Everybody: A Book about Freedom, Olivia Laing, Picador.
Kate Bush has a song on her Hounds of Love album called ‘Cloudbusting’ which is about Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who was initially a disciple of Sigmund Freud but was pushed out of Freud’s circle due to some of his ideas about sexuality, which were a bit too eyebrow-raising even for Freud.
Reich theorized that mental trauma lingered in the body physiologically, something that seems reasonable now, though his solutions through sexual release are a little more controversial. Reich was practicing in Norway when the Nazis came to power and when his visa expired, rather than return to Europe, he escaped to the US where, somewhat ironically considering his anti-fascist views, his books were burned, partly because of his promotion of a phone-booth size box he labelled an orgone accumulator, which harnessed the life force he claimed he had discovered, and which he also claimed could, amongst other things, cure cancer. (William Burroughs and later Kurt Cobain both tried the accumulator and gave it the thumbs up.)
This was not his only kooky idea. He later invented a gun he called a cloudbuster, which he claimed could control the weather, and with which later he battled aliens (again, he claimed). Bush’s buoyant, string-laden song, inspired by a book written by Reich’s son, refers to rain and sunshine, which I assume is a literal reference to the cloudbuster’s capacity, though it may also refer to Reich’s capacity for hope despite the darkness in his life. Bush’s song contains the refrain, ‘I just know that something good is going to happen’. Bush is not the only musician to be inspired by Reich – Patti Smith and Bob Dylan also have songs featuring Reich, and he inspired much of the ideology of the sexual revolution (a term he invented, apparently) in the 60s.
Reich is the central figure in Laing’s book, his biography the trunk from which other stories and biographies branch. (Much like Albrecht Durer is in Philip Hoare’s latest book.) Like her previous book Funny Weather, Everybody parades various characters at society’s margins. Auden and Isherwood pop up in Berlin. She writes about the artist Agnes Martin, her ferocious independence, and her hermitic tendencies. Reich pops up in surprising places, as someone inspiring liberation, particularly for women wanting to be free of the control and violence of men and the expectations of society. Laing is not convinced by his arguments for cloudbusters or accumulators (and he is easy to mock, she says) but admires his generosity and dedication.
Nor is she convinced always by the arguments of feminist Andrea Dworkin – another subject – particularly her rigid categorization of men, but one of the good things about Laing is her willingness to understand, to work through the issues that preoccupy her characters, so she understands the urgency with which Dworkin tackled feminist issues driven by Dworkin’s sometimes traumatic life. (One may not always agree with Laing either – say, on seeing, as she does, the Marquis de Sade as asking tough questions about power, rather than him simply being misogynist and, well, slightly deranged.)
It’s not all sexual politics. She writes about Nina Simone’s and Malcolm X’s experiences of racial politics, while simultaneously looking at prisons in America, their ineffectiveness for rehabilitation and their (sometimes deliberate) part in continuing racial inequalities.
As a further example of her capacity for inhabiting the body of another, Laing writes about the very different ways Kathy Acker (whom she ventriloquized in her novel Crudo) and Susan Sontag dealt with cancer diagnoses, understanding their approaches but also pointing out their flaws. Sontag met her diagnosis (or diagnoses) head-on. Survival was all, and no matter what was excised from her body or what trauma treatment entailed, Sontag thought it worth it, even insisted on the most intensive paths. Part of her philosophy was that an almost-military determination would see her through. Laing cautions that a corollary of Sontag’s philosophy of the right attitude being able to beat anything was that it suggested some cancer victims fail because they simply don’t want to live enough, an obviously incorrect extrapolation, a ‘blind spot’, Laing writes. Acker, on the other hand, sought help in alternative therapies, which Laing once dabbled in and which Laing sees as mirroring other parts of Acker’s life, where Acker avoided the mainstream path, often embracing the chaotic, Laing writes, in contrast to Sontag’s faith in reason.
Such choices, how they affect the body, their association with notions of freedom, crop up in relation to BLM and Covid. Briefly, at the end of Laing’s book she comments, thinking about protests against vaccinations and having to wear face masks, and the way the rhetoric of freedom is used to mask discrimination, that freedom is not freedom if it allows one to harm others. In the context of the US, Laing is pointing to the value of seeing freedom as generosity rather than individualism.