Saturday, February 06, 2010

Fall of the Reich

As you all can see, I'm reading a lot these days.  Often times I pick up books that I've only just heard about.  Other times I continue along the promising path of an author or series.  Occasionally I am reminded of something that I've meant to read for a while, and finally have the opportunity to do so.

"Wilhelm Reich in Hell" falls into the last category.  I've been meaning to read this since perhaps 1997 or 1998.  Every once in a while I remember that it exists and look around for it, but the book is notoriously difficult to find.  It shows up in the records of many libraries, but tends to have been missing for many years.  It's never on the shelves of bookstores.  This seems weirdly appropriate, given the subject matter.  As Robert Anton Wilson explains in his opening, he first heard about Wilhelm Reich when he learned that the U. S. government had arrested him and burned all his books.  That flagrant act of censorship, of course, only served to heighten curiosity about this man and his ideas, and resulted in two things.  One is a vibrant and insular community of Reichians, who are described in the introduction to this work.  The other is "Wilhelm Reich in Hell" itself, and, more generally, Robert Wilson's lifelong quest against all forms of censorship, thought policing, and totalitarianism.

WRiH is a play, first performed in Dublin (or possibly London, the text isn't very clear on this matter) around 1985.  The book contains the full text of the play, but first it has two forwards and a lengthy Introduction.

The Forwards are fascinating and a little bit creepy.  One is written by a scientist, the other by a psychiatrist; both are credentialed, but seem to operate on the fringes of their disciplines, and both are just a little bit too insistent on how you should take them seriously.  They both have serious axes to grind, and spent most of their respective forwards complaining about how they've been wronged by organizations.  They both not-too-subtly plug their own books too, and I'm left without the slightest desire to check them out.

The Introduction, in contrast, is great: it's a typically Wilsonian piece, sprawling, filled with digressions, simultaneously very explicit while also seeking to maintain a sense of mystery.  It's a put-on, but he's up-front about it being a put-on.  Over the course of some forty pages, he gives background to the story of Reich, explains the technical aspects of his theories, details the opposition Reich faced throughout his life, and also manages to give a thorough and rewarding explanation of RAW's favorite topic, reality tunnels. 

The play itself is everything I'd hoped it would be: bizarre, intelligent, funny.  Wilson has written this in a very tightly proscribed style, describing the costumes, props, beats, inflections, and so on.  I don't read a lot of plays, so I have no idea how common this is... I'm more used to the Shakespearean model, where the script only contains the dialog and the broadest stage directions, and the director is responsible for most decisions about how to present the play.  In my case, Wilson's style really helped, since it enabled me to visualize a performance that I will never get to see.  The result is fully phantasmagoric.  Acrobats leap around the stage and among the audience, hustling the viewers into the lobby for intermission; the Marquis de Sade (who, Wilson helpfully notes, should be played by someone "short, preferably a midget") struts across the stage, rationally arguing the case against Reich; Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Reagan, the American Medical Association, and more all enter as witnesses in the trial or as hallucinations.  It is... well, it's a lot like a Robert Anton Wilson novel, but presented as a play.  Neat!

As a side note, I've often noticed that it's a lot harder to be truly revolutionary in the theater than in the novel.  I noticed this a while ago when I read "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" by Kurt Vonnegut.  Kurt was a radical writer who did a lot to subvert the novel, and even his minor works have a fresh and exciting feel to them.  He did the same sort of stuff in Wanda June as he did in his books, but it didn't feel nearly as ground-breaking.  I wondered at the time why this was, and supposed that theater has simply been ahead of the novel when it comes to experimentation and the avant-garde.  It was really radical in a novel when, say, Muriel Spark directly addressed the reader and made it clear that they were reading a novel within the text of the novel itself; but it's much less original when a play presents a play within a play, or when a character directly speaks to the audience.  Both of those have been happening since at least Shakespeare, after all.  Anyways!  All that to say, Wilson's inventiveness here is fun and enjoyable, but doesn't feel as radical as his books.

Throughout the course of the Introduction and the text of the play, I think I finally have a decent grasp of Reich's ideas.  I'll set them down here while I still have them straight.  Before I begin, I should echo Wilson's caveats: Reich's ideas probably aren't totally correct.  They contain some useful stuff and some non-useful stuff.  Still, even if his ideas were entirely wrong, they should not have been annihilated.

Now, then:

Animals are amoral.  We don't consider a dolphin's actions as "good" or "evil."  Animals are simply acting, doing what they do; those actions may be helpful or harmful to other animals, but it doesn't make sense to apply moral labels to it.

Man is an animal.  In the natural state, there is no such thing as "good" or "evil."  These are labels that we have invented and applied to ourselves and our actions.

