Mind & Body

The Proust Questionnaire Is a 132-Year-Old Personality Quiz

These days, it's the easiest thing in the world to get a personality profile of yourself — better yet, you can find out if your personality is more of a Phil or Lil, a Will or Aunt Viv, or a Homer or Inanimate Carbon Rod. Quizzes like these get kind of a bad rap, but at the end of the day, they're just fun to fill out. You know who else thought so? Marcel Proust.

A 19th-Century Buzzfeed Quiz

The Proust Questionnaire's origins lie not with the legendary French novelist himself, but with a popular parlor game of late-19th-century Europe — the confession album. Somewhat akin to a high-school yearbook, these books would have been passed out among friends, who would sign their names and fill them out with bits of poetry and prose, or answers to questions contained within. In this particular case, the questions were devised by a friend of Proust's, Antoinette Faure, the daughter of the future French President Félix Faure. Just 14 at the time, Proust was only too happy to fill out his friend's questions. We're guessing he didn't know that people would still be talking about them almost 150 years later.

Although he answered in French, the album was eventually translated and published for English-speaking audiences. But it was that original handwritten questionnaire that led to its eventual popularity. Faure's son, the psychologist André Berge, discovered the original in his mother's effects in 1924, two years after Proust's death. Not only did Proust's answers become a sensation, but so did the questionnaire itself. In its most popular modern form, it was adapted by James Lipton into the questions on "Inside the Actor's Studio."

Behind a Famous Mind

The great thing about the questionnaire is how open-ended and revealing it is. The questions are broad, yet personal, and reading the answers feels oddly intimate. Many famous figures have answered the questions over the years, including more than a few of our favorites. As we present the questionnaire itself, we thought we'd show you a few answers from three very different quiz-takers: Marcel Proust himself, Jane Goodall, and the late, great David Bowie. The questionnaire itself has changed over time, and not all three answered exactly the same sets of questions, but still, we challenge you to find a better path into the minds of the greats.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Jane Goodall: "Sitting by myself in the forest in Gombe National Park watching one of the chimpanzee mothers with her family."

David Bowie: "Reading."

Marcel Proust: "To live in contact with those I love, with the beauties of nature, with a quantity of books and music, and to have, within easy distance, a French theater."

What is your greatest fear?

Jane Goodall: "That I shall be tortured and be a coward."

David Bowie: "Converting kilometers to miles."

What historical figure do you most identify with?

David Bowie: "Santa Claus."

Marcel Proust: "A mixture of Socrates, Pericles, Mahomet, Pliny the Younger and Augustin Thierry."

Which living person do you most admire?

Jane Goodall: "My mother, until her death; dedicated teachers; Kofi Annan; Nelson Mandela; Muhammad Yunus."

David Bowie: "Elvis."

Marcel Proust: "Monsieur Darlu, Monsieur Boutroux (professors)."

What is the trait that you deplore most in others?

Jane Goodall: "Hypocrisy."

David Bowie: "Talent."

What is the trait that you deplore most in yourself?

David Bowie: "While in New York, tolerance. Outside New York, intolerance."

Marcel Proust: "Lack of understanding; weakness of will."

What is your greatest extravagance?

Jane Goodall: "Long-distance phone calls to my friends."

What is your favorite journey?

Jane Goodall: "My favorite ever journey was my first trip from Nairobi City to the Serengeti to Olduvai Gorge before it was famous, when there were no roads and all the animals were there. We were in an overloaded Land Rover, four people and two Dalmatians."

David Bowie: "The road of artistic excess."

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

David Bowie: "Sympathy and originality."

What or who is the greatest love of your life?

Jane Goodall: "My childhood companion and teacher — my dog, Rusty."

When and where were you happiest?

Jane Goodall: "In the early 60s, when I was alone at Gombe with the chimpanzees."

What talent would you most like to have?

Jane Goodall: "Ability to learn languages."

Marcel Proust: "Willpower and irresistible charm."

What is your current state of mind?

Jane Goodall: "Deep concern at the state of the planet, environmental and social."

David Bowie: "Pregnant."

Marcel Proust: "Annoyance at having to think about myself in order to answer these questions."

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

Jane Goodall: "I need to be 20 years younger — there is too much to do."

Marcel Proust: "Since the question does not arise, I prefer not to answer it. All the same, I should very much have liked to be Pliny the Younger."

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Jane Goodall: "Starting our youth program, Roots & Shoots, along with helping to blur the line between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom."

David Bowie: "Discovering morning."

What do you regard as the greatest depths of misery?

Jane Goodall: "Knowing you have let someone down, betrayed their trust."

David Bowie: "Living in fear."

Marcel Proust: "To be separated from Mama."

What is your greatest regret?

David Bowie: "That I never wore bellbottoms."

What is your favorite occupation?

Jane Goodall: "Observing animals alone in the wilderness."

David Bowie: "Squishing paint on a senseless canvas."

Marcel Proust: "Reading, dreaming, and writing verse."

What is your most marked characteristic?

Jane Goodall: "Determination/optimism."

David Bowie: "Getting a word in edgewise."

Marcel Proust: "A craving to be loved, or, to be more precise, to be caressed and spoiled rather than to be admired."

What do you most value in your friends?

Jane Goodall: "Being able to share happiness and sadness and have a good laugh."

Marcel Proust: "Tenderness - provided they possess a physical charm which makes their tenderness worth having."

What qualities do you most like in a man?

David Bowie: "The ability to return books."

Marcel Proust: "Intelligence, moral sense."

What qualities do you most like in a woman?

David Bowie: "The ability to burp on command."

Marcel Proust: "Gentleness, naturalness, intelligence."

What are your favorite names?

David Bowie: "Sears & Roebuck."

Marcel Proust: "I only have one at a time."

Who are your favorite writers?

Jane Goodall: "Shakespeare, Tolkien, Mary Wesley."

Marcel Proust: "At the moment, Anatole France and Pierre Loti."

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

Jane Goodall: "Robin Hood."

Marcel Proust: "Those of romance and poetry, those who are the expression of an ideal rather than an imitation of the real."

What is it that you most dislike?

Jane Goodall: "Receptions and dinners in noisy places with people talking too loud, riding in stretch limos, waste."

Marcel Proust: "My own worst qualities."

How would you like to die?

Jane Goodall: "Peacefully and before losing my physical and especially my mental facilities."

Marcel Proust: "A better man than I am, and much beloved."

What is your motto?

Jane Goodall: "As thy days, so shall thy strength be."

David Bowie: "'What' is my motto."

Marcel Proust: "I prefer not to say, for fear it might bring me bad luck."

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Vanity Fair loves asking these questions, so there's a lot more where that came from. Pick up "Vanity Fair's Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life," edited by Risko, for more. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 27, 2018

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