|Style over substance
Orgone energy was Wilhelm Reich's term for an omnipresent, "life positive" energy he claimed to have discovered in 1939. Reich often used 'orgone energy' as a catch-all to explain every natural phenomenon for which there was no conventional explanation (or for which Reich did not know there existed a conventional explanation), as a kind of a God of the gaps. Those few properties of orgone energy Reich did spell out as definite included:
- Orgone is attracted by organic substances
- Orgone is attracted, but then immediately re-radiated, by metallic substances
- Earth has an orgone energy field that flows west-to-east faster than the Earth rotates, except when a storm is approaching and the flow reverses its direction
Reich, a Freudian Marxist, believed that a lack of good orgasms is what kept the working classes from realizing their political potential. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union quickly distanced itself from Reich's curious solution to the class struggle. Essentially what we see is a formerly respected Freudian, with the associated sexual obsession, extending his tenuous psychiatric theories into the realm of physics.
In 1939 Reich was performing one of his "bion experiments" — he believed that bacteria and amoeba-like organisms arose spontaneously in sterile dirt and coal, if soaked in water for sufficient time — and one of his assistants accidentally prepared a sample with sterilized ocean sand instead of using sterilized dirt. Under the microscope, this sample seemed to show an "intense blue glimmer", and soon Reich started noticing all sorts of effects in the room where the experiment was taking place that could be described as "blue" or as "glowing". When he gave this sample to a radium physicist to test, the physicist reported that he could detect "no radiation" being given off by the sample, so Reich concluded that he was seeing an entirely new, previously undiscovered form of radiation which he called "orgone radiation". How Reich leapt to the conclusion that this orgone radiation was the biological energy responsible for good orgasms, he didn't say.
As well as ensuring that humans have enjoyable orgasms, orgone energy is allegedly pretty much the driving force for everything in the Universe. But do not confuse with Franciszek Rychnowski's eteroid and Henri Bergson's élan vital, since orgone energy is not restricted to living organisms.
Reich largely self-published his works, including such memorable titles as Listen Little Man! This particular work was a response to the neurotic, sexually sick "little men" who had attacked Reich's amazing work. His style was mostly humorless and followed the traditional ego-maniacal trend of geniuses angered by the failure of the world to realize their genius. For example:
Whatever you have done to me or will do to me in the future, whether you glorify me as a genius or put me in a mental institution, whether you adore me as your savior or hang me as a spy, sooner or later necessity will force you to comprehend that I have discovered the laws of the living… I have disclosed to you the infinitely vast field of the living in you, of your cosmic nature. That is my great reward.—
Like modern-day cranks, Reich repeatedly lashed-out at mainstream academia for its rejection of his ideas. The failure of the medical establishment to accept his orgonomic cure for cancer led to his accusing cancer pathologists of being more interested in a steady salary than in actually curing cancer. Reich's early work in psychoanalysis — which he extended into what he called "Character Analysis" — was in part well received, perhaps because that pseudoscience allows more scope for conjecture, but it proved far more difficult for him to make headway in the biological and physical sciences, which normally require testable predictions and evidence.
But it's the pelvic thrust that really drives you insane
According to Wilhelm Reich, when a human body absorbs orgone energy, red blood corpuscles emit a blue glow at their fringe when viewed under a microscope. (The possibility that this blue fringe was chromatic aberration, a side effect of focusing light through a lens, didn't seem to have occurred to Reich.)
Also, orgone energy causes an involuntary pelvic thrusting motion, which Reich called the "orgasm reflex". The orgasm reflex can appear from activities other than an actual orgasm, and Reich claimed to see it in some of his patients during vegetotherapy. This motion is related to Reich's dividing of universal forces into suction and pushing actions.
Reich extended his ideas of orgone energy into psychoanalytic-based therapy throughout his career. Late in his life, he combined them all into a general therapy theory coined Orgone therapy. There were two main broad subdivisions: physical orgone therapy and psychiatric orgone therapy. It was not uncommon for Reich to use both types of therapy on the same individual.
