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Wilhelm Reich: Psychoanalyst and Radical Naturalist

Wilhelm Reich: Psychoanalyst and Radical Naturalist

by Robert S. Corrington

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A stirring reappraisal of the brilliant, maligned psychoanalytic thinker

Robert S. Corrington offers the first thorough reconsideration of Wilhelm Reich's life and work since Reich's death in 1957. Reich was seventeen years old at the outbreak of World War I and had already witnessed the suicides of his mother and father. A native of Vienna, he became


A stirring reappraisal of the brilliant, maligned psychoanalytic thinker

Robert S. Corrington offers the first thorough reconsideration of Wilhelm Reich's life and work since Reich's death in 1957. Reich was seventeen years old at the outbreak of World War I and had already witnessed the suicides of his mother and father. A native of Vienna, he became a disciple of Freud; but by his late twenties, having already written his classic The Function of the Orgasm, he fled the Third Reich and departed, too, from Freudian psychoanalysis.

In The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Reich first took the now classic position that social behavior has its every root in sexual behavior and repression. But the psychoanalytic community was made uncomfortable by this claim, and it was said -- by the time of Reich's death in an American prison on dubious charges brought by the federal government -- that Reich had squandered his prodigal genius and surrendered to his own paranoia and psychosis, an opinion still responsible for the neglect and misconception of Reich's contribution to psychology.

In this transfixing psychobiography, Corrington illuminates the themes and obsessions that unify Reich's work and reports on Reich's fascinating, unrelenting one-man quest to probe the ultimate structures of self, world, and cosmos.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Known for his books Character Analysis and The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Reich (1897-1957) tried to marry Freudian analysis with communism in the 1930s. A brilliant thinker, he celebrated orgastic potency, personally and professionally, as the key to physical, psychological, and social well-being. Reich fled Hitler's Germany, eventually reaching the United States, where his pursuit of orgone energy (the nonmaterial element that he claimed could heal human beings) ran afoul of the law. He died in jail, a brilliant martyr or a grandiose paranoid. Corrington (philosophical theology, Drew Univ.) writes a sympathetic intellectual biography helping restore a unique challenger to a place among Freud's more controversial offspring. He brings philosophical depth, including semiotics, to the task while taking for granted much of Freudian theory along with Reichian bioelectric energy. Well written but quite technical, this is recommended for collections strong in psychology and philosophy to counter Myron Sharaf's less flattering Fury on Earth, which this book disputes.-E. James Lieberman, George Washington Univ. Sch. of Medicine, Washington, DC Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Psychobiography meets psychiatric case study in this life of the eminently strange theorist. Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was, writes Corrington (Theology/Drew Univ.), one of the most brilliant of Sigmund Freud’s epigones, a thinker who managed to make sexuality even more central to psychoanalytical theory than the master envisioned or intended. Reich, however, also concocted theories that, far from being merely radical, come up on the other side of bizarre: the quackish "orgone box," which purported to capture what Corrington calls "a new form of massless energy," a notion that Albert Einstein roundly dismissed, but that certain strands of New Agers have sworn by ever since; equally quackish anticancer therapies that eventually landed him in jail; the repeated assertion, toward the end of his life, that "the more genital potency a person has, the more of nature and its laws he or she will see." Though Reich wrote such once influential and still timely books as The Mass Psychology of Fascism and The Function of the Orgasm, he is condemned and forgotten today, considered by some to be an unfortunate victim of paranoid schizophrenia. Corrington’s civilian effort (he is a philosopher, not a physician) to champion Reich as an unduly overlooked revolutionary thinker is valiant but ultimately unconvincing; no amount of explaining away can make Reich’s self-identification with Christ or tinkering with pseudoscience any more palatable, and Corrington’s attempts to suggest that "orgone energy" is at least a possibility ("how can we know something that has no real contrast term or reality") will make any rationalist smirk. Perhaps without meaning to, Corrington manages to assemble plenty of evidencealong the way that Reich had come unhinged somewhere in the course of a tormented and fearful life. In the end, his portrait of the Austrian thinker will probably not convert many to Reich’s cause—but may instead provoke pity and sympathy over talents wasted and bridges burned. Unlikely to find much readership outside of the psychoanalytic hardcore.

