I still dream of Orgonon

On Olivia Laing‘s Everybody: A Book About Freedom

Olivia Laing’s writing struck me like a thunderbolt when I bought The Lonely City in late 2016. I read it in the aftermath of a seismic shift in my personal life, the rupture of which took years to recover from. I was, in other words, the ideal reader for a deeply personal book on loneliness, queerness and urbanity. In it, Laing weaves the story of her own life dramas (moved to New York for love; wound up heartbroken before the plane even landed) with a whole cast of characters who’d roamed the streets of the city lovesick and lonely before her: Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Klaus Nomi, Edward Hopper and Zoe Leonard are all woven through this part-memoir, part-travel writing, part-art historical biography. Tender, tragic but inspiring, it’s a book that impacted me greatly when I read it and has influenced my own writing ever since. 

It also made Laing immensely successful, and with success comes backlash. A former crustie with a plummy English accent, a person who aligns themselves with revolutionary politics while Instagramming tabletop flatlays, it’s no big shocker that Laing attracts as much ire as she does admiration. While many have praised her for her bravery in coming out as trans-non binary, I’ve also heard mutterings within the queer community about her ‘appropriating queerness’. She’s been mocked for over-identifying with marginalised figures and their struggles for liberation while living a rarefied bourgeois life, married to a Cambridge don. Some of this is unfair. A non-binary person who grew up in a lesbian household in the era of Section 28, Laing has as much right to queerness as any of us. As for hypocrisy? Well, show me a left-wing liberal intellectual who doesn’t enjoy an antique carpet and a glass of Beaujolais and I’ll show you a liar.

This kind of moral hypocrisy I can tolerate. Bad writing I find harder to forgive – and this is where my relationship with Laing’s work gets more complicated. In 2018, high on success, she published her first novel, Crudo, written on a whim and with very little editing. I’ve long been a fan of certain kinds of autofiction (hello Chris Kraus), but for me, Crudo might have been the point it started to become a dirty word within literary circles. Written in a persona that is part-Laing, part-undead Kathy Acker (a ubiquitous reference in the artworld at the time), Crudo is a diaristic account of the summer of 2017, in which our protagonist lounges by a pool on her honeymoon, eats lots of decadent food, scrolls Twitter and ponders the refugee crisis. It reads like satire. I’m not sure it’s meant to. It’s made me trepidatious.

Despite this tone-deaf literary misstep, Laing’s haters will be disappointed to learn that her latest offering, Everybody: A Book About Freedom, not only sees her back doing what she does best, but doing it on a more ambitious scale and refined level than ever before. Everybody is about the body – all the ways it can be oppressed or restrained, but also all the ways it can be liberated, or used as a means for liberation. Like The Lonely City before it, it weaves fragments from Laing’s own life together with those of a diverse array of figures: Susan Sontag, Ana Mendieta, Andrea Dworkin, Angela Carter, the Marquis de Sade, Philip Guston, Agnes Martin (pictured above), Oscar Wilde, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Nina Simone. Resurfacing throughout, the tie that binds the book is the doomed psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. If you don’t know much about Reich, get interested. Star pupil of Sigmund Freud, he broke away from his master when he refused to capitulate to Nazism as it swept across Mitteleuropa. While Freud insisted psychoanalysis must stay ‘apolitical’, Reich refused to let his practice be subsumed by a fascist regime (which, tbf, is hardly being ‘apolitical’ anyway). 

Unlike Freud, who catered primarily to the Viennese bourgeoisie, Reich took on patients from across a broad spectrum of social milieux and was quick to recognise the importance of material conditions to his patients’ mental health. He tried to forge a new strand of psychoanalytic thought which merged Freud’s theories with those of Karl Marx. Clever man. He was also quick to realise that the body keeps the score – that all of our lives’ (and possibly our ancestors’) traumas are stored in our flesh, that emotional pain and repressed feelings can manifest as tight muscles, bad posture and even illness. He sought a cure for this through sexuality, proposing that the orgasm might relieve the traumas stored in the body as tension. Orgasm could induce ‘orgone’, he argued, a libidinal life flow of energy that has the power to restore us to a more liberated state. Unsurprisingly, Reich’s ideas weren’t looked on favourably by Nazi Germany. Banished from psychoanalysis by Freud for refusing to collaborate, Reich fled to the Nordic countries and then America. The books he left behind, his life’s work, were burned by the Nazis. 

Traumatised by his experiences of fascist Europe and his rejection by Daddy Freud, Reich’s ideas started to verge into quackery once he’d settled to America. As well as bodily tension, he argued that ‘orgone’ could cure cancer, and built bizarre machinery in an attempt to channel the flow of it – such as the ‘Orgone Accumulator’, a metal box that conducted the flow of energy. He also tried to invent ‘cloudbusters’, cosmic guns which would burst clouds and bring rainfall even in the drought of the American desert. These fantastical contraptions have made him something of a cult hero. Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’ is about Reich and his desperate, yearning, cosmic search for hope (the opening line: “I still dream of Orgonon”). The post-punk band Devo’s pyramid-shaped plastic hats, actually called “energy domes”, were also reportedly a tongue-in-cheek take on Reich and his attempts to corral energy flow. Sadly for him, his inventions not only attracted the attention of the 70s counterculture, but the McCarthy-era US authorities, who arrested and imprisoned Reich for pseudoscience and, once again, destroyed his life’s work in a book burning.

Learning about Reich and his tragic but fascinating life was one of the most enjoyable parts of Everybody. Laing really excels at telling the stories of these vivid and powerful intellectual figures in a way that feels open and natural. Her prose is never laboured or overly academic, despite her extensive archival research. Because Reich’s life takes us from the sexual freedom of Weimar Berlin to the rise of fascism, from liberation through orgasm to penitential incarceration, it carries Laing’s narrative thread across different lines of bodily oppression and liberation in ways that might otherwise seem incongruous: chapters touch on sexuality, Sadism, domestic abuse, the prison industrial complex, civil rights, protest movements. Through this broad and wide-ranging book, Laing demonstrates how the body can be used as a site of resistance and refusal. As I read the chapter on protest, a man on Glasgow’s Kenmure Street lay down in front of an immigration van for eight hours until the people inside it were released. Bodies remain, will always remain, political, and this book demonstrates that wonderfully. 

Many of the figures in Everybody met tragic endings. Reich died in prison. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were both assassinated. Nina Simone died in disillusionment and despair. Ana Mendieta fell to her death from a window in ‘mysterious circumstances’ that may or may not have involved her being pushed out by her partner, Carl Andre because I don’t want to be sued for libel. (He was found innocent; all the evidence suggests otherwise.) It’d be easy for Everybody to have a bleak ending, to think the struggles of its driving figures were futile, but it’s also evident that they weren’t. Interviewed about the book for Vox Conversations podcast, Laing reflects that the fight for liberation is something bigger than all of us, and which we can only ever play a temporary part in: “It’s a work that extends far beyond our lifespans in both directions.” In this line of thought, figures like Simone, Mendieta, Reich and the civil rights leaders live on as beacons of hope, igniting the struggle until the next generation can take the torch. In illuminating these stories so majestically, Laing pays homage to and upholds this work of liberation. I think that gives her a free pass to Instagram whatever the f*ck she wants. 

~ Rosa

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Olivia Laing, Everybody: A Book About Freedom was published on 4 May. Support Bad Taste and your independent bookshop by ordering it here.

TIME FOR AN AMARO?

A series of quick-fire recommendations to help you digest

📺  - There’s a new season of Fargo and it’s giving me life. Set between warring factions of gangs in 1950 Kansas city (Russians vs Irish vs Italians vs African-Americans, with a sadistic nurse thrown in for good measure), it blends crime and comedy with aplomb. Watch it on All 4. Also on my screen this week: BBC’s adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, about two posho cousins and their romantic escapades in interwar England. Throw in Andrew ‘hot priest’ Scott as a Cecil Beaton-esque Bright Young Thing, a distinctly late-20th-century soundtrack and plotlines inspired by Mitford’s own madcap siblings (eloping with leftwing fuckbois to join the Spanish civil war, etc) and you’ve got yourself an instant TV classic 

👁  I made a point of stopping by Hugo Servanin’s exhibition at NiCOLETTi Contemporary this weekend, partly because it’s a small gallery that always excites me, and partly because Servanin’s jarring, unnerving sculptures of cast body parts, steamy water tanks and IV drips were a perfect dystopian counterpart to spending all day reading about bodies c/o Olivia Laing. It’s a disquieting but enthralling show

🎶 I’m listening to Jorja Smith’s second album Be Right Back, which came out on Friday. Jazz-inflected and soulful pop, it’s more mature and refined than her 2018 debut, with better beats and less crooning by the piano

📚 Next on the reading list: Deborah Levy’s Real Estate, which just came out on Thursday. The third part of her ‘living autobiography’, it follows on from Things I Don’t Want To Know and The Cost of Living. My copy of the former is warped from raindrops, from when I couldn’t tear myself away from reading it in a downpour. My copy of the latter got me so distracted I had my bag stolen while reading it. I’ll try to take my time with this one, as Levi’s writing is apparently dangerous to me

As always, leave your own culture recs in the comments. Ciao! xo

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P.S.! A NOTE ON SCHEDULING

I realise this is not a Friday which, until now, has been Bad Taste’s publication day. But the mechanics of my life have shifted and so you’ll now be getting these newsletters on a Sunday(ish). Go forth and drink Aperol on Friday, I’ll see you on the other side.