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.

It is all embarrassing and beautiful, candid and lyrical, dully obsessive, endlessly repetitive, poignant and boring, informed with a naked feeling that plucks constantly at the reader’s own emotional arrangements. The man is mad indeed, but like many madmen he’s often quite right about life and, refreshingly, he never loves the sound of his own clever voice. Nijinsky is emphatically not a writer, making literature out of his pain and confusion. He sounds a lot like a splendidly honest and unspoiled but insufficiently trained and very bright child. He hates compliments with their genial falsity, for example, but he loves applause, the unguarded sign of pure love. He often says he is God, or that he is Love, but he seems to have no vanity and no false modesty, although he sees them clearly in others.

In this text, we never find the writer thinking of himself as a great dancer or even one with talent, or comparing himself with others, or speaking of other dancers at all. We hear that he had worked very hard at dancing and choreography, with perfect certainty and pleasure even when he was being hurried and overtaxed. He clearly feels his greatness only as a kind of deep natural laughter, a pure divine source: ‘I am God in the body. Everybody has this feeling, only nobody uses it. I do use it. I know its effects. I love its effects. I don’t want people to think my feeling is a spiritual trance. I am not a trance, I am love.’ And more and more of the same.

Nijinsky begins his first notebook by describing in detail the big lunch he had eaten before the hotel performance, the need for his alimentary system to be emptied before he dances (‘quand tout sera sorti de mon intestin’), and a last satisfactory visit to the costume-maker, whose work he praises and whose poor family he helps. But from then on he’s running and running in the snow, sometimes keeping pace with a sympathetic horse, or he’s precisely planning a bridge across the Atlantic Ocean, or worrying about his wife’s feelings, or figuring out how to win a fortune on the Bourse and give it to the poor, when he’s not attentively describing his digestive system at work. Now he’s admiring Woodrow Wilson and despising Lloyd George, or designing a really efficient fountain-pen, or describing how he masturbates, or how his little daughter masturbates. He comments on the small cross worn on a ribbon by the nurse – ‘she wears crosses but she doesn’t understand what they mean’ – then on the big cross carried by Christ; and he very much wants to publish his book – which he intends to entitle ‘Le Sentiment’ – in order to help the world free itself of hypocrisy and fear.

He writes, with endless repetitions, that Intelligence and Thought in action are Death, leading only to fearfulness and wickedness (and also to airplanes and zeppelins, bad fountain-pens, stupid dance criticism and petty conventions of behaviour – ‘les Habitudes’ – which are also Death), and that what matters is intuitive understanding, what he calls ‘le Sentiment’, or ‘la Raison’, and Love. He finds himself in fact gifted at la Raison, acute about people’s real feelings despite their pretensions, and he earnestly wishes them to feel his, to use their intuitions instead of their Habitudes. Sexual desire also makes Nijinsky very anxious when it operates in the world among the social conventions – flirtation, manipulation, exploitation and the like. He’s quite comfortable with physical sexuality, since he deeply loves anything to do with the way bodies work, but in society Desire often seems to work against Love and Understanding and Reason, as he’s not the first to notice. And yet it isn’t exactly Death, either. Near the very end, he includes some verses in a letter to Diaghilev, never sent:

I am a Prick, I am a Prick.
I am God in my prick.
I am God in my prick. Your prick is not mine, not mine.

I am prick in His prick.
I prick, I prick, I prick.
You are prick, but not Prick.

Then later, at the end: ‘You want to hurt me. I do not want to hurt you. You are wicked, but I am a cradle-song. Lullabye, lullabye. Sleep peacefully. Lullabye, lullabye. Lullabye. Lullabye. Lullabye. From man to man, Vaslav Nijinsky.’

The present text has been translated directly into French from the Russian manuscripts and published in the original order with no cuts, except for the omission of some letters from the last volume addressed to people not mentioned elsewhere. For 60 years, permission for such a project was effectively denied by Romola Nijinsky, the dancer’s widow, although before her death in 1978 she did entrust the first three volumes to a friend, without precisely specifying that they not be published. Those volumes, however, were variously sold and sold again, simply for profit as rare objects. The fourth volume, the one with the letters, was inherited by Romola’s son-in-law, Igor Markevitch, the conductor, who bequeathed it to the Bibliothèque Nationale. But at Romola’s death, the rights to the whole text had become the property of Nijinsky’s two daughters, Kyra and Tamara, who never gave permission for translation and publication despite many requests over the years since 1978.

Romola herself had allowed a portion of the notebooks to be translated into English and published in 1936, in an edition from which she excised most of the erotic material, a great deal of the obsessive repetition, and all the execrable poems. Until now, all translations into other languages were made from that English one – which, I found, reading it long ago, had a largely irritating and faintly false effect, perhaps because of Romola’s mutilations. But now, face to face with this big, unbearable document, it’s easy to see why Nijinsky’s original book might well have been suppressed by those who loved him as a man, and especially by the wife who treasured the direct memory of his absolute beauty and surpassing greatness as a dancer. Romola had been a dancer herself, and not a very distinguished one; she was all the more certain to know intimately and adore his precise rarity, and to further adore her unbelievable possession of him. How could she bear people studying his tedious and childish reflections on food and money and Clémenceau, his confused religious effusions, his discussions of his penis?

