Beyond Psychology: Letters and Journals, 1934-1939, by Wilhelm Reich.

From: Skeptical Inquirer  |  Date: 9/1/1995  |  Author: Bauer, Henry H.

Edited by Mary Boyd Higgins. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1994. 256 pp. Hardcover, $25.00.

To appreciate the significance of Beyond Psychology: Letters and Journals, 1934-1939, by Wilhelm Reich, one needs to know a bit about Wilhelm Reich. According to the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia (1991, Microsoft Bookshelf version):

Reich, Wilhelm, 1897-1957, Austrian

psychiatrist and biophysicist.

He broke with Freud, fled Nazi

Germany, and later settled in New

York City. He emphasized the

importance of sexual fulfillment for

personal well-being. Later, he argued

that sexual success depended partly

on orgone energy. The orgone box, a

device he invented to restore energy,

was declared a fraud by the Food

and Drug Administration. He died

in prison while serving a two-year

sentence for contempt of court and

violation of the Food and Drug Act.

He became a hero of student radicals

of the 1960s, with their motto

"make love, not war."

Fuller appraisals of Reich range from pro (Boadella 1973; Greenfield 1974; Mann and Hoffmann 1980; Reich 1969; Sharaf 1983) to anti (Gardner 1957). Colin Wilson's (1981) work shows gullibility toward Reich's scientific claims but is less of a hagiography than Reichians might like. Certainly Reich was an appreciated leader among Freud's acolytes into the 1920s. Certainly Reich's insights into character development and the relation of somatic to psychological tension are still drawn upon. But, certainly too, mainstream science continues to ignore or reject orgone and all Reich's claims regarding biology.

Reich's emphasis on the role of proper sexual functioning as a matter of "social" importance led him to political activism and association with the Communist Party and away from Freud and the psychoanalytic mainstream. But Reich was too individual a thinker to remain welcome for long among the Communists, and in the 1930s he became a loner. Later, in Scandinavia, he gathered some followers to his psychotherapeutic approach and ventured into experimental biology. Reich came to believe that he could produce living cells (bions) from inorganic materials and that he had discovered a universal life-force, orgone energy, that he could manipulate in orgone boxes for healing purposes. Reich wrote, "Orgone is a type of energy that is the opposite of electricity; it is the specific form of biological energy" (p. 199).

When scientists as charismatic as Reich or Immanuel Velikovsky (who conducted controversial cosmological research) die, the adherents typically split into competing sects. Editor Mary Boyd Higgins notes that in "the confusion that followed Reich's death, his archives were stolen. Although a legal action forced the return of most of his material, some documents are still missing." The largest remaining group of Reichians is the American College of Orgonomy, P.O. Box 490, Princeton, NJ 08542; (908) 821-1144, fax 821-0174. It sponsors lecture series and workshops and publishes a newsletter and the Journal of Orgonomy.

In 1939 Reich moved to the United States, settling eventually in Rangeley, Maine, where his home is open to the public as the Wilhelm Reich Museum. There Reich continued his research, conducted workshops, and invented the cloud buster, an array of tubes that, properly grounded and focused on the skies, would supposedly bring rain.

Increasingly Reich felt himself a target of opposition. He found signs of what he called a "negative" or "deadly orgone-antagonist energy" (DOR) in many places. He believed UFOs were attacking earth and tried to fend them off with orgone. When charged with illegal interstate commerce with the orgone boxes, he acted as his own attorney and was convicted.

His multifaceted life, made of stages that might even seem to describe different people, naturally has brought more than one interpretation. I see him as an extraordinarily talented and charismatic man who could not stand back from his ideas nor benefit from criticism. Rather than meet the criteria and standards of existing journals and publishers, he founded his own journals and published his own books. I see Reich as the textbook example of Martin Gardner's diagnosis of pseudoscientists as hermit scientists: a cogent illustration that what makes science sound is peer interaction within a disciplined community, a dire warning to Us all of what can happen if we become so sure of being right that we pay no attention to the criticisms of competent, informed others. In that view, probably the most irreversible step Reich took was to believe that he could produce life in the test tube, thereby ignoring the conclusion, reached many decades earlier in science, that cellular life no longer arises spontaneously on Earth. Wilhelm Reich took that fatal step during the mid-1930s.

