Thursday, 20 September 2012

Response to Alice Cherki's 'Frantz Fanon: A Portrait'

by Jocelyn Coldrey

Alice Cherki, a trained psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who worked under Fanon at both Bilda and in Tunis, was also an active comrade in the Algerian wage for independence, gives personal insight into fragments of Fanons life as well as the contemporary relevance his work and way of thinking (Cherki, 2006 and Martin, 2004: 165). The book gives a representation of Fanon as a person, exposing his temperament in a textual portrait. Cherki does not write a meticulous biography of Fanon’s life but rather draws to light certain experiences and ways of the world which enable the Fanonian reader to historically contextualize not only what he was exposed to at the time of his writing but also his mode of being in reality. She claims that it is “important to reconstruct the journey if one is to rein in the profusion of attributes that have been imputed to Fanon” (2006: 1). In harnessing her personal interaction with Fanon, and what she found out from other people, she places particular importance on the parallels between the way Fanon viewed psychiatric patients and colonized subjects.  Ultimately her portrayal of Fanon’s life remains true to his belief that “[o]ne must not relate one’s past but, but stand as a testimony to it” (2006: 1).

Fanon the Human Being:

In the preface Cherki writes that Fanon’s, persona has become “synonymous with decolonization and the Third Worldism” (2006: ix). My initial encounters with Fanon which have been very minimal, in comparison to the colossal amount of Fanonian literature available, have lead me to idealising him as an omnipotent literary hero who shared deep prophetical insight into the process of decolonization and the inequalities of the world. Needless to say, when embarking on this week’s reading I was curious to find out about Fanon the human being whom embodied the persona which lives on through interpretations of his writing. Cherki’s clear admiration for Fanon, made this a harder task than anticipated, as time after time it becomes increasingly evident that Fanon may have been human but an exceptional one who visibly had a “profound talent for life” and manage to do remarkable amounts on very little sleep (2006: 3 and 92). In a similar manner to my idealization of Fanon, Claudine Claudette compares Fanon to a classical hero, similar to Jesus or Aristotle. Nevertheless, Cherki is quick to disagree and asserts that he was “much too human , put too much effort into trying to identify with others, and most of all he could not bear being alone” (2006” 161).

Cherki makes it clear, more than once, that Fanon was not an open person, and seemed to only share what he found important. This could be the result of the fact that he had to grapple with the injunction of a public life, which could result in a casual conversation about his experiences having bigger political consequences than what  they deserved (2006: 101). On the other hand, and perhaps more plausibly,  Cherki claims that Fanon’s reluctance to talk about the past could be a result of the fact that he “lived in the immediacy of the moment, with an intensity that embodied everything he invoked” (2006: 1).

The manner in which Cherki affectionately talks about Fanon expressively personifies Fanon By saying things like, “I can only smile when I think how those two would have gotten on each other’s nerves” (2006: 149), or the fact that she never noticed that he was black because she was so absorbed “on the sparkle in his eyes, of a brown so clear as to seem transparent, on the expressiveness of his elegantly dressed person” (2006: 3).

Fanon’s exceptional faith in human kind made him more of an idealist than a realist, but the fact that he wrote about his own reality could suggest that notions of him being an idealist are in actuality his optimistic attitude towards a “prospect that is human” (Fanon, 1963: 205).  

Fanon, intrinsic faith in humankind resulted in him having very high expectations of people, and was disappointed when they did not achieve what he expected them to.  Cherki claims that Fanon “[i]dealized and demanding expectations for what a human should be”, which must have stemmed from the universal importance he placed on human dignity (2006: 117).  It could be said that Fanon’s excellence was often received with dismissal because of his skin colour ignited in his desire to see the human excellence in everyone, especially those who were dismissed. He believed that the process to decolonisation would only be successful if it included ordinary people. Which could be why he held his patients and those who worked under him accountable to what they were capable of. Cherki claimed that he was “demanding and relenting with those students who were less gifted or lazy” (2006: 80). In a similar manner Fanon’s attitude towards his patients Fanon “could be very demanding, often impatient and at times, even intrusive in his interactions with the mentally ill. He did, after all, prize their dignity as men and women above all else wanted to hold them to it” (2006: 23).
The emphasis in which Fanon places on action in his writing, makes it very plausible that the manner in which he practiced psychiatry would embody his political agendas. In a letter in which he wrote home to his parents whilst fighting he stated that “whenever human dignity and freedom are at stake… I will fight it to the end” (2006: 10). Furthermore, he was a diligent believer in the fact that every aspect of life is politicised and every single being carries their politics in their bodies (2006: 135).

Psychological unconscious trauma of being oppressed:

Fanon was obsessed with the connection between human beings
 and the bonds which could quash all difference (2006: 61).

The parallels between the way Fanon approached his psychiatric patients resonated “as a spring board for colonial theories” (2006:1). This was presumably always evident in Fanon’s way of being, but in Bilda-Joinville, known as HPB, it becomes very apparent that the way the which the chronically insane where institutionalized echoed the core of Algiers exclusionary. Fanon, claims he was shocked in the manner in which different racial groups did not integrate and it was not because judicial legislature but rather the practiced norm imbedded deep into the unconscious reality of the people (2006: 54). The severity of Algerian racism was intrinsically encrypted into the bodies of the people (2006: 54). Yet that shock seemed minimal compared to the manner in which the mentally ill where dehumanized and almost treated like prisoners in the manner they were restrained and secluded (2006: 62). Fanon’s ability to empathise and respond to any form of human suffering and the continuous paradoxes which he found in humanization seemingly aided him in understanding the complexities of a human being (2006: 23).

