Whether we call it qi, aura, or The Force, for thousands of years humanity has been obsessed with the idea of some all-encompassing energy. Not content to just go around eating, reproducing, and dying like the regular animals, we've arrogantly come up with two-bit song-and-dance routines like science, religion, and art to regulate and explain the uncompromising vastness of our universe – a vastness so uncompromising that, on the wrong day, it can even make all the wonder and terror of conventional science, religion, and art seem silly. Don't panic, though, here's a thought: there's something – a lifeforce, if you will – that flows through and around, influences and is influenced by us and all things. That’s better, right?! It's an abstraction, sure, but damn if it's not comforting.
Wilhelm Reich thought so, too, presumably. But Reich was convinced of its existence, so much so that he made it his life's work to clarify the abstraction and not only prove that orgone (his version of this lifeforce) existed, but that its power could be harnessed for good. Needless to say, this did not turn out to be the easiest task. However, with a doctorate in medicine from the University of Vienna under the wing of Sigmund Freud, a history of radical studies, and enough cachet to have his ideas heard, Reich was as qualified for it as anyone.
Reich's orgone was a jumpoff from Freud's “libido,” which was itself an expansion of Karl Abraham's ideas, and keep on going down the line -- if you like, all the way back to the ancient Chinese principle of qi. Orgone and qi are not quite the same idea, though. For one thing, orgone is supposed to be a particularly sexual energy. He was Freud’s man, after all. Reich was a huge proponent of the orgasm (aren’t we all?) as the cure for bodily and even societal ills. As he developed the concept of orgone, his scale broadened and his focus changed, looking at orgone's effect on a whole lot of 'ologies along the way – psychology, biology, meteorology, and ultimately even astrology. Reich built orgone accumulators and transmitters that he believed could cure cancer. He built machines called “cloudbusters” that he believed could change the weather.
Plenty of others believed in the existence and power of orgone as well. The man who had coined the phrase “sexual revolution” in the 1930s became an unwitting figurehead for it and the press was aflame with talk of Reich and his “new cult of sex and anarchy.1” To put it bluntly, orgone was hip! In fact, Reich’s theories had a particular effect on artistic types who may have been attracted to their scandalous (in America, anyway) sexuality. The writing of Saul Bellow often reflected Reichian themes2. JD Salinger reportedly “sat in an orgone box” during his later days3, as did Sean Connery in his prime. Norman Mailer wrote enthusiastically about orgone. In On the Road, Kerouac describes an encounter with the orgone accumulator of Old Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs), who claims in Junky that it’s a logical therapy for “junk sickness” and later famously wrote in Oui Magazine of achieving a “hands-free orgasm” in the device4. Kate Bush, Patti Smith, and others have written songs about him. Even Devo’s famous red hats are a tribute to orgone-collecting contraptions.
The scientific community, on the other hand, was not so convinced. Reich’s experiments have been subject to, and in many cases failed before, intense scrutiny 5. His most famous critic is perhaps Albert Einstein, who upon testing a typical orgone accumulator at Reich’s request found that temperature differences in and out of the device were simply the result of convection and not, unfortunately, orgone accumulation.
Like just about anyone with radical ideas about sex or the universe or a cosmic all-encompassing energy (but especially sex, that damn hippie foreigner!), Reich had a target on his back from the get-go. Reich’s advocacy of the curative powers of sex and touch got him chased right out of fascist Europe. He arrived in America in 1939 with a new resolve -- Kinsey should have had the crowd primed. For a time, he went about his business teaching and holding his practice, but it was only a matter of time. In 1941, he sparred with the FBI over allegations of communism. Seeking sanctuary, Reich bought 160 acres in Maine in 1942 and dubbed the land “Orgonon,” where he lived and studied. In 1947, the FDA was prompted to investigate orgone and, fueled by Cold War communist suspicions and post-WWII conservatism, did not like what they found. Ten long years of investigation and browbeating later, his writings had been banned and burned, his orgone accumulators had been ordered destroyed, and he had been imprisoned for contempt of court (he was being tried for fraud). He died of a heart attack in prison, one year into his two-year sentence.
It is hard not to romanticize Reich and his life’s work, what with all his crazy contraptions and radical ideas. However, Reich deserves more than portrayal as a mad scientist. There are still plenty of people out there devoted to the accumulation and study of orgone. His early work in psychotherapy was groundbreaking. He was a teacher. His ideas, validity notwithstanding, had an undeniable, indelible, and, as far as this writer is concerned, positive impact on science and culture at large, despite the best attempts of many people and organizations to silence them. He put it best: “I would like to plead for my right to investigate natural phenomena without having guns pointed at me. I also ask for the right to be wrong without being hanged for it.6” That’s all anyone can ask for, really. Maybe orgone, qi, or whatever you want to call it doesn’t exist, but you can’t blame people for trying to find it. Wilhelm Reich may have been wrong, but somehow he still got it right.
6 Reich, Wilhelm. Conspiracy. An Emotional Chain Reaction