When she was 22, Olivia Laing had a sensual epiphany in Brighton. She’d been drawn into a herbalist’s massage parlour by the sign outside claiming that headaches, anger, depression and colds — in fact any symptoms at all — were caused by stuck energy from past traumas that body psychotherapy could release. ‘The idea of the body as a storage unit for emotional distress excited me,’ she writes. Just as well she didn’t present with cancer or the symptoms of Covid. At the time, Laing’s body was, she thought, a cataclysm of inaccessible traumas: ‘I was so rigid and stiff I flinched when anyone touched me, like a mousetrap going off. The massages of Anna, a herbalist, helped.’
Her ardent, engaged, elegant, sometimes beguilingly batty book unfolds from this moment. From Brighton’s lucrative counterculture, her horizons expand to survey cherished 20th-century figures who have fought against various kinds of bodily oppressions. There’s Andrea Dworkin, hunted, beaten and otherwise harassed by her ex-husband, going on to fight against the subjugation of women’s bodies in pornography. There’s Nina Simone, snarling the words ‘Mississippi Goddam’ at uptown white audiences in New York during the civil rights era to make them feel something of the pain of what was being done in the south to black bodies.
Laing’s improbable hero, though, is Wilhelm Reich, the maverick psycho-analyst exiled from Nazi Germany and jailed as a quack in 1950s Pennsylvania. He was imprisoned for preaching the benefits of his Orgone Energy Accumulator, a wooden shed the size of an outdoor privy in which orgone, a primal libidinal matter posited by Reich, could be stored and deployed to help users recover from the trauma of sexual repression. Nowadays he is best known perhaps as the subject of Kate Bush’s song ‘Cloudbusting’ or the butt of Woody Allen’s gag about the orgasmatron in his 1973 film Sleeper. But back in the day, Reich was the last word in dispensing what amounted to psychic Viagra for literary men such as Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger and Saul Bellow. William Burroughs reported he ‘achieved spontaneous orgasm, no hands’ in Reich’s closet. There are no reports of women entering Reich’s shed.
Laing isn’t so genitally fixated as Reich, but sympathetically understands him as valuing not ejaculation but what accompanied it. She writes: ‘It is not the coming but the letting go.’ Sex, if you’re doing it right, is parole from the self’s prison house.
She pits Reich against his mentor Sigmund Freud. The latter thought that without the constraints of civilisation we would be nasty and brutish and, most likely, doing it in the street. Reich believed the opposite: it was the renunciation of instincts that made modern humans sick; it was sexual repression, as he argued in The Mass Psychology of Fascism, which prompted Germans to embrace Hitler. Unlike Freud, Reich was a communist, who saw working-class poverty as inflicting traumatic wounds on the body.
This crypto-Oedipal face off between daddy Freud and bad-boy Reich takes Laing to some strange places, especially when she charges Freud with appeasing the Nazis, as if he were the Neville Chamberlain of psychoanalysis and Reich its Churchill. Thankfully, she doubts Reich’s diagnosis that Freud’s jaw cancer, which killed him in Hampstead in 1939, was a symptom of the latter’s repression.
Laing can be glib, too, in rubbishing those who dissent from the articles of her corporeal faith. At one point she eulogises the Weimar-era sexologist Magnus Hirschfield’s suggestion that there are 43 million gender and sex combinations, adding: ‘Imagine telling that to J.K. Rowling.’ ‘Eh?’, I wrote in the margin. Why Rowling, in standing up for women’s rights, need not find such fluidity attractive is beyond me. If you’re going to join the anti-Rowling pile-on, at least argue for it.
Such missteps are a shame because Laing is often sensitive to others’ predicaments. She is particularly good on Susan Sontag, the intellectual who fled from the corporeal to the cerebral as if in physical response to early psychic wounds. ‘Her childhood resembles an unhappy masterclass in how the past lodges in the body, like a fishbone in the throat.’ Once, at Hanoi airport, Sontag got her period but had no sanitary towels, so by the time she arrived in Paris she had to be treated with disinfectant.
Laing’s diagnosis here is compelling, and comes from someone who, when she suffered from polycystic ovary syndrome, worried about ‘how much of my life happened beneath the Plimsoll line of conscious control’. Sontag only belatedly dived below that line and considered the possibility that her cancer did mean something, albeit something she had railed against in her books Illness as Metaphor and Aids and its Metaphors. She wrote in her diary: ‘I’m responsible for my cancer. I lived as a coward, repressing my desire, my rage.’ As we live thorough a pandemic, we may well doubt that a virus means anything; rather, like Schopenhauer’s blind will, it is additionally unbearable because it has no agenda but its survival.
Laing is at her best weaving such life stories with her own to embellish the polemic. The child of lesbian parents, little Olivia was radicalised early, attending her first demo aged 11 to oppose Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28, the legislation telling us that same-sex parents offered only ‘a pretended family relationship’. She dropped out of university to live in a Devon treehouse with road protestors. She trained as a herbalist and had a second epiphany in Joe’s Pub in New York, where she saw the transgender singer Justin Vivian Bond perform, realising then she was non-binary and that her gender had been ‘like a noose around my neck’.
The result is a sustained performance that is political and personal, cerebral and carnal. But, ironically in a book about freedom, Laing loves ordering the reader about. Like John Lennon, she doesn’t invite us to imagine, but tells us what to imagine. ‘Imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to inhabit a body without fear, without the need for fear,’ she writes on the last page. ‘Just imagine what we could do. Just imagine the world we could build.’ Oh, Olivia, must I? Her injunctions reminded me of Thatcher telling us ‘Rejoice! Just rejoice!’ after the Falklands victory, eyes aflame with avidity, dissent programmatically denied. By the end, I wanted to cast off the yoke of Olivia Laing’s liberation theology.