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The doctor who saw colonialism as a sickness

‘The Rebel’s Clinic,’ by Adam Shatz, is an engrossing biography of the psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary Frantz Fanon

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
9 min

A biography of the psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary Frantz Fanon is, inevitably, a biography of the world he fought to change. Fanon would no doubt have approved: As a pioneer of “social therapy,” an approach that classified personal pathologies as political symptoms, he understood better than anyone that individuals are unintelligible in isolation. The maladies he treated as the director of a mental hospital in colonial Algeria, where he worked on the eve of the country’s fight for independence in the 1950s, were to him inextricable from the deadliest illness of all: the epidemic of French imperialism.

A biography of Fanon is also of necessity a biography of his legend, which sometimes deviates considerably from his person. His support for the Algerian struggle was unwavering, and he is often remembered as a militant who once lauded anti-colonial violence as “a cleansing force.” But as the critic and essayist Adam Shatz demonstrates in his nimble and engrossing new book, “The Rebel’s Clinic,” Fanon was never as one-dimensionally bellicose as he is often taken to be, not only by his enemies but by his allies and hagiographers.

On the contrary, Shatz argues, the foremost theorist of anti-colonial resistance was a remarkably subtle thinker who rejected the reductions that tempted so many of his contemporaries. Unlike the Senegalese poet, essayist and eventual statesman Léopold Sédar Senghor, Fanon never resorted to sentimental evocations of a primal, earthy Africa; unlike the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who insisted that the liberation of the colonies was merely one step on the path toward a universal revolt against the ruling classes, he grasped that racism was an abyss in its own right. His two classic books, “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952) and “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961), are clear-eyed and lyrical analyses of the psychic distortions that imperialism inflicts on colonists and colonized alike.

But the forces that Fanon investigated so dispassionately in his clinical papers and so powerfully in his philosophy did not leave him unscathed. As Shatz shows in this exemplary work of public intellectualism, in which he does not sugarcoat or simplify, the ingenious doctor and impassioned activist was every bit as much a victim of empire as the patients he worked to heal.

“Before he was a revolutionary,” Shatz writes, “Fanon was a psychiatrist.” And before he was a psychiatrist, he was a Frenchman — or so he was raised to believe. He was born in Fort-de-France, Martinique, in 1925, to a decidedly bourgeois family. Twenty-one years later, the French National Assembly would vote to elevate the island to an “Overseas Department of France” — but during Fanon’s childhood, it was still a colony, and in school he was taught that he descended not from enslaved Africans but from the Gauls. The very first words that he learned to write were “Je suis Français” — “I am French.” His respectable, middle-class parents “fiercely identified with the Republic that had ended slavery and allowed their family to prosper.”

But if many Martinicans were “more French than the French,” it was perhaps because they sensed that they were never quite assimilated in the eyes of their supposed compatriots. Fanon was painfully disabused of the notion that he was a fully French subject when he went to Europe to fight the Axis powers in 1943. To be sure, he was close to the top of the colonial hierarchy that prevailed in the Free French army, where “Martinicans and Guadeloupeans slept in a barrack separate from the tirailleurs sénégalais and were given different food. The African infantrymen wore fezzes and red flannel belts, while the West Indians wore European uniforms because they were judged to be more évolué — ‘evolved,’ or assimilated to western values.”

Still, Fanon was not as évolué as a White European in the eyes of the locals. During the festivities that broke out after France was liberated, no White women deigned to dance with him. He grew more disillusioned still when he started medical school in Lyon, only to discover that his classmates thought he “wasn’t really black … because he spoke French so well.”

“Fanon had a very strong need to belong,” one of his colleagues once recalled, but he was condemned to perennial estrangement. In Martinique, he was not quite French, and in France, he was even less so. When he fled the métropole to direct a clinic in Algeria — and when he eventually became an ardent participant in the Algerian liberation movement — he still did not enjoy complete acceptance. “He could never really become an Algerian,” Shatz writes. “He did not even speak Arabic or Berber (Amazigh), the languages of Algeria’s indigenous peoples.”

He died not in any of the cities where he had lived without ever feeling quite at home but in an entirely foreign country: America, where he sought treatment for the leukemia that killed him at 36. He did not live to see Algeria liberated just eight months later.

