Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Frantz Fanon: Provincializing Nietzsche (13/13)

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“Each age has its peculiar opacities and its urgent missions. The parts we play in the design and direction of historical transformations are shadowed by the contingency of events and the quality of our characters. Sometimes we break the mold; at others, our will is broken. What enables us to aspire to the fraught and fervent desire for freedom is the belief that human beings are capable of imagining what Fanon once described as a ‘time [that] must no longer be that of the moment or the next harvest but rather of the rest of the world.’”

— Homi Bhabha, “Foreword” to Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961)

Frantz Fanon’s (1925-1961) thought and writings are indeed marked by an orientation toward a possible future both in time and space, captured so poignantly in the closing chapter of Black Skin, White Masks (1952)—his call to constantly introduce “invention into life,” to “endlessly create myself,” to “build the world of you”—and in the closing line of The Wretched of the Earth: “comrades, we must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavor to create a new man.” Fanon’s call on the colonized countries to “start over a new history of man” is striking, and naturally brings to mind many of the themes we have been discussing in Nietzsche 13/13.

One might ask, though, regarding Fanon’s brilliant work that strives to put Europe and European thought behind, why look back to Nietzsche? Why look back to a Europe from which these new men and women must emancipate themselves? Why go back to the 19th century, the time of some of the worst imperialist conquests? The answer, ultimately, may be that we should not. And it may well be that with Fanon and his remarkable, radical intellectual and biographical historical trajectory we may finally be able to get beyond Nietzsche. Perhaps, we may even be able to level that necessary critique, that overdue critique, of the Nietzsche 13/13 project: with Fanon—and our guests, Emily Apter, Homi Bhabha, and Brandon Terry, and others, such as Dipesh Chakrabarty—we may be able to not only provincialize Europe and European historical narratives, but also provincialize Nietzsche 13/13. The “Nietzsche Effect” and our critical engagements with Nietzsche may not, indeed, be universalizable or located beyond a certain time and geography. They may be, or maybe should be localized and provincialized.

But even with Frantz Fanon, it was not always that way…


Fanon’s first book, in fact—Black Skin, White Masks, published by Le Seuil in 1952 when Fanon was only 27 years old—was book-ended by Nietzsche. A certain Freudo-marxian Nietzsche, a Nietzsche embedded in a psychoanalytic perspective—but a Nietzsche nonetheless. Nietzsche is both the first philosopher explicitly mentioned in text and the final philosopher who closes the last page of the conclusion. “Man’s misfortune, Nietzsche said, was that he was once a child,” Fanon writes in the opening pages of the introduction, before naming Freud or even mentioning disalienation. And Fanon closes his book, after returning to the theme of disalienation, again with the penultimate thought that “At the start of his life, a man is always congested, drowned in contingency. The misfortune of man is that he was once a child.”

Nietzsche, Freud, Marx—the great nineteenth century thinkers of suspicion—accompany Fanon. And as they did, Fanon too would unmask. Unmask those “white masks” brought on by European colonialisms and their attendant complexes of inferiority. Much like Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and building on that even earlier critical tradition, Fanon would seek to lift the veil from our eyes, to emancipate us from our self-incurred immaturity—from our childhood.

For Fanon, the task would not be easy—in part because of the peculiar history of French slavery and colonialism. As Fanon would show in the penultimate section of Black Skin, White Masks, titled “The Black Man and Hegel,” the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave would not play itself out in the same way in the French context, because the French lord as well as the colonized (and here, Fanon drew a distinction with the American experience) is “basically different from the one described by Hegel.” The colonizer does not seek recognition, and the colonized is far more dependent on him. In the French context, Fanon, writes, “the black man does not know the price of freedom because he has never fought for it.” It has just been given to him—in diluted and make-believe ways.

The Hegelian dialectic cannot play itself out—but leads, in this case, only to a purely reactional phase full of ressentiment. And it is therefore to Nietzsche and his will to power that Fanon turns to articulate a positive, “actional” call to arms. “Nietzsche had already said it in The Will to Power,” Fanon writes at the end of the last chapter on “The Black Man and Recognition.” Fanon adds—once again, accompanied by Nietzsche:

“To induce man to be actional, by maintaining in his circularity the respect of the fundamental values that make the world human, that is the task of utmost urgency for he who, after careful reflection, prepares to act.”

It is this positive, willful call to action that Fanon leaves us with in 1952: a call to introduce “invention into life,” to “build the world of you, man,” to always question, to disalienate, to “touch the other, feel the other, discover each other.” To “take a stand against this living death.” To be “a revolutionary.”

