The Diary of a Mad Dancer: Nijinsky in Praise of Mistakes

The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky , unexpurgated edition translated from the Russian by Kyril Fitzlyon, edited by Joan Acocella. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 312 pages, $30.

Psychiatry has been so demeaning when it has sought to classify those people who have suffered most acutely throughout their lives from spurious classification: At its best, it misrecognizes those who have the most to tell us about misrecognition. If Joan Acocella, in her useful introduction to this extraordinary book, can agree unreservedly with psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler’s description of Vaslav Nijinsky–”confused schizophrenic with mild manic excitement”–it may be partly because we still can’t find good enough analogies for what the people who disturb us most are like. To treat the so-called mad as oracles is as diminishing in its own way as scapegoating them.

Now that the agony and the tedium of “madness” are evident, now that its waste is recognized as often being in excess of its revelations, it may be just the right time for this first, and excellent, translation of Nijinsky’s complete diary. Where previously we had his wife’s understandably expurgated edition, here we have Nijinsky with his shames intact, as it were. “Nijinsky,” Ms. Acocella remarks, “has become one of the most famous men of the century, but never was so much artistic fame based on so little artistic evidence: one 11-minute ballet, The Afternoon of a Faun , plus some photographs.” The erotic mystique of choreography–moving and placing bodies, relinquishing words as the medium of contact–combined with Nijinsky’s inspired instincts as a dancer, made him instantly fascinating to people. But as the Diary poignantly shows, this very fascination also made people inattentive to him. As a dancer he was famous for his jumps, those long pauses that seemed to defy gravity (in both senses); his “madness” at 30 seemed of a piece: Such daring and poise could never be sustained.

The consoling myth of genius–fantasies of hubris and punishment that make us lump together the inspiringly mad (Friedrich Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud, etc.) because their extreme singularity, their extreme worldliness stuns us–the myth is usefully exploded by even the most cursory reading of the Diary . The jumps in Nijinsky’s writing, the mixed magic of transitions, the way he moves the reader through to a climax of nonsense, are themselves a subtle commentary on the forces of progress (and profit) that had driven Europe into the devastations of the First World War. The Diary , that is to say, is not in any puerile sense a case history; begun in the immediate aftermath of the war and recording Nijinsky’s spiral into 30 years of invalidism, it is rather a dramatic monologue of a remarkable man devastated by his world. It often sounds like The Wasteland , but written by Feodor Dostoevsky.

The Diary is at once insistently tedious in its obsessions and endlessly fascinating in the cunning of its artfulness. Nijinsky intrigues us and puts us off–indeed, he intrigues us by putting us off, as though all the time he were daring the reader to be sufficiently interested in him, to find out what will happen if we follow him. The Diary , in other words, is clearly written by someone who knows that those around him–mostly his wife and her parents, his daughter and his doctor–are beginning to think of him as mad. It is the text of a terminally scrutinized man, a man adored as a great dancer who is gradually becoming the object of a different kind of concerned attention. So it is perhaps not surprising, given the glare of specialness he has lived under, that the abiding preoccupation of the Diary is what people want from him. He is writing about the paradoxes of perfectionism.

It is a book by a perfectionist, in praise of mistakes. “When everything I am now writing is published, with its mistakes, I will correct it all. I wanted it to have mistakes and therefore put them in on purpose.” It is part of the wonderful logic of this that he can have it both ways by acknowledging that he can’t have it both ways. He tells us he believes in his mistakes, but he will eventually correct them–without telling us what they are.

There is a terrifying shrewdness about his logic. He writes like a man who has understood his audience so well that he can no longer perform for them. As though what they want from him reveals something impossible about wanting. “I like mistakes,” he writes in one of the letters that the Diary turns into, “because I want people to understand me. If I write without mistakes, people will think that I am a madman.” What people “understand” is imperfection, vulnerability; and yet now he must calculate his mistakes to assure people that he is not mad. In this self-protective second-guessing of the audience, he is no longer free to make genuine mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes, people give up on trying to understand you, so you are mad. “I am,” he writes, “a Napoleon who forgives mistakes.” This is the ordinary megalomania of so-called madness, but of an unusual subtlety.

When Nijinsky is God in this Diary , as he is all too often (“I am God. I am the spirit. I am everything”)–it is always nuanced by his interest in error, by his sense that perfectionism is a form of hatred. If God, by definition, doesn’t make mistakes, then He is mad. “I like perfecting things,” Nijinsky writes as a virtual God, “I do not like things.”

If you like perfecting things, it means you don’t like them. Nijinsky’s life seems to have been a chronicle of people–from his mother to Sergei Diaghilev to his wife–who urged him on to perfection. Dance was the only place, apart from this Diary , in which he could explore the terrible nature of their demand. It is not, therefore, incidental that this unexpurgated translation of the Diary reveals Nijinsky’s seemingly compulsive and (to him) shameful obsession with prostitutes (an obsession his wife air-brushed out of the version she published).

Having once felt like Diaghilev’s tart and having sought out prostitutes when he was touring in Paris with the Ballets Russes, the prospect of being sent to Zurich by his wife for psychiatric treatment brings one thing, above all, to mind: “I will not be writing in Zurich,” he writes, “because I am very interested in that town. I will go to a brothel because I want to have an intuitive understanding of tarts. I have forgotten tarts. I want to understand the psychology of a tart.” Nijinsky knew that what he needed to understand–or rather, to remind himself of–was the psychology of the prostitute. And he knew that this was the key to understanding not merely his own predicament, but also the mad “materialism” of prewar and postwar Europe that he so despises in the Diary . It was as though Nijinsky somehow realized that the response to him as a dancer was itself a symptom of something larger and more daunting. And once he could no longer use dancing to explore the problem his dancing had exposed, he had two options: conversion to a then fashionable Tolstoyism (spiritual vegetarian pacifism) or the (almost) muted violence of madness. His devout Tolstoyism couldn’t stanch the wound created by the image everywhere of the exploited body. The Diary becomes a last eloquent rant of the once-poised body finally humiliated.

“I am,” Nijinsky writes, “a simple feeling that everyone has.” Read for the unadorned poignancy of his predicament, or for the intricate canniness of his “mad” logic, the Diary is an extraordinary work, like a novel by Thomas Bernhard. The rhythm of its obsessions is integral to its power–it is, again, a dramatic monologue and could easily be performed as such.

The struggle to articulate is always a kind of madness. Nijinsky may have had to actually go mad because there was no one in the vicinity who could even acknowledge that fact. “The man who is right,” Nijinsky wrote, “is the one who feels but does not understand.” Music and dance make one believe this to be true; but the fascism that followed on from the war made that kind of truth horrifying. Nothing could be at once more belated, or more timely than this remarkable Diary .

The Diary of a Mad Dancer: Nijinsky in Praise of Mistakes