Ambivalent Fanonism: On Adam Shatz’s “The Rebel’s Clinic”

By Anthony AlessandriniFebruary 7, 2024

Ambivalent Fanonism: On Adam Shatz’s “The Rebel’s Clinic”

The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon by Adam Shatz

FRANTZ FANON ONCE overheard his secretary Marie-Jeanne Manuellan describing her dreams to colleagues at the Centre neuropsychiatrique de jour (CNPJ) in Tunis, where Fanon was the director. “You must never tell your dreams to anyone,” he instructed her—except a professional analyst. As for himself, he had not yet had the opportunity, but planned to do so. “As soon as I’m finished with this Algerian Revolution,” Fanon told Manuellan, “I will undergo analysis.”

This exchange, evoked by Adam Shatz in his new book The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon, captures the restless energy that makes Frantz Fanon such a compelling figure. Still in his early thirties at the time, Fanon had already committed himself body and soul to the Algerian Revolution. His support for the Front de libération nationale (FLN), which had launched a war for national liberation in November 1954, had led him to resign from his position as director of the Blida-Joinville Hospital. It also led to his expulsion from Algeria—soon after he fled the country, his hospital was raided by the French army—and his sojourn, along with other exiled members of the FLN leadership, in Tunis. There he joined the editorial committee of the FLN’s official publication El Moudjahid and wrote L’an V de la révolution algérienne (“Year Five of the Algerian Revolution,” 1959), a searing account of the revolution in progress.

But with his tireless capacity for doing many difficult things at once, Fanon also continued his groundbreaking work as a psychiatrist after leaving Algeria. The CNPJ, which he founded, was the first day clinic on the African continent; in its initial 18 months, more than a thousand patients were treated there. At the same time, his remark to Manuellan also suggests a youthful mind still eager to learn—not to mention a youthful capacity to imagine new adventures once the revolution to which he has committed himself has been won.

Three years later, Fanon was on his deathbed, struck down by leukemia. Manuellan was once again by his side, taking dictation while Fanon recited his final work, Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth). Fanon “wrote” his books by dictating them; his wife Josie transcribed his first book, Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks, 1952), but it was Manuellan, referred to by Fanon as his “tape recorder,” who typed up his later work. In her 2017 memoir Sous la dictée de Fanon (“Under Fanon’s Dictation”), Manuellan describes how, before Fanon’s illness struck him down, Fanon “paced and ‘spoke’ his book as if from his steps, from the rhythm of his body on the move.”

A body on the move: Fanon burned through his 36 years, with a life that swept him across three continents and multiple, often overlapping, destinies: soldier and doctor, poet and propagandist, psychiatrist and revolutionary. Born in Martinique in 1925, he was a decorated veteran of the Free French army before the age of 20, published his first book when he was 26, and was running a psychiatric hospital before turning 30. His tragically early death makes him a historical figure from the high age of decolonization but also, somehow, a contemporary. Had Fanon been gifted as many years as W. E. B. Du Bois, he would have lived well into the 21st century; had he been granted the longevity of Henry Kissinger, he would still be with us.

All this has made Fanon an irresistible subject for biographers. Three very different biographies were published within a dozen years of his death. Several others have followed, including John Edgar Wideman’s extraordinary metafiction Fanon (2008), featuring a narrator who is writing a Fanon biography. The Black revolutionary James Forman spent years researching a never-completed biography of Fanon before founding the Frantz Fanon Institute in 1970. David Macey produced a magisterial biography in 2000, and most recently, Jean Khalfa and Robert J. C. Young published Alienation and Freedom (2018), a collection of Fanon’s previously unpublished writing, including two plays that he wrote while he was in his early twenties, along with a plethora of Fanon’s clinical writings, which gave readers an expanded sense of Fanon’s far-ranging life and work.

The Rebel’s Clinic thus enters an already crowded field. But given Fanon’s continuing influence, from the seminar room to social media to the streets, few would object to another effort to tell the story of his extraordinary life. Adam Shatz is well positioned to do so, since he has been writing about Fanon’s life and work for two decades (his first article on Fanon was a review of Macey’s biography), and The Rebel’s Clinic is an impressive accomplishment. Shatz, the US editor of the London Review of Books, is one of the finest political essayists working today. His best pieces have a deftly allusive style, revealing a wide-ranging intelligence that Fanon would have admired.

