The Late Vitalism of Wilhelm Reich:
by Ralph Dumain
As the accompanying quotations illustrate, the later work of Wilhelm Reich exemplifies a unique brand of paranoia, irrationality, and crackpot science at work. In attempting to overcome alienated existence, Reich purports to construct a natural-scientific rendition of traditional mystical beliefs, claiming to oppose both mechanism and mysticism, and to overcome the shortcomings of earlier vitalisms.
This is not to dismiss Reich's earlier ideas. I would agree that Reich's ideas up until he claims to discover bions are valuable. The qualification would be that while sexual repression undoubtedly feeds into authoritarianism, racism, and fascism, it is obvious that this is not a cultural universal, as fascism is a result of a complex of psycho-social factors that distort the personality in less puritanical societies as well. Reich's concentration on the physiological dimension of character, while significant, seems to form the metaphysical root of his turning this dimension of human character into an abstraction. Combined with crackpot science, the degeneration into vitalist mystification becomes explicable.
However, I do not merely dismiss the later Reich. I pay a great deal of attention to his philosophy, which I find quite fascinating though ultimately malformed. One could begin with his Ether, God and Devil, the title alone of which is wacky, but Reich's philosophical structures are herein revealed. There are social implications to the ideological position Reich took after the experience of fascism drove him to the brink. I am not aware of any serious philosophical analysis of the late Reich, who is not merely insignificant, but is meaningful according to criteria very different from his earlier work.
Please note that the compilation from which the quotations are taken is slanted so that even Reich's earlier, more valuable work (also subject to criticism, but still of import) is read through the eyes of his later, eccentric orgonomy, and thereby canonized by his uncritical disciples.
Reich's later methodology as well as his correlate philosophy is very interesting in what it attempts and how egregiously it fails, reverting to Goethe, Kepler's alleged animism, a spiritual quasi-alchemical approach to experimental observation, a paranoid and indeed mystical (malgre lui) opposition of the life force (orgone) to atomic radiation (deadly orgone energy), a Christ complex, etc. It is complete nonsense, though I understand what was driving him and indeed how an alienated mechanistic civilization can drive you over the edge, isolate you, and force you back into metaphysical abstraction.
Reich's "scientific" writings on orgonomy, physics, cloudbusting, etc., are pure nonsense. Much more interesting are his philosophical statements, in which he attempts to distinguish the orgonomic perspective from both mechanism and mysticism, which he considers the twin ideological diseases of the human race. He attempts to provide a natural-scientific translation for mystical concepts, which at the same time is very clever but in the end irrational and obsessive. I think Reich's fate as desperate paranoid in Cold War America (as an exile from fascist Europe) presents yet another object lesson for the inability of bourgeois society to mediate the dichotomy between positivism and life-philosophy (scientism and Romanticism).
Philosophically, what is going on in later Reich (after he allegedly discovered the totally orgonomic experience) is fascinating. Reich thought that his vitalism opposed both the mechanistic and mystical mentality characteristic of the modern world. He resurrected mystical conceptions but translated them into what he thought to be their natural-scientific basis. From what I see this has some commonalities with the reactionary German vitalism of the 1920s (Driesch, etc.) that had an affinity to fascism, but there appears to be some difference as well. Reich thought he discovered some new scientific principle that overcomes all dichotomies and puts the kernels of truth in religious and mystical beliefs on a scientific basis. To see Reich's mysticism, if that's what it is, is to examine the structure of Reich's ideas and correlate them with the state of mind and social situation that Reich found himself in to determine their precise irrational basis. The irony here is that Reich's philosophical ideas (never mind the science) themselves contain more than a grain of rational truth wrapped up in a conceptually mystified package. That's the subtlety of the whole thing, and what makes the later Reich worth studying at all. He mystified the rational truth he discovered once he was backed into a corner by the experience of fascism and Stalinism.
A review of Reich for Beginners by David Zane Mairowitz might be in order here. (This is one in a whole series of intellectual comic books. This might be the same series now titled Introducing [X], but I am uncertain. This series is very uneven. Some of the earlier works, on Marx, for example, are terrible. Some of the later ones are much better. It is much easier to provide capsule histories in comic book form than abstract ideas. The histories are bound to be adumbrated as well, but sometimes they are decent introductions. As for the ideas, Heidegger is hilarious in comic book form; that is where he belongs, I think.) A note at the end warns of the difficulty of studying Reich in English, as he tendentiously edited all of his earlier (Marxist) works in light of his later work, based on orgonomy and anti-communism.
