerged and most unknown component of mind elides in tendons? Any clinician who is unfamiliar with this concept would be baffled by this proposition. He might even take this statement as a sign of disturbed thinking. Sitting in on this interview, its entirely likely he would have thought Reich had gone off the deep end.
If a clinician shows patience and humility while struggling to comprehend Reich’s theories, however, a door will open up to him and a field that he was never aware of will become evident to him.  It will expand his vision and his knowledge. Such expansion will be extremely helpful to himself or herself, as well as to the broadest knowledge base of their profession. In the following pages, it is our goal to elaborate and make this concept accessible to the reader.
One of Freud’s major contributions to modern medicine was his emphasis on the power of the unconscious mind. So much of mental life is unconscious, he contended, extending far beyond the realm of awareness. Freud recognized that the treatment of neurotic symptoms would be made possible by rendering the unconscious meaning of the symptom conscious, lifting it into tangible detail, giving it form in words; informing it. And although the technique of making unconscious conscious was initially based on hypnosis, Freud later discovered the technique of free association. He persuaded his patients to speak freely and to bring up anything that came to their mind no matter how irrelevant it might initially seem. In practice, one idea inevitably was bringing up another idea, like the links of a chain connected to a great, unseen anchor. The chain of association eventually led to the unconscious meaning of the symptom. Freud contended that through the practice of unearthing the unconscious meaning of the symptom, the patient improved.  Later on, however, Freud himself realized that by unearthing the unconscious meaning of symptoms, the symptoms themselves would not always improve. Hence, Freud changed his intentional statement “the symptoms should improve” to the more doubtful“the symptoms may improve.”
As a pioneering physician, Freud had high hopes for his discovery of the unconscious and its effect in the treatment of neurosis. On an audio recording that exists in his museum in Vienna, Freud states that through his efforts he found that the unconscious mind opens the door in curing neurosis, and that he hoped that his discovery would serve curing patients who suffer from neurosis.  However, 70 years later the psychoanalysis that once promised a cure for neurosis has faded away.  In 1993, even Time magazine published an article with the shopworn headline “Is Freud Dead?”
In the November 29th, 1993 Time Magazine, there was an article titled, “Is Freud Dead”? By the end of the article, the author concludes that “psychoanalysis and all of it’s off shoots, may in final analysis, turn out to be no more reliable than countless other pseudosciences that once offered unsubstantiated answers or false solace.”
Reich viewed Freud’s discovery as a kernel of an idea that needed to be advanced. In The Function of the Orgasm, he writes the following.
Objectively seen, it was not a matter of competing with Freud, or of establishing a profession, but of advancing an enormous discovery.  At issue was more than the elaboration of known material; essentially, it was matter of discovering the biological basis of the libido theory through experimentation.  It was necessary to bear responsibility for a piece of the momentous knowledge which presented a direct challenge to a world of superficiality and formalism. It was necessary to be able to stand alone- which did not exactly foster popularity. It is clear today to many people working in this new psychological branch of medicine that character analytic theory of structure is the legitimate continuation of the theory of unconscious psychic life.
Returning to the earlier question of why do some patients improve after unconscious meaning of the symptoms is discovered and others do not: In the pursuit of finding an answer to this puzzle, Reich describes a patient that was referred to him by Freud. The patient was suffering with sexual impotence. He said that in the third year of psychoanalysis, he arrived at perfect reconstruction of the “primal scene”.
He was about 2 years old when it occurred.  His mother gave birth to a child.  From the adjacent room, he had been able to observe every detail of the delivery.  The impression of a large bloody hole between her legs became firmly ingrained in his mind.  On a conscious level, there remained only a sensation of an emptiness in his own genitals….  According to psychoanalytic knowledge of that time, I merely connected his inability to have an erection with the severely traumatic impression of the ‘castrated female genital.’  This was no doubt correct. However it wasn’t until a few years ago, that I began to pay special attention to, and to understand the feeling of emptiness in the genitals in my patients. It corresponded to the withdrawal of biological energy….  At that time, I incorrectly assessed the total personality of my patient.  He was a very quite, well mannered and well behaved, and did everything that was asked of him. He never got excited. In the course of three years of treatment, he never became angry or exercised criticism. Thus according to the prevailing concept, he was a fully integrated, adjusted character, with only one acute symptom, ‘Mono-symptomatic neurosis’.   I delivered a report on this case to the seminar on technique and was praised for the correct elucidation of the traumatic primal scene.  Theoretically, I had given complete explanation of the symptoms, the patient’s inability to have an erection.  Since the patient was industrious and orderly, adjusted to reality, as we used to say, it did not occur to any of us that it was precisely this emotional tranquility, this unshakable equanimity which formed the pathological characterological basis on which erective impotence could be maintained. The other analysts considered the analytic work that I had performed, complete and correct. For my part I left the meeting unsatisfied.  If everything was indeed just as it should be, why was there no change in the patient’s impotence. There must be something missing someplace, but none of us knew where. I terminated the analysis several months later- the patient had not been cured.  The imperturbability with which he bore it was as stoical as imperturbability with which he had accepted everything throughout the entire treatment. This patient impressed upon me the important character analytic concept of “affect block.” I had hit upon the far-reaching connection between the present day formation of the human character and emotional coldness and genital deadness.
