Monday, 31 March 2014

Review of Alice Cherki’s 'Frantz Fanon: A Portrait'

Jonis Ghedi Alasow        

Alice Cherki’s 2006 biography of Frantz Fanon, Frantz Fanon: A Portrait, offers an interesting and insightful understanding of the man who has had a tremendous impact on the way in which the postcolonial situation is understood today. In her book Cherki traces the trajectory of Fanon’s life from his youth in Martinique to his untimely death in 1961. She also provides an interesting and personal window into the development of Fanon’s political thought. The remainder of this essay will pay particular attention to this development of intellectual and political thought in Frantz Fanon. Though the trajectory of Fanon’s life will be mentioned in this essay, the primary focus will be with the ideas of Frantz Fanon which are highlighted by Cherki.

Having been born into a ‘petit-bourgeoisie’ family in Martinique on the 20th of July 1925, Cherki describes Fanon’s first engagement with the political during his schooling years. Fanon noticed whilst on a school excursion that the history of slavery in Martinique was never really spoken about (Cherki, 2006: 8). He was concerned about the fact that his education was based on a denial of something so instrumental in his own existence. This critical engagement with the power relations and the history of what is around him is what Fanon tapped into when he left in 1939 to fight against Nazi Germany. He was quite prepared to go off to Europe to fight against the racism of Hitler whilst he himself was oppressed by racism within his own country.

Fanon was adamant on leaving to go fight against injustice, even in the face of Aimé Césaire’s warning that “blacks had nothing to lose and everything to gain if white people are killing each other” (Cherki, 2006: 10). Fanon’s commitment to justice did not wane. Even when he became disillusioned by the way in which black soldiers were “carelessly dismissed by both the army and the civilian population” (Cherki, 2006: 13), he remained firmly opposed to Nazism. It is important to note that though Fanon was quite conscious politically throughout his life, he was never wholeheartedly linked to any political movement. Even when he was working within the Algerian National Liberation Front, the FLN, he was quite openly critical of the FLN if it was not in harmony with his views. He did not mould his own views on the framework of a political organisation, but rather developed his political philosophy independently.

Shortly after the War ended in 1945, Fanon returned to France and started studying psychiatry. Even in this field Fanon developed views and approaches to psychiatry that were counter to mainstream views. He for instance remained adamant that madness was closely tied to “social and cultural alienation” (Cherki, 2006: 21). He was quite critical of other psychiatrists at the time who did not pay sufficient attention to the effects of society on the creation of madness in the individual (Cherki, 2006: 21). Thus he saw society as the problem that needed to be addressed. The patient was not the problem, but rather the product of an alienating society. It is largely as a result of Fanon’s concern with the modern society that he lived in that he wrote Black Skins, White Masks (Cherki, 2006: 26).

 Related to the above is that fact that Fanon was particularly critical of totalising identities. He was opposed to essentialising groups of people into single identities. Thus he supported the views of Jean-Paul Sartre, his idol of sorts, that movements such as the negritude movement were no more than transitional moments. Much later he would remain true to his rejection of essentialising people when he pointed out that “when colonialism dies it takes both the coloniser and the colonised with it” (Cherki, 2006: 137). Thus he did not object to the existence of white/European people in Algeria. He was not seeking an end to whites in Africa, but rather a conclusive end to the system of colonialism which was, according to him, dehumanising both the coloniser and the colonised.

Whilst working in Blida, 45 km outside of Algiers, Fanon was able to put his theories on the relationship between alienation, oppression and madness into practice. He developed “sociotherapy” (Cherki, 2006: 65) which was concerned with moving away from the dominant approach to psychiatry that considered mad people as problem people. There was thus a drive to humanise the hospital as an institution, thus supporting Fanon’s view that society was the problem and that his patients were the victims of this alienating society. It was also from his position in Blida that he became involved with the FLN. Pierre Chaulet, the medical doctor working with the FLN, got Fanon involved with the movement as a “safe psychiatrist” who the guerrilla fighters could go talk to about their trauma. With time Fanon became more and more involved with the FLN until he ultimately resigned from his position as head doctor in Blida’s psychiatric hospital in 1956 (Cherki, 2006: 89). He claimed to resign because “the native, a permanent alien in his own country, lives in a state of total depersonalisation” (Cherki, 2006: 90). It is important to note that Fanon’s resignation does not constitute a break from psychiatry and a move towards politics. For Fanon, the two disciplines were always intricately linked (Cherki, 2006: 59). He did not see madness as a sickness, but rather as a symptom of an alienating and subsequently oppressive society. Thus it was his duty as a psychiatrist to treat the cause of the problem. Becoming politically active and joining the FLN to fight for complete autonomy for the Algerian people was therefore part of Fanon’s larger project to create a society that does not alienate its members. His resignation and subsequent focus on the political can therefore be seen as a convoluted, yet comprehensive, treatment of madness.

Fanon was certainly a revolutionary. His label as a revolutionary can be applied to more than just his involvement with the FLN in Algeria, but more importantly, the term can be applied to his intellectual work. Fanon thought independently about both politics and psychiatry to deal with the difficulties faced by society. Alice Cherki provides an interesting and nuanced window into the man whose work has become vital in understanding the postcolonial situation.  

          Works cited:

·        Cherki, A., Frantz Fanon A Portrait, Cornell University Press: New York (2006).