Olivia Laing’s Latest Subject Is Bodily Integrity

And of course there’s also Reich himself, yet another charismatic individual. Laing convincingly argues that he was more than just the sex-obsessed inventor of the orgone box, a kind of Faraday cage that promised health benefits. He was one of the first psychoanalysts to step out of his office and attend to the needs of working people. He “coined the terms ‘sexual politics’ and ‘the sexual revolution,’” and, Laing writes, “functioned as a connector, drawing together many different aspects of the body.” But can one flawed man truly unite such a broad swath of subjects? While Reich’s work is most relevant to discussions of illness and sexual repression, while his experiences in Vienna and with the F.D.A. shed some light on the power of the state over the masses, Reich simply isn’t speaking to everyone in these pages. In previous nonfiction Laing has used physical journeys (to the River Ouse, to sites frequented by alcoholic writers) to structure her wandering insights, creating a tangible through-line. By comparison, Reich’s life and work fail as connective tissue, and feel more like a poorly considered premise.

Without this connective tissue, much of Laing’s analysis relies on transitional phrases that quickly sum up the topic at hand in order to move along to the next. But with so many ends to tie, Laing oversimplifies, relying on tongue-in-cheek turns of phrase that are ill suited to the gravity of her subjects. Referring to the global refugee crisis and Black Lives Matter movement amid the rise of repressive, right-wing movements in 2016, Laing writes: “The old bad news of bodily difference was everywhere again.” Surely Laing would agree that it’s not really the difference itself that’s the “bad news.” Of Malcolm X’s intellectual awakening in a prison library, she writes: “Prison was where Malcolm X became free, but that didn’t mean he approved of it as an institution.” It’s hard to imagine inferring that Malcolm X approved of all prisons simply because of the reading material available inside of his! “Prison can’t improve the inmate,” Laing writes, introducing Rustin’s work to integrate the Ashland and Lewisburg prisons. “But perhaps the inmate can improve the prison.” As if that were his project.

Laing has simply taken on too much for these 300 pages — too many subjects, too little space or structure within which to consider them. It is particularly disappointing because she is usually so adept at drawing together the subtle vibrations of individual lives and making them hum. We’ve seen Laing make meaning not through argument but through affect, practicing what the theorist Eve Sedgwick termed “reparative reading.” Laing’s 2016 book, “The Lonely City,” is a shining example of this. In it she draws four New York artists into intimate conversation, and in turn offers the reader a fruitful, collective definition of solitude, as well as insights into how we might embrace and overcome it. When Laing does it well, it’s brilliant and invigorating, and we catch glimpses of that brilliance here in her writing on Sontag and Acker, on the Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta, Philip Guston and Reich himself. Her telling of Rustin’s fraught position within the civil rights movement — consistently sidelined for his sexuality, forced to operate “beneath the threshold of visibility” — is particularly moving. But I found myself increasingly frustrated with Laing’s failure to make these many lives cohere, and increasingly eager for her to step back and let her subjects speak for themselves.

Laing nearly does so in her final chapter, “22nd Century,” which begins with a luminous portrayal of Justin Vivian Bond and spends the majority of its pages charting the evolution of Nina Simone’s life and career alongside the civil rights movement. In a stirring anecdote, Laing describes archival footage of Simone, and her realization, captured on camera, that freedom means “No fear!” Fear, Laing makes clear, is all around us. It settles in like a “contaminating fog” when she listens to the song for which the chapter is named, and it sticks around when we consider our current state of affairs: “There is no republic of unencumbered bodies, free to migrate between states, unharried by any hierarchy of form. It’s impossible to know if it will ever be achieved.” And while Laing attempts to assemble the many voices she has marshaled, willing the chorus to sing a hopeful tune, she has so severed the bonds between them that their collective song fails to resonate. It’s as if they each sit, alone, in a room somewhere, waiting for the moment when we will all be free.

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