Falling Out of History

The Era of Sexual Socialism

On Dušan Makavejev's W. R. – Misterije 
Organizma (W.R. – Mysteries of the Organism) by Diedrich Diederichsen

W.R. – Misterije Organizma (W.R. – Mysteries of the Organism), Dušan Makavejev, Forum 1971

An elegant sequence shot follows Jackie Curtis down Broadway. Together with fellow drag queens Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn, she is part of a famed, pioneering trio who, as the legend goes, decided for the first time to remain in drag even after finishing work and leaving the sets at Warhol’s Factory. From off-screen comes the sound of a Coppertone commercial, accompanying Jackie and her companion Rotten Rita as they pass by theatre and cinema marquees promoting old-school American values. Next, the unseen radio plays “Teach Your Children!” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, one of the tamer anthems of the so-called countercultural movement. A constructive suggestion, bettering the world through education – and a mindset not so far off from that of Wilhelm Reich and his countercultural sympathisers. The first German Reichian of the 1960s was Monika Seifert, daughter of the Mitscherlichs and later leader of the Kinderladen (antiauthoritarian nurseries) movement. Meanwhile, Jackie Curtis talks about bumping into a guy he had gay sex with previously. He’s no longer interested now that Jackie is a woman – “Shaved her legs and then he was a she”, Lou Reed waxed lyrically about her transformation. “But I’m still the same person”.

W.R. – Misterije Organizma (W.R. – Mysteries of the Organism), Dušan Makavejev, Forum 1971

Dušan Makavejev juxtaposes this striking sashay across the wild and queer side of the so-called counterculture with completely different scenes of sexual upheaval in W. R. – MISTERIJE ORGANIZMA (W.R. – Mysteries of the Organism), his classic work on the relationship between sex and revolution. He visits the office of “Screw”, a sex weekly published at that time by Al Goldstein and Jim Buckley. Similarly to its German counterpart, the “St. Pauli-Nachrichten”, Screw reported on sexual topics, printed hardcore porn, ran reviews and fought with libertarian pathos for the legalisation and liberation of everything – without wasting a thought on the patriarchal or capitalist basis of this liberation. Goldstein, who later published the magazine “Death” (darling of the 1980s No Wave scene and subject of a Rosa von Praunheim documentary) and once claimed he would pay one million for Ayatollah Khomeini to be assassinated, also fits perfectly as a shady-yet-smart character in David Simon’s last HBO series The Deuce, which deals with the shift in the sex industry from street prostitution to pornos, peep shows and performance formats around Times Square in the late 60s and early 70s. In Simon’s depiction too, such masculine-libertarian porn prophets meet queer counterculture, feminist politics and social work. One woman, a former sex worker, even starts making pornographic experimental films. How much counterculture is there in Deep Throat; how much Wilhelm Reich and Alexandra Kollontai in the peep-show dispositives of the porn industry? Or, to put it another way: is counterculture discredited by its complicity in the pornification of the world?

These are questions that can be asked of Makavejev’s brilliant essay/documentary/grotesque fiction hybrid, which was shown in the Forum programme in 1971. The concept of counterculture of that era – from the late 1960s to the early 1970s – was initially applied to the public domain first and foremost: new and different – that is, non-capitalist – publication formats; other public formats such as festivals, demonstrations, gatherings, be-ins and so on; other gastronomies, living situations, architectures, etc. Only later did the category acquire another meaning in retrospect – a decontextualized, content-related one that was sometimes even normative. The concept was hotly contested in debates that initially focused on the eternal moral question of the “selling out” of countercultural values to the entertainment and music industry. Later on, it was asserted – for example, by Thomas Frank – that countercultures had paved the way for neoliberal individualism and were unwillingly (or perhaps even willingly) responsible for dismantling solidarity, outsourcing and gentrification, and that a direct path can ultimately be traced from the hippie communes, the hackerdom they gave rise to and their economically libertarian protagonists, all the way to the garages of Silicon Valley’s tech founders.

W.R. – Misterije Organizma (W.R. – Mysteries of the Organism), Dušan Makavejev, Forum 1971

Aside from such generalisations, interested pessimisms and critiques thereof, a counterargument has arisen as of late, for instance by way of the term “acid communism” coined by the late British cultural critic Mark Fischer, who defended precisely the interrelationship between the alternative lifestyles of the old counterculture and arch-communist values. One component of the old counterculture complex that received relatively little attention in all these debates has, however, a quite uniformly negative reputation: the so-called sexual revolution. The charge that the expunging of sexual oppression from the countercultural struggle directly laid the groundwork for the commodification of sexuality and thus for the modern porn industry that emerged at the same time as the countercultures is still comparatively harmless in this context. What weighs much more heavily is the fact that this supposed revolution was not so much a revolution as a purely cis male, heterosexist affirmation of patriarchal conditions, perhaps even an intensification of them. At the very least, this aspect far outweighed every other: from the pin-up girls in leftist magazines such as “konkret” and “Spontan” to the feudal-era ius primae noctis sexual access to minors, a right that commune leaders like Otto Mühl reserved for themselves in complete seriousness.

The film has much to contribute to these questions. First of all, its title acknowledges a cornerstone of countercultural sexual politics that links directly to a buried communist line of sexual liberation in turn. W.R. stands for Wilhelm Reich, the Austrian communist and psychoanalyst and subject of much fascination, who became famous for his assertion that there is a sexual-political causality between prudishness and an aversion to sensuousness and fascist personalities. Makavejev takes the same idea much further. The director did not get to know Reich over the course of his general rediscovery and idealisation during the counterculture years, but rather back in 1950, when Reich was already interested in the sexual-political currents of early communism and left-wing psychoanalysis buried by Stalinism – from Alexandra Kollontai to Otto Fenichel. This was before the controversy that Reich would eventually attract, excommunicated by critical theory and Freudians alike, evolving from a communist to a sexual esoteric and mystical follower of biological energies during his years of exile in Scandinavia and the USA.

Makavejev’s film teases out different aspects of Reich’s complex legacy – the communist utopia of freedom, energy esotericism, point of reference for counterculture and Yugoslavian anti-Stalinism – in three interconnected strands. The first is a search for the traces of Reich’s activities in Pennsylvania that works with vast landscapes and wide shots of agriculture, unfolding more than ten years after his death (in an American jail, imprisoned due to a copyright dispute), with Reich also being given the name World Revolution in an alternate interpretation of his initials at one point in the film. Thereafter follows a semi-documentary wander through the alternative sexual culture of New York in 1970 that is augmented with street theatre, and then finally a grotesque fiction in which Yugoslavian female sex liberation activists practice free love, preach to proletarians in social housing complexes and finally go head to head on every level with a Soviet figure skater who goes by the name of Vladimir Ilyich.

W.R. – Misterije Organizma (W.R. – Mysteries of the Organism), Dušan Makavejev, Forum 1971

The sexual projects of the counterculture are thus framed between two different forms of the grotesque, though neither of them are narrated without hope. The country folk of Pennsylvania have fond memories of the eccentric doctor and mystic who lived in their midst. Companions, Reich’s widow and biographer Myron Sharaf are all equally enthusiastic, even when old footage bears witness to Reich calling for the election of Eisenhower and denouncing communism. Even the way in which the sexual history of communism, including clips of Stalin in propaganda films, is transposed to the tricky love affair between a Yugoslavian revolutionary and a Leninist ice dancer has reconciliatory components. It’s more the New York counterculture whose actions mostly seem fusty and absurd, even if they do occasionally come across as charming too. Tuli Kupferberg, poet, performer and co-founder of beatnik-rock cabaret The Fugs, gets dressed up as a soldier or armed street theatre performer and stomps around the neighbourhood while “Kill For Peace”, one of his band’s hits, plays. “Screw” editor Jim Buckley has his erect member cast in plaster by one of the female activists of the para-groupie Plaster Caster Foundation (an organisation that normally restricted itself to creating casts of rock star penises). To the viewer of today, this somehow seems further away than Wilhelm Reich and the sexual contradictions of socialism.

In combining the socialist sexual-political century with counterculture, Times Square and the dismantling of the Austrian psychoanalyst’s less orthodox interpretations of psychoanalysis on American farms, Makavejev succeeds in achieving an equilibrium between an almost melancholy, yet still spirited admiration for the waning sexual-revolutionary and Freudian-Marxist strands of socialism on the one hand and a sarcastic snicker at its grotesque concept fetishisms, behavioural models and esoteric dead ends on the other. The exemplary sublimation of figure skating, Eastern Europe’s discipline par excellence, forges links to the camp moments in the USA, such as when Jackie Curtis prays to the Madonna. It was only the potentially reactionary dimension of the American libertarians, who do in fact overlap in many ways with today’s new right, that Makavejev could not see, although it is there on screen regardless – for the images from New York seem nearly as fictional and dated as the Leninist Ice Prince. The Yugoslavian joke on the subject of dick sizes, on the other hand – “Don’t trust the media” – has something timeless about it. What’s more, this datedness is itself at once theme and method here, whereby today’s viewers feel just as trapped between different strata and sediments as did their contemporaries in 1971, despite the short appearances of the queer New York of the 1960s. Even its revival a few years back is already a long time ago now.

Diedrich Diederichsen writes essays on music, cinema, theatre, art and politics. He is a professor of the theory, practice and communication of contemporary art at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and publishes regularly in periodicals and newspapers.