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Remembrance of Fads Past: Orgone and Velikovsky

by Mike Rothschild

April 29, 2013

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Donate The speed with which trends on the internet move means that something can go from unknown to hugely popular to mocked while one is on a long vacation. But fads themselves are as old as history, and while an internet meme takes only a few weeks to explode and fade away, many of the most prominent fads in psychology, history and science have ebbed and flowed over decades.

Two formerly popular fads that are now solidly marked for obscurity are linked on a number of levels: both were the work of psychiatrists who studied under Sigmund Freud and fled Europe for the United States, both were roundly dismissed by the scientific establishment but grew in stature as forbidden knowledge, and both were examined and rejected by Albert Einstein. Finally, both found great popularity in the counter-culture and with celebrities, in part because of their suppression, both real and imagined.

The accumulation and healing power of orgone was a hugely popular trend of the postwar years that combined pop psychology and forbidden science with a good dose of hedonism. Based on the idea that orgone is supposedly a life-giving universal energy that binds and sustains everything everywhere through orgasmic potential, it was first theorized in the late 30’s by Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. A protégé of Sigmund Freud, Reich took his mentor’s concept that blockages or deficits in a patient’s libido were a cause of neuroses and extended it out to the universe itself.

Reich declared that sub-atomic orgone particles were the stuff of life itself, an energy field that comprised every object in the universe and gave life to everything that had it. And when a person had a deficiency of orgone, so Reich’s theory went, physical, sexual and mental issues followed " everything from depression to cancer.

Reich was already fairly well-known and controversial for his experiments with touch, massage and early forms of sex therapy. He developed a technique called “vegetotherapy” where patients were stripped naked and massaged in order to break up the “psychological armor” that was keeping them from a breakthrough. In the mid 30’s, Reich began carrying out what he called “bion experiments,” involving the heating of cultured vesicles to reveal sub-cellular bubbles within cells.

While conducting this research, Reich saw heretofore undiscovered brightly-glowing blue and red particles, and further work led him to declare that the blue ones were a primordial form of life, brimming with vitality and sexuality; while the red particles were present in cancerous tissue and represented disease and death.

In 1939, Reich came to the United States and continued his research on the mysterious particles, which he had named orgone, a pseudo-Greek word that combines “ozone” with “orgasm.” He soon began experimenting on patients (despite the lack of a US medical license) using a life-size insulated plywood box where a person suffering from cancer would sit and gather healing orgone from the air.

As the 1940’s progressed, Reich continued using his “orgone accumulators” to heal patients, despite no credible scientific study, by Reich or anyone else, confirming that they had any positive effect on anyone, or that orgone even existed. Reich continued his experiments unabated, usually combining them with sexual hedonism, until 1947. That's when the Food and Drug Administration began investigating orgone therapy, as well as rumors of sexual abuse among his patients. Much of the subsequent outcry against Reich came from an inflammatory Harpers magazine article entitled “The New Cult of Sex and Anarchy.”

In the early 50’s, as the federal government built a case against his work, Reich began to grow more and more delusional. He experimented with trying to transform orgone into rain, a process he called “cloudbusting” and developed complex theories on UFO’s. Finally, in 1954, a formal complaint was filed against him by the FDA, which Reich refused to acknowledge. A 1956 injunction then ordered that all orgone-related material be destroyed and that Reich cease his experiments at once. Hundreds of copies of Reich’s books were burned and his orgone accumulators were chopped up, most by Reich himself. One of Reich’s acolytesthen mailed accumulator parts out of state, in blatant defiance of the injunction. Reich was arrested and sent to federal prison, where he died in 1957.

But even as the government cracked down on Reich’s pseudoscience, the idea of orgone as a healing ether grew in popularity, as did the sexual liberation that Reich spent his career espousing. Numerous celebrities embraced orgone and owned accumulators, including literary luminaries like Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, William S. Burroughs and J.D. Salinger, as well as actors Sean Connery and Orson Bean. The suppression of Reich’s work, particularly the book burning, made him into a martyr pariah, rather than leaving him on the fringes of medicine.

Neither Reich nor orgone were ever given the slightest credence by the scientific establishment, and he was all but disavowed after his arrest, with revelations that he had been using children in some of his experiments coming to the surface. But the orgone accumulator fad lingered on well into the 1970’s and still has a few adherents today. Online marketplaces are full of “orgone energy jewelry” for sale at wildly inflated prices and you can even build your own accumulator, if 50 years of non-proof as to the efficacy of orgone hasn’t swayed you already.

