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With his orgone accumulator, Wilhelm Reich intended to heal the world through a sexual revolution. In ...
2021-02-23 09:00:00

The Cabinet of Earthly Delights
Wilhelm Reich’s Sexual Revolution

The Cabinet of Earthly Delights

He believed that ‘better orgasms’ could heal the world. American bohemians saw in him a prophet of sexual revolution, the American authorities – a dangerous charlatan. Instead of becoming the pope of absolute raptures, Wilhelm Reich shared the plight of Giordano Bruno, the difference being that Reich died in prison and only his writings were burned.

Read in 12 minutes

“When I went into the accumulator and sat down I noticed a special silence that you sometimes feel in deep woods, sometimes on a city street, a hum that is more a rhythmic vibration than a sound. My skin prickled and I experienced an aphrodisiac effect similar to good strong weed. No doubt about it, orgones are as definite a force as electricity.” This is how William S. Burroughs describes in Junky his impressions after having climbed into an orgone accumulator. He also observes that after several sessions in the accumulator he experienced an energy surge, he started to eat normally and sleep for eight hours. He tried using the orgone accumulator to treat his heroin habit, which made him not only one of the biggest but also the most perseverant fan of the invention. Even as late as the 1990s, years after its inventor’s death, Burroughs’ own box was used by Kurt Cobain. The singer of Nirvana, who suffered from arachnophobia, remembered that he made Burroughs kill all of the black widows who were inhabiting the corners of the box.

A closeted Beat Generation

The wooden cabinets, lined with sheet iron and rock wool, were used by the crème de la crème of American bohemia in the 1950s. Owning an orgone accumulator was simply the order of the day – both in the apartments of New York’s Greenwich Village and in California. Participants of orgone sessions included Saul Bellow, J.D. Salinger, Michel Foucault, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer. The latter liked the contraption so much that he constructed a whole range of accumulators in his barn. “One was carpet-lined so that he could scream his lungs out inside it [...]. Others were built like huge dinosaur eggs so that he could roll about inside them on the grass,” we read in Christopher Turner’s Adventures in the Orgasmatron: Wilhelm Reich and the Invention of Sex. Mailer hoped to have “an apocalyptic orgasm”, the key condition for sexual revolution.

“Why did a generation seek to shed its sexual repressions by climbing into a closet?” Turner asks provocatively. And why did this wooden box become the symbol of sexual revolution? To answer these questions, we need to go back in time about a dozen years and move in space several thousand miles.

From the couch to the barricades

The year is 1919. Vienna, the capital of what used to be the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is struggling in the aftermath of the disastrous Great War. There is hunger in the city, and inflation is raging. In this city arrives Wilhelm Reich; he was born close to Drohobych and comes from a wealthy Jewish family. His father bred cattle for the army. Initially, Reich wants to study law, but bored with endlessly learning codes by heart, he switches to medicine. He is 22 when he meets Sigmund Freud. He is fascinated, and the feeling is mutual. That same year, Freud starts sending him his first patients. Reich is struggling with a traumatic childhood experience: when he was 12, he reported to his father that his mother was sleeping with his teacher. The obsessively jealous father kept harrying his wife, eventually leading her to suicide. The son blames himself for her death.

Influenced by Freud, Reich develops his mentor’s theory on the formation of neuroses – he claims that they result from a damming-up of sexual energy. “There is only one thing wrong with neurotic patients: the lack of full and repeated sexual satisfaction,” he argues in his 1927 study, The Function of the Orgasm (the work, published again in an English translation in 1942, acquires a cult status among American bohemians). Reich argues that blocks not only prevent the individual from experiencing pleasure, but also stop the person’s growth, making them susceptible to political movements such as fascism. Marrying Freudian theory with Marxism, Reich reaches the conclusion that social revolution is impossible without “a sexual revolution.” He propagates this belief not only as a theoretician, but also as a practitioner. As a member of the Communist Party of Austria, he forms the Sex-Pol movement. As part of the movements’ activities, Reich organizes free sessions for the working class – first throughout Austria, then also in Germany – on psychoanalysis and sexual health (including contraception). Yet mixing politics and sex is not well received either by psychoanalysts or communists. Soon both groups will get rid of their controversial colleague. And Reich himself, after Hitler seizes power, emigrates to Norway. There, while experimenting with heating stock, he discovers the essence of life, which he calls orgone.

