Mysteries That Go Deep

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Wilhelm Reich became fairly well-known during the first half of the 20th century. He became  a psychoanalyst in the 1920’s, and was associated with Freud and Freud’s Psychoanalytic Society. He seems to have been a very effective psychoanalyst, but quickly became controversial, in part because he took Freud’s theories on sexuality further than Freud had. For one thing, he advocated creating situations in which teenagers could experiment with their sexuality safely. In western cultures the teenage years are the time of the highest sex-drive, though most teenagers aren’t mature enough to engage in sex responsibly. This is less true in so-called primitive cultures.

Another controversy was over his introducing physical manipulation to psychoanalysis. His finding that neurosis was manifested in the body, as well as in the mind and emotions, by chronically tight muscles, which he said were trying to hold in emotions the person was afraid of feeling. When he manually loosened these muscles his patients would often have bursts of deep sobbing, which Reich characterized as “the great softener”. When these muscles became soft, the patient could be more sensitive, though that sort of sensitivity may have been what some of them feared in the first place. Some emotions can be very threatening to some people.

Reich was also a Communist in the 1920’s, reasoning that only the German Communist party was strong enough to combat the Nazis. He was frustrated, though, because German Communists had very little idea about effective propaganda, unlike Hitler and the Nazis. Whatever else you might care to say about Hitler, his rallies weren’t boring.

Eventually Reich’s controversial ideas and behavior rubbed enough people the wrong way that he was expelled from the Psychoanalytic Society, and decided to leave Austria and Germany for more hospitable countries. If I remember correctly, he went first to Denmark, and then to Norway. In Norway he was first welcomed, but once discovered by the press (and after some quarrels with associates), Norway became less welcoming too. On the eve of World War II he emigrated to the United States.

By the time he arrived in this country, his focus had widened. He had begun microscopic investigations, and claimed to have discovered dead materials coming to life, and to have found particles which transformed the dead materials and enhanced the function of living entities. He called these particles “orgones”, and after having established himself in this country, used his psychoanalytic practice mainly to finance his research into orgones and related subjects.

One of his experiments was to create what he called an “orgone box”, made of altermantiong layers of metal and organic materials. He claimed that sitting in one of these boxes for short periods on a regular basis enhanced human bodily functioning.

One interesting example of his use of them was treating a woman with terminal cancer. She hadn’t been a person with a happy life. She had been married, the marriage had ended, and she had never remarried. After several weeks of treatment in the orgone box, her cancer went into at least partial remision. However, she became uncomfortable with the physically healthier feelings she was having, discontinued the treatment, and sometime later did die of the returning cancer. Reich’s theory (he didn’t treat her long enough to be able to confirm it) was that at least one of the factors in her having contracted cancer in the first place was her discomfort with sexual feelings.

Sex, he felt, at its best was a total body experience, and a way for the human organism to get rid of all sorts of tensions. If one or more people involved had chronic tensions they were unable to let go of, the sexual experience would be incomplete, and sexual feelings might be experienced as threatening rather than joyful. From this insight he devised a view of how people’s sexual functioning related to their political views. The more free and relaxed people could be in the sexual act, the more healthy they were likely to be in general, and their political views were more likely to be life-affirming than against life. This would mean that people with unhappy and incomplete sex lives were more likely to be attracted to authoritarian or totalitarian ideologies.

Reich didn’t see any humans as being totally healthy in this sense, but thought the true conservative to be closest to sexual health, and the true liberal next. These two positions formed a spectrum: the further from the relatively healthy position, the more likely fanaticism. Fanaticism on the conservative end of the spectrum he called, “black fascism”. On the liberal end, “red fascism”, and discerned little difference in the relative behaviors besides rhetoric.

In the later 1940’s after World War II had ended, a journalist did a story on Reich, making him out to be a total charlatan. The US Health Department picked up on this story, began investigating, and eventually condemned Reich, fined him, put him in prison, and burned his books. Book-burning has seldom happened in the USA, so someone must have felt very threatened by his findings. Reich died in prison, shortly before he was to be released.

In all fairness, Reich’s research got into some very weird areas, including UFO’s, atomic radiation, etc. His son, Peter, wrote a memoir of his life with his father, which he published in the 1970’s. One of my friends was acquainted with Peter Reich, and commented to him about all the weird stuff he talked about in his book. My friend told me that Peter Reich had said that he’d left out the REALLY wierd stuff.

A contmeporary of Reich’s, Immanuel Velikovsky, also became a psychoanalyst, at about the same time, after being something of a child prodigy: he learned several languages when young, earned a medical degree, with a strong background in history and law, before going into psychoanalysis. He practiced psychoanalysis in Palestine, did scholarly work, and took his family to the United States just before World War II began. There he spent a lot of time in the many libraries in New York City.

