In March of 1957, during Wilhelm Reich’s court-ordered psychiatric examination, Reich heard the sound of an airplane. He turned to his examiner and informed him that the plane was a sign that he, Reich, would be protected.
As an expert in the field of psychology, Reich knew that such a pronouncement would indicate psychosis. His examiner, of course, knew that Reich knew this too. Yet he decided that Reich believed what he had said about the plane, and therefore concluded that there was a definite psychological disturbance.
This is the closest anyone ever came to establishing a mental disturbance on the part of Reich. But as his biographer Myron Sharaf has written, the wing of madness cast its shadow over Wilhelm Reich in the form of accusations and suspicions nearly his entire adult life. According to Sharaf, “Denigration and idealization are twins.” [p 10] It will not do either to simply dismiss Reich as a madman or, on the other hand, ignore his neuroses. Indeed as I read Reich’s books the shadow of madness sometimes seems to pass over the page. I honestly don’t know if Reich was entirely sound of mind, when I read a passage such as this:
As the process of functional reasoning gradually unfolded, the observer not only worked out the method of this kind of functional reasoning; he also experienced most vividly his own amazement at his own power of reasoning, which was in such perfect harmony with the natural events thus disclosed. [Cosmic Superimposition, p 290]
What’s peculiar about this passage is that Reich positions this amazement as the jumping off point for the development of what he has termed “armoring”, that sickness unique to the human animal. Reich has speculated that far back in the evolution of our species reason doubled back upon itself, that when man himself became an object of scrutiny the mind divided against itself. Yet it is exactly this route that he must take to find health again. In the passage quoted Reich claims (as “the observer”) to have found this broad avenue to health—this vast artery where everything comes together. It may perhaps be compared to the uncanny feeling an artist gets, a Eureka! moment when everything seems to fall into place in a feeling of cosmic wholeness. Or again it might be compared to the cosmic connectedness associated with the schizophrenic experience.
But while the artist is allowed such imaginative flights, they are not forgiven one who is supposedly dedicated to science. In Reich’s case, the issue is further complicated by the sheer number of areas of study he engaged in. Sharaf asks,
Was it a sign of dilettantism, madness, or Renaissance-type genius that his work involved so many fields—psychiatry, sociology, biology, physics, meteorology? [ Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich, p 6]
This question will not receive a definitive answer—if it ever does—for a very long time. The biggest stumbling block is the absence of a team of qualified and dedicated scientists to investigate what Reich termed orgone energy, which he claimed permeated the entire universe and is the basis of all his other theories.
My interest in Reich is the fascinating human drama of his life story (read my poem Wilhelm Reich in Lewisburg) and, most importantly, Wilhelm Reich the writer. Entirely sane or not, scientifically sound or not, his writing is astonishingly rich and deep and well worth my time. Possibly my response to it is more aesthetic and emotional than intellectual—I have little more to go on in my enthusiasm for his books than a deep feeling of accord based, for sure, on my own experience as a human being, but, in the end, a feeling nonetheless. Whether or not such a thing as orgone energy streams through me and you and everything else, it feels right to me that mankind battles with a sickness based on a division in the mind, while at the same time it is only through the mind that the sickness can be recognized and worked through toward possible health—health that we sense and feel through intermittent experiential contact with it. Really, this is the story of my life. I became, through excessive self-consciousness, my own worst enemy, and yet it is only through a reorientation toward my own self-awareness that I can even glimpse pockets or perhaps whole realms of health. Above all it is connection (or what I can only call a feeling of connection) through love that brings me to a familiarity with health, and my primary path to this love is through my partner (in Reichian terms she provides the “genital embrace” vital to cosmic connection). A feeling therefore, that there is something profoundly, fundamentally right about Reich’s research keeps me reading.
Here are some passages from Ether, God and Devil and Cosmic Superimposition, published in one volume by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1973:
One of the greatest methodological difficulties lies in the fact that although it has to describe objective functions of nature no judgment is independent from individual sensory perception, and sensory perception belongs to the subjective sensory apparatus of the scientist. He is supposed to be “objective,” without ever being able to free himself from the subjective viewpoint. [p 41]
the world image cannot be separated from the creator of the world image.
[ p 81]
I am not interested in the superiority of “pure intellect” over the “emotions.” I know furthermore that the human intellect is only the executive organ of the living plasm investigating and probing the world around us…. It has to do exclusively with keeping our sensory apparatus, the tool of our research, in good condition. This condition is not a “gift,” not a special “talent,” but a continuous effort, a continuous exercise in self-criticism and self-control.
The conclusion following from these thoughts is clear: in attempting to understand himself and the streaming of his own energy, man interfered with it, and in doing so, began to armor and thus to deviate from nature…. To stand aside, entirely logical and dryly “intellectual,” and observe your own inner functioning amounts to a splitting of the unitary system that only very few seem to bear without deep upset. And the few who, far from being frightened, enjoy submerging in their innermost selves are the great artists, poets, scientists, and philosophers who create from the depths of their free-flowing contact with nature inside and outside themselves; in higher, abstract mathematics no less than in poetry or music. Are they now exceptions to the rule or the original rule itself?