The Proust Questionnaire and Our Many Selves

The Proust Questionnaire and Our Many Selves
  • 2019-20

The Proust Questionnaire has its origins in a parlour game popularized (though not created) by the French novelist Marcel Proust, and often used by The Guardian to interview celebrities, the idea is that by answering these questions an individual will reveal his or her true nature. 

Here are the core elements of the Proust Questionnaire:

1.      What is your idea of perfect happiness?

2.      What is your greatest fear?

3.      What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

4.      What is the trait you most deplore in others?

5.      Which living person do you most admire?

6.      What is your greatest extravagance?

7.      What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

8.      What do you most dislike about your appearance?

9.      Which living person do you most despise?

10.   Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

11.   When and where were you happiest?

12.   Which talent would you most like to have?

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

14.   What do you consider your greatest achievement?

15.   If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

16.   Where would you most like to live?

17.   What is your most treasured possession?

18.   Which historical figure do you most identify with?

19.   Who are your heroes in real life?

20.   What is your greatest regret?

[My answers to 1, 5, 11, 14, and 19 would all involve my two sons. You might have fun during lockdown comparing answers within your family.] 

It is interesting to note that the questionnaire was devised to reveal a person’s ‘true’ nature, or true self. The idea of a true or authentic self is now rather old-fashioned in cultural theory.

Modern theories of the self routinely talk about human beings having ‘multiple’ or ‘plural’ selves, rather than simply one, real self. And it seems an accurate observation that we manifest different selves according to what we do, and when.

The self that goes to a football match might be a different self to the one that enjoys gardening, or playing chess, or watching a film. The self that we show with children might be a different one from the self we exhibit at work, or with friends. 

This can make us contradictory creatures. As the American poet Walt Whitman once said, ‘I contain multitudes.’ It also means that we might give different answers to the above questions according to who we are with, and what mood we are in. It doesn’t make one set of answers more or less true than the other. They are all equally valid, just different, and appropriate in different contexts.

According to the philosopher Richard Rorty, the self is ‘a network of beliefs, desires, and emotions…a person just isthat network’. And of course, our selves are often shaped by where we live, and when we live. 

Would you be the same person if you had been born one hundred years ago, or even twenty years from now? Would you be the same person if you were born in Africa, Asia, America? If the answer is no, then what might that say about the notion of a ‘true’ self? 

Many of you, I know, speak different languages. Are you the same ‘self’ or does your identity, even your values, change a little depending on the language you are speaking and the culture you are living in?

When children are growing up, they often try on different selves and experiment with different identities, sometimes following friends, fashions, and seeing what fits. Those selves and identities perhaps never remain wholly fixed, but it’s probably true that they become more stable as we get older. 

In school, we are always trying to discover what new selves students can be. Do they have a musical self they want to pursue, an artistic or sporting self that might be hidden? A mathematical, literary, or linguistic self, ready to blossom? It’s all part of trying to maximise each student’s human potential and unravelling their manifold talents.

We all grow and develop as people. And we change at different rates, which is why relationships can alter over time. If we have regrets in life, it may be because we have failed to follow or exploit one of these opportunities to become a different, or at least a more varied self.

While we must all endure physical lockdown at the moment, it may be that mentally we can still flourish, liberating our inner selves, and as part of that pursue an untapped talent, a subdued passion, a neglected desire. 

This is not to suffer an identity crisis, nor to risk fracturing our personalities. Rather it is to enrich our existence, to enhance our capacity as human beings, to make us feel more fully alive – and ultimately to celebrate the potential ‘locked’ within our many selves.

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal & CEO

  • Covid19
  • Education
  • Learning