Fanon transformed HBP into a space where the mentally ill could recover through the process of negotiating and language (2006: 73).  He transformed the building into a space which did not incorporate one dominate ideology or religion, making it possible for people from all walks of life to feel a sense of belonging. Though he believed that difference could be quashed, he did discover that treating patients according their cultural particularity was essential (2006: 69). Similarly he asserted the necessity for cultural revival if oppression where ever to be entirely eradicated (2006:  88 and 144).

The similarities between Fanon’s attitude to the mentally ill and his political work are endless. He saw oppressed people as oppressed people and paved their way to recognition and human dignity in a similar way. Consequently Fanon’s text will live on in all instances of social exclusion and inclusion.

The longevity of Fanon’s Text:

A work belongs to its readers, and each new generation of readers is free to interpret Fanon’s work as it sees fit  (Cherki, 2006: x).

Critics on literature have long argued the longevity of literary work, in the manner in which text can become fully “intelligible in terms of its cultural politics, social location and politics” of that time (Clark, 396). This understanding enables a specific situation represented in the text to be universally recognised. Cheriki, on more than one instance, asserts that no one who reads Fanon remains indifferent (Cherki, 2006: 48). The manner in which Fanon “worked language and allowed it to work him”, succeeds in the provoking the reader in to some sort of emotion, no matter the circumstance. Fundamental to Fanons life and writing exist in in the fact that humans adapt to fit a social situation, the essentialising of humans and culture is repudiated because they will always transform in according to the particular epoch surrounding them.

Through his diligent militancy to an actional way of life, Fanon develops a language which  “arises out of a body in motion” (2006: 184). This seems to echo the bodily experience in which Fanon appropriates in his writing, the ‘lived experience of oppression’. Yet the process of writing distances itself away from the body and “[p]erhaps the only way we to overcome a traumatic severance of the body and mind is to come back to mind through body” (Hartman, 1995: 541).

Fanon wrote The Wretched of the Earth with his comrades in mind, he seemed to guess that what he had to say would enable the political struggles of the colonized to successfully decolonize (Cherki, 2006: 94). However, his insistence on Sartre writing the forward to his last book, suggests that if he was not around to defend his ideas, at least someone, who he agreed with, would be able to supervise the manner in which his book was to be received (Hartman, 1995: 548). In some ways this suggests Fanon’s awareness of the limitations of language. The incorporation of Sartre as a living being into his texts suggests an attempt to avoid the distortion which exists between the reader, text and author. Hartman (2006: 548) understands this distortion to be an “epistemological bias- which not only favours a progressive view of our knowledge, but sees the complex structure of our coming-to know as the clearing away of subjectivity”.

The human experience in which Fanon writes about continues to speak to the contemporary world despite ever changing epistemologies. This is likely because of Fanon’s understanding that the human subject and experience “cannot be methodized or reduced to an affirmative structure” (Hartman, 1995: 547). Though it is textually represented, it will continue to speak to the reader, with the aim of changing the reader or provoking the reader into action. Cherki asserts that as long as Fanon’s texts prompts the reader to “reflect and proceed, to act and think” anyone can relate without understanding the substance of his work (Cherki, 2006: 203)

Fanon repeatedly uses metaphors which beautifully embody his views enabling him to describe reality in manner whereby the images provoked remain judgement free and text speaks for itself (Cheriki, 2006: 77). Through the use of his metaphors he is able to “exhibit languages power to represent such intangible [motions such as decolonization]… through concrete images” (Attridge, 2004: 33). This is clear through the quote from The Wretched of the Earth which Cheriki (2006: 176) quotes at length:

If the building of the bridge does not enrich the awareness of the those who work on it, then  that bridge ought not to be  built and citizens  can on swimming across the river or going by boat. The boat should not be “parachuted down from above; it should not be imposed by a deus machine upon the social scene; on the contrary it should come from the muscles and brains of the citizens (TWOE, 160).

Fanon uses a metaphorical bridge and its construction in order to deploy the manner in which all people should be involved in the process of decolonization. Though there is no doubt that Fanon wished to promote action from his text I do not think they serve as a moral guidance, but rather depicts language’s power to evoke guilt, to crystallize ethical gaols, to convey the difficulty of choice” (Attridge, 2004: 22).

In his autobiographical paper “Africains Antillais”, Fanon grapples with the paradox of his existence, in the multiplicity of his identity by stating “I am and I am not there” (Cheriki, 2006: 77). To contextually interpret his statement to the permanence of his work, Fanon is here and not here every time we read and respond to his texts and way of thought.


Attridge, D., 2004, The Singularity of Literature, London: Routledge.
Cherki, A, 2006, Frantz Fanon: A Portrait, Translated by Nadia Benabid, from 1st edt, 2000, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Clark, T, “Singularity in Criticism” in the Cambridge Quarterly, 395-398.
Fanon, F., 1963, The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press: New York.
Hartman, G., 1995, “On Traumatic Knowledge and Literary Studies” in New Literary History, 26 (3): 537-563.
Martin, G., 2011, “Revisiting Fanon, From Theory to Practice: Democracy and Development in Africa” in The Journal of Pan African Studies, 4 (7): 24-38.