‘Sexpol’ in Reich and Makavejev
On the night NATO blew up the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavian (Serb) director Dusan Makavejev’s film WR: Mysteries of the Organism was shown for one night only at the NFT in London.
Given that ‘WR’ stands for ‘Wilhelm Reich’, and ‘organism’ flimsily disguises ‘orgasm’ (a euphemism supposedly urged by censors), it’s hardly surprising that institutional Western bohemia has loved the work since it it first appeared in 1971. Portly, bearded English critic Raymond Durgnat, the author of a recent monograph on the subject, claims it on behalf of all those turned off by ‘unpleasure’ in Godard and Brecht. Nearly 30 years later, free love and ideological boxing have disappeared into demographic margins for error (at least as practices), but Reichian notions of sexual ‘repression’ and organic psychology have taken over the asylum, so to speak, setting the policy agenda for the coming century.
Makavejev seems to have been a sincere fan of Reich, dedicating the film to ‘his life and teachings’, and sympathetically weaving the story of the discovery of orgones, the doctor’s group work in Rangley, Maine and his miserable death in the State penetentiary with the worlds of his latter-day disciples (including a tooled-up Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs) in America and Belgrade. Yet the director’s (presumed) personal enthusiam for the subject matter is less effective than an opposing impulse from the realistic, anti-naturalistic techniques used. A 1990s audience might feel lost in the critical distance opened up this way, but these devices weren’t Makavejev’s invention or those of his time.
Irritable flitting between incompossible filmed worlds, from documentary to narrative to found stock and back again, keeps us from taking the auteur’s desires for reality. Cathartic identification with images, the ritual purging of emotions at the heart of W.R.’s therapy, is wrecked at every turn. Recurring components include:
-Interviews with Reich’s former associates , shots of his adopted home town and the prison where he died, and encounters with his self-styled hippy heirs
-Stalinist propaganda intercut with footage of experiments in Nazi German psychiatric hospitals (a subtle dialectic reduced to oafish propaganda by Durgnat, who assumes that Nazi electroshock simply ‘stands in’ for its unfilmed Soviet counterpart) -A fully self-managing Real Socialist tragedy, in which a Reichian fanatic named Milena preaches to the workers, before ideologically and physically seducing Russian People’s Artist (in the medium of ice-skating) Vladimir Illich, only to end up decapitated by an immaculate Soviet ice-blade
-A counterfeit ‘Sexpol’ bulletin (actually made up of Woodstock blowjob surveillance and a Serbo-Croat folksong reworked as a Communist hymn) exhorting Party youth to frequent orgasm in the name of Proletarian health.
WR delivers Reich’s critique of fascism (‘Red or Brown’) as authoritarian sublimation of properly genital desire lucidly and with earnest indignation. The rivalry between orgasm and its unnatural projection onto some abstraction (whether race, class or art) is the film’s one unifying theme. Milena explains to the fur-suited People’s Artist that the picture on her wall picture of Hitler surrounded by doting young women is a kind of warning: ‘those slaves’ suffused the monster with ‘all the power of sex’.
Yet WR’s disjunctive temporality, its structure as a series of interruptions, tests this central thesis against every possible combination of its heterogeneous parts, and of these with every part of the audience’s reality. Regardless of Makavejev’s personal sympathies, the result is more devastating than satire could ever be. The Doctor’s credo is allowed to unfold fully, and in doing so it reveals its limits.
The bodily truth opposed to the kitsch political Idealism of the transcendental (fascist or Real Socialist) State appears as the latter’s mirror image: a correspondingly totalitarian ideal. Orgasm is the model next to which all other manifestations of desire, engagements of the body with the world, are merely corrupt metaphors. Milena dreams of a dictatorship of ‘Life Energy’ perfectly expressed in ‘the genital embrace’, founded on the authority of Nature (perhaps the only power able to outbid nation and class, abstract historical destiny).
The deep conservatism of this sexual utopia is paraded in praise for the muscular spasm as a social safety valve. Milena addresses a crowd of drunken workers, denouncing all disruptive sublimations. A thwarted urge to fuck, she rails, is channelled into ‘crime and fighting with the police’ (we need ‘a healthy, crime-free society’!) or political passion (‘revolution and fascism’). In other cases, natural genital desire is squandered on cursed substances (‘the bloodstream orgasm of the alcoholic or junkie’), or perverted in ‘the intellectual orgasm of the dogmatist or mystic theologian’. The same law is laid down, albeit in less messianic tones, by an affable American doctor friend of Reich’s, who names and shames the bad configurations of the body (posture, muscular tension, facial expression etc.) which always give away a sickly soul. A type of therapy resembling a group primal scream induced by violent yoga can apparently cure these conditions.
Nonstop celebration of ‘body awareness’ doesn’t alter the profound anti-materialism of this approach, or of today’s flourishing cult of personal fulfilment through physical self-criticism. In the name of the identity of personality and body (‘you don’t have your body, you are your body, crows the genial therapist), the two dimensions are rigorously separated. Personal trainers, behaviourists and lifestyle magazines propose generating a sensation of happiness, whether or not you have things to be happy about, by disciplining the organs into ‘equilibrium’. Likewise, through physical exercises, Reichian therapy reproduces emotions (and their immediate expression in screams, panting, tears) without reference to situations, singular mutual determinations of bodies and thought. This emotion-effect is supposed to free the patient from the causes of her previous, unhealthy emotions: implicitly, from history. (1.)
The Reichian vision of sexual ‘liberation’, based on an eternal truth of The Body, is opposed to every potential freedom, if freedom means power to comprehend and construct singularities, or situations. ‘Historical agency’, on however microscopic a scale, is surrendered when passions are pre-emptively ‘let out’ as abstract Life Energy, leaving the patient serenely indifferent to the complications of the fallen world. ‘You are your body’ sounds benign, but it only works in one direction. Where the eternally unchanging Orgasmic body is set up as the model for all thought, all desire, there is no room for the image of thought as a deterritorializing power ‘within’ the body, (capable of) affecting the arrangement of bodies in the world.
WR leaves no doubt about the strategic genius of the US government’s decision to incarcerate Reich and burn his books. But not, as William Burroughs and the SPK believed, because a deadly insurgent was shut down this way. Rather, the persecution of this natural Eisenhower voter flooded his authoritarian system with a mysterious antinomian aura, in which generations have harmlessly worked off disruptive excess Life Energy. In an all-conquering cult of Health and personal fulfilment, this nihilistic legacy endures.
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