Reading Mannoni's Prospero and Caliban before Reading Black Skin, White Masks

By Chassler, Philip | Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Reading Mannoni's Prospero and Caliban before Reading Black Skin, White Masks


Chassler, Philip, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge


Errors in the detail must thus be explained by analyzing the colonial mind rather than the 'mentality' of the Malagasy.

--O. Mannoni

In chapter four of his Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks), Frantz Fanon criticizes Octave Mannoni's Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization. Mannoni's book preceded Fanon's by several years (1950, 1952). It was written in the aftermath of a 1947 rebellion by the Malagasy against the French colonizers and the colonial government. The French response had been brutal. Fanon (84) says 80,000, and Maurice Bloch (v) says "nearly 100,000," Malagasy were killed. Mannoni "head of the information services of the colony" (Bloch v), as well as an "ethnologist" had lived in Madagascar since 1925 (Lane 131). By 1947 he had returned to the island after a three month sojourn in France where in 1945 "he had begun analysis with [Jacques] Lacan" (Lane 131). In his first Author's Note to the English translation, Mannoni recalls: "I had interrupted this analysis to make a further short stay in Madagascar when the 1947 rebellion broke out. A veil was torn aside and for a brief moment a burst of dazzling light enabled one to verify the series of intuitions one had not dared to believe in" (5-6). His "intuitions" led him to consider all that he had learned in Madagascar in retrospect of the rebellion. In his Introduction, Mannoni writes, "... I became preoccupied with my search for an understanding of my own self, as being an essential preliminary for all research in the sphere of colonial affairs" (34). His study was not to be a political tract or an analysis of economic exploitation, rather his book is an extended mediation on his insights about himself learned from psychoanalysis and the application of those insights to his experiences in Madagascar. The result is a book that differs from what its critics, including Fanon, say it is.

Fanon tells us he had looked forward to Mannoni's book after the appearance of several of his articles on colonial relations in a Francophone journal Psyche. Following respectful remarks about Mannoni, he launches into a critique of Mannoni's analysis of relations between French Colonizers and their Malagasy subjects. Fanon's chapter title, "The So-Called Dependency Complex of the Colonized," expresses the skepticism, perhaps the animus, with which he approaches Mannoni's book. To characterize his ambiguous argument in a few of his own words, Fanon suggests that because Mannoni has lost the "real" perspective on these relations, his psychological analysis misses their "true coordinates" (67). His chapter concludes: "... Mannoni seems to us to be unqualified to draw the least conclusion concerning the situation, the problems, or the possibilities of indigenous peoples ["autochthones"] at the current time" (87). Before detailing his complaints, Fanon tempers his criticism. He credits Mannoni with going beyond the "objective conditions" of colonization to consider the attitudes of its victims and of its perpetrators and with identifying the conflict between the two as a pathology (68). This ambivalence toward Prospero and Caliban directed the approach of the readers that followed. Indeed, it appears most of them turn to Mannoni after having read Fanon's critique.

Scholars have meditated on the validity of Fanon's examination of Mannoni and on the validity of Mannoni's work. Few, if any, have been outright dismissive of Mannoni's book even when they have favored Fanon's critique. Irene Gendzier writes: "Mannoni ... has produced what might charitably be called an ambivalent analysis of the colonization enterprise" (58). But then she adds, "Mannoni's book deserves a careful reading and selections cited here [in her chapter on Peau noire] are perhaps the most flagrant" (59). Hussein Bulhan concludes, "In the end, Mannoni rationalized and defended colonialism" (113), yet his analysis engages what he calls Mannoni's "bold insights" (112). …

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