At times as I read “The Rebel’s Clinic,” I yearned for a little more insight not into Fanon the brilliant doctor or Fanon the rousing revolutionary but Fanon the person. What of his marriage to the Frenchwoman Marie-Josèphe “Josie” Dublé, and their son, Olivier, about whom we hear comparatively little? What of his aversions, his cravings, the rhythm of his days? Of these we only get tantalizing glimpses, handily outnumbered by background primers on French imperialism. Then again, Fanon would surely have preferred Shatz’s political focus. He saw firsthand that colonialism exiles us from ourselves: No wonder he was such a curiously impersonal person.

Fanon’s sense of alienation no doubt informed his psychiatric practice, which in turn informed his understanding of imperial barbarity. In the words of one of his mentors, “Madness was never a personal affair.” At the core of Fanon’s increasingly radical approach to mental health care was his conviction that, as Shatz puts it, “some forms of psychological suffering have their roots not in an individual’s psychic constitution but in oppressive social relations.”

The forms that mental illness takes within a certain society are good guides to its neuroses, and Fanon knew well that the racist phobias and fantasies of his European patients functioned as windows onto the world that colonialism had wrought. The tensions between Muslims and Europeans outside the clinic, where signs on the beaches warned “No dogs or Arabs,” could not help but make their way inside.

This finding had further implications. Fanon was among the first to adopt what Shatz describes as “a collective approach to care that fused the insights of Freud and Marx, breaking down the hierarchies that separated patients and medical staff, giving the mentally ill a new sense of power over their lives.” But even the most innovative clinical techniques did not go far enough for Fanon, who knew that political solutions are the only long-term remedy for political diseases. Colonialism is “a system of pathological relations masquerading as normality,” Shatz eloquently writes, and Fanon believed that the only cure for the Algerian ailment was revolution. He was a proponent of violence, not just in practice but in theory. In his view, anti-colonial violence was “a kind of medicine, rekindling a sense of power and self-mastery” that allowed the colonized to recover their dignity by way of self-assertion.

When war broke out in 1954, then, Fanon naturally sided with the FLN, or National Liberation Front. Initially, he clandestinely treated rebels at his hospital, but before long, members were holding meetings in the facilities with some regularity. Fanon was able to join the organization openly only after he fled to Tunisia in 1956. For the next few years, he served first as a kind of press officer and spokesperson, editing the rebel newspaper El Moudjahid, and then as the provisional Algerian government’s ambassador to Ghana.

But Fanon’s consuming commitment to the Algerian cause did not mean that his interest in psychiatry had waned. The abolition of imperialism was the best medicine, both for Algerians and for everyone else who lived under colonialism, but in the interim, its indignities smarted — and even after it was dismantled, its traumas would linger. While Fanon was working with the FLN, he was also working at the Charles Nicolle Hospital in Tunis. As a revolutionary and a physician, he sought to heal the same insuperable wounds.

But Fanon, too, had blind spots. He was prone to the same sort of self-serving romanticism he criticized in others, especially when it came to questions of gender. At a conference in 1956, he warned against the “exoticism” that occupiers often adopt toward native populations, but, in Shatz’s words, he stubbornly “refused to see” that many of his peers in the FLN opposed women’s empowerment. His work as a doctor led him to agitate for decolonization, a process he believed was necessary for the health of both the colonized and the colonialists, but, as Shatz notes, he never quite eased the glaring tension “between his commitment to healing and his belief in violence.”

On the one hand, he had no patience with traitors to the cause: He cut ties with a friend who fled Algeria when war broke out, and he turned a blind eye to a number of morally questionable decisions by the FLN in his capacity as spokesperson. Not only did he remain silent when an internecine dispute culminated in the murder of one of his friends in the organization, but he helped cover up the FLN leader’s involvement in a massacre of Algerians who supported a rival revolutionary faction.

But Fanon treated colonialists, even torturers, in his practice. He “did not discriminate between Algerians and Europeans: all, in his view, deserved compassion and care,” Shatz writes. All of them were victims of what Fanon called the “mental disorders of colonial warfare,” which plagued him in equal measure. In a world so sick, no one could be cured, not even the doctors.

Becca Rothfeld is the nonfiction book critic for The Washington Post.

The Rebel’s Clinic

The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon

By Adam Shatz

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 451 pp. $32

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