And how are they applied?  Reich's most interesting idea is what he calls the "Emotional Plague."  At some point in human history, we invented guilt.  Young children are taught that some of their thoughts and actions are bad.  They are told to repress their feelings.  Over time, they build up "emotional armor": they constantly deny themselves, refusing to feel what they should not.  This creates a constant tension that we don't even notice because it's with us all the time.  This tension wrecks us in small ways and large ways.  We don't breathe properly.  Our muscles ache.  We get ulcers.  We get insomnia.  We become neurotic. 

Most controversially, Reich saw the Emotional Plague as something that affected both the individual and society, and both the mind and the body.  It was not only the source of mental illness, but also cancer, and rape, and war.  As a species, we are so maddened by the Plague that we lash out at anything that threatens us.  We dump all our repressed emotions into the socially sanctioned outlets of war, or the forbidden outlets of crime. 

The Emotional Plague is, in Reich's view, a real, biological disease.  It has become part of the human condition.  It is passed from the mother to the child; any human who grows up, grows up in society, and absorbs the Plague from their very first days.  The Plague is self-replicating, since everyone who is infected with it will inflict it on others, and eventually pass it along to their own offspring.

So, with that background, you can probably see why Dr. Reich was controversial.  He was kicked out of Nazi Germany for being a Communist and a Jew.  He was kicked out of Sweden for his sex studies.  He was kicked out of the Communist Party for his insistence on the importance of the individual condition.  He was stripped of his psychiatry license for his insistence on the importance of the collective condition.  He was hounded by the AMA, scientists, CSICOP, and, eventually, the U. S. Marshalls.  He was thrown into jail for contempt of court, where he died, and all his books were burned.

So, to the crux of the matter: was Reich right?  Probably not.  Should he have been persecuted as he was?  Wilson answers, absolutely not.  He objects on the general moral libertarian grounds that we all should be able to express our ideas, scientists should be able to conduct research, theories should be published; he also objects on the legal grounds that the First Amendment makes no provisions for censorship at all.

Even if a theory is wrong, there might be something worth saving from it.  The only way we can know is if we debate it openly, allow the arguments for and against it to be be aired, empirically test it, and so on.  Censorship closes that door.  It arrests our progress.  Without considering new ideas, things won't ever get better.

Those who have read Wilson's other books like the Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy (or, even more, Prometheus Rising) will appreciate why he would so passionately defend someone's right to hold an unusual viewpoint.  Wilson's Introduction returns to his idea of reality tunnels.  Every one of us grows up with a set of ideas about the world.  We apply those ideas to what we experience in order to make sense of it.  It is possible that two people, viewing the exact same scene, will come to opposite conclusions based on their own mindset.  Some people, when they see a cop arresting a young black man, will think, "Phew!  Another criminal off the streets!"  Others will think, "That racist cop is harassing a man because of the color of his skin."  Either person may be fully convinced of their own position.  The Wilsonian goal is to recognize your own reality tunnel, realize that others exist, and rise above it to acknowledge your own limitations and the validity of other perspectives.

He makes a great analogy to physics in his Introduction.  He points out that there are two major systems in modern physics: general relativity and quantum mechanics.  These are incompatible systems, each with a separate set of rules.  Still, physicists don't argue about which one is right or which one is wrong.  They recognize that quantum is more useful for some situations, and relativity is better for others, and happily go with what works.  In the future, there may be another system that works even better, at which point they will (hopefully) discard the old and switch to the new.

More intriguingly, there are two ways of viewing the workings inside an atom.  One is to see it as a particle, the other is to see it as a wave.  These viewpoints aren't just incompatible, they're actively contradictory: both cannot be true.  Yet, once again, we don't argue about whether the Wave is True or the Particle is False.  We see each as useful, and take the one that seems best suited to our needs.

Wilson wants us to apply this to our own experiences as well.  There are a plethora of models we can apply to the world: the religious model, the historical model, the scientific model, the social model... there are an infinite number of choices.  Most people grow up with one model and go through life applying it to everything.  This makes their lives rigid and narrow; they can't see the much broader range of possibilities.  It also leads to conflict, as people argue with each other over ultimately pointless things... each looks at the same data, each is fully convinced that their interpretation is right, and fundamentally cannot understand why the other person could possibly come to the wrong conclusion.  By learning to experiment with other models, by consciously deciding to see the world through someone else's eyes, by questioning our own prejudices and exploring alternatives, we can lead richer lives, build deeper relationships with others, and reduce conflict, both as individuals and as societies.

