Didier Eribon is one of France’s leading sociologists and queer theorists, most famous for his 1991 autobiography of Michel Foucault and his pioneering 1999 Refléxions sur la question gay. In 2009, he published the autofictional memoir Retours à Reims in which, for the first time in his public career, Eribon attempted to reckon with his working-class roots and consider how they had affected his relationship with queerness growing up. Contributor Jude Jones reflects on the lessons that this literary self-dissection can teach us, considering the broader personal and political implications of the queer project of self-revelation, (re)discovery, and reinvention that are laid out in the book.
In a passage from his 2009 autobiography Retour à Reims that I find deeply resonant, French philosopher Didier Eribon raises the issue of the trauma of queer childhood:
“C’est l’une des difficultés les plus traumatisantes de l’attirance homosexuelle au cours de l’adolescence – ou à d’autres moments de la vie d’ailleurs : on ne peut pas exprimer ce que l’on ressent pour quelqu’un du même sexe que soi.”
Eribon mentions this in relation to a friendship that he had with another boy around the age of 13 or 14, a boy who loved classical music and literature. Seduced by his intellect, a young Eribon – whose working-class background meant that he had grown up laughing at the pomp of Wagner and having never touched the books of Tolstoy or Hugo – fell into the pursuit of what the middle classes call ‘culture’, reminding me of an account that Foucault, later to become Eribon’s idol, told of his own adolescence: “I wasn’t always smart,” Foucault joked in a 1983 interview, “[…] there was a boy who was very attractive who was even stupider than I was. And so to integrate myself with this boy who was very beautiful, I began to do his homework for him – and that’s how I became smart.” If Foucault’s tale is a light-hearted anecdote of an upper-middle-class boy’s swooning however, Eribon’s is an allegory for class domination, the middle class’s monopolisation of the very notion of culture to create impermeable boundaries between the ‘low-brow’ and the ’high-brow’. Faced with the Sisyphean task of overcoming his class identity and the born-in ‘unculturedness’ it allegedly brought, Eribon built his own cultural pantheon painted in the colours of mai ’68, making deities of Beauvoir and Beckett, Duras and Sarte: “Je m’inventais une culture, en même temps qu’une personnalité et un personage.”
This synthesis of queer and class perspectives is characteristic of Retour à Reims. Indeed, it’s the book’s raison d’être, Eribon’s untangling of the working-class roots that he had subconsciously exorcised from his psyche as he climbed France’s intellectual ladder as a respected queer, but never class, theorist. “J’avais été […] un enfant gay, un adolescent gay,” he confides, “et non un fils d’ouvrier.” Eribon cites Annie Ernaux – recently anointed the 2022 Nobel laureate – as an indelible influence on his project, her reckoning with her own family history and relationship with her father in La Place (1984) continually evoked in his reflections on his family origins and troubled relationship with his father. These complex paternal relationships form the origin myth of Retour à Reims, written by Eribon in the wake of his father’s death, whose funeral he had decided not to attend. The titular return to Reims, Eribon’s forgotten hometown, only arrives afterwards, when the philosopher pays commiserating visit to his grieving mother.
And so Eribon vivisects himself on paper, chases down the spectres of his past and his father to confront them at long last. He recalls how he was initially swift to boil down his ill rapport with his father to a question of queerness, his reaction against the homophobia of a man who hurled accusations of “pedé” and “tapette” at the television screen every time French actor Jean Marais – famous as the muse and lover of the irreverent Jean Cocteau – peacocked onscreen. These outbursts would only ever garner minor admonishments from Eribon’s apathetic mother. In these anecdotes we can find another trauma of queer childhood: the trauma of “injures” (insults) and labels, of hearing words like “pedé” circulate without fully understanding what they mean but knowing that they’re undesirable, shameful. So, as if to proclaim a personal manifesto, Eribon identifies himself with injures: “Je suis un produit de l’injure. Un fils de la honte.”
