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Our bodies as better than other bodies

Oppressed and victimized communities do not need telling about the body’s vulnerability to harm. Covid-19 has extended this awareness to just about everyone, making this a timely moment to look again at William Reich. This is what Oliva Laing does in “Everybody: a book about freedom”.


Photo: Pixabay

Sean Sheehan


A protege of Freud, Reich worked as a young analyst in Vienna after World War I and came to realise how the body can inflict pain on itself as a result of emotional trauma and stressful memories.

He developed a form of body-based psychotherapy, relating neurosis, the libido and social class, causing a permanent break with Freud.

Regarding the discharge of sexual energy as a way of helping to heal unhappiness may be trite but Reich’s approach was not without sophistication: “It is not just to fuck, you understand, not the embrace in itself, not the intercourse. It is the real emotional experience of the loss of your ego, of your whole spiritual self.”

Reich also brought a social and political awareness to his treatment of patients. He treated working-class men and women whose struggles had more to do with class than Oedipal conflicts.

He read Marx as well as Freud and brought a radically new perspective to the idea of bodies alienated from their own needs and desires. Psychotherapy ignored the social context just as Marxism was blind to sexual and emotional ones.

Reich is used as a springboard for her view of people as conflicted, stuck in their bodies, struggling for freedom but subject to society’s ideas about what is permitted and forbidden for their bodies. Her thesis is not without problems and it lends itself to simplistic evocations of a Buddhist-style appeal to free ourselves from material concerns and seek spiritual liberation.

After leaving Berlin in 1933, Reich’s life is a sad tale. Expelled from psychoanalysis, by the mid-1950s he needed psychiatric treatment himself but was imprisoned instead.

His books and other printed material were incinerated by a US government authority, indifferent to the similarity between their behaviour and the Nazi practice of burning the books of those they disliked.

It is macabre but fitting that he died in a prison cell, incarcerated as a punishment for his ideas about human freedom. Laing’s book highlights the need for a book about Reich that is not written by a professional biographer but by someone well versed in cultural theory and psychoanalysis.

Laing’s style is journalistic and reader-friendly, making her book a good introduction to the topics she discusses. She is right to draw attention to the way current UK policy towards immigrants and refugees reinforces the notion of a swarm of undesirable bodies that need to be policed. As she says, the rhetoric of the swarm “served to bolster the identity of the Nazis, facilitating their route to power”. No prizes for noting a similar kind of rhetoric behind the appeal to Britishness in the Brexit debate.

“Everybody: a book about freedom”, by Olivia Laing, is published by Picador.

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