After an absence of 30 years, Didier Eribon, professor of sociology at the University of Amiens, returned to the seedy outskirts of Reims, where he had grown up in the 1950s and 1960s. His ‘stupid and violent’ father, a factory worker who drank, went fishing, shouted at the television and beat his wife, had finally died in a home for Alzheimer’s patients. Didier had never visited him (‘What would have been the point?’), nor did he attend the funeral. But he did go to interview his long-neglected mother. As he half-listened to her ‘endless stream’ of bitter reminiscence he ‘began a process of reconciliation with myself, with an entire part of myself that I had refused, rejected, denied’.
As though by some ridiculous ‘miracle’, Professor Eribon had been born into a sub-population of bigots, brutes and slaves of the capitalist system, known collectively as the working class. His family voted unquestioningly for the Communist Party, just as it later voted mindlessly for the National Front. In that world of class apartheid, Didier was like a freak of nature: he preferred Bob Dylan to Johnny Hallyday, books to fishing (‘I hated all the cultural aspects of this activity’) and boys to girls. He grew his hair long, wore a duffle coat and ‘started going on and on about … a “permanent revolution”’. Seething with resentment at the hand that ‘destiny’ had dealt him, he sneered at his parents’ pathetic, consumerist attempts to escape the grip of ‘social determinism’ — the second-hand Simca, the fake-leather sofa, the formica kitchen table.
Now, with an international reputation as the biographer of Michel Foucault and the author of Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, Eribon has ‘come out’ as a child of the proletariat. Long after surmounting the shame of his sexuality, he had remained in the class closet. With self-disgust, he describes his attempts to hide his origins and to pass for one of those privileged, middle-class people who apparently attend art exhibitions and operas simply in order to enjoy ‘a feeling of superiority that can be read in the discreet smile that never leaves their lips’. In fleeing the drudgery that was supposed to be his lot, ‘I had allowed the violence of the social world to triumph over me’.
Retour à Reims was a bestseller in France, where a personal memoir which is also a political polemic and a sociological treatise is not particularly outlandish. The clunky but faithful translation by Michael Lucey was first published in the United States by Semiotext(e), whose readers are familiar with the dogmatic, parenthesis-infested idiom of what used to be called ‘Marxist’ theory. This mass-market edition would have benefited from an introduction.
Non-French readers might assume that Eribon’s depiction of contemporary bourgeois society is a figment of his disgruntlement and alienation. Yet homophobic and racist remarks are still quite acceptable even in supposedly liberal milieux, and the insults which Eribon directs at certain sections of the population — teachers, neo-liberal journalists and supporters of Emmanuel Macron — are convincingly passionate. Shouting at the television seems to be something of a family tradition.
It should also be said that this kind of childhood memoir, in which the politically aware adult becomes the pitiless inquisitor of his earlier self, is a staple of French confessional literature. One of Eribon’s models is Sartre’s autobiography, Les Mots, in which the philosopher denounces the infant Jean-Paul as an ignorant bourgeois parasite. Like Les Mots, Returning to Reims is, in parts, extremely funny, and the relentless self-blackening has a detergent effect, purging the text of fake poignancy. The pages on his discovery of a gay community are intensely moving.
Eribon’s affection is reserved for the godfathers of May ’68 — especially Foucault and Sartre. Critical theory provided him with the convivial intellectual community he had sought in vain. It is only at the very end of his book that he wonders whether a theoretical approach, based on the works of a few charismatic pontificators of an earlier generation, is really the only way to understand social forces: ‘Shouldn’t we have theories that allow us to be ready to welcome any new movement that would want to introduce new problems into the political discussion?’
Perhaps we should also wonder whether thinkers such as Foucault, an inveterate distorter and ignorer of historical evidence, are reliable guides to social and political realities. Eribon treats his mother with condescension, but she does provide her son with some valuable untheorised data. On returning to Reims, he was amazed to learn that, when his father saw him on television talking about the invention of a gay self, he broke down in tears, overwhelmed by his son’s social success. Eribon Sr could be just as forceful in putting his point across: ‘He declared to my mother: “If there’s any smartass who says anything to me about it, I’ll smash his face in.”’