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Secrets of Nijinsky

He also gave a final dance concert, before an invited audience, at a nearby hotel, the Suvretta House. As Romola describes the performance, Nijinsky began by taking a chair, sitting down in front of the audience, and staring at them for what seemed to her like half an hour. Eventually he unrolled two lengths of velvet, one white, one black, to form a cross on the floor. Standing at the head of the cross, he addressed the audience: “Now I will dance you the war…. The war which you did not prevent.” He then launched into a violent solo, presumably improvised, and at some point stopped. On that same day, January 19, 1919, between finishing his lunch and going to Romola’s dressmaker to pick up his costume for the concert, he began his diary.

After the performance at the Suvretta House, says Romola, “I never felt the same again.” Apparently, she had already confided in a doctor, a friend of the family. She does not give his name, but Nijinsky’s diary does. He was Hans Curt Frenkel, a young physician attached to one of St. Moritz’s resort hotels. According to Ostwald, Frenkel’s specialty was sports injuries, but during his medical training in Zurich he had attended lectures by the renowned psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who in 1911 had invented the term “schizophrenia.” Frenkel was also familiar with Jungian theories of psychopathology. Thinking to help Nijinsky, he began visiting him almost every day. He tried to induce him to reveal his private thoughts; he warned him that his behavior was upsetting Romola. But Nijinsky only got worse. Day after day, he would retreat to his study to make drawings of staring eyes or to write in his diary, which he would not let Frenkel or Romola see. (In any case, it was in Russian, a language that neither of them could read.) Finally, Frenkel wrote to his old professor, Bleuler, asking if he would see Nijinsky. Bleuler agreed. Meanwhile, Romola had apparently summoned her mother and stepfather to come from Budapest and help her take Nijinsky to Zurich. They arrived, and the group—Nijinsky, Romola, Emilia Márkus, and her husband, Oscar Párdány—departed for Zurich. The diary ends on that day, March 4, 1919, as Nijinsky is waiting for the cab to take them to the train station.

In Zurich Romola first went to Bleuler alone. After listening to her account of Nijinsky’s behavior, he told her, “The symptoms you describe in the case of an artist and a Russian do not in themselves prove any mental disturbances.” But the next day, when he saw Nijinsky, he changed his mind. After what Romola says was an interview of ten minutes, Bleuler described Nijinsky in his notes as “a confused schizophrenic with mild manic excitement.”12 The doctor showed Nijinsky out of his office, asked Romola to come in, and told her that her husband was incurably insane. When she returned to the waiting room, the dancer looked up at her and uttered the words now famous in the Nijinsky legend: “Femmka [little wife], you are bringing me my death-warrant.”

Had it been a death warrant, it might have been more merciful. The couple returned to their hotel, and that night Nijinsky locked himself in his room, refusing to come out. After twenty-four hours, the police were called, and they forced open the door. Nijinsky was taken to the Burghölzli University Psychiatric Hospital, where Bleuler was the director. He went without protest. Three days later he was sent to nearby Kreuzlingen, to the Bellevue Sanatorium, a luxurious and humane establishment directed at that time by Ludwig Binswanger, one of the founders of existential therapy. After three months at Bellevue, Nijinsky was hallucinating, tearing his hair out, attacking his attendants, declaring that his limbs belonged to someone else, not him.

It is impossible to know whether this decline was part of the natural course of Nijinsky’s illness or whether it was the result of hospitalization. The hospitalization was clearly traumatic. In his lucid periods, according to the Bellevue records, he would cry out, “Why am I locked up? Why are the windows closed, why am I never left alone?”13 Romola later claimed that Nijinsky’s deterioration was brought on by the episode of the police breaking open his hotel room door and taking him to Burghölzli. She said that her mother had engineered this behind her back. But Nijinsky records at the end of the diary that when they were about to leave for Zurich, Romola came to him and asked him to tell Kyra that he would not be coming back. If that is true, then hospitalizing Nijinsky was part of Romola’s plan for the trip. Nijinsky does not seem to have understood this fully. He took his diary with him on the journey, for, as he says, he intended to find a publisher for it in Zurich. Instead, it was turned over to the doctors of Burghölzli, who copied out passages of it into their records to support their diagnosis.


