Perhaps the greatest ballet artist of all time, Russian dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (1889 – 1950) was a prodigy from youth, was trained by and eventually led the most promising theatre group, Ballet Russe, and sustained a vertical leap of legend.
In 1919, at the age of 29, Vaslav Nijinsky had a psychotic breakdown and was placed in a mental institution, never again able to live on his own. These Diaries cover the six weeks during that period.
The Diaries, first published by Romola, Nijinsky’s widow, were censored in order to diminish the appearance of psychosis. This version is unexpurgated and is edited and introduced by Joan Acocella, former dance critic for The New Yorker. She helps us appreciate the presence of this man:
Though still flourishing in Russia, ballet had been in decline for more than half a century in Europe, and male classical dancing was all but dead as an art. To his audiences, Nijinsky was something utterly unforeseen, a miracle.
Vaslav Nijinsky has an exceptional legacy; his dances are still performed today. These Diaries, however, add another dimension. As Acocella notes, they represent “the only sustained, on-the-spot (not retrospective) written account, by a major artist, of the experience of entering psychosis.”
Van Gogh, for example, wrote letters to his brother up until the month he committed suicide, but his words never directly demonstrated more than anxious melancholy. His episodes happened off-camera. Or Joan Didion, who called her daughter’s manic-depression episodes “quicksilver changes” and then fell silent as to what that meant.
Even the most coherent parts of the Diaries are intense and nonsensical. Nijinsky uses known words; however, his syntax, his meaning, his narrative are scrambled. Rhythm without meaning.
I wanted to speak, but my voice was so strong I could not speak, and I shouted. ‘I love everyone, and I want happiness!’ ‘I love everyone!’ ‘I want everyone.’ I cannot speak French, but I will learn it if I walk by myself. I want to speak loudly so that people will feel me. I want to love everyone, and therefore I want to speak all languages.
It continues on and on, becoming rather frightful. It is clear the author is slipping into the schizophrenia that eventually claimed his life.
The Diaries are extremely difficult to read. Not only for the jumbled and frenzied expression but also for the great, intrinsic sorrow of knowing we are witnessing a man slipping free of his conscious mind. From Acocella’s introduction:
This is the most wrenching thing about the Diary. He knows that something extraordinary is going on in his brain, but he does not know whether this means that he is God or that he is a madman, abandoned by God.
Mental illness is such a shrouded, isolating thing. It might be acceptable to say “I suffer from such and such,” but it is still impossible to actually show what that means, to act it out with an audience. Public display of mental illness is something many individuals—van Gogh, Stephen Fry, John Clare, myself—are at great odds to avoid.
Even Robert Lowell, one of the most prominent American poets of the 20th century, wrote about being institutionalized for his manic depression, but he avoided why he was there or what it looked like to be manic depressive.
Nijinsky’s journals are an extremely rare thing.
I sometimes wonder if we talk so much about it simply because it helps us avoid being it. These Diaries show the truth. Painful to watch, unbearable to digest, yet undoubtedly the inconceivable loss of mind and self.
A beautiful accompaniment to Nijinsky’s writing, and indeed his life, is American Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Frank Bidart’s narrative poem “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky.” It begins: “Still gripped by the illusion of an horizon: / overcome with the finality of a broken tooth: / suspecting that habits are the only salvation, // —the Nineteenth Century’s guilt, World War One, // was danced // by Nijinsky on January 19, 1919.” Read more here.