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Book Review - Wilhelm Reich
Wilhelm Reich
by Robert S. Corrington
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2003
Review by Max Hocutt, Ph.D.
Nov 26th 2003

Yes, you have heard of him. Wilhelm Reich was the certified nut case who joined a mutilated Freudianism with a mutilated Marxism to create the kooky idea that the evils of society are attributable to sexual repression in the service of capitalist exploitation, the cure for which is more and better orgasms --a form of "therapy" that the good Doctor Reich generously provided many of his female patients. His views having been rejected by orthodox Freudians and Marxists, a discouraged Reich went on to discover "orgone energy" and invent "bion theory," which were rejected by the physicists and biologists.  Despite these setbacks, Reich had a popular following in the twenties and thirties, and then again in the sixties and seventies, among the sexually discontented and the politically disaffected. 

Corrington's book combines a psychoanalytical rendering of Reich's troubled life (which consisted largely of a search for sexual gratification) with a tribute to Reich's prolific writings, most of which were published at his own expense   According to Corrington, the writings, though brilliant, are expressions of the life, which was marred by psychopathology.  Never sensed, much less resolved, is the paradox inherent in this claim. Corrington, who shares Reich's view that he was a martyr to science, is simply too enthralled by his subject to notice the difficulty.  In fact, so enamored is he of Reich that Professor Corrington is not content merely to declare that Reich made advances on Freud and Marx. A professor of "philosophical theology" at Drew University, Corrington also declares that Reich made advances on Einstein and Darwin. Unfortunately, Corrington's jargon laden summaries of Reich's writings achieve the opposite of what he intends:  They reveal not how sensible but how nutty the man was.

The first three chapters of Professor Corrington's book deal with Reich's advances on Freud, for whom Corrington also has great enthusiasm. Reich differed from his mentor in claiming that all neuroses are misdirected ventings of bottled up energy caused by genital frustrations and needing release in orgasms. Though Reich thought this modification an improvement, it was heretical enough to cause Freud's more orthodox disciples to excommunicate him from the psychoanalytic church. Yet Professor Corrington, who likes Freud's metaphors but likes Reich's even better, believes that Reich stands to Freud as Einstein stands to Newton.  Apparently oblivious to the work of such critics as the philosopher of science Adolph Grunbaum, Professor Corrington, shows no awareness that scientifically minded persons regard views like Freud's and Reich's as more poetry than science.  Because they are expressed in evocative metaphor and vague symbol rather than in precise and falsifiable prediction, such views are much more at home in departments of English literature than in departments of scientific psychology.  Pursued only by people lacking familiarity with the methods of science, what Corrington praises as "depth psychology," meaning free form speculation about the unverifiable workings of "the unconscious mind," would be more aptly derided as literary psychology. Whatever it is called, it has little demonstrable relation to the real world.

Corrington's fourth chapter exposes Reich's psychoanalytic version of Marxism. We are told that Reich subscribed to the [wholly unfounded] speculation--first advanced by Marx's collaborator Engels but later revived by the cultural anthropologist Malinowski-- that pre-historical society was matriarchal, so more accepting of a natural and uninhibited sexuality than the repressive patriarchy that replaced it.  Engels had seen in monogamy and the nuclear family efforts to extend and consolidate patriarchal control of property, which included women.  Reich thought he could improve on this theory by seeing in sexual restraint and marital fidelity harmful shackles on female sexuality, which, he was convinced, must be let loose if society is to produce healthy and happy individuals. Unfortunately, when he unwisely used this theory to explain Nazism, Reich had to leave Germany.  When he went so far as to reduce to sexual taboos the conflicts between economic classes that Marx and Engels had declared the key to history, he was thrown out of the Communist Party too.

Corrington's last three chapters tell the rest of the story.  Rejected by the very people who, Reich believed, should have been his closest friends and allies, Reich emigrated--first from Vienna to Berlin, then to Switzerland, then to Copenhagen.  Finally arriving in America, he extended his psychoanalytic modes of thought to biology and physics, then to cosmology and theology, making still more unacknowledged advances.  "Orgasmic therapy" and Communist politics gave way to "orgone therapy," as Reich claimed to have discovered the cause and cure for not just sexual dysfunction but also cancer.  Reich gathered this magical stuff in "orgone collectors" and sold it to clients until the FDA raided his establishment, destroyed his equipment, and sent him to jail, where he died having identified orgone energy with God and himself with Christ, the son of God.  Despite this, Professor Corrington persists to the end in denying that there was evidence to support the court psychiatrist who judged Reich to be a paranoid schizophrenic.  In Corrington's view, this diagnosis of megalomaniac delusion was a misreading of what was only a case of "psychic inflation" and "social displacement."

I would put it differently:  Reich was a lunatic of whom sane and sensible people wanted, and should still want, no part. 


© 2003 Max Hocutt


Max Hocutt Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Philosophy The University of Alabama and author of Grounded Ethics: The Empirical Bases of Normative Judgm