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'Frantz Fanon': The Doctor Prescribed Violence

September 2, 2001

'Frantz Fanon': The Doctor Prescribed Violence

By ADAM SHATZ

When the third world was the great hope of the international left -- three very long decades ago, in other words -- no book had a more seductive mystique than ''The Wretched of the Earth.'' Its author, Frantz Fanon, was a psychiatrist, originally from Martinique, who had become a spokesman for the Algerian revolution against French colonialism. He was black, dashing and, even better, a martyr -- succumbing to leukemia at the age of 36, a year before Algeria's independence in 1962. Fanon was hardly alone in championing the violent overthrow of colonialism. But his flair for incendiary rhetoric was unmatched.

If ''The Wretched of the Earth'' was not ''the handbook for the black revolution,'' as its publisher boasted, it was certainly a sourcebook of revolutionary slogans. (Eldridge Cleaver once said that ''every brother on a rooftop can quote Fanon.'') ''Violence,'' Fanon argued most famously, ''is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.'' This was mau-mauing with Left Bank panache. Not to be upstaged, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his preface, ''To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time.''

Fanon's apocalyptic aphorisms have not aged well, least of all in the third world. And yet he cannot be written off so easily. His 1952 book, ''Black Skin, White Masks,'' offers a penetrating analysis of racism and of the ways in which it is internalized by its victims. While his faith in the therapeutic value of violence is now hard to fathom, much of what he wrote was eerily prescient. Unlike some of his peers on the left, Fanon was acutely aware that African leaders were more than capable of oppressing their own people. His essay on the struggle between native (''an oppressed person whose permanent dream is to become the persecutor'') and settler (''an exhibitionist'' who ''pits brute force against the weight of numbers'') will teach you more about the forces clashing in the Middle East today than a year's worth of editorials.

David Macey has written a prodigiously researched, absorbing book about the mind and the passion of a 20th-century revolutionary. ''Frantz Fanon'' is the first comprehensive biography in three decades; it is also the best, the most intellectually rigorous and the most judicious. A biographer of Michel Foucault, Macey takes Fanon seriously as a thinker, and though the inner life of his subject eludes him, he has captured the public figure in all its nobility and confusion. Macey's Fanon is far more than the ''apostle of violence'' of Black Panther iconography. Still less does he resemble the ''postcolonial Fanon'' of literary criticism, a fashionably melancholy exile who, as Macey writes, ''worries about identity politics, and often about his own sexual identity.'' Fanon was brave but also reckless, prophetic but often dangerously wrongheaded. When he began writing, his weapon was truth; when he embraced revolutionary violence, truth became a casualty of his decision.

It is often forgotten that Fanon's profession was not writing or revolution but psychiatry. The force of his writings lay in their arresting insights into the disquieting dream life of colonial society. A volunteer with the Free French in World War II -- he was awarded a Croix de Guerre after sustaining a serious shrapnel wound in the chest -- Fanon studied psychiatry on a scholarship in Lyon, and married a white Frenchwoman barely out of high school. Embittered by his experience in the French Army, where Africans and Arabs answered to white superiors and West Indians occupied an ambiguous middle ground, he gravitated to radical politics, Sartrean existentialism and the philosophy of black consciousness known as negritude. Fanon also fell under the influence of Fran‚ois Tosquelles, an innovative practitioner of group therapy. Applying Tosquelles's methods at a hospital in a suburb of Algiers, where Fanon arrived in 1953, he earned the trust of Arab patients whom French psychiatrists had treated with a mixture of pity and contempt. In Fanon's new home, Macey reminds us, one million Europeans ruled over some nine million Arabs and Berbers, largely illiterate and cruelly exploited. After the Algerian National Liberation Front (F.L.N.) launched an insurrection in 1954, the French Army used Gestapo tactics to restore order. Suspects were given electric shocks to the testicles, raped with bottles and often beaten to death. Entire villages were destroyed in retaliation for the death of a single soldier. While secretly aiding the rebels, Fanon cared for victims and perpetrators alike, producing case notes that shed invaluable light on the psychic traumas of colonial war.

Like his contemporary Che Guevara, Fanon was drawn into a career as a revolutionary in a foreign land by his work as a doctor. Having borne witness to the unspeakable suffering inflicted by the French Army, he came to believe that the revolution contained the seeds of redemption, not only for Algeria but for the entire colonial world. As Macey makes clear, however, he was not always a reliable guide to Algerian realities. His conviction, for instance, that ''the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain,'' was a fantasy; they could scarcely play such a role since French troops had herded them en masse into relocation centers. In his famous essay on the revolutionary awakening of Algerian women, Fanon declared that the ''destruction of colonization is the birth of a new woman.'' Not for the last time, as Macey notes, Fanon ''mistook temporary changes born of extraordinary circumstances for a permanent revolution.'' A West Indian atheist in an Islamic nationalist movement, he saw what he wanted to see.

Expelled from Algeria in 1956, Fanon moved to Tunis, the F.L.N.'s headquarters in exile. While working for El Moudjahid, the rebel newspaper, he founded Africa's first psychiatric clinic, wrote several influential books on decolonization and traveled throughout Africa as a spokesman for the revolution. It was a treacherous atmosphere, rife with conspiracy and intrigue, and it did not help that Fanon was neither Algerian nor Muslim. In 1957, he found himself on the losing side of a factional battle when his friend Abane Ramdane -- a charismatic hard-liner whose growing influence was resented by the forces in Tunis -- was strangled by his comrades.

Fanon, Macey notes, ''said nothing,'' perhaps because he knew that his own name ''was on the list of those who were to be eliminated in the event of a violent reaction to Abane's liquidation.'' (In Rome, Fanon told Simone de Beauvoir that Abane's death haunted his conscience.) Macey raises even more troubling questions in connection with Fanon's knowledge of a massacre in 1957 in which the F.L.N. slaughtered 300 suspected supporters of a rival rebel group. At a press conference in Tunis, Fanon blamed the French for the massacre. Did he know the truth? The more telling question is whether it would have mattered to him. Truth, he wrote, ''is that which hurries on the breakup of the colonialist regime. . . . In this colonialist context there is no truthful behavior: and the good is quite simply that which is evil for 'them.' ''

One has the tragic sense, reading ''Frantz Fanon,'' of an intellectual determined to prove himself among men with guns. Like most intellectual advocates of violence, Fanon preferred to contemplate it at a distance. When he was in medical school, ''even basic dissection made him feel nauseated.'' As a revolutionary and as a writer he strove to overcome his ''weaknesses'' and to make himself hard.

In 1960, after a 1,200-mile expedition from Mali to the Algerian border in which he gathered intelligence on French troop movements, Fanon returned to Tunis, desperately sick. Through delicate diplomacy involving the C.I.A., he ultimately wound up in an American hospital. In his final months, his ideas assumed an even more messianic hue. A ''new man,'' he claimed, was rising from the ashes of empire in Algeria. Yet in his more sober moments, he acknowledged that the Algerian soul could hardly be healed overnight. ''A whole generation of Algerians, steeped in wanton, generalized homicide with all the psychoaffective consequences that this entails, will be the human legacy of France in Algeria,'' he predicted; it was an accurate diagnosis. In Algeria, as in most of Africa, independence was no sooner achieved than it was confiscated by generals, bureaucrats and economic elites. Although Fanon remains indispensable for his writings on race and colonialism, his utopian program for the third world has gone the way of the colonial empires whose doom he foretold.

Adam Shatz has contributed to The New York Times, The Nation and The American Prospect.

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