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Salon Magazine

No nonsense scholarship about tragedy of fabled Russian dancer


'The Diary Of Vaslav Nijinsky -- The Unexpurgated Edition'
edited by Joan Acocella


Review by Peter Kurth

Web posted on: Thursday, February 25, 1999 1:40:53 PM

(SALON) -- "The idea of a genius-madman is a tiresome one: sentimental, tautological, demeaning to artists." So writes Joan Acocella in her crisp introduction to Kyril FitzLyon's new translation of "The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky" by the fabled Russian dancer and choreographer whose career ended tragically after World War I with the onset of schizophrenia. Acocella, who was recently named dance critic of the New Yorker, is a meticulous, no-nonsense scholar whose writings on dance entirely lack the airy vagueness and insufferable jargon of most choreographic criticism. While rejecting the romantic link between madness and creativity, she nevertheless recognizes the unique importance of the Nijinsky diary. "To my knowledge," she writes, "it is the only sustained, on-the-spot (not retrospective) written account, by a major artist, of the experience of entering psychosis."

The diary itself comprises the contents of four notebooks Nijinsky kept between Jan. 19 and March 4, 1919, when he had already danced his last performance and was living with his wife, daughter, mother-in-law and assorted hangers-on in a rented villa in St. Moritz, Switzerland, just before his first incarceration for schizophrenia. An earlier and more familiar edition, edited by Nijinksy's wife, Romola, cut 40 percent of the text and completely eliminated Nijinsky's more insane ruminations and pronouncements -- on his life as an artist, his political opinions, his identification with God, his seasons as the leading male dancer (and later a choreographer) of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, his sexual liaisons with Diaghilev and others, his visits to prostitutes, his masturbatory practices and his obsessive fascination with his own bodily functions: eating, digesting and the inevitable, much-anticipated elimination of waste.

"I shit you shit," Nijinsky writes in decline. "I shit shit shit shit shit shit shit." Large portions of the diary are set down in the form of poems, or at least blank verse -- stark declarative sentences, endlessly played with and repeated, that might have come out of the head of anyone trapped in psychosis. Like many schizophrenics, Nijinsky is obsessed with parallels and opposites. Every thought has an opposing thought, every point a counterpoint: "I want to sleep, but my wife does not feel ... People enjoy themselves, but God is sad." The diary was written in Russian and French and often rises to the sublime, like Beckett or Ionesco, in its solemn absurdity: "I love singing, but I cannot sing. I know you can sing, although you lost your voice ... I am an artist whose voice is dance."

Unfortunately, the diary provides no special insight into the qualities that made Nijinsky one of the greatest dancers of all time. Dance is impossible to recapture on paper. And Nijinsky's case is doubly problematic, since his total output was small, and only one of the dances that he choreographed for himself, "L'Apres-midi d'un faune," still survives in performance. Acocella thinks it entirely possible that in writing the diary Nijinsky hoped to create a work of literature, but she offers it, wisely, for what it is: a footnote to genius, the last, sad record of a legend.

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon, is completing a biography of Isadora Duncan. He lives in Burlington, Vermont.

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