Because what’s truly unbearable is that Nijinsky’s greatness and beauty have gone for ever and can never be seen again, whereas his last insane screed, once published, can last as long as any book can, and be the only thing the world has of him. His second daughter, however, has finally given in to the present translators. After all, she had never seen Nijinsky dance and had essentially been keeping a pious but outmoded faith with Romola. The glorious Nijinsky must long since have become a legend to her, and she must feel that now the notebooks should rightly be added to it, to blend the scribbling madman with the rutting faun and the soaring spectre of the rose.

So far as we know there were no films made of Nijinsky dancing, and we have to rely on descriptions, posed photographs, some snapshots, drawings and sketches, and the legend. But the legend itself, now that Romola and the others with the living memory are dead, has increased its power. It continues to permit imaginative leaps of all kinds, choreographic, cinematic and literary – that is, there is no end to further imaginative work about the Nijinsky legend embedded inside the Diaghilev legend, which in turn vibrates inside the comprehensive legend of modern art in the first half of this century. With the Ballet Russe in 1909, Diaghilev brought the Shock of the New to Paris, the centre of the artistic civilised world – and from Russia, of all places, famous for being civilised only by the skin of its teeth, and only by copying France. A bit earlier, Diaghilev had done the same thing in reverse, and brought the Impressionists to St Petersburg. He was the first determined impresario of European modern art.

In 1906 Diaghilev had come to Paris with an immensely successful exhibition of two centuries of Russian painters; in 1908 he stunned the Parisians again with Chaliapin in Boris Godunov; and finally came the unprecedented Ballet Russe, quite unlike any other cultural enterprise, daring and elegant, serious and exotic, often harsh, modern in all particulars. The work of great new Russian composers and great new Russian artists was integrated into dramatic new stage compositions that showed off the Russian dancers with their vital beauty, supreme technique and powerful acting. Before this historic 1909 season, ballet in Paris had simply been attractive and entertaining, set to attractive, entertaining music. Now the Russian dancers and their choreographer Fokine, who had been impressed by Isadora Duncan’s radical ideas, were creating a demanding new form of dance theatre under the inspiring will of Diaghilev.

He had personally collected them all, including Stravinsky and Bakst among others. He had adroitly skimmed off the best artists in every medium and stolen them right away from the rigid Imperial Russian system so as to force them into fruitful combination, into opening new aesthetic frontiers right there in the great capital of European art as they never could have done at home. It was an amazing coup. Between 1909 and Diaghilev’s death in 1929 the Russian Ballet came to Paris almost every year and gradually introduced contemporary French composers and painters to French audiences – not only Prokofiev and Stravinsky but Ravel, Satie and Debussy, not just Bakst and Goncharova but Derain and Picasso.

At the beginning, the centre of it all had been the magical figure of Nijinsky, flying onto the stage through the window, leaping head down with his feet straight up, stalking the nymphs with archaic animality, yearning with puppet pathos for the mechanical dancer. He incarnated both the abstraction and intense humanity of modern art in the century’s first decades – the naked expression, the pure sexuality, the vivid originality of form, the unmitigated colour. And then, of course, the madness.

Had Nijinsky stayed in St Petersburg, he might have gone mad anyway – his dossier at the Imperial school records that he was always emotionally unstable – but he would simply have gone on dancing Coppélia and La Bayadère, or eventually The Red Poppy and other Revolutionary works. And nobody would ever have seen him soar up and stop a minute before coming down, or die in panther-like agony as a harem slave, or ever have heard of him at all, and we would not have his settings of L’Après-midi dun faune or Sacre du printemps to revive, reinterpret, study and find prophecies in.

About his Sacre of 1913 he said: ‘It is really the soul of nature, expressed by movement to music, it is the life of stones and trees. There are no human beings in it.’ He meant no individuals, only an inchoate human mass. Agnes de Mille, from whom this quote is taken, passes on a visual description of the dance: the whole corps with drooping spines, hunched shoulders and curled fists, the tucked-down heads and inward-turning feet, the bumpy jumps made only to hammer at the ground; and the primitive costumes, with wrapped-up legs and padded coats making everyone look like sore thumbs. Much in modern dance has explored this kind of effect again, partly because of the still-reverberating echoes of the uproar that greeted the work’s opening performance. The piece went straight against the pleasing idea of nature’s benign beauty, and instead offered brutal human answers to nature’s brutality. A true original, Nijinsky went back to the most ancient sources for his newest explorations, re-inventing art.

Other choreographers have reset the Stravinsky score commissioned for Nijinsky, always more palatably; and there was an archaeological attempt to revive his grim version. There will doubtless be more of both kinds, but none of us was there in 1913. There were only five performances, then three in London, and that was it. Nijinsky did one more ballet for Diaghilev in New York in 1916, to Richard Strauss’s Til Eulenspiegel, which was done only that season and never again, although an unthrilling reconstruction was lately attempted in Paris. So once more, alas, there is only the legend and some photographs.

And what if there had then been the resources now available to some of the mentally ill, something to stabilise Nijinsky’s turbulent soul? Could he have stayed out of the madhouse and gone on to give us things that might eventually have been accepted and adopted, like Stravinsky’s scores? Maybe, maybe not. He is nevertheless with us still, despite the desperate course of his ephemeral artistic life and the long diminishing death he had to suffer before he died. This volume brings him closer than anything could to life. It is recommended in small doses.