- Frantz Fanon: A Biography
The life and work of Frantz Fanon has put him at the center of a myriad of postcolonial and postmodern debates and interdisciplinary studies. Some writers have hailed Fanon as the Third World’s greatest revolutionary philosopher. The Black Power advocates of the 1960s also made use of Fanon’s ideas in the urban conclaves of the U.S. David Macey, a British scholar who describes himself as “white European” (500), has a more restrained biographical account of Fanon that is fundamentally lacking in an appreciation of his passion for social justice and the humanity of colonized peoples. At bottom, Macey misplaces Fanon’s fervent polemics against European/French colonialism and notions of white supremacy for hatred. In his conclusion, as often the end is actually the beginning, Macey writes: “He [Fanon] certainly had a talent for hate and he did advocate and justify a violence that I can no longer justify”(505). This is a crucial sentence as it reveals the essence of the biographer’s focus. That is, to deconstruct Fanon not as a man of his times, but as man of Macey’s times. For example, he ends this rather long-winded biography (especially when compared to the superbly written, and over two-thirds shorter, companion by Patrick Ehlen, Frantz Fanon: A Spiritual Biography (New York: Crossroad, 2000) by analyzing the contemporary Algerian situation and the continued social problems associated with this postcolonial society. To do this is unfair to both Fanon and his legacy. After all, he was writing at a time of acute anti-colonial struggle and his life was ebbing away as he completed The Wretched of the Earth manuscript in 1961.
In reading Macey’s biography one is confronted by an underlying pomposity and intellectual arrogance. For instance, he writes: “The crop of books and articles—and one film—on Fanon contains very little that is of relevance to a biographer, not least because they construct a Fanon who exists outside time and space and in a purely textual dimension” (27). The film that Macey is referring to is by Issac Julien (a Black British gay filmmaker), and although the documentary explores themes about sexuality and ambiguity in Fanon’s work, it also includes interviews with members of Fanon’s family. Indeed it interacts with his writings and aspects of his life experience. Now is that not worthy material to a biographer? Even if Macey himself explores more about Fanon’s relationship with the Algerian independence struggle and the FLN, that should not give him license to simply dismiss the works by other writers and filmmakers covering related aspects of his life as irrelevant. Interestingly, Macey also indirectly puts Fanon in textual context by constantly referring to his works throughout his biographical portrait.
Macey gives the impression of having delved deep into aspects of Fanon’s life, but the reader is always left asking in response to his analysis, “What is it you are endeavoring to say on the deeper level?” Indeed there is much to the narrative that could have been developed much more succinctly. Due to this style of prose the book often fails to capture the reader’s attention as it focuses on tedious irrelevancies such as writing in French when English would have sufficed. In this sense one is left, if not fluent in French, to interpret book, chapter and article headings strewn throughout the pages of Macey’s volume when having translated these into English would have kept the flow of reading at a steady pace. Instead, one is constantly interrupted by unnecessary French citations. However, those readers who have French as a foreign language may actually find this a stimulating and attractive aside to the writing.
Regardless of these problems, the book is still worth reading as it gives a deeper perspective into Fanon’s experience in Algeria and his relationship with the FLN. Moreover, there is something useful in Macey’s staid analysis as it provides a less romanticized comprehension of Fanon and his legacy. Maybe that is the enduring fascination and at the same time problem...