August 6, 2009

Short history of the Proust Questionnaire

People like answering questions. I mean, you know, the fb kind or the magazine kind. Its fun, easy, and often adds some insight. Besides, the smart ones, make you think.

Obviously, there is a historical context here. I´m getting there.

What is known today as the Proust Questionnaire, made famous, to me at least, by the last page featurette in Vanity Fair magazine. Asked of "noteworthy" people (yeah, famous, smart, for the most part intellectuals). After all, VF considers itself a cut above the standard fashion magazines - more of an deliberately artful interior decoration job on politics/high society crime-drama-mystery antics or what rich folks get up to/entertainment-in-a-rather-highbrow-way news.

Or, as my online dictionary defines "vanity" : excessive pride in one's appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements. I´d say that's a pretty fair description of the magazines intentions, editors and contributers. Christopher Hitchens comes to mind. Writing is decent though. Hey, I subscribed.

Anyway, so - Marcel Proust, famous french writer, (evokes a singularly dull movie where Jeremy Irons languishes as Charles Swann for 3 hours - remember that movie? didn´t think so) , as a boy of about 14, came across an English book titled "Confessions. An Album to Record Thoughts, Feelings, &c." This confessions album or book was apparently quite popular in the late 19th century in British salons. The exact origins are unknown (at least wiki says so) . But I expect someone just came up with the idea, and through word of mouth, it was passed on and someone had the bright idea to "market it". So, yes, late 19th century...... extremely popular formal salon game.

And as trends tend to do, they rise and fall like the tide. So, along comes Proust, re-très chic-ing this game of "being candid to find out who you really are" and has since lived on over the decades in various word arrangements, forthwith known as the Proust Questionnaire. Or, in fb lingo: take this quiz, we'll tell you which SATC/Grey's Anatomy or whichever series/hero you wish to be. So now you know is responsible for all the endlessly available apps.

A french journalist and cultural television host, Bernard Pivot, is likely to have been the first person bringing this set of questions to modern media, asking his guests a selection, based on the original questionnaire, at the end of his show "Apostrophes" (broadcast in France between 1975-1986), featuring the prominent-in-their-respective-fields people (the link to a segment has the Dalai Lama as guest - this excerpt more to give you an idea of the show´s format.......kinda PBS en francais style)

Now, James Lipton, an American writer and poet, created & hosted the series "Inside the Actors Studio". By chance, he had seen Pivot's show, and was thus inspired to use the Proust questions as a sort of guideline/true-to-spirit-but-adopted-to-entertain-us rather than overstuffed-salon-fin-de-siècle audiences.

And I have to share this excellent example of a session with the Great Meryl Streep. (linked with this video are many more interviews.....with John Cusack, Robin Williams, Robert Downey, Jr. Hugh Laurie, etc. so you don´t have to go anywhere. Excellent repartees. )



Then Vanity Fair, I suppose, jumped on the bandwagon and, as I mentioned before, is still a regular featurette on the last page of each issue.

For a start - here the original questions as Proust answered them back in 1890. His answers are kinda dull so going to skip that. Look them up if you must (can be viewed on the Proust Questionnaire link) . Just makes me wonder why somone paid over $100k for the original manuscript of his answers.

Your favorite virtue

Your favorite qualities in a man?

Your favorite qualities in a woman?

Your favorite occupation?

Your idea of happiness.

Your idea of misery

Your favorite colour and flower

If not yourself, who would you be.

Where would you like to live?

Your favorite prose authors

Your favorite poets

Your favorite painters and composers

Your favorite heroes in real life

Your favorite heroes in fiction.

Your favorite names.

Your pet aversion

Which characters in history do you most dislike.

What is your present state of mind.

For what fault do you have the most tolerance.

Your favorite motto.

How would you like to die?


I am going to do a best-of, re-brand thing - 21 nights at the questions. Or something. Approximately 21 days of blog content. Awesome. Because I am going to answer one question a day and also attempt to explain why. Cause that's the interesting part. At least thats the plan.

And, it would be great, if anyone reading this, would also answer the question(s) in my comment box. Thats the interesting bit. What other people think.

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