the impulsive character

Carlos Zilio, 1970_statue_of_liberty_47x32,5


Commentary on Wilhelm Reich's First Book

Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) is usually remembered as a hero of the counterculture of the 1960s, creator of Freudo-Marxism and inspirer of numerous bodyistic psychotherapeutic trends (bioenergetics, vegetotherapy, orgone therapy). However, his formative trajectory is closely linked with psychoanalysis. Since 1920, Reich participated in the meetings of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, working at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Clinic since its inauguration in 1922. He graduated from the Berlin Polyclinic in 1930. That is, Reich underwent the best in psychoanalytic training in the decade from 1920.

Unlike other dissidents, whose participation in psychoanalytic circles was sporadic or peripheral, he experienced what was most innovative and creative about Freud. Regardless of the merit of his latest theoretical developments, Reich is something of a living objection to the criticisms usually leveled against psychoanalysis. A member of the Communist Party, an admirer of the Russian Revolution, he never failed to consider the clinic in the context of power and its subversion. He trained as a psychoanalyst assisting people in situations of social exclusion at the Psychoanalytic Clinic in Vienna. the impulsive character, his first book, published in 1925, is based on material extracted from this experience.

What we see there is his impressive clinical sagacity as a psychoanalyst. Stern's text (1938) is generally considered to be the first article to address the personalities borderline, however, this is just one more indication of Reich's historical erasure in the history of the psychoanalytic movement. It is Reich, and not Stern, who gives us the first description of this, which was the most exhaustively studied clinical type, in the 1980s, by the different psychoanalytic traditions.

symptom and character

The starting point for the study is the opposition between symptom and character. Unlike the symptom, character is something we rarely complain about. It's the others, the close ones, who are usually disturbed by someone's character. The impulsive character never appears without some symptomatic complement: phobias, compulsive rituals, hysterical amnesias. Character is a kind of repetition that accompanies a life: being systematically betrayed by the one you protect, having love experiences that go through the same phases and reach the same end, “a perpetual recurrence of the same thing”.

It is in this context that Reich proposes to distinguish the “impulsive personality”. His presentation is close to the best contemporary clinical descriptions on the subject. He examines a subjectivity divided between a schizoid functioning, without hallucination, but with intense dissociations of the experiences of affection, pleasure and corporeity, alongside a narcissistic functioning, without a stable ideal formation, but with a kind of “isolated superego”. Anticipating Freud's latest developments on the mechanism of disavowal (Verleugnung), Reich describes subjects who resolve the double antinomy between desire and interdiction, and between the self and the other, through a single impulsive act.

Unlike compulsion, which is always felt as an intrusive obligation to act, impulse is ardently defended by the self as an instantaneous expression of its will. See here the importance and topicality of the theme: crimes and violent acts of an impulsive nature, the impulsiveness attributed to drug users, the attention and hyperactivity disorders that worry educators. Paradox of an age that seems to praise the impulse (the moment of happiness, the genuine act), to the same extent that it marks it with the sign of the pathological.

dad's eclipse

Two series of problems must converge in the formation of the impulsive character, namely the "isolated superego" and the "problematic sexual identification". As for the formation of the isolated superego, a kind of “eclipse of the father” or of the ways of presenting authority is verified: “it is not the same thing if a social revolutionary 'revolutionizes' only because of a reaction against his father, or if he acts from a revolutionary fatherly image, unrelated to the attitudes of his own father” or, “the bourgeois ideal of the economical, clean, submissive and calm housewife also demands that the woman keep the children quiet”. In both cases Reich questions the father figure as a necessary unifier of positions of authority. The superego isolates itself from the ego ideal, and consequently from the ego itself, when it has to obey contradictory interpellations.

In simple neurosis, the contradiction expressed by authority is resolved through the alternating repression of the motions of love and hate or of respect and non-submission, leaving in its place the residual phenomenon of ambivalence (coexistence of love and hate for the same person). In the case of the impulsive character the contradiction is transformed into two independent injunctions which are then followed by means of the impulse. Hence, the separation between social feelings (guilt, shame, disgust and anguish) is replaced by the diffuse but unified sensation of displeasure. Here Reich seems to theorize an important inversion in the status of the superego, an inversion also pointed out by Lacan years later. If Freud's expression – in line with the social paradigm of production – associated the superego with interdiction, Reich will accentuate the prescriptive or “impulsive” dimension of the superego, in line with the social paradigm of consumption.


The second formative aspect of the impulsive character is problematic sexual identification. Reich starts from a clinical regularity verified in the sexual practice of these patients. It is the combined use of pleasure as a means of punishment and sexuality as a defense against pleasure. This masochistic-type functioning is associated with experiences of sexual, social and intimate space abuse.

The situations of terrible mistreatment suffered by his patients led him to theorize about the deleterious effect of frustration. Far from massively attributing an etiological reason to such an experience, such as the tendency of contemporary victimology, he perceives that the biggest problem resides in the inconstancy and oscillation of attitudes in the initial identification bonds. Thus fixation and projection combine in the typical enactment of fantasies of patients with an impulsive character.

Wilhelm Reich discusses the case of patients who attack themselves, who masturbate with the handle of a knife, patients who are constantly “asking” to be expelled, excluded and rejected (from institutions, relationships and treatments), who live openly and continuously bizarre thoughts, patients who hurt themselves physically and morally (as an impulsive form of relief and satisfaction), as well as creating recurrent situations of danger, challenge and insubordination.

What Reich calls problematic sexual identification, and its parallel degradation of self-esteem, was widely theorized by succeeding psychoanalysis, but not always with the same astuteness. Identification with the aggressor (Ferenczi), heroic (Lagache), or projective (Klein) do not always describe with the same clarity this kind of metamorphosis between pleasure, dependence and fetish that Reich narrates.

*Christian Dunker He is a professor at the Institute of Psychology at USP. Author, among other books, of pathological coastlines (Nverses).

Originally published on Journal of Reviewsin August 2009.


Wilhelm Reich. the impulsive character. Translation: Maya Hantower. São Paulo, WMF MARTINS FONTES, 120 pages.


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