“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. Neurosis is nothing other than dammed-up sexual energy.” “The entire politics of culture (film, novels, poetry, etc.) revolve around the sexual element, thrive on its renunciation in reality and its affirmation in the ideal. If all humanity dreams and poeticizes about sexual happiness, should it not also be possible to translate the dream into reality?”
Wilhelm Reich took Freud’s theory of the sexual origins of neurosis seriously, and sought to do something about it. Freud saw therapy as “making conscious the unconscious”—liberating sexuality from repression, but then helping the patient to control or sublimate his or her sexual impulses. Reich posed the question of whether it might not be possible for persons to “live out” their desires.
This Chapter examines the theories of Wilhelm Reich, and their profound impact upon the American sexual revolution. In the Sixties, intellectuals and many others sought the “good orgasm” as a means toward achieving liberation, and happiness. Further, Reich’s idea—that blockages within the body suppressed energy and distorted character—became extremely influential.
An article in Harper’s Magazine in 1947 depicted the “builders of the new Paris”—a bohemian community of artists and writers that arose in Northern California, and evolved into the “beat” movement. According to Mildred Edie Brady:
The core of the philosophy of this new bohemia rests on the sexual thesis. If by strange and splendid chance you happen to be one of the few orgastic potent, you are one of the few “normal, natural, healthy human beings” left in a world peopled by terrified and frustrated neurotics.
Brady found that what differentiated this bohemia from its predecessor was that it was “profoundly religious,” but not in a conventional way. This bohemian community saw the “sexual sacrament” as the acme of worship, believing that God “revealed himself fully only in the self-effacing ecstasy of the sexual climax.”
Religious faith was supported by psychoanalytic argument: “The ultimate authority is no longer Freud, but one who now wears the mantle of Freud: Wilhelm Reich, whose The Function of the Orgasm is probably one of the most widely read and frequently quoted contemporary readings in this group.”
This Chapter shows how Reich’s ideas influenced both the “beat” movement of the Fifties and the hippie revolution of the Sixties, and how the “religion of the orgasm”—of sexual gratification—became central in American society. The sexual act, according to Norman Mailer and others, was one place where society could not enter or interfere.
The idea of sexual liberation became bound to rebellion against society. In the Sixties, the antimonies set up by Freud and Reich—between pleasure and civilization, health and society, the body and the intellect, liberation and oppression—became themes of the counterculture. The revolution of the Sixties— as well as subsequent liberation movements—took the side of the body and pleasure in the struggle against civilization.