New Light on Colonialism
Prospero And Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization
By O. Mannoni
Praeger. 218 pp. $4.25.


The colonial problem or, more broadly speaking, the problem of the West’s relations with those non-European peoples we call “primitive,” is so muddled, and now so pressing, that we must greet any fresh perspective on the question with interest and hope. Professor Mannoni seeks to offer us just that—a new look at the colonial dilemma from the combined viewpoints of imperial administration, ethnography, and psychoanalysis.

As former head of the General Information Department of the French administration in Madagascar, Mannoni took more than an official interest in the natives of the island—the Malagasy—and has produced respectable ethnographical studies of their culture. But vaguely troubled by his personal position in a colony, and driven by what he calls his “own private devil,” he undertook a training analysis after World War II with a view to sorting out his impressions and exploring some of the intuitions that touched the edge of his consciousness. The analysis was interrupted in 1947 when he returned to Madagascar and witnessed the native rebellion of that year. It was then, he says, that “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.”

Mannoni’s major point is that the colonial situation can be comprehended only in terms of the relationship of Malagasy and European personalities. It is important to know the Malagasy, of course, but it is just as important to know the European; hence the relevance of Mannoni’s personal experiment in analysis.

The average Malagasy and the average European represent two different personality types, Mannoni holds. The Malagasy is characterized by a dependence complex, the European by an inferiority complex. These complexes are symmetrically opposed to one another. Both are incipient in all children, and the predominance of one or the other is a function of the kind of community in which a child is raised. Dependency in the adult Malagasy derives from particular child-rearing practices and is manifested in his tendency to seek security in any kind of authority and his panic when that authority is removed and substitutes are not provided. Inferiority in the European results from his having been early forced out of the comfortable climate of dependency into a competitive world; one of the manifestations of this sense of inferiority is a need for inventing or finding a situation in which he can prove his superiority to himself. The European finds this situation in a colony. The native—or at least the Malagasy—is ready, on the other hand, to depend upon the European as a new, and powerful, authority.

This historical juxtaposition of two polar types of personality, Mannoni observes, is not accidental. Shakespeare’s Prospero and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe suggest that we Europeans have long been psychologically prepared to find in Calibans or cannibals an assurance of European superiority, and to project onto “savages” the feelings of inferiority that plague us. The natives, by virtue of their dependence complex, are psychologically ready to people the desert island of the Europeans’ fantasies.

But the consequences have been fatal for both parties. In the colony the European is able to build a magical world of security where guilt can be transferred to a make-believe “race” of men, and where the illusion of European superiority is encouraged by the “child-like” dependency of the native. At the same time, the Malagasy is encouraged to find in the European a powerful substitute for traditional Malagay authority.



The revolt in Madagascar in 1947 becomes understandable in these terms. The uprising occurred, Mannoni tells us, after the French authorities had actually introduced “liberal” reforms designed to grant the Malagasies a large measure of “independence.” It was precisely because their dependence on the European administration was threatened that the natives were thrown into a panic and resorted to futile and haphazard physical violence.

What action is appropriate in such a colonial situation? Mannoni approaches this question with characteristically Freudian pessimism. We need a society in which the process of personality formation achieves a mature balance between the alternatives of inferiority and dependence. But this revolution in social life—either European or Malagasy—is hardly imminent; the problem of what to do now in Madagascar remains. French withdrawal would produce chaos for the present dependent generation of Malagasies. A continuation of colonial paternalism, on the other hand, will merely prolong a situation in which the infantile tendencies of Europeans and natives alike are indulged. Mannoni’s principal suggestion is that the French authorities should subtly rejuvenate a traditional Malagasy institution, the fokon’olona or village council: by their gradually retreating in the administrative sphere, a vacuum would be created that could be filled by the councils. While such a step would merely force the Malagasy back to depending on an earlier form of authority (“regression”), it would, Mannoni feels, lay the basis for reform from within in a situation where imposed reform is impossible. The Malagasy would at least be given a chance to follow that “evolutionary process” which leads to a “democratic society” and a “highly developed personality.”

Professor Mannoni is quite ready to admit that economic factors have operated powerfully to inaugurate and sustain the colonial system. His point, however, is that a peculiar psychological relationship rather than simple exploitation distinguishes the colonial situation. He is quite conscious of the fact that his picture of the colonial dilemma will be seen in some quarters as an excuse for doing nothing, or at least going very slow, in the way of liberal reforms. Mannoni meets this objection head-on: it is a contradictory business to be imposing liberty on a people, and one must proceed carefully with some thought to the psychological consequences of such a step. We cannot ease a guilty conscience by walking away from a situation that we have created.

The substance of Mannoni’s case is that the Malagasy do have a dependence complex, that Europeans do have an inferiority complex, and that these psychological facts account for the behavior of both groups in the colonial situation. He does not pretend to have established this point by a scientific marshaling of evidence. He uses psychoanalytic concepts to support his case, but he is ready to admit, in a later note to the translation of his work, that these concepts called for more careful handling than he could give them at the time of writing. If indeed “a veil was torn aside” by the author’s training in analysis, and if otherwise inexplicable conduct now falls into a recognizable pattern, perhaps we have in Mannoni’s valuable and delightful little study further evidence of the fruitfulness and versatility of psychoanalytic theory.


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