Ivan Klein

Man To Man – The Enigma Of Vaslav Nijinsky
Part One

With Robert Wilson On the Train To Yonkers —

                Eighteen months in 1969-’70 as the extremely unlikely director of the Messiah Baptist Church Head Start program at 76 Warburton Ave., Yonkers, NY. Just back from teaching Principles of Education at Maru Teachers College, way up north in Nigeria, where the dry savannah begins turning into the Sahara Desert.
                Fresh I was, pretty much — the small black church is riven over whether to continue its pre-school and social work program. – Class differences, friction on the church board, egoistic politics. I’m somehow settled upon. Federal dollars allow for a per diem educational consultant. A friend of a friend recommends Robert Wilson. He has a background in special education back in Texas, is just getting started with his career in NY and can use the dough. We take the train up to Yonkers maybe a half dozen to a dozen times. He does marvelous creative things with our three and four-year-olds. I sometimes wonder if any of those pre-schoolers or their parents know that a world class genius of theater and dance was working with them back then. Someone with the ability to turn the stage into a magical box and come close to suspending time in space.
                On the nearly hour-long rides out of Grand Central he talked rather compulsively, as I recall, about Nijinsky’s last dance — that dance of life that was pregnant silence and that dance of death that was the violence that he did to himself until he was brought to a halt. In Wilson’s telling, Nijinsky threw himself about the stage and beat himself to a bloody pulp until he was taken away to an asylum. Maybe I have the details wrong, or maybe he did, but that was the poetic essence of what he said and a fair approximation of what actually happened.
                There is an announcement of his coming production of “Letter to a Man” in October 2016 at BAM where we saw that brave, lonely production of “Einstein On The Beach” while he was still working with us in Yonkers. Something I feel I should really catch — like the end of an interrupted monologue from another lifetime. Prepare by reading Nijinsky’s Diary Of Life And Death which commences just after the terrifying performance outside St. Moritz on Jan.19, 1919. There is also that Letter To Man addressed to his nemesis, the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, appended to the unexpurgated edition of the diary published in English in 1999. The Diary famous as the living record of a great artist’s desperate struggle to hold on to his disintegrating consciousness since its original publication in 1934.

