Fanon, Frantz. Alienation and Freedom. Edited by Jean Khalfa and Robert J C Young. Translated by Steven Corcoran. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. 816 pages. Kindle $29.56. Paperback $19.95. Hardcover $ 22.88
Alienation and Freedom invites readers to return to the thinking of Frantz Fanon, an icon whose name has become synonymous with critiques of race, capital, and colonialism. Edited by Jean Khalfa and Robert C. Young, this publication promises a multifaceted engagement with Fanon through a range of his literary, psychiatric and political writings. The collection brings together two previously unpublished plays, his dissertation, psychiatric writings from his time at Saint-Alban Hospital and Blida-Joinville Hospital, contributions to the Algerian political journal El Moudjahid, correspondences, pamphlets, the history of the translation of his oeuvre into French and Italian, and an account of his library, complete with jottings and annotations. The result of careful assortment and compilation, this book both significantly extends the corpus of Fanon, and yet interrupts any singular notion of it. Its diverse materials urge us to take into our stride the politico-philosophical, socio-psychiatric, and literary selves of Fanon in all their revolutionary potential.
Perhaps it is through his two plays, The Drowning Eye and Parallel Hands, that readers will most noticeably encounter a defamiliarized Fanon. Written in 1949, before his dissertation and Black Skin, White Masks, his plays venture a thinking of politics and revolution steeped in the negativity and nihilism of Sartre and Claudel, and the poetic idiom of Césaire. They are also the earliest texts in his corpus. In The Drowning Eye, Fanon foregrounds nihilism as a possible response to the socio-political. Here, through a play of oppositions between light and dark, between positivity and negativity, characters strive to arrive at authenticity, in love as in life. Parallel Hands, written in the style of Greek tragedy, tells a tale of parricide as revolution. Echoing Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this play uncovers the rottenness at the core of the state of Polyxos. And harking back to Oedipus Rex, it reflects on the violence that paves the way for a revolution, for a new social order. While they each tackle the political in their own way, representing nihilism on the one hand and violent revolution on the other, these plays are entirely removed from realist preoccupations. They draw instead on surrealism, which, as Young notes in his introduction, initiates an encounter with the absurdity of everyday life under colonialism (15). Dwelling, like Césaire, in a primarily metaphoric register, Fanon tests the limits of language to articulate nihilism, pain, suffering, stagnancy, and violence. His experimentation with form also extends to stage directions and effects of lighting, which take on absurd dimensions. For instance, in The Drowning Eye, lighting is meant to render the protagonist the color of “new blotting paper,” his brother the color of “pewter”, and the female lead the color of a “rain drop” (81). Similarly, one stage direction from Parallel Hands announces: “Against the stage three harps wet the lips of a soul” (148). Even as these plays insist on a reading of politics, their surrealist strains refuse to stabilize any categories of identity with which to pin down their stance. What follows is a disorienting confrontation with politics stripped of recognizable scripts.
Khalfa introduces the section on Fanon’s psychiatric and scientific writings, rightly positioning them as revolutionary. Though many of his psychical writings have previously been glossed over for their technical nature, this book indicates how Fanon’s thinking, even—and perhaps especially—in the domain of psychiatry, broaches the politics of colonial trauma and subjugation. His dissertation, which is “piously” dedicated to his late father and the rest of his family, inaugurates the section on his psychiatric writings. In his thesis, which he successfully defended in November 1951 at the age of 26, Fanon writes about Friedreich’s ataxia, a neuro-degenerative illness. Here, he refuses any easy, essentializing distinction between neurological and psychical disorders. Alongside his thesis, this volume draws extensively from Fanon’s editorial texts from the ward newspaper of Saint-Alban Hospital, where he worked as an intern for Francois Tosquelles between 1951-52. Further, it brings together his editorials from 1954-56, written at the Blida-Joinville Hospital, which now bears his name. His insistence on social therapy as a form of treatment is noteworthy in these writings, as he resists a colonial interpretation of native maladies and refuses to assimilate the colonial subject into Eurocentric models of treatment. What he insists on is a “revolutionary attitude” to psychiatry, an examination of how sociogeny informs and explains mental illness and its reception. Fanon highlights the importance of cultural difference across the treatments being administered to natives and European patients, an argument that he makes powerfully in “Social Therapy in a Ward of Muslims”. So too in “Maghrebi Muslims and their Attitudes to Madness,” where he points out that the native Muslim community, in opposition to colonial attitudes, does not treat mental illness with personalized stigma and hostility. For the community, a belief in the influence of djinns prevents any thinking of mental illness that seeks to blame the patient. He thus strives to carve out a culturally differential understanding of mental illness and its treatment.
The most recognizable stamp of his work will be found in his political writings. Most of the section on his political writings consists of the articles published between 1957-1960 in the anonymous and collaborative journal El Moudjahid. Even as Alienation and Freedom draws on Fanon’s writings from this journal, it is important to simultaneously situate his work in its collaborative anonymity. Fanon addresses through his writings the decolonization movements across the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. He also notes the pervasive power of western nations in determining the course of both colonized as well as newly independent nations. Paying close attention to the affairs and the collaborators of the Charles de Gaulle regime, Fanon in “The western world and the fascist experience in France” accuses the west of nascent fascism in its tacit support of French colonialism in Algeria. His claim urges us to recognize fascism outside the frame of the Second World War, as a perpetuation of colonial rule. He also deploys the anonymity of El Moudjahid to voice a collective denunciation of the west in the aftermath of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of independent Congo. In “Africa Accuses the West,” Fanon, channeling the voice of the continent, holds the west culpable for this assassination, indicating how Europe and the Unites States maintain vested interests in destabilizing the newly decolonized countries of Africa. In so doing, Fanon points to how colonialism does not necessarily terminate with the formal withdrawal of power.
Fanon’s reflections on violence make for a prevalent strain in this collection. In “The calvary of the people,” Fanon lays emphasis on patience as the determining clause of revolutionary violence, a detail that most readers of his famous opening to The Wretched of the Earth will find striking. He asks for various resistance efforts to prepare themselves for a long struggle, not an instant precipitation of freedom. In “Why We Use Violence,” an address he delivered at the Accra Positive Action Conference, he both cites and differs from the nonviolent approach of Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister of Ghana and one of the champions of the Non-Allied Movement. Fanon maintains that violence is the preserve of desperate times and threatened people, those who have been reduced to a state in which no other form of resistance registers as such. The collection also includes a letter to the Iranian philosopher Ali Shariati. With the original lost, this letter finds its way into the collection through the retranslation of Shariati’s Farsi copy into French by his daughter Sara. In this correspondence, Fanon expresses doubt at the mobilization of religious sentiment for the fight against colonial rule. He worries that with a religious orientation, the “nation in becoming” may become geared toward its past, rather than to the radical possibility of the future. He hopes, nonetheless, that ultimately Shariati’s path will combine with his own at the destination “where humanity lives well” (669).
In surveying the rich material of Alienation and Freedom, readers will grapple with the complexity and provocation of Fanon’s thinking. Even as it compiles more than a decade of his thinking across literary, psychiatric and political registers, the book does not allow for any simplistic or linear reception of his work. What it urges instead is simultaneous engagement with the varying modes of his writing to think through the many ways in which he tackles the subject of disalienation as freedom. Fanon’s thinking does not offer any easy answers as to the processes and movements of decolonization. The work of decolonization is always ongoing, only just begun. Fanon persists in our classrooms and across different political struggles not just because he positions us to recognize and resist the perpetuation of colonial subjugation. His work also dares us to imagine otherwise, to strive toward freedom, to orient ourselves to the radical possibility of the future.