Immanuel Velikovsky and Worlds in Collision
Around the same time that orgone was surrounding 1950’s pop culture in an ethereal cloud of tiny blue particles, another pseudoscientific concept was catching fire in the US: a startling combination of history, astronomy, conspiracy and psychology developed by another of Sigmund Freud’s disciples: Immanuel Velikovsky.

Born in what’s now Belarus in 1895, Velikovsky, like Reich, studied psychotherapy at the feet of Freud, and fled Europe for the US in the 1930’s. Once safe in New York, he took his theories on Freud’s work in psychiatry on an extreme tangent, combining them with a lifelong interest in the Old Testament. A decade of research in comparative mythology, catastrophism, psychology, physics and ancient papyrus records resulted in a shocking, somewhat bizarre and highly implausible hypothesis.

Velikovsky believed that the great catastrophes written about in much of the religious literature of the ancient past, such as Noah’s flood, the Biblical plagues and the ancient Greek deluge were actually all elements of the same great disaster. He believed that 600 years of human history had actually never happened, cultural amnesia had caused humanity’s real chronology to be suppressed and that around the 15th century BCE, the planet Venus was ejected from Jupiter, and flew near Earth, raining burning hydrocarbons down on the ancient people and causing near cataclysm. Then the process repeated again some centuries later, with Mars replacing Venus as the offending object. If this was correct, virtually everything we knew about religion, astronomy, physics and history would have to re-examined.

Velikovsky turned his explosive theory into the book Worlds in Collision, and after suitable peer-review, published it through the respected scientific textbook company Macmillan in 1950. Despite (or because of) its wild claims, many of which defied the laws of physics and depended on a re-written chronology that was completely impossible to confirm, the book was an instant success with the public and brought Velikovsky overnight fame. It also drew the ire of real scientists, many of whom were published by Macmillan and didn’t want to be linked with what they perceived as an abuse of scientific scholarship.

The threat of a boycott of Macmillan’s scientific textbook operation led them to transfer the book to Doubleday, where it continued to sell briskly. This perceived censorship, along with the fervent rejection of Worlds in Collision by mainstream physics, astronomy and history (much of which had been swept up in anti-communist hysteria) ensured that Velikovsky became a hero to a number of acolytes who defended their mentor tooth and nail. He published several subsequent books on catastrophism and history and became an in-demand speaker on the college lecture circuit, despite being all but banned from many campuses when Worlds in Collision first was released. He spent the better part of the 60’s dispensing his “suppressed science” and lashing out at those who criticized his work, which included virtually every scientist who came into contact with it.

What became known as “the Velikovsky Affair” dragged on for well over two decades, with Velikovsky and his adherents slugging it out with mainstream science over the plausibility of his theories, the accuracy of his research and the general state of what we know about ancient peoples and history. The experts in the fields Velikovsky was writing about had completely rejected his work, but that only served to make the rogue scientist more popular by making him a purveyor of secret knowledge.

Finally, in 1974, the American Association for the Advancement of Science arranged for Carl Sagan to debunk Velikovsky’s theories, as Sagan had been one of the most vocal critics of Worlds in Collision. Sagan wrote a lengthy report that laid out “ten problems” inherent to catastrophism, attacking the science rather than the man behind it, as many other Velikovsky opponents had. In turn, Sagan was attacked by Velikovsky followers for bias and using flawed methodology.

The Affair reached almost operatic levels of absurdity. In 1977, the book Scientists Confront Velikovsky was published, containing rebuttals to the man by Sagan and a host of other science luminaries. In response, Velikovsky acolytes published a special issue of a pro-catastrophism journal called Scientists Confront Scientists Who Confront Velikovsky, rebutting the rebuttal. Dozens of supportive and detracting articles and books were released, and Velikovsky kept the spotlight on himself with a vigorous defense of his own research.

Velikovsky died in 1979, and with that, his acolytes drifted away and the Velikovsky Affair burned out. But just as with Wilhelm Reich’s orgone theory, there are still those who trumpet his ideas as examples of the “establishment” suppressing scientific ideas they find to be disagreeable or dangerous. We see glimmers of this in every conspiracy theorist, free energy proponent and Big Pharma enemy who thinks the evil, amorphous THEY are hiding the truth from us.

But sometimes the truth is that a bad idea is a bad idea, no matter how many celebrities buy into it or how much suppression from the mainstream it endures. A popular fad without proof is just that: a fad.

by Mike Rothschild

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