Returning to Reims – Didier Eribon

Yet another one of the books I got in the lockdown parcel from my mum. As I’m still presenting in my aim to read my 20 books of summer alternating between English and Polish ones, I picked up this one as it was a Polish edition. At this rate, I’ll soon run out to books in Polish to read.

Didier Eribon is a French writer and philosopher. He published this book in 2009, started writing it after the death of his father. Eribon was as you may guess, born in Reims. He comes from a working-class family that he abandoned at the first opportunity. After his father’s death, he slowly starts reconnecting with his mother. But he also rethinks his past, utilizing all his current experience and knowledge.

That’s why this book is so fascinating, to call it a memoir is to flatten what is going on here. Eribon plays on two distinct levels using his skills both as a writer and as a philosopher, whose mind instinctively questions everything, rather than take it for granted. The book operates on a personal level, for Eribon does tell us his family history, as well as the story of his escape. Where he does so much more is when he sets his personal experience in the sociological context, using the rigorous analytical skills at his disposal.

On one hand, he tells us how he escaped the world of poverty and spine-breaking labor, on the other, he also explains to us how did we get to a place where the working class instead of voting for socialists or communists votes for the far-right National Rally. He does this with rare skill but also academic discipline. Pulling us in with his family history and memories only to jump to the analysis of the phenomena at hand.

When he remembers his escape he realizes that to come out of the sexual closet he locked himself for the next decades in a sociological one. Abandoning his working-class roots, burying them so deep that his new friends had no idea about them, he undergoes a complete reeducation. He becomes a self-made man, with no past to talk of. Now as he is older he realizes he needs to come out of the closet again if he is to become a complete person.

When he speaks about the brutal relationship with his father he mentions that going down just the psychoanalysis route would not account for the influence of the sociological system. Because we need to consider to what extent people can make decisions and to what extent the system is rigged against them. The brutality of the system, the back-breaking work, the drunk workers nights out, how much does that seep into the daily life, and breeds further brutality. I was shocked when Erobon described how the school system is basically set up the eject working-class youths at 16. How much determination and ability to go against one’s own environment it takes to continue education.

In light of recent events, we talked a lot about white privilege. What Eribon throws in our faces is the middle-class privilege. Some things are so obvious and taken for granted by the middle-class, that they seem like air. Only interacting with members of other classes we realize it is not the case, not everyone had the privilege of going to school till the age of 18 and then making a choice about actually going or not going to university. It made me realize yet again how many things in my life I’m taking for granted. And let’s be honest, with my mum we had times where money was scarce and yet we’re still placed squarely in the middle-class, with all the privilege and opportunity this entails. What we rarely talk about is the responsibilities this should also entail.

Then taking a few steps back Eribon also analyses how did it happen that the French (and not only French) working-class turned their backs on socialists and communists and fell into the arms of National Rally. Back in the days, membership and voting for the communist party were what formed a part of the class definition. But over time the left went from the side of the ruled to the side of the rulers, abandoning and betraying those who made them in the process (it sounded very similar to what happened with the Labour in the UK). Disenfranchised and left to its own devices the working class with its resentment was easy prey for the far-right. It helped that racism against immigrants from the Maghreb was rife among them already. National Rally only had to recognize them again as a class, give them back their identity and convince that it is fighting their cause that the left betrayed. That was really all it took. Over a few decades of course, and undoing this damage will take another few decades. There is no quick wins here. The trust has been failed once, so it won’t be easy to win it back.

It was a fascinating read. Depressing at the same time, but rarely one comes across a read so deeply personal and so enlightening on a broader scale.

What is your favorite book on class and society?

This is book #12 of my 20 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 746books.
See my list as it grows here.


4 thoughts on “Returning to Reims – Didier Eribon

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