‘Returning to Reims’ by Didier Eribon moved me profoundly. This book is about suffering, pain and shame related to one’s social background. Through showing his personal story of social exclusion, cutting ties with his working class origins, Eribon explores a number of important themes including the history of France over the last 100 years, how France political sphere has changed, how working class people moved from voting for the left-wing to now the right-wing parties.
‘Returning to Reims’ is partially a memoir, partially a sociological study.
Eribon was born into a working class family in a small town in France. He left it to pursue an academic career to become a well known social theorist.
A large part of this book is dedicated to the issue of shame related to one’s SOCIAL IDENTITY in context of SOCIAL and ECONOMIC INEQUALITIES.
As a young man Eribon thought that the reason why he had such a strong urge to get out of that small town was due to his sexual orientation. He thought that in order to feel free he just needs to move to a bigger, cosmopolitan city. With time, however, he realised that it also had something to do with his attempt to get out of his social class, social identity he was born into.
The author understands that in order to find personal fulfilment he needs to ‘run away’ from his own social background. Eribon portrays it in such a moving and real manner. Searching for our own self we often have to leave what is familiar behind us so we can find a new sense of belonging but the author as an adult man seems to ask if ‘leaving’ the provincial France was the right choice.
Once in Paris, he felt accepted because of his sexual orientation but, on the other hand, he experienced a difficulty in relation to his working class background. The academic circles he was a part of did not seem to be so eager to accept his social origins despite the fact that they fetishized ‘working class‘ in their work. As a result of social constructs, while living in the provincial France, Eribon felt shame because of his sexual orientation; while living in Paris, he also had to deal with the feeling of shame but associated with his social identity.
Initially, Eribon did not want to acknowledge his ‘working class’ background because of the shame he felt associated with the way the ‘working class people’ were perceived in the academic circles of Paris. However, as a left-wing social theorist he ‘admired’ so-called ‘working class people’ in the same way as his more privileged left-wing academic colleagues did but without accepting these shameful parts such as prevalent racism and homophobia present within ‘working class’.
The diagnosis that Eribon gives is that these days ‘working class’ received ‘a better offer’ from the right-wing parties than from their left-wing counterparts. While the left-wing politicians and thinkers talk about the ideas using an elitist language, they often forget what the reality looks like for men and women working physically an eight / twelve – hour long shift often for the minimum wage with no benefits whatsoever.
In many ways, this book felt like my own story to certain extent and I am sure it will resonate with many others who come from the less privileged social and economic background.
Social and economic inequality and a better understanding of poverty should be at the front of any public debate and often, at least, in the West, it appears to be treated as an optional adds-on or it is totally misunderstood.
‘Returning to Reims’ is a wonderfully multilayered, somewhat ambivalent, nuanced and well-constructed story. This is not the easiest book; it is not for everyone but definitely it is one of my most interesting and thought-provoking reads in the recent years.
It is worth mentioning an innovative form of this book, a strange combination of an autobiography and a sociological research paper with the usage of very different linguistic tools when the author speaks about his own family and personal life in comparison to when he reflects on social norms, taboos and theory.
In my view, ‘Returning to Reims’ should be a required book to read in high schools in most European countries. Although, to play devil’s advocate I cannot help but wonder what kind of book Eribon would have written, if he had experienced living under the communist regime like the one in Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1989?