Proustian Poetry

proust-Bette

You’ve got to love the contrast that pairs pop art caricaturist Robert Risko’s images to the highly revered, sacrosanct list of some two dozen questions that French author, essayist and critic, Marcel Proust, answered in the 1880s, which came to be known as the acclaimed Proust Questionnaire. After sixteen years of being incarnated each month in the pages of Vanity Fair, this fabled, and oh-so-revealing, set of probing personal queries to a bevy of the most celebrated personalities of our time is being released this month in a wonderfully compacted book form by Vanity Fair and Rodale Press entitled, Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life .

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While most are familiar with the life-probing queries of Proust’s legendary Questionnaire, it’s what’s little known, or what is seriously distorted that is most fascinating. For example, the Proust Questionnaire was dreamed up neither by Vanity Fair (which I knew) nor indeed by Proust (which I didn’t). The facts are these: it was a Parisian parlor game among the novelist’s bourgeois crowd, and it is believed to have been popularized by the daughter of the 19th-century French president Félix Faure. “Antoinette Faure’s Album”—a red leather journal adorned with an ornate, blind-embossed trellis—contained entries from many in Faure’s social circle. She would invite friends over for tea and then ask each an identical sequence of questions: “[What is] your favourite virtue?… Your idea of misery?… Your present state of mind?,” and so forth. They would all answer, in longhand, in her little red book. Fascinating, no?

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Proust, who twice filled out Faure’s form with precocious gusto—at ages 14 and 20—subsequently published his answers as “Salon Confidences Written by Marcel,” in an 1892 article in La Revue Illustrée XV. His name would become associated with the questionnaire posthumously (he died of pneumonia in 1922) once the list was adopted more widely in France, Britain, and America as a form of 20th-century pre-pop psychology.

For more details on Vanity Fair’s revised version of the Questionnaire, read here.

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A brief sampling of Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire

 

Brigitte Bardot
(December 1994)

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Nothing about me, everything about others.

 

Arthur Miller
(March 1999)

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I. Tremendous. Stupid. Idiot. Dream.

 

Bette Midler
(August 2008)

Which living person do you most despise?
The Bluetooth-wearing S.U.V. driver who idles in front of my building.

 

Judd Apatow
(July 2009)

What is your favorite occupation?
Reading self-help books and forgetting what I’ve learned.

 

Arnold Schwarzenegger
(July 2003)

What is your lowest depth of misery?
Did you read the reviews for Last Action Hero?

 

Fran Lebowitz
(November 1994)

How would you like to die?
Vindicated.

 

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Now you didn’t think all of this Proustian publicity could possibly NOT include you, did you, dear reader? In a narcissistic culture such as ours, it did occur to those heady creative types in marketing that you just might be interested in knowing if you share a fear with the great Valentino, or perhaps, value the same traits in a man as say, Catherine Deneuve, for example. Thus, the ubiquitous Facebook marketeers have devised the Proust questionnaire so that you and yours may discover which illustrious respondents you most resemble. For more to torment over, proceed here.

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And finally, in acknowledging my love for the lyrical and to grasp at the real gems of wisdom and beauty to be found in what is more than simply another publication on a decades old idea, there is the realization that amid the tumult and the dread, amid the many attempts to tackle the overarching issues of love and death and the meaning of life, there were, and are, flashes of pure Proustian poetry.

“Walter Cronkite once confided that, if he could be reincarnated, he would choose to return as “a seagull—graceful in flight, rapacious in appetite.” Allen Ginsberg’s most marked characteristic, he said, was his “incriminating eloquence.” While Julia Child most abhorred “a dreadful meal badly served,” William F. Buckley Jr. claimed to hate “lousy logic, tempestuously waged.”

Joan Didion, when asked “When and where were you happiest?,” referred to a character in a passage from her novel Democracy: “She recalled being extremely happy eating lunch by herself in a hotel room in Chicago, once when snow was drifting on the window ledges.” And Johnny Cash offered this six-word description of paradise: “This morning, with her, having coffee.”

 

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~ by eaesthete on 10/28/09.

4 Responses to “Proustian Poetry”

  1. Thanks for an excellent post… presented with eloquence and humor. And yes, your noting the poetics in some of the answers is brilliant.

  2. What a delicious idea. I can’t wait to read this book. Proust is certainly having quite the afterlife.

  3. My husband referred your blog and here I am. Wonderful look to it and I like your choices. I haven’t the guts to move to wordpress yet because of the excessive amt of self-ed it will require.

    Re: the Proust questionnaire in VF, my favorite mag, my least favorite part. I always think the answers silly, pretentious or dumb. You have, however, picked some good ones. Bette Midler slays me. And I adore Joan Didion and have just read “Democracy” and “Year of Magical Thinking” back to back. You make the questionnaire sound interesting and I consider that an accomplishment.

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