“The condition of a native is a nervous condition…”


Jean-Paul Sartre,  a French existentialist philosopher, in the Preface to Frants Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth introduces the idea of “nervous conditions,” a psychological state of mind that the colonized were generally susceptible to. His theoretical idea would be later embodied in practical vision of the phenomenon in Tsistsi Dangarembga’s portrayal of the implementation of colonial practices on emotions and psychological conditions of Rhodesians.


Jean-Paul Sartre present a vision of the Earth comprised of “500 million men and 1.5 billion “natives.” The first possessed the Word, the others borrowed it” (xliii). He further explains that the colonizer has the power to inflict his ideas and ideals upon the colonized. But above all, it has the power to seize the mind of the one he exploited to the point of “nervous breakdown.” Although it is a rather tedious and time-consuming process. Sartre refers to such practices as “psychological warfare” or “brainwashing.” But it all comes in its turn, appears as a gradual precession of inhumane violence. Colonial violence can be viewed as a complex psychological tool of control applied by the colonizers. The level of its impinge on the colonized objects is comparable to an iceberg. The visible part of the iceberg is violence justified as keeping the enslaved men at a respectful distance. Whereas the invisible part constitutes other explanations for the employment of military forces in dealing with the locals.  As Sartre explains, far more important is the colonizer’s desire to bring his subjects to the level of “a superior ape <…> who lives on nothing and understands only the language of violence” (l). Once the colonial oppression and violence is justified as necessary, it is being perceived that way. Even more, as Sartre asserts, colonial violence becomes the “miraculous remedy,” the way of erasing the treacherous instincts of violence the colonized contains inside of him.Influenced by the mental breakdown, unable to endure violence and inhumane treatment, the native accept the side of the colonizer, he succumbs. He is alienated through violence, he desists from the culture he has been forced to despise.Sartre uses the term “colonial neurosis” in reference to the natives colonized by means of violence. He explains that at a certain point the “traumatized for life” natives would convert the silent submissiveness into violence or revolt. The reversed violence, according to Sartre, is the only means of eliminating, or even curing “colonial neurosis.” Tsitsi Dangarembga applies Sartre’s words in the epigraph to her book. Her choice of epigraph maps the thematic content of her novel. Nervous Conditions deeply explores consequences and psychologies of colonialism. Dangarembga portrays her characters as inflicted with “Englishness” and developing neurosis. Each character chooses his or her own path of dealing with it, some succumb, others revolt. Nyasha, the deuteragonist of the novel, is portrayed by Dabgarembga as revolting against the ills of colonialism and patriarchal order, therefore, attempting to cure “colonial neurosis” that Sartre talks about.


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