31. Wilhelm Reich – The Cancer Biopathy (1948)
Reich is the most important thinker in the cast of eccentric, outcast philosophers from whom Burroughs took inspiration.
He often references “character armour”, an idea from Character Analysis, believes fascism to be a result of libidinal drives directed away from sex and towards power, mimicking The Mass Psychology of Fascism, and (although I’ve yet to read it) his belief that genuine liberatory revolution will take the form of mass orgies – “fucking in the streets” – aligns with The Sexual Revolution.
But it is Reich’s work with orgones that most interests Burroughs. In The Function of the Orgasm, Reich takes Freud’s sexual theory to its logical conclusion and argues that the human body’s mechanical functioning is dependent upon (and measurable through) regular, enjoyable orgasms.
His earlier work on “character armour” is shown, in that book, to be a by-product of his orgasm theory.
In the sequel to The Function of the Orgasm, The Cancer Biopathy, Reich finally leaves the realm of psychoanalysis altogether. The orgasm function, he “discovers”, is only one part of the larger puzzle of orgone energy flows.
The orgone – life energy – flows through the body and keeps it healthy. When it is dammed up, it spoils, forming “T-cells” which, in turn, produce cancer.
His solution to this was the orgone box – a hut or coffin-shaped structure made of consecutive organic and inorganic layers – that was said to trap the natural orgone energy of the sun and stars.
Burroughs built one of these wherever he lived and swore by them. He would sit inside it naked and experience spontaneous orgasms – a byproduct of high orgone energy flow.
I have a begrudging respect for Reich. At one point he was Freud’s favourite pupil and, like Freud, he seems to genuinely believe that psychoanalysis is a real, measurable, quantitative science, amenable to empirical testing and with potential to influence other hard sciences with its breakthroughs.
Freud believed this, but how many of his followers do? Most seem eager to self-segregate psychoanalysis and the therapies that span off from it; almost as if they know that empirical testing and data-gathering will expose them as expensive frauds. Or perhaps it’s purely the allure of the dogma that makes them so defensive. At least, despite all his faults, Reich was anything but dogmatic (other than, occasionally, about his own ideas).
The importance of Reich’s influence on Burroughs’ work is therefore multileveled. On one level, it’s such a core part of how he sees the world, built in even to his daily routine, that one couldn’t really understand him without it.
But on another level, it helps to explain a number of tropes present in the fictions, specifically:
The carapace. Burroughs’ world is full of bugs bursting from people and people with shells like bugs. The notion of “character armour” – the tenseness associated with a defensive, reserved stance – can be seen to lie behind it. Burroughs particularly associated character armour with his own WASP family background.
The flood. Many of Burroughs routines conclude with a total breakdown of order and control; waves of sex, mutation, violence and anarchy. I’m still looking into the main inspirations for this trope, but the underlying ideal – liberation as unregulated sex – is pure Reich.
Blue energy. One of the least expected discoveries I’ve made reading the Burroughs Syllabus has been the omnipresence of blue energy. Burroughs sees it in the blue haze of junk, blue glow of sex, blue metal smell of 1920 movies, fades to blue, blue ozone, etc… It shows up in Mayan, Egyptian, Tibetan, ESP and Psychic books that he’s read. In My Education he calls it his favourite colour and describes the difficulty of painting with it. His eyes were a striking blue; a fact not often recognised as so many photos of him are black and white. For Reich, blue was the colour of orgone: the sky is blue with it, particles (or “bions” as he calls them) glow with it, and those fully-charged with it are seen to give off a barely-perceptible blue glow.
Whether Reich is at the front of Burroughs’ mind when he writes about these things isn’t the point. He may not have always recognised the blue glow as orgone, and it’s unlikely he consciously associated centipedes (of which he had a phobia) with character armoured WASPS.
The point is that Reich’s theories are so firmly embedded in Burroughs’ mental processes that his entire structure of feeling is Reichian. He inhabits a Reichian universe.
With that in mind, I best get to reading the rest of Reich’s books!