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Wilhelm Reich

(1897—1957)


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(1897–1957)

Austrian*psychoanalyst whose combination of Marxism and psychoanalysis influenced a generation of political activists and writers in Europe and the US. In later life, he became an extremely controversial figure because of his rather eccentric views. He was prosecuted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US and died in prison.

Reich was born in Dobrzanica, which is now in the Ukraine but was then an outer satellite of the Austro-Hungarian empire. His family were wealthy farmers (a fact that he would later credit with sparking his interest in the study of sex), and although of Jewish descent they disavowed their cultural heritage. Reich was home-schooled by a private tutor until he was 12, when his mother committed suicide. He was then sent to a boys' school. After the outbreak of World War I, when the Russians invaded in 1915 Reich and his brother fled to Vienna, losing everything. He joined the army in 1915 and served until the end of the war. He then studied medicine at the University of Vienna, where he met Sigmund Freud who invited him to join his Psychoanalytic Association while he was still a student.

He set up private practice as an analyst in 1922. Over the next few years he wrote what is probably his best known and arguably his most important work, Die Funktion des Orgasmus: Zur Psychopathologie und zur Soziologie des Geschlechslebens (1929), translated as The Function of the Orgasm: Sex-Economic Problems of Biological Energy (1968). It was this work, perhaps not surprisingly, that caught the attention of writers like William Burroughs and Norman Mailer who, in their turn, popularized Reich's work for the counter-culture generation.

In 1930 he moved to Berlin and joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). He was witness to the rise of Nazism in Germany, which he theorized in Die Massenpsychologie des Faschismus (1933), translated as The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1980), by asking the question: why did the masses turn towards an authoritarian party even though it was manifestly not in their interest to do so? His somewhat simplistic, but nevertheless suggestive answer was that sexual suppression in childhood prepared people for authoritarian rule in later life. Reich was expelled from the KPD for this book, as a liability to their cause, and when the Nazis came into power it was immediately banned and he was forced to flee the country. He moved to Scandinavia, but was forced to move again, this time to the US, when World War II broke out.

In the US he extended the work begun in Norway, namely his search for the origins of life. He claimed to discover an observable energy he called ‘orgone’, which he said was the source of life itself. Although his scientific methods and procedures were questioned in his lifetime by scientists as eminent as Albert Einstein, Reich was unshakeable in his conviction that he had discovered the beginnings of life itself. He created ‘orgone accumulators’ designed to collect and concentrate this ‘cosmic’ energy so that it could be used to such beneficial ends as healing the sick. Unfortunately for him, Reich sold ‘orgone accumulators’ to mail-order customers and this attracted the attention of the FDA. An injunction was taken out in 1954 to prevent him from shipping his apparatuses across state lines, but he refused to comply with the order. And though he sent the judge presiding over his case copies of his books, he was found to be in contempt and given a two-year sentence.

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Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies — Social Sciences.


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