Lit Can Both Enslave and Liberate


As many of you know, for the past two years I have been working on a book about literature’s impact on life. The first half of the book, which focuses on what thinkers over the centuries have said on the subject, will be the textbook my upcoming Senior Seminar (on Theories of the Reader). This has given me a hard deadline, always a good thing.

I share today a summation of the section on Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born psychiatrist, philosopher, and revolutionary whose Wretched of the Earth (1961) helped colonies struggling for independence see themselves in a new light. I focus particularly on what Fanon says about literature, both written and oral, but he also has observations on pottery, dance, and other art forms.

Fanon saw literature as a double-edged sword, a force so powerful that it could be used both to enslave and to liberate a people. The colonial powers used their own culture as a means of disempowering the people they had conquered and silencing native authors. It was a form of soft power that served to consolidate the military victories:

Every effort is made to bring the colonized person to admit the inferiority of his culture which has been transformed into instinctive patterns of behavior, to recognize the unreality of his “nation,” and, in the last extreme, the confused and imperfect character of his own biological structure.

Fanon further says that such measures work. Native artists are sidelined and native culture becomes “more and more shriveled up, inert, and empty”:

It becomes a set of automatic habits, some traditions of dress, and a few broken-down institutions. Little movement can be discerned in such remnants of culture; there is no real creativity and no overflowing life.

Fanon appears to say that culture/literature can’t do much as long as the colonial powers are firmly in place. It becomes a vital ally, however, once their hold begins to loosen. Fanon even suggests that different literary genres will predominate at different stages of the revolt.

Initially, when active resistance begins, literature may “confine itself to the tragic and poetic style” although Fanon acknowledges that novels, shorts stories and essays may also be attempted. While in the early stages, these literary efforts may be characterized by “bitter, hopeless recrimination” and also by “violent, resounding, florid writing.” This is writing that recognizes the problem but thrashes around in it. It complains a lot, often featuring victimization, but it doesn’t necessarily put forth a positive vision.

Eventually, however, the writing starts drawing strength from the new nation that is emerging. Fanon describes a growing confidence:

The continued cohesion of the people constitutes for the intellectual an invitation to go further than his cry of protest. The lament first makes the indictment, and then it makes an appeal. In the period that follows, the words of command are heard.

An emerging literature is now partnering up with an emerging national consciousness. This new focus, Fanon says, “will both disrupt literary styles and themes and also create a completely new public.” No longer fixated on the colonizer, the writer takes on the habit of addressing his or her own people.

“It is only from that moment,” Fanon says, “that we can speak of a national literature.”

Fanon calls this new literature, which takes up and clarifies nationalist themes, a “literature of combat”:

This may be properly called a literature of combat, in the sense that it calls on the whole people to fight for their existence as a nation. It is a literature of combat, because it molds the national consciousness, giving it form and contours and flinging open before it new and boundless horizons; it is a literature of combat because it assumes responsibility, and because it is the will to liberty expressed in terms of time and space.

I particularly like what Fanon says about the new literature is driven by “the will to liberty” and how it opens up “new and boundless horizons.” One can’t build something new unless one has first imagined it, and imagining has always been literature’s specialty.

Fanon sees a similar process going on with the colonized country’s oral tradition. What were once “set pieces” and “inert episodes” come alive as conflicts are brought up. “The formula ‘This all happened long ago,’” Fanon writes, “is substituted with that of ‘What we are going to speak of happened somewhere else, but it might well have happened here today, and it might happen tomorrow’”:

The storytellers, who were before that time stereotyped and tedious to listen to, completely overturned their traditional methods of storytelling and the contents of their tales. Their public, which was formerly scattered, became compact. The epic, with its typified categories, reappeared; it became an authentic form of entertainment which took on once more a cultural value. Colonialism made no mistake when from 1955 on it proceeded to arrest these storytellers systematically.

What Fanon says about oral literature can also be extended to written literature. He declares that it “gives rise to a new rhythm of life and to forgotten muscular tensions [wonderful phrase!], and develops the imagination.” As a result, “the existence of a new type of man is revealed to the public”:

The present is no longer turned in upon itself but spread out for all to see. The storyteller once more gives free rein to his imagination; he makes innovations and he creates a work of art. It even happens that the characters, which are barely ready for such a transformation—highway robbers or more or less anti-social vagabonds—are taken up and remodeled. The emergence of the imagination and of the creative urge in the songs and epic stories of a colonized country is worth following. The storyteller replies to the expectant people by successive approximations, and makes his way, apparently alone but in fact helped on by his public, toward the seeking out of new patterns, that is to say national patterns. Comedy and farce disappear, or lose their attraction. As for dramatization, it is no longer placed on the plane of the troubled intellectual and his tormented conscience. By losing its characteristics of despair and revolt, the drama becomes part of the common lot of the people and forms part of an action in preparation or already in progress.

Literature then (and culture is general) plays a critical role in helping people transition from their identities as “colonized man” to “a new humanism.” Fanon insists that literature not be suspended or “put into cold storage” during a conflict. It is an integral part of the struggle.

Fanon wrote Wretched of the Earth during a time a time of revolutionary upheaval as independence movements were pushing out colonial powers around the world. (His own major work occurred in French-owned Algeria.) It makes sense, then, that he would applaud the epic, which specializes in national themes and nation building (Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Aeneid). He downplays those literary forms that have other concerns.

For instance, he mentions the disappearance or irrelevance of comedy and farce and also talks about how “the tragic and poetic” styles must be superseded. Comedy and farce, however, can provide important emotional outlets to the oppressed, and tragedy and lyric poetry provide ways of holding on to something precious in the face of hostile forces. Maybe epic is the most appropriate form in the early days of the new nation, but there is a time and place for every genre.

Fanon died in 1961 and so did not live to see both the successes and the failures of the post-colonial world. Different literary forms will predominate at different points in the arc of history.

Fanon’s work reminds those of us in developed nations that literature is not just a frill or an add-on. Once we see how it plays an important role elsewhere in resisting oppression and in envisioning new social possibilities, we can look at our own literature with a fresh eye. We may discover that it is doing more than we thought.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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