The Diary of Polish Dancer Vaslav Nijinksy

Vaslav Nijinsky was born in Kiev to performing parents, who made a pit stop for little Vaslav’s arrival while traveling on their perpetual tour through Poland, Russia and the Ukraine. By the age of seven, Nijinsky was performing in a circus and, at nine he entered the Imperial Theatrical School.

Upon reaching the age of eighteen, the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg took the lad into their ranks; his dancing partner would be, by her own most unusual request, the company’s prima ballerina Mathilde Kschessinka. Two years later, Nijinsky met Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, a key player in the St. Petersburg art world. Diaghilev took the boy under his wing, in his bed, and to dizzying heights of stardom – not necessarily in that order. A new company was formed essentially to showcase Nijinsky’s talent and, in 1911, the Ballet Russes was born.

Nijinsky’s magnetism and androgynous looks coupled with his talent to bring him worldwide fame through roles in Les Orientales, Scheherazade, Giselle, and Petrouchka. In France, he was dubbed “le dieu de la danse.” He began a choreography career which, though cut short, earned him a revolutionary reputation with Afternoon of a Faun, Jeux and The Rite of Spring, works that moved audiences to riot. Shortly after the hullabaloo that greeted The Rite of Spring, Nijinsky married Romola de Pulszky, causing a jealous Diaghilev to sever all ties with the temperamental dancer.

Nijinsky’s plummet from fame’s heights happened quickly. Thanks to World War I, Nijinsky was essentially under house arrest in Hungary for eighteen months as an undesirable alien. Diaghilev took him back into the Ballets Russes fold; the result was a disastrous tour through the Americas. In 1919, all was not right in Nijinksy’s head.

January 19, 1919 saw Nijinsky give his last performance at the Suvretta House, a hotel nearby St. Moritz, Switzerland, where he and a handful of family members had sequestered themselves. He danced a violent improvised solo which was, he said, “the war which you did not prevent.”

On this same day, Nijinsky began a pair a parallel projects which he claimed would supersede all his work in dance: The Diary and a bizarre series of drawings, mostly of eerie staring eyes. Less than three months later, he would be put in an asylum, where he would spend his last thirty-one years.

What is this Diary?

Modern-day psychological theory tells us that Nijinsky suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, megalomania and a messianic complex. All this is evident from the text, in which he repeatedly imagines international plots to kill him, attempted theft of his notebooks and innumerable claims that he is God Himself.

For modern-day reviewers, it begins and ends here. Nijinsky’s work is thought to be the sole example of a written testimony detailing the descent into madness and certainly the only such document produced by an artist of his ilk. The Diary is looked upon as a fascinating car accident, interesting mostly in its grotesquerie, a snapshot of sanity’s graveyard spiral.

How jaded readers are eighty-plus years later! Upon reviewing the Kyril FitzLyon translation, Isadora Duncan biographer Peter Kurth’s lead for his Salon.com review reads: “The idea of a genius-madman is a tiresome one.” In his conclusion he figures, “in writing the diary Nijinsky hoped to create a work of literature, but [it is] a footnote to genius, the last, sad record of a legend.”
Without making derisive comments regarding the legitimacy of literary commentary from a magazine that doesn’t even exist in printed form (oops), let’s take the opposite tack. What if we accept The Diary as a true work of literature? Surely, other authors have published work produced while not all there. Around Nijinsky’s time alone, the mental states of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Tolstoy have been questioned when considering these writer’s later works. So what if Nijinsky, beyond his psychological illness, achieved what he set out to do, namely, “to explain what feeling is”?

Deconstructing the Diaries

At first glance, The Diary is completely without structure. Though grammatically comprehensible, its staccato rhythms, twists and turns make for precarious reading indeed. For an example, here’s a bit from, let’s see, oh…page 59:

“Romola wants a young, good-looking, and rich husband. I am rich, good-looking, and young. She does not feel me, because she does not understand my beauty. I do not have regular features. Regular features are not god. God is not regular features. God is feeling in face. A hunchback is God. I like hunchbacks. I like ugly people. I am an ugly man with feeling. I dance hunchbacks and straight-backs. I am the artist who loves all shapes and all kinds of beauty. Beauty is not a relative thing. Beauty is god. God is beauty with feeling….”

