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Olivia Laing’s previous works of nonfiction cover a seemingly unconnected set of subjects: a psychogeographical history of the River Ouse in Sussex, the relationship between writers and alcoholism, and the connection between art, cities, and loneliness. But sewn through this diverse set of subjects is Laing’s appreciation for the human body, the unspoken site of experience through which she allows her stories to unfold. By examining the biographical lives of the writers, artists, and thinkers who populate her books, Laing has always operated not in the abstract world of interconnecting ideas and schools of thought, but in the “muck of personal concerns,” a realm in which one’s material, embodied situation is as important as one’s intellectual output.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Laing’s latest book Everybody: A Book about Freedom takes the body as its central subject, situating it in the political landscape of the 20th and 21st centuries and asking how the types of body we inhabit define which freedoms are open to us and which are denied.
As her guide through this vast and sprawling exploration, Laing has chosen the psychoanalyst and founder of body-oriented psychotherapy, Wilhelm Reich. Following the contours of Reich’s bold and ultimately tragic life, Laing slowly unravels the numerous ways in which structures of power curtail the freedoms of those whose bodies are deemed lesser by society’s hierarchical systems of value.
Wilhelm Reich arrived onto Vienna’s already well-established psychoanalytic scene at the beginning of the 1920s, bursting with energy and ideas. Immediately making an impression on the movement’s founder, Sigmund Freud, Reich was allowed to begin practicing psychoanalysis at the tender age of 22. However, his vigour, in particular his interest in sexology, quickly led him to new ideas and practices, focusing his efforts on understanding the role of the body in his client’s psychological lives.
Reich quickly came to understand the body not just as an inert, mechanical vessel in which our psyche dwells, but as the live, feeling vehicle through which we inhabit the world. Reich believed that the mind and body form a unity in which the body takes an active role in our emotional lives, locking away the feelings that are too difficult or traumatic for us to process. Over time, this will eventually create what he called “character armour,” a term coined to characterise the clenched, taught bodily comportment he observed in his clients.
From this starting point Reich and his sometimes-revolutionary, sometimes-delusional work guides us through Laing’s meditations on the body. Each chapter touches on an area of Reich’s life whilst also taking in the perspectives of a huge range of different thinkers. Reich’s belief that all illness is the result of emotional trauma or repression provides the spark for an exploration of the meaning of illness and mortality. His growing disillusionment with psychoanalysis’ lack of political engagement takes him to Weimar Berlin, where Laing unpacks the complexity of sexual liberation. Reich’s mother’s suicide, driven by the actions of his abusive father, inspires the most compelling chapter in the book: a frank examination of sexual violence knitted together by interpretations of the work of Marquis de Sade and Cuban artist Ana Mendieta. Reich’s most unusual invention, the orgone energy accumulator, was a steel-lined box that sought to harness the universal energy that animates all life. It was his refusal to disavow the orgone that eventually landed him in prison, setting up a chapter in which Laing studies the body behind bars, the ultimate instantiation of the state’s restriction of bodily freedom.
Uniting such a diverse set of ideas into a cohesive narrative was never going to possible in one book. But this is not Laing’s goal in Everybody.As is typical of her style, she weaves together the lives and ideas of an eclectic cast of thinkers, artists, and activists, herself included, using each of their stories to further illuminate the raw and honest truth of the ongoing struggle for bodily emancipation. It is not in providing answers that the excitement of Everybody lies but in Laing’s ambiguous and open-ended inquiry that echoes the mysterious nature of the body itself. Laing’s ability to hold and understand contrary perspectives, whilst committing to neither, invites the reader to take their own view on the history she presents. This journey culminates not in an answer but a question posed to the reader: Can you imagine a world in which the body is free?
It is in the attempt to articulate this question that the theme tying Everybody together emerges: the vulnerability of embodiment. If the body is to be free, it must happen both in spite of and because it is “so cataclysmically vulnerable.” Laing makes it abundantly clear that the body is a mass of flesh, capable of being beaten, bruised, scarred, constantly at risk of deterioration and failure, and always open to the “existential horror of randomness.” The body as the very symbol of our mortality.
However, despite Laing’s more existential overtures, it is the vulnerability of the body at the hands of complex systems of power that looms over every individual story in Everybody. Laing paints a picture of governmental and economic structures that combine to create “a sliding scale of human value,” predicated on what type of body one inhabits. When these structures align against the individual body, it is quite unable to resist the objectification, discrimination, segregation, incarceration, and eradication that can ultimately follow.
Laing’s categorical message, however, is that it is in our often helpless, entirely inescapable bodies that we find the power to resist oppression. She writes: “There is no steel-lined box that can protect you from the grid of forces that limits in tangible, tormenting ways what each private body is allowed to be or do. There is no escape, no possible place to hide. Either you submit to the world or you change the world.”
It is in the journeys of those who inhabit her writing that this hopeful fight unfolds. Each narrative depicts not just the story of a creative mind reacting to its intellectual milieu but a real person’s reaction to inhabiting a body that is judged by the society they live in. Whether it be Nina Simone’s awakening to her own lived embodiment of the United States’ racial oppression or Ana Mendieta’s unflinching creative reaction to the rape of a fellow student, each of Laing’s vignettes unpacks the violence and trauma that bodies endure, showing just how these experiences are transformed into images and words that challenge the status quo.
As with all of Laing’s work, Everybody can be a painful book to read. By invoking “the darkness of the pre-verbal realm,” Laing taps into the pain, trauma, and suffering her subjects carry in their bodies. Like a physical archive for emotional damage, we all carry our hurts in our body, unable to express our emotional pain in language that then bursts out in unexpected and destructive ways. Laing has long been clear that to exist is to face a world in which pain and violence will always have a place.
However, at her core Laing is a writer of hope, frequently establishing love as the polarity of violence, the two “cardinal points of experience.” Everybody manifests this philosophy clearly, for to love is to commit ourselves to one another and to commit to a future in which we fight for each other’s freedoms. What each chapter of Everybody reveals is a history of a shared desire to “turn the body from an object of stigma and shame into a source of solidarity and strength, capable of demanding and achieving change.” It is this message of hope that animates Everybody, ensuring that it does not simply communicate a history of the fight for bodily emancipation but stands as a rallying call for all those who would seek to change the world in which we live.
Some readers and critics will undoubtedly chafe at this utopianism. Those searching for a more thorough political analysis may well be put off by the deep biographical dives into the thinkers Laing marshals. Many, too, may well be left wanting at the lack of explicit argument that precedes Laing’s visionary call to arms. But to search Everybody for a uniting ideology would be to miss its point. The beauty of Laing’s writing lies in her ability to layer stories and ideas on top of each other, creating a pattern that cannot be neatly identified and thus offering readers the chance to read their own experience into her prose.
Everybody is perhaps the furthest Laing has taken this style, writing a book that is almost decentralized in its approach, only loosely structured by its study of bodily freedom and the biography of Reich. But it is in this soft focus that the richness of Laing’s writing comes to the fore. Themes unite across chapters, different events echo through the lives of multiple thinkers, and the joy and pain of having a body resonates within you as you allow Laing to coax you through her vivid tapestry.
With the world slowly adjusting to a crisis that precipitated a drastic shift in the way we use our bodies, Laing’s vision of the body as a site of hope and strength is a hard-earned but much needed dose of optimism and energy. And whether or not one accepts her version of history or agrees on how we should address our future, Everybody is a powerful book that will invigorate anybody who reads it.
Everybody: A Book about Freedom
By Olivia Laing
304 pages, Pan Macmillan