A life of struggle

David Macey by now has the art of the intellectual biography down pat. Jacues Lacan and Michel Foucault number among his previous subjects, and both resultant texts, like the more recent Frantz Fanon: A Life (now out in paperback), have yielded illuminating histories of the subject in question. Fanon stands apart from both Lacan and Foucault, of course, in that any due attempt to remember his life cannot be reduced to an intellectual biography.
For, as Macey makes expressely clear, Fanon was more revolutionary than scholar.

Macey wears his voracious research on his sleeve. His engagement with Fanon’s life includes the consideration of a wide range of literary sources, fictional and otherwise, connected — quite tenuously at points — to Fanon’s birthplace of Martinique, his writings and his psychiatric work. The second half of the book elaborately tracks the political machinations of the Algerian war of independence. Frequently this attention to historical and circumstantial detail feels exasperating, and one is left querying the kind of record one is reading.

At times a story of ideas, at others a political history, or an account of a war, the book makes for curiously little of a personal history. Macey wisely avoids the biographer’s trap of building a personality around his subject; and by the book’s end, although we have a sense of Fanon’s impressive ability to move between worlds of the soldier, the intellectual, the psychiatrist, the journalist, the diplomat — and the book’s chapters neatly plot this trajectory — we are ultimately left with no lasting psychological thumbprint of what Fanon the man was actually like. One often gets more a sense of the myriad events and characters moving around Fanon, than of Fanon as any singular maker of history. In fact at times he seems to fall out of the narrative altogether. In a strange way this seems not wholeheartedly inappropriate, given that more than anything this is a “biography” of a slice of imperial history, in which Fanon plays an important if not absolutely crucial role. Macey’s intimation — and it is an astute one — is that the anti-colonial struggle is always about more than individual heroes.

Fanon is never simply valorised in the book, the value of his role in the de-colonising Algerian struggle is not overplayed, just as the shortcomings in his intellectual work are not simply glossed-over. In this respect the book is successful in its attempt to avoid producing hagiography. Macey does well to accentuate the ambiguity of how Fanon has been consigned to history. Conspicuous by his near apparent (historical) absence in his native Martinique, Fanon remains alternately lionised and reviled, remembered and forgotten, seemingly misread and misappropriated, across contexts as diverse as Islamic fundamentalism, post-revolutionary Algeria, the Black Consciousness Movement, and the academic sphere of post-colonial studies. Fanon’s history should, one feels, be difficult, contrary, less categorical than the imperatives suggested above, and this is another quality for which Macey’s book should be commended — its careful avoidance of stereotype in assessing Fanon’s historical legacy.

Perhaps the book’s two most valuable chapters are those that deal directly with Fanon’s most important texts, Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth. These chapters are effective introductions to Fanon’s most abiding critical themes: the lived experience of the black man, the oppressive and alienating force of the white gaze, the psychological effects of the colonial situation and the literature of negritude (in the case of the former), the cultural politics of colonisation, national consciousness and the cleansing or therapeutic promise of violence (in the case of the latter). These preoccupations are linked to their direct theoretical precursors — most notably the phenomenology of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, but also to variations of psychoanalysis — in ways which increase the overall accessibility of the ideas.

Somewhat irritating are Macey’s rather transparent attempts to impose the unique incisiveness, the authenticity, of his own narrative. He cannot resist adding a rather unnecessary afterword, which allows him to smuggle a sliver of his own (auto)biography into the narrative. We are alerted to the fact of his well-thumbed copies of The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks, bought in a spring in Paris of 1970 — an indication, one supposes, that Fanon has been an intellectual interest of Macey’s all these years, despite what he takes to be Fanon’s current apparent unpopularity. (The last assertion seems a disingenuous claim; a burgeoning series of recent titles suggests an unprecedented market for Fanon scholarship). The ultimate function of this afterword, one suspects, is to provide a rather oblique answer to the question — which he obviously anticipates — as to why a white First World intellectual should take on the responsibility of representing Fanon.

This is clearly an important question, but Macey’s cagey handling of the issue — his “at arm’s length” exposure to blatant racism, his sensitivity to the fact that it “should make one angry to read Fanon”, begs more questions than it answers. A case in point is Macey’s self-promoting side-sweep at post-colonial studies. Perhaps Fanon does seem domesticated in this field, his image constrained from fiery revolutionary to the classroom of ideas, but the political urgency of Fanon’s life seems no reason not to also take seriously, and studiously, his intellectual importance as writer of revolutionary texts.

As Macey himself suggests, there are “many Fanons”. Ultimately, if anything, it is Macey’s own insidious suggestion of the superiority of his engagement with the man and his life that forms the strongest detractor from what is otherwise an auspicious biographical achievement. Here a delicate politics of representation seems, however, momentarily, eclipsed by an appropriative impulse.

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