Dance Of Life And Death

                Nijinsky writes “I am afraid of death and therefore do not want it.”
                                              “I love everyone, but I am not loved.”
                                              “My movements are simple.”
                Forty odd years before privileged to watch R. Wilson in studio with acolytes. — His movements were also simple and direct.
                Simple movements the foundation of both men’s art. With Nijinsky we can see in the miniscule amount of film that has been preserved that they arise purely and deeply from his heart and soul, so that the world was brought to breathless awe and amazement.
                He tells us that he chased after “tarts” before and during marriage while maintaining a close, if shifting, relationship with God who has increasingly mixed messages for him. The distinction that he makes most clearly is between artists and non-artists, rich or poor.
                “I want to write this book because I want to explain what feeling is.” — Surrounded by persons in his household including his precious wife, who seems to him to be without that quality he knows to be true feeling.
                “I am a man like Christ who fulfills God’s commands.” — The fine psychic line between being ”like Christ” and believing himself to be Christ will dangerously blur and disintegrate in the six weeks of the Diary’s composition. And the question does arise that if Jesus had not been terminated for his indiscretions, might he too have possibly self-destructed as did Nijinsky in his relative purity and innocence.
                In writing about charitable institutions, his hot and tempting sister-in-law Tessa, the poor, the aftermath of the war, the environment of the planet, Nijinsky displays great insight as well as overwhelming naiveté and that growing derangement.
                Thinking back over the years, with The Diary in front of me, and somewhat, although not a great deal less ignorant than when we took those train rides up to Yonkers, it seems to me that Robert Wilson in his belief and absorption in his talent, shrewdness and innocence, bore a certain resemblance to Nijinsky and knew it — even a faint facial likeness.
                “Words are not speech. I understand speech in all languages.” — But communication with psychiatrists and caregivers in languages other than Russian will prove close to the core of his coming difficulties. Claims to understand the Hungarian spoken by his wife and Tessa. — Speech — sound — he understands/intuits the souls of people, he believes.
                “I like dirty Jews who have lice on their bodies. I know that if they listen to me, they will agree that I am right. They will obey and understand me… I am a Jew by origin, for I am Christ. A Jew is not Christ, for he is a Jew.” — Ah well, no more two-headed than the rest of the western world.
                                                             Dirty Jew.
                I was one once. Humiliated, neglectful of my person and neglected.
                     Not Christ-like, because we imagine Jesus as virtuously clean about his person.
                Imagine him spiritually focused and not diffuse. — But it takes more than just suffering to be Christ-like, and we know him to be the subject of all sorts of failed aspirations and identifications.
                “I am god and man. I am what Christ felt. I am Buddha and every kind of God.”
                               He feels. The world does not feel. — A dangerous path
                                          has opened up.
                “My madness is love for people.” — Doesn’t mention that he parades the town with a huge gold cross around his neck, exhorting the residents of St. Moritz to go to church. Doesn’t mention the incident when he drives a sleigh dangerously into traffic or the pushing of his wife down a staircase with his truly beloved daughter Kyra in her arms.
                “I want to be called God and not Nijinsky…”
                “I am hunger. I am the man who does not die of hunger…”
                A myriad of crayon drawings done during the composition of The Diary. Striking angry circular eyes all over the place. He tells his wife Romola that they are a soldier’s face and the drawings are for the war, but we can see that the drawings were an immensity beyond that. Romola later wrote that they made her shudder. And she has her reasons. Right after that final public performance of Jan. 1919, a young doctor is brought in from one of the fancy resorts in town for consultation in Nijinsky’s case and quickly becomes her lover. How much her husband knew and how much he intuited is a critical question, but those bug-eyed drawings must have seemed to follow her everywhere.
                That legendary final performance before around two hundred invited guests and whoever else could jam into the ballroom of Suvretta House, a hotel in a pine woods outside town.
                We have a description of sorts by Romola, never a fully reliable witness, and some remarks by the great dancer as well.
                “Nijinsky began by taking a chair, sitting down in front of the audience, and staring at them for what seemed 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.” Nijinsky wrote that he wanted to dance more, but God said to him “Enough.”
                After the performance, Romola commented that she never felt the same again (about their relationship we can assume). Clearly the waters had gotten too deep. – What had she gotten herself into? An intimation that her husband and his art were way beyond her control or understanding.
                In the diary Nijinsky writes, “The audience came to be amused. They thought I was dancing to amuse them. I danced frightening things. They were frightened of me and therefore thought I wanted to kill them.” The audience gets restless and he began to “play” cheerful things and the audience laughed. Then he “danced badly because I kept falling on the floor” when he didn’t have to.
                He mingles with the guests afterwards and has what must have been a disastrous conversation with an aristocratic lady about prostitution. Shows her lascivious movements and his bloodied foot. Later, on their way home in their carriage he tells his wife:
                “Today was the day of my marriage to God.” — The event that Robert Wilson talked about. His bloody, beaten feet — the bloody instruments of his spontaneous, unmediated art. Only the audible voice of God seems to have kept him from beating himself to death before his well-heeled, cold-hearted audience.