Is orgasm blue?

I wasn’t joking about the stock. Reich warms stock mixed with potassium chloride and soot. Under the microscope, he observes little bubbles pulsating with blue light. Although it is probably the effect of burning potassium, Reich believes that he has discovered an omnipresent life energy which he calls orgone, and its elements – bions. The results of his experiments published in February 1938 as “Die Bione: zur Entstehung des vegetativen Lebens” are ridiculed by the scientific milieu. Reich does not feel discouraged, though. He is to continue his studies in the US, where he is invited by the psychiatrist Theodor Wolfe. This colleague from Columbia University secures him a job at New York’s New School for Social Research, also know as the ‘University in Exile’. The scholarly elite, refugees from the Nazi regime including Hannah Arendt and Erich Fromm, teach here.

In July 1940, Reich and his then lover (and later wife) Ilse Ollendorff escape the New York heat and go camping at Mooselookmeguntic Lake. Ever the scientist, Reich watches the night sky through a self-remodelled telescope – the orgonoscope – and notices glimmering blue dots. Mystery solved – orgone energy, which he watched under the microscope, is omnipresent. Orgone is blue; that means that the sky and the ocean, which abound in blue, are saturated with this beneficial energy to the utmost degree, the discoverer concludes. “We live,” Christopher Turner quotes a passage from Reich’s journal, “at the bottom of an ocean of orgone energy. The air which we breathe is in reality orgone energy.” Yet simply inhaling orgone from the air is not enough for Reich; his dream is to condense the energy and use it as a cure. Six months later, in the basement of his house in Forest Hills, he builds an ‘accumulator’. It is a plywood box lined with layers of sheet iron and wool. The wood is to absorb orgone, and the iron to keep the energy inside.

Orgies instead of politics

“I sat in it twenty minutes naked to the waist. And [the energy] was very strong,” Reich notes. He decides that under the influence of the condensed orgone energy, the body experiences a powerful excitation, i.e. orgasm. Orgasms are not only a source of pleasure but also, Reich argues, a cure for various ailments of the body (from migraines to cuts to cancer) and the soul. Reich uses orgone to treat the psoriasis he’s been suffering from since his youth.

His goal is clear: the power of orgone is to liberate the world. Starting with American society. He is not bothered that the patent office rejects his application (‘unfounded’) and Albert Einstein, initially interested in the discovery, after a few days of testing the orgone accumulator states that there is nothing to test here. Reich’s books, The Function of the Orgasm and Sexual Revolution, reissued by Orgone Institute Press, are bestsellers; it is hip to be carrying a copy at a Greenwich Village party. Bohemians are entranced by his works, just like they were by Trotsky’s 10 years earlier. “Orgonomy in America first became popular in Greenwich Village among the Bohemians and beatniks, where it was hailed as a free sex philosophy and the accumulator […] was perceived to a great extent as a place in which to masturbate,” acknowledged Elsworth Baker, Reich’s disciple.

The accumulator, however, has many other functions – one of its biggest fans, Isaac Rosenfeld, uses it to cure writer’s block, he grows tomatoes inside it, and treats his neighbours’ dogs. Just like the wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, the door of the orgasmatron (this is how Woody Allen quizzically calls it in Sleeper), was to lead the American radical left, disappointed with communism, to a new utopia. The utopia was about introducing a “democracy of labour”, where you could feel satisfaction from sex and other spheres of life. Reich argued that the utopia existed already – he recognized it in the writings of Bronisław Malinowski, in his description of the native inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands.