These webs of shame represent the primordial tribulations of queer childhood, or the ‘proto-queer’ to borrow Jon Davies’s formulation, the violence of a heteropatriarchal world that assumes and imposes sexual labels onto the non-sexual body of the child and otherises children whose behaviours latently resist them. In Eribon’s own words, it’s “un autre genre d’aggression : non pas physique mais discursive et culturelle.” But, as American scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick reminds us, shame has a “transformative potential” as the driving experience that forces queer people to reframe and rethink the world around them, so that “on se reformule, on se recrée.” The same perspective emerges from Ocean Vuong’s account of his experience as a queer, working-class immigrant in America when, in a podcast interview, he says that “being queer saved my life […] queerness demanded an alternative innovation from me. I had to make alternative routes […] and it made me ask, ‘is this enough for me?’” For Eribon, the alternative route was the route out of Reims, the flight from his class roots. And here once more we encounter Retour à Reims’s central mission: Eribon’s self-instruction in how to make from this class shame what he has already made from his queer shame, in how to harness the same Sedgwickian “énergie transformatrice” and make of his uncomfortable origins something more, another alternative route.
Retour à Reims is this process’s end result, an incandescent tapestry that masterfully interweaves the story of Eribon’s life with rich sociological and theoretical analysis. These are his new “alternative innovations,” his privy insights into France’s contemporary political climate as he dissects how former bastions of France’s Left like Reims have become the impassioned heartlands of Marine Le Pen’s neo-fascistic Rassemblement National. A Rassemblement National that remains at best ambivalent and at worst openly hostile on issues of gay rights, a Rassemblement National that continues to insist on the needs of “de-Islamifying” Europe, a Rassemblement National that retains aspirations of an authoritarian France. The problem, Eribon finds, lies essentially in himself: his own rejection of his family to pursue bourgeois life in Paris’ elite institutions solidifying as the perfect metaphor for the French Left’s betrayal of places like Reims to court the middle classes, culminating in Emmanuel Macron’s on-going présidence des riches. By coming to terms with such bitter truths through a radical empathy with those he had, by his own admission, abandoned, Eribon at last finds a “transformative energy” in his class shame too and carves for himself at last alternative ways of seeing. His class shame becomes a sort of class empathy.
It’s time for the Left to travel these same alternative routes, too. Only by enacting the same queer process of self-mediation that Eribon enacts in his book can the Left really hope to overcome the hurdles they face ahead, to break down the artificial barriers that have been built between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and see beyond such petty identity politics. To do so requires the same radical empathy, the same process of ‘unselfing’ – philosopher Iris Murdoch’s word for the ability to overcome the ego and understand that true goodness is located in the unself – that Eribon’s discovers during his journey into himself.
At a time when the norm increasingly seems a self-philosophy of rampant individualism and placing the self above all else, such radical unselfing seems an increasingly queer act. Queer in the word’s simplest sense, as unnormal, bizarre, but queer too as in something transformative, as in that ability of queer people to always transform: shame into compassion, compassion into love, and love into political action. This is the “transformative energy” that Sedgwick talks about, Vuong’s “alternative routes.” It is the horrors and traumas of childhood shame that can most instruct us in the importance of love, and this is what Eribon comes to relearn, if only subtly, in confronting his history. And this is what the French Left must instruct itself in too: a queer politics of compassion to defeat the spectre of right-wing populism that is now looming over France. It is time to embrace a queer politics of reinvention and the unself. “On doit se reformuler, on doit se recréer.”
Buy Retour à Reims in its original French here, or in the English translation here. For complementary reading that I’ve referenced throughout the article, consult 2022 Nobel Prize winner Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical La Place (1983) which deals with similar themes of fatherhood and class mobility, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019) for a deeply personal account of the intersections of queer and working-class identities, and Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good (1970) for a powerful perspective on the importance of compassion in the modern world. To learn more about this author’s own struggles with queer childhood, trauma, shame, and transformation while growing up in a working-class area, read his piece on John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972) here.
by Jude Jones
Jude Jones (he/him) is a freelance writer currently based in Paris and an undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge. He is particularly interested in the visual and literary cultures of HIV in the UK and France and is in the process of writing a dissertation titled ‘Practices of Self-Memorialisation and the Queering of Death in French HIV Literature and Film, 1990-2008.’ Next year, he hopes to continue his research by writing a second dissertation questioning the effects of Britain’s HIV crisis on queer peoples’ perceptions of spatiality and time, considering specifically the writing and artwork of Derek Jarman. To keep up with his projects, follow his Instagram @jude_jones2002.