                               The besieged, frightened, martyred
                               Suffering Jesus and omniscient God Almighty all in one,
                                  but not without a few wretched doubts.
                               The voices heard in the corner of the eyes,
                                   the eyes resembling female genitalia.
                                What’s a man to do?
— Ashamed most of all that he lives and breathes –
                               The cracked heart and mind of the cuckold
                                    of all time.
               A hardly disguised lust for sister-in-law Tessa.
               Romola wrote how her husband, taught Tessa how to walk. Knew precisely, as they all did, just what it was he wished to teach Tessa.
                Dr. Curt Frenkel and Romola — Nijinsky notes that they speak some secret language — here he seems to know everything and yet hides it from himself. — Cannot say to himself what it is that he knows while writing the diary. — A split.
                For this poor fellow, used, dominated, passed around among older, monied Russian aristocrats as a youth, wished most fervently to be a man against all odds. Married the young Hungarian woman, Romola de Pulszky in Buenos Aires in September 1913 after she pursued him aboard a ship bound for his performances in South America. Married the smitten woman impulsively after barely exchanging a few words with her. Diaghilev, the imperious master of the Ballets Russes, was said to have fainted dead away when he heard of this betrayal by his protégé and erstwhile lover. He proceeded to drop him from the company and effectively leave him and his family, which would come to include a young daughter, without either financial or artistic resources.
                Now, isolated in a chalet on a hill in St. Moritz, taking his meals in his room while Romola dallies with Dr. Frenkel, he is still manly in his attentions to his young sister-in-law.
                “Tessa feels me because I give her a lot of presents. Besides this, Tessa feels music and dancing and understands everything I do…. I know her habits. She likes men. She gets drunk with them. She is a bad woman because she has many habits. I am a bad man because I do things together with other people. God wanted me to understand Tessa.”
                The ideation is veiled, breaks up, wanders, but his desire for Tessa, her leading him on and his peculiar inhibitions self-evident and ultimately self-destructive.


                “Lloyd George [British Prime Minister and chief negotiator for his country at the Paris talks that led to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919] is a terrible man. I do not like terrible men. I will not harm them. I do not want them to be killed. They are eagles. They prevent small birds from living, and therefore one must guard against them.” -- A tangle of contradictory thoughts follow. – A cocktail of fear, guilt, shame that leads to the obliteration of the coherent self and its diffusion on the printed page. Of course, his insights into the catastrophe of the treaty would prove correct, but it is the mystery of those tragic elements in Nijinsky, that shattering loss of control, his impotence on the cusp of his terrible fate that grips us in the reading of The Diary.
                The eminent doctors who would make learned pronouncements, their chicken shit menu of categories, prognoses, judgments. The system rigged, the deck stacked, the fix in.
                                              Poor Nijinsky!
                      Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and his innocent Prince Myshkin.
                       Nijinsky has read this tale, relates to both the author and his
                              martyred prince.
                       Nijinsky in regard to Lloyd George and Diaghilev:
                               “It is not for me to be their judge, but for God. I am God and I will tell them the truth.” – A prototypical thought movement in the Diary.
                “My wife does not love me or the work. I understand my wife. I know her habits. She likes being polite.” — A devastating, laconic take on his old lady who he has pinned, despite other professions of love for her.
                References to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot run through The Diary: Prince Myshkin is surrounded by complex intrigues way beyond the parameters of his innocent understanding. – Sexual and financial intrigue/class and political intrigue. Quite a bit going on in the Nijinsky household as well.
                Dr. Frenkel, his new great friend, shows Nijinsky erotic Japanese “pillow books” to discover his sexual fantasies during what amounted to an amateur psychoanalysis. — Banging Romola at the same time. Seems to have found himself in love with her. According to the story that was passed down in his family and told to Joan Acocella in the 1990’s, he attempted suicide by drug overdose in 1920 when she wouldn’t divorce Nijinsky and marry him and was rescued by his wife. He remained a morphine addict until his death from pneumonia at the age of 51 in 1938. Although the time sequence is somewhat unclear, he continued to play a crucial role in the martyring of the great artist during the following years of his forced confinement.
                Meanwhile, in those last weeks before Nijinsky is locked away, he lavishes gifts on Tessa as she attempts to seduce him. Graphic in the Diary:
                “She loves a prick. She needs a prick. I know pricks who do not love her.”
                Deep in his increasingly disordered mind, he doesn’t seem ready to admit to himself, or at least commit to the written page, his deep attraction to this “polluted” Tessa of his. A most confused muddle, as is his general bisexual ambivalence. Part of the great ongoing drama that played itself out in St. Moritz and led to the ultimate destruction of the God of the Dance.
                He is really wise to Dr. Frenkel and Romola and their plans to institutionalize him: “I feel in advance what will happen to me if God abandons me. I know that if God abandons me, I will die.” — And, of course, he was eventually abandoned by, or abandoned himself, or simply lost to God. — Take your pick.
                “I do not want to go mad and therefore will do everything for the sake of their (Frenkel and Romola’s) health.
                “Then that saddest bravado:
                “I’m not Nijinsky, as they all think. I am God in man.”
                And with great, if temporary clarity, writing of himself in the second person: “If people want to judge you, you will say that everything you say is said by God. Then you will be sent to a lunatic asylum.”
                He believes the voice of God speaks the simple truth to him:
                “God is beauty with feeling.”
                In the dance he passes this particular test of divinity with ease.


