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Olivia Laing
Olivia LaingPhotography Sophie Davidson

Olivia Laing on the problems of inhabiting a body

We speak to the writer about her new book and navigating a world in which some bodies are deemed more valuable than others

“We're all stuck in our bodies, meaning stuck inside a grid of conflicting ideas about what those bodies mean, what they're capable of, and what they're allowed or forbidden to do,” writes Olivia Laing in a passage that illustrates the vast undertaking of her new book. Having examined the condition of loneliness and its relationship with art in her seminal book The Lonely City, Laing has now turned her attention to another profound human affliction. Five years in the making, her new book, Everybody, tackles the vast complexity and precarity of inhabiting a body in a culture where certain bodies are deemed more valuable than others. 

Our bodies define our lives in ways beyond our control, exposing us to a range of privileges and prejudices as we navigate a shifting matrix of ideas and perceptions. Our body is the prism through which we experience our entire existence, but it’s a fragile shell – prone to illness and, ultimately, destined to expire. 

It may sound bleak, but there is hope. “I do manage to get to a happy ending,” Laing reassures us. Everybody is an enthralling exploration of what it means to occupy a body, as told through Laing’s own experiences as a herbalist, and drawing on the lives and work of individuals who have sought to reckon with this very problem. “It’s what it’s like to live inside this vehicle that is mortal and that is porous in really dramatic ways.” 

The book hangs primarily on the story of Wilhelm Reich, the psychoanalyst, sexual liberationist, and former student of Freud. This fascinating figure (who inspired Kate Bush’s song “Cloudbusting”) is remembered primarily as the orgasm-obsessed inventor of the Orgone Accumulator – a machine he believed could harness cosmic energy. Laing follows the thread of Reich’s remarkable life from his harrowing childhood, his pioneering work promoting women’s sexual freedom, to fleeing Nazi Germany dressed as a tourist on a skiing holiday, and his eventual dramatic decline into paranoia, disrepute, and incarceration in the US. 

Laing also presents us with the ideas of various figures whose work speaks of the human body. We encounter radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, writer and philosopher Susan Sontag, writer Kathy Acker, Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta, Nina Simone, Malcolm X, and many more individuals who offer revelatory but sometimes contradictory ideas about this existential state. “The cast that I picked for this book are all problematic characters,” she tells Dazed. “In a pre-cancel culture world, they were cancelled. They all had aspects that are really difficult or problematic.”

Below, we talk to Olivia Laing about problematic desire, the legacy of people who have struggled for freedom, and the “bodily magic” we’re missing out on due to COVID-19. 

It’s quite a big place to start, but how can we reckon with the problem of existing inside a body? 

Olivia Laing: Well, that's the question that made me write the book. I feel like that question has always been quite live to me. The body is the site of so many different experiences. Sometimes we’re happily and delightful embodied and other times, it feels like we're sort of stuck in this prison. And the body has needs, and those needs can be turned against us. The body is a site of violence and, often, it’s a site of violence because of bodily markers that are completely inescapable. Gender, sexuality, race: all of those things can make our bodies a site of violence and they aren't anything to do with who we are as a person, they’re just to do with the kind of body we have. 

Our bodies get sick, as we have all very dramatically seen over the last year. Illness is another sometimes inescapable attack on the body. But at the same time, the body is our only route to pleasure; it’s one of our main routes to connection. It’s really interesting to have had this year of COVID-19 isolation where I think everybody has seen how important physical encounter is to us; how important it is to physically be in a space with somebody else; how different this conversation would be, for instance, if we were sitting in the same room. 

You know, it’s great to talk across the screen, it’s kind of miraculous. But at the same time, something happens when two people, or ten people, or 1,000 people are in a space together. And that’s the kind of bodily magic that we’re really recognising because we’ve had to do without it for so long. 