When I first encountered Wilson's metaphysics, I embraced them.  Reading this play was a great opportunity for me to reflect back on them and re-evaluate my opinions.  My political philosophy has changed radically since I first read Illuminatus!, from capital-L Libertarian to my present liberal Democrat tendencies.  I haven't felt like my underlying morals have changed, though, just the way I apply them to the world... essentially, the libertarian model has become less useful as a way to describe a world of with Enron, Worldcom, and Bernie Madoff.  The liberal Democrat reality-mask seems to explain what I see better, so that's the one I wear most often.  Still, I sometimes switch it with something else.  I find that many of my friends find it simply incomprehensible that someone would vote Republican, and think that such a vote indicates that a person is ignorant or racist.  I disagree with the vote, but don't find it helpful to dismiss people like that.  Switching to, say, the Traditional Midwesterner mindset helps me understand the reasons for a vote, which in turn opens up the opportunity for synthesis... bringing the valuable ideas from one perspective out of a morass and into a conversation.

Wow, that was a tangent.

What I MEANT to say was: when I read this today, the thing I immediately found myself thinking about was climate change.  Backing up, the main point of this tale is of a renegade scientist who pushes unpopular opinions, and is unfairly sanctioned by his peers.  The message we are supposed to take from it is that Reich should have been able to speak clearly, without censorship.  More broadly, no speech should ever be repressed.  Any research should be examined and debated.  We should accept the ideas that are most useful, but always recognize that they are not absolute and better explanations may come along later.

Now, in today's context, the most controversial scientific debate taking place is over climate change.  We have a situation where a strong majority of scientists hold to an orthodox view, that human activity is driving an unprecedented shift in our climate; at the same time, a large number of non-scientists and a small (but not empty) set of scientists propose alternate theories, ranging from the idea that there is no climate change, to the idea that it is happening but is minor, to the idea that it is happening but not because of human activity, to the idea that it is happening and is beneficial.

Hopefully, the analogies with Reich's situation are clear.  What should we do when confronted with a minority voice?

What makes me uncomfortable about this is recognizing my different reactions to the two situations.  I don't totally buy in to Reich's ideas, but I still would say that he should have been free to promulgate his ideas.  When it comes to climate change... I definitely don't advocate censorship, but I'm much less tolerant towards the diverging theories than I am towards Reich's.

I think there are a couple of factors at play here.  First of all, climate change is an uncomfortable topic in general for me.  Wilson briefly touches on the reason why here when he talks about the explosion of knowledge in recent human history.  Termed "Future Shock" by Alvin Toffler, the problem is that the amount of knowledge available to us is growing FAR more rapidly than our ability to absorb it.  A few thousand years ago, pretty much everyone knew that same stuff as everyone else in their community.  A few hundred years ago, some people might have more specialized knowledge (a blacksmith would know more about smithing, a farmer would know which seasons to plant), but a large portion of knowledge was shared among all people, and the number of specializations were relatively minor.  Today, though, there's an unfathomable number of sub-disciplines, trades, and techniques floating around.  I'm a programmer, and am considered by some to be a good one, but if you throw me in front of an Objective C compiler or an IIS server, I'll be flailing around like someone fresh out of college.  Even though I've basically dedicated my life to the study of software development, I've only mastered a handful of tools.  When it comes to the rest of the world, I only know a decent amount about the handful of topics that most interest me (20th-21st century literature, strange films, Weird Al Yankovich songs, hiking in the San Francisco Bay Area, etc.), and virtually nothing about others (soap operas, Polynesian art, why the sky is blue, etc.).  I think I'm fairly intelligent, but the number of things I don't know vastly exceeds the number of things I do know, and that gap is constantly increasing.

Now, one definite weak spot of mine is science.  My last biology class was in 7th grade, and these days my only exposure to science comes from articles in The New Yorker (which tend more towards psychology than the physical sciences) and in major newspapers (which tend to gloss over the nitty-gritty details).  That's why I feel so uncomfortable when it comes to climate change: I don't have the personal background in science to analyze raw data myself and make bold, definitive statements about what it means.  I rely on the testimony of experts, and if what they're saying sounds reasonable, then I'm inclined to believe it.  I don't think this is necessarily bad, but, as Wilson would surely remind me, it does show that I'm engaging in groupthink and upholding the status quo.

My problem is, I don't feel like I have a lot of options here.  I would need to dedicate my life to climatology to make first-hand judgments about the topic, and I can't (really, don't want to) do that.  So, I can evaluate and judge, but cannot analyze.

So, that's kind of a problem that I have on the climatology side.  The other problem I have is on the Wilsonian side.  Namely, what's the best way to react to that minority.  Wilson would say, "Keep the debate going."  Let the deniers publish, let them argue and debate, keep them in the discussion.  In theory, I agree with this.  In practice, I feel like the last 15 years of news media has taken a really nasty turn towards a pseudo-Wilsonian relativism that has done real harm to our society.  Instead of real reporting, increasingly all of our news takes the form of, "Here's a press release that says A.  Here's canned responses from the opposition that say Not A.  Now you have a fair and balanced picture of the debate."  So, is A true or not?  Who knows!  Who cares!  Our media has punted on any responsibility to actually dig and find the truth of the matter, and as a result we just get a lot of noise and no new knowledge.

