Review of Wilhelm Reich - Biologist, by James E. Strick

Wilhelm Reich - Biologist, by James E. Strick, Harvard University Press, 2015.

I came of sexual age in the 1960s, when the so-called Sexual Revolution was already well underway. Widespread, reliable contraception had finally detached the sex act from the raw biology of reproduction. Young people were becoming much freer with their explorations of sex; long before I ever had sex with anyone else, I, in common with nearly all my contemporaries, embraced the zeitgeist - the idea of sexual freedom - in a spirit of hopeful anticipation.

A few years later, reading Wilhelm Reich, my friends and I were digging back into the foundations of the Sexual Revolution, a phrase coined by Reich, a movement he hoped would arise and dissolve the bonds of locked-in sexual-emotional energy and lead to a better world. Reich was the erratic visionary who had looked forward to an era we were now living in. He wrote in Function of the Orgasm:

'Psychic health depends upon orgastic potency, i.e. upon the degree to which one can surrender to and experience the climax of excitation in the natural sexual act. ... Psychic illnesses are the result of a disturbance in the natural ability to love. In the case of orgastic impotence, from which the overwhelming majority of people suffer, damming-up of biological energy occurs and becomes the source of irrational actions.'

Wilhelm Reich was a psychoanalyst who studied under Sigmund Freud, but came to treat libido as an actual, physically-detectable energy, an aspect of a universal vital force he called orgone. Reich's life-force has to be physically detectable. His philosophy could be described as 'mechanistic vitalism'; he claimed that it bridges the gulf between the classically-opposed vitalistic and mechanistic philosophies of life. Reich's vitalism demands a very different way of looking at the world; things are not to be understood merely in the ways they commonly manifest.

'What is Bio-psychic Energy?' he asks in a chapter heading in his book The Function of the Orgasm, and admits that he cannot fully answer this question. However, he insists it is electrical in nature, referring to it as bio-electricity on occasion.

Reich's legacy is broadly twofold: he is best known and respected for the founding of an important tendency in psychotherapy. Some of his ideas concerning psychotherapy rest on controversial or unprovable ideas, but the idea of 'character armour' is an amazing insight. According to Reich, the frustration and pain we bring forward from childhood trauma we do so by carrying it in tensions in our musculature. There was nothing like this notion in modern psychology until Reich suggested it, yet it is of a piece with the ancient Germanic concept of the hamr, the soul which imprints a shape upon our bodies, a shape which derives from habitual patterns, patterns which can be dissolved and recast in shapeshifting acts of magic.

Reich's greatest psychotherapeutic legacy is surely Alexander Lowen's Bioenergetic Therapy. Lowen was a patient, then a student of Reich's, splitting from him in 1952. His writings do not emphasize orgone or Reich's dubious physical theories, but give central place to the Reichian concept of character armouring. Despite Lowen's obvious respect for his former teacher, it is not hard to get the impression that their split amounted to Lowen's developing what was useful and leaving behind theoretical frameworks that were useless for therapy and, what's more, may eventually have been harmful to the credibility of therapies stemming from Reich's original and challenging biological microscopy.

That work is his second, and more controversial legacy, and it's what this book examines anew. Wilhelm Reich: Biologist tells the story of Reich's career, from his first stirrings of interest in a biological basis for his patients' emotional suffering through to his most controversial work and his departure for the USA in 1939. His biological work started with observations of amoebae, studying the way protoplasm flowed and trying to relate this to his theory that that basis of organic life is a pulsation formed of alternate expansion and contraction, from protozoa right up to the human autonomic nervous system. In the course of attempts to culture his own amoebae, he observed the formation of vesicles at around a micron in size. Following up this work with sterile preparations based on decaying grass, and then other materials, some of which were heated to incandescence to guarantee sterility, he observed a range of these vesicles, which he called bions. The bions pulsated, and seemed to be associated with larger structures, more like fully-developed cells.