“The struggle for freedom and liberation isn’t something that is won in perpetuity. It's an ongoing battle and people contribute to it. The people in the book are some of the people who have contributed to it. But there are also forces constantly pushing back” – Olivia Laing

I suppose we were really encountering how precarious things really are. Our bodies are the prism through which we experience everything and, actually, they’re quite flimsy vehicles. 

Olivia Laing: And we’re obsessed with really superficial aspects about our bodies. You know, when I said I was writing about bodies, people presumed it would be about what they look like, or weight, or appearance or, you know, grooming and fashion, and that isn’t the aspect of it I'm interested in at all. It’s much more internal. It’s what it’s like to live inside this vehicle that is mortal and that is porous in really dramatic ways. We try and pretend it's not; we try and pretend we're solid objects going through the world, but we are absolutely wide open to each other. 

And again, the experience of this virus has made that very clear that we are unprotected in lots of different ways. And people who believe that protected – people who maybe haven't had those revelations of precarity – have begun to see that they also are precarious, they also are vulnerable. 

What do you think are the most harmful myths and ideologies about bodies that are most dominant in our culture today?

Olivia Laing: That some types of bodies are better, more important, more valuable than other types of bodies. So, in short, white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. Those outdated ideas from the 18th and 19th century have come back with full force. And that kind of rhetoric is enacted upon people’s bodies all the time. All of these things – like Brexit, like the refugee crisis, like the rise of white supremacy in America, and the ongoing white supremacy of Britain and the legacy of colonial Britain – all those things feel like they’re getting more and more powerful and aggressive again, in a way that I find extremely frightening.

One of the things that have occurred to me when I’m reading Everybody is the way in which the individuals who advocate for a radical rethinking of these ideas do seem, over and over again, to get to a certain point in their work and then be destroyed or discredited. Do you think, ultimately, society cannot actually accommodate the changes we need to make? 

Olivia Laing: How far through the book are you? 

Full disclosure, I'm only three-quarters through.

Olivia Laing: I do manage to get to a happy ending but you're at the nadir of misery at that point!  

I started writing this book just before Trump came to power, and I was writing it out of a sense of despair but, also like, didn't we fight these battles already? Aren’t these battles done? Why are we fighting them again? And I think the conclusion I came to is that the struggle for freedom and liberation isn’t something that is won in perpetuity. It's an ongoing battle and people contribute to it. The people in the book are some of the people who have contributed to it. But there are also forces constantly pushing back. And I think if you have this idea that it will be won, then it's secured, then you are going to be full of despair, and you're going to lose all hope when you see the reality. 

Yes, that’s where I am now. Why do you think that’s our default state do you think? Why is being liberated not our default state? 

Olivia Laing: That is a really good question. I mean, people want to have power over other people. Not everybody wants a blissful utopia of free and equal bodies. You see this in the pandemic – disaster capitalism and people who've profited from something like this; the fact that we have vaccines for single countries rather than trying to carry out a global vaccination program. 

Some people want to have dominance, and other people want to have a different kind of society. And I think that's what Freud’s talking about in Civilisation and Its Discontents when he says ‘man is wolf to man’. There is this aspect of us that is violent, that wants to rape, that wants to plunder. Reich’s theory about this is that that is a product of patriarchal capitalism and that human nature is pure. But I don’t think you really need to decide whether human nature is good or not. The reality is, this is what humanity is like right now. 

But! People who have struggled for freedom, their legacy lives on in the things they do. They light a flame for the rest of us to continue by and it’s the continuation of that which is important.

“I think purity culture always leads to people being cast out and rejected, and it’s not helpful” – Olivia Laing

What do you think about Foucault’s idea that creating safe spaces – places that function as a haven where certain behaviour is permissible – is problematic because those spaces could reinforce the idea that that behaviour is not permissible elsewhere. How do we get beyond these kinds of problems? 

