A moving and clear-eyed history of bodily freedoms that takes as its central character Wilhelm Reich, inventor of the orgone accumulator
Right at the end of this exhilarating journey through a century’s struggles over the human body, Olivia Laing invites her reader to “imagine, for a minute, what it would be like to inhabit a body without fear”. This simple hope comes to sound like a radical demand for the impossible; after such a vivid catalogue of the many humiliations and cruelties a body can be made to bear, it isn’t easy to imagine.
Laing’s impassioned commitment to the promise of bodily freedom, of every body’s right to move and feel and love without harming or being harmed, shines through every sentence of the book. But she is too canny a writer to miss the rich and bitter irony in which efforts to realise this promise so often get caught: every movement to liberate the body comes to be marked in some way by the constrictive regime it’s trying to escape. The writer who best grasped this irony was the Marquis de Sade, of whom Laing writes with an open and compelling ambivalence. De Sade’s nihilistic fantasies of sexual torture are a discomfiting reminder of how easily the liberty of one individual becomes the enslavement and abasement of others.