Am I a spaceman?

Adam Phillips

  • Adventures in the Orgasmatron: Wilhelm Reich and the Invention of Sex by Christopher Turner
    Fourth Estate, 532 pp, £25.00, August 2011, ISBN 978 0 00 718157 5

In a Freud Anniversary Lecture given in New York in 1968, Anna Freud looked back with nostalgia on the early days of psychoanalysis. ‘When we scrutinise the personalities who, by self-selection, became the first generation of psychoanalysts,’ she said,

we are left in no doubt about their characteristics. They were the unconventional ones, the doubters, those who were dissatisfied with the limitations imposed on knowledge; also among them were the odd ones, the dreamers, and those who knew neurotic suffering from their own experience. This type of intake has altered decisively since psychoanalytic training has become institutionalised and appeals in this stricter form to a different type of personality. Moreover, self-selection has given way to the careful scrutiny of applicants, resulting in the exclusion of the mentally endangered, the eccentrics, the self-made, those with excessive flights of imagination, and favouring the acceptance of the sober, well-prepared ones.

In the early days of psychoanalysis ‘self-selection’ meant that if you were interested in psychoanalysis and Freud liked you you could be a psychoanalyst. In 1919, Wilhelm Reich went to see Freud. He was a 22-year-old medical student at the University of Vienna. He had been an infantry officer in the Austro-Hungarian army during the war; he was an orphan with what Christopher Turner in his riveting book on him calls ‘a past full of damage’. He was ‘intellectually ardent and socially insecure, so poor that he wore his military uniform to lectures because he couldn’t afford to buy civilian clothes’. Freud was immensely impressed by his good looks and his intelligence, and by the fact that he was already, in Freud’s words, a ‘worshipful disciple’. In the same year Freud started referring patients to him – Reich had not yet started his own analysis – and the following October, having presented a paper on Ibsen’s Peer Gynt to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, he became the society’s youngest member. When he completed his medical training in 1922, he was already a qualified analyst. Anna Freud said at the time that her father called Reich ‘the best head’ in the International Psychoanalytic Association.

‘I had come in a state of trepidation,’ Reich wrote of his meeting with Freud, ‘and left with a feeling of pleasure and friendliness.’ The feeling of pleasure and friendliness didn’t last because, in Freud’s view, he was soon misusing psychoanalysis as a method for sexual liberation. And even worse, or quite as bad, he was a Communist who wanted to combine Marxism with psychoanalysis in a bid to free everybody from virtually everything that oppressed them. He was a prime mover in the attempts in Vienna and Berlin to set up the ‘free clinics’ that would make psychoanalytic treatment available to everyone. And he was a pioneer, along with Ferenczi and Rank, of a more active psychoanalytic technique, in which what the analyst wanted for and from the patient became rather more explicit – Reich was known as ‘the character smasher’ by his colleagues. Like several of the so-called second-generation analysts he wanted a more engaged, more ambitious, more socially aware psychoanalysis. He didn’t want merely to turn hysterical misery into ordinary human unhappiness (Freud’s ambition): he wanted people to experience ‘sexual happiness’, to release their ‘orgastic potential’ (though not, it’s necessary to note, their homosexual orgastic potential; Reich was homophobic, something Turner might have made more of). Psychoanalysis had to build a world in which, as he wrote in The Sexual Revolution, ‘natural sexual sociality’ was not ‘replaced by the demands of morality’; a world in which the immediacy of people’s sexual need for each other wasn’t stifled by good intentions or good manners. And he didn’t want psychoanalytic treatment to be a refuge from political engagement. For Freud and many of the first generation of psychoanalysts Reich committed two cardinal sins: he took it for granted that psychoanalysis and politics were inextricable, and he believed that the aim of psychoanalysis was not to provide people with better defences, but to make them less defensive. He thought, in other words, that psychoanalysis had something to do with freedom – a word that has never been fashionable in psychoanalytic circles – and something to do with people being less frightened of each other.

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