You gu gu and I gu gu

Andrew O’Hagan

  • The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky edited by Joan Acocella, translated by Kyril Fitzylon
    Allen Lane, 312 pp, £20.00, August 1999, ISBN 0 7139 9354 5
  • Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins
    Macmillan, 396 pp, £12.00, May 2000, ISBN 0 333 76622 9

Nijinsky began to lose his mind in a Swiss village in 1919. He was only 29 years old, still dazzling, animal-like, an Aschenbach vision on the Lido, a young man who could jump and pause in the air: but he began to spend all night in his studio scribbling the same things over and over, the doodlings of the incrementally mad. The thing he drew was eyes. Sometimes, in his little exercise books, he might draw spiders, or the many faces of Diaghilev, but mainly it was the eyes, black eyes, red eyes, and sometimes he’d go over each one so much he’d tear right through the paper.

He danced professionally for the last time that year. An invited audience gathered at a local hotel. He began the performance by sitting in a chair staring at them for half an hour; these rows of doctors and bankers, these well-scrubbed ladies who’d never made it to Paris, they looked into his famous eyes that stared without blinking. Then he rolled out two pieces of velvet in the shape of a cross, and he stood at the head of it: ‘Now I will dance you the war,’ he said, ‘the war which you did not prevent.’

A girl who had cared for Nietzsche in the last phase of his illness was often around the Nijinsky house, and she said the great dancer had the same look on his face. The look was a fairly familiar one in the family: Nijinsky’s older brother Stassik’s mind wasn’t right, and his maternal grandmother had starved herself to death. On the morning of Nijinsky’s startling performance at the hotel he began to write a diary – a series of savage declarations, the mirror (or the blackboard) of a creative mind on the slide, incorporating letters to people he loved or loathed. As the diary ends he is on his way to see Eugen Bleuler – the man who came up with the word ‘schizophrenic’ – and not long afterwards he was sent to Kreuzlingen, to the Bellevue Sanatorium.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Nijinsky’s death. It has become fairly orthodox to observe – as everyone observes when talking about Schumann or Virginia Woolf or Van Gogh – that Nijinsky’s madness was not unattached to his genius. His choreography is a study in grace and brutality, in his ‘madness’ he invented modern dance, his mind is a set-text in the Jungian analysis of personality, he was fifty years ahead of his time, his life was an erotic spectacle – narcissistic, instinctive, free – and his work captured the emerging rhythm of mind for a generation that was heading into the fearsome carnival of the Great War. But Nijinsky was a sleek gazelle trotting round the edge of a precipice; he was a primitive: how did he come to be the patron saint of modern art?

His diaries can now be read for the first time in their original form. Joan Acocella’s restoration is a job very well done: she has elegantly failed to spare the blushes of the dead, and instead what we have is a final, proper edition of Nijinsky’s diary, a dark assemblage that can sometimes read like out-takes from the thoughts of Raskolnikov, or notes towards another short novel by Schnitzler. The diary shows Nijinsky at the very turning-point of mental illness. ‘He knows,’ Acocella writes in her introduction, ‘that something extraordinary is going on in his brain, but he does not know whether this means he is God or that he is a madman, abandoned by God.’ Above all, Nijinsky, as a dancer and a choreographer, had a synthesising genius: he broke with symmetry to make things new, and he investigated ugliness, and moral lies, in order to establish new, true, beautiful things. The diaries show that his obsessions were narrow, but they were his obsessions: in some sense he had been thinking the same thoughts since he was a tiny 16-year-old dancer.

In Nabokov’s first novel Mary there is a portrait of two Russian dancers who yearn for a wider world of freedoms. Kolin and Gornotsvetov live in a room reeking of perfume and sweat, and there is something new in their decadence, something newly European in the way these two intend to elongate themselves into the modern hours. ‘Having admired the coral varnish of his nails,’ Nabokov writes, ‘Kolin carefully washed his hands, smeared his face and hands with sickly-sweet toilet water and threw off his dressing-gown. Naked, he took a few steps on his points, did a little entrechat, quickly dressed, powdered his nose, and made up his eyes.’ This is the world that Vaslav Nijinsky entered as a young dancer in St Petersburg, a world, Acocella writes, ‘in which there was a heavy sexual trade in ballet dancers’. Yet Nijinsky was both involved in all this, and at the same time apart from it: he spent many of his evenings reading The Idiot by candlelight, nurturing his conscience and his garden of possibilities, suddenly believing, as he said, ‘that mankind can be redeemed by beauty’.

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