By Cody Brooks
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.
What is the Lowest Depth of Misery?
When Marcel Proust first recorded his response to this question at the age of 14, his answer was surprisingly Oedipal: the lowest depth of misery, he wrote, is to be “separated from mama.” While I don’t share Proust’s feelings exactly, there is something about them that rings true: separation from someone you love is certainly a miserable experience.
When someone asked me nearly five months ago how I was going to handle being away from my spouse, Vanessa, for six months, I replied with a bad joke, “Oh, I think we spend enough time together. I’ll be fine.” But the truth is, the lack of intimacy is hard and, dare I say, misery inducing at times. People often spout the old cliché, “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” as if that somehow legitimizes temporary misery. Personally I think the heart is fond enough right now. I’ll take presence.
(Vanessa and me in Barra de Navidad, Mexico)
But separation from a loved one isn’t all that’s found at the lowest depths of misery. Boredom is also there. When I was a child, I used to imagine myself as a tree planted in a particularly dull patch of isolated earth against my will. All around me was wasteland nothingness. Isolation, save for the razor wire splintered grass surrounding me. Why had I been birthed into such circumstances? I was angry, but more importantly, I was bored.
Growing up I regularly fantasized about disappearing. In my teenage years I spent my hours after school plotting a secret move to the palm lined beaches of Jamaica. Living on the prairies of Alberta, Jamaica’s dreadlocks and azure waters provided an exotic foil to the landscape around me. Of course, I’d never been to Jamaica; but that wasn’t important. As I sifted through pages of Jamaican real estate and monitored exchange rates in my afterschool freedom, I found relief from my idleness. The colourful photographs reminded me that my state was temporary. I could escape this boredom.
Thinking about it now, I was probably a bit naïve. Boredom is everywhere. It was in London when I lived there, it was in Tanzania, and now, despite my best efforts to avoid it, it is here in Mexico. In the last four months I’ve spent countless hours stirring uncomfortably in boredom; waiting on stalled projects and meetings, walking to the same places down the same streets over and over again. And what that has meant is a lot of time to think and dwell. That is the true problem with boredom, the thoughts that it can lead to.
In three months I’ll be 30. I still haven’t been to Jamaica, but I assume that boredom exists there too.
What is your current mental state?
Pensive. With the end of my internship quickly approaching, I’ve been thinking a lot about my return to Canada. When Vanessa and I moved away a few years ago, we didn’t expect that we’d ever go back to Canada – not to live anyway. We’d packed up our things, donated the rest, said our goodbyes, and that, we thought, was it.
Going back earlier this year was incredibly difficult for us. Our friends were all elsewhere and we had no jobs; we’d traded in our beautiful home in the mountains of Tanzania for a bedroom in the basement of Vanessa’s parent’s house. I felt like I’d failed. For the first month I barely left the house. I didn’t want to be seen; I wasn’t supposed to come back. Perhaps that’s partly why just a few months later I left for Mexico; the difficulty of settling in.
Of course, by coming here, I didn’t escape this problem; I only just delayed it. It’s like that Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “Traveling is a fool’s paradise […] My giant goes with me wherever I go.”
What would Emerson say about me?
And yet, I can’t help but think that going back this time might feel different. With Mexico, I always knew that there was an expiration date. At least returning to Canada won’t necessarily be a sign of failure.
And Vanessa will be there too.
Maybe Emerson needed a holiday.
(La Cumbre, Mexico)
Looking over my answers to the Proust questionnaire, I try to imagine how they might change once I’m back in Canada. Filled as they are with references to the present, there is certainly a feeling of temporality about them. But might there be something more permanent?
Turning it over in my mind, I’m reminded of Proust. Seven years after he answered the original questionnaire, Proust was asked to fill out another. His language had changed, but the content remained somewhat familiar: asked what would be his greatest misfortune, the 20 year old Proust replied, “never to have known my mother.”
Proust lived with his mother until her death.
In hindsight, there may have been something fundamentally Proust in his words at the age of 14 when he declared his greatest misery separation from mama.
Do any of my own answers reveal something fundamentally me? Maybe if I can figure that out, I can start piecing together a plan for once I return to Canada.
But even without one, the thought of going back doesn’t scare me as much as it did a few months ago. As much as I’ve enjoyed living abroad, it’s been difficult to plan anything more than a few months in advance. Having a stable location might be a nice change – for a while at least. It might even afford Vanessa and I the opportunity to do some of the other things we’ve been meaning to do, like have a wedding.
Perhaps I ought to revisit this.
(Vanessa and me watching the sunset in Palma Sola, Mexico)