As Christopher Turner observes: “In creating a morality out of pleasure, Reich allowed postwar radicals [...] to view their promiscuity as political activism. Reich made them feel part of the sexual elite, superior to the ‘frozen,’ gray, corporate consensus.” For instance: “The nude cocktail parties and orgies in the dunes that Macdonald [Dwight Macdonald, the editor of ‘Politics’] presided over at his Cape Cod retreat […] were, as he saw it, a form of politics.”

Yet Reich did not want to become the bohemians’ mascot. “He was haunted by the thought that men with dirty minds would misuse his authority to unleash ‘a free for-all fucking epidemic’,” wrote Paul Robinson in his study The Freudian Left. In essence, Reich was a puritan. He denounced pornography, homosexual relationships (he refused to treat gay clients, such as Allen Ginsberg). In other words, at the Cape Cod orgies he’d feel like the third wheel.

Searching for UFOs

Even if Reich had called it quits and cut all his accumulators to pieces (in a few years’ time, government officials would do it anyway), he wouldn’t have been able to stop the sexual revolution. Around the time Reich is starting his career in the US, a 44-year old zoology professor from Indiana University, Alfred Kinsey, launches his studies that will shake public opinion with a force no orgone accumulator can muster. Kinsey’s reports, the 1948 Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, and the five years later Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female, will demonstrate clearly that American society is not as puritan as it seemed. Kinsey will reveal that 10% of men have declared their homosexuality and that 37% have had a one-time homosexual experience. 69% of men have regularly used the services of prostitutes. 90% of American males and 60% of American females have reached an orgasm through masturbation. In short, Americans were having pre-marital and extra-marital sex (including sadomasochistic practices) much more often than people had thought. Despite a wave of criticism directed at Kinsey, the data he gathers in his reports lay the foundations for the coming sexual revolution.

At the time it all started happening, however, Wilhelm Reich is drifting in a very different direction. No longer a distinguished disciple of Freud, he now resembles a mad scientist from a Marvel comic book. In 1951, convinced that orgone energy can neutralize nuclear radiation, he places in the accumulator a one-milligram sample of radium. Instead of neutralizing radiation, the accumulator boosts it. His laboratory Geiger counter goes crazy and shows the maximum contamination with radium radiation. Does Reich admit he was wrong? Of course not. He states that he has just discovered a new form of orgone, DOR (deadly orgone radiation). The so-called deadly orgone is a real threat to humanity. And who else is to fight against it, if not Reich himself, who in The Murder of Christ has created a new type of leader, modelled on himself?

He builds orgone guns (so-called ‘cloudbusters’), which he uses to disperse deadly orgone clouds. The cloudbusters are supposed not only to fend off hurricanes and bring rain – Reich also uses them to hunt down the flying saucers that bomb Earth with DOR radiation.

Scapegoat

As Reich is hunting for UFOs and ‘curing’ radium radiation effects with increasing doses of brandy, real black clouds start gathering over his head. The danger has by no means the shape of an alien ship; instead, it materializes in the form of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials, determined to prove that the orgone accumulators’ constructor is a common charlatan. In the course of several years, they will not only investigate Reich and his patients; they will also pose as his patients, and will commission researchers – from the Mayo Clinic, among other facilities – to examine the accumulator. In 1954, the case goes to court and as a result Reich is banned from the further manufacturing and selling of the accumulators. He disregards the court’s ruling; he perceives the authorities’ actions as a conspiracy against him (most probably inspired by communists and, who knows, maybe even the UFOs). Yet the officials don’t let go. Two years later, the court looks into Reich’s case again. The judge needs 120 minutes to fine the Wilhelm Reich Foundation $10,000. Reich, for breaking the court’s earlier injunction, is sentenced to two years in Lewisburg prison. FDA officials enter Reich’s home in Rangley, incinerate six tonnes of his work and destroy the accumulators. Reich, who often compared himself to Giordano Bruno, shares his fate. On 3rd November 1957, a year after having been imprisoned, he dies of a heart attack.

