Wilhelm Reich, born on 24 March 1897, was an Austrian psychologist and psychoanalyst. He was a radical figure in the history of psychiatry and belonged to the second group of psychoanalysts, among the followers of Sigmund Freud.
Reich attempted at tying Marxism with psychoanalysis, and stated that the condition of neurosis can be caused by physical and socio-economical conditions of a society. He pointed the reason behind neurosis specifically at what he termed as ‘orgastic potency’.
The concept of orgastic potency given by Reich meant the ability to reach an orgasm with certain psychosomatic characteristics. Orgastic potency is especially linked with the condition of the ability to love.
He deemed orgastic impotency as the primary cause behind neurosis, because the patient is unable to release all libidos during orgasm. According to Reich, libido was a biological energy and not a single person with neurosis was orgastically potent.
He coined the term in his 1927 book, The Function of the Orgasm, the manuscript of which he also presented to Sigmund Freud. Reich regarded this concept to be complimenting Freud’s work on anxiety neurosis. However, Freud received his theory rather ambivalently and expressed that there was not a single cause of neurosis.
The concept was continually used by Reich later in his career as a measure of a person’s mental health. For him, orgastic potency was the capability of releasing emotions from the muscles and to completely lose oneself during orgasm. This losing of self is very important for the mental health and the ability to love for a person, according to Reich, reaching orgasm should not be a physical experience but also an emotional one, as the person experiences loss of his ego.
Despite Reich’s strong propagation of his theory of orgastic potency, the concept remained largely unpopular among the psychoanalytic circle and was even ridiculed by his contemporaries later.
Reich also became subject to controversy when he started treating his patients outside the limits set by psychoanalytic methods. From 1930 onwards, he broke the rules of psychoanalysis by sitting in front of the patients, rather than behind, and also answered their questions, instead of offering them the usual prescribed response. He also communicated with his patients physically, and massaged them to make them lose their stiffness and to be at ease during treatment. Reich observed that through the massage, the memories repressed in his patients could be retrieved, and he actually saw waves of pleasure moving through the patients’ bodies whenever the therapy worked. This he termed the ‘orgasm reflex’.
This new method of psychoanalysis devised by Reich was called vegetotherapy. He first presented the principles of this therapy in his paper Psychological Contact and Vegetative Current (1934). This technique was criticized and condemned as it violated the basic regulations of psychoanalysis.
After his promotion of sexual permissiveness gained him further criticism, he left for New York in 1939, where he presented another radical idea: Orgone energy. The term orgone is derived from organism and the orgasm, and is used to denote a form of cosmic energy which Reich discovered and which according to him others referred to as God. Orgone was a universal life force, a massless substance which is not inert in nature and is omnipresent.
Reich, similar to his neurosis theory, stated that the deficiency of orgone in body is the cause of many diseases, including cancer. He set up the Orgone Institute to research more about the subject and even created special ‘orgone accumulators’. These were devices that allegedly collected and stored orgone energy from the surroundings and could even cure cancer.
Between 1925 and 1933, Reich produced several noteworthy works of psychology and psychoanalysis, among which Character Analysis and Mass Psychology of Fascism gained worldwide recognition.
Wilhelm Reich died on November 3, 1957. He is remembered as a radical psychoanalyst of bizarre and controversial yet original concepts and ideas.