The importance of this book is that it makes public for the first time Reich's private writings from that pivotal period. Readers of this book must, however, be willing to adapt to the Reichian jargon of "vegetative," "vasovegetative," "sex-economic," and "Sexpol."

That the editor's admiration of Reich is uncritical is revealed, for instance, in the overblown description of Reich's "grounding in basic science": [He] "had come to psychoanalysis ... [having] studied astronomy, electronics, the quantum theory, and the physical theories of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Bohr" (p. viii). But the chronology (Reich came to psychoanalysis soon after World War I) makes it impossible for him to have studied several of those sciences. One may also suspect the validity of a judgment that Reich's "two books for children ... were received enthusiastically by the young" (p. xix).

Certain passages in the book make it plain that Reich was ignorant of much of the science in which he regarded himself as competent: "24 February 1937--... So far it has not occurred to anybody to carry out truly concrete tests and to determine what Brownian movement really is" (p.97). "My experiments with lava and iron explain the origin of spores. The process involved in a spinning wave seems to illustrate Einstein's E = [mc.sup.2] formula, like throwing barbells with unequal sides" (p. 165); "the glass electricity was found to be positive and the resin electricity negative" (p. 202); "sand is solar energy that at one stage solidified" (p. 204). Reich never shied away from rejecting expert opinion if it disagreed with his own: that "Kreyberg, the cancer researcher ... has diagnosed staphylococci" is waved aside (p. 114); "the best modern experts in bacteriology cannot argue with me on the basic problems of my clinical experience and my specific experimental work.... I claim absolute authority in all questions of sexual functioning and its relation to vegetative life" (p. 117). Such confidence was Reich's even prior to study of the relevant field: "A practical formulation of the spinning-wave theory will constitute the second step. For that I'll have to study mathematics" (p. 206).

That attitude is typical of"hermit scientists." So, too, is a penchant for citing or accepting other unorthodoxies. When Reich thought to detect radiation from some of his bions, he also "saw a connection ... [with] Gurwitsch mitogenetic rays" (p. 213).

This book shows Reich formulating grandiose and all-encompassing theories on the basis of flimsy indications at best. For example, the interpretation of "experiments with rubber electrodes applied to the erogenous zones of vegetatively highly sensitive individuals" would be anything but straightforward, considering just the conductivity of skin and its dependence on moisture. Yet those are the sorts of measurements Reich made "to confirm his hypothesis that sexuality is identical with a bioelectric charge and that the orgasm is fundamentally an electrical discharge" (p. xxi). That notion was based in part on "his clinical observation of a four-beat process in the orgasm which he called the "tension-charge (TC) or orgasm formula: mechanical tension [right arrow] bioelectrical charge [right arrow] bioelectrical discharge [right arrow] mechanical relaxation" (pp. xxi-xxii). "The tension-charge law ... [also] seems to control the mitotic process of cell division" (p. 6). "27 May 1935--The experiments were completely successful--the electrical nature of sexuality has been proved!" (p. 47). "6 May 1936--... Do amoebae (motile plasma) really originate from the swelling, formation, and dissociation of inorganic matter?" Yes indeed: "17 May 1936--Living earth! The preliminary stages of life discovered! ... Vesicular disintegration of inorganic and organic matter + swelling [right arrow] life. Protozoa are the result of reanimation of organic material that has become inorganic!!??" (p. 65). "15 June 1936--There is no question about it: The motile structures . . . are inorganic matter that is coming to life' (p. 66). "20 November 1936--. . . No doubt about it. I'm right. `Migratory cancer cells' are amoebic formations. They . . . demonstrate the law of tension and charge in its purest form . . . My intuition is good.... Was absolutely driven to buy a microscope. The sight of the cancer cells was exactly as I had previous imagined" (p. 76). " 1 September 1937--. . . It is clear that the transformation of grass into protozoa is the model for the formation of cancer" (p. 110); "cancer is essentially a complicated sequela of dysfunctional sexual energy" (p. 122).