In 1952, Fanon is still in conversation with Nietzsche, and with Freud and Marx—Marx, for instance, who receives the epigraph to Fanon’s conclusion (from The Eighteenth of Brumaire)—as well as, of course, with Aimé Césaire, his professor at the Lycée Schoelcher in Fort-de-France and mentor, perhaps even more central a figure. Césaire is present throughout. Césaire’s poetry is at the heart of the work. The Dionysian in Césaire enriches the soul of the book. In fact, Fanon opens his masterpiece, Black Skin, White Masks, with an epigraph from Aimé Césaire’s just published and radical manifesto, Discourse on Colonialism (1950 Éditions Réclame; 1955 Présence Africaine). The passage is sharp and conveys well the intervention that is to follow. Aimé Césaire writes, and Fanon places his book under this sign:

“I am talking about millions of men whom they have knowingly instilled with fear and a complex of inferiority, whom they have infused with despair and trained to tremble, to kneel and behave like flunkeys.”

Black Skin returns to the Dionysian poetics of Césaire. It harkens back to Césaire’s conception of “Négritude,” which we discussed at the last Nietzsche 13/13—in fact, the continuity from that last seminar is striking. It is in Césaire that Fanon finds the best expression of cultural imposition and of the task ahead: to go all the way down, to reach rock bottom, but to come back up and overcome—bringing “the black man” with him, “lift[ing] him up to the skies.” “Rise/ Rise/ Rise,” that is the sentiment, and one can almost hear Zarathustra as well in those passages. It is there that Fanon will dig to find the moment when the black man discovers the white man within him, and kills him. “I struck, the blood spurted: it is the only baptism that today I remember,” Césaire writes in And the Dogs Were Silent, and Fanon rehearses in Black Skin.

But notice that it is Nietzsche who Fanon places first in text. In the Introduction, a few pages in: “Man’s misfortune, Nietzsche said, was that he was once a child.” And Fanon closes on this very thought, on the final page of the conclusion. Fanon knows, of course, that for Nietzsche, this childfulness was also a virtue. Fanon knew of the passage from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, with its three metamorphoses that reflect our spiritual transformation—from the camel, to the lion, to the child. For Nietzsche, in certain passages, the child represents something positive: “The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a Sacred Yes” (Zarathustra, 55). The child is the spirit of creativity and independence, of willing its own will.

Fanon builds on this notion of metamorphoses from a psychoanalytic perspective to turn the child from the end of the cycle to another beginning. Childhood represents another stage of spiritual transformation, one that is marked from a Freudian perspective by the possibility of complexes and disorders. It is a time of congestion and contingency. “At the start of his life, a man is always congested, drowned in contingency,” Fanon writes.  So, “It is through self-consciousness and renunciation, through a permanent tension of his freedom, that man can create the ideal conditions of existence for a human world.” Through self-consciousness and maturity, man should learn to get beyond these complexes of inferiority and superiority, and achieve full humanity: “Superiority? Inferiority? Why not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover the other?”

In quick succession, in those first few pages of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon cycles through all three masters of suspicion:  Nietzsche on page xiv, Freud on the next page (“Reacting against the constitutionalizing trend at the end of the nineteenth century, Freud demanded that the individual factor be taken into account in psychoanalysis,” xv), and then, on the opening page of Chapter 1, Fanon alludes directly to Marx: “It’s no longer a question of knowing the world, but of transforming it.” That is, of course, a silent reference to Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, written in the Spring of 1845, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Nietzsche, Freud, Marx—Fanon too is unmasking: unmasking the white mask of European superiority. He is engaging in an emancipatory act through an unveiling. Revealing the false consciousness of the colonized subject who wants to be white, or to have a white woman or man. Disrobing all these layers of confusion. The task is very similar.

Psychoanalysis plays a large role—Fanon was, after all, a psychiatrist, not an economist, nor, strictly speaking, a moral philosopher, and not a philologist. A psychiatrist with a psychoanalytic inclination. “We believe, in fact,” Fanon writes, “that only a psychoanalytic interpretation of the black problem can reveal the affective disorders responsible for this network of complexes.” And Marx plays a major role through the notion of alienation and disalienation. Alienation occurs to the black intellectual because “he takes European culture as a means of detaching himself from his own race.” Alienation in the working-class black man happens “because he is victim to a system based on the exploitation of one race by another and the contempt for one branch of humanity by a civilization that considers itself superior.” In the same way in which Marx strove for disalienation in his early writings, Fanon seeks to disalienate the black man. And Fanon closes with an epigraph from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire which extolls the virtue of the future over the past: “The social revolution cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future.” As for Nietzsche, well, Fanon’s project rings of overcoming our present humanity and going beyond our present morality in order to strive for that someone beyond—perhaps not an over-man, a superman, but surely a new wo/man. The idea, it seems, is to get beyond notions of superiority and inferiority. Not to respond that black culture is in fact superior or equal to European culture; but to overcome the comparison itself. To get beyond these moral judgments. Not to refute them, not to invert them, to get over them entirely—as if they never existed.

