Review of Alienation and Freedom By FRANZ FANON

This review was published in the Journal Race and Class in Volume 62 (3) in January 2021.

Alienation and Freedom By FRANZ FANON (Edited and compiled by Jean Khalfa and Robert J.C. Young, translated by Steven Corcoran) (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018) 816 pp. £21.60.

Mere words, you say?
But words the colour of pulsating flesh.
Words the colour of mountains on heat.
Of cities on fire.
Of the resurrected dead.
Words, yes, but battle flag words.
Words like swords. 
(Lucien in The Drowning Eye, p. 97)

These lines, delivered by a character in a play written by the 24-year-old Frantz Fanon, could be aptly applied to his own writings. His words, ‘like swords’, have inspired revolutionaries across the globe, highlighted the harms of racism, provided the intellectual underpinning for much (post/de)colonial scholarship and shaped perceptions of the ambivalences of identity. This impact has been achieved through a very limited canon, with much of his writing unavailable (particularly in English). The publication of Alienation and Freedom, edited and compiled by Jean Khalfa and Robert Young, greatly expands Fanon’s canon. Originally published in French, as Écrits sur l’aliénation et la liberté in 2015, it has been translated into English by Steven Corcoran. Alienation and Freedom is a large book and impressively draws together all of Fanon’s unpublished writings that the editors were able to identify. It includes fifty-five chapters divided into five sections, and weighs in at 816 pages.

The first section makes available The Drowning Eye and Parallel Hands, two of the three plays Fanon wrote in 1949 (the editors have been unable to locate the third play, La Conspiration). In his introduction to this section, Robert Young, argues that these plays should be seen as Fanon’s ‘apprenticeship in writing’ (p. 22). They provide a valuable insight into Fanon’s intellectual influences, including Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche, Hegel and Césaire. In the plays we find that many of the ideas that were to be central to his later writings as they, at various points, explore: language, freedom, identity, masculinity, the search for authenticity, alienation, and the relationship between violence and reconstruction. Although never explicit, the politics of ‘race’, racialisation and racism are central, particularly to The Drowning Hour. Indeed, the play is best understood by being read alongside Black Skins, White Masks.  

The second play, Parallel Hands, is set on a fictional Greek island Lébos. Whatever Fanon’s intention, I could not help read it as Lesbos, the beautiful island that has in recent years come to represent the inhumanity of Europe, where those fleeing the military and economic consequences of (neo)colonialism are held in appalling conditions and subjected to the most horrendous violence. Maybe Lesbos would not be an inappropriate location for this play to be staged, possibly accompanied by recitals of Fanon’s political writings? 

The second section of the book focuses on Fanon’s psychiatric writings. Khalfa (who introduces this section) and Young have brought together twenty-seven pieces written by Fanon during his career as a practising psychiatrist (1951-1960). This section opens with Fanon’s 1951 doctoral thesis, which, although not immediately accessible to the non-specialist, demonstrates Fanon’s commitment to incorporate the social into his exploration of mental illness, for, as he argues, ‘the human being, as an object of study, demands a multi-dimensional investigation’ (p. 218). This section also includes Fanon’s editorials from the ward journals of the Saint-Alban Psychiatric Hospital in France, where he worked as an intern in 1952 and 1953, and the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital where he was a Consultant Psychiatrist from 1953 until his resignation in 1956. In these, Fanon’s philosophy of care and critical attitude to institutional practices become clear. He records the resistance of nursing staff to therapeutic reforms and how ‘medical’ instructions are ‘turned into a police prohibition’ (p. 319). In his 1956 editorials he is disturbed by the disciplinary and punitive tendencies of the hospital, arguing that ‘each time we give up our attitude of understanding and adopt an attitude of punishment, we are mistaken’ (p. 346). He concludes his last editorial by stating that: ‘We may now see that formulating disciplinary rules and regulations at a psychiatric hospital is a therapeutic absurdity and that this idea must be abandoned once and for all’ (p. 348). The collection includes Fanon’s resignation ‘Letter to the Resident Minister’ in which he declares it had become impossible to practise when the ‘extant social structure in Algeria stood opposed to any attempt to put the individual back in his or her place’ (p. 434). 

