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History and philosophy

The godfather of the sexual revolution?

David Bramwell on the strange world of Wilhelm Reich.

06 September 2018

Before reading this – if you can – open YouTube and watch the first two minutes of the video for Kate Bush's 'Cloudbusting'. It is one of the singles released from her 1985 album Hounds of Love, arguably Kate's finest hour. Such is the haunting power of 'Cloudbusting' that you'll be forgiven for watching it all the way through, but it's what happens around one minute and fifty seconds that's key to our whole story.

'Cloudbusting' opens with driving strings and a curious lyric,'I still dream of orgonon'. The accompanying video is equally strange – it stars Donald Sutherland as a heretical scientist and Kate as his son, hauling a giant cloud-seeding machine up a hill. At the top, while Sutherland is fiddling with pulleys and levers, boy-Kate pulls something from Sutherland's pocket. For a brief moment we see it is a paperback called A Book of Dreams. After Sutherland is taken away by sombre authority figures in a black car, it is left to boy-Kate to operate the 'cloudbuster' and bring on the rain.

It's doubtful whether many would have understood the meaning of Bush's opening lyric, the momentary inclusion of The Book of Dreams or why Sutherland the scientist was being taken away by the men in black. To those in the know, Kate was acknowledging the tragic loss of one of the 20th century's most controversial and misunderstood pioneers in the study of sexual politics, orgasm and psychology – Wilhelm Reich.

The perfect orgasm

Born in Austria at the end of the 19th century, Wilhelm Reich studied medicine and quickly rose through the psychoanalytical ranks to become one of Freud's star pupils. Until, that is, the pair fell out over orgasms. For Freud, the libido was an unruly beast, which needed to be diverted into 'healthier' pursuits. He rejected any connection between sexual repression and violence. For Freud, war and aggression stem from a psychological 'death wish' – humanity's innate drive towards destruction.

Reich came to believe the opposite, perceiving the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s as a direct result of repressed sexual desire, sublimated into hatred and war. For Reich, impotence, a lack of pleasure from sex or an inability to have an orgasm, were symptoms of ill health and in need of treatment. He wanted nothing less than a sexual revolution, one which could liberate us from the uptight, aggressive authoritarianism of politics and state. Sexual prowess, Reich believed, didn't necessarily equate with a fulfilling sex-life. What matters is how much we can let ourselves go during sex to achieve full-body orgasm. For Reich the body language adopted by those in the military says all we need to know about sexual, psychological and emotional repression – stiff controlled body movements, tight pelvis, rigid jaw, unquestioning obedience and stifled emotions. Reich saw fascism as the 'frenzy of sexual cripples'. To him bigotry, violence and hatred all stem from a longing for love.

From the 1920s onwards Reich travelled around Europe and Russia getting into hot water for his radical ideas. He took mobile sex clinics around cities, handed out condoms to teenagers and couples; he even created spaces for teenagers to explore their sexuality together in private. Reich also advocated the legalisation of homosexuality, abortions and birth control. He fought against monetary dependence of women in marriages and argued that children should be raised in communities, to free them from the exclusive neurosis of their parents. Even now, Reich's ideas seem incredibly progressive; a hundred years ago they were seen as heretical.

Reich's approach to psychoanalysing patients was equally controversial. He rejected the 'talking cure', having recognised that patients would sometimes lie or merely tell him what they thought he wanted to hear. For Reich, treatment had to transcend words. He broke the golden rule of psychoanalysis – never touch a patient – and developed physical manipulation techniques to enable emotional release. These techniques stemmed from his belief that unresolved conflict leaves a remnant of muscular tension; and as muscles attach to tendons, which attach to bones, the growing skeletal system of a child is fenced in by the patterns of tension from unresolved conflict. Thus, the psychological history of a person is present not just in the mind, as Freud and Jung believed, but in the body too. This might be seen through any number of physical anomalies, from hunched shoulders, tight jaw and furrowed brow to shallow breathing.

Having written books with such provocative titles as The Function of the Orgasm (1927), The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933) and The Sexual Revolution (1936), it's perhaps no surprise that Reich was a target for the Nazis. The Gestapo were ordered to burn his books and shoot him. Having relocated to Berlin in 1930, Reich escaped certain death a few years later by disguising himself as a tourist, leaving Germany under a false name and heading to Denmark. Here, his promotion of abortion and ideas around teenage sex were equally controversial. He fled Denmark to Sweden, Sweden to Norway and finally Norway to the US. Everywhere Reich went his ideas were scorned, his books were banned and often burned for good measure. He was branded a 'Jewish pornographer' and 'sex fiend'. If Europe wasn't ready for his radicalism, Reich hoped that America would be.

While Reich was on a radical mission to bring peace and love to humanity, it's important to acknowledge that he was not without flaws. Reich was notoriously grumpy and arrogant, viewed homosexuality as a neurosis to be cured and – like Jung and Freud – had affairs with his patients. Those who worked with him often complained that it was his way or not at all. His 'mad scientist' haircut didn't do him any favours either, though it might have been the inspiration for Doc Brown's in Back to the Future.


