About the performance
On Thursday, 24 December, in the Paris Place de la République, returning home from a Christmas dinner, young Édouard meets Reda, a young man with Algerian roots. They talk, start flirting and soon Édouard invites Reda to his apartment. The two spend the night together.
Reda talks about his childhood and his father, who fled from Algeria to France, where he was forced into heavy labour. The atmosphere is playful, they laugh and show affection to each other and have sexual intercourse. A few hours later, when they are saying goodbye, Édouard finds out his smart phone is missing. Reda suddenly pulls out his gun and threatens him, and things quickly lead to aggression, violence and rape. Next morning, Édouard goes to the police and seeks medical attention. Not knowing how to face the trauma, he escapes home to the countryside in north-eastern France and confides in his sister Clare. The reaction to the dramatic incident, the conversations with people around him, the interrogation by the police and the medical staff uncover racism, homophobia and unclear structures of power rooted deep in today’s capitalist society.
In his autobiographical novel History of Violence, the French writer Édouard Louis reconstructs the traumatic night and creates a text that is both a personal and a thorough social analysis of time, desire, immigration and racism. Through voices of various victims, Luis captures the crime pushed to the margins of the society.
It is a brave and an ambitious text by one of the most provoking young writers, whose works have been translated into many languages and staged in several countries.
How can someone born at the bottom of society rise to fame?
His name is Édouard Bellegueule and there are two worlds in his hand, different as night and day and extremely remote. The intersection of the two sets is empty, they are disjoint, and that is why Eddy, as his parents officially named him, is forced into some kind of parallelity. As parallels are not perpendiculars leading straight up, the path will be a hard one. Will he, an outsider by birth, walk mostly on the margins? The social environment is surely stronger than will? Will he be able to break the heavy chains and penetrate through the thick French social walls? There is more than one France. They differ regarding different conditions, possibilities as well as will and desire connected with them.
Édouard is strongly attached to the first world, and he is still clinging to it. This is his primary social environment, the one of his family, a poor, less than a working-class milieu in impoverished, not God but state–forsaken, neglected and deindustrialized Picardy in the northern part of France.
He touches the other world, intellectually and financially superior and well-kept, even glittering, in this part of the narrative, at his nineteen years, as a serious student of social sciences at the elite Paris École normale supérieure, or just ENS. It is almost a miracle that he gets admitted there.
Édouard is such a dedicated and intellectually engaged student that just before the second round of presidential elections in the Odéon arrondissement, the Theatre of Europe–it is now the spring of 2012 and socialist François Hollande will soon become president–he holds a colloquium on Pierre Bourdieu. It attracts much attention, which is not surprising, as Bourdieu’s theoretical framework may be applied to many personal stories; even Eddy’s, who is now called Édouard, Édouard Bellegueule.
Who would have thought that he would once attend the “grande école”, and, above all, at famous rue d’Ulm in the 5tharrondissement of Paris, as this is where the national elite is being formed, as this is the school that has always been a flourishing field of discrimination? The socially hermetically sealed ENS is attended by top-notch students, outstandingly brilliant and, especially, born in a high class family; many famous Frenchmen have been shaped and raised there, such as Henri Bergson, Jean-Paul Sartre, Alain Juppé, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Georges Pompidou, not to mention numerous children of the nobility, sons and daughters of professors and lawyers from the rich arrondissements of Paris: the 5th, 6th, 7thor 16th. In France, the wealthy have always successfully ghettoized from the “masses”, while the poor are ghettoized in the poor or, as they are called politically correct, sensitive quarters and suburbs.
Bellegueule's privileged fellow students lack the empathy for poverty and social exclusion, as it is evident from their unconscious verbal violence when they talk about the “misfortune of those from there”. Édouard is, of course, just as well “the poor from god-knows-where”, much like other exceptions that have proved the rule: Pierre Bourdieu, Paul Nizan, Jacques Derrida and many other candidates for bourgeoisie.
