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The Life and Afterlife of Wilhelm Reich

45 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 13 March 2011

Matthew Sweet explores the life, ideas and impact of Wilhelm Reich, whose idea of sexual revolution helped shape the post-war world - but who died in an American prison in 1957, his books banned and burned.

In the 1930s, Reich fused the ideas of Freud and Marx to anatomise the Nazism that was taking over Germany.
He advanced the idea that ordinary Germans' appetite for Hitler's leadership had its roots not in 'national character' or economic troubles alone, but in the authoritarian nature of German families. Reich began to argue that sexual repression underpinned many social ills, and that the release of pent-up sexual energy would allow people to become freer, and lead to a transformation of society. He also developed Freud's therapy in a radical new direction, based on the idea that repression is found not just in the mind but the body, and should be tackled physically as well as verbally.

In 1939, Reich fled Europe for America, eventually establishing a base for his work in rural Maine - a place he called 'Orgonon'. Matthew visits the site, now a Museum dedicated to Reich's work, to find out how Reich developed his concept of 'orgone energy'.

In the 1950s, Reich's development of an 'orgone energy accumulator', and the hostile publicity it attracted, led to his pursuit by the US Food and Drug Administration. This ended in an extraordinary trial which was followed by Reich being sent to prison, where he died - and to his books being banned and incinerated.

Yet his influence in America, through such books as 'The Function of the Orgasm', had begun to spread among the avant-garde on both coasts. In the 1950s and 60s, his ideas had wide influence, on novelists like Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow and on feminists like Germaine Greer. As Greer tells Matthew, her hugely influential 1970 polemic, 'The Female Eunuch', was threaded through with "Reichian" ideas about the malign impact of authoritarian families and the importance of releasing frustrated, dammed-up energy.

And the British theatre critic and would-be sexual radical Kenneth Tynan, meanwhile, was very keen on Reich's ideas, to the point of writing much of a book about him. This was never published, but Matthew takes a look at a copy of the manuscript belonging to the Tynan family.

Presenter: Matthew Sweet
Producer: Phil Tinline.

  • Matthew Sweet outside the Wilhelm Reich Museum at Orgonon

    Matthew Sweet outside the Wilhelm Reich Museum at Orgonon


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