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Olivia Laing’s Everybody is a sprawling meditation on freedom and the body

By blending memoir, art criticism and biography, Laing explores how the body you are born into shapes your life, your freedom and your opportunities.

 

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Wilhelm Reich’s best ideas, and his weirdest, wildest ones, stemmed from his understanding of how our personal and political histories imprint themselves on our bodies. As a young psychoanalyst working in Vienna – a protégé of Sigmund Freud – he noticed how his patients carried their emotional pain physically. He could locate the tension in their bodies, and when he worked on their stiff and knotted muscles his patients would feel emotional as well as physical relief; they’d often experience a pleasurable rippling sensation he called “streaming”.

While Freud concerned himself with internal causes of emotional suffering, Reich, who ran free psychoanalysis clinics for the poor, came to understand the role that poverty and overwork played in making people sick and miserable. He became a communist, though he did not think politics alone could reshape society. The missing element was sex. He believed that sexual repression warps both individuals and societies, poisoning our minds, our bodies and our relationships with others. In the late 1920s he organised free “sex economy clinics” in Vienna that combined psychotherapy with sex education and abortion advice.

In 1930 he moved to Berlin. Sexual freedoms had flourished in the city after the First World War, but now Nazism was on the rise. Reich saw fascism as the product of sexual repression. He wanted a sexual revolution: if only people could express and release their sexuality freely, he thought, they might not do each other such harm. Reich believed strongly that psychotherapy needed to engage in politics. But Freud thought that to survive Nazism psychoanalysts should remain politically neutral. The two never reconciled their differences. In 1933 Reich was forced to flee Germany, and the following year he was asked to resign from the International Psychoanalytical Association because of his political activism. (In 1938 Freud was forced to flee Austria, too.)

Reich’s vision of total sexual liberation is “frightening”, the novelist, critic and essayist Olivia Laing writes in her new book, Everybody: A Book About Freedom: “Pleasure is frightening, and so too is freedom. It invokes a kind of openness and unboundedness that’s deeply threatening, both to the individual and to the society they inhabit.” Reich’s life story forms a central narrative in Laing’s book, a beautiful, strange and sprawling meditation on the relationship between the body and freedom, which uses Reich’s ideas to chart the forces that shape and limit bodily freedom today.

When Reich arrived in New York in 1939, estranged from his home country, colleagues, former mentor, and family, his theories started to become stranger, too, more sci-fi than science. He thought he had identified mankind’s animating life-force, the force that drives orgasms and facilitates spiritual and physical release, which he called “orgone”. He began building orgone accumulators, devices that looked not unlike phone boxes, which would harness orgone to automate the work of psychotherapy and personal liberation, and cure all manner of ailments, including cancer.

His ideas had appeal in a postwar world more interested in the pursuit of sexual pleasure than in the gruelling work of political activism. Yet he enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the countercultural figures of the time: the beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg sought treatment with him, but Reich refused to see him because he was gay. It turns out this evangelist for sexual liberation only wanted to liberate certain forms of sex: he saw homosexuality as a product of repression, a warping of natural desire.

[see also: How our bodies shape our thoughts]

Reich’s orgone accumulator came to the attention of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which spent more than $2m investigating and pursuing him for medical quackery in a campaign mostly driven by puritanical ideas about sex. Reich was not in the right mind to defend his reputation. He had grown paranoid and delusional. He thought he could control the weather with a contraption he called a cloudbuster; with his son Peter he would use one to wage intergalactic warfare in the skies above Arizona. In 1956 the FDA ordered the burning of his books, in a terrible echo of the Nazi book-burnings Reich had fled, and the following year Reich was imprisoned. He died in 1957 in solitary confinement, in a cell not much bigger than one of his orgone boxes.

The drive for freedom is always accompanied by a counter-instinct to clamp down, Laing writes: “This pervasive dynamic helps to explain why Reich, who longed to help people unlock the prison of their body, ended up locked in a prison cell himself.” It helps to explain why this man, who once so believed in the revolutionary and healing power of human touch, should end up turning his back on a world that had failed him and creating a sexual liberation machine that looked like a closet.

The defining political struggles of the 20th century – feminism, gay liberation and the civil rights movement – were about the right to be free of oppression based on the kind of body you inhabited, Laing observes, and they have been shaped by these competing forces, the desire for freedom and the desire for control. Every victory is hard-won – and reversible. The book is arranged thematically, and Laing interweaves Reich’s story with those of other cultural and political figures who were involved with or responded to the 20th century’s political struggles for bodily and social equality: Malcolm X, Nina Simone, Bayard Rustin, Christopher Isherwood, Agnes Martin, Andrea Dworkin, Angela Carter, Susan Sontag, Kathy Acker.