A candidacy for a higher class in the socially stratified France is a tough decision, as you have to know the canons of the upper class manners and culture by heart: how to talk appropriately, how to behave, even how to eat and who to appreciate intellectually. His fellow students have no clue about Édouard’s inner struggles that would eventually ease the chains of his primary social environment and loose its plainly evident roughness and vulgarity, limitations and illiteracy and all those less evident trivialities, socially inadequate education and culture stemming from clear social exclusion. Social climbing is a laborious task, as the countryside parvenu has no connections in Paris and has to face the old fear of the elite, especially of the right-wing as well as the saloon left-wing, that the “lower class” could swallow the high culture. Instead of being, at least partly, pulled up, he could suddenly pull it down–alas, on no account–in a wrong direction, what could mean–of course we are ironic–the beginning of the end of the French culture, nation and civilization, as only economic, social and intellectual development, elitism in the right meaning of the word, ensures progress. Otherwise, everyone will probably become more or less poor, and poverty will be written all over their faces. Was it not François Hollande, who considers himself a usual, normal president–in this part of the narrative he is still in the Élysée Palace–who called them toothless? Even their physical properties reveal in what conditions they live; not due to their clothes but their figure–the rich are never fat, while the poor, due to their bad nutrition, are, as a rule, plump–, their posture, their particular underlook, their (il)literacy of language and spirit, as there is no intellectual statement, no real passion for thought, just not enough of anything.
To Édouard Bellegueule, who knows what he is talking about, it comes to no surprise that young people in France who come from deprivileged social background, where knowledge and culture, even beauty in general, are inaccessible, do not want to go to school and do not like it. Boys build their identity on masculinity, which rejects books, and consider learning to be something for girls and fags. How could things be any different when it was already under the rule of socialist François Mitterrand that the left-wing political discourse on workers and class conflict disappeared and economic expressions, such as cohabitate, communicate and cooperate have gained ground? In the world without left-wing ideals and promises of social safety, where left-wing politics has been substituted by right-wing neoliberalism, how could a little person find its place? Just how? By starting to believe populist speeches of far-right Marine Le Pen and equally radical lefty Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who could be a promising figure were it not for his blinding and foolish opinion on Venezuela.
It is 2014. Eddy Bellegueule is 21 and–truly–gone. He was killed by Édouard, Édouard Louis: Bye, bye, Eddy!
Things didn’t go smooth, for some time there was Édouard Bellegueule. But, finally, there’s hope that the poor yokel Eddy will never again be brought to light, and the intellectual Édouard Louis will be able to live as fully as possible. No, it is not always easy to carry your first and your last name. We never choose them for ourselves; yet, the civilization is trying to convince us that nomen est omen. What kind of courage does it take to turn your back on your identity, which you dislike and has little or nothing in common with reality?
Now, that Édouard Bellegueule has been Édouard Louis for about a year, France is getting to know him as the author of autobiographical novel En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (The End of Eddy). The work, dedicated to sociologist, philosopher and his friend Didier Eriboun, immediately attracts public attention; namely, who is this blonde young man with the heartbreaking life story–the curiosity of the French has been awaken. They are not the only ones that are curious; his fame soon spreads beyond the borders. Not surprisingly, as in different societies primitive practices seem to be thrillingly alike if not the same.
So, Édouard finally manages to chase away Eddy, this horrible name that can only be given somewhere in prospectless and remote Picardy by illiterate parents, who, unemployed, idle, invalid..., spend their time foolishly gazing in the television box displaying cheap and silly American shows, in which an unintelligent Eddy might appear, who does not even know his place in the world nor what to do with himself... And what a pleasure it was to get rid of Bellegueule, this Pantagruel-like mocking last name, typical for old Picardy, where the poor, like in Rabelais’ novels, devour worthless food and get drunk with cheap alcohol and then insult all the different and even more hungry people as roughly as possible. In the meantime, they are laughing their head off if they are not already in a fight.
Everywhere I look, just a bunch of shirkers, southerners, faggots and chicks, is it not? Ugh, does it burn, does it hurt, ha ha? What are you shooting your mouth of? You want to fight? You want me to hit you in your beautiful face, Bellegueule?
