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The working class is desperately trying to defend its dignity 

Theater: Return to Reims
Regissør: Didier Eribon

French sociologist Didier Eribon's book on growing up as a gay working class child became a bestseller in Germany last year. Now Return to Reims has been staged by theater director Thomas Ostermeier.


Why was the book Return to Reims by Frenchman Didier Eribon a huge success and last year's book in Germany? It has three main reasons: First, the book became a bestseller with over ninety thousand copies sold. Second, it was commented on by most major German and national German newspapers. The third reason is that the book – despite being translated by a German publisher only seven years after its publication and despite being about the French class community, which is completely different from German – analyzes a topic that reaches out above the French and German daily news.

Didier Eribon is probably one of the most celebrated sociologists in a long time. Eribon was born in the city of Reims in 1953, is a journalist, writer, sociologist and philosopher. He researches and teaches as a professor at the University of Amiens. First he studied philosophy in Reims, then in Paris. After his plans to become a college teacher fell into disrepair, he worked as a journalist for the newspapers Liberation and Le Nouvel Observateur. Later he has mainly been active as a writer and published a number of books on gay subjectivity, including the book Échapper on psychoanalysis, in which he critically discusses Freud's psychoanalysis.

The order of things

Eribon has written about his social and sexual shame as gay working class children, where the struggle to free himself from stigmatization and social oppression has left deep marks. Return to Reims however, neither tries to explain the rise of right-wing forces nor to analyze the class composition's changes in capitalism. It's a book about the order of things. Eribon explains how our provenance fits into our emotions, speech, actions, our tastes, our life plans and our bodies. Return to Reims is about social and political determinisms – an area where it is extremely rare for anyone to dare to speak so openly. Eribon touches and engages the audience because he dares to break out of a fixed academic mode of expression. He deliberately exposes himself to a vulnerability in order to free himself from his own wounds.

"I wasn't one working children – I was one gay child, one gay youth."

The debate over the book has revolved around whether press commentators have misinterpreted it and taken it to fruition for a political analysis: Some believe that the book confirms the theory that the right-wing populist party National Front's emergence depends on the electoral escape from the French Communist Party. Eribon himself points out that he has written a book about his mother and not a political analysis.

Homosexuality and the proletariat

Eribon's parents wanted to achieve material prosperity. In the sixties, it was almost impossible for ordinary workers in class-divided France. This makes Eribon painfully experienced as he does not reach the education system to be able to take the state exam at olecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. The economy does not stretch.

World War II destroyed the mother's plans for secretarial education, her father becoming a wreck of alcohol in the factory. The educational deficit is inherited by the author's brothers when the working sons finish their schooling as teenagers and begin working in a slaughterhouse or factory. In a sense, it is Eribon's gay attitude that "saves" him from the same fate. Because he is stigmatized as gay, he abhors anything reminiscent working life. Philosophy studies by thinkers like Sartre, Marx and Beauvoir show a way to another world that allows him to study at the University of Reims. From there he escapes to Paris.

Eribon describes how sexual and social shame interacts and leads to denial of one's own class. The author reveals Reims as a place where he was bullied by his own. "Your damn sweep, scroll," they called after him. He writes: "Gradually discovering and acquiring one's sexuality already meant attributing me to a stigmatized category defined by insulting words and expressions." The mother only mentioned his orientation with "like you".

PHOTO: Arno Declair


As a result of Eribon's German boxing success, theater director Thomas Ostermeier chose to stage the book of the sociologist. The show was invited to this year's Theatertreffen in Berlin.

In the performance Return to Reims (Rückkehr nach Reims) we meet Eribon and his working class mother in a documentary film essay in a "DDR film sound studio". Nina Hoss plays Katy – the narrator for the soundtrack to be added to the film. She reads excerpts from the book in parallel with the film screening. The film director (Sebastian Schwarz) and the sound engineer (Ali Gadema) are the other two actors in the theater scene.

The audience sees Didier Eribon sitting at the train window, on his way back to the working town of Reims, where he grew up. He calls the door of the white-painted townhouse and looks at old black-and-white photographs from his mother's shoe box. Here she has lived for decades with her father without a single visit from her son. It is only now, after his father's death, that the author has overcome the shame and found the courage to visit his mother. The thick and swollen legs of the mother testify to a long and standing working life on the factory floor, where the daily task was to fix the lid on canned glass.

Want too much

During the play there are differences of opinion between Katy and the film director. Katy responds that a film sequence shows left-wing protesters while reading a text about Le Pen and the National Front.

Later we find out from Katy (Nina Hoss) that the actor's father, Willi Hoss, like Eribon's parents, has a working class background and was involved in the establishment of the labor union at Daimler-Benz in southern Germany. We hear that foreign workers from Turkey were denied membership in the union. Father Hoss engages in the work of foreign workers and gets a breakthrough in corporate management.

All this is well and good, Nina Hoss plays excellent. Nothing wrong with her struggle for the working class. The weakness of the show, on the other hand, is that too many stories are packed into a three-hour long story.

Forced class travel

How did Eribon manage to disengage from Reims? He is forced to distance himself from his origin. To free himself from sexual shame, he must deny his class affiliation. The goal is to get rid of patterns of action that are typical of the working class: the author changed appearance, jargon, language, dress and writing style.

The French education system maintains a "calcified" social structure.

For Eribon, “social and sexual shame are like two mutually dependent circuits that resulted in me having to redefine myself,” and further: “I was not a working children – I was one gay child, one gay youth."

One of Eribon's role models, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, writes that the term "taste" is almost always characterized by social origin. For Bourdieu, the social background is crucial. The origins predestinate a certain behavior and create belonging in society. In the program booklet for the theater performance, Bourdieu points out that working-class children make up only six percent of all students taking higher education in France. The French education system maintains a "calcified" social structure, in which the favored society receives more benefits, while the disadvantaged are given fewer opportunities.

The entrance of right-wing populism

Today, Eribon feels alienated from his mother and siblings. For his father, it was natural to vote for the French Communist Party in the 2017s, later a quarter of the French Communists voted for the socialist Mitterand. In XNUMX, Eribon's family voted for the right-wing Front National Party. Where the worker previously stood against the bourgeoisie, the "Frenchman" and "the foreigner" are now set against each other as "opponents". Eribon explains this contradictory shift with a form of "political emergency guard from the lower strata of society". The working class is desperately trying to defend their dignity – they feel let down.

Blaming foreigners deliberately takes the focus away from the "idea" itself, writes Eribon. By "the idea" he means the "political concept", that is, the fight against the ruling class. But Didier Eribon is far from naive in his analysis: He knows too well the racism and discrimination in the white working class's own ranks.

Hans-Georg Kohler
Hans-Georg Kohler
Kohler is a regular reviewer for Ny Tid. Artist.

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