Biographers and critics have generally zeroed in on particular aspects of Fanon’s life and work and dug in there. Macey’s biography, for example, devotes itself to restoring Fanon’s Martinican context as against the “Anglo-Americanized Fanon” that emerged from academic work since the 1980s. More recently, Muriam Haleh Davis has emphasized the “formative influence of the Algerian Revolution” upon Fanon and the extent to which that context has been left out of his US reception. By contrast, it takes a while to find the impetus driving Shatz’s new biography. That allusive style has something to do with this: the book’s prologue includes quotes from C. L. R. James, Georg Simmel, Ralph Ellison, Fredric Jameson, Jean-Paul Sartre, Orlando Patterson, Jean Améry, R. D. Laing, Amiri Baraka, Edward Said, and Antonio Gramsci in the space of just 10 pages. The range is impressive (if gendered) and has the virtue of putting Fanon into conversation with a variety of perspectives, but Fanon sometimes gets lost in the crowd.

Shatz emphasizes Fanon’s continuing influence but also the many ways in which “the world in which we live is not Fanon’s”; he tells us that he admires Fanon but adds that his “admiration for him is not unconditional, and his memory is not well served by sanctification.” The first few chapters—focusing on Fanon’s early life in Martinique, his wartime experiences (Fanon fled Vichy-controlled Martinique to join the Free French army; was wounded during the Allied invasion of France; and, in one of the many ironies of his life, was awarded the Croix de guerre by General Raoul Salan, who went on to become one of the most vicious defenders of French Algeria), and his time as a medical student in France—have a slightly tentative feel.

The book hits its stride when Fanon begins his medical career, once he takes up residence as an intern at Saint-Alban hospital in the South of France, working under the radical psychiatrist François Tosquelles. Shatz has a keen understanding of psychiatry and psychoanalytic theory, and he provides a vivid description of the “Resistance psychiatry” practiced at Saint-Alban, which became a refuge for dissidents; Tosquelles himself was a refugee from Franco’s Spain. Fanon and Tosquelles would go on to co-author a series of clinical papers, and Fanon’s development of what he called “social therapy” while working in Algeria acknowledged a debt to the “institutional therapy” that Tosquelles had founded at Saint-Alban.

The chapters that chronicle Fanon’s time in Algeria are the most powerful. Shatz has written about Algeria since the early 2000s, and he draws on this knowledge for his deft framing of Fanon’s experiences after arriving to work at the Blida-Joinville Hospital in 1953. His account reminds us that Fanon came to Algeria as, in essence, a French civil servant, which makes his subsequent defection to the Algerian Revolution all the more remarkable. Shatz does an excellent job of conveying the fierceness of Fanon’s commitment to Algeria but also the many ways in which he remained an outsider, unschooled about major aspects of Algerian culture and society—including, most obviously, Islam (the scholar Fouzi Slisli has noted this absence in Fanon’s work, referring to Islam as “the elephant in Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth).

Skillful as these chapters are in presenting Fanon’s shifting contexts, the man himself remains elusive. Throughout The Rebel’s Clinic, Shatz presents Fanon as reflected through the eyes of those around him. Impressions of his wartime experience come partly through Fanon’s letters home to his family, but as often via the memoir of Fanon’s childhood friend and fellow soldier Marcel Manville. Some of the most vivid images of Fanon’s time in France come from the memoir of Francis Jeanson, who edited Peau noire, masques blancs and later became part of the FLN’s support network in Europe. For Fanon’s later years, Shatz draws on further memoirs (and, in some cases, interviews) by those who knew Fanon, including his medical colleague Alice Cherki, who published her own biography of Fanon in 2000, and his FLN comrades Mohammed Harbi and Serge Michel, who have as many critical as complimentary things to say about Fanon.

The book’s many supporting characters are skillfully evoked. Tosquelles is particularly compelling: a playful figure with “wire-rim glasses, handlebar mustache, and impish grin,” “[a]n insatiable raconteur with a penchant for hyperbole.” Shatz presents the young Fanon through Tosquelles’s arch perspective: the colleague who introduced them said that their first conversation “sounded like a bullfight” but the older man grew to admire Fanon, singling out for praise the fact that his protégé lacked the “so-called virtue of patience.”