In the example above, Reich describes a case in which the neurotic symptom did not improve even though its unconscious roots had been discovered and recognized by the patient.  He also states that for the first time he discovered the significance of pathologic character structure, in this case, the patient’s unemotional, cold and passive character was actually the basis of the illness. The neurotic symptom was manifesting itself upon this pathologic basis. The symptom remained unchanged because it was only a spike manifesting itself on the base of the character pathology.
Using treatment based on orgonomic theories and techniques, based on Reich’s own documented treatments, we give utmost importance to patient’s character, demeanor, movements, tone of their voice, and other manifestations of the character. We consider the voice inflection, how the patient says things, rather than “what he says.” Words can lie, but underlying attitude and character never lies.
The patient’s characterological appearance inevitably also reflects in his physical and somatic state. It appears in his voice and in his muscular flaccidity, or rigidity, and other physical characteristics. Dr. Reich, in The Function of the Orgasm, describes a case that elucidates the resolution of muscular and physical armor, which is counterpart of character armor.
In Copenhagen in 1933, I treated a man who offered considerable resistance to uncovering of his passive homosexual fantasies. This resistance was overtly expressed in the extremely stiff attitude of his throat and neck, (“stiff necked”).  A concentrated attack on his defense finally caused him to yield, though in an alarming way.  For three days, he was shaken by acute manifestation of vegetative shock.  The pallor of his face changed rapidly from white to yellow to blue. His skin was spotted and motley.  He experienced violent pains in the neck and back of the head.  His heartbeat was rapid and pounding. He had diarrhea, felt tired, and seemed to have lost control. I was uneasy. True, I had often seen similar symptoms, but never in such violent form. Something had happened here that, while somehow a legitimate part of the work, was not immediately intelligible. Affects had broken through somatically after the patient had relinquished his attitude of psychic defense. Apparently, the stiff neck, which emphasized austere masculinity, had bound vegetative energies which now broke loose in an uncontrolled and chaotic manner. A person with an ordered sexual economy is not capable of such a reaction. Only continuous inhibition and damming-up of biological energy can produce it. (The biological energy and sexual energy are of the same nature and merit.)  The musculature had served the function of inhibition. When the neck muscles relaxed, powerful impulses, as if unleashed from a taut coil, broke through.  The alternating pallor and flushing of the face could be nothing other than the flowing back and forth of body fluids, i.e., the contraction and dilation of the blood vessels. This fits in extremely well with my earlier described views on the functioning of biological energy[…] Sexual life energy can be bound by chronic muscular tension, anger and anxiety can also be blocked by muscular tension […]
Character armoring was now seen to be functionally identical with muscular hypertonia.  The concept of “Functional identity,” which I had to introduce, means nothing more than that muscular attitudes and character attitudes have the same function in the psychic mechanism: they can replace one another and can be influence by one another. Basically they cannot be separated. They are identical in their function […]
The loosening of the rigid muscular attitudes produced peculiar body sensations in the patients: involuntary trembling and twitching of the muscles, sensations of cold and hot, itching, the feeling of pins and needles, prickling sensations, the feeling of having the jitters, and somatic perceptions of anxiety, anger and pleasure.
In “The Orgasm Reflex and a Case History,” which has been considered previously with more detail in our journal, Reich writes that, “It is not that under certain circumstances, a memory brings about an affect, but that the concentration of vegetative excitation and its breakthrough, reproduces its remembrance.”
In other words, the release of affect that is contained by physical and somatic contractions reproduces the memories that once were connected and attached to it. Reich expanded that idea:
Freud continually stressed that in analysis, the analyst was dealing solely with derivatives of unconscious, that the unconscious was not really tangible.  This contention was correct, but not absolute, it pertained to the methods used at that time, by which the unconscious could be inferred only through derivatives, and could not be grasped in its actual form.  Today, we succeed in comprehending the unconscious not in its derivative, but in its reality, by directly attacking the binding of vegetative energy.
The interested reader who has followed this article up to now should grasp the depth of Reich’s short statement during his interview with Dr. Eissler when he acknowledged the importance of Freud’s discoveries, but used them as a guide to elucidate the actual, literally informed position of the unconcscious. “You know where it becomes real?” Reich asked. “In the twitching which we get out of the organism in our work.”

