Wilhelm Reich Introduction

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Wilhelm Reich 1897-1957

Austrian-born American psychoanalyst.

A major contributor to the early development of psychoanalysis, Reich is remembered primarily for his pioneering theories about human sexuality. Initially accepted as a legitimate theorist, Reich fell into disfavor with the scientific community as he advanced his later, more controversial, ideas and was for the most part dismissed at the time of his death as little more than a fraud with messianic delusions.

Biographical Information

Reich was born in Galicia and grew up in Bukowina, two provinces attached to Austria prior to the collapse of the Hapsburg empire in 1918. When Reich was fourteen his parents' turbulent relationship ended with the suicide of his mother after Reich informed his father of her affair with a tutor. Some scholars speculate that Reich was haunted by this incident for the remainder of his life, and that some of his psychosexual theories may have arisen from guilt over his mother's suicide. In 1916 Reich joined the Austrian army and served in Italy during World War I. After the war Reich went to Vienna to study medicine, becoming a practicing psychologist at the age of twenty-two. As a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society, he encountered Freud's libido theory, which held that repressed sexual energy engendered most human neuroses. Reich accepted this idea and published his first major study of sexuality, Die Funktion des Orgas mus (The Function of the Orgasm), in 1927. He broke with Freud, however, over the role of society in the development of sexuality and neuroses. While Freud maintained that the sexual repression imposed by society was necessary to forestall anarchy, Reich argued that healthy sexual experiences would prevent both neuroses and social disintegration. In 1928 Reich joined the Austrian Communist Party and cofounded the Socialist Society for Sex Consultation and Sexological Research, setting up health and counseling clinics for the working classes. Two years later Reich moved to Berlin, where he helped establish a sex education program called Verlag fur Sexualpolitik. In the early 1930s he was expelled from both the Communist Party and the International Psychoanalytic Association because of his advocacy of sex-oriented politics. Reich left Germany in 1938 to escape the Nazis, settling first in Denmark, then in Norway. By this time Reich had severed his ties with most of his scientific and political associates. He was driven from Scandinavia by a massive newspaper campaign against his increasingly narrow focus on the importance of sexuality, and in 1939 he emigrated to the United States. There he claimed to have discovered "orgone energy," a cosmic life force that could be captured in boxes Reich called orgone accumulators and used to cleanse the body and cure disease. In the 1940s Reich moved to Oregon, Maine, and built a laboratory to further study orgone energy. Reportedly becoming delusional, he believed he was being persecuted and developed a strong identification with Jesus Christ. He also began experiments with weather control and believed himself to be an alien. In the 1950s, in what is now considered by many scholars to be the result of McCarthyist hysteria and gross misunderstanding of Reich's essentially harmless experiments, the Food and Drug Administration brought charges of fraud against Reich, stating that he alleged his orgone accumulators could cure cancer. Arguing that the court did not possess the scientific understanding to judge his work, Reich refused to comply with orders banning the use of all orgone accumulators and all references to orgone energy in his writings. He was charged with contempt of court and sentenced to two years in the Federal Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. His orgone accumulators and most of his books were seized by...

(The entire section is 901 words.)