The most significant of these supporting figures is Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, Fanon’s “typewriter.” Shatz dedicates the book to her memory, alongside the Nigerian American curator and critic Okwui Enwezor and the Algerian poet and novelist Amina Mekahli. The book hints at the possibility that Fanon’s relationship with Manuellan had a romantic element; in her memoir, she describes a few attempts to go to bed together that came to nothing, but also wryly assured Shatz in an interview that even if there had been an affair, she would keep it a secret. Shatz shares this discretion, avoiding engagement with Fanon’s personal life, something no biographer has really managed to do. Again, it is Manuellan’s memoirs that provide the few intimate details: Fanon coming into her kitchen to teach her how to improve her vinaigrette, or crashing the Manuellans’ Christmas party and stealing the show by playing guitar and singing Caribbean beguines.

By contrast, Josie Fanon remains a ghostly figure. Shatz alludes to her work for the journal Afrique action (later renamed Jeune Afrique) and her continued commitment to the FLN after her husband’s death, but she remains peripheral here (a much more powerful and moving portrait of Josie Fanon can be found in Assia Djebar’s 1995 book Le blanc de l’Algérie). Shatz also avoids the allegations raised by Felix Germain in his 2016 book Decolonizing the Republic: African and Caribbean Migrants in Postwar Paris (1946–1974) that Fanon had a history of violence towards women. The Beninese writer Paulin Joachim, an acquaintance of Fanon, told Germain that he had seen Fanon hit Josie on a number of occasions, and concluded, “He was a very violent man.” The political theorist Robyn Marasco, in a forthcoming book, uses this as a jumping-off point for applying Fanon’s writings on violence to domestic life, and more specifically domestic violence. The Rebel’s Clinic, while it does superb work in conveying Fanon’s work as a clinician, avoids such domestic issues altogether.

Germain’s account of Fanon’s violence towards women is of course secondhand. But so too are nearly all the depictions of Fanon’s life in Shatz’s book. The reader is left with the overall impression of a biographer keeping a certain distance from his subject. In a way, this ambivalence is very Fanonian, and Shatz should be applauded for not simply sanctifying Fanon. His wide-lens approach allows for a much deeper understanding of the contexts within which Fanon operated in the various phases of his life. The Rebel’s Clinic is perhaps best described as an intellectual biography of Fanon and his circle. Such books are always needed.

One of the framing devices employed by Shatz throughout the book involves pairing Fanon with parallel figures whom he never actually met. For the chapters detailing Fanon’s years in France, and especially in the chapter discussing Black Skin, White Masks, James Baldwin becomes a recurring point of reference. Fanon’s wartime experiences are paralleled with those of Harold Cruse, the author of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership (1967). Sometimes, this counterpoint is clearly intended as a provocation: the acerbic words of V. S. Naipaul, an important figure throughout Shatz’s writing (the title of his previous book, last year’s Writers and Missionaries, is taken from an interview with Naipaul), are deployed several times as a foil for Fanon’s more utopian moments.

The most extended pairing is with the Tunisian writer Albert Memmi, whom Shatz describes as “Fanon’s doppelgänger.” It is not a new comparison: Memmi’s best-known book, 1957’s Portrait du colonisé, précédé de portrait du colonisateur (translated as The Colonizer and the Colonized), is often compared with Fanon’s work (Memmi told people that Fanon had stolen his ideas, until he discovered that Black Skin, White Masks had been published five years before The Colonizer and the Colonized). The parallels Shatz locates between Memmi and Fanon are persuasive, although their lives and work took radically different paths (in part because Memmi, though he was five years older, outlived Fanon by six decades). The difference is best encapsulated by Memmi’s 1973 essay “The Impossible Life of Frantz Fanon,” a thinly veiled attack disguised as a tribute. In many ways, Memmi’s presence in the book helps Shatz articulate some of his own ambivalence towards Fanon, and Memmi provides one of the most memorable phrases in The Rebel’s Clinic: during the bloodiest days of the Algerian Revolution, he described the choice facing the leftist intellectual as “not between good and evil, but between evil and uneasiness.”