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Psychoanalyst and Radical Naturalist

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2003 Robert S. Corrington
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0374250022

Chapter One

Wilhelm Reich was born on March 24, 1897, on the outer reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on a fairly wealthy farm estate in Bukovina, in what is now Ukraine. His mother, Cecilie (or Cäilie) Roniger Reich, was nineteen, his father, Leon Reich, at least ten years older. A sister was born the next year, but she died almost immediately. His one surviving sibling, Robert, was born three years later. Their fraternal relationship would be vexed for a number of reasons, especially those surrounding sexual rivalry and the competition for paternal affection, which was extremely hard to obtain.

Willy, as he was called, developed an attitude toward his mother that was deeply sexual and colored all of his subsequent almost frenetic relationships with women, compelling him to focus on their (maternal) breasts as their most important and soothing attributes. Indeed, one can say that he had an ongoing fascination for the female breast as the ground of all protection, healing, and safety. As he puts it in his early journals in 1919-22:

Breasts which are round, full, supple, do not sag, and have a rosy-white hue are the most beautiful part of a woman. That is why I like poems that extol women's breasts with chaste but sensuous desire, for no yearning within me will ever be as strong as that for a woman's breast upon which to rest my head. Later I experienced many a night in which I abstained from intercourse but found a complete substitute for it by resting my head on a girl's breast and pressing close to her body.

It is clear from other references in his autobiography that the source for this later breast obsession was his ongoing desire for his mother's breasts, a fascination that his mother seemed to encourage, as if to deepen their somewhat unhealthy Oedipal bond, which would prove to be so tragic in its consequences.

Willy's attitude toward his father was deeply ambivalent, ranging from extreme rage (certainly an appropriate response in his affection-starved youth) to a form of sentimental imitation. Leon was a brutal and sadistic man, given to constant psychosexual flirtation with staff, relatives, and wives of friends. He frequently beat the peasants on his estate and ruled everyone there with an iron fist, including his wife. Projecting his own desires, he regularly accused her of infidelity and made life profoundly difficult for the family, especially the two young sons, who adored their mother. Yet he was also a scholar of sorts and strongly supported his sons' education, hiring private tutors to prepare them for the rigorous examinations at the Gymnasium.

The farm life into which Reich was born was self-consciously aristocratic and assimilationist. The family was Jewish, but the Yiddish language was absolutely forbidden, and the children would be beaten for using it. High German was the language of the empire and thus the language of anyone wishing to climb the social ladder, while the lower classes spoke either Yiddish or Hungarian. Thus Reich's lifelong ambivalence about his own Judaism had its beginnings in Bukovina and his father's social pretensions. In later years Reich studied French, Latin, ancient Greek, and English and had a bit of Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Polish.

The family farm was located in a beautiful natural setting, and Reich early on developed a love of nature and of flora and fauna. He took to hunting and fishing and amassed an outstanding butterfly collection. His attention to naturalistic detail started in his adolescence and was reinforced by a series of fairly adept tutors from local universities. His refined observational and experimental eye later served him well in clinical settings, where he was able to size up a patient's muscular body armor in a matter of seconds, a skill not unlike that of taxonomic identification in the field. Reich was a born naturalist, and his later discovery of psychoanalysis has to be located in this prior biological and naturalistic background, a prethematic background that later became more clearly defined and shaped.

