Saturday, 9 July 2011

Frantz Fanon: A Spiritual Biography

by Patrick Ehlen, 2001

This brief, informative biography of the West Indian philosopher, psychiatrist, writer and Third World revolutionary explores Fanon's widespread influence on human and civil rights leaders on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1950s and `60s. Using Fanon's own writings, interviews granted by his family, and secondary sources, psychologist and poet Ehlen, a professor at the New School, paints a complete portrait of a thinker and activist driven by a deep political and philosophical commitment to freedom from colonial oppression and fascism, who was profoundly shaped by his cloistered middle-class upbringing in the French colony of Martinique and his service in WWII, for which he was awarded the coveted Croix de Guerre. As a psychiatrist, Fanon (1925-1961) became intensely interested in Marxist thought and the political plight of the oppressed in Africa and America, ultimately writing three seminal guides for those seeking social change (Black Skins, White Masks [1952], A Dying Colonialism [1959] and The Wretched of the Earth [1968]), which won him prominent friends and supporters like Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir and Richard Wright.

Writing with sincerity, intelligence and restraint, Ehlen is careful not to depict Fanon as a sainted figure, revealing a complex man, alternately generous and charming or arrogant, exacting, volatile and brilliant to the point of annoyance. His descriptions of Fanon's courageous determination to work and write in the final days of his battle with cancer are especially poignant. Ehlen's book is a credible complement to two other well-known commentaries on the man's life: David Caute's 1970 biography, Fanon, and Irene Gendzier's 1973 work, Frantz Fanon: A Critical Study, both of which are out of print.

Patrick Ehlen resurrects the tremendous personality of Fanon and presents his remarkable life with the skill of a fine novelist. The book opens on the small French Caribbean colony of Martinique at the turn of the century, and recounts the trials of an ordinary family in extraordinary times, subtly fusing the social, economic, and psychological elements that fed young Frantz Fanon's intellect and passion. Scant details of Fanon's childhood have ever been published, and interviews with family members help to provide this book with a rich and unprecedented account of the development of Fanon's powerful personality. Fanon's early years illuminate the uncommon life that follows, revealing how a single man matures into a decorated hero of war, a revolutionary pioneer in psychiatry, a radical theorist in philosophy, and a passionate revolutionary in one of the bloodiest anticolonial struggles of modern times, the Algerian war of independence. Supported and understood by few save his family, a few life-long friends, and Simon de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Fanon aims for the impossible and achieves the improbable.
Frantz Fanon is the story of a family, the story of an island, and the story of love, disappointment and loss and offers a lucid view of Fanon's theories through the narrative of his life