Sexual liberation in the closet

Christopher Turner is the author of Adventures In the Orgasmatron: Wilhelm Reich and the Invention of Sex (long-listed for the Orwell Prize). He is speaking about Reich this evening at the London Philosophy Club. This is an extract from his book. 

When Wilhelm Reich, the most brilliant of the second generation of psychoanalysts who had been Freud’s pupils, arrived in New York in August 1939, only a few days before the outbreak of war, he was optimistic that his ideas fusing sex and politics would be better received there than they had been in fascist Europe. Despite its veneer of puritanism, America was a country already much preoccupied with sex – as Alfred Kinsey’s renowned investigations, which he had begun the year before, were to show. However, it was only after the second world war that the idea of sexual liberation would permeate the culture at large. Reich could be said to have invented this “sexual revolution”; a Marxist analyst, he coined the phrase in the 1930s in order to illustrate his belief that a true political revolution would be possible only once sexual repression was overthrown. That was the one obstacle Reich felt had scuppered the efforts of the Bolsheviks. “A sexual revolution is in progress,” he declared, “and no power on earth will stop it.”

Reich was a sexual evangelist who held that satisfactory orgasm made the difference between sickness and health. It was the panacea for all ills, he thought, including the fascism that forced him from Europe. In his 1927 study The Function of the Orgasm, he concluded that “there is only one thing wrong with neurotic patients: the lack of full and repeated sexual satisfaction” (the italics are his). Seeking to reconcile psychoanalysis and Marxism, he argued that repression – which Freud came to believe was an inherent part of the human condition – could be shed, leading to what his critics dismissed as a “genital utopia” (they mocked him as “the prophet of bigger and better orgasms”). His sexual dogmatism got him kicked out of both the psychoanalytic movement and the Communist party. Nevertheless, Reich was a figurehead of the sex-reform movement in Vienna and Berlin – before the Nazis, who deemed it part of a Jewish conspiracy to undermine European society, crushed it. His books were burned in Germany along with those of Magnus Hirschfeld and Freud. Reich fled to Denmark, Sweden and then Norway, as fascism pursued him across the continent.

Soon after he arrived in the United States – by which time his former psychoanalytic colleagues were questioning his sanity – Reich invented the Orgone Energy Accumulator, a wooden cupboard about the size of a telephone booth, lined with metal and insulated with steel wool. It was a box in which, it might be said, his ideas about sex came almost prepackaged. Reich considered his orgone accumulator an almost magical device that could improve its users’ “orgastic potency” and, by extension, their general, and above all mental, health. He claimed that it could charge up the body with the life force that circulated in the atmosphere and which he christened “orgone energy”; in concentrated form, these mysterious currents could not only help dissolve repressions but treat cancer, radiation sickness and a host of minor ailments. As he saw it, the box’s organic material absorbed orgone energy, and the metal lining stopped it from escaping, acting as a “greenhouse” and, supposedly, causing a noticeable rise in temperature in the box.

The charismatic Reich persuaded Albert Einstein to investigate the machine, whose workings seemed to contradict all known principles of physics. After two weeks of tests Einstein refuted Reich’s claims. However, the orgone box became fashionable in America in the 1940s and 50s, and Reich grew increasingly notorious as the leader of the new sexual movement that seemed to be sweeping the country. The accumulator was used by such countercultural figureheads as Norman Mailer, JD Salinger, Saul Bellow, Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Dwight Macdonald and William S Burroughs. In the 1970s Burroughs wrote an article for Oui magazine entitled “All the Accumulators I Have Owned”. In it, he boasted: “Your intrepid reporter, at age 37, achieved spontaneous orgasm, no hands, in an orgone accumulator built in an orange grove in Pharr, Texas.” At the height of his James Bond fame, Sean Connery swore by the device, and Woody Allen parodied it in Sleeper (1973), giving it the immortal nickname the “Orgasmatron”.

To bohemians, the orgone box was celebrated as a liberation machine, the wardrobe that would lead to utopia, while to conservatives it was Pandora’s box, out of which escaped the Freudian plague – the corrupting influence of anarchism and promiscuous sex. Reich’s eccentric device can be seen as a prism through which to look at the conflicts and controversies of his era, which witnessed an unprecedented politicisation of sex. When I first came across a reference to the accumulator, I was puzzled and fascinated: why on earth would a generation seek to shed its sexual repressions by climbing into a closet? And why were others so threatened by it? What does it tell us about the ironies of the sexual revolution that its symbol of liberation was a claustrophobic metal-lined box?

One thought on “Sexual liberation in the closet

  1. He calls it science but it’s really a magical ritual. All of his work is religious. For example, in alchemy, the union of the opposites is a powerful theme. Natural and unnatural seen in that context are just the major themes of Reich’s spirit. The big metallic bomb, guns, tanks vs. liberation. The cloudbusters are really altars to his nature god, Orgone.

    Of course the Alchemists did eventually find a science, but they were also smart enough to keep the enlightenment part of their theory RITUALIZED ONLY.

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