47. Wilhelm Reich – Character Analysis (1945)

When Burroughs recommends Reich to young readers in The Job, he suggests they pick up a copy of his Selected Writings. At first I wondered if Burroughs had only ever read Reich in this abbreviated version. The more I read of Reich and Burroughs, however, the more I realise how deep Burroughs was into his ideas, and how he was reading them right from the start.

The third edition of Character Analysis is therefore a very useful book (perhaps the most useful, in spite of the tabloid appeal of The Cancer Biopathy) in understanding the growth of Reich and the way in which Burroughs received Reich’s teachings.

It is in fact a collection. The original book, Character Analysis, appeared in 1933. Freud recognised it as an essential contribution to psychoanalysis and, on the back of it, seemed to favour Reich as his new pet pupil after his recent betrayal by Jung.

It argues that, as well as analysing symptoms in the form of what is said, one might also take account of how things are said and the effect that the total character of the analysand gives off. Essentially, it’s an early “personality types” book, only written for (and in the language of) psychoanalysis.

From here, however, Reich then took the controversial step of attributing physical attributes to certain characters. He asserted that repressions “cement” together over time to create rigidities in the organism. These become a problem when the build up around the pelvis, this inhibiting healthy sexual function.

Freud was willing to support him this far, although many psychoanalysts were already crying heresy.

The big conflict came when Reich gave a paper at a psychoanalytical conference arguing that, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, when Freud creates the “death drive” as a way to explain masochism, this was entirely unnecessary and, in fact, masochism could be explained perfectly well by the pre-existing sexual theories.

Although Reich was in fact defending orthodox Freudianism against Freud, this got him banned from the organisation. The paper is included in the book, along with a follow-up study of masochism and a case of schizophrenia that also serves to demonstrate his theory of sexual paralysis in action.

As we reach the latter third of the book, we then get a brief overview of his work with “bions” (see The Cancer Biopathy blog post for more on those), a full-blown orgone-energy-based explanation for his early theories of sexual paralysis (complete with orgone box solutions) and a final, polemic essay, “The Emotional Plague”, which is essentially a pocket version of his book Sexual Revolution; in other words, that all problems – biological, physical and mental – are caused by sexual inhibition, and this can only be cured by destroying the family unit, monogamy, and legalising gay sex, bestiality and sex with children.

It sounds extreme, but it’s worth remembering that Foucault, Derrida, Sartre, de Bouvrier, Barthes, Lyotard, Sollers, Ranciere, Robbe-Grillet, Deleuze and Guattari all campaigned for the legalisation of sex with children, co-signing a petition in 1977 and two open letters in 1979. Paedophilia was quite central to the sexual liberation movement.

The strange journey presented by Character Analysis, in its third edition (the first to appear in English), does a lot to explain Burroughs’ ready acceptance of its more outlandish propositions. It might even be that Reich led Burroughs into that world – the world of the pseud, the fraud, and the misunderstood visionary – through this book that, over the course of 540 pages, shows us Reich at the height of his social and academic recognition and takes us right out to his banned, persecuted and forcibly exiled “crank” ideas, allowing us to follow his apparently quite logical development all the way through.

If we map this against Burroughs and his letters, we can see how the arrangement of Character Analysis follows his adoption of “Reichian” ideas to such an extent that we may assume he was applying them, step-by-step, as he slowly read through the book.

The term “character armour” is adopted early on. This appears to be in the air at the time – Ginsberg and Kerouac are using it, as are others – it appears to having been popularised through the media and/or word of mouth such that people who never read Reich were quite content to use it as a term.

A bit like when everyone starting using the word “memes” despite few knowing it came from Dawkins.

It’s in the late ‘40s when he starts doing “Reichian analysis” on his friends. This “analysis” does appear to take the form of feeling pelvis muscles or applying blue lights, and so me might assume he is only early on in the book. He is essentially psychoanalysing his friends, only with personality types added on.

This early section of Character Analysis even has a handy “character types” list. The sort of thing that Burroughs, in his practical Missourian manner, was always drawn to, and would have quite enjoyed applying.

When he’s writing Junky, early manuscripts are filled with orgone/bio-energetic theorising. It underlies the “dead” voice of the narrator (a fusion of pulp and Burroughs’ own personal experience of drugs with the Reichian theory that would explain it). Here we’re into the final third of Character Analysis, where repression = paralysis = orgone deficiency.

I might be able to do a sustained analysis here of Junkie and the Reichian implications of its language. I’d also like to access these earlier manuscripts to read the theoretical elements described in Burroughs’ letter, but I don’t know where they are or whether I could really afford to get at them.

Later, when he gets down to Texas, and then Mexico, when his interest in libertarian ideas mingles with Reich’s ideas. This suggests he’s reached the “Emotional Plague” section of the book, where sexual yearning becomes a “cosmic yearning” and, politically, it’s argued that nobody has any right to impose a way of life upon anyone else.

It’s with this in mind that Burroughs heads down South in search of yage. The talk of “schlupping”, and the idealisation of Lewis Marker, which end up in Queer, are perhaps Burroughs’ final attempt to marry the sexual content of Reich’s theorising with the cosmic, transcendental, orgone-bioenergetic material of his later years.

The failure of the Queer expedition, even in terms of literature (the book wasn’t published until much later, and at that point Burroughs was highly uncomfortable about it and would probably have preferred it to be forgotten), perhaps marks the end of Burroughs’ utopian Reichianism. After that point, Reich is still omnipresent for a while, and partially present for the rest of Burroughs’ life, but we really only see it in its apocalyptic forms (the great deluge trope) and its transcendental forms (his ideas on psychic space travel).

In conclusion, I don’t think it’s any understatement to say that one needs to have read Character Analysis if one is to understand Burroughs at all. Not that academics care about understanding authors these days anyway… not when they have theory to blag their way through.