Core Concepts Series: VIII. The Basic Antithesis of Vegetative Life

The two psychic currents described by psychoanalysis, namely the object-libidinal and narcissistic currents, are manifested materially as flows of bodily fluid toward or away from the periphery of the organism respectively. This concept is best encapsulated by Weber’s (א) conclusion as summarized by Reich: “sensations of Unlust [unpleasure] go with a centripetal flow of blood, while sensations of pleasure go with a centrifugal flow of blood” (1).

During an object-libidinal expression, we may observe any the following phenomena: increased salivation; skin turning pink or light red; genital turgescence, electric charging and secretion; subjective feelings of expansiveness and attraction; streaming and melting sensations; tendency of the body to assume an elongated form; and movement toward “desired” objects. The physiological components suggest hydration of the peripheral tissues.

During a narcissistic withdrawal, we may observe the following: dry mouth; pallor; genital detumescence and electric neutrality; vaginal drying; subjective feelings of collapsing or withdrawing; fear or sadness; a tendency of the body to assume a “fetal position;” and anxiety (2). Also, there may be a movement away from a noxious stimulus or, in the case of a drive’s renunciation, a movement away from the “desired” object. The physiological phenomena accompanying narcissistic withdrawal conversely suggest the flow of fluid away from the periphery. This can be experimentally confirmed. For instance, God furnished a large slug for my research the other day, compelling him to crawl by my doorstep. I found that whichever part of his periphery I tickled with a leaf retracted inwardly towards his longitudinal plane. The narcissistic psychic current was directly observable as a material current of body fluid and tissue.

These two functions are associated with the two wings of the autonomic or vegetative nervous system, as it was formerly referred to. In general, the object-libidinal expression coincides with the excitation of the parasympathetic nervous system while the narcissistic retraction coincides with the excitation of the sympathetic nervous system. The former is characterized by a the relaxation of cardiac muscle, dilation of the peripheral blood vessels and glandular secretion. The latter is characterized by cardiac and, in general, peripheral blood vessel constriction (3). Like the two psychic currents, the two autonomic nervous systems are known to inhibit each other in general. The location of autonomic neural activity, which is electric, also suggests an antithesis between center and periphery. The sympathetic ganglia are located near the spinal chord while the parasympathetic ganglia are very close to the organs they innervate. Thus in the object-libidinal expression, the nervous excitation is closer to the periphery of the organism – where the fluid has accumulated. In the narcissistic retraction, the more central ganglia experience the excitation while the fluid also is forced inward by peripheral vascular constriction. Two distinct modes of being corresponding to the two psychic currents are also exhibited by lower organisms without nervous tissue.

We do not at all wish to imply that we have a complete picture of the relationship between the libidinal currents and the material soma. There are many unsolved mysteries and unreconciled contradictions. What is the role of chronic skeletal muscle contraction in the inhibition of an object-libidinal pulsion? To what extent does libidinal energy correspond with the energies with which physics is concerned and is it necessary to posit a distinct orgone energy? What is the role of the central nervous system? Also, we must also be cognizant of exceptions to the generalizations made about autonomic function, like the fact that sympathetic fibers induce dilatation of the bronchial tubes and of the blood vessels that supply the skeletal muscles (4).

Thus the antithesis between object libido and narcissistic libido, toward or away from the world, is recapitulated by two diametrically opposed currents of fluid in the body. From an analytic standpoint, this means that in order to resist the object-libidinal impulse of the so-called id, the so-called ego must act physically. Reich discovered that the primary mechanism for this is a chronic, unconscious contraction of skeletal muscle, this requiring inputs by the “voluntary” or, as it used to be called, “animal” nervous system. When it comes to resolving neuroses with analysis, the functions of the two psychic currents and their corresponding fluid flows can best be conceptualized as an antithesis between sexuality and anxiety.

(א) This probably refers to Ernst Heinrich Weber, 19th century physiologist who wrote on the hydrodynamics of bodily fluid.

(1) Reich, Wilhelm – Character Analysis – Chapter XII: Some Observations On the Basic Conflict Between Need and Outer World pg. 271

(2) Reich, Wilhelm – The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety – 2. Sexuality and Anxiety: The Basic Antithesis of Vegetative Life –pg. 29-48

(3) Widmaier, Raff & Strang – Vander, Sherman, & Luciano’s Human Physiology: The Mechanisms of Body Function – Chapter 12 – Cardiovascular Physiology – Section C: The Vascular System – Arterioles – Extrinsic Controls – Sympathetic Nerves pg. 408

(4) Wikipedia – Sympathetic Nervous System – Function

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Core Concepts Series: VII. Object Libido and Narcissistic Libido

Libido is invested in two opposing directions: toward the world and away from the world. The energy that inspires an impulse concerned with contacting the external world is called object libido. Before gratification, such impulses coincide with a subjective feeling of tension. Union with the “desired” object relieves tension, as plainly evidenced by the relaxation which occurs when striving is ceased. In psychoanalysis, this is called catharsis and is said to coincide with a return of the libido to the “narcissistic reservoir.” When the libido is withdrawn from the external interest or doesn’t come out in the first place, it is called narcissistic libido (1). Note that this concept describes a phenomenon much more general and fundamental than the tangentially related phenomenon called narcissism by modern psychology. A narcissistic retraction is not always cathartic or satisfying. Often they result from frustration and do nothing to relieve the tension arising from the inability to reach the drive’s original goal. The only tension relieved by this retraction is usually that which signifies overpowering fear. In Character Analysis, Wilhelm Reich calls narcissistic withdrawals of libido flights of the “energy cathexis” toward the center (interior) of the organism (2).

An antithesis is formed by these two functions: towards (object libido) and away from (narcissistic libido) the world. Hunger and sexuality are object-libidinal, to wit, orientated toward the world. Both of these relieve inner tension. When the organism reaches out into the world to make contact with an object, and this endeavor is successful, unsuccessful or results in injury or a perception of danger, the energy is narcissistically withdrawn. To use a classical example, the genital attraction of a boy in the oedipal situation to his mother is an object-libidinal pulsion consisting of a quantity of moving energy and a corresponding expression: that energy’s animation of the body. If the consequence of this expression is the mother becoming enraged, the libido is narcissistically withdrawn for the purpose of self-preservation. This is evidenced by the fact that here, the body (whose movement requires energy) is not animated in outward expression. We will talk about how this is accomplished biophysically and what must be done with this energy in future installments. Similarly, when a squirrel endeavors to cross a street but sees an oncoming car, he must prevent his body from accomplishing the drive’s original goal through narcissistic retraction.

Although these two functions are in one sense antithetical, it is important to remember that they stem from a common substance, general biological energy. They only differ in flow direction and direction of investment. In orgonomy, such a relationship is called an antithetical functional identity; two seemingly opposing functions share a common identity. Investigation from the sex-economic standpoint reveals that we are dealing with definite, conserved quantities of libido. Further these can be divided and set against each other in order to create ever more complicated inhibitions. In such cases, object-oriented and narcissistic energies exert libidinal pressures on each other, leading to ambivalence and many other strange behavioral phenomena (3).

Finally, the oscillation of libidinal investment between these poles is identical to the orgastic function. The first half of the function, characterized by tension and charge, is in its purest form an object-libidinal endeavor. The end phase, characterized by discharge and relaxation, is a narcissistic retraction. In the coming articles, we will use this formulation to show that object libido and narcissistic libido compel the organism to make objective physical movements. We will also describe the relationship these energies have to sexuality, anxiety and the function of the autonomic nervous system.

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(1) Reich, Wilhelm – The Bioelectric Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety – 2. Sexuality and Anxiety: The Basic Antithesis of Vegetative Life pg. 36

(2) Reich – Character Analysis – Chapter XII – Some Observations on the Basic Conflict Between Need and Outer World pg. 276

(3) Reich – Character Analysis – Chapter XIII – Psychic Contact and Vegetative Current – The Change Of Function of the Impulse pg. 296-308