This section makes clear that in both Algeria and his subsequent exile in Tunisia Fanon remained, despite his political activism, a medical practitioner and a research-active scholar. The academic contributions (some single, others co-authored) cover an impressive range of subjects: medical jurisprudence in a colonial context; Maghrebi Muslim traditional attitudes to madness; social therapy; ethnopsychiatry; sexual disorders; confession; psychological testing; agitation; pharmacotherapy; day hospitals; and colonialist psychiatry. This section is fascinating and rich in new material. It allows Fanon to emerge as an active, theoretically informed and innovative practitioner. This includes establishing Africa’s first psychiatric day centre, as part of The Charles-Nicolle General Hospital in Tunis. This initiative, free from the ‘the sadomasochistic relations … (between) orderlies and the patients’ (p. 477) which characterised other psychiatric hospitals, sought to remove ‘all the carceral and coercive aspects of internment’ (p. 509). However, although Fanon was clearly sympathetic to the emerging critiques of what was to become known as the anti-psychiatry movement, he was committed to the full range of medical interventions. For example, during the day clinic’s first seventeen months of operation Fanon records that ‘171 patients were treated with insulin shock therapy’ [a series of daily insulin induced comas] (p. 490) and ‘seventy-two were treated via seismotherapy’ [electroshock treatment] (p. 493). As a psychiatrist, Fanon’s approach to treatment was two pronged. Firstly, it required a dramatic, violent, shock to reset the patient’s brain, followed, secondly, by a period of therapeutic reconstruction. The parallels with his understanding of the anti-colonial struggle are obvious. 

The third section contains previously unpublished political writings. Like Towards the African Revolution, published in 1964, these are predominately drawn from the French edition of El Moudjahid, the FLN (National Liberation Front) newspaper. As such these chapters are for the most part polemics, written primarily for a French metropolitan readership. They are strident, lacking in doubt and absolutely confident in the Algerian revolution. This is not to criticise them, but to recognise that in writing them, Fanon was not an independent scholar, but a political activist with a job to do. It was a job he did exceptionally well. 

This section also includes Fanon’s address to the Accra Positive Action conference in April 1960, ‘Why we use violence’ (pp. 653-660). This speech the editors argue, in a footnote (p. 653), offers a ‘more nuanced and historicized’ defence of anticolonial violence than the opening chapter of The Wretched of the Earth. Having reread the 1961 chapter, I disagree. It is certainly less detailed and very much toned down, but this reflects its very different context. In The Wretched of the Earth Fanon has the platform and space to fully explore the violence of colonialism and strategies for its overthrow. He uses this to critique the complicity and collusion of nationalist parties. ‘Why we use violence’ is a speech delivered by Fanon, on behalf of the FLN, to a conference that not only contained many African leaders committed to strategies of non-violence, but leaders whose support for the FLN he desperately wanted to secure. This difference of context is illustrated by his references to Kenyatta who, in the speech, is described as ‘our valiant brother’ (p. 657). However, in the book Fanon refers to ‘the leader of the nationalist party … (who) loudly proclaims that he has nothing to do with these Mau-Mau, these terrorists … and willingly offers his services as a go-between’, a task he is well-equipped for, as ‘his party has taken very good care never to break contact with colonialism’.[1]

Part four provides a history of publishing Fanon, including his correspondence with his publisher, François Maspero, and an account of his publication in Italian. The final section is a recreation of Fanon’s library. Not only has Jean Khalfa listed the books and journals, a valuable exercise in identifying Fanon’s extensive research and reading, but also indicated some of Fanon’s annotations of them. This section is completed by a list of key dates which cover all aspects of Fanon’s life and is an invaluable reference source. Robert Young’s chronology helped to clarify in my mind the links between different writings, both in this book, those previously published, and Fanon’s political and professional lives. 

As Khalfa and Young point out in their general introduction, ‘an author of this magnitude cannot genuinely be understood without knowing all his work’ (p. 5) and this volume almost doubles what has been published in English. It is a valuable resource and alongside the four previously published books allows a fuller appreciation of Fanon, who, despite his early death at the age of 36, stands as one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century. To fully understand his writings requires us to appreciate what Paul Gilroy has described as the ‘pairing of the healer and the soldier in Fanon’s revolutionary imagination’.[2] As a dramatist, doctor and anti-colonial revolutionary Fanon’s uncompromising commitment to freedom emerges from throughout Alienation and Freedom, a commitment that does not shy away from the therapeutic potential (or on occasions the necessity) of violent interventions.  

 

References


[1] F. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (London: Penguin, 1967) p.49. 

[2] P. Gilroy, et al, ‘A diagnosis of contemporary forms of racism, race and nationalism: a conversation with Professor Paul Gilroy’, Cultural Studies Volume 33, Issue 2 (2019) pp.173-197; p.181.

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