Not to invert. “In our view,” Fanon writes, “an individual who loves Blacks is as ‘sick’ as someone who abhors them.” The idea is to break the cycle, not continue it. To get beyond it, not to replicate it:

“Our sole concern was to put an end to a vicious cycle.

Fact: some Whites consider themselves superior to Blacks.

Another fact: some Blacks want to prove at all costs to the Whites the wealth of the black man’s intellect and equal intelligence.

How can we break the cycle?” Fanon, Black Skin, p. xiv.

Fanon asks the Nietzschean question of the value of values.  You can hear it well in Black Skin, White Masks, as Fanon questions the value of intelligence itself, and philosophy as well (“philosophy never saved anybody … neither did intelligence save anybody”). But Fanon wants to make sure these are not white or black values. “My life must not be devoted to making an assessment of black values.”


However, if Fanon ends Black Skin, White Masks with a discussion of the Hegelian dialectic and a Nietzschean resolution of that dialectic focused on The Will to Power, things are very different nine years later at the end of his life with the publication of The Wretched of the Earth. The thrust now, in 1961, is to discard Europe and European thought. “Comrades,” Fanon writes, “let us flee this stagnation where dialectics has gradually turned into a logic of the status quo.” With few exceptions—Jean-Paul Sartre being one—Fanon calls his comrades in arms to leave Europe behind. “If we want to respond to the expectations of our peoples, we must look elsewhere besides Europe.” And that includes, I would argue, thinkers like Hegel, but also Nietzsche. Nietzsche, it turns out, really does not figure in the final work.

There are a few gestures to some old friends and mentors. Fanon makes passing references to Césaire. “Césaire’s poetry takes on a prophetic significance in this very prospect of violence,” Fanon still writes, quoting at length Césaire’s And the Dogs Were Silent. And there are generous gestures especially to Sartre and even to his Critique of Dialectical Reason—perhaps because it is a critique of dialectics, which he says we must overcome.

But by 1961, Fanon has distanced himself sharply from the “bards of Negritude” and the entire “cultural” approach, as he says, of Césaire and Senghor. He attacks Senghor in the opening chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, calling him a “colonized intellectual” who had no authentic connection to the struggle of colonial subjects and was still beholden to “Western values.” Just a few years earlier, in 1959, Fanon had already accused the “bards of Négritude” of failing to understand the national dimensions of the culture and politics of independence of the times.

We know the reasons well: Fanon’s nationalism is opposed to a cross-national or pan-African cultural identity, and even more so to the kind of politics of departmentalization that Césaire advocated for the Antilles. This not only from a political, but also from a pragmatic point of view. Fanon adopts the “paradoxical proposition: In a colonized country, nationalism in its basic, most rudimentary, and undifferentiated form is the most forceful and effective way of defending national culture.” And also because Fanon embraces a revolutionary, militantly engaged vision of the intellectual who must be part of and mobilized with the people in a violent struggle against colonialism.

In the end, there may be some shared sensibilities with Nietzsche. Certainly not on the nationalism front, but perhaps on the overcoming of conventional tensions—such as the old dichotomy between capitalism and socialism, which, as Homi Bhabha emphasizes, Fanon urges us to overcomes in order to finally and properly redistribute wealth; and with this idea of overcoming Europe in order to create a new man, or what Fanon calls “a new history of man.” It may also be possible, as Homi Bhabha suggests, to use Fanon’s work toward a Nietzschean or Foucaultian project of writing “a genealogy for globalization that reaches back to the complex problems of decolonization (rather than the simpler story of the death of communism and the triumph of free-market neoliberalism”). There do seem to be some family resemblances or shared sensibilities.

One does hear them still in The Wretched of the Earth. The project is to get past the past—to forge new models, new paradigms. To innovate, to be pioneers, as Fanon explicitly states. On the closing page of his book, Fanon writes “Let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions, and societies that draw their inspiration from it. […] [I]f we want humanity to take one step forward, if we want to take it to another level than the one where Europe has placed it, then we much innovate, we must be pioneers.” There is, in Fanon, this Nietzschean impulse to get beyond the resentment of reactivity, in the Hegelian dialectic. One hears a ring of Nietzsche on invention and knowledge as well. “I must constantly remind myself that the real leap consists of introducing invention into life.”

But why, we should ask, does it matter? Why even seek out those shared sensibilities—if all the work can be done by Fanon alone? Although Nietzsche nourished Fanon’s thought in Black Skin, White Masks, arguably Fanon let go of Nietzsche, along with Europe, in his last book, The Wretched of the Earth. So perhaps it is time for us to ask: Why not also leave Nietzsche behind? To borrow a term from Dipesh Chakrabarty’s book, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000), why not provincialize Nietzsche, and with him Nietzsche 13/13.

With that thought, welcome to Nietzsche 8/13!

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