                A base reality seeps into his consciousness and his writing: “I can no longer trust my wife, for I have felt that she wants to give these notebooks to Dr. Frenkel to examine.” And with the threadbare dignity he tries to maintain here, and in his coming letter to Diaghilev: “I love my wife. She loves me, but she thinks Dr. Frenkel is God. Dr. Frenkel is not God. I am.”
                The Diary has a precious, even sacred value to him:
                               “I cannot weep, for fear that my tears will fall on my notebooks.”
                Letter (within the text of The Diary) to Frenkel: “I know that I will be forced to go away. I know that my luggage is already packed.” — He is, finally, powerless against the forces arrayed against him. There is no one near who is for him, and he cannot muster the strength or focus to be for himself.
                “I almost wept when he [Dr. Frenkel] told me he was my friend.” Nijinsky will emphatically change his mind on this subject, but long after what may be considered the lowest sort of betrayal, and after the damage is irreparable.
                He is taking his meals in his room when Tessa leaves for her home in Vienna and he does weep. An isolated invalid in the mountain of Switzerland is what he has become. A sense of impending crucifixion — the aspiration and identification with Jesus — the sense that martyrdom was at least partially wished for. — And the other players, wife, Frenkel, summoned from Vienna mother-in-law, father-in-law, all ready to accommodate him.
                                              A ritual series of movements toward Zurich
                               and the grisly revelation of his fate.

                                              Why, we could set it to music
                               and make an even greater bloody dance.
                A dance to recapitulate the deadly truth he had revealed to the swells that Sunday afternoon at Survetta House, only longer, slower, leaning toward the infinitely, inevitably malign.
                “I am a lunatic with a mind, and therefore my nerves are trained. I am nervous when I want to be nervous. I am not nervous when I must convince people I am not nervous.”

                The self-professed lunatic tells himself that he controls his own fate. — It is all in a moment — a puff of psychic smoke.
                “God is fire in the head. I am alive as long as I have a fire in my head.”
                                              The ragged burning fire
                                                  In the head of Vaslav Nijinsky.

                                              So scary and repellant to the world
                                                   around him. Scary and at times repellant
                                                    to him too, we can be quite sure.
                “I read The Idiot when I was eighteen and understood its meaning.”
                (The innocent, Prince Myshkin, destroyed by the perversity, evil cynicism around him.)
                “When I read The Idiot, I felt that the Idiot was not an idiot but a good man. I could not understand The Idiot because I was still too young. I now understand Dostoyevsky’s Idiot because people take me for an idiot.”
                The good/saintly man, Prince Myshkin, was vulnerable in ways that Nijinsky clearly understood and took as his own. Although he is struggling mightily to keep a tenuous grip on reality in this latter portion of The Diary, there are moments of great penetration. References to his struggling youth with his mother when the family lacked for bread and his early encounters with Diaghilev driven by necessity. Then incisively: “I know that nervous people are subject to madness and therefore I was afraid of madness. I am not mad, and Dostoyevsky’s Idiot is not an idiot.” — But Prince Myshkin is finally and permanently incapacitated by the homicidal predilections of the world.
                It is Nijinsky’s ambition to go to Paris (where peace talks among the great powers are taking place over the terms and conditions of the end of the great war) and help President Wilson and “Wilsonism” overcome the global madness.
                Largely self-taught, Nijinsky commented on the folly of harsh peace terms with Germany and correctly predicted a recurring catastrophe. He believed in Wilson and aspired to aid the American president in negotiating a just peace.

