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Secrets of Nijinsky

The original text tells us some new things about Nijinsky, and elsewhere offers new evidence to support old suspicions. First, Nijinsky was not the idiot savant—genius of dance, helpless in all else—that he was often advertised as being. As the diary makes clear, he had read widely in Russian literature—Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Merezhkovsky—and he thought about what he read, applied it to his own life and work. He knew something about painting, probably because Diaghilev had taken him around the great museums of Europe. He was also up on current events. However mad his lucubrations on the war, they are not uninformed.

Nijinsky says relatively little about his ballets—he doesn’t even mention The Rite of Spring—and most of what he says was included in Romola’s edition. But he tells us other things that, though they were recorded several years after he made his ballets, and in the midst of a psychotic break, nevertheless reflect on his work. In Romola’s version the intensity of his spiritual concerns was already clear; in the uncut version, we see the intensity of his sexual concerns. As Lincoln Kirstein pointed out in his 1970 Movement & Metaphor, the three ballets that Nijinsky created in 1912 and 1913 constitute a sort of ontogeny of sex: “in Faune, adolescent self-discovery and gratification; in Jeux, homosexual discovery of another self or selves; in Le Sacre du Printemps, fertility and renewal of the race.”16 Most of the unproduced ballets that Nijinsky contemplated during his periods of enforced inactivity after 1913 also had to do with sex. One was set in a brothel.

In confronting the abundance of sexual material in the diary, one must make certain subtractions. He was struggling at this time to quell his sex drive, in keeping with Tolstoyan dictates, so sex would have been on his mind. Furthermore, psychotic delusions often involve sexual guilt. Nevertheless, the sexual eruptions in the diary are no doubt an extension of his thoughts as an artist.

One suspicion about Nijinsky that the diary seems to confirm is that despite his early homosexual experience, he was primarily heterosexual by inclination. This point was made by Ostwald in 1991. All the homosexual liaisons that Nijinsky mentions, first with Lvov, then with the men to whom Lvov introduced him, including a Polish count and Diaghilev, were connected with material or professional rewards (though he says he loved Lvov). When he describes sexual experiences in which the motivation is frankly sexual—when he has masturbation fantasies, when he pursues prostitutes before and after his marriage, when he is excited by someone he sees on the street—the object is always a woman. As for his reputed androgyny, again there seems to be a difference between what he did for others and what he did for himself. While Nijinsky made his fame in the androgynous roles choreographed for him by Fokine, the roles he created for himself in his own ballets were unequivocally male. Nevertheless, Nijinsky was clearly interested in exploring the boundary between male and female. He didn’t just dance those sexually ambiguous roles that Fokine made for him; he triumphed in them. Romola, in her Nijinsky, recalls how good he was at impersonating female dancers. “He was able to place himself in the soul of a woman,” she writes.

Another sexual matter on which the diary casts some light is the long-repeated story that while Nijinsky was going insane, Romola was conducting a love affair with Dr. Frenkel. In some versions it is added that Romola’s second daughter, Tamara, born in 1920, was Frenkel’s child. There is no proof of the latter claim. Nijinsky was back at home, on a five-month leave from Bellevue Sanatorium, when Tamara was conceived. And Tamara, in her 1991 memoir Nijinsky and Romola, says that, according to Emilia Márkus, Romola at this time made a determined effort to become pregnant by Nijinsky, in the hope that the birth of another child would jolt him back into sanity. Neither Tamara nor Emilia is a disinterested reporter. Still, the story makes sense. In the diary Nijinsky tells us that Romola wanted to have a son by him.

Nevertheless, Romola apparently did have an affair with Frenkel. Nijinsky at this time was practicing chastity; it is not illogical that Romola would have sought attentions elsewhere. Furthermore, members of Frenkel’s surviving family told Peter Ostwald that such a liaison occurred and that Frenkel, in his unhappiness over Romola’s refusal to divorce Nijinsky, attempted suicide and became addicted to morphine. I too have corresponded with Frenkel’s family, and they have added to this account, as follows. One night in what was probably 1920, a year after Nijinsky was first hospitalized, Frenkel, distraught over his relationship with Romola, closeted himself in a shut-down hotel in St. Moritz and tried to kill himself by means of a drug overdose. His unfortunate wife found him in time to save him. The affair with Romola ended at that point, or before. In an effort to escape the ensuing scandal, Frenkel’s wife changed the family name. Frenkel remained a morphine addict until his death from pneumonia in 1938, at age fifty-one—a sad story.

