Vincent van Gogh? Émile Zola? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The famous Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh has been credited with the following fervent statement:
I would rather die of passion than of boredom.
Surprisingly, this remark has also been ascribed to the prominent French novelist Émile Zola. Would you please elucidate this topic?
Quote Investigator: In 1883 Émile Zola wrote a novel that contained an instance of this saying in French. In October 1884 Vincent van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother Theo that included the quotation as part of a larger excerpt from Zola’s novel. Thus, both well-known figures employed the saying, but Zola was the originator.
In 1833 Émile Zola released “Au Bonheur des Dames” which has been given several different English titles: “The Ladies’ Paradise”, “The Ladies’ Delight”, and “The Shop Girls of Paris”. The book was part of an important and popular series of twenty novels called: Les Rougon-Macquart. The saying under examination was spoken by a character named Octave Mouret while he was conversing with a character named Paul Vallagnosc. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Agir, créer, se battre contre les faits, les vaincre ou être vaincu par eux, toute la joie et toute la santé humaines sont là!
— Simple façon de s’étourdir, murmura l’autre.
— Eh bien! j’aime mieux m’étourdir… Crever pour crever, je préfère crever de passion que de crever d’ennui!
Ils rirent tous les deux, cela leur rappelait leurs vieilles discussions du collège.
In 1883 a translation of Zola’s novel by Frank Belmont was published under the title “The Ladies’ Paradise”. The passage above was rendered as follows: 2
“To act, to create, to struggle against facts, to overcome them or be overthrown by them, all health, all human joy consists in that!”
“Simple method of diverting one’s self.”
“Well, I prefer diverting myself. Death against death, I would rather die of passion than of ennui!” They both laughed, this reminded them of their old discussions at college.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Also in 1883 another translation was released with the title “The Bonheur Des Dames, Or, The Shop Girls of Paris”. A quite different version of the saying was presented: 3
To act, to create, to fight against stubborn facts, to conquer them or be conquered by them, makes the joy and the health of human life!”
“A very simple recipe, after all,” murmured the other. “You mean that you exhaust and stun yourself, that is all.”
“Well, I prefer to be stunned and exhausted rather than to be simply bored to death!”
Both men now laughed, for they recalled their old college discussions.
On October 2, 1884 Vincent van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother Theo. He included an excerpt from Zola’s book in the original French, and he identified the speaker as the character Octave Mouret. The letter is available in the impressive online database at the “Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam” website. The following excerpt was from the English translation of the letter: 4
‘. . . to act — to create — to struggle against facts, vanquish them or be vanquished by them, all human joy and health are there!’
Just a way of deadening oneself — the other muttered.
‘Ah, well! I prefer to deaden myself. To die for the sake of dying — I PREFER TO DIE OF PASSION THAN TO DIE OF BOREDOM!’
The heartfelt remark has continued to circulate. For example, the 2015 book “It’s Not Rocket Science: 7 Game-Changing Traits for Uncommon Success” by Mary Spio contained this chapter epigraph: 5
I would rather die of passion than of boredom.
– VINCENT VAN GOGH –
In conclusion, Émile Zola should be credited with the French quotation he wrote in 1883. There are several different ways to translate Zola’s words into English. Instances have diverged with the selection of “boredom” or “ennui”. QI believes either word is acceptable. Vincent van Gogh did use the expression, but he was quoting Zola.
Image Notes: Cropped portrait of Émile Zola circa 1868 by Édouard Manet via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped image of “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh circa 1889 from junjiali at Pixabay. Vincent Van Gogh Self-Portrait with Straw Hat 1887.
(Great thanks to Tiago Pedras and Stef Lewandowski whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Lewandowski pointed to quotation within “The Ladies’ Paradise”.)
- 1833, Au Bonheur des Dames by Émile Zola, Series: Les Rougon-Macquart, (Reprint of Charpentier edition from 1833 released by Hachette, Paris in 1980), Published by G. Charpentier, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1883, The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola (Émile Édouard C.A. Zola), Volume 3 of 3, Translated by Frank Belmont, Quote Page 35, Tinsley Brothers, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1883, The Bonheur Des Dames, Or, The Shop Girls of Paris by Émile Zola, Translated by John Stirling (Mary Neal Sherwood), Quote Page 415, T. B. Peterson & Brothers, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- Website: Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam: Vincent van Gogh Letters, Letter number: 464, Letter from: Vincent van Gogh, Location: Nuenen, Letter to: Theo van Gogh, Date: October 2, 1884, Website description: Van Gogh Letters Project database of the Van Gogh Museum. (Accessed vangoghletters.org on June 17, 2016) link ↩
- 2015, It’s Not Rocket Science: 7 Game-Changing Traits for Uncommon Success by Mary Spio, (Epigraph to section titled “Radical Passion”), Unnumbered Page, Published by Perigee an imprint of Penguin Random House, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