In the Library of Fanon: Notes on Reading Alienation and Freedom by Mahdi Chowdhury



In the same way priests speak of the Bible, not as a single text, but as a library, so too must we think of Alienation and Freedom as such. Like a library, it is as much a book as it is a space of collective reference, reverie, and education.

But we must make a subtle addendum to the priestly analogy: Alienation and Freedom is not just a library of Fanon’s writings, but more so, a library of Fanons.

Herein, we encounter a Fanon of experimental literary modernism, a Fanon of the scientific method, the psychiatrist, the philosophe, the existentialist, the careful seer – and yet, always in a registrar, a voice, a cadence of a mind distinctly his own. Alienation and Freedom testifies to the idea that Fanon was not just one but many geniuses.


Alienation and Freedom is in the genre of archaeology. What editors, Jean Khalfa and Robert J.C. Young, do is no less labour-intensive nor methodologically distinct from on-site excavation. Alienation and Freedom collects and translates hundreds of pages of previously unpublished and unrecorded writings – many of which thought to have been lost. Fanon in the rune of skeletons, jewels, and fragments of papyrus.

It includes: Fanon’s early plays, his medical theses, his psychiatric journal and its initiatives, his political and anticolonial articles for El Moudjahid, his correspondences and conference presentations – and of great interest, a catalogue of his own personal library.


Over eight hundred pages, it is fitting that its weight and dimensions approximate that of a small toolkit. Carrying it day in and day out over my shoulder, I, at times, felt its subtle gravitational and sensory pull rightward and downward; once again, fitting, that it alters one’s balance, one’s footing in the world.


Like the Bible, again, one may be disappointed if one reads this book novelistically – as the linear, intellectual development of a great thinker or as sustained by a narrative– argumentative arc, as in the one given by the narrator of his 1952 Black Skin, White Masks. To say this is a testament of Fanon in the plural means we must read Alienation and Freedom in the plural. This introduces us to a problematic, which the philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, explores in his essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” coincidently published around the same time as Black Skin, White Masks.


“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” so cites Isaiah Berlin from the Greek poet, Archilochus. Berlin uses this fragment as the basis of his famous and playful division of intellectual history: there are, on one hand, hedgehogs who know one big thing (Plato, Dante, Hegel) and, on the other, foxes who know many things (Aristotle, Goethe, Joyce).

The former, we are told, think and feel vis-à-vis a single principle or prism: a view unto the world in which diversity and multitude are known, commeasured, and settled into a system of total and grand coherence. The latter, we are told, think and feel not in essences but in fragments, multiplicities, and the vast varieties of experiences and subjects.


However, what is forgotten about Berlin’s article is the relative insignificance or lack of attention to this quaint binary – compared to what he ascertains to be the main problem of his essay, that of an outlier thinker: the Russian writer, Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy.

For Berlin, Tolstoy represents a unique problem: a man whose eyes gaze into the long distance, in such epic novels as War & Peace, toward a single, transcendent view of history – but at the same time, whose world is actualized, interpreted, and lived through the fragmented, subjective, even microphysical, details of the everyday.


What Alienation and Freedom directs us toward is the problematic of Tolstoy in Fanon.


Khalfa and Young include contextual and historical essays to introduce lesser-known parts of Fanon’s corpus: “Fanon, revolutionary playwright” and “Fanon, revolutionary psychiatrist.” The editorial text forces a reading of Fanon in the singular, Fanon as hedgehog. Yet the nature of its contents resists; suggests something even more vast, incongruous, dynamic.

Like Guevara, Fanon’s icon so universally grounds, what is otherwise, an amorphous and contentious image of ‘revolution.’ But what is revolutionary and what is Fanon – betraying all other equally applicable descriptions – a revolutionary before all?


In Alienation and Freedom, we see both Fanon on the ground – the Fanon who writes for the newspaper and who takes seriously facilitating movie screenings in his psychiatric ward in a manner inclusive of Muslim patients; and at the same time, we see the Fanon who seeks to understand the moral, social, ethical, and aesthetic values of a society different from but administered by a colonial-medical body of doctors and officers. Fanon is sensitive to, and lives in effect, in the awareness of various and coinciding modes of experience, subjectivity, and power.


It is tempting to singularize the minute, local, and particle Fanons of this anthology into a unifying nexus – Fanon as a revolutionary, philosopher, or any other totemic label – but what makes Fanon interesting is, like Tolstoy, both the micro and macro enmesh, interrupt, and develop from the other. In lieu of Fanon as hedgehog or fox, his schismed modes of identity and output bring us closer toward the dynamic sense of reality he both possessed and committed to writing.

Mahdi Chowdhury is an artist, writer, and researcher based in Toronto. He is presently an MPhil Candidate at the University of Cambridge.