PRINT November 2013


Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims

Claude Lévi-Strauss and Didier Eribon, Paris, 1984. Photo: Xavier Lambours.

Returning to Reims, by Didier Eribon. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)/Foreign Agents, 2013. 240 pages.

TO READERS who followed America’s culture-war shoot-outs of the 1980s and ’90s, Didier Eribon will forever be linked to Michel Foucault and Claude Lévi-Strauss. In his biography of the former and book-length interview with the latter, Eribon brought a journalist’s clarity to works that were models of intelligence leavened with implicit critical admiration. In the decades since, he made the transition from journalist to academic, but he never ceased to act as a dynamic mediator of worlds. In a country historically suspicious of anything that so much as hinted at identity politics, Eribon organized one of the first conferences on gay history, in 1997, carving out a space for US theorists and historians. Since then, he has helped put gay and lesbian studies on the French academic map while never abandoning an activist’s voice, particularly as a prominent advocate for gay rights to marriage and an equally vocal critic of psychoanalysis’s hold over swaths of French intellectual discourse.

Eribon’s ease in moving in and out of different social and intellectual contexts underwrites his autobiographical project, Returning to Reims, first published in France in 2009. After much work that attempted broadly to untangle the knot of social stigma in the creation of gay identity, Eribon was impelled by the death of his estranged father to question why another overwhelming stigma—of his gritty origins in the working-class housing projects of the northeastern city of Reims—had been absent from his work. His “return” to Reims is his own Notes of a Native Son, a memoir of belated reconciliation with a parental figure whom he despises, but it is also a kind of sociological bookkeeping of the effects of uprooting oneself from one’s origins—in his case, both in terms of sexual identity and the horizons of class. Though linked, each addition to one ledger subtracts from the other.

Eribon views his breaking free as a statistical fluke in a social structure (working class, in a small provincial city) that reproduced itself almost seamlessly. How much more likely that he might have followed the same trajectory as his older brother, a butcher on disability, or his younger siblings, one a car salesman on Réunion, the other a cop, all of them intermittent National Front voters. His parents, too, had little opportunity to alter their destinies. Eribon’s father, a factory worker who left school at fourteen, occasionally trotted out the drawings he had apparently made in a night-school industrial-design class that he was unable to complete; his mother, a cleaning lady, was suckered by a computer-skills adult-ed program that preyed on the unwary. Despite their comparatively late-in-life efforts, education was seen as suspicious, even borderline seditious along class boundaries. “To drop out of school was certainly no scandal,” Eribon writes. “Quite the contrary. I remember how indignant everyone in my family was when school was made mandatory until age 16. ‘What’s the point in making kids stay in school if they don’t want to, if they’d rather be working?’ was what people repeated, never stopping to wonder about how a like or a dislike for school might be distributed differentially across society.”

Yet Eribon’s pursuit of academic success, which in his telling is closely (and serendipitously) intertwined with his own homosexual awakening, is as much a device that drove a wedge between him and his family as the means by which he consciously strove to escape a fate he didn’t desire. Even what might have pulled him closer into his familial orbit—his youthful discovery of Marx and Trotsky amid the ferment of May ’68—became “a vector for a kind of social disidentification: I glorified the ‘working class’ in order to put more distance between myself and actual workers. . . . I was fascinated by Sartre’s writings about the working class, but I was repulsed by the working class in which I was immersed.”

That repulsion fills Returning to Reims and makes it a curious memoir: part trenchant condemnation of the French educational apparatus that, he writes, systematically squeezes out lower-class students; part a reckoning of how the decline of the official Left in France, from the 1960s to the ’80s, played a substantive role in the emergent racist politics of the National Front; part an intellectual account of discovering Sartre and Genet—and later Foucault and Bourdieu—as a mode d’emploi. It provocatively conjoins the poststructuralist and sociological landscape of subjectivity that Eribon charted as an adult and his own subjective experiences as a youth. (It also belongs in the surprisingly large library of titles by the French critical elite, from Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s L’Écriture autobiographique to Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes to Louis Althusser’s The Future Lasts Forever, that self-consciously plumb autobiography as a genre.) And the vibrant autobiographical view of working-class and gay life in a midsize French city fifty years ago is fascinating in its own right. Eribon is eager to lower a sociological veil on his circumstances—at times it is as if he wanted to write an almost self-effacing memoir, as if he becomes a kind of model informant in his own sociology of class and affect. Yet in occupying a sort of literary zone in between, Returning to Reims is true to Eribon’s own protean career—and a remarkable document of how self-erasure and self-creation, conscious and unconscious, can be one and the same, a product of hybrid social pressures that are untangled only with extreme effort.

Eric Banks is a former Editor in Chief of Bookforum and the Director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU.