This looks like a collection of essays, and in many ways it reads like one, but it’s more of a kind of topography study of the life and work of Wilhelm Reich, the people who directly and indirectly influenced, how his ideas and life shaped the modern world, and the different areas that this leads us to. It’s also a personal reflection of gender and experience.
The title is of course a pun, and the subtitle “A Book about Freedom” has multiple meanings to it. One way to look at it is about the “freedom to” that early civil rights of many varieties fought for, the right to have the rights already guaranteed them. But the book quickly settles on “freedom from” and how this ties into ideas about liberation. We’re very much in a moment in which liberation has a salient presence in our lives are many of the rights won in the last several decades in the US, UK, and Europe are being assaulted.
Wilhelm Reich was a student of Freud and developed a theory about the body housing the stress and trauma, physically, and how this energy manifests in affliction. Large elements of this idea have mostly borne out in various ways, but this was radical and still is radical. Because life is long and people are complicated, Reich’s body of work is not wholly defined by this idea, but also includes a lot of his later, such as the notion that sexual release is one way to express this stored negative energy. This led to the building of machines designed to monitor and test, and even release this energy. These ideas also have radical implications and he was taken up by many thinkers and artists like William S Burroughs for one, but he was also subject to government surveillance and legal censure as well.
Contained within this idea and others is the grammar and language of liberation: the right to live in one’s own body, free from oppression. Here is where Olivia Laing traces these ideas within her own life as someone deeply uncomfortable with the limits and confines of prescribed gender, but also in the philosophical, artistic, and political work of people like Andrea Dworkin, Angela Davis, Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, and many others.