One question on his mind was whether there was a description of the plagues that afflicted Egypt before the Israelites left the country from the Egyptian point of view. He discovered one, by someone named Ipuwer, who described catastrophes that matched descriptions in the book of Exodus pretty well. He also noted the anecdote in the book of Joshua about the sun standing still, something which, if it had actually happened, must have been noticed all over the world. He researched mythologies for that period from all over the world, and found that episode connected with a whole series of catastrophes. Eventually he theorized that the planet Venus had not always been where it is now, that it had come close to the earth several times within the time of recorded history, and had caused the plagues of Egypt, among other things.

Velikovsky’s theory was that Venus had originally been ejected from Jupiter, and had become a comet. That’s a literalization of the myth of the goddess Athena having been born from the head of Zeus. The theory sounds strange, but Velikovsky made several predictions that mainstream science of the time disagreed with, but which turned out to be accurate. For one thing, in the latter part of the 20th century, it was discovered that Venus has a tail, though it’s no longer visible, but extends some 45 million kilometers. Venus also spins in the opposite direction from all the other planets. And it’s hot, which Velikovsky had predicted, some 1000 degrees Fahrenheit on its surface. He also predicted that Jupiter would be found to emit a lot of raido waves, and that evidence of hydrocarbons would be found on Mars. All of the above turned out to be accurate.

His first book along this line, Worlds in Collision, took some time to find a publisher, but finally was published about 1950. Interestingly, a number of the publisher’s scientific author pressured them not to publish the book, and though it did anyway, the pressure was enough to cause them to fire the editor who had accepted the manuscript (although it had become a best-seller), and to transfer rights to the book to one of its competitors. That seems like rather strange behavior, not only on the part of the publisher, but also on the part of the scientists who brought pressure on the publisher. Why should the subject Velikovsky was writing about have aroused so much anger? And irrational anger at that. Scientists aren’t supposed to behave that way: they’re supposed to evaluate evidence on its merits before jumping to conclusions. Velikovsky may not have gotten everything right in his theories, but he clearly wasn’t entirely wrong either.

It’s not entirely surprising that Wilhelm Reich should have drawn the wrath of society on him. His work was in the area of sexuality, which remains a hot-button topic for lots of people. But why should Velikovsky’s work have aroused such an outcry? He did have one theory having to do with sexuality: that the Pharaoh Akhenaton was the original model for Oedipus of Thebes, who gave his name to Freud’s famous Oedipus Complex, but most of his work had to do with astronomy and mythology, which are not closely linked with sexuality.

Velikovsky’s own theory, which came from his psychoanalytic background, was that there had been catastrophes in the historic period, some caused by the proximity of Venus, some with other causes, which had been very traumatic for humans all over the world, and that being reminded of these past catastrophes was painful. I don’t know how true that idea is. I find Velikovsky’s ideas interesting, and I’m not sure how far I believe them, even though a number of his fairly startling predictions have proved accurate, but I haven’t experienced any trauma having to do with those ideas, as far as I’m aware. On the other hand, how else can such violent reactions be accounted for?

Obviously, not all people will react in the same way to the same stimuli. Ted Bundy claimed that pornography made him do it, but not everyone has that kind of response to pornography. Likewise with scientific theories. Sexuality is a powerful force in human matters, so some will inevitably experience it as threatening, but why should scientists (of all people) be threatened by ideas about astronomy? One possible reason is that they found these theories more plausible than the ones they were committed to. Threaten a person’s livelihood, and you may rouse a fairly irrational reaction. Even so, those events seem strange.

Others have since taken Velikovsky’s theories further. The planet Mars has been identified with a god of war for many cultures, not just the ancient Greeks and Romans. One author suggests the reason is a gigantic canyon on Mars’s northern hemisphere that looks like a scar a warrior might have. Also, the gods were often portrayed as using lightning as a weapon, and at least one scientist describes the canyon on Mars as having characteristics that suggest it was caused by electricity. It must have been an extreme amount of electricity, if that actually was the cause, which suggests that at one time the planets were much closer together, so their characteristics could readily be seen by the naked eye. That author suggests that the trauma had to do with the planets moving further apart, that humans had identified the planets with gods, and felt they were being deserted. This seems at least a bit more plausible as a cause for irrationality. We don’t see lightning flashes between the planets anymore, but since there’s electricity in earth’s environment, it doesn’t seem out of the question that it could also be generated by planets on the level of the solar system. Just how this electricity may have been generated, and just what caused the planets to move further apart (if in fact they did) is unclear to me.

But both men mentioned here seem to have penetrated some distance into the mysteries surrounding our life here on earth. Not only did they discover mysteries that haven’t been adequately explained, to my knowledge, but the response to their researches was mysterious too. Our lives may seem prosaic, but they’re built on mysteries that go very deep.

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