By the time Reich reached America he was on the hunt for physical evidence of the orgasmic energy, for which he coined the term orgone. For him, the level of pleasure derived from orgasm – from wildly ecstatic to non-existent – was a measure of a person's orgone levels, also reflected in their vitality. Those who displayed boundless energy, drive and love could be considered to be full to the brim with orgone.

Reich founded the Orgone Institute in 1942, by which time he believed he had physical evidence of orgone and that it could be measured in a human with a voltmeter when he or she was going through 'intense emotional release'. For Reich, orgone was the big one – it was the universal lifeforce, the orgiastic energy that gave birth to the universe. And while he wasn't the first to believe in an all-pervading universal energy – to the yogis it's prana, to the Chinese it's chi, for modern science it's dark matter – Reich was the first to claim this energy could be measured and seen. (It was blue, apparently.)

To stimulate orgone energy in the individual, Reich invented the 'orgone accumulator'. Looking like a one-person sauna, it was an upright rectangular box made of different layers of wood and metal to amplify the 'orgone energy' for any user sitting inside, rather like heat in a greenhouse. Claims around the properties of this device ranged from boosting the immune system and destruction of cancerous cells to 'orgiastic potency'.

Reich's next invention was the cloudbuster. While best known for allegedly seeding clouds, its principal function was to harness orgone energy in the atmosphere and to zap 'bad' orgone energy, which Reich believed was being emitted from the exhaust pipes of UFOs. It's fair to say at this point that Reich's own traumas had led him towards a breakdown.

In relocating to America, Reich had hoped to be welcomed. His isolation and unwillingness to accept any opinion other than his own didn't win him many friends. He had become deeply paranoid, though not without reason. By the 1950s, America's own paranoia about Communism led to the McCarthy witch hunts to root out the 'reds under the bed'. As a foreigner and former member of the Communist Party doing strange experiments out in the wilds of Maine, Reich was an obvious target. He was accused of running a sex racket through his sales of the orgone accumulator, and the US Food Administration charged him with contempt of court for violation of an obscure cosmetic labelling law.

Arguing that the judges were ill equipped to judge his scientific inventions, Reich requested a panel of scientists. This was refused. He was imprisoned for contempt of court and his books and much of his equipment were destroyed. Twenty years after the Nazis had burned Reich's books, American justice continued in the same vein. Reich died in prison, eight months into his sentence. Not one scientific or psychiatric journal mentioned his passing.

Make love not war

Wilhelm Reich dedicated his life to exploring the nature of the orgasm and taking a radical 'hands-on' approach to psychoanalysis to treat both mind and body. He never stopped believing in the need for a sexual revolution. Ten years after his death, the slogan of the 1960s counter-culture 'Make Love Not War' summed up his philosophy in just four words.

Over the following decades, zealous advocates of Reich's orgone accumulator came to include William Burroughs, J.D. Salinger, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Nicholson and Sean Connery. In 1973 Hawkwind sang, 'I've got an orgone accumulator, it makes me feel greater, it's a back brain stimulator', while a young Patti Smith, working in a bookshop in Manhattan, found The Book of Dreams, written by Reich's son Peter, and took it home to read.

It is Peter Reich's book that boy-Kate takes from her father's pocket in the video for 'Cloudbusting'. The Book of Dreams is written from the perspective of 12-year-old Peter growing up in Orgonon, Reich's family home in the US. It describes the tender relationship between father and son, and the trauma Peter suffered in seeing his father imprisoned. The lyrics of 'Cloudbusting' tell the first half of Peter's story. Ten years previously, Patti Smith's 'Birdland' – the standout track from her debut album Horses – had told the second half of Peter's story, starting with the line, 'His father died and left him a little farm in New England.' Smith's exquisite beat-poetry goes on to describe a dream Reich and his son had shared – that one day they would be taken on board a UFO, lifted into the heavens and whisked away to other worlds, undoubtedly ones in which Reich was embraced as a hero rather than 'sex fiend'.

Come the revolution

It's easy to believe that we now live in sexually liberated times. We seem to be becoming more tolerant towards people of different sexual orientations. And having dismantled the many rituals around courtship, sex is more easily available in Western culture. But is it any better? Orgasm, for many of us, has simply taken the form of another addiction. Like coffee, alcohol and sugar, it's one more quick fix in our busy lives. Shame and hypocrisy around sex are still meted out by tabloid newspapers. Our media may never tire of titillation, sex scandals and clichéd lifestyle tips for the bedroom, but the quality and nature of orgasm – and its relationship to our mental and physical health – is rarely discussed. Rising cases of body dysmorphia, eating disorders, anorexia and obesity are matched with a growth in plastic surgery. We seem less comfortable with our bodies than ever before. And, somehow, we have even allowed our political systems to become dominated by emotionally stunted, uptight men who behave like tantrumming toddlers. If Reich were alive today he would doubtless see it as proof of one thing – more than ever before we are all 'longing for love'.

- David Bramwell is a writer. This piece is adapted from an entry in his book with Jo Keeling, The Odditorium.
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