Wilhelm Reich Critical Essays


(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 authorities and burned in New York in 1956. Reich died in prison in 1957.

Major Works

Several of Reich's early works are considered standards of psychoanalytic study. The Function of the Orgasm is a Freudian examination in which Reich argued that healthy orgasm releases pent-up energy that, unreleased, will stagnate and cause neurosis. In Charakteranalyse (Character Analysis) Reich posited that individual character is an ego-defense mechanism, or "character armor," designed to protect people from threatening emotional situations. He maintained that the analyst's function was to break down character armor and thereby enable patients to undergo effective psychotherapy. Reich's reaction to nazism resulted in Massenpsychologie des Faschismus (The Mass Psychology of Fascism), which contends that fascism is an expression of sexual repression. Much of Reich's later work evidences his fear of persecution and his frustration over the dismissal of his ideas. Listen, Little Man!, for example, is an inflammatory condemnation of the "common man." Other later works focus on his study of orgone energy and its alleged ability to cure emotional and physical illness.

Critical Reception

A controversial figure from the start, Reich first incurred strong disapproval from his colleagues when he differed from Freud on the issue of sex and society. His assertion that children should be allowed freedom for sexual experimentation led to further ostracism, and by the end of his life Reich was fully discredited as a doctor. Today critics consider his early writings, particularly The Function of the Orgasm and Character Analysis, to be seminal works in the field of psychoanalysis. Most critics maintain that although The Mass Psychology of Fascism is simplistic in its reasoning and development, its fundamental argument is valid. The existence of orgone energy has never been proven, although some commentators believe Reich's theory to be the forerunner to what is now known as alternative medicine.