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Laing’s 2016 book, The Lonely City, similarly blended memoir, art criticism and biography to explore a grand theme: the nature and meaning of loneliness. In Everybody she describes how her training as a herbalist – a practitioner of “narrative medicine” – attuned her to how her patients would draw connections between their emotional lives and their bodies, how “in their telling, a divorce prompted cystitis, old griefs attached to tumours, the bereaved developed ulcers or lost their voices”. She came to see the relationship between emotional and physical pain as multidirectional, to understand how illness sometimes functions as a way to speak of other, inadmissible pain.

Laing writes of growing up in a lesbian family before the repeal of Section 28, which forbade schools from teaching about families such as her own, and how this offered a “powerful education in how bodies are positioned in a hierarchy of value, their freedoms privileged or curtailed according to more or less inescapable attributes, from skin colour to sexuality”. She describes how she came to understand herself to be non-binary – “I’d always felt like a boy inside, a femme gay boy,” she writes – and how painful and debilitating it can be to experience such dissonance between how you see yourself and how the world sees you. “What I wanted as a trans person was to escape the binary altogether, which feels so natural if it includes you and so unnatural and violently enforced if it does not.”

What Laing wants to underline is that the body you are born into shapes your life, your freedom and your opportunities in explicit and unspoken ways, that politics gets under your skin, that politics is unavoidable. “We’re all stuck in our bodies, meaning stuck inside a grid of conflicting ideas about what those bodies mean, what they’re capable of, and what they’re allowed or forbidden to do. We’re not just individuals, hungry and mortal, but also representative types.”

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Some readers might be glad that Laing finished writing this book before the Covid-19 pandemic was fully under way – how much more reading about coronavirus can we take? But equally, given the book concerns itself with the relationship between the body, illness and freedom, the connections between our physical and our imaginative lives, it feels bizarre to read no mention of a public health crisis that has completely transfigured our politics, our personal lives and our understanding of how social and economic inequality affects us physiologically. I would have liked to know how Laing understands the political dimensions of the pandemic, the ways in which it has forced each of us to confront our bodily vulnerability and interdependence.

Yet Laing makes only fleeting reference to contemporary events, and this, coupled with her willingness to embrace ambiguity, to leave difficult questions unresolved, can make this book feel politically detached. She discusses the writings of the Marquis de Sade, who understood that sex is not purely about pleasure or intimacy but can also be driven by the desire to hurt, to humiliate, to punish, and who was attuned to how an individual’s sexual or political freedom can depend on the abasement of others. This seemed to me an opportunity to reflect on the public debates about power and consent that surrounded the #MeToo movement. I would be interested in Laing’s reading of them: are sexual abuse and violence products of sexism or sex itself? Instead, Laing focuses her argument on why consensual acts of masochism and sadism needn’t be expressions of misogyny, because sex is an area of “imaginative play”.

She hints at the wider – and in my view, bigger – question of how we establish and understand consent and sexual equality when she writes about how hard she and her peers once found it to ask men to use condoms, a phenomenon the poet Denise Riley described as “linguistic inhibition as a cause of pregnancy”. “That was us, somehow still buttoned up when naked,” Laing writes – both impulsive and embarrassed. I wanted to know more about the embarrassment, the intertwining of shame and fear that can prevent us from asserting our sexual desires, the intertwining of shame and fear in bodies that are subject to sexual violence.

For all the boldness and ambition of the subject matter, this book feels curiously tentative. Laing is an elegant, precise writer, and yet her conclusions are vague. “I’m devastated by what is happening, and how difficult it, it being capitalism, is to change. It’s not the world I want, in which difference is cherished: not a planet like a prison but a planet like a forest,” she writes. “Imagine, for a minute, what it would be like to inhabit a body without fear, without the need for fear. Just imagine what we could do. Just imagine the world we could build,” she concludes. But imagining what that would look like is hard, isn’t it, and reading Everybody hasn’t helped me see it any more clearly.

Everybody: A Book about Freedom
Olivia Laing
Picador, 368pp, £20

[see also: The dark side of our age of fitness]

Sophie McBain is a special correspondent at the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor. 

This article appears in the 28 April 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas