Writer Olivia Laing explores the power and vulnerability of bodies

Writer Olivia Laing links the ideas of artists, thinkers, and political activists who made bodily autonomy and liberation their work in her book, Everybody. From renegade psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, to musician Nina Simone and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin.

Her book Everybody reflects on the 20th-century struggles affecting our 21st-century identities

Olivia Laing’s book-length meditation on the free body combines 20th century history, with memoir and cultural criticism. Above: dancers from Margaret Morris Movement, 1935. (Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

*Originally published on September 23, 2021.

Olivia Laing began her meditation on the body and freedom some five years ago. 

"I started writing this book during the Trump years when it felt again as if the struggle for freedom had been lost, as if all of the victories that I'd seen in my lifetime were being rolled back."

From racial violence, to debates over LGBTQ issues and women's rights, she noticed physical liberty has been at the centre of many recent issues.

But Laing could not have anticipated that Everybody: A Book About Freedom would then be published at a moment of widespread bodily crisis: during a global pandemic.

It could all be considered evidence in support of the U.K. writer and critic's view of the body as "cataclysmically vulnerable...unreliably subject to pleasure and pain."

Reich and the body

In considering our views of the free body today, Olivia Laing finds useful insights in the ideas of a number of 20th century figures.

Chief among them is Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957). The Austrian psychoanalyst trained with Freud, before emigrating to America to escape fascism. 

Laing sees Reich is a complicated yet still fascinating thinker. 

He died in jail, after authorities targeted him as a pseudoscientific inventor. He experienced much trauma himself, and eventually lost his way, mentally. 

Yet Reich's early work and ideas resonate personally and intellectually for Laing. 

Olivia Laing says when writing her book, Everybody, she wanted to travel through 20th century movements and pivotal figures 'to see what kind of path the struggle for freedom takes.' (Suki Dhanda/W. W. Norton )

Beyond talk therapy, Reich saw that physical touch could be useful for patients troubled by familial, social, or political tensions. 

He used massage in a therapeutic setting, to release the "armour" around people. He advocated the healing potential of consensual sexuality in his patients' personal lives.

Despite personal flaws and professional missteps, Laing sees Wilhelm Reich as an "altruistic figure" who wanted people to experience love and freedom.

He recognized the body "as the sort of extraordinary site of both vulnerability, but also power," Laing told IDEAS.

Civil rights and the free body

That same sense of vulnerability and power is acutely evident in the liberation struggles of the 1960s and beyond, according to Laing.

She mentions lesser-known civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), who "worked with Martin Luther King (and) was involved with the Freedom Rides in the South."

Already subject to racial discrimination, control, and violence in his society, Rustin joined others in literally putting his body on the line to fight for freedom.

In this 1964 image, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin spoke to reporters during the Harlem Riots in Manhattan. 'He's an immensely inspiring figure who I think shifted the needle without people being aware that it was him who had shifted it,' Olivia Laing told IDEAS. (Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images )

Further, as a gay man, Rustin stayed in the backroom of the movement. Laing says he was "somebody who was experiencing intersectionality before the term had been coined."

Coincidentally, as a conscientious objector, Bayard Rustin was incarcerated in the same prison as Wilhelm Reich. 

"Unlike Reich, who was devastated by it, (Rustin) went in...with [an] appetite for changing it. Prisons were key in the struggle for desegregation, and that's the work that he got engaged in from the moment he arrived."

The unending road to freedom

Olivia Laing also looks to Rustin's contemporary, renowned Black musician and activist Nina Simone (1933-2003).

Brilliant and furious, Simone's performances confronted white audiences with lyrics about the racism and violence of their society.

Simone reached her emotional limit when Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in 1968.

"That generation of civil rights activists and the kind of attritions and abuses and assassinations that they faced is appalling," said Laing.

'I tell you what freedom means to me. No fear. I mean, really no fear, if I could have that half of my life, no fear...' — musician Nina Simone (Getty Images )

She found herself asking: "Do these moments mean that the struggle for freedom has been lost?' 

In Laing's view, even such devastating lows do not put a stop to activism: the work continues with those who have more energy. She points to recent Black Lives Matter protests, where people masked up and marched despite the pandemic.

"It's very interesting to have written this book about a dream of bodily power at a moment when the world is so much disembodied." 

Olivia Laing is the author of Everybody: A Book About Freedom. Based in Suffolk, England, she has written other nonfiction books including Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone and Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, as well as the award-winning novel, Crudo.

*This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

This episode is part of our series called Body Language — exploring what our bodies express and repress, both literally and symbolically. Find more Body Language episodes here

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