Ostwald’s hypothesis, however, was not just that the affair occurred, but that Nijinsky suspected it, and that that knowledge was what precipitated the psychiatric emergency which caused him to be taken to Bleuler. This latter part of Ostwald’s argument seems to be contradicted by the diary. In his notebooks Nijinsky gives no sign that he knows of anything improper going on between Romola and Frenkel. Now and then he expresses resentment of Frenkel, but only because the doctor has intruded into the Nijinsky family’s affairs (“I see that doctors meddle in things that are outside their duties”) and because Romola seems to trust Frenkel’s judgment more than her husband’s. (“Dr. Frenkel is not God. I am.”) But the strongest evidence that Nijinsky had no suspicion of an affair between Romola and Frenkel is the tone in which he speaks of her. He sometimes accuses her of terrible things (“You are death”), but he sees her sin as a failure of sympathy, never as betrayal. His attitude is best judged not from his broad statements about her, but from his offhand remarks. He likes her nose; he wants to take walks with her; he calls her by her pet name, Romushka. While he wants to save the world, most of all he wants to save his relationship with her. He also worries about having told her that she was the first woman he ever made love to, when in fact he had had long experience with prostitutes: “If my wife reads all this, she will go mad, for she believes in me.” These are not the words of a man who thinks his wife is having an affair.

A final point that the diary makes clear is that Nijinsky was indeed suffering from what is called schizophrenia. Though schizophrenia, like other psychoses, affects most areas of behavior, it is regarded primarily as a thought disorder. The American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual lists five symptoms: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized language, disorganized or catatonic behavior, and “negative symptoms” (e.g., emotional flatness).17 A patient must have at least two in order to be called schizophrenic. To judge from the diary, Nijinsky had at least three: delusions, disorganized language, and disorganized behavior. Most striking are the delusions. Almost all the varieties of delusion considered typical of schizophrenia are present in the diary: delusions of grandeur, of persecution, of control (one’s actions are being manipulated by an outside force), of reference (environmental events are directed specifically at oneself). Nijinsky also seems to have somatic delusions: he believes that the blood is draining away from his head, that the hairs in his nose are moving around. He may be hallucinating too. Twice he tells us that he feels someone is in his studio, staring at him behind his back. God speaks to him, seemingly out loud.

Even more than their content, however, the form of Nijinsky’s thoughts is characteristically schizophrenic. Some researchers believe that the basic problem in schizophrenia is a breakdown in selective attention, with a consequent “loosening of associations.” The person starts to say something but then makes a peripheral connection, pursues that, and consequently gets off the track repeatedly, issuing long chains of associations. This happens to Nijinsky again and again in the diary. The most striking instance occurs when the dreaded Emilia arrives in St. Moritz. Waking up and hearing her in the house, Nijinsky unleashes a long spiral of associations, starting with Emilia’s voice and veering off onto his nerves, the corns on his feet (he knows how to cure them), the extinction of the earth (he knows how to reverse it), and on and on. One senses his logic: his fear of harm to himself and his insistence that he, not others, not Emilia, has the answer to what is ailing him and the world. Still, it is a dizzying flight.

The diary shows other schizophrenic traits as well—for example, “clanging,” the connecting of words on the basis of sound (often rhyme) rather than sense, and perseveration, or persistent repetition. The repetition also turns up in his drawings of this period. With obsessive consistency, they are composed of circles and arcs. As noted, the arcs seem to form eyes, and Nijinsky says they do: “I often draw one eye.” They also look like the fish, , the sign of Christ. Finally, they also bear some resemblance to the female genitals, the thing that, in his conversion to Tolstoyanism, he had renounced. That may be, at times, the eye that is watching him.

