‘Returning to Reims’ by Didier Eribon
Author: Chase Dimock
July 31, 2014
One of the most alarmingly overlooked issues facing lgbt politics is the impact of social and economic class divisions within the lgbt community. Today, as lgbt organizations increasingly promote the image of the upper middle class professional as the face of its campaign for rights, it is more important than ever that we understand the role social and economic class plays in the queer world as issues such as gentrification, homeless youth, and affordable healthcare affect the more vulnerable members of the community. Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims presents a fresh insight into examining social class as an integral part of gay identity. Part personal memoir, part philosophical treatise on the relationship between sexual identity and social class status, Eribon’s book is both a delicately told tale of a young Frenchman crafting a gay self in the working class world and a stunning analysis of how acculturation into a social class identity affects sexual identity and vice versa.
After the death of his father, Eribon is forced to return to the milieu of his painful upbringing as a queer youth and reconcile his adolescence in the working class world he long abandoned with his present prominence as a member of the intelligentsia. What Eribon discovers in narrating the story of his family’s grinding poverty is that much of the process of working through shame, denial, and repression that characterized coming to terms with his sexuality also informed his reluctance to disclose his proletarian past.
It is the counterintuitive nature of Eribon’s approach to the interrelation of sexuality and class that makes his narrative and analysis so compelling. He uses insights gleaned from the study of sexual identity and paradigms of knowledge from gay culture to examine class identity and its social structure. Here, Eribon considers his simultaneous emergence from the sexual closet and retreat to the “class closet”:
I took on a different kind of dissociative personality or double consciousness (with the same kinds of mechanisms familiar to the sexual closet: various subterfuges to cover one’s tracks, a very small set of friends who know the truth but keep it secret, the taking up of different registers of discourse in different situations and with different interlocutors, a constant self-surveillance as regards one’s gestures, one’s intonation, manners of speech, so that nothing untoward slips out, so that one never betrays oneself, and so on).
By extending the epistemology of the closet to class identity, Eribon demonstrates how the study of sexual identity can lead toward greater understanding of how people negotiate other marginalized identity categories.
Eribon’s personal narrative of his return home will be familiar to the majority of lgbt readers who grew up in a family that disparaged queerness and creativity and, like Eribon, fled that environment as a young adult for the cosmopolitan allure of the city lights. He confronts his radical otherness to his family, not just in terms of his sexuality, but also as an educated, cultured man who jumped social classes. In portraying his relationship with his mother, Eribon juxtaposes two images, one of a young mother who reacted violently to a sixth-grade Eribon as he recited a poem he learned in English because she never had the chance to learn such things as a drop-out, and another of an old woman, “her body stiffened and painful as a result of the harsh tasks she performed for nearly fifteen years standing on an assembly line” in order to provide for him and support his education. Eribon poignantly dramatizes these emotional and moral dilemmas queers confront when they reconnect with their familial pasts, namely: How do they recognize and appreciate the sacrifice and labor invested into them as children while the injury of being the object of ridicule and derision as adults by those who raised them remains fresh and raw?
While Eribon’s childhood was certainly difficult, he by no means stews in victimhood or polarizes good and bad. Rather, it is his ethical account of his own shortcomings that allows him to unearth such startling truths. His brutal honesty in declaring his hatred for his father despite not having seen him in decades, his present indifference toward his family (save for his mother) and his disgust for the culture of his working class neighborhood reveal a long-repressed class prejudice that motivated his class closetedness. As a leftist and voter for the communist party, Eribon is not unsympathetic to the plight of his working class community. Yet, as he writes about the political engagement of his youth:
I may have been a Marxist, but I have to say that my Marxism, like my engagement on the left, was perhaps little more than a way of idealizing the working class, of transforming it into a mythical entity compared to which the actual life of my parents seemed utterly reprehensible.
This is a common, yet widely unperceived disconnect in radical politics; the romanticization of the oppressed in the literature of its would-be liberators versus their decidedly less revolutionary or exciting everyday existence. Eribon’s narrative reveals that it is not only possible to remain closeted, repressed, and prejudiced even as an openly lgbt person, but that one can also be working toward the liberation of a minority in concept and principle, yet harboring bias and contempt in practice.
Coming from an established public intellectual in France, based on the reputation of his biography on gay philosopher Michel Foucault and his hugely influential book Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, Eribon’s emergence from the class closet is stirring reminder of how much further the gay community must go in understanding the intersection of sexuality with other marginalized backgrounds. Returning to Reims is a resource of innovative theory and practice toward a much needed further dialogue on the relationship of sexuality and class identity.
Returning to Reims
By Didier Eribon; translated by Michael Lucey
The MIT Press
Paperback, 9781584351238, 240 pp.