This article examines Black Hamlet, written in 1937 by the pioneering South African psychoanalyst Wulf Sachs. Sachs's book stages a cultural exchange in the guise of a professional dialogue between the author and a Manyika healer-diviner given the pseudonym John Chavafambira in the book. Sachs reports the dialogue extensively and stages it artfully, yet the superiority of Western medical-scientific and psychoanalytic practices to traditional African healing remains his governing premise throughout the book. When Sachs identifies John as the “black Hamlet,” he accordingly proclaims the universal applicability of psychoanalysis, grounded in the Oedipus Complex. This paper argues that Sachs's attempt to inscribe the South African native subject within the global imaginary of 1930s psychoanalysis proves subject both to reversals and transferential complications that render the entire enterprise highly ironic; the racialized unconscious ultimately on display is that of the analyst rather than his subject. Rather than assimilating the native subject then, psychoanalysis finds itself exposed in a setting conceived as alien. As a complex cultural text, Black Hamletactively lends itself to the postcolonial critique of universalizing Western psychoanalysis.
Jonathan Crewe; Black Hamlet: Psychoanalysis on Trial in South Africa. Poetics Today 1 June 2001; 22 (2): 413–433. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-22-2-413
Download citation file: