The Life and Afterlife of Wilhelm Reich

The sad story of a sexual revolutionary.

The Life and Afterlife of Wilhelm Reich
Radio 3

Wilhelm Reich's is one of those exemplary, half-forgotten 20th-century stories: a Viennese follower of Freud and Marx, an influential opponent of the Nazis, he coined the term "sexual revolution" and died, grandiose and possibly insane, in an American prison in 1957 at the age of 60.

Matthew Sweet, in the slightly awed and skittish tones that seem to characterise most discussion of Reich's work, took us (13 March, 9.45pm) from Vienna to Scandinavia to New York, and to Orgonon, Reich's house in upstate Maine whose custodian, Mary Higgins, still tends the flame.
Despite his achievements in psychology and psychoanalysis, Reich regarded his triumph as being his "discovery" of the "orgone" particle, which he claimed was in every cell in the body, giving off an electrical charge at the moment of orgasm. Sweet inspected the psychic engineer's technology - his "cloud-busters", designed to change the weather, and an orgone accumulator, a box large enough for a person to sit inside and absorb the curative benefits of orgasmic energy. Tentatively, Sweet inserted a hand and announced he felt nothing, just a coldness from the metal lining. Higgins asked if he didn't feel at least a "tingling feeling".

Saul Bellow was an enthusiastic user of the accumulator: "He spent long hours, reading and screaming and . . . gnawing on his handkerchief." Sweet was sure, though, that Reich had a greater influence on the culture than making future Nobel Prize-winners into handkerchief-gnawers. He encouraged Germaine Greer to tell us how much of The Female Eunuch was indebted to Reichian theory. "We did think that freeing sexuality would allow virtue to flower," she said. "We were wrong, I think."

Reich was imprisoned for selling his orgone accumulators with misleading claims about their potency. His books were burned. The most poignant part of the programme was when we heard recordings of the man himself; his slow Mittel European accent, the desolate conviction that he had discovered the secrets of life and been persecuted for it, the awful solitude of the misunderstood pioneer. l

David Flusfeder's most recent novel is "A Film by Spencer Ludwig" (Fourth Estate, £11.99)
Antonia Quirke is away

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world