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.
- 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 ↩