A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of WILHELM REICH

As related to

The Emotional Plague

By Roger M. Wilcox

Last modified 30-July-2003

Reich was a Utopianist.  He believed that there was a much much better, self-perpetuating world of happiness out there, maybe just around the corner, if only we could escape the depths of normally-accepted human misery and reach it.  This Utopianism grew out of his early association with the Communist Party, which promulgated a strongly Utopian world view.  Even after Reich abandoned Communism, this Utopian undercurrent stayed with him.  Like all Utopianists, Reich needed some explanation as to why humanity wasn't in a Utopia already.  The explanation he eventually came up with was something he called the Emotional Plague.

The Emotional Plague was Reich's term for a kind of neurotic character structure which sought to prevent itself from getting "stirred up" by forcing everyone else to operate on the same "tight, low level."  All neurotics, according to Reich, had difficulty tolerating the full level of emotional excitation that an emotionally healthy person experiences.  Whenever a neurotic experienced emotional excitation beyond a certain threshold, he or she would invariably experience anxiety as a kind of "backlash" against the excitation.  This anxiety would cause the neurotic to clamp down internally.  (This internal "clamping down," in Reich's mind, was not merely a metaphor; he believed the neurotic would always literally contract his or her musculature, as I discuss in my critique of character-analytic vegetotherapy.)  In most neuroses, this anxiety, this clamping down, would cause the neurotic to withdraw emotionally from the situation, to run away or attempt to calm him/herself down.  However, Reich believed that there was a certain subset of neurotics which he called "emotional plague characters," in which anxiety caused the neurotic person to lash out at the external disturbance which caused his/her emotional excitation to rise above his/her low threshold of tolerance to begin with.

Reich believed that this emotional plague character type was the main mechanism by which neuroses spread throughout civilization.  An emotional plague character would attack a young, impressionable child for expressing his/her feelings, then the child would keep his feelings in check so as not to be attacked by the emotional plague character, and in so doing, the child would become neurotic himself.  If just a few percent of the children who became neurotic also picked up an emotional plague character trait themselves, this would be enough to "perpetuate the misery" down through the generations.  The emotional plague character would "spread" his neurosis to a sizeable percentage of the people he came into contact with, just as with any other kind of plague.  This was Reich's explanation as to why prudishness is so prevalent (anything related to sex is guaranteed to evoke emotional excitation), and why teen-agers have such problems, and why so many people seemed (to Reich) to be neurotic, and in general "why the world is in a mess."

Reich wrote two books specifically about the emotional plague, titled The Murder of Christ and People in Trouble, but mentions of the emotional plague pervade nearly all of Reich's later work.  Reich blamed the lack of acceptance of his work on bions, orgone energy, cloudbusters, etc., on the emotional plague.  He was convinced that his work was completely sound, and that the reason it was not accepted by others was that so many others could not tolerate the emotions stirred up by his discoveries.  There was, in Reich's mind, a conspiracy of emotional plague characters out to silence him.  This "conspiracy" was not actually a conscious conspiracy, with its leaders all meeting secretly and acting in concert with one another, no no no, it would have to have been much more insidious than that.  The emotional plague characters in the world only appeared to present a united front against Reich because Reich's work excited the same intolerable emotions in all of them, and thus they all reacted in a similar manner.  It couldn't possibly have been because his work actually had any fundamental flaws in it, and different outsiders simply noticed the same fundamental flaws and pointed them out.

— Remainder of article yet to be written. —

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