He believed orgasms could be a healing force and coined the term ‘sexual revolution’. Reich’s understanding of the body is vital in our age of protests and patriarchy, writes Olivia Laing
There are certain people who speak directly into their moment, and others who leave a message for history to decipher, whose work gains in relevance or whose life becomes uncannily meaningful decades after their death. It’s hard to think of a better example of the latter right now, in this year of protests and plague, than the renegade psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, one of the strangest and most prescient thinkers of the 20th century.
What Reich wanted to understand was the body itself: why you might want to escape or subdue it, why it remains a naked source of power. His wild life draws together aspects of bodily experience that remain intensely relevant now, from illness to sex, anti-fascist direct action to incarceration. The writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin read Reich, as did many of the second-wave feminists. Susan Sontag wrote Illness As Metaphor as a riposte to his theories about health, while Kate Bush’s song “Cloudbusting” immortalises his battle with the law, its insistent, hiccupping refrain – “I just know that something good is going to happen” – conveying the compelling utopian atmosphere of his ideas.
Reich suspected the orgasm was the body’s own innate way of releasing tension, dissolving the rigid armour of trauma and unhappiness in a rush of fluid, libidinous energy
Therapy was not enough. Politics was not enough. Only sex was a sufficiently powerful force to reshape society
Reich thought hateful and cruel behaviours were a consequence of the unequal and deforming systems in which people were forced to live
Everybody is published by Picador on 29 April. Olivia Laing will be talking about the book on 30 April at the Southbank, London, SE1 8XX.