Wilhelm Reich wrote The Function of the Orgasm in 1927, and The Sexual Revolution in 1936. He studied psychoanalysis under Sigmund Freud, caused a scandal on two continents, and composed a theory of existence based on the orgasm. Women loved him. Governments surveilled him. His books were burned in Nazi Germany, and burned in New York State. “Science!” Reich wrote. “I’m going to plant a bomb under its ass!!”
It is a goatish résumé, and it suggests a satyr of a figure. Yet the Galileo of the orgasm, as Reich thought of himself, could also be something of a grumpy old man. “Now, that is a sexual revolution!” Reich declared in 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidency. Reich disapproved of porn and promiscuity, “abhorred” homosexuals, and “always took a shower in his underpants,” according to one mistress. Reich also saw UFOs, and believed he could control the weather. “In the 1920s,” writes Christopher Turner in his new book, Adventures in the Orgasmatron (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 544 pages, $35.00), “Reich was known by his colleagues as ‘the character smasher.’” The life consecrated to smashing would end in smithereens. When Reich died, in 1957, he was in prison. He thought the planes flying over the yard “were guarding him at Eisenhower’s instruction.”
“If Reich had been a surrealist artist,” said Mr. Turner, “he would still be celebrated today.” Christopher Turner is blonde, beamish, and British. On a recent afternoon, The Observer met him at the Nevins Street headquarters of Cabinet magazine, where he is an editor. “Wine? It’s not too early. Coffee? We’ve just put some on. Water? I’ll get you a glass.” The Fifties buried Reich, but the Sixties dug him up and made him an icon, and Mr. Turner’s book, a history of the intellectual prelude to that decade, is mostly about him. “I was interested in looking at Reich’s ideas as a historian, at how they spread out into the culture at large,” said the author. We sat an elongated banquet table that had been improvised out of a few stubbier tables—an artifact of the night before, when Mr. Turner and colleagues had toasted the unveiling of Orgasmatron. “It’s been listed as forthcoming for several years. We were celebrating the end of the forthcoming.” The day was hot; Gowanus glowed beyond the windows. If Mr. Turner had a hangover, his concealment of it was bravura.
“There are certain people who click, just click,” Reich recalled. “I knew Freud liked me.” Wilhelm Reich was born to a Jewish family on the edge of the Hapsburg Empire in 1897. After the First World War, Reich moved to Vienna to study medicine, where he met Freud The master was impressed by his pupil’s abilities but alarmed by his ambitiousness. “Reich wanted to change the world,” Mr. Turner writes. Freud wanted to keep the world as it was, and the click became a clash.
Their disagreement pivoted on Freud’s concept of repression—the regulation of man’s primal impulses, or id, by his acquired ones, or superego. For Freud, repression wasn’t a problem, exactly. Repression was the human condition. Although it engendered neurosis, it also prevented civilization from dissolving in a havoc of the passions. Even if it chafed, the libido had to go on a leash—else the world would go to the dogs. But Reich didn’t see the need for the leash. He thought a good orgasm could sort out a sick psyche, and that a lot of them could unsnarl a repressive society. “He realized,” as Mr. Turner writes, “that a revolution in sexual attitudes could bring about a true political revolution.”
This theory mushroomed as the theorist matured. “Reich never had an idea and then detached himself from it. He always elaborated,” said Mr. Turner. Reich came to think that life was made up of microscopic orgasmic emanations, called orgone. Reich had discovered it; it was the “discovery of the century.” Orgone could cure disease, kill cysts, stoke the sex drive. It could also stave off space invaders. In the 1950s, Reich invented an orgone cannon. He called it “The Cloudbuster.”
The Cloudbuster would struggle to jibe with the peace pipe. By the time the counterculture took them to market, Reich’s ideas had been pruned of their wilder flowers. “That’s what happens with ideas,” Mr. Turner said. “People take what they like and reject the rest.” What they liked about Reich’s ideas was their seeming invitation to sleep around. As John F. Kennedy put it, “I get a migraine headache if I don’t get a strange piece of ass every day.” Reich himself, of course, was adamantly schmaltzy about sex, and would have been aghast at the licentiousness of his legacy. “He would say things like, You shouldn’t laugh when you’re making love,” said Mr. Turner. The irony was too involuted for the attention span of the age. Reich started out as a crusader for the sublimity of sex, and ended up the pope of its banality. “An orgasm a day keeps the doctor away,” wrote Kim Philby, in 1963. The orgasm had gone from being life-altering to part of a lifestyle.
The lifestyle came with accessories.
“Do you want to go in the box?” asked Mr. Turner, when The Observer first arrived at Nevins Street.
“You should ask me questions from the box,” he said.
The box was an Orgone Box—an Orgone Energy Accumulator. “It was built of plywood and lined with sheet iron,” Mr. Turner writes, “and had a small window in the door to provide ventilation.” As Reich explained it, the Accumulator worked by decanting atmospheric orgone into its interior, where the user crouched. It was Reich’s iconic machine, and it would also be his undoing. When Reich went to jail, it was for contravening a court-ordered injunction to stop manufacturing more Accumulators. “Reich hoped that one day every household might have an accumulator, which might be used to prevent cancer and other ailments, and to keep the nation charged up with bioenergy,” Mr. Turner writes.
Scientists soon shredded these claims, along with the entire tapestry of Reichian science. But the Accumulator’s allure as an opportunity for simile could not be touched. It was “a sort of psychoanalysis machine,” as Mr. Turner writes; or it was “like a sentry post,” as he writes again. It struck an FDA inspector as “like a privy.” It struck Alfred Kazin as like a “telephone booth.” A woman raised by Reichians recalled the Accumulator looming like “a mute, Cyclopean sentinel.” When it came her turn to go inside, “She felt like Anne Frank, hiding from the Gestapo.” “It sometimes seems that all America is one big orgone box,” wrote Time Magazine. Woody Allen satirized it in Sleeper. He called it “The Orgasmatron.”
The Cabinet Accumulator struck The Observer as like a cabinet. “The guy who built it for me is called John Murphy,” said Mr. Turner. “He’s a professor at Pratt.” Initially a novelty, the Accumulator had since delved out a new role as a nuisance. Staffers had relocated it from the center of the room to a corner, which it shared with the office bathroom. The next day it would be gone—donated to a man who, unlike the magazine, possessed enough square footage to accommodate his sense of drollery.
The Accumulator gave The Observer a pain in our lumbar. We had to hunker to fit inside.
Was it undersized, we asked?
It was not.
The Observer and Mr. Turner talked.
“Shall I leave you in there a while?”
We agreed on ten minutes, and Mr. Turner disappeared.
William Burroughs “claimed to have had a spontaneous orgasm” in the Accumulator. Saul Bellow claimed to have “cured a couple of warts.” Others claimed to have remitted cancer. So we waited. We idled and twiddled. But our loins were unmoved. Our wart count was stable. Our tumors, such as they are, were undisturbed.
“Frankly, I always thought the box was kind of crap,” said Norman Mailer, whom Mr. Turner interviewed before he died.
Mailer also said, “I think in a basic sense Reich was right.”
The Observer looked through the chink in the Accumulator. On the wall opposite, an “Exit” sign shone above a door.
Only, the Exit sign read “Evil.”
An editor walked by, and we asked him about it.
“It’s art,” he said.