Return to Reims

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Commentary on Didier Eribon's Newly Released Autobiography

In 2003, French intellectual Didier Eribon received a prestigious award from Yale University in the USA. The path that led him there included leaving his parents' house at a very young age, moving from his hometown of Reims to Paris, publicly admitting his homosexuality, working as a journalist for renowned French media outlets, to frequenting and friendship with notable French intellectuals, such as Claude Levi-Strauss, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, and assuming the position of professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and Human and Social Sciences at the University of Amiens and visiting professor at the Universities of Berkeley , Cambridge and King's College.

Already enjoying great intellectual recognition, Eribon adds another very successful work among his already famous publications, such as Michel Foucault. 1926-1984 (Flammarion, 1989); Foucault and his contemporaries (Fayard, 1994); Reflections on the Gay Cause (Fayard, 1999), A minority morality (Fayard, 2001) and Dictionary of gay and lesbian cultures (Larousse, 2003), among others. Its about Return to Reims is a solid and moving sociological autobiography.

After the death of his father, Didier Eribon returns to his hometown and reconnects with his family and his original social environment, from which he had distanced himself thirty years before. He then decides to delve into his past and retrace his family's history, which will be narrated in conjunction with the history of contemporary society. The class stigmas that always fell on his family of workers are decisive in determining the destinies of his family members and, particularly, in Eribon's own distancing from his popular origins.

Having believed for a long time that the homophobia of his environment was the exclusive cause that had alienated him from his people, he finds on his return that, in fact, this distancing resulted equally from social shame, the shame of his proletarian origin and his status as a worker's son. Eribon evokes the working-class world of his childhood, reconstructing the process of his social ascension, and articulates at each stage of a beautiful and disturbing personal narrative the elements of a historical, sociological and political reflection on the popular classes, on the poor neighborhoods and their system. school, about the manufacturing processes of class identities and social distinction, about sexuality and its interconnections with political trends, with voting for certain parties, with democracy...

Thus rewriting individual trajectories crossed by the constraints of social environments and collective groups, by verdicts of social reproduction prior to birth, Didier Eribon analyzes the multiplicity of forms of domination and resistance and examines the ways in which members of the popular classes, that is, , from their same social origin experienced in their own flesh what it is to belong to these impoverished and vulnerable classes. The author reconciles a dense historical and sociological reflection with a narrative in clear, simple and engaging language about social identities and their reproduction mechanisms, about the trajectories of belonging and class identification, both of its members who were prevented from conquering goods material and symbolic of the middle and dominant classes as well as of those who, like him, broke socially with the world that had been destined for them.

It is a sensitive and moving autobiography and, at the same time, a dense intellectual work, a great book on sociology, critical theory and contemporary history. The work can still be conceived, as the author himself considers it, as a manifestation of revolt against social violence that takes many different forms and that is experienced daily by a suffering and silenced majority. Her reflection, then, focuses on this violence that produces the distinction between those who will attend higher education, will appreciate prestigious literature, the visual arts and opera, and those who will yearn for a job in the factory, just as she will yearn for them. The latter, who already bear in their names and surnames the marks of their class membership, will believe they are choosing, when in fact they are chosen.

Due to its great editorial success in France, from its release in 2009, the work quickly gained translations into English and Spanish. Soon after, also for Italian and German. It also gave rise to a theater play that was highly successful with the public and critics. This great and successful repercussion is certainly due to the fact that the book shows the diversity and breadth of forms of domination and indicates the need for no less diverse and broad means so that indigents, marginals and stigmatized people of all kinds can resist .

Due to its autobiographical narrative style, the text does not have a summary, with titles that name its parts and chapters. The author therefore chooses to conduct the narrative in a continuous flow, interrupted only by certain thematic divisions marked by numbers: the book then has 5 parts, indicated by Roman numerals, whose subdivisions into chapters are indicated by Arabic numerals, and still an epilogue.

The first part particularly presents the figure of the father, his childhood and death, his life as a worker, his life as a husband and father, his political membership in the Communist party and the hardships of his life that shaped the harshness of his gestures and ways of to be.

In the second part, Eribon dedicates himself mainly to describing his mother's private and social life: the daughter of a single mother, abandoned at a young age by her mother, prevented from pursuing her studies, harassed at work and unhappy in her marriage.

The third examines the author's own relationship with the politics that characterized his youth, especially his adherence to communist ideas, and the reasons why the migration of votes from left-wing parties to an extreme right-wing party occurred with his family members. What painfully marks this passage is Eribon's assessment that there was a time when the OTHER of the French workers were the capitalists, and now they are the immigrants, and that is why they started to vote for the right

The fourth is dedicated to the author's school career, to the way in which, through it, he escaped his destiny that had always been determined and to the deterioration of that school, which, until then, could emancipate some members of the popular classes, no longer enjoys the same value as before.

The fifth part, in turn, reflects on his story as a gay boy born in a country town and his relationship with sexual shame and the process through which he assumed his condition, the sufferings and challenges of this process.

In the epilogue, finally, with the same sensitivity that runs through the entire book, Eribon presents a beautiful reflection on his trajectory as a son of workers who becomes a journalist, a well-known and recognized author and a professor of philosophy, through a constant evocation and interpretation of fundamental questions contemporary sociology, philosophy and history on gender and sexuality, on classes and social struggles and on the logic of reproduction and distinction that constitute and regulate our lives in society.

Here is a book that teaches us that there are many more relationships between social struggles and conflicts around sexuality than some of our vain philosophies might suppose. Due to the emotion we feel when reading it, due to our social origin in common with that of Eribon and the taboos around sexuality that also weighed on our families, we confess that it is a work that we would have liked to have translated.

* Syrian Possenti is a professor at Unicamp and author, among others, of Discourse, style and subjectivity (Martins Fontes).

* Luzmara Curcino is a professor at UFSCar and organizer of Contemporary (in)subordinations: consensus and resistance in discourses (EdUFSCar).

*Carlos Piovezani is a professor at UFSCar and author of The voice of the people: a long history of discrimination (Voices).



Didier Eribon. Return to Reims. Belo Horizonte, Ayiné, 2020.

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