After Édouard was finally sickened by his stupid last name, he chose a new one, different, less jutting and less itchy. Now, he is melodiously called Louis: as this is the name of a person he likes and who encouraged him to write a book. Is now primitive grumbling coming to a close, and will Édouard Louis, liberated from the bottom of the society, finally be able to dedicate himself to intellectual tasks, reading and writing? The first-person novel The End of Eddy, in which everything is true, every horrible and shocking line, is an intimate portrait of his less-than-working-class family, which, after his father’s accident in a foundry, lives exclusively from social support. It is a picture of the lowest social class, defined by lack and exclusion of everything, even the exclusion from the educational system, by filth, premature aging, eternal circling around negativity, violence and the continual conservation of violence on and on, as...when one is a victim of violence, what is typical of the lowest social class, one eventually turns to violence, as Édouard Louis agrees with sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Moreover, the novel is a portrait of a boy, who was born with different gestures and a voice that never fully changed and, to top it off, with interests that have nothing in common with the countryside dictatorship of masculinity: football, leaning on the bar, taking pleasure in cunts, poor vocabulary and poor syntax...
Hey, man, you wanna fool around? Ugh, Eddy, what a fag! Ha ha!
Who would not want to escape from such an environment, governed by laughter and derision? Most surely not, as a condition for social mobility of some is that others remain low. That is the principle of an elevator: it does not work if everyone wants to go up. Some have to remain low, in the same spot. (Misunderstood) oil lifts up, but water remains below it, at the bottom. For starters, Édouard, at that time known as Eddy, after being misunderstood by everyone and, moreover, failing to find and any empathy, physically moved away, to a residential theatre programme at a high school in Amiens. Before that he, at least somehow on the inside, escaped into theatre, and even before that, he tried to infiltrate into his violent society, even engaging in sexually violence, in order to stand out as little as possible. To no avail! He failed to blend in with his society, which masterfully mocked him with most vulgar tunes and his parents just the same. Thankfully, there are emphatic teachers, who recognize the invisible, and even inaudible: a hidden talent and a little cry of child to escape, to break away from the faith. Édouard was heard by Didier Éribon.
Is Édouard, after all he’s been through, somewhat ashamed of himself? Why would he feel shame over his family, which has never understood him? Does he hate it, like André Gide detested the structure of the family? Familles, je vous hais. On no account. His father should be filled with shame not him. His father and mother are filled with it, as he, only a small child, had to go to a public kitchen to bring some food on their table... His shame is secondary, marginal, as is his almost stunningly beautifully lack of condemnation of his parents, brothers and sisters, relatives... He doesn’t condemn them despite the bitterness they have caused him. He only wants to be understood. At least in this point of the narrative–it’s still 2014–, it is not clear if they understand what he is telling by revealing that world, that he is not talking only about himself but is holding a sociological and political mirror to entire France, blinded by bliss and, therefore, too blind to see the misery. Only as an exception can you break away from the brutality and violence on yourself and you’re not, as Édouard Louis is trying to tell us, responsible for it. It’s the politics which should be blamed for turning its back on some regions and some social groups. And a partial blame is on the French educational system, which fails to resolve social differences by only making them worse.
His family only partly comprehended what Édouard Louis is thinking, talking and writing, his brother would surely not storm into Paris trying to kill him–true, without success, but he and his father are still making death threats and even his mother has given his number to fellow villagers, who now mock him over the phone...and he even had to move temporarily, to avoid somebody showing up on his doorstep... Where are you, Eddy, faggot, so we can twist your neck?! Come here, so we can kill you!!!
And it’s raw violence all over again...
Finally, it’s 2016 and Édouard Louis writes a new book, Histoire de la violence (History of Violence), a heartbreaking autobiographical narrative about–what else, if not–aggression, this time about rape. Is violence following him like a shadow, as he has so much to write about it? Or does he enjoy dealing with it? But who would enjoy something like that? Nevertheless, sociologically speaking, you have to confront the pain, be it intimate or collective, say, colonialist, Algerian... Who would want to feel the pain on a pleasant Christmas Eve, which you don’t want to spend alone, as it is a recollection of the birth of Christ?