Olivia Laing: That's really interesting. Foucault is a downer! I love him, but he can make you feel very bleak. I'm more pragmatic. I just think, you know, people need to have havens and safe spaces in order that they can relax away from a world that is antagonistic to them. At the same time, the larger program is to try and change that outside world, so hiving yourself off and being an exclusionary community, a community that's completely separate from the world, doesn't seem to me, personally, to be the most productive thing to do. But, you know, fine, if you want to do that. 

I think for me there’s a sense that it can be profitable to oscillate between the retreat of a like-minded community whilst making relationships with the rest of the world and with people who have ideas that are different. I do think that, at the moment, there’s a terror of anybody who thinks differently. And actually, those sort of problematic conversations are where everything happens. The idea that conversation can change people, that we can be enlarged by conversation with each other, that people have different experiences, seems so much more productive to me than the idea of total purity and only being with people who think like you. That isn't the world I want to live in. 

Cancel culture does seem potentially dangerous to me. It makes things very oppositional and binary. 

Olivia Laing: And made very binary by the media and by newspapers, like The Telegraph, and The Times that insist on this sort of culture war of woke versus old guard. They whip it up and turn it into a cartoon when, actually, I think it's much more nuanced, and many people are really thinking very hard about these difficult issues to do with bodies and power. 

I think your writing allows space for ambiguity and complexity. You present ideas that are sometimes contrary to one another and you allow the reader space to draw their own conclusions.

Olivia Laing: Yeah, I think that's really important. And also, whether consciously or not, the cast that I picked for this book are all problematic characters. In a pre-cancel culture world, they were cancelled. They all had aspects that are really difficult or problematic.

Reich is a sexual liberationist who is such a deep to-his-bones feminist yet, at the same time, he was violent to his wives. Andrea Dworkin is somebody whose writing I can find so liberatory and yet other parts of it, especially to do with porn and sex, make me feel claustrophobic and horrified. Magnus Hirschfeld, Nina Simone: again, very complicated. 

I really wanted to invite the reader to engage with people like that; to have a dialogue with them and perhaps think, ‘Well, there are ideas here that are really useful to me, and there are other ideas that I can reject.’ That feels like a more mature way of thinking about the world than, ‘This person has said one thing that’s crossed the line, therefore everything they’ve said is now rejected.’ I cannot live in that world. It’s like, ‘Gotcha, I found you out at your worst, and now you're dead to me as a thinker.’ 

How do we make a working culture or social world from that point? It’s purity culture. And, as an artist who is also politically engaged, I’m against that kind of purity. I don't want everyone to be the same, I want a world that allows people to be different. I think purity culture always leads to people being cast out and rejected, and it’s not helpful. 

“People who have struggled for freedom, their legacy lives on in the things they do. They light a flame for the rest of us to continue by and it’s the continuation of that which is important” – Olivia Laing

You mentioned Andrea Dworkin, and I’m interested in her ideas about desire and the way that aspects of female desire are a product of the way we’ve internalised misogyny. But her effort to police certain types of desire also seems deeply problematic. How do we negotiate that? 

Olivia Laing: I think, to start where you are seems to me like a really good principle. The idea that you need to start somewhere else, or that you need to have a sexuality that’s completely unaffected by growing up within patriarchy is impossible. So I think it’s finding ways to live with your own desires and with your own erotic life.

Because doesn’t sex often involve a kind of reciprocal exchange of power? And maybe BDSM could arguably be seen as a really literal manifestation of that? 

Olivia Laing: Absolutely. We're always navigating in a universe of power. Even if you were living in this fantasy post-patriarchal society, there is always going to be power because, as Freud explains, we began as infants with adults taking care of us. We all have an embodied relationship with being weak and with being strong. And if we follow Freud, that dynamic remains in our sexualities. And I think that is okay, and I think there are ways to explore it that still allow for consent and the reality of other people and their needs and desires. 

Have you read Detransition, Baby? There are some really fantastic, wide-ranging sexual experiences in that book. Mommy dom! Great. It feels like it's extending the conversation and enlarging sexual horizons, rather than feeling like, as Dworkin said, only this act or activity is allowed ideologically, or because of my politics I must have this kind of sex. That doesn't feel very healthy to me. 

