God in the Body

Anne Hollander

This book is a cry of pure pain, immensely difficult to read without groaning and sometimes weeping and getting up to pace the floor. Its flavour is aptly illustrated by the shocking jacket photograph of Nijinsky undergoing a catatonic seizure at the age of 37, about eight years after he wrote this text. With his necktie neatly knotted, his face shaven and his hair combed, hands curled up, the greatest dancer of his epoch – some say of any epoch – stares into the lens with a horrifying sacrificial patience. He would not die until the age of 60, after more than three decades of being moved around from sanatorium to sanatorium in Switzerland and England.

Nijinsky began these notebooks after finishing his very last stage appearance on 19 January 1919. It was a solo charity performance at a hotel in Geneva before an audience of casual guests, at which his ferocious dance of life and death appalled and terrified the spectators. (‘He showed us all of suffering humanity stricken with horror ... he seemed to float over a mass of corpses ... a tiger escaped from the jungle, ready to annihilate us.’)

The dancer had come to Switzerland with his wife and little daughter to rest after a tour in South America, following the painful upheaval, enacted against the background of a catastrophic war, of his complex relations with Diaghilev, whose idiosyncratic mode of artistic tyranny had ruled Nijinsky’s life until the dancer abruptly married. He was in an understandable state of emotional fatigue, and the mountain air at first did him some of its famous good. Leisure, however, only proved Nijinsky more deeply unhinged than the doctors and the family had thought. The scary display in the hotel was the public climax of a progressive private derangement. Nijinsky abruptly stopped writing on 4 March, just before being taken to Zurich for further examination, treatment and eventual incarceration. He was 29 years old. During the weeks following the last mad dance, his behaviour had gone from extreme and strange to unpredictably violent. More advice and stronger measures had to be sought.

Writing with intense concentration during the day and far into the night, Nijinsky had filled four notebooks during the critical six-week period between 19 January and 4 March, when his short family life and professional career were about to die, and his long life as a lunatic was about to begin. He had covered hundreds of neat manuscript pages that include a few letters which were probably never sent, ten pages of pencil illustrations not reproduced here, and some awful poems.

The notebooks document his state of mind as it was then, floating and darting and plunging among his ever more uncontrollable inward difficulties with the outward world, along with his intense desire to redeem himself and it, to purify humanity and merge with God. They record his artless love for people, his astonished contempt for their unworthy fears, customs and tricks, his deep need to be loved and understood, his pleasure when he was; they also document ordinary events, physical phenomena, memories and observations with stunning simplicity and acumen, whether or not they are pure fantasy. The writing pours out in a flood of free association with very few paragraph breaks; there is resentment – ‘Diaghilev est un cimetière’ – but no violence at all.

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