This could have been the end of the story, but Reich’s biographer does not give up easily: “If Reich’s claims were no more than ridiculous quackery, as the FDA doctors who refuted them suggested, and if he was just a paranoid schizophrenic, as one court psychiatrist concluded, then why did the U.S. government consider him such a danger?” His FBI file was nearly 800 pages long, while the FDA spent over $2 million on the investigation. An accident? Reich’s biographer is doubtful. He suggests that the conservatives’ real target was to be Alfred Kinsey, whose research was then still funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Yet Reich, anointed by radicals as “the guru of the ‘new cult of sex and anarchy’”, was better scapegoat material.

An Orwellian nightmare

Reich’s trial can’t stop the revolution: the contraceptive pill enters the market, gays and lesbians start fighting for their rights. Reich, now a martyr for ‘the cause’, is in fashion again. In 1968, protesting German students are advised to “Read Reich and act accordingly!”

Yet, as Herbert Marcuse, one of the main ideologues of the student revolt, aptly observes, sex, instead of a revolutionary means, can become a tool of authoritarian oppression. George Orwell was very much aware of this when he wrote 1984, taking some inspiration from Reich.

“The aim of the Party was not merely to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which it might not be able to control. Its real, undeclared purpose was to remove all pleasure from the sexual act. […] The only recognized purpose of marriage was to beget children for the service of the Party. Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema. […] The Party was trying to kill the sex instinct, or, if it could not be killed, then to distort it and dirty it,” we read in Orwell’s novel.

That which Orwell dressed as dystopia, the film-makers of the 1960s and 70s presented as satire. In Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, the mad scientist Durand Durand (partly based on Reich) tortures Jane Fonda with an orgasmatron. The device where the protagonist of Allen’s Sleeper is hiding from the secret police is a product of an authoritarian regime. Sort of funny, but scary as hell.

In January 1964, Time magazine – which right after Reich’s death only published a short note – declares in a long article: “Dr. Wilhelm Reich may have been a prophet. For now it sometimes seems that all America is one big Orgone Box […] From innumerable screens and stages, posters and pages, it flashes the larger-than-life-sized images of sex. […] And constantly, over the intellectual Muzak, comes the message that sex will save you and libido make you free.” Christopher Turner further comments, quoting Herbert Marcuse: “But the truth is that this freedom and satisfaction are transforming the world to hell […] all liberated desire was swept into an existing capitalist system of production and consumption.”

Why painstakingly build an orgone accumulator in you garage, if in a blink of an eye you can access sites such as Pornhub? The sexual revolution is not just the pill, Kinsey, or the fight for LGBT+ rights, but also (unfortunately) Fifty Shades of Grey and 365 Days. Every time I see these in a bookshop window, I feel like shooting them with an orgone gun. I wonder what Wilhelm Reich would do in my position?


From prana to orgone

Wilhelm Reich was not the first to look for a universal life energy. The anima that 16th-century alchemists searched for, the Hindu prana, known in East Asia as qi, finally Henri Bergson’s elan vital – all these had simply acquired a new name: ‘orgone.’ The accumulator wasn’t anything new, either. Christopher Turner compares it to the baquet, a nearly two centuries older device in which Anton Mesmer – the French doctor who proposed the notion of so-called animal magnetism – treated his patients. The box, which is essentially a huge Leyden jar, an electrostatic energy capacitor, could seat as many as 20 people. Yet for the needs of the aristocracy, including Marie Antoinette, one-person models were built.

 

Translated from the Polish by Adam Zdrodowski

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Agnieszka Fiedorowicz

is a popular science journalist. She has worked for the largest Polish popular science monthly “Focus”, as well as several other Polish magazines, including “Elle”, “Harper’s Bazaar”, “Coaching” and “National Geographic”. She is vice editor-in-chief of the magazine “Po prostu zyj” [Just Live!] (http://stomalife.pl/index.php/magazyn-po-prostu-zyj/), published by the Polish Foundation of People with Ostomy, Stoma Life. She won Amnesty International Polska’s “Pen of Hope” (2010) award, and has been nominated three times for the Polish Grand Press Prize (category: social and scientific journalism). She is married, with two kids, Marta and Marcin, and one German Shepherd, Dzikus.