Reich claimed that what he was observing was 'Primary Biogenesis', in other words, the emergence of living forms from non-living matter. This was his dominant theory throughout the period covered in this book, from the first bion experiments in 1935 to the 1939 discovery of the SAPA bions, which Reich observed to affect light-shielded photographic plates, but seemingly under conditions non-one else has yet succeeded in replicating.

Reich certainly observed some previously-unknown or poorly-studied structures that arise in cultures made using all sorts of organic and inorganic substances as a starting point, but his identification of these with processes that generate life where there was none before rests on shaky ground. Reich does seem to be over-optimistic when he claims that the bions possessed "all the criteria of life." Further, the idea of orgone energy is bound to raise the question: Are we in the presence of a scientist who seems in this case to have discarded the first rule of scientific enquiry - Occam's Razor, by which we are enjoined not to multiply entities needlessly?

Maybe, but this possibility does not invalidate his actual discoveries, which this book presents lucidly and with copious references, some from new examination of forgotten archives. What is more, WRB tells the stories of Reich's treatment at the hands of mainstream academic science - men whose worries about tenure occluded their experimental objectivity. This isolation may have been exacerbated by Reich's character, which Strick does not shrink from sketching via key anecdotes.

It is also worth bearing in mind that this is a man who was eventually hounded to his death by fanatics from the US Food and Drugs administration, who were quite possibly infuriated by the fact that Reich was trying to establish a sexually healthy society, and went so far as to burn his books. WRB argues convincingly that Reich was not a charlatan, whatever his character flaws.

Reich is still controversial. You only have to look at reviews of one 2010 book, Adventures in the Orgasmatron, by Christopher Turner, to see how polarized people are about Reich's ideas. The judgments on the book are mostly positive from mainstream critics who found it amusing, few of whom, one imagines, have much background in biology or psychotherapy. However, more than half the reviews from the general public I found were much more critical, more than one of which accused the author of poor research, character assassination and outright lying. WRB has the potential to restore the balance, and honour Reich's discoveries.

In the final section of WRB, we learn of teams who have since repeated Reich's experiments, and conformed his observations - clearly, pulsating vesicle-structures in the micron range do appear under sterile conditions, and these structures can be cultured in sterile growth media. Strick speculates about self-replicating macromolecular structure that have been discovered since Reich's time, such as prion proteins.

This possibility by no means exhausts fresh approaches to Reich's microscopic discoveries. The pulsation of the vesicles suggests some kind of dissipative energy system, for studies of which Ilya Prigogine gained the 1977 Chemistry Nobel. These are self-assembling systems of chemical components that form relatively stable structures which maintain themselves whilst exchanging energy with their environment. A macroscopic example might be a smoke ring, rotating in response to air currents but keeping its form.  

From the point of view of health and personal development, Reich's work gives some interesting crossovers between different descriptions of the experience of sensed-energy, for instance when he talks about the speed at which 'orgone energy' flows: he says it is slow, a few millimetres per second. This is the speed at which a shudder of cold, or of pleasure, or of excitement passes through us when we feel those things. For Reich, this sensation would correlate directly to a measurable energy flow. This is a position which starts and is rooted in embodied wisdom, the recognition of the vast, non-cognitive domains of conscious being, and that position is something our culture desperately needs. After all, any flourishing of individuals which has been aided by inner work with sensed-energy is to be applauded, and what science has to say about such internal processes is surely secondary to the experience of the practitioner. We can do science at one time, and inner work, with whatever models work best for us, at another. There is no conflict, because these things operate in different domains.

This is a  very good book, carefully written and balanced in approach. If you have puzzled about how much of Reich's science is relevant today, then read it.

My thanks go to Dan Lowe, who made me aware of far better informed critiques of Reich than the stupid and sensationalist ones, and at a time when I was researching for my book Life-Force, trying to get a total overview of the area of sensed-energy.


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