The End of Eddy
by édouard louis
translated by michael lucey
farrar, straus and giroux, 208 pages, $23
Liberal regimes defend their power in the name of freedom and progress. The end of the family wage is the classic example: A great feminist triumph, it “freed” women to swell the labor force, depress wages, and fail to achieve their maternal ideals. A recent Pew survey found roughly 40 percent of American women leave their childbearing years with fewer children than they would like. Women’s liberation, indeed.
It is with this in mind that we must approach the praise lavished on Édouard Louis’s 2014 debut, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, now available in Michael Lucey’s English translation as The End of Eddy. This autobiographical novel (Louis was born “Eddy Bellegueule”) recounts Louis’s childhood and adolescence in the impoverished Picard village of Hallencourt. The New York Times breathlessly calls the book “mesmerizing” and “the Hillbilly Elegy of France”; the New Yorker speaks of “devastating emotional force”; the Washington Post calls Louis “a figure of power” and “a powerful writer.” It is a bit funny but not at all surprising to see this supposedly radical book celebrated by those at the commanding heights of our media. For when Louis sets out to condemn the brutality of a political economy, he endorses the system’s deepest premises: First, the human person is nothing more than material, and human flourishing is nothing more than the extension and development of that material, the pure expression of will through human capital. And second, by implication, those who impede that pure expression of will must be reviled and repressed.
Louis begins the book with a sweeping statement: “From my childhood I have no happy memories.” He describes dilapidated housing stock and grinding physical labor, near-starvation, rampant alcoholism, regular physical and verbal abuse. Women get pregnant and drop out of school; men leave to work in the nearby factory until their bodies are broken. The aspiration for men in Louis’s village is to be a tough guy, to work and drink and fight, to hate Jews and Arabs and “bourgeois” people. When Louis fails to live up to tough-guy ideals, he is beaten and mocked.
Eddy’s father hates bourgeois people as much as he hates Arabs and Jews, but Eddy finds respite in middle-class life when he flees to Amiens. From this vantage, he begins to pity those he’s left behind. Speaking of his mother’s life, he says, “She didn’t understand that her trajectory, what she would call her mistakes, fit in perfectly with a whole set of logical mechanisms that were practically laid down in advance and nonnegotiable.” The villagers are unwitting cogs in a system of brutality, not moral agents.
Despite this condescension, Louis’s concern for the villagers is sincere. He is strenuously a man of the left, a self-anointed champion of the oppressed. In a “manifesto” published on the front page of Le Monde and then translated for the Los Angeles Review of Books, he and co-pamphleteer Geoffroy de Lagasnerie make a broad denunciation: “In France, ‘intellectual right’ remains an oxymoron, better still: an impossibility.” By the right, Louis means the anti-migrant nationalists of the National Front on the one hand and the Euro-backed neoliberals of Macron’s En Marche! movement on the other—an odd pair to lump together, considering those two sets’ fundamentally opposed programs, but united in Louis’s eyes by systematic violence against some disenfranchised group, whether foreigners or a broadly defined proletariat.
Yet for all his posturing against the politics of Macron, Louis embraces the fundamental error of the neoliberals and of many socialists: the treatment of the human person as mere capital to be developed and allotted, and of human reality as a construction emanating from human capital. Louis has, since his literary emergence, changed his legal name, dieted furiously, and had several surgeries to alter his facial appearance. He calls The End of Eddy a novel rather than a memoir, while also strenuously defending its reality. He treats himself as human capital and his life as a construction. The French title, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, has the force of “finishing off Eddy Bellegueule.” Louis thinks he can kill the person he was and build a new reality around his reconfigured human capital.
He decries the brutality of his village; he decries the brutality of an economic and social system. But his alternative to the violence of a neighbor or a class is to grant freedom for violence against the self. Libertas perditionis, truly. There is another way, a way predicated on the transcendent dignity of the human person, but that is a way associated with the genuine French right and the monasteries despoiled by the current Republic’s putative ancestor in 1789. And that way is completely absent from both his diagnosis and his prescription—The End of Eddy is a work of nearly perfect secularism. The only mention of a church is in a brief description of Hallencourt’s village square.
The most alarming section of The End of Eddy, and the one that perhaps gives the deepest insight into Louis’s commitment to the exploitation of human capital, is the description of his sexual encounters as a ten-year-old with his thirteen-year-old cousin, inspired by a pornographic film the cousin had obtained from his own father’s shelf. What the reader is supposed to make of this shocking series of episodes is unclear. While Louis intends to discomfit the reader, he seems to object to the surrounding context rather than the actions themselves: the domineering cousin, the confused and selective reactions of family and friends upon discovery, the shifting of blame. There are no inherently wrong acts; there are merely acts that are rendered wrong by context, by improper construction. The person himself is raw stuff to be developed, by himself or by others.
He identifies his village’s poverty as a mechanism of the European economy and the villagers’ violence as a prop to the cultural program of the National Front. Yet in his efforts to condemn a system, Louis embraces its deep premise, the treatment of humanity as mere material. The End of Eddy contains many horrifying episodes, but it upholds the philosophy that enables the horror. The cure to the disease of failing solidarity is yet more atomization, yet more denial of human nature, yet more ground yielded to the logic and mechanisms of capital.
And, of course, those who challenge a program of materialism and accelerated atomization are to be treated as pariahs, opposed to the liberal march of constructed facts and invented freedoms. Louis is not terribly concrete in The End of Eddy regarding what he thinks is to be done regarding the ills of the body politic, but his Le Monde manifesto ends with four “principles,” three of which are devoted to driving inimical ideas from the public square. These include the “principle of designation: to recognize individuals for what they really are, to no longer ratify their attempts at deception nor accept as valid subjects of debate those opinions which we know for a fact to be wrong.” We can see that this means blacklisting intellectuals who do not conform to Louis’s vision when he lists two examples of impermissible thoughts: “The alleged threats posed by migrants to the unity of France or Europe, the risks of gender theory, are not topics of discussion, these are insults and lies.” Open borders and fluid gender: So long as these are unchallenged, labor markets cannot be constrained by distinctions between man and woman, citizen and alien. As always, the dialectic of tolerance and freedom mysteriously aligns with the interests of capital, unfettered and rampant.
Jude Russo is an MFA candidate at New York University.