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.

Becca Rothfeld reviews Adam Shatz’s new biography of Frantz Fanon in The Washington Post: 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. More here.

Adam Kirsch’s review of The Rebel’s Clinic in Air Mail: During Algeria’s struggle for independence from France, in the 1950s, Fanon emerged as the most formidable and incendiary theorist of decolonization. A practicing psychiatrist as well as a spokesman for the F.L.N., the Algerian liberation movement, he argued in his last book, The Wretched of the Earth, that for a colonized people, violent struggle isn’t just a political necessity. It is therapeutic, a way of restoring the psychic wholeness shattered by colonial rule. “The colonized man liberates himself in and through violence,” Fanon writes, and the book often revels in descriptions of killing: “In its bare reality, decolonization reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives”; “for the colonized, life can only materialize from the rotting cadaver of the colonist.” For Fanon, who practiced psychiatry at the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital, in Algeria, there could be no cure for the neuroses and psychoses of an oppressed people without liberation from colonial rule…

…The question of violence lies at the heart of The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon, Shatz’s excellent and thought-provoking new biography. Books take years to write and months to publish, so an author can never be sure what kind of world his or her work will be released into. But the October 7 attack has made a book about Fanon all too timely, and The Rebel’s Clinic should be read by anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the intellectual origins of today’s “decolonial left,” whether they sympathize with it or not…

…Far from growing more comfortable, Fanon took furious note of every racial insult he received—at school, at work, on the street. In his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, published in 1952, he drew on the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to analyze these experiences, concluding that a Black man in France was condemned to profound alienation. As Shatz writes, “his only way of being recognized as a man” is to mimic whiteness, while knowing that “whiteness remains forever out of reach.” More here.

Daniel Trilling’s review in the FT can be found here.