It was a passage in Fury on Earth that struck me, where Myron Sharaf likens Reich’s approach to the traditions of “new journalism”, which I commonly associate with Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. Reich was, at this point in Sharaf’s biography, in the midst of a massive worker’s demonstration, brutally put down by the Vienna police on 15 July 1927. There was, I thought, more of Thompson in Reich’s situation than Wolfe. But perhaps opinions differ.
Reading biographies is this kind of surreal experience, at once removed from the subject by the author’s choices. This second-hand reading of Reich is troubling to me. For I feel, having read and shuffled through his own notes and papers, that I know him better than this. Of course, Sharaf knew the man personally, and provides a perspective that should be seriously considered.
In Sharaf we find a very completed Reich. A sort of linear, mechanistic plot through Reich’s life that often misses the real feel of a lived existence. But it’s perhaps for all biographies to seem, at a certain limit, undead.
This recalls for me a more unfiltered account of Reich’s death. For to know of his passing in 1957 in a cell in Lewisberg Penitentiary in Philadelphia is one thing, to have seen the old typed and stamped autopsy report in his prison record is another. Archives provide this kind of liminal space between the living person and his or her many dead biographies. We can recall accounts, as with efforts by recent academics in Canadian literature, of authors being brought back from the dead to publish again. Another short story collection by L.M. Montgomery?
Biographies are in this sense constantly being re-written, re-imagined. But the limbo from which the images are drawn is often archival. New biographical tangents are always a possibility when an untapped archive is present. Consider, as a random example, the new re-envisioning of Philip K. Dick we will witness next year with the publication of his exegesis.
Of course, I have high hopes for my biographical re-imagining of Reich. Faced with the complete, authoritative approach taken by Sharaf, this might seem unrealistic. But in and among Sharaf’s vast and weighty biography are holes. It essentially never comes to be whole.
Missed in Sharaf is a unifying vision, a sense that in all of Reich’s diverse forays into psychoanalysis, politics, biology, philosophy, physics, medicine, weather control and even ufology there was a common thrust. If you will pardon the pun.
And this is where it gets fascinating. For perhaps there is no unity in the individual. Maybe the sense of a cohesive self, often eluding even the self concerned, is not that real. The ideal Platonic form of an individual life is something we desperately want to believe is true, but rarely is. Arguably, this is what defines a good biography — those that subscribe to an individual’s sense of cohesiveness are limited, those that explore the multi-dimensional and often contradictory elements of a life are just, well, better.
With Reich one can break things down easily. His life transformations are acute. From insider, a star student of Freud and at the center of 1920s Viennese intellectual life, to peripheral figure, banished from communist and psychiatric organizations and left to his own devices conducting research on bions in the Scandinavian hinterland (well, Oslo). This 1930s period also marks the real beginning of Reich’s sense of “outsiderness”. It’s here he starts to experience criticism, much of it in the mainstream Norwegian media, and in turn slowly develops a sense of being persecuted.
The real transformation in Reich comes in 1939, when he flees Europe and comes to America, a Jewish intellectual emigre like so many others. But Reich is different here again, for instead of finding a space to interact with a dynamic intellectual community in New York, he slowly moves away from the city, and on his ranch in northern Maine — Organon — tries to reproduce his idyllic rural upbringing in Galicia.
In the end, there is very little that’s idyllic about Reich’s later years. The research center at Organon becomes a kind of pastoral prison (perhaps, oddly, preparing him for his final days in actual prison), isolating him physically from the American scientific and intellectual world in the same way his ideas did mentally.
This is the crux. For Reich himself understood (or at least thought he understood) the connections and links between all his apparently divergent and bizarre theories. I’m more sure of this than anything. How else could he have continued to pursue them at the risk of not just collegial censor, but actual investigation on the part of a US government agency, the FDA? In Sharaf, there’s an attempt to keep a cohesive narrative going about Reich’s work and ideas, but it falls apart — it relies on chronology, structured around key events and turning points that, interestingly, are more responses to Reich than changes in his own approach.
It’s absurd to expect someone to understand the inner working of another mind. But similarities in character can help. In this respect, Sharaf is a poor biographer of Reich. Though they were in close contact for years, and Sharaf explores that personal relationship at the outset of the book, it’s clear he doesn’t have a modicum of Reich’s intense personal conviction and strength of character. This is the true Reich — not a fanatic, but a seriously self-deluded visionary. And yet what visionary isn’t self-deluded? How can you keep committed to a set of ideas and theories for so long in the face of stark outside criticism without being crazed and compulsive about them to begin with?
The title of Sharaf’s biography (Fury on Earth) reminds us that he understood, to a point, what deep unseen forces drove Reich. And he certainly provides, through material garnered from primary sources and extensive interviews, as complete a perspective on Reich as we currently have. But, for some reason, at least from my personal point of view, this still seems unsatisfactory.
Why? Well, there are ideas in Reich, I think, that can inform the deepest and most profound critiques of our current world. And, sadly, nothing in the supposed transformations of the last 50 years has changed this much. Many of those who followed, in their own particular way, in Reich’s footsteps, are still fringe. Even more tragically, those elements of Reich’s thought that have entered the mainstream of medicine and psychotherapy generally don’t acknowledge his influence. Reich’s cosmology, if you can call it that, is fundamentally antithetical to the world we live in. And in this respect, continuing to try to tease out new meaning from his fascinating life path is valuable.
Reich felt, along with Nietzsche, that “all the regulations of mankind are turned to the end that the intense sensation of life is lost in continual distraction.” It’s easy enough to argue this process has only been amplified in the ensuing years…
Like Wittgenstein, Reich felt we reach a point where the elements of life are no longer describable in words. In a world where everybody is clamoring for attention and trying to get a word in edgewise, this deep understanding is more valuable by the minute. There’s no better reason to continue to try and understand Reich’s life and work.
Myron R. Sharaf, Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich (New York: St. Martin’s, 1983).