Willy was extremely precocious sexually. At the age of four he had his first noncoital sexual experience, with a maid; he lay on top of her and played with her pubic hair, intimating to her that he had already divined most things about the sexual act. He had also begun to watch the farm animals mating and found that he could artificially stimulate mares by inserting whip handles in their vaginas (an activity that later came to disgust him). His real sexual life started with the cook when he was eleven and a half. As he puts it in his autobiography: "She was the first to teach me the thrusting motion necessary for ejaculation, and at that time it had been an accident. From then on I had intercourse almost every day for years-it was always in the afternoon, when my parents were napping." In his autobiography he states that his libidinal drive was quite powerful and that in his teens he frequented brothels. Often he would see his professors there, further teaching him about the deceits involved in "enforced monogamy." He masturbated compulsively during his early and late teen years, leading him, so he thought, into depression and despair over ever finding an ideal (maternal) woman who could rescue him from the abyss of his raging desires. From his fifteenth year until the war years (ages seventeen to twenty-one), he oscillated wildly between intense sexual episodes and severe suicidal depressions.

Reich gives a stunning description of one of his brothel visits when he was fifteen that shows both his capacity for frank honesty and his then-out-of-control libido:

Was it the atmosphere, the clothing, the red light, the provocative nakedness, the smell of whores-I don't know! I was pure sensual lust; I had ceased to be-I was all penis! I bit, scratched, thrust, and the girl had quite a time with me! I thought I would have to crawl inside her.

His need to "crawl inside her" had at least two psychological sources, one being the suicide of his mother, which occurred in 1910, and the other being some probable borderline tendencies that drove him toward fusion with the Other rather than distance from her. In the former scenario there is an ongoing need to return to the paradise that has now been closed forever, in a quite literal sense. The body of the prostitute, which can be controlled by the patriarchal structure where money equals power over female flesh, is always available; always ready to provide an entrance point into the dark taciturn world of the divine mysteries where generation takes place. Perhaps Reich saw the womb as being something like Paul Tillich's great "ground of being," the source of all beings and the sustaining ground of all life energy. This fascination for prostitutes remained long after he stopped frequenting brothels.

In probing into the origins and trajectory of the family drama, we have four sources that we can use to challenge one another. The first is the fascinating disguised case study, written in 1920, when Reich was twenty-two or twenty-three-that is, about the same age when he wrote the first part of his autobiography. The second is Reich's memoir Passion of Youth, to which Sharaf did not have access (as it was published in 1988). The third is Sharaf's biography, which first came out in 1983. The fourth is Ilse Ollendorff's book Wilhelm Reich: A Personal Biography. To add some poignancy to the analysis of Reich's case study, it should be noted that when Sharaf interviewed Reich's daughter Eva in 1971, she informed him that Reich had admitted to her that the case study was a self-analysis. What will become clear is that Reich's two depictions contain strong elements of denial, specifically surrounding his complicity leading to his mother's ingestion of several poisons.

We will start with the disguised case study, published in 1920, when Reich was a working analyst. It is entitled "A Case of Pubertal Breaching of the Incest Taboo." In English it is a brief nine-page document, but it contains a wealth of material about the deep guilt structures that permeated Reich's partially unresolved Oedipal conflicts. The narrative's special urgency removes it from the usual genre of the clinical case study, and Reich resorts to the interesting tactic of quoting a "letter" that he received from the "patient" that describes the family tragedy.

Reich introduces us to a student in his twenties who comes to him "all choked up" and who cannot seem to function in the external world. He states: "From our short, superficial conversation I could only surmise that I was dealing with a compulsive symptom (a brooding mania)." The really interesting material begins to emerge when he starts unfolding the patient's childhood Oedipal conflicts:

From earliest childhood a deep tenderness bound him to his mother, and it was she who often protected him from the violent excesses of his father. His parents' marriage was not a happy one; his mother "suffered terribly" because of his father's jealousy. At five or six, he had already witnessed horrible scenes of jealousy. Often his father had become violent. The boy had always been "on his mother's side." This is easily understandable since he himself was terrorized and loved his mother fervently. Because he had matured sexually at an early age sex was not a mystery to him ... At age fifteen, the first slight feelings of inferiority found expression.

The main features fall into line with his autobiography and with Sharaf's research, namely, the brooding, intense sexual fixation on the mother (he often engaged in a kind of sexual play with her with her consent), his very early sexual maturing, and his father's extreme physical violence.

