I first heard the Proust questionnaire three years ago while listening to an episode of CBC Radio One’s, The Next Chapter. It was a brief clip – perhaps 30 seconds long – and consisted of an unnamed French accented male voice interrogating a Canadian writer I can’t remember while minor piano keys rang ominously in the background. “What is the lowest depth of misery?” he asked. I don’t remember the answer, but the question stuck with me. “What is the lowest depth of misery?”
Over the next few months, I began tuning in to The Next Chapter more regularly. The guests were always an interesting assortment and the banter they shared with host Sheilah Rogers was consistently thought provoking. However, the part that I looked most forward to every episode was that dramatic, French accented voice, and his Proust questionnaire.
As I eventually learned, the decision to cast a French male in the role of interrogator was not likely accidental. Originally an English parlour game, the modern name and popularity of the questionnaire is owed to French writer Marcel Proust. In its Proustian form, the questionnaire consists of thirty-five questions, each devised to reveal the specific tastes, fears, and aspirations of the test taker at that particular moment in time. The range of questions is an interesting one, from the philosophically bent, “what is your favourite virtue?” to the peculiarly specific, “what is your favourite flower?”
Since I first heard those melancholic piano keys and that striking voice, I’ve toyed with the idea of completing the Proust questionnaire myself. Yet, for one reason or another, I never got around to it. At least until now. With my return to Canada now less than two months away, I’ve begun to reflect on my life abroad over the last few years; and in the spirit of reflection, I’ve sought Proust.
For the last week or so I’ve been working my way through the Proust questionnaire. Thus far, it’s been a cathartic, yet surprisingly difficult experience. Perhaps nowhere is this difficulty more evident than in my struggle with the question, “What is the lowest depth of misery?” Given that this is the first question from the questionnaire I’d actually heard, it’s also the one that I’ve had the most time to think about. Time, however, has not made it any easier to answer and, if I’m honest, this question is probably the reason that I’ve been so reluctant to start this project.
This reluctance has largely been the result of two observations: first, as should be clear to anyone reading this, I have not experienced the entire range of situations that are likely to produce misery in a human being, and so I cannot provide an authoritative answer by way of comparison; second, I’ve noticed that my answer is apt to change depending on my life circumstances. Of course, created as it were with the function of revealing information about one’s present mental state, answers to the Proust questionnaire are not supposed to be definitive. Still, though I recognize this, it’s been difficult to rid myself of the feeling that my answers are somehow inadequate. For this reason I’ve created a disclaimer that I’ve grown fond of repeating: these answers are personal, temporal artefacts of my present condition, and they are subject to revision as conditions change.
Right now, perhaps one of the most noteworthy conditions in my life is one of living and working in Mexico. While certainly there are other facets of my life at play, as I read through my answers to the Proust questionnaire it’s clear that many of them have been influenced by my experience here. Here are two of the more obvious examples.