Letter to a Man —

                It was at this point, according to Acocella, the editor of the unexpurgated edition of the Diary, that Nijinsky broke off his narrative and began a series of letters to friends, to the President of the Council of Allied Forces, finally in letters fifteen and sixteen to Mankind and Jesus. The Wilson/ Baryshnikov piece Letter to a Man is concerned with the crucial ninth letter to his former lover, the impresario of the groundbreaking Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev. It has the salutation “To Man” and then “I cannot call you by name because you cannot be called by your name. I am not writing to you quickly because I am not a nervous man.” — (A sort of clearing of the throat in addressing the awesome personage who shaped his life and career and whom he has clearly not yet fully escaped.)
                Certain compare and contrasts he makes between himself and the man whose protégé and lover he was for five years before his marriage in 1913:
                “You are a man with intelligence and without feeling…. You want to destroy me. I want to save you.” He alludes to the nature of their past psycho-sexual relationship that began when he was eighteen and Diaghilev was seventeen years his senior. A past that for Nijinsky seems always to be in the present tense, “I know your tricks. I pretended to be stupid. I was not a kid. I was God. I am God within yourself. You are a beast, but I am love.”
                An avatar he insists, even during his humiliated, sexually exploited youth with Diaghilev and other wealthy Russian aristocrats. Then a series of variations on
                                              “You are mine/I am yours”
and a repetition of the basic accusation along with an odd declaration of fidelity:
                                              “You are the one who calls for death
                                              I am yours, but you are not mine.”
There follows a lengthy defense of his manhood that seems to stand against all that came before:
                “I am a prick, but not yours —
I am the prick, I am the Prick
I am God in my prick
You are a prick, but not the Prick
I can prick, prick
You cannot prick a prick (and we take this as heartfelt)
I am a prick in His Prick.”
       (A godly prick as it were).
                A last paragraph to Diaghilev in prose with a nursery rhyme-like “Sleep in peace, rockabye, bye. Bye. Bye. Bye.”
And the meant-to-be straight from the shoulder closing straight
                                                                                                                         Man to Man
                                                                                                                         Vaslav Nijinsky

