RAt the end of this exhilarating journey through a century of struggles for the human body, Olivia Laing invites her reader to “imagine, for a minute, what it would be like to inhabit a body without fear.” This simple hope comes to sound like a radical demand for the impossible; After such a vivid catalog of the many humiliations and cruelties that a body can endure, it is not easy to imagine.
Laing’s passionate commitment to the promise of bodily freedom, the right of every body to move, feel and love without harming or being harmed, shines through in every sentence of the book. But she is too astute a writer to miss the rich and bitter irony in which efforts to fulfill this promise often get caught up: every move to free the body is somehow marked by the constricting regimen of which she is trying. escape. The writer who best understood this irony was the Marquis de Sade, of whom Laing writes with open and convincing ambivalence. De Sade’s nihilistic fantasies of sexual torture are a disconcerting reminder of the ease with which the freedom of one individual turns into slavery and humiliation of others.
But its central character is Wilhelm Reich, a disciple and eventual dissident of Sigmund Freud, a visionary theorist-activist of sexual politics in 1920s Vienna and the unfortunate and delusional inventor of the orgone accumulator in the American 1940s.
In Vienna, Reich had tried to move psychotherapy away from Freudian analytic neutrality and into a practice of liberation, whereby the patient’s “character armor”, twisted knots of psychophysical tension, dissolved to the touch, releasing (or, in Reich’s terminology, “Flowing”) ecstatic libidinal flows through the body and restoring its availability to the full range of feelings. But an increasingly persecuted and grandiose mentality would eventually lead him to imagine that this same cure could be achieved by confinement in a small wooden cell that emits “orgone energy” to its libidinally depleted occupant.
It may seem that all the great victories and tragic failures of modern sexual politics are concentrated in the figure of Reich. For Laing, his supreme insight, that the true source of the body’s power is the vulnerability we prefer to hide, has never been more valid. By shutting down our vulnerability, we block access to the full range of our feelings, giving rise to the kind of mechanistic obedience favored by fascism.
But what makes Reich’s tormented life so moving is how, in striving to free ourselves from the constricting knots of the authoritarian mindset, he himself couldn’t help but get caught up in them. As he aged, he fell prey to pseudo-medical moralization, attributing the disease to orgone energy blockages in his 1948 Cancer biopathy, while worrying in his 1953 People in distress on “biologically degenerate” forms of sexuality. Towards the end of his life, he rejected Allen Ginsberg’s treatment because he was gay.
If Reich is exemplary in any way for Laing, he is not alone in his concerns. Rather, what it shows in many different lives and settings, from Susan Sontag to Andrea Dworkin, the Berlin of the 1920s and the Kentucky of the 1950s, is how the need to rid the body of fear and prejudice it is seldom free from ambivalence and contradiction. The theme is amplified by reflective vignettes of her own bodily experiences, woven into the book with a dexterity, frankness, and generosity that readers of The lonely city Y The trip to Echo Spring will recognize immediately.
In a series of dazzling forays into painting, Laing shows us how art illuminates the tension between the desire for freedom and “a counter-desire to repress, strain, prohibit, even destroy.” Agnes Martin’s grid paintings of the 1970s induce dizzying ecstasy in their viewer, “an experience of being temporarily detached from the material realm.” However, this sense of borderlessness is the effect of the tight cellular shape of its network: “Despite its liberating effects, the network is manifestly about control.”
Laing finds a much more explicitly political expression of this paradox in Philip Guston’s controversial Klan paintings, where a dizzy horror at the rigid and unyielding shape of the Klansman hood is mixed with a haunting fascination for it. The shape of the hood is a violent defense against the gross materiality of the body that beats underneath, “open and insatiable, helpless and dependent.”
This is an expansive book, bold in scope and speculative range, an invitation to continued conversation rather than a gentle nod. In that spirit of conversation, I would venture a different vision of the dynamic between freedom and control that animates the book. Laing’s Reichian take on sexuality as a “savage force,” which every social order seeks to circumscribe and control, might explain why states and institutions monitor the body so closely, but not why liberation movements so often become involved. they sabotage or compromise themselves. For example, an agitator for sexual reform like Magnus Hirschfeld, founder in 1919 of the Berlin Institute for Sex Research, should also have been an advocate of “welfare eugenics,” including the mandatory sterilization of the “mentally stupid.”
Reich, in other words, has a theory of repression, of how the body is kept compliant by external forces; but it lacks its essential Freudian complement, a theory of repression, of anxiety induced by the strangeness and anarchy of the body’s impulses, and the unconscious mechanisms we employ to keep them in check. From my most Freudian perspective, fear belongs to us as much and indelibly as it does to the police.
Yet Laing’s Reichian utopianism, with its ultimate horizon of a fearless body, coexists with a lucid sense, working through all of his granular explorations of sexual politics, art, and ideas, of how and why that horizon appears be always disappearing. And this tension, between defiant hope and understated realism, only enriches his intensely moving, vital, and resourceful book.
Everybody: A Book About Freedom is published by Picador (£ 20). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism