Public martyr remains an elusive man

Frantz Fanon
July 6, 2001

"Revolutionaries, it would seem, are destined for heroic anonymity," writes biographer David Macey, describing the posthumous career of the revolutionary psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon. If in the academies of the developed world Fanon has become one of the few uncorrupted voices of political resistance - an abstractly heroic figure whose symbolic martyrdom to the cause of Algerian independence has an enduring appeal - it tends to be forgotten, argues Macey, that he was also "a particular case".

Frantz Fanon: A Life is thus a direct challenge to the enduring myths of Fanon: as global theorist, as violent prophet of third worldism and as spokesman for the wretched of the earth. Unfortunately, in his attempt to tell a new story - to build a more believable myth in our own post-colonial world - Macey's biography is so concerned with what Fanon is not that he can offer the reader only tendentious glimpses into why Fanon was and remains such an important universal thinker.

Under the aegis of rediscovering Fanon's life, the biography wants to offer us a new, culturally and historically specific Fanon: a French-Martinican thinker unburdened from the disparate voices of previous generations who, in laying claim to Fanon's universal appeal, have confounded true understanding. Macey's commitment to bringing Fanon's life and work back to the bitter strands of Martinican culture he inherited is timely, as are his readings of how the abnormal introversions of Martinique determined Fanon's personality. His sensitivity to the French nuances of Fanon's texts is also to be applauded. However, in its corrective endeavour, this work remains a polemic that can lose sight of the duties and obligations of good biography. Macey's account fails to offer more than a flimsy and perfunctory account of Fanon's thinking when forced to move beyond his set targets. In comparison with excellent recent work from Ato Sekyi-Otu, Lewis Gordon, Patrick Taylor, Nigel Gibson, Vicky Lebeau and Marcel Manville and others or the now-canonical readings of Homi Bhabha, Macey's commentary is rather thin, as if he were neither completely at ease with the complexity of Fanon's writing nor, indeed, with the silences and disguises that make Fanon so fascinating and yet elusive to scholars and activists alike (and, I imagine, to biographers).

In fact, Macey's refusal to engage with recent work on Fanon makes his own claims to originality and comprehensiveness appear obtuse. Macey contends:

"Whereas psychoanalysis speaks of fantasy, Fanon consistently speaks of trauma and explains mental illness as a form of social alienation." Not only does this over-simplify Fanon's careful discussion, in Black Skin, White Masks , of how the imago of the négré - its mise-en-scène - merges with the unconscious and cultural form of what he calls phantasmes réels (real fantasies), it also confounds what Fanon says on trauma, namely, that the effect of these imagoes is not simply a result of traumatisme effectif (real traumatism) but of cultural imposition. Similarly, in his attempt to bang the door shut on any presumptive reading of Fanon as psychoanalyst, Macey fails to get inside Fanon's complex reading of dream and phobia and, what is often unnoticed, Fanon's unvarying insistence on the ties binding the unconscious life of the black to the fantasmatic and real violences of culture. This problem becomes particularly acute for Macey's tunnel-vision view of race and psychoanalysis, given Fanon's developed interest in psycho-neuroses.

Elsewhere, Macey's lucid account of Fanon's debts to negritude and phenomenology fails to illuminate how Fanon - in dialogue with the negritude of Leopold Senghor and others, as well as the philosophy of Sartre and others - moved beyond simple " bricolage ". For instance, Macey's claim that "neither negritude nor phenomenology provide an adequate description of Fanon's Erlebnis " disregards Fanon's complex relationship to both movements. If Black Skin, White Masks is an example of bricolage, it is one of deformation and ironic counterpoint - not the rote compliance or derivative repetition suggested by Macey.

As a contribution to Fanon's reading of postwar French philosophy, Frantz Fanon: A Life thus lacks the required critical edge. The amassing of biographical details, though well documented, does not help a reader get through the landscape of what Macey himself calls Fanon's "strangely heteroclite" texts. There are, however, some perceptive comments on how Fanon's vision of violence as "absolute praxis" has been repeatedly misread, although the chapter on The Wretched of the Earth does not, as a whole, engage with Fanon's textured reading of national consciousness, intellectualism, or indeed, his shattering of a Marxian dialectic in the colonial context.

In short, if Macey offers us a new Fanon, a Fanon whom he describes as a kind of hypersensitive " écorché vif " (tortured soul), this is a Fanon assailed and marked by snatched fragments of critique, by a mutilated yearning for a "new humanism". Unfortunately, in the use of the term écorché vif to describe Fanon's supposedly personal, irrevocable destiny, to portray his fateful decision to leave Martinique never to return, the book (unwittingly?) reproduces the self-same imago of the négré driven by resentment, anxiety and guilt, against which Fanon, in his profoundly critical response to French racism, rebelled.

David Marriott is lecturer in English, Queen Mary, University of London.

Frantz Fanon: A Life

Author - David Macey
ISBN - 1 86207 168 3
Publisher - Granta
Price - £25.00
Pages - 640

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