Shatz’s productive ambivalence towards his subject revolves around two central aspects of Fanon’s life and work: his unsparing political commitments and his unblinking engagement with violence. Shatz rightly portrays the costs exacted by Fanon’s wholehearted embrace of the FLN. As a spokesperson for the revolution, Fanon played a part in obfuscating a bloody attack by FLN forces on Algerian villagers who supported a competing political faction, and, in an act that clearly pained him, he helped to cover up the murder of his friend and comrade Abane Ramdane by rival members of the FLN leadership who were wary of Ramdane’s popularity and independence.

Such acts are hardly in keeping with the cleansing power of anti-colonial violence, a position that is often attributed to Fanon by his fans and his haters alike. But Fanon’s engagement with violence is much more complex and ambivalent than that. Shatz engages with this complexity and is a close and sensitive reader of Fanon’s work, taking note in particular of “Colonial War and Mental Disorders,” the final chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, where Fanon reassumes his role as a clinician in setting out harrowing case studies that show the human cost of the war. But his overall tendency is to slide back into the more conventional description of Fanon as an “advocate” for violence.

This is where Shatz’s technique of setting Fanon against more skeptical figures like Naipaul and Memmi has its cost since it presents Fanon as a more monolithic thinker than he actually was. Some of the best critical work on Fanon has noted the multivocal qualities of his writing, which turns back upon itself and sometimes openly contradicts itself. Ato Sekyi-Otu has described Fanon’s body of work as one long dramatic dialogue, and Gavin Arnall, in his 2020 book Subterranean Fanon: An Underground Theory of Radical Change, describes two competing voices that engage in a never-ending argument throughout Fanon’s writing. It is not simply that Fanon was “a partisan of violence who was horrified by violence,” as Simone de Beauvoir wrote after meeting him. He was indeed a partisan figure, but one whose commitments brought him to become simultaneously a combatant and a healer in an anti-colonial war—that is to say, a war against “violence in its natural state,” to use Fanon’s own description. He lived that contradiction, in his thought and in his body, throughout his life and his work.

“Our world is not Fanon’s,” Shatz reiterates in the book’s conclusion. True, and he is right to acknowledge the continuing power of Fanon’s thought while avoiding simply mapping Fanon’s ideas onto our own time. And yet. As I write this, the genocide being carried out in Gaza by the state of Israel, aided and abetted by the rest of the world, continues unchecked. The naked violence that is colonialism has hardly passed into history. This is the milieu into which Fanon threw himself day after day of his too-short life, where for many violence is the very stuff of their everyday existence. Such violence is not confined to the battlefield: what is the act of racialization as Fanon describes it in Black Skin, White Masks, after all, but an act of violence?

In “Why We Use Violence,” a speech that Fanon delivered in Ghana in 1960, he memorably describes the “three-dimensional violence” of colonialism: “Violence in everyday behavior, violence against the past that is emptied of all substance, violence against the future, for the colonial regime presents itself as necessarily eternal.” Such three-dimensional violence is still constitutive of our world today. It’s not that Fanon provides us with the answers but that he instead forces us to ask what might happen if we fight our way through the violence, rather than turn away. The narrator of Wideman’s Fanon puts it well: “Fanon because no way out of this goddamn mess […] and Fanon found it.” From the pages of The Rebel’s Clinic, as from the pages of his work, Fanon stares out at us, much as he does in the few photos of him that still exist: unblinking, unsparing, his eyes asking us why we haven’t done more to remake the world.

LARB Contributor

Anthony Alessandrini is a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College and of Middle Eastern studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he is also a member of the Committee on Globalization and Social Change. He is the author of Frantz Fanon and the Future of Cultural Politics: Finding Something Different (2014), the editor of Frantz Fanon: Critical Perspectives (1999), and the co-editor of “Resistance Everywhere”: The Gezi Protests and Dissident Visions of Turkey (2013). Alessandrini is a faculty member of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, a co-organizer of the International Solidarity Action Research Network (ISARN), and a co-editor of Jadaliyya e-zine.

Share

LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?


LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!