Some passages seem downright megalomaniacal: "the future of mankind is at stake" (p. 57); "for the sake of the cause, one must become increasingly lonely" (p. 58). "It's incredible how stupid and petty, how unconscious the arguments against spontaneous generation are.... In fifty to one hundred years they'll idolize me" (p. 77). "Galileo Galilei! . . .I thank my destiny chat it has included me in the ranks of these great fighters" (p. 206). "I do not keep a diary for the same reasons an adolescent girl does but because these notes on my remarkable existence may someday be of use" (p. 215). "I have also learned to accept injustices without bearing grudges (p. 29). "There are few people around who can match my self-discipline in understanding and tolerating other people" (p. 31).

Trouble with followers and lovers reveals Reich in an unsympathetic light, as when he writes to his wife that, "Otto circulates these silly letters, plays like a small child at being an organizer, and has no idea what it is all about.... [He is] an unconsciously hostile friend" (p. 7). As soon as an expert helper fails to accept Reich's ideas, he becomes non grata and wrong (p. 54): "I don't believe that Lowenbach is bringing enough objectivity to bear on the matter; instead, it looks as if he deliberately did everything he could to slow the experiments down" (p. 55). It is always his lover's responsibility to cater to his emotional needs: "Unless you provoke me too much, my love for you will enable me toe find the necessary patience" (p. 32). "There is nothing I can do," Reich wrote, when his wife Elsa's analyst "cannot cope with Elsa's neurosis because she [the analyst] would like to be my wife herself, in place of Elsa" (p. 82). "For love of Elsa I went without Gerd [one of this girlfriends] last summer. For love of Elsa I went to ocher women in order not to distress her with my desire" (p. 128). Reich seems to have practiced as he preached, that sexual fulfillment is of the utmost importance, as when he recalls "six ghastly weeks of abstinence, interrupted only by emergency measures" (p. 246).

If Reich was paranoid at the end of his life, as the events suggest, then there were also signs of it much earlier: "From a distance I am beginning to smell an attempt, albeit unconscious, to alienate me from the children" (p. 44). "My isolation seems inevitable. People . . . feel resentful because I see through them.... Like insects, they are attracted to the flame of my knowledge while fearing it" (p. 115). In 1937 Reich feared the reaction of "the cancer radium industry" if his "method of cancer treatment were to succeed . . . [but] it would be wrong to claim that my behavior is paranoid" (p. 131).

Since this book focuses on the critical years during which Reich became irrevocably isolated from mainstream organizations, this review has emphasized evidence of that isolation and those aspects of Reich's personality that may have inclined him in that direction. But one can hardly understand from so one-sided an emphasis the enormous appeal Wilhelm Reich has had for many highly intelligent and competent people. He had qualities that we all tend to admire, such as great strength of character, the confidence of knowing what he was about, and passionate pursuit of questions of evident importance and wide interest. When a person like Reich, in his later years, strays so far out as to become intellectually irrelevant, chat is surely a human tragedy, not an indication that he was flawed or irrelevant from the beginning. In a few places, even in this unflatteringly revealing book, one can glimpse the force of Reich's character. When he desperately needed a passport to go from Scandinavia to the United States, he nevertheless refused on principle to accept one issued by the German Embassy because it bore the stamp "Jew" and gave his name as "Wilhelm Israel Reich" (that stamp and the insertion of "Israel" having been standard under the Nazi regime). Doubtless it was the same egotism that led Reich, again to his mind on principle, to defy the Food and Drug Administration.

This book provides copious support for chose who would debunk Reich's scientific pretensions, and Reich's attitude--especially perhaps toward women--as he comes across as notably self-centered and altogether not very nice. Yet the book was put together for publication by an admirer, as the introduction plainly shows. So we get insight not only into Reich but also into his followers, and into how skeptical perspective is lost once allegiance has been lent.

Boadella, David. 1973. Wilhelm Reich, Chicago: Henry Regnery.

Gardner, Martin. 1957. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, New York: Dover; Chapter 21, "Orgonomy."

Greenfield, Jerome. 1974. Wilhelm Reich vs. the U.S.A., New York: W. W. Norton.

Mann, W. Edward, and Edward Hoffmann. 1980. The Man Who Dreamed of Tomorrow, Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher.

Reich, use Ollendorff. 1969. Wilhelm Reich New York: St. Martin's Press.

Sharaf, Myron. 1983. Fury on Earth, New York: St. Martin's Press.

Wilson, Colin. 1981. The Quest for Wilhelm Reich Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday.

Henry H. Bauer is Professor of chemistry and science studies, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0212.

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