Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Mailer's Use of Wilhelm Reich

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Mailer's Use of Wilhelm Reich

Article excerpt

WRITES MAILER IN "THE WHITE NEGRO" IN 1957: "At bottom, the drama of the psychopath is that he seeks love. Not love as the search for a mate, but love as the search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it. Orgasm is his therapy--he knows at the seed of his being that good orgasm opens his possibilities and bad orgasm imprisons him" (ADV 347). Orgasm as therapy comes straight out of the theories of Wilhelm Reich.

Today, Reich seems like a historical curiosity, a footnote in the history of twentieth century psychoanalysis. Yet in the 1950s, in his heyday in the United States, this neo-Freudian revisionist, messiah of the good orgasm and inventor of the orgone box had a reputation similar to that of Norman Mailer: to some a genius, to others a rebel, but to many simply a lunatic. Reich had a profound influence on American literature from 1945 to 1960. It is not surprising that Mailer should have affiliated himself with Reich; it was fashionable in the 1950s, and many other discontented artists, intellectuals, and leftists turned in that direction. The major writers of the Beat Generation--Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs--used orgone boxes. As Old Bull Lee (Burroughs) tells Sal Paradise (Kerouac) in On the Road, "'Say, why don't you fellows try my orgone accumulator? Put some juice on your bones. I always rush up and take off ninety miles an hour for the nearest whorehouse, hor-hor-hor!'" (Kerouac 126).

Reich particularly attracted Jewish-American writers. Among those who used orgone boxes in the 1950s were J.D. Salinger, Paul Goodman, Isaac Rosenfeld, Saul Bellow, and, of course, Norman Mailer. Alfred Kazin said, "Everyone of my generation had his orgone box, his search for fulfillment" (Turner 222).

The cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who worked with Mailer on The Village Voice, said the early 1950s were an age of pop psychology: "Even if you weren't seeing a shrink, people talked in that language.... and Norman had his orgone box and was a devotee of Wilhelm Reich. If we weren't seeing shrinks we read stuff and talked the talk, usually with a drink in our hand. And we used psychology to get laid" (qtd. in Olshaker 32-33). As Diana Trilling wrote in 1962, "Jung, Fromm, Reich: it is among these analytic dissidents that protest now regularly seeks the psychology (and perhaps the parental support) with which to replace... Freudian psychology" (53). And Reich had a political as well as a psychological dimension. Philip Reiff wrote in 1961, "The artists and writers who followed Reich were, like him, defeated men of the left... Reich's brave announcements of the end of politics turned failure into a kind of victory" (qtd. in Turner 248).

Leslie Fiedler asserted that, among the Jewish novelists, "a flirtation with Zen, and especially a commitment to Reichianism... often indicates a discontent with simple or conventional plot resolutions and hence a deeper awareness of the contradictions in the situation of the Jewish-American writer." Fiedler described the revolt in the 1950s against Freudian orthodoxy:

Freud has come to seem too timid, too puritanical, and above all too
rational for the second half of the twentieth century. it is Reich who
moves the young, with his antinomianism, his taste for magic, and his
emphasis on full genitality as the final goal of man. The cult of the
orgasm developed in his name has won converts in recent years, even
from members of the generation of the Forties and the Fifties,
approaching middle-age and disillusioned with orthodox Marxism and
Freudianism. Isaac Rosenfeld, Saul Bellow, Paul Goodman, and especially
Norman Mailer, trying to live a second, menopausal youth, have chosen
to live it... under Reichian auspices, and Mailer... has seemed to the
young a model and leader in this respect (Fiedler 93).

But African-American writers in the 1950s were skeptical of Reich. James Baldwin wrote:

people turned from the formula of the world being made better through
politics to the idea of the world being made better through psychic and
sexual health. … 
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