November 20, 2013 John Drabinski

Introducing Naipaul and Fanon

This is the draft introduction to my essay “Martinique Between Naipaul and Fanon,” which I have written about in a number of posts over the past week.

Antillean society is a neurotic society, a comparison society. Hence we are referred back from the individual to the social structure. If there is a flaw, it lies not in the ‘soul’ of the individual, but in his environment.

Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

At first glance, they are two very different, if not outright opposed, thinkers. Naipaul, for all of his writerly brilliance, has long been known for his critical dismissal of the Caribbean as a non-place. This dismissal underlies the melancholy of his essays, travelogues, and much of his fiction. Naipaul, writer of the spiritually homeless. Fanon, for all of complexity as a thinker, has long been known for his radical anti-colonial politics, his commitment to the future of black people (and the oppressed more broadly), and his commitment to a new future for the human. These commitments add an important flair to his rhetoric and plenty of urgency to his arguments. Fanon, the revolutionary.

The problematic of the essay is framed by Glissant’s remark in Caribbean Discourse that Fanon acted on his ideas – which means not that Fanon was a praiseworthy man of action, but instead chose to leave Martinique for Algeria because he, like Naipaul, saw only abjection in the Caribbean cultural landscape. In the sketches of Fanon and Naipaul that follow, I will argue that the difference between the early Naipaul and Fanon is largely at the level of affect and rhetorical sensibility. And, in fact, I want to claim that Naipaul and Fanon are in fundamental agreement about the character of the Caribbean – Martinique in particular. For both, the Caribbean is abject space. By “abject space,” I mean here the shared commitment between Naipaul and Fanon to the claim that the Caribbean has no history and has to either be abandoned (Naipaul) or completely made new (Fanon).

I argue this by focusing on the 1950s – in particular, Naipaul’s travel journal The Middle Passage and Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and his essays from the mid-1950s. In Naipaul’s reflection on Martinique in The Middle Passage, he recalls the saying that it’s as if a “highway” runs from Fort-de-France to Paris in order to underscore the terms of colonial alienation. This mythical highway, this absolute proximity of the metropole to Caribbean consciousness, leads Naipaul to the famous conclusion that “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.” Though it deploys a very different rhetoric, Naipaul’s conclusion is not altogether different than Fanon’s characterization of Martinique in the same period. Fanon’s claim that Martiniquans are “an ironic people” in a 1955 essay extends his account of colonial alienation in Black Skin, White Masks. The function of colonialism inside the psyche as guilt, shame, and inferiority informs Fanon’s brief, yet decisive, remarks on blues, jazz, creole, pidgin, and other vernacular cultural forms. Fanon’s conclusion to Black Skin, White Masks and his reflection the new humanism in The Wretched of the Earth brings that rejection of vernacular culture to conceptual fruition by eschewing history and imagining a future without precedent.

What are we to make of this unexpected proximity? To begin, it brings the fundamental postcolonial question of the new to the fore. How is the future to be imagined? In the postcolonial moment, we must imagine the future as a new culture, society, and politics. What is the relation of the new to the past? We learn from Naipaul and Fanon that a radical sense of the new proceeds from the abjection of life under colonialism. And, I argue by way of conclusion, that abjection of life is precisely the critical question put to Naipaul and Fanon by theorists of creoleness and creolization – in particular, the works of Walcott and Glissant. The creolist question returns thinking to vernacular forms and identifies in those forms – pace Naipaul and Fanon – strategies of resistance, voice, expression, and its own sense of the new. In that return to the vernacular, the meaning of decolonization, in its cultural context, must take on a very different tenor and aim, a tenor and aim that perhaps reveals aspects of Naipaul’s and Fanon’s thinking that itself have to be decolonized.

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