So, The Diary is not literature in its conventional sense. However, from the vantage point of postmodern literature in which character, space, and time themselves are no longer deemed necessary, The Diary is now sensical.

The Diary possesses major characters: Nijinsky’s wife Romola; her sister Tessa; his former lovers Diaghilev and Massine; his would-be psychologist Dr. Frenkel; and his daughter Kyra. True, these “characters” develop little in a traditional sense, as each is subject to the all-encompassing Nijinsky, they are real, fleshed-out characters with habits, likes and dislikes.

The Diary, egocentric as any work in this form must be, is laden with our hero’s personal philosophies. Nijinsky expounds upon Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Emile Zola and those he imagines to be his contemporaries in prose; then-fresh Darwinian notions of evolution; Nietzsche’s place in philosophy; the “Great War” (“Wilson is God in politics. I am Wilson. I am reasonable policy.”); and, of utmost importance, intellectualism versus what he calls “feeling” in art. (More on this last topic later.) Though seemingly undermined with other philosophical notions of Nijinsky’s such as God’s demands that he use a pencil or his grandiose plans for building a bridge across the Atlantic, his central arguments as diarist can still be considered legitimate.

And plot? It can be argued to exist. The Diary is that most compelling story of all (at least since the existentialists came along and mucked things up a bit): It tells of the war within one’s self, of the fight for control in an unfeeling universe. The Diary is a moving story of struggle set against the backdrop of a world gone mad.

The Diary and the Modernist Tradition

The editor of the Unexpurgated Version, Joan Acocella, sees the Diary as not only key to the Nijinsky legend, but “highly important in the modernist tradition.” Even the drawings, though “childlike,” Acocella calls “modernist.”

In our own age of postmodernism, the term “modernist” becomes fuzzy indeed. Elusive are definitions of this movement; Dr. Christopher L.C.E. Witcomb’s book What is Art? What is an Artist? sees modernism as an all-inclusive philosophy originating roughly with Edouard Manet and his contemporaries of the 1860s to around the 1970s. Modernism, as Witcomb sees it, is any artistic philosophy resulting from the birth of secular humanism during the Enlightenment period. Artistic response to mankind’s new place in the philosophical universe took root in the late 19th century, and art more interested in impression over subject matter – including basically everything produced in the first three-quarters of the 20th century – can be called “modernist.”

Of course, Modernism itself was prone to dozens of splinter movements, of genre and subgenre divisions. Key to understanding Nijinsky’s Diary is the time period in which it was written. The year was 1919, and the revolution within the revolution was called Dada.

From around 1916 to 1921, this anti-art bloomed, burgeoned and finally exploded upon the European scene. Guys like Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, George Grosz and the like shook things up with a vengeance, creating nearly incomprehensible work while attempting to lift feeling above the intellect in the world of artistic production and analysis.

Though Nijinsky himself was no Dadaist, The Diary represents a pinnacle in the short-lived school of thought; this book is an ideal example of the goals the Dadaists set for their art. The Diary is pure art for art’s sake.

Dada Philosophy and The Diary

It is said that Dadaism was all about creation, about wacky artistic types left standing while most of their generation was busy being mowed down by World War I machine guns experimenting for the sake of experimentation. It is said that for the Dadists, the needs and desires of the audience was secondary. Tzara writes about the superiority of creative writing done by creative writers “for [their] own benefit” and about the importance of “the awareness of a supreme egoism, wherein laws become insignificant.”

Clearly, this is where The Diary jibes most with Dada philosophy. The far majority of thoughts in Nijinsky’s extended paranoid rant begin with the first person. While the Tzaras of the world probably had no problems placing themselves at the center of their universe in order to create the “supreme egoism,” Nijinsky in his psychologically degenerative state quite literally had no choice. Nijinsky shamelessly states that he is God over 150 times (in 297 pages of text, no less); one can’t get much more supremely egoistic.

The Diary neatly lines up with the Dadaists on other minutiae as well. Writing on criticism, Tzara says it is “useless; it only exists subjectively.” Nijinsky echoes this with “Criticism is an attempt to be clever.” Hugo Ball claimed that “language [had been] devastated and made impossible by journalists.” To Nijinsky, journalists are “hypocrites” who are “trapped in language.”