As I have said, Nijinsky began the diary on the day he was to give the performance at the Suvretta House. This was probably no coincidence. As the early pages of the diary indicate, he already had Frenkel in the house “analyzing” him; it had already been suggested to him that he go see the “nerve specialist” in Zurich. In other words, Nijinsky knew that the people around him had doubts about his sanity, and he must also have known that the performance he was going to give that evening would alarm them further. He may well have embarked on the diary as a last chance to show that he was not mad but, on the contrary, had ascended to a higher plane of understanding. He had joined his soul to God—on the drive to the Suvretta House he told Romola, “This is my marriage with God”—and from God he was bringing a message to the world: that people should not think, but feel. This, he believed, was the source of the tensions between him and Romola. She was trying to understand him through her intellect (“I want to destroy her intellect”), not through feeling. Failure of feeling was also the cause of the war. David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, operated via intellect; Woodrow Wilson (whose pacifism Nijinsky, as a Tolstoyan, naturally supported) relied on feeling, but Lloyd George undermined him.

The war, however, was only one problem. As Nijinsky describes the situation in his diary, the entire world is being laid waste by materialism and opportunism. Scientists are claiming that human beings are descended from apes. Industrialists are despoiling the planet. The stock exchange, the manufacturers, the shops are robbing the poor. This is what he has understood from God. Indeed, he is now God, and he is going to convert the world back to feeling. His primary means will be the diary. Once it is published, he will have it distributed for free. He is hoping to have it reproduced in facsimile rather than printed, because he feels that the manuscript is alive and will transmit feeling directly, off the page, to readers.

He knows that his message will be opposed. In his descriptions of the harm done by the strong to the weak, and by “thinkers” to “feelers,” there are certain names that come up repeatedly, notably those of Lloyd George and Diaghilev: “They are eagles. They prevent small birds from living.” Emilia Márkus is also in this group. But as the diary proceeds, the list of enemies lengthens, for he fears that he will be punished for the truths he is revealing. (He is convinced that Zola was gassed to death for telling the truth in the Dreyfus affair. He also thinks that William Howard Taft has been assassinated.) He is afraid that the English will send people to shoot him because of what he has written about Lloyd George. When he complains about his fountain pen and accuses the manufacturers of fraud, he imagines that they will sue him and have him put in prison. As noted, the drawings that he was making at this time were filled with staring eyes.

There are several other themes in the diary. His bodily processes—eating, digestion, elimination—are on his mind. This is related to his refusal to eat meat, a source of bitter conflict between himself and Romola, probably because to her it symbolized his Tolstoyanism, which, at times, she saw as the source of their troubles. In addition, he is very concerned about sex, which he views with revulsion. (It was partly in order to suppress his sex drive that he refused to eat meat.) He guiltily recalls his childhood sex play and his pursuit of prostitutes before and after his marriage. He imagines that his servants are having sex with animals. He accuses the four-year-old Kyra of masturbating, a practice that he believes causes mental and physical breakdown. (This was a common assumption at the time.) He also meditates on various projects. He wants to build a bridge from Europe to America, presumably to help in uniting the world. He plans to invent a new kind of fountain pen; he will call it “God.” He has a cure for cancer.

One feels a frantic struggle for control underlying much of the diary. In a larger sense, this is Nijinsky’s effort to right the balance of power in the world, to wrest authority from the thinkers, return it to the feelers. At the same time, he is fighting for control over his own life. If he felt that eyes were watching him, they were—Romola’s, Frenkel’s—and he knew where this was leading. Apart from his campaign for feeling, no theme in the diary is more important than his fear of being hospitalized, as his brother was. He mentions this already on the first night of the diary: “I will not be put in a lunatic asylum, because I dance very well and give money to anyone who asks me.” As events gather, he guesses that this is what the trip to Zurich is about.

A little over halfway through the diary, there is a break in the text. Nijinsky signs off—as “God Nijinsky”—on the material he has already written. Then he starts what he calls Book II, entitling it “On Death,” and begins recording terrible thoughts. Suddenly he feels that he is separated from God, and filled with evil: “I am not God, I am not man…. I am a beast and a predator.” He sees ruin closing in on him. “Death came unexpectedly,” Book II begins, “for I wanted it to come.” But it was not death that was coming; it was Emilia Márkus. As he notes, she is arriving at his house the next morning at eleven o’clock. He disliked her already, because of her unkind treatment of his family during their internment in Budapest. But his reaction here is more than dislike; it is a catastrophic fear. He knows that her arrival will be followed by the trip to Zurich—that she has come to help Romola place him in an institution.

  1. 12

    Quoted in Ostwald, Vaslav Nijinsky, p. 196.

  2. 13

    Quoted in Ostwald, Vaslav Nijinsky, p. 238.

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