There are factors other than schizophrenia that may have helped to produce the qualities that seem schizophrenic in the diary. Ostwald points out that Dr. Frenkel was giving Nijinsky a sedative, chloral hydrate, that causes attention to wander, and that Frenkel subjected Nijinsky to word-association tests, a possible spur to the bizarre associations we find in the diary. As for repetition, elision, and odd juxtapositions, these were the stock in trade of early modernist artists, of whom Nijinsky was one. (The conductor Igor Markevitch, who at one time was Nijinsky’s son-in-law—he married Kyra—compared the diary’s stream-of-consciousness narration to that of Ulysses.) One must also keep in mind the intellectual trends of the day. Protests against nineteenth-century materialism and positivism, and calls for spiritual renewal, were commonplace. A number of writers of the turn of the century—Vladimir Solovyov, for example—aspired literally to join humankind to the Godhead. Such thinking influenced many artists of the pre-war period, Nijinsky perhaps among them. The particulars of Nijinsky’s life must be taken into account as well. His burning focus on his bodily processes may seem regressive, but for a dancer eating and digestion are professional concerns. Finally, we must grant Nijinsky the privilege of metaphor. If he says that he is God, he also says he is an Indian, and a sea bird, and Zola. And he is not the only one who is God; Dostoevsky is too.

But however much these factors may have affected Nijinsky’s thinking, they cannot have been responsible for the comprehensive derailment that we see in the diary. He himself notices how he gets off the track, and he tries in vain to bring himself back. He is also suffering terribly, and if Romola is telling the truth, he was violent. Her decision to take him to Bleuler was certainly justified. Ostwald points out that Nijinsky met the diagnostic criteria not only for schizophrenia but also for bipolar disorder, or manic-depressive illness. (The manic trend can be seen in the rush of his thoughts, in the forced jocularity of his wordplay, and in his ability to write all night.) In the diary, however, the evidence for schizophrenia appears far more prominent than the signs of manic-depressive illness. Bleuler’s description of Nijinsky—“confused schizophrenic with mild manic excitement”—seems exactly correct.

There remains the question of a connection between Nijinsky’s madness and his art. The idea of the genius-madman is a tiresome one: sentimental, tautological, demeaning to artists. In the case of Nijinsky, in particular, one hesitates to invoke it, for it has been applied to him often, with little gain in understanding. (Indeed, it puts an end to understanding, places him beyond our poor powers.) Nevertheless, many of the characteristics that seem bizarre in his diary—repetition, obsession, “ugliness”—are what seem striking in his art. The quality of abstraction that made his acting so remarkable may have been rooted in the same traits of mind as his communication problems. That is, realistic acting, with its agreed-upon gestures, may have been as unavailable to him as the agreed-upon manners of social intercourse.

Likewise, the experimentalism of his ballets, his analysis of movement, and the fact that he began this analysis in his very first professional ballet, with no preparatory, imitating-his-elders period—in the words of his colleague Marie Rambert, “Everything that he invented was contrary to everything he had learned”18—may have been connected to some neurological idiosyncrasy. Nijinsky’s ballets, wrote Kirstein, demonstrated “theories as profound as had ever been articulated about the classical theatrical dance.”19 Other artists have profound theories too, but to transform them into art, they have to fight their way past formidable barriers: custom, advice, the anxiety to please, the wish to be understood. If, as seems likely, such things were not as real to Nijinsky as to others, he would have been able to go more directly to the bottom of his thought. Why should he worry about being understood? He was seldom understood.

This is not to say that the diary forms part of the same arc of invention as the ballets. In the diary all the things besides profundity that made Nijinsky an artist—shaping, compression, the sense of rhythm and climax, the acts of control—are gone, or going. It is the same instrument, but unstrung.

Nijinsky was almost thirty years old when he was diagnosed as schizophrenic. He lived for thirty years more, during which time his reputation grew. The myth that had collected around him as a dancer—that he was a flame, a vision, a messenger from the beyond—seemed merely confirmed by the news of his illness. It was as if the beyond had reclaimed him. Movies and ballets were based on his story. (The Red Shoes, in some measure, is about him.) He became a symbol for the part of us that, in fantasy, takes off for the high hills, as opposed to the part that stays home. Nijinsky had always been famous for his jump. As witnesses describe it, he would rise and then pause in the air before coming down. Now, it seemed, he had declined to come down.

Such ideas were based almost wholly on his dancing, not on his choreography, which very few people estimated at what seems to have been its true worth until the 1970s, with the publication of Richard Buckle’s biography Nijinsky and, above all, Lincoln Kirstein’s Nijinsky Dancing. (Perhaps not coincidentally, these reevaluations came shortly after Stravinsky, who had long disparaged Nijinsky’s choreography, publicly changed his mind.) Nor could an image of Nijinsky as a mind beyond intelligence have been based on his choreography. While it is possible, as I have said, to relate the experimentalism of his ballets to his later insanity, the first and strongest impression one gets from his one extant ballet, The Afternoon of a Faun, is of a steely intelligence: strict, analytic, even ironic.