Beyond the surface trappings, though, it’s all about the feeling. For Tzara and his ilk, the artistic interest lay in a direct appeal to the soul. The madcap antics of a jargon-speaking Grosz or the recitation of mind-numbing monosyllables were all about inducing feeling in the witness. “Forget the intellectual world,” the Dadaists insisted. “Doo doo doo dee da da da.”

Nijinsky’s affinity to the artistic movement he doubtlessly never witnessed and may not have heard little – if any – of, is expressed in his proclivity for the concept of “feeling.”

For the diarist, “feeling” is an emotional notion in the range of, but well beyond, understanding or empathy. It is used to describe states of nearly everything from his digestive system (“I felt my stomach”) to sympathy with others’ emotional states (“Dr. Frenkel distorted his face, and I felt his father’s wrongdoing”) to others’ reactions (“She felt my fist hitting a nut.”)
Nijinsky judges those in his life with statements like “She thinks and therefore has no feeling” and “I know that stupid people do not feel.”

“I am an intelligent man because I feel. I feel God and God feels me.” Despite the fact that, with schizophrenic mind in overdrive, Nijinsky contradicts almost everything he proclaims in the Diary, I swear I find not a single contradiction for any of the above three claims.

Ultimately, he says, “I want to call this book “Feeling,” I will call this book Feeling.”

Meanwhile, Nijinsky continues with: “I like feeling and will therefore write a lot. I want a big book about feeling because it will contain your whole life.”

Whoa. Feeling. It’s so…Dada.

An Aside: What is Sanity?

What is sanity?

Take the following situation.

There’s this guy. He’s drawn quite a crowd, a couple hundred eyes on him. He stands before the gathered mob, garbed in a costume looking something like, oh, let’s say the tin man in the Wizard of Oz on acid. This figure, seriousness dominating his face, speaks. He says something like, “Zimzim urullala zimzim zanzibar zimzalla zam…” and so forth. What’s the result of this unbalanced man’s display? The police arrive and the disorder is preserved. “All too right,” you may reply. “That man was crazy…maybe dangerous.”

Crazy like a Dadaist. Crazy like Ball, doing “Gadji Beri Bimba” for that good ol’ Cabaret Voltaire crowd. Ball, in this performance attempted to shake up the borderline between sanity and insanity; perhaps this is why audiences were so spooked by his and his ilk’s work.

Personally speaking, the diary is spooky. What is most disturbing about it, what hits the reader at a gut level, are its lucid moments. Amidst the torrent of noise and desperate feeling, there is a rational mind at work that fights it way to the surface in an effort to make his imagined audience – us, now – to feel something, anything.

And damned if you don’t.

Dada Philosophy and Feeling, Part Two

Though it would be as crazy as – no, never mind. It would be spurious to call Nijinsky a Dadaist, through the diaries he becomes a Manchurian Candidate-like figure for the movement. He is a mole for the cause, an assassin serving the needs of the movement and all the while unknowing of it.

Whether Nijinsky and say, Kurt Schwitters had the same goals in mind or not while working away in 1919, the fact of the matter is that both lived in 1919, that world of war-weary and ravaged Europe. Both were artists with vision, a vision haunted by the fate of their generation. Both were products of an age and their words reflect that age in the language of those with inspiration. Why was a Nijinsky driven insane? Why was Dada born? These may be the wrong questions. Maybe we should ask when.

A Few Final Words

The fourth notebook of the diaries is composed of sixteen letters from Nijinsky to various friends, associates and…one other person. The first seven epistles make relative sense to those who have learned the language of Feeling – you know, more stuff like “This party loves itself. I love everybody. I am not a Party. I am the people. The people is God. I speak of God. I love God. I love Tolstoy. I do not like Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks can kill me as much as they wish.”

In a letter to Metropolitan Opera board member Rawlins Cottonet, Nijinsky crafts the entire text in verse. “I like to write in rhythm,” the dancer enthuses, “because you are a rhythm.”

Letter number seventeen is addressed to Jesus Christ. The text runs:

Au Gesue

Je suis gesue
Je suis gesue
Je suis gesue
Je suis gesue
Je suis un sue
Je suis un sue
Je suis je suis je suis je suis
Suis je suis je suis je suis
Je suis suis je suis suis je
Je ne veux pas sent je suis
Je me suis je suis je suis

Now if that ain’t Dada, nothing is.

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