Sex is always a wonderful bridge between two persons. It could mean a beginning of a Christmas love, why not, if the planned intimacy (of two strangers) didn’t turn to physical torture, strangling, rape...all this due to a stolen phone. The case itself is complicated. It immediately goes to court, where raped host Édouard proves that Algerian Reda did rape him after inviting him to his place on the Christmas Evening. Yet, the case stops there. For Édouard it suffices that the investigating judge recognized him as a victim, and he instantly turns his lucid thought elsewhere: Who is Reda, actually? What’s his family story and his broader background? Why is he aggressive? He wants to understand him, and he might even forgive him, for, if the reasons for the rape on the Christmas Eve are deeply historical and beyond the perpetrator himself, if the reasons exceed an individual, the forgiveness is–sociologically speaking–possible. It might be possible because the critics are far from agreeing with the increasingly popular Édouard Louis that there could be an excuse for violence, not even sociological one. To not forget but to forgive, to forget but not to forgive, both, or neither... What a terrifying Christmas! Always a merry Christmas!
On this stage, it is not yet 2018.
But that will be the year when Édouard Louis, an only 26-year old constantly gaining global recognition...–isn’t it interesting that his first interview was for the Slovenian daily Delo?–, will publish his third book, again an autobiographical: he will write about his father and their relationship in Qui a tué mon père (Who Killed My Father). Someone will namely have to kill his father when he will not live in Picardy and when he will not support the far right any longer. Is it because his son will eventually become a recognized name of the extreme left, along with his friendsDidier Éribon and Geoffroy de Lagasnerie?
The violent politics, this time Macronism of French president Emmanuel Macron, will continue to push the poorest people on the bottom of the social ladder, who will be forced to wear yellow vests and gather in groups on several late-autumn Saturdays in mass protests. They will riot in the streets, they will shatter shop windows, cars will burn and everywhere people will get hurt.
Roughness is no pleasant tune, as the songs demanding better life never are.
How much violence, how much hatred and scorn, how much dissatisfaction, how much frustrations, how much pain...in 66-million France! And how much ugliness, violence, but, nevertheless, triumph in a life of very young Édouard Louis. He is merely a young man. Yet, does he even feel young? Can he consider himself a young man, it the rawness of his environment took away his period of innocence?
No more violence...and long live non-violent France! At least once, perhaps!
Édouard Louis: Facebook posts
4th December 2018
Some thoughts about the gilets jaunesmovement, its importance and the contempt for it and about the brutal violence we are witnessing today against the working class.
I’ve been trying to write a text on and for yellow vests, but I can’t. There’s something in extreme violence and class contempt battering this movement that leaves me paralyzed and, in some way, personally affected.
It’s difficult to describe the shock I felt first time I saw gilets jaunes. In the photos in newspaper articles, I saw bodies that have never appeared in public and media space, bodies suffering, devastated by labour, fatigue, hunger and constant humiliation of the dominant against the oppressed, by social and geographical exclusion, I saw tired bodies, tired hands, broken backs, exhausted looks.
The reason for my shock was, of course, the loathing of the violence of the social world and of inequality, but also, and perhaps especially, of the fact that bodies I saw on the photos seemed much like the body of my father, the body of my brother, the body of my aunt... They looked like the bodies of my family, of the inhabitants of the village where I grew up, of these people whose health is devastated by suffering and poverty, the people who constantly repeated every day of my childhood: “We’re worth nothing for no one, nobody talks of us.”
This was the reason I felt personally affected by the contempt and violence of the bourgeoisie, which immediately crowded around this movement. I felt that anybody who insulted the yellow vests insulted my father.
From the start of the movement, the media featuring “experts” and “politicians”, diminishing the meaning of gilets jaunes, judging them, mocking them and the revolt they are representing. On social networks, I saw words “barbarians”, “idiots”, “yokels”, “irresponsible”. The media spoke of the grunting of gilets jaunes: the working class doesn’t revolt, it grunts like an animal. I heard of “the violence of this movement”. A common phenomenon by the differentiation of the perception of violence is that a large part of the media and political sphere wants us to believe that violence is not the thousand lives destroyed, reduced to a mere existence due to rotten politics, but a few burnt cars.