Reich for Beginners does a fair job in pinpointing Reich's contradictions and succinctly pointing up his flaws, but the author does not formulate the issues in a sufficiently comprehensive philosophical manner, nor does he provide sufficient detail on Reich's philosophical framework. (You will find "orgonomic functionalism" explained in Reich's 1949 Ether, God and Devil very revealing.)
Note carefully the point where Reich changes course. He is obsessed with finding a measurable physical presence of the energy of the libido. He fools with electrical instruments. This does not seem to be too out of bounds, so far. In exile in Oslo, in 1934 he claims to discover bions, which give off a blue radiation he calls orgone energy, the basic life energy (p. 121). It's all pretty wacko from here on in. Reich becomes paranoid and withdrawn. He moves to the USA in 1939, becomes an American citizen, and sets up shop. Orgone becomes the universal explainer, not only of life, but of inorganic matter and the entire universe. Then comes the orgone box, Reich's frustrated attempt to win over Einstein, his pretensions to cure cancer based on orgonomy. More isolated and paraoid, he assumes opposition to him is a communist conspiracy. More isolated than ever, he advocates work democracy but has a god complex and is authoritarian towards his workers. Mairowitz characterizes him thusly:
"Reich is turning inward now. Work democracy is a kind of Character Armour which protects him from being further rejected by the outside world. He calls it democracy but will brook no contradiction from his associates." [p. 136]
In his work, Reich finds "his own image writ large." Also: "Like any religion, Orgonomy begins to offer a total universal system with complete internal coherence. Everything fits neatly into it. WR can prove anything he believes." [p. 144]
Reich develops his own cosmology: no empty space, space filled with orgone; astronomical events are explained as "cosmic superimposition" of energy streams.
"Well, WR, once an atheist and dedicated anti-mystic, has found that what we call 'GOD' and what the ancients called 'ether' is all the same as Orgone. 'God' is the effect of man recognising the Cosmic Orgone Ocean . . ." [p. 146]
Jesus Christ returns as the exemplary genital character, who orgonomically cures the diseased, but character-armoured people cannot stomach Jesus' life-affirming nature, so they nail him, and do so generation after generation (The Murder of Christ).
More about the emotional plague, cloudbusting, Reich's experiments with radium, his run-in with the feds, his incarceration and death, and his legacy.
I deliberately focus on Reich's crackpot phase for two reasons. His earlier work on sex economy, work democracy, the function of the orgasm, character analysis, the mass psychology of fascism, etc., demands more detailed attention because it deserves to be taken more seriously, and the flaws in his world-picture analyzed with greater care. The second reason is that Reich's later phase needs to be dissected for what it means socially as well as for the structure of his ideology. Even as a madman Reich continues to have some intriguing things of a philosophical rather than scientific nature to say. His later views reveal the fundamental tensions in modern society as well as the problems of a vitalistic solution attempting to overcome the dichotomies of modern thought. Reich's reversion to reactionary romanticism is interesting because he denies that is what he is doing. He claims to be superior to Driesch, Bergson, and his other predecessors. He claims to supervene mysticism as well as mechanism by giving the former a measurable natural scientific formulation. This is a most fascinating twist. Reich has some interesting things to say even in his final phase, but they are not acceptable as stated, for his ultimately mythical structure with a scientific facade has to be decoded in order to be judged. As for the scientific pretensions, Reich resurrects animism in the age of laboratory science, reverts to primitive reasoning by analogy, and ignores 400 years or so of physics and modern science as we know it.
The tendency to find one underlying explanatory mechanism that unlocks all mysteries is a key to understanding Reich's frame of mind. While his early notions of character structure are important, its interactions with concrete social history and organization and material life, which may have at least been perceptible in Reich's Marxist phase, drop out of the picture, and all of history eventually becomes the effect of character structure and ultimately of man's basic ontological problem. The "scientific" theory then becomes unhinged from the rest of the concrete world and becomes established as a covert metaphysical structure that explains everything. It denies mysticism and mechanism, but it becomes the product of both fetishism and scientism, retooling pre-modern metaphysics, animism, and reasoning by analogy for the modern world. Thus Reich provides a unique 'solution' to the positivism-lebensphilosophie dichotomy. Socially, this was obviously the result of a historic defeat, the rise of fascism and the bankruptcy of Stalinism, which backed a prophetic character like Reich (who was indeed "ahead of his time") into a corner and provoked his retreat into metaphysics and paranoia.
This is my commentary. See also the corresponding selected philosophical quotations:
The Late Vitalism of Wilhelm Reich: Selected Quotations
. . . and, for the general philosophical issues:
Anti-Bergson: Bibliography & Links
Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide
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