July 20, 2013
For a period in the 1960s, FRANTZ FANON (1925–61) became a hero of the left for his persuasive writings on the corrosive effects of colonialism on the psyches of both colonizer and colonized. His analyses, rooted in the particular accretions of history and political oppression in Martinique and Algeria, and his own experience, were explosive and wide-ranging. He jumped from descriptions of shrewdly perceived structures of injustice and horrific violence in everyday life in Algeria under French control to broad claims about the collective experience of self in contexts of systemic inequality. Fanon’s writing, especially in his most famous work, Les Damnés de la terre, weaves so deftly between the particular and the general, between the descriptive and the prescriptive, and with such horrifying material, that many have claimed him or shunned him — but none can capture his essence or reproduce his work; too much heat and too much light. Alas, Fanon died very young, just after he wrote Les Damnés, leaving us without any future reassertions, retractions, or qualifications. He was buried a hero in Algeria, but since then — because he was an intellectual Frenchman, and (despite the fact that he was black) not a Muslim or Arab — his influence has waned.
Fanon was a trained psychologist and one can understand the fever of his political writings upon reading a selection of devastating case studies included in Les Damnés under the heading “Colonial War and Mental Disorders.” His argument that in the colonial context in Algeria, France’s inhumanity and callous violence toward the native population made return violence by the colonized inevitable (“cleansing” and necessary even), was disturbing but hard to refute. This is what has made the work so explosive: can violence ever be praised so? What enormity is required?
READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).