It is no small stretch to assert a common assumption, in the Anglophone world especially, that Fanon was an “incidental psychiatrist” (Keller, 2007b, p. 825), at best. Detailed biographies of Fanon by David Macey (2000) and Alice Cherki (2006), alongside scholarly works such as those of Bird-Pollan (2014), Bulhan (1986), Hook (2011), Keller (2007a), Renault (2011), and Vergès (1991), have helped to re-establish a more even-handed approach to Fanon’s psychiatric works as part of his oeuvre. In the 1980s, Homi Bhabha, perhaps more than anyone in the English-speaking world, helped reinsert the psychoanalytic into our understanding of Fanon by emphasizing his debt to Lacan. Readers could no longer ignore the significance of Fanon’s engagement with psychoanalytic practice and psychoanalytic theory, even if Fanon was not a professionally trained psychoanalyst and never underwent
Additionally, Hussein Bulhan’s Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression
(1986) remains one of the most important engagements with Fanon’s psychiatric work. Even so, Fanon’s own writings on psychiatry have been up until now barely discussed. In the sections that follow, I address several of these neglected psychiatric writings through a mostly chronological and biographical scaffold.
Training at Lyon
Frantz Fanon left Martinique in 1944, at the age of 18, to join the Free French Army. By the time he had been deployed in North Africa and France, and after taking part in the Battle of Alsace in 1945, his initial enthusiasm for French civilization had turned bitter, and in a letter to his mother he wrote that he doubted “everything, even myself” and the decision “to fight for an obsolete ideal” (Joby Fanon, 2014, p. 34). After the war, he returned briefly to the Martinican capital of Fort de France to work on Aimé Césaire’s election bid for mayor under the Communist ticket, and in 1946, he returned to France to pursue a medical degree at the University of Lyon.4
While at Lyon he continued studies in philosophy (especially phenomenology and existentialism), politics, and psychoanalysis, reading Marx, Sartre, Freud, and Lacan, and alongside his degree courses, he also enrolled in classes with Merleau-Ponty. Before completing his medical training, he switched to psychiatry and joined Lyon’s psychiatry department, then headed by Professor Dechaume, a specialist in neurology who was fascinated by psychosurgery. The whole psychiatry department was “based on a very organicist approach to neuro-psychiatry” (Razanajao, Postel, and Allen, 1996, p. 500), with absolutely no interest in psychoanalytical inquiry or methods. The professional training of psychiatrists could simply be summed up as consisting of the conviction that under any circumstance the patient should be committed to the psychiatric institution. While under Dechaume’s supervision, Fanon submitted a draft (in late 1950) of what would become parts of Black Skin, White Masks titled “Contribution to the study of Psychological Mechanisms likely to generate a healthy understanding between the different members of the French Community” as his doctoral thesis. It was rejected for political reasons. In response, he quickly wrote up a study on Friedreich’s ataxia (a neurophysiological disorder) and delusions of possession that met Dechaume’s approval: “Troubles mentaux et syndromes psychiatrique dans l’Hérédo-Dégéneration-Spino Cérébelleuse” (Mental Disorders and Psychiatric Syndromes in Hereditary Spinocerebellar Degeneration) (1951).
A section of Fanon’s dissertation discusses the “limits of neurology and psychiatry” through three representatives, Kurt Goldstein (whose theory of neuropsychology was based on Gestalt theory), Henry Ey, and Jacques Lacan.5
“Few men are as contentious as Lacan,” Fanon writes in the dissertation, summing up Lacan’s position, perhaps mistakenly, as “a defense of the rights of madness to exist in man” (see Fanon, 2018, p. 263). Asserting that “misrecognition is at the foundation of Lacan’s thought,” he argues, “Lacan goes beyond the concept of the image, making the projectional phenomena described by Levy-Bruhl as a corollary of primitive thought, the cornerstone of his system. He links the unhappy consciousness to a conception of magic” (see 2018, p. 269). Whereas Fanon does not develop this argument further, he does suggest that “[i]nternally Lacan seems to inhabit the meeting place of Hegel and Levy-Bruhl” (see 2018, p. 269). Lacan’s discussion, in Fanon’s view, “centers on the very limits of freedom, in other words, humanity’s responsibility” (2018, p. 270).
While Lacan is discussed, Fanon does not engage Freud in the dissertation, and it should be noted that the only direct quote from Freud in Black Skin, White Masks
(for which Fanon provides no citation) comes from the first and second lectures of Freud’s (1990) Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis
(originally published in 1910).6
If, for (the 1895) Freud, “there is determined Erlebnis at the origin of every neurosis” (Fanon, 2008, p. 123) – even if the “first trauma [is] … expelled from the consciousness and memory of the patient” (Freud, quoted in Fanon, 2008, p. 123) – then the event for the Black is “the traumatic contact with the white” (2008, p. 164), both as a continuing process and as the slow absorption of cultural stereotypes (alongside a “brutal awareness of social and economic realities” [2018, p. xiv]). While obviously critical of so-called scientific explanations of race based in phrenology and brain weight, Fanon was dismissive of the liberal colonial culturalist idea that neurosis and alienation were simply a result of prejudice, or the effect of European “modernization” and “civilization” on a colonized people (2008, 2007, pp. 31–44).7
“The North African Syndrome,” an essay written at the same time as Black Skin, White Masks, and published in February 1952, before being included as the first chapter in Fanon’s subsequent book Toward the African Revolution (1967), is a political-ethical critique of contemporary medical practices, which includes parodies of common attitudes about North Africans among medical professionals as lazy and criminal. Referring to a doctoral thesis from a Dr. Mugniery (who defended at Lyon in the same year as Fanon), Fanon quotes Mugniery’s concern about the North African’s considerable sexual needs, and the stereotypical conclusion that granting French citizenship to a “civilization still primitive … seems to have been precipitous” (p. 9). “The North African Syndrome” does not directly attack the then dominant ethnopsychiatric theories promoted by Professor Porot and the Algiers school of colonial psychology (about which we will say more shortly), but there is a direct connection between Fanon’s criticism of the racist and orientalist attitudes toward North Africans in France, and the theories of the Arab mind promulgated by the Algiers school, notably the idea of racial/cultural hierarchy in terms of anatomic-physiology, i.e., the absence of cortical integration.
Fanon begins the essay with a belief that the human dilemma can be reduced to this existential question: “Have I not, because of what I have done or failed to do, contributed to the impoverishment of human reality … (H)ave I, in all circumstances, called forth the human inside me” (1967, p. 3). For Fanon, it is not enough to understand that the Algerian’s “impulsivity” is a product of the colonial situation. Rather, he implores his readers to change the way they act, and take a stand against the alienated social reality that has created it. To change the world always requires openness to self-critique. Disalienation or demystification, as he puts it in The Wretched of the Earth, means “to demystify (de-alienate), and to harry the insult that exists in oneself” (1968, p. 304). “The North African Syndrome,” Fanon argues, is based on a priori diagnosis founded on an idea: “The North African [is] … a foundation built by the European. In other words, the North African enters spontaneously, by his very presence, into a pre-existing framework” (1967, p. 4). The racist and dehumanizi...