In 1886, Antoinette Faure, the daughter of the future French President Félix Faure, asked her childhood friend Marcel Proust to fill out a questionnaire in a book titled “Confessions. An Album to Record Thoughts, Feelings, & c.” A fashionable parlor game originating among the Victorian literate classes, the “confession album,” as it was known, presented a formulaic set of queries on each page—“What is your distinguishing characteristic,” for instance, or “What virtue do you most esteem?” The album’s owner would pass the volume around among her friends, collecting their comments as a kind of souvenir, not unlike the notes that high-school students leave in one another’s yearbooks. Though Proust was only fourteen years old when he filled out Faure’s album, he responded to the questionnaire in precociously Proustian style. Beside the prompt “Your favorite virtue?,” he wrote, “All those that are not specific to any one sect; the universal ones.” To the rather pedestrian question “Where would you like to live?,” he answered, “In the realm of the ideal, or rather my ideal.” His “idea of misery,” true to form, was “to be separated from Maman.” And when asked, “For what fault have you most toleration?,” he replied, “For the private lives of geniuses.”
The young Proust wrote his answers in French, though Faure’s album, a British import, was printed in English. In his early twenties, Proust would fill out a second questionnaire, in a French album titled “Les Confidences de Salon.” He was far from the only significant cultural figure to participate in this ritual. In 1865, Karl Marx confessed that he considered his chief characteristic “singleness of purpose,” and that his favorite occupation was “bookworming.” Five years later, Oscar Wilde wrote in an album called “Mental Photographs, an Album for Confessions of Tastes, Habits, and Convictions” that his distinguishing feature was “inordinate self-esteem.” Arthur Conan Doyle, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Cézanne all filled out similar forms. But while these other confessions are curios of their era, remembered only by historians, Proust’s questionnaires have had a far-reaching influence that their young author could scarcely have foreseen, becoming, over time, the template for one of the most widely administered personality quizzes in history.
This peculiar afterlife began in 1924, two years after Proust’s death, when Antoinette Faure’s son, the psychoanalyst André Berge, discovered his mother’s confession album in a pile of old volumes among her effects. He had Proust’s page published in the French literary journal Les Cahiers du Mois. In an article accompanying the document, titled “About a Lucky Find,” Berge offered a subtle psychoanalytic explication de texte—noting, for instance, that for the “idea of misery” question Proust had first written “to be away from Mother,” and then crossed it out and replaced “to be away” with “to be separated.” “With this cross-out,” Berge theorized, “we can surely recognize the everlasting unease of the great psychologist who, in his subtle turns of phrase, strived to reflect the most elusive nuances of thought no matter what.”
Berge was the first to celebrate the document that would soon become known as “le questionnaire de Proust.” (The second questionnaire had actually been published in the early eighteen-nineties, during Proust’s lifetime but prior to his fame, in the journal La Revue Illustrée.) But where Berge had denigrated the confession album’s “stupid questions” while praising Proust’s ingenious answers, it was the questions themselves that, in due time, began to take on a totemic significance. By the nineteen-fifties, versions of the questionnaire, usually addressed to writers and other literary intellectuals, began to appear regularly in upmarket French magazines, eventually becoming a staple of European middlebrow journalism. The German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung adopted a version in the nineteen-eighties, as did the English Sunday Correspondent magazine, on the advice of the novelist Gilbert Adair, who noted, shrewdly, that “the advantage of questionnaires, from a financial point of view, was that not one of the celebrities who agree to submit expect to be paid.” In 1993, Vanity Fair began running its regular back-pageProust Questionnaire feature, thus introducing the format to an American mass audience. Respondents included everyone from Norman Mailer, Fran Lebowitz, and Joan Didion to Julia Child, Karl Lagerfeld, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. (The latter’s response to the question about his “lowest depths of misery”: “Did you read the reviews for ‘Last Action Hero’?”)