Physical orgone therapy involved the use of devices that Reich believed manipulated orgone energy directly. These included orgone accumulator boxes large enough for the patient to sit in, orgone blankets and "shooters" which were built out of the same layers as a single wall in an orgone accumulator, and Reich's medical DOR buster which was a scaled-down version of his cloudbuster.
Psychiatric orgone therapy was Reich's late-in-life name for character-analytic vegetotherapy. It was developed by Reich in the early-to-mid-1930s, and consisted of Character Analysis techniques used in combination with more direct physical techniques that Reich called vegetotherapy (after the vegetative nervous system). Vegetotherapy included physical movement exercises and lots of deep breathing, but were often centered around a rather painful process called "attacking the muscular armor", which resembles a later technique called Rolfing.
Psychiatric orgone therapy has its origins in Reich's Character Analysis. Reich believed that chronic tension in part of the musculature indicated that emotions were being "held" in those muscles. He referred to this alleged emotional holding as "muscular armor." He sought to remove the muscular armor by pressing on them directly with his fingers, in a way most likely to elicit a strong emotional response from his patient. Since these attacks were often quite painful, emotional responses in the form of anger or even crying were very common; Reich interpreted these reactions as proof that his attacks on the muscles were releasing pent-up emotions and, thus, that his therapy worked.
Physical orgone therapy has its origins in Reich's belief in orgone energy. He believed that one effect of muscular armor was that the chronically-contracted muscles blocked the natural flow of orgone energy in the body, and that thus supplying the body with extra orgone energy might be able to overcome those blocks. He also believed that organic substances attracted orgone energy, and metallic substances attracted but then immediately re-radiated orgone energy — so, he reasoned, by building boxes with organic substances lining the outside and metallic substances lining the inside, he ought to be able to "accumulate" orgone energy inside the box. Reich and his followers built many of these orgone accumulator boxes and had patients sit naked inside them for 10-20 minutes at a time. They eventually came to believe that physical orgone therapy could cure everything from impotence to cancer.
In popular culture
- Hawkwind, "Orgone Accumulator" – but make sure it’s the original version off the “Space Ritual” album…
- Kate Bush, "Cloudbusting" (a song about Peter Reich missing his father Wilhelm)
- Peep Show (Series 5, Episode 6) — orgones are mentioned as part of the belief system of a fictional Scientologyesque cult which two of the sitcom's characters briefly join.
- It is widely rumored that the Orgasmatron in Woody Allen's movie Sleeper was inspired by Reich's orgone accumulator boxes.
- The Last Great Wilderness features an orgone accumulator as part of its plot.
- Celebrity orgone accumulator users include Sean Connery, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, William Burroughs, Jack Nicholson and Robert Anton Wilson.
- Orson Bean wrote a book titled Me and the Orgone, which was mostly about Reich's vegetotherapy.
- Yugoslavian director Dušan Makavejev's 1971 film "W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism" had, as one of its many segments, a documentary on Reich and Orgone that endorsed his ideas of sexually-liberated communism. Despite being rather insane, the film is artistically well-regarded and even got a Criterion Collection release.
- Orgone energy makes an appearance in the anime crossover video game Super Robot Wars: Judgement as the primary power source used by a race of ancient astronauts known as the Lunar Furies. Understandably for a strategy game about giant robots, the sexual aspect is never brought up and the name is mainly used for a generic "life force"-type energy in the longstanding anime tradition of namedropping kooky New Age concepts for sci-fi plot devices. Orgone accumulators do feature prominently in the game, as the last level involves blowing up several building-sized ones protected by robot ghosts. Did we mention it's Japanese?
- See: Reich, Wilhelm (1961). The function of the orgasm: sex-economic problems of biological energy (3 ed.). Noonday Press. Retrieved 2018-09-29.
- A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of Wilhelm Reich: As related to SAPA Bions by Roger M. Wilcox (23 February 2009)
- A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of Wilhelm Reich: As related to Orgone Radiation by Roger M. Wilcox (24 July 2000)
- Martin Gardner. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, 1957 (pages 258-259)
- Reich, Wilhelm. Listen Little Man!, 1948.
- Psychoanalysis on the Skeptic's Dictionary
- Martin Gardner. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, 1957 (page 254).