by Paddy O'Halloran
Biographers are set a difficult task in Frantz Fanon. Apart from recounting the narrative of the subject’s life and situating him or her within a history, a biographer—at least, a good one—will lend meaning to the subject’s life, or, better yet, will elucidate for the reader the meanings which the subject ascribed to his or her life by action and consequence. Gleaning the importance from Fanon’s life, a life which, despite its brevity, was brimming with meaning, proves a trying adventure.
David Macey’s ponderous volume on Fanon (2000) illustrates this difficulty well; either Macey is too shy, or Fanon too inscrutable, but whatever the case, through most of the book’s five hundred pages Fanon remains elusive—there and then gone in a forest of historical detail. Alice Cherki’s slim ‘portrait’ ( 2006), which is here the focus, does better, yet she frequently and apologetically reminds the reader of Fanon’s reticence about himself, what she calls his ‘extreme discretion’ in personal revelations (2006, 80). She goes so far as to say that he was ‘entirely incapable […] and would not have known how to begin talking about himself’ (2006, 6). Fanon, the man, even to someone who knew him personally, as Alice Cherki did, is obscured in a self-imposed mystery; the details of his life were, to him, ‘extraneous’ (Cherki, 2006, 1). For those who did know him, it was mainly in his day-to-day social and professional interactions, his past remaining, for the most part, behind him and undiscussed. Fanon, in this reserve, and by avoiding any moments of open self-mythologizing stymies the biographers in one of their favorite pastimes, scouring their subject’s life for early signs of and motivations for their later deeds; he is, for a biographer, the rare hero that resists oracular intervention.
Another reason that Fanon persistently evades his biographers is that his writings and ideas loomed so thunderously in the atmosphere of racism and revolution that obtained in the 1950s, and of decolonization in the 1960s. Nor are his ideas less tempestuous in retrospect. Biographers, Cherki included, spend much of their time on description and interpretation of Fanon’s political writing, and on the reception of his words by others, then and now. For example (among many available), Cherki writes several pages about his articles for El Moudjahid, and devotes an entire chapter to The Wretched of the Earth (2006, 106-111; 170-184). From the time they were published, and continuing since his death, Fanon’s books and ideas have been subjected to critique and interpretation, translation and suppression, sometimes to appropriation and distortion (Cherki, 2006; Lazarus, 2011). They have had a longer life in the public eye than he.
This is not unusual of course, that a person’s ideas are more well-known and more often discussed than that person’s everyday life; indeed, who, without the benefit a biography, would know anything intimate about Fanon, or about anyone else, for that matter? However, there still is the impression, unique to Fanon among biographical subjects, of opacity. The man that produced ideas of such force, articulated so eloquently and powerfully, seems, maybe of his own volition, to stand only at a great remove behind them, obscured by the cloud formed of the coalescence of his words. Achille Mbembe, too, senses this tangibility of Fanon’s thoughts, writing of Fanon’s ‘metallic thinking’ and of his work as ‘a weapon of steel’ for the oppressed (2012, 26). Faced with ideas so utterly physical, and a man who defies substantiation in ink and paper, it is no wonder that all approaches to Fanon are either cut through the thicket of his words, or, alternately, laid with the paving-stones of his ideas.
Fanon, no doubt, would be pleased by the biographical conundrum his life presents. ‘One should not,’ he once said, ‘relate one’s past, but stand as a testimony to it’ (Cherki, 2006, 1). In spite of this, it is clear that Fanon was principled in standing as testimony to the present, and of working for a future. ‘His’, says Mbembe, ‘is a metamorphic thought’ (2012, 26). Similarly, Cherki writes that ‘Fanon was a tireless militant for the idea of culture in motion and continually altered by new situations’; he was a man, she quotes another who knew him, ‘always in motion’ who ‘knew how to pull others into this motion’ (2006, 210; 128). Principle, alteration, motion: these are the trademarks of a revolutionary.
That Fanon was a revolutionary is not in question. Perhaps just how extensive was his revolutionary character and thought may not be completely acknowledged. His expressions of understanding and resistance to racism are well known, as is his work for the Algerian revolution and for African decolonization generally. A very important facet of Fanon as a revolutionary, though, is his work as a psychiatrist. Working in both Algeria and Tunisia, Fanon was diligent in practicing a profoundly humanist and culturally sensitive form of psychiatry that was as important in his life as the independence of Algeria or the expression of humanity by black people. Cherki describes how, at the psychiatric hospital at Blida-Joinville, ‘Fanon wasted no time in implementing’ a model of sociotherapy that ‘[sought] not only to humanize the institution but to transform it whole cloth into a therapeutic environment’ (2006, 65) and also how his ‘desire to change the therapeutic approach to madness and his commitment to seeing that change through was evident in the upheaval he caused in such a short time’ in the racist, European institution of psychiatry as it was practiced in Algeria when he arrived there (2006, 68). He was quick to recognize and correct errors in his approach, as when he changed the unsuccessful activities intended for male, Muslim patients to suit culturally-accepted norms (Cherki, 2006, 70). His fight against the anti-social, against racism and colonialism was not only joined in the world outside the psychiatric hospitals where these struggles were manifested in open warfare, but within the hospitals; psychiatry, he said, ‘[had] to be political’ (Cherki, 2006, 72).
Fanon, it must be remembered, died very young, his life ‘cut short’ in the oft-used but here especially apt phrase employed by Cherki, at the age of thirty-six. There was no resolution to his ideas, no tempering or levelling by his own further exploration. There could be no completion to his projects in politics or in medicine in which he could play a part; no conception of his life’s meaning as whittled out in the reductive years of old age. The course of his thought, as of his life, was ‘cut’, almost literally, mid-sentence. What hope has a biographer when, contemplating a ‘complete’ Fanon, he or she encounters innumerable blank pages that cannot be filled? They encounter the sudden edge…and must either retreat into detail or plunge into a space where only ideas exist, un-rooted, any longer, in a living Frantz Fanon but carried forward by a process of constant motion and revolution wherein his ‘metallic’ politics must expand or contract with the temperature of the times; his life’s meaning changing shape at the forges of innumerable thinkers and actors.
Cherki, Alice. (2006) Frantz Fanon: A Portrait, trans. Nadia Benabid. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Lazarus, Neil. (2011) The Postcolonial Unconscious. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Macey, David. (2000) Frantz Fanon: A Life. London: Granta Books.
Mbembe, Achille. (2012) ‘Metamorphic Thought: The Works of Frantz Fanon’, African Studies 71: 19-28.