Television had an even more powerful effect. In 1975, the French talk-show host Bernard Pivot adopted a version of the questionnaire as the signature closing segment of his literary-panel program “Apostrophes.” The show was astonishingly popular in France, at its height reaching an audience of 6.4 million, and the questionnaire featured at the end of each episode, where it was answered by the likes of Susan Sontag and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. (Though he invariably presented his version as an homage to Proust, Pivot’s list of ten questions—including “What is your favorite curse word?,” and “If God exists, what would you like to hear him say to you after your death?”—shared no items in common with the original.) James Lipton, of the American interview series “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” saw the survey administered on “Apostrophes” in the eighties and was entranced. In his 2007 autobiography, he declared Pivot’s questionnaire a “verbal Rorschach test that told the viewer more about the respondent than an hour of questioning.” Lipton adopted the device for his own show, which began airing on the cable network Bravo in 1994. “Apostrophes” had gone off the air in 1989, but Pivot’s next series, “Bouillon de Culture,” brought the feature back; on the show’s final broadcast, in 2001, Pivot and Lipton submitted to questioning themselves, for the first time, in tandem.
In each of these settings, being called upon to answer the so-called “Proust questionnaire” is presented as an honor—a way of signalling that an artist’s work stands above the humdrum promotional cycle. You are there to do more than hawk a product; the audience is interested, above all, in you. Where the typical journalistic interview tailors questions to the particular qualities of a subject, the Proust questionnaire’s unchanging ritual confers a special kind of prestige, granting the tastes, opinions, and preferences of celebrities a timeless, philosophical appeal. Whether you’re a philosopher or a sitcom actor, your value is affirmed by the mere fact that you’ve been asked the questions at all.
What would Proust have thought of the phenomenon he unwittingly inspired? One clue can be found in his unfinished critical work “Contre Sainte-Beuve,” in which he quotes this passage from the French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve:
So long as one has not asked an author a certain number of questions and received answers to them, one cannot be certain of having a complete grasp of him, even though these questions might seem at the furthest remove from the nature of his writings. What were his religious views? How did he react to the sight of nature? How did he conduct himself in regard to women, in regard to money? Was he rich, was he poor? What governed his actions, what was his daily way of life? What was his vice, or his weakness? No answer to these questions is irrelevant in judging the author of a book, nor the book itself.
Proust had a different view. “Sainte-Beuve’s method ignores what a very slight degree of self-acquaintance teaches us,” he wrote. “That a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices.” According to Proust, a writer’s authentic self could be accessed only through careful reading of the work, and the “true voice of the heart” found there should be sharply distinguished from mere “small-talk.” “It is the secretion of one’s innermost life, written in solitude and for oneself alone, that one gives to the public,” he wrote. “What one bestows on private life . . . is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.”
It’s safe to say that, today, the Sainte-Beuvian paradigm has triumphed—if not among literary critics, then certainly in the culture at large. We are more accustomed than ever to evaluating one another’s personalities based on curated expressions of likes and dislikes; we submit to endless online quizzes and interrogations for the privilege of being known to our followers and our friends. In the arts, very few figures of any renown are allowed the luxury of separating their lives and opinions from their work. The private lives of geniuses are not a fault to be tolerated, as the young Proust supposed, but a resource to be extracted and packaged for public consumption. In 2003, the French fashion designer Gerard Darel purchased Antoinette Faure’s original confession album from Galignani, the oldest English bookstore in Paris, for a hundred and twenty thousand euros. “We totally espouse the cause of Proust: refinement, dandyism,” Darel told Libération at the time. A facsimile of the yellowed document now lives on the Web site of Darel’s company, Maison Gerard Darel, alongside a page devoted to two of the designer’s other prized possessions, a necklace once owned by Jackie Kennedy and a sweater worn by Marilyn Monroe in “How to Marry a Millionaire.” If you click a “zoom” button, you can make out the album’s questions, typed in small rows down the left side of the yellowing page—“Your favorite color and flower,” “Your favorite food and drink”—and, faint enough that you have to squint, the teen-aged Proust’s slanted cursive.
This text was adapted from the forthcoming book “Questionnaire,” by Evan Kindley, part of Bloomsbury Academic’s series Object Lessons.