We must ignore poverty and suffering and think that the graffiti on a monument are worse than the impossibility of accessing health care, living and feeding your family.
Gilets jaunes talk of hunger, precarity, life and death. The “politicians” and some journalists answer: “The symbols of our Republic have been violated.” What are these people talking about? How do they dare? Where are they from?
The media speak of the racism and homophobia of this movement. Who are they mocking? I don’t want to talk about my book, but it is interesting that every time I have published a novel I have been accused of stigmatizing poor and rural France precisely because I mentioned homophobia and racism, which were both present in the village of my childhood. The journalists who have never done anything for the working class were infuriated and suddenly started playing the defenders of the people. For the rulers, the working class is the class-object par excellence if we borrow the term from Pierre Bourdieu; it is the manipulative object of discourse: one day, the authentic poor represent the good, next day they are seen as racists and homophobes.
In both cases, the desire stays the same: to prevent the working classes from speaking for themselves, about themselves. It doesn’t matter if you have to contradict yourself from one day to the next, provided they keep quiet.
Of course, there have been some homophobic and racist acts and gestures among the yellow vests...But since when do the media and the “politicians” worry about racism and homophobia? Since when? What have they done against racism? Do they use their power to talk about Adama Traoré and the Adama Committee? Do they talk about the police violence that affects Blacks and Arabs in France every day? Was it not them who talked about Frigide Barjot and many other bishops at the time of marriage and, in doing so, was it not them who enabled and normalized homophobia on TV screens? When the dominant classes and certain media talk about the homophobia and racism in the gilets jaunes movement, they are not talking neither of homophobia nor racism. They are literally saying: “Poor people, shut up!”
By all means, the gilets jaunes movement is still under making. Its language is still not formed; if there is homophobia and racism among the yellow vests, it is our responsibility to change that language.
There are several ways of saying “I am suffering”. A social movement opens up a possibility that those who suffer no longer say: “I am suffering because of our rulers. I am suffering because of the class system, because of Emmanuel Macron and Édouard Philippe.” A social movement is a moment of the subversion of language, a moment when the foundations of the old language start shaking.
What is happening today? For several days we are witnessing the change in the language of the yellow vests. At first, there was talk about gasoline and only occasionally some unpleasant words emerged, such as “transfer receivers”. Now, it’s about inequity, higher wages, injustice.
This movement must continue, as it embodies something right, urgent, deeply radical, because faces and voices that are usually forced to invisibility are finally visible and audible.
The fight will not be an easy one, as we can see. The gilets jaunes movement represents some kind of a Rorschach test for a great part of bourgeoisie; it forces them to express their class contempt and their violence which have usually only been expressed implicitly, the contempt that has ruined so many lives around me is continuing to do so, more and more, the contempt that silences me and paralyzes me so strongly that I can’t finish the text I wanted, that I can’t express what I wanted.
But we must win: there are many of us telling ourselves that we couldn’t face another defeat for the left and for those who suffer.
But with such behaviour the rulers and the bourgeoisie are creating a weapon against themselves. If you are a class deserter, upon arriving in Paris, it seems tempting to belong to the bourgeoisie. It’s so difficult to escape your childhood background, to change, to become someone else, that, in one moment, you feel it would be easier to integrate, to be like them, to not ask questions, to become a part of their life, which is a sort of collective negation of the reality of the social world and its violence. Didier Éribon is talking about this moment, as he sits somewhere in the Opéra arrondissement, about this rewarding feeling of belonging to this class, to this world; Violette Leduc is writing about this in her book on deserters, in La folie en tête. But the mechanisms of social reproduction are so fixed in the heads of the bourgeoisie that they can’t act differently than to exclude the newcomers–all the better, as in this way they are turning people against themselves, they are creating the minds that will confront them.