So, it pisses me off when, say, the media starts reporting on made-up controversies.  "Was Obama REALLY born in America?  Or, over forty years ago, did his mother undertake a bizarre journey to ensure her child was not born in America, and cover her tracks so well with the expectation that one day her progeny would grow up to become President?  Here's a birther saying why the certificate is forged.  Here's the State of Hawaii saying it's genuine.  Which position is right?  You decide!"  That, in turn, enables kooks everywhere to fulminate against the vast plot to destroy America. 

My instincts are still fundamentally libertarian.  I tend to believe that the best antidote to bad speech is more speech.  But it feels like we have passed the point where a person could reasonably track all the major stories of the day.  The sheer volume of information is overwhelming.  Wilson thinks that this is a harbinger for the next stage in human evolution; he may be right.  In the meantime, it's very painful.  Especially living in a democratic society like we do, we're responsible for making decisions, and most of us simply don't have the energy, time, and intelligence to make the correct decisions.  In this situation, entertaining all possible alternative theories isn't an enriching way of expanding our worldview.  It's adding noise that obscures the signal.  It paralyzes us.  It places us in our present situation, endlessly arguing, never coming to consensus, unable to ever agree on even fundamental issues.

For a lot of things, I don't think I'd really mind that much if the extra ideas meant that we kept on debating.  Even, say, really loony ideas like the Flat Earthers or Pastafarians.  The more the merrier, you know?  But other arguments have a time limit on them.  I don't really want to debate whether or not the kitchen is on fire: when I see the smoke, I'll start to run.  I don't want to debate whether California is in a drought: we need to start conserving water now so we don't run out by the time we're done arguing.  I fundamentally don't mind if people argue over whose model of climate change is more accurate, but I do fear that if our arguing today keeps us from acting, then it will be too late and our situation will grow far more painful than it needs to be.

Wilson does kind of allude to this whole situation.  At one point in his introduction he says something like, "As the great [someone's name here] once said, 'If at first you don't succeed, try again.  If that doesn't succeed, then give up.  No sense in being a damn fool about it.'  Switching to alternate reality tunnels can be a wonderful experience.  However, sometimes you'll open a door, and realize that there's nobody behind it but Flat Earthers and child abusers.  When that happens, quickly and quietly close the door, and move on to the next one."  There's a difference between saying "Considering alternate viewpoints is a healthy exercise" and saying "All alternate viewpoints are equally valid."  Wilson wants us to be discriminating and thoughtful about what we experience.  Still, he ultimately leaves every choice up to the individual.  I increasingly feel like, as a society, we would be better served if more people wore useful reality masks and we discarded some of the more dangerous ones.

Okay, that probably doesn't make sense to anyone else out there, but at least it helped me organize my thoughts somewhat.

Where were we?  Wilhelm Reich in Hell!

It's kind of funny to read this play in 2010.  On top of everything else, it also has grown quite dated.  I found myself having fun with the text, imagining how I would update some of its contemporary references if I were to stage it today.  The IRA is relatively quiet; the most obvious replacement would be Al Quaeda, though they are probably less sympathetic than the IRA was, so maybe something like the Basque separatists would work better.  He describes giant portraits of Stalin and Margaret Thatcher, labeled with "MOMMY AND DADDY ARE WATCHING."  I think it would make sense to replace Stalin with Saddam Hussein; Hussein is more recent, more people alive have a memory of a time when he was a source of fear, and he even still has a mustache.  I kind of would like to put Hillary Clinton on the other one, but that isn't very fair... she doesn't have anywhere near the fascist tendencies that Thatcher did.  I don't think we have a good equivalent for the Thatcher role today, certainly not a female world leader (though Mayor Bloomberg wouldn't be a bad choice for general Big Brother-ish unease).

Hm, what else.  Marilyn Monroe would still totally work, but we could replace her with a more contemporary starlet... I was thinking Aaliyah or Selena, who both capture the fame and tragedy and beauty and loss, but neither of them really has the same broad cultural scope that Marilyn did.  I love the touch of a newscaster reading a tragedy from the day of the performance; in that sense, the contemporary aspect is built into the show. 

Even if it's a little dated, the fundamental story is timeless.  Much like 1984 or Brave New World, the message to beware of tyranny will never be out of date.  Wilson maintains his great tradition of provoking thought, shocking our sensibilities, and challenging our assumptions.  It took me too long to pick up this book; I'm glad that I finally did.  Who knows, maybe this will motivate me to actually finish Prometheus Rising one of these days!

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