Scholars always have more ideas than completed works. Well, procrastinating scholars, at least. That’s what a blog is for…So, here’s an abstract for a “non-paper”; a paper I might have given, but now likely never will give. Or write.
The Reichian Influence on Burroughsian Metaphysics: Vitalism, Orgone and the Beats
The radical psychiatrist and natural scientist Wilhelm Reich was arguably the foremost vitalist of the mid-20th century. Partly influenced by thinkers like Bergson and Dreisch, but actually under the tutelage of Freud, Reich developed a theory of “orgone” or “life energy” in the 1940s that caused quite a stir. His research and practices, particularly those associated with his use of the so-called “orgone accumulator”, came under heavy scrutiny and eventual censor by the FDA and other US government agencies. Reich died tragically in a federal penitentiary in 1957.
And yet, his influence, particularly on some of the major figures of the early counter-culture – beats and those connected to the beats – was profound. Notable authors interested in Reich and his “orgone box” include Kerouac, Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and J.D. Salinger. But foremost among Reich’s converts was William Burroughs, the grand old beat himself. One can argue the Burroughsian metaphysics was spawned from some of Reich’s theories, or dark permutations thereof. Reich discovered how orgone could become a dark energy in his ORANUR (Orgone Against Nuclear Radiation) and DOR (Deadly Orgone Radiation) experiments in the early 1950s, and in strikingly similar ways, Burroughs wrote with deep conviction, understanding and feeling of a notion of corrupted nature. This article aims to explore both the general influence of Reich on the beats and the counter-culture, and his more specific and intimate influence on Burroughs. Both of them will be seen to have been “dark vitalists”, what I imagine as a vein of neo-Gnostic sensibility that ran through the cultural landscape of Cold War America.
Keywords: Vitalism, William Burroughs, Wilhelm Reich, the beats, counter culture, orgone, life energy, ORANUR, philosophy and literature, Gnosticism.