Édouard Louis, in your new book, Instruction to Become Another, you describe a social odyssey. Your way out of your village, out of poverty, into the small town of Amiens, ie the middle class, and later to Paris, where you make it into the highest circles of the bourgeoisie and intellectual elite. What did you learn on this trip?
Basically, it is the question that gave the impetus for this book: What do you learn about the world and society as you go through the most diverse social classes, higher and higher? The most striking thing for me was the realization that our society is based on lies. We believe in narratives that have little to do with the truth.
Which one, for example?
For example, the idea that anyone can do it if they put in the right effort; that everyone is given the opportunity to make something of themselves. That work and effort are rewarded in our society and those who didn’t find a place just didn’t try hard enough. Unfortunately that’s not true. I’ve been in different milieus and I can tell you that the class you help the most is by no means the one you start with. It is not, as is often claimed, the supposedly supported working class, but the upper class. They are given the life that people like me have to fight hard for. I’ll give you an example: When I found out about possible fields of study, diplomas or entrance exams that would have helped me to escape from my milieu, it was usually too late. As a child of the bourgeoisie, you grow up knowing about these opportunities, you don’t miss these opportunities. If someone from my village wants to study, they have to be Einstein. An upper-class kid can be very mediocre in intelligence and still get accepted into Sciences Po.
You acquired this cultural capital of which you speak and studied at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. Aren’t you the best example of how social determinism can be broken after all?
I don’t think so at all. On the contrary, I would say that this book is my most deterministic. My escape, or rather my urgent desire to escape and change, was determined. I didn’t leave because I wanted to, I was forced to flee because the determinism of my class, its cult of masculinity, collided with the determinism of my sexual orientation, the fact that I’m gay. The violence that resulted pushed me away. I was, as Sartre would say, doomed to be free.
Destined for freedom?
Probably freedom and determinism shouldn’t be thought of as opposed to each other. In my opinion, the freedom and emancipation that this book, like the one about my mother, is about is not the result of a personal choice but of a situation. I am often criticized for this attitude, for denying people personal responsibility. But I find it much more optimistic to say that certain situations make you escape your origins, rather than always claiming that this impulse has to come from within you, completely separate from everything else. If you think that then there is nothing you can do, you have to passively wait for individuals to develop this urge. On the other hand, if you recognize that there are situations that promote it, you can try to create them.