While Nijinsky’s romantic image was building, he himself was living a life that could not have been less romantic. From 1919 onward, he was basically a chronic schizophrenic. He was helpless; he could not brush his teeth or tie his shoelaces by himself. When Romola settled in a place where she could keep him, she took him home. The rest of the time he lived in institutions. Usually he was gentle and passive, though occasionally he would throw his food tray at the wall or assault someone. Tamara Nijinsky, in her memoir, recalls watching him one day, at Emilia Márkus’s villa in Budapest, reduce an antique chair to kindling with his bare hands. (It was Emilia’s favorite chair.) For the most part he was mute, but Ostwald’s review of the Bellevue records suggests that Nijinsky could speak when he wanted to: “If someone tried to approach him, he would say, quite coherently, ‘Ne me touchez pas‘ (Don’t touch me).”20

On April 8, 1950, during a visit to London with Romola—they were living at that time in Sussex—he died quietly of kidney failure. His death probably aided in the growth of his legend. Before, the press would occasionally publish photographs of this portly, balding older man with the vacant smile. Now, with that distraction eliminated, his story took on new force. The books, the plays, the ballets are still coming. Within the last few years, there have been at least four new one-man shows based on his life. Another movie is in the works.

This, then, is a strange story. Nijinsky has become one of the most famous men of the century, but never was so much artistic fame based on so little artistic evidence: one eleven-minute ballet, Faun, plus some photographs. A large part of his reputation rests on the diary, which, apart from the fact that until re-cently all available versions misrepresented Nijinsky’s text, is not artistic evidence, but something more like a personal letter—“a huge suicide note,” as Thomas Mallon called it21—and one very likely to appeal to our sentimentality about those cut off in the prime of life. By now, Nijinsky is less a man than a saint, his genius less a fact than a tradition. Actually, most great reputations in dance are a mat-ter of belief, for in most cases the dance is gone. But with Nijinsky the belief required is more absolute, in proportion to the claims. Such faith is probably not misplaced, though. On the small artistic evidence that we have—above all, on the evidence of Faun—Nijinsky probably was a genius. Hence the diary becomes a truly terrible document, a record not just of his loss, but of ours.


Diaghilev dyes his hair so as not to be old. Diaghilev’s hair is gray. Diaghilev buys black hair creams and rubs them in. I noticed this cream on Diaghilev’s pillows, which have black pillowcases. I do not like dirty pillowcases and therefore felt disgusted when I saw them. Diaghilev has two false front teeth. I noticed this because when he is nervous he touches them with his tongue. They move, and I can see them. Diaghilev reminds me of a wicked old woman when he moves his two front teeth….

Diaghilev liked to be talked about and therefore wore a monocle in one eye. I asked him why he wore a monocle, for I noticed that he saw well without a monocle. Then Diaghilev told me that one of his eyes saw badly. I realized then that Diaghilev had told me a lie. I felt deeply hurt….

I began to hate him quite openly, and once I pushed him on a street in Paris. I pushed him because I wanted to show him that I was not afraid of him. Diaghilev hit me with his cane because I wanted to leave him. He felt that I wanted to go away, and therefore he ran after me. I half ran, half walked. I was afraid of being noticed. I noticed that people were looking. Ifelt a pain in my leg and pushed Diaghilev. I pushed him only slightly because I felt not anger against Diaghilev but tears. I wept. Diaghilev scolded me. Diaghilev was gnashing his teeth, and I felt sad and dejected. I could no longer control myself and began to walk slowly. Diaghilev too began to walk slowly. We both walked slowly. I do not remember where we were going. I was walking. He was walking. We went, and we arrived. We lived together for a long time…

—Translated from the Russian by Kyril FitzLyon

  1. 16

    Lincoln Kirstein, Movement & Metaphor: Four Centuries of Ballet (Praeger, 1970), p. 199.

  2. 17

    American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (American Psychiatric Association, 1994), p. 285.

  3. 18

    Interview in John Drummond, Speaking of Diaghilev (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), p. 114.

  4. 19

    Lincoln Kirstein, Dance: A Short History of Classic Theatrical Dancing (Dance Horizons, 1969), p. 283.

  5. 20

    Ostwald, Vaslav Nijinsky, p. 279.

  6. 21

    A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries (Ticknor and Fields, 1984), p. 200.

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