Things became more complex when a series of tutors arrived in the household to prepare Willy and Robert for the Gymnasium. Perhaps in revenge for her older husband's constant brutality and flirtatious ways, Cecilie, never quite as beautiful as Reich liked to remember in his later idealizations, took a strong fancy to a tutor (called N in the case study) who had developed a special bond of trust with Willy. Reich watched with growing horror as they had sex whenever Leon was napping or away on business. In the letter that forms the heart of the case study, Reich describes how the patient slowly comes to realize that the primal scene is taking place right under his and Leon's noses, in his own house, with his own beloved mother and his own beloved tutor:

Then, when Mother (oh, what a terrible ring that word now has!) came out of the room, which I could see was completely darkened, with flushed cheeks and a wild darting look in her eyes, I knew for sure; it had happened, although I had no way of telling whether or not for the first time. I stood in a corner, cowering behind a cabinet with tears streaming down my face. I wanted to run to her. But it didn't happen that way, to the great misfortune of us all. I am still deeply convinced that seeing me would have brought her to her senses, even though late, and saved us our mother and Father his wife. This would have been the only possible salvation.

It is clear that Reich blamed himself for causing his mother's suicide by not confronting her straight away with her double betrayal. He was also afraid that if he had rushed in on the lovers, he might have been killed, a strange fantasy mixed with a desire to join the lovers in a threesome. Thus in one stroke he lost both his tutor and his mother, and he knew he was on the verge of a great paternal outburst that would shatter his home once and for all, which is in fact what happened.

He says nothing in the case study about how the father came to discover the infidelity, a very interesting omission, but merely asserts that it somehow happened. After his mother poisoned herself, "the patient's relationship to his father showed marked improvement. Gradually he became 'my best friend and advisor.'" This is certainly a strange statement to make in a disguised self-analysis. Could Reich have been so blind to his real Oedipal feelings, or is he simply closing off the case study as quickly as possible so he can make his final comments on masturbation fantasies and the role of the "horrible secret" in adulthood? Indeed, he lightly passes over by far the most important question of the subsequent postsuicide family relationship-namely, how to deal with the violent father who is partially to blame for all that happened. Fortunately, we find a much more honest and revealing Reich in the (then unpublished) autobiography.

In the journal account of his discovery of the primal scene between S (not N) and his mother, he presents the narrative in roughly the same way. It is filled with a pained awareness that two of the most important people in his life have torn his world asunder:

I heard them kissing, whispering, and the horrible creaking of the bed in which my mother lay. Ten feet away stood her own child, a witness to her disgrace. Suddenly there was quiet. Probably I had made some noise in my excitement. Then his soothing voice, and then, then again-oh!

Oh, composure, peace! What a superhuman effort it takes to write this shattering tragedy "objectively"! What mockery! What an undertaking! All I remember of that catastrophic night is that I wanted to rush into the room, but was held back by the thought: they might kill you! I recalled having read that a lover will kill anyone who disturbs him. With a head full of bizarre fantasies I crept back to bed, without hope of consolation, my youthful spirit broken! For the first time, a deep feeling of misfortune and of having been abandoned overcame me.

He reports that he repeated his spying behavior night after night and even thought (as noted above) of "breaking in on them and demanding that she have intercourse with me too (shame!), threatening that otherwise I would tell Father." Thus we see emerging a combination of guilt, lust, inferiority, rage, fear, need for betrayal, a feeling of being betrayed, and a sense of the woman (the "ideal" woman) as the most unreliable creature on earth.

Thus, the Reich of the secret journals is a Reich able to be candid about the Oedipal struggles among himself, Leon, Cecilie, and the tutor whom he identifies as S. At the same time he unburdens his "dual guilt" that lay behind what he thought of as his complicity in his mother's suicide.


Excerpted from WILHELM REICH by ROBERT S. CORRINGTON Copyright © 2003 by Robert S. Corrington
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Robert S. Corrington is a professor of philosophical theology at Drew University in New Jersey. His books include Nature and Spirit: An Essay in Ecstatic Naturalism and An Introduction to C. S. Peirce.

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