Fifty years ago, Wilhelm Reich made a science of getting off
Wilhelm Reich, once Sigmund Freud's star pupil, was an important player in the radical psychoanalytic movement of the 1930s. His ideas about the transcendent power of orgasms inspired many postwar American writers and critics—Paul Goodman, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs—who became central to the cultural upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s.
At the core of Reich's peripatetic career was a venerable, if unfashionable, belief: Under the mantle of social convention lurks a natural, instinctual self, and releasing that self's energies from society's repression is the only way to achieve psychic health, political justice, and spiritual well-being. Reich believed that civilized culture causes people to develop “character armor,” defensive character traits that manifest themselves in somatic tension. This tightness in the hips, buttocks, stomach, and other parts of the body prevents the freedom of movement required for a good orgasm. So, in Reich's model, the ability to achieve “orgiastic potency” became the key to a healthy psychological life, for both men and women.
Reich's scientific work proceeded from a shaky premise—that the psychological drive that Freud called libido and the physical release that accompanies orgasm are just different manifestations of the same energy. He began conducting experiments to measure this “primordial cosmic energy,” a radioactive substance he called orgone, which he theorized also emanates from bions (bits of decomposing matter).
Reich attempted to isolate the orgone by placing samples in boxes made of metal, in order to contain orgone radiation, and covered in wood, to insulate against external orgone interference. He noted that if he stared at the darkness in the boxes, he could see colored patches of light. In the early 1940s, in his Maine laboratory, Reich began placing patients in metal-and-wood boxes—“orgone energy accumulators”—to improve their mental health and orgiastic potency, and even combat cancer, as detailed in The Cancer Biopathy (1948). Boxes ranged from full-body models about the size of a phone booth to smaller models designed to accommodate specific body parts. Some had attachments like showerheads that intensified and sprayed orgone. Orgone blankets could be folded up for easy traveling.
The boxes (and their variations) were relatively simple to make and became something of a fad; many people who had no knowledge of Reichian therapy enjoyed the supposed energizing, aphrodisiac effects of the accumulators. Hipsters, Beats, and early hippies all knew about orgone boxes. They were eventually supplanted by other New Age panaceas (and banned by the FDA), but ads for instruction manuals still appear in magazines and on a dozen or so Internet sites.
Reich's wacko career, which included cloud busting and UFO studies, ended in 1957, when, hounded by imaginary conspiracies and real federal agents, he died in prison. Adapted from Lingua Franca (March 1999). Subscriptions: $29.95/yr. (9 issues) from Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834.