                This all from a ghost letter that was never mailed, perfectly mirrors his spirit of futile defiance. — Although I may have been used as a woman and now find myself in terrible straits, I am a man, you see.
                In the theatrical reading of the letter, Wilson/Baryshnikov crucially omit that “Man to Man” sign off, for whatever reason. A letter to himself really, buried in the fourth notebook. Noble as well as damaged — from the dust of his degraded, poverty-stained, personal history.
                Later, in the Diary: “I noticed my mistake, as I wrote the name of god and of Diaghilev with a capital letter. I will spell god with a small letter because I want to make a distinction.”
                Wrenching himself back from the terribly mistaken apprehension that Diaghilev was godlike. A separation between that man and a god or God that he must make clear to himself. — Still so painful that at a certain point in time in their relationship, it was not at all certain that the powerful impresario was not godlike. — A distinction he must absolutely make now for the sake of his fragile sense of who and what he has become.
                Writing of an incident some years previously when he contracted typhoid fever and was helpless, he describes the process whereby he is persuaded that he must live with Diaghilev and be taken care of at the negotiated price of his body and soul.
                “I was afraid of Diaghilev and not of death.”
                Diaghilev took control of his life and would keep a tight hold until his precipitous marriage to Romola Pulszky in 1913 and the break. Of course, no need for the letter “To Man” or for the commentary if he were still not in his grip one way or another.
                He has a falling out with Romola and uses The Diary to air the essence of his grievance with her:
                “You have called Dr. Frenkel. You have trusted a stranger and not me…. He is afraid of showing his wife that he is nothing. Nothing, because everything that he has learned by studying is nothing…. I do not want to dance the way I used to, because all those dances are death. Death is not only when the body dies. The body dies, but the spirit lives. The spirit is a dove, but in God. I am God, and I am in God….You do not want to go on walks with me. You think I am ill. You think that because Dr. Frenkel told you I was ill.”
                He ends this letter in a devotional poetic form that devolves into a mystifying doggerel that must have frightened Romola even more. He leaves the house and heads for town, lightly dressed for the winter chill and with just a little money in his pocket. He sees Dr. Frenkel heading toward their house and realizes that Romola has called for him because his behavior has again alarmed her.
                “I went on with a bowed head as if guilty of something.” — Guilty of being fully alive — of knowing too much and too little.
                He looks unsuccessfully for some sort of shelter or lodging, goes higher and higher in the mountains, is near to freezing to death. He sees a horse being made to run uphill:
                “I realized that people urged horses and men on until they stopped and fell like stones. The horse and I decided they could whip us as much as they wanted, but we would still do what we liked, because we wanted to live. The horse walked and so did I.”
                He descends to the village of St. Moritz where Frenkel catches up with him and escorts him home.
                He again writes to his wife:
                               “I want to tell you that you are death
                                  and I am life
                               You do not love me you
                                  I love I love you”
                He has behaved toward her and perhaps others in the household in such a way as to make them think he is mentally ill. Perhaps a little rougher with the maid when he came in out of the cold than he lets on. His wife is weeping upstairs with Frenkel attentively at her side.
                Crucially, he writes “My soul is sick. My sickness is of the soul and not the mind.”
                In the whole sordid medical/psychiatric record that would be compiled over the next thirty years, and which is carefully examined in the psychiatrist Peter Ostwald’s A Leap Into Madness, there does not appear to have been anyone ready and able to engage with his soul, empathize with its loss of bearings — even speak to him in his own Russian language.
                “My sickness is too great for me to be cured of it too soon. I am incurable…. I am a man and not God ….I am God. I am a man. I am a man and not a beast.”
                Ends Book I ”The Book of Life” on Feb. 27, 1919 with the thought that he is seeking God and God is seeking him. On the same day he begins Book II ”On Death.” It will end on Mar. 4, about a week later, with his being taken to Zurich for psychiatric treatment and confinement that will last for most of the rest of his enigmatic and tragic life. Opening of the Death Book simple and terrible:
                “Death came unexpectedly, for I wanted it…. I have been told that I am mad. I thought that I was alive. They would not let me alone.”
“I am the God who dies when he is not loved.”
“People who have lost their reason are called extinguished.” — A crisis of will and belief.
                He calls himself a beast and a predator and wants to make love to prostitutes and live like an unnecessary man. — the sexual guilt comes from a mysterious place, the pressing against the boundaries of that guilt only natural. The desire to sink into the superfluous as in the underground of desperate characters in Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Gorky we’ll take to be intrinsic to his cultural patrimony.
                There are guilty admissions of lusts for animals, his daughter, his famous actress of a mother-in-law. The wish to be committed to an asylum.
                When his wife moved out of the bedroom they shared: “I am sorry for myself and for her. I am weeping. I am cold. I do not feel. I am dying. I am not a God. I am a beast.” —This is awful. – It is as if he is in the coils of those terrible twin serpents that strangled Laocoön and his children before the gates of Troy.
                                              I am God/I am not God
                                              (the lunatic conundrum)
                and the compelling question:
                                              Who and what am I really?
                                              What is a man?
                The question reverberates from that heartfelt bedrock letter to Diaghilev. —That terrible, frightening and unanswerable question that haunted Prince Myshkin as well.
                “I am a beast.…I have sharp claws.” He will tarry at home, drink alcohol and eat meat contrary to his instincts and Tolstoyan principles, this man/beast.
                Isolated in his room upstairs, he hears the conspiratorial murmur of his wife and newly summoned-in-a-crisis in-laws below.
                “I want to laugh, because I felt laughter, but I understood death and stopped.”
                That feeling from the deep well of the psyche that if laughter begins, it will not end — that consciousness will disintegrate, that the very self will dissolve until there is just that cosmic laughter in the void. —
                Rather like that night at Hong Fat’s Restaurant on Mott St. long ago when I scooped noodles from my empty bowl into a girl named Sally’s empty bowl. — A real endless howler if I let it become one, until I slowly chewed it on down to the acid truth and survived the rest of that infinitely slippery night.
                “I know what life is. I know what death is. The sun is reason. The intellect is an extinguished sun that is decomposing.”
                and presciently,
     “The earth is suffocating. There is not enough air for it.”


                “I know that many people will say that Nijinsky is a crybaby. I am not a dying man. I am alive and therefore I suffer.”
                               A tortured, persecuted cuckold,
                               An artist whose downfall
                                  Is being plotted as he lives and breathes.
                               Master of the truth of the dance,
                                  he is not a crybaby, although one
                                    must be made of stone not to weep
                               at what is to become of him.

                “I am afraid of intelligent people. They smell of cold. I freeze when I have a man with a brain next to me. I am afraid of intelligent people because they smell of death.” — Intellectuals divorced from their bodies and souls. Stilted, at least once removed from life as opposed to free creative individuals.
                                                             “God is not in icons. God is in the soul
                                              of man. I am God. I am the spirit.”
                And, of course, The Diary endures because it is, despite its anomalies, a strikingly real spiritual document.

                “People can kill me, but I will still live because I am everything. I want eternal life. I do not want death.”
                In summation:
                                              “I am the spirit in every man.
                               I am Nijinsky.”
                Baryshnikov gives tremendous Russian linguistic emphasis to these words in the play — as if the man Nijinsky were staggering under the monumental weight of his very name. — As if he were trying to create a whole being out of his fragmented psyche by the talismanic invocation of it. And this leads to another possible articulation of the “Nijinsky” of The Diary — soft, hopeful, fearfully, tentatively insistent in its iteration.
                He gets a fix on his physician/rival. Meat-eating, chain-smoking Curt Frenkel, a fresh knight in the great establishment citadel of sanity. Nijinsky writes that he hid his diaries in the piano “because I was sure that Dr. Frenkel would not understand them and take me for a madman.” Frenkel had taken courses in medical school with Dr. Ernest Bleuler who had originally coined the term “schizophrenia” for a variety of associated mental illnesses and the term “schizophrenic” would cling to Nijinsky over the years with much greater tenacity than precision. Frenkel would direct Nijinsky to Bleuler in Zurich and was, in fact, central to the drama being played out, but in the two books that would be published under Romola Nijinsky’s name about her husband and his history and condition, he is never mentioned once. There is a picture of him at forty in the Acocella edition of The Diary. Rather dapper in suit and bowtie, with his eyes downcast and his manicured hand to his mouth. Conventionally handsome. Not capable of comprehending, it seems to me, who and what he contributed to destroying.
                Of his in-laws, the other players in the crisis enveloping the Nijinsky household, he writes, “I am afraid of Oscar and Emma. They are both dead.” Emilia Markus and her second husband Oscar Pardany already have a complicated history with their son-in-law in Budapest, when he was confined as an enemy alien in their home for eighteen months during what we now call World War I. No thanks for what passed for hospitality when he, Romola and their daughter Kyra are sprung on a special visa to the then neutral United States for a tour with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1916. Very little goodwill toward their troublesome son-in-law and Nijinsky certainly felt and returned the chill.
                Frenkel’s loyalties compromised as he administers tranquilizers and prepares his patient for transport to Dr. Bleuler. Romola, semi-hysterical, servants openly weeping as they go to and fro. The stage is set.

The Night Before Zurich —

                A comment that Nijinsky made in his Letter To Man: “I like people. Dostoyevsky liked people. I am not an idiot. I am a human being.”
                In The Idiot, the argumentative character, Ippolit, finds no contradiction between Prince Myshkin being extremely intelligent and “an idiot – without doubt – after all is said and done.” And that is the thing about idiots and holy men. — Men who cannot help being who they are. — As opposed to ordinary men who mold themselves to circumstances.
                Nijinsky (nearing the end of his diary): “I want to describe my life as an artist.” He proceeds to discuss his masturbatory habits from age nineteen, Paris “tarts” and “Jeux”, his early ballet involving the flirtatious play of two young women and a man. He states that the ballet was based on Diaghilev’s repeated fantasy of making love to two boys at the same time, which he found repellent. He details his interactions the day before with his mother-in-law. Finds her very clever, although he clearly loathes and fears her. Says she reminds him of Diaghilev. A wicked woman he wishes removed from the face of the earth. But for all the loathing, we wonder if he considered for a moment the deep concealed truth that she and her husband Oscar were there to do Romola’s bidding. – To help