You talk about sex as a means of being ‘tumbled into infinity’ and the potential pleasure in being reduced to a body – almost like oblivion of the self. I love that quote by Edward Sy Aubyn about entering ‘the darkness of the pre-verbal realm’.  

Olivia Laing: The terror of being reduced to a body against your will is one of the most profound elements of misogyny. But, at the same time, to have that experience volitionally is incredibly liberating and thrilling; to be able to inhabit our own bodies without the sort of conscious mind of language is a great relief, I think. So it's navigating these complex positions. So much of it is about whether you want to be there or whether somebody else wants you to be there, and how much power you feel you have in the situation, even if the situation we're entering into is one of powerlessness. 

Thinking about Wilhelm Reich, I get the sense that he wanted to create a kind of sunlit world where we all live in plain sight of one another and there are no shadowy corners. But I think one of the problematic components of desire is that it does thrive in conditions of mystery or secrecy.

Olivia Laing: I really agree with that. The longer I spent with Reich, I think it became more and more clear to me that he was somebody who was deeply traumatised as a child by the violence his father meted out on his mother, which led to her killing herself. She was punished for her sexuality, and she was destroyed for her sexuality. And I think so much of what's driving him is this sort of little-boy-desire for a world in which women can be free, be sexually active, have their own erotic life. 

At the same time, he's also haunted by the figure of this punitive, jealous father. And both of those aspects are alive in him all the time. That's human life, you know that those sorts of sides reside in all of us. Not necessarily that extreme, but we have parts that are in conflict or literally at war. And trying to smooth it out in ourselves feels to me, maybe unnecessary. Maybe we can enlarge around those aspects and look at that and engage with them, to defang the most dangerous elements.

“We're always navigating in a universe of power... As Freud explains, we began as infants with adults taking care of us. We all have an embodied relationship with being weak and with being strong” – Olivia Laing

He's a fascinating conduit to discuss so many of the ideas that you encounter in the book. In what ways do you think things in these realms have improved? And what ways do you think we have perhaps regressed?

Olivia Laing: I mean, abortion is a big improvement – having more of a right to abortion than at the time that Reich was working, I think is a huge thing. It’s not available in every country in the world and it’s constantly imperilled but, nonetheless, I think the right to abortion makes women’s sexual lives more possible. It was really sobering reading what he was talking about. He's always laughed at as ‘the orgasm guy’, but what he was actually saying was ‘thousands and thousands of women in Germany are dying of sepsis after illegal abortions and this is unacceptable, we cannot have this world where that's happening’. 

And the change in trans experience – I’m trans/non-binary, so this one is very personal to me – feels like in some ways it's really, really improved. It’s talked about so much more, people understand more about it. The younger generation, in particular, are very relaxed about it, and it’s possible for people to transition younger. But, at the same time, that has awakened a mob of what used to be called TERFS - trans-exclusionary radical feminists. Well, there's nothing radical about them, these middle-class women who want to police gender and insist upon a binary that they both regard as desperately essential and so fragile that it will be destroyed if one kid transitions or someone uses a different bathroom. Get over it already, stop policing other people’s bodies, especially people who are already so vulnerable. 

Gay rights too have definitely improved since Reich’s time, but there is always the threat of a backlash. This ongoing backlash is so frightening – the sense that you see the monstrous face, the monstrous voice of people who are horrified and disgusted by other people claiming their rights to exist, and want to shut those rights down as soon as possible. When I was still on Twitter, I spent an awful lot of time looking at what those people said, how they saw the world, and it was frightening and toxic. I don’t think that means that conversation is impossible, but I do think, sometimes, this is why you need the safe space to retreat into, where you don’t feel that you're constantly having to defend your right to exist unharmed as a body in the world.

Everybody by Olivia Laing is published by Picador and is available now