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This post was written by:

- who has written 64 posts on The Journal of Psychiatric Orgone Therapy.

Dr. Simonian is a general and child and adolescent psychiatrist. He completed medical school in Shiraz University, Shiraz Iran. He completed his general psychiatric residency training and fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry at New York Medical College, Metropolitan Hospital Center. Concomitant with his psychiatry and child psychiatry training, Dr. Simonian completed the New York Medical College Psychoanalytic School Didactic Courses, including his own required personal psychoanalysis. In 1990, Dr. Simonian started his personal psychiatric orgone therapy, Reichian therapy, with Dr. Morton Herskowitz and in 1991 became a member of the Institute of Orgonomic Sciences (IOS), an Institute which is dedicated to promote and preserve Dr. Wilhelm Reich's work. Dr. Simonian started his private psychiatric practice in Milford, Massachusetts in 1984 and he was a chief of psychiatry department of Milford Regional Hospital for several years. He started his practice in Glendale, California since 2003. Dr. Simonian is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.

3 Responses to “Freud’s Unconscious & Wilhelm Reich”

  1. lorcan kilroy says:

    For me this article illuminates how every effort of man; his discoveries, and his so-called “objective” scientific research, his vision, is either chained or liberated by armor or lack thereof. Freud and Reich both studied thousands of patients, and yet Freud turned a “blind eye” to biophysical truths which Reich saw to be blatantly obvious. I have spontaneously thought several times that the “subconscious” is just imagined and not real, but the finality of that statement itself falls short of explaining our spontaneous thoughts and behaviors. This article explains it. Freud should have been on a path to discovering the vegetative energy of the organism that underlies all psychic and behavioral activity. The subconscious in the sense that Freud conceived of it, a mysterious bank or repository of deeper psyche, underneath the conscious psyche, is not real. The only bank or repositories in the organism are memories and the bank of emotions and sensations trapped in the armor, Any “subconscious” behind that is an imagined mysticism, hence Reich’s comment about twitching. Memories and fantasies arise when there is psychic or somatic energetic movement within the organism or movement of armor. There is no mysterious subconscious, only the vegetative functions, and thoughts and behaviors which emerge spontaneously due to this energy, albeit distorted by armor. Freud mystified his notion of subconscious, in particular ascribing mysterious evil or potential of evil to the id or sexual aliveness. Perhaps this sex negativity indicates his own lack of sensation and sexual aliveness, He instead projects his lost potency onto this invention of a “subconscious”, This idea of “subconscious” is “colored” by projections of repressed aggressions and frustrations, along with guilt and sex negativity, From all of this stems Freud’s condemnation of the potential “evil” in the “id”, which is probably a mixture of his condemnation and fear of vegetative aliveness. He recognized malice but he didn’t understand stasis and the armor that causes drives to distort maliciously. Freud was too busy wrestling with himself in this way to make the scientific breakthroughs that he should have. In this way he fell short because he was a victim of his own impotence. For Reich, his manifesto and explorations and validations sprang forth in tandem with his own emotional sensations, and sensations of sexual potency which he felt throughout his life from childhood. He was a different animal.

  2. Amy Levine says:

    Great article! A well thought-out analysis comparing the differences between the two theorists.

  3. Tzindaro says:

    And meanwhile, the medical mainstream goes right along as if they had never heard of Reich.

    Nowadays, the consensus view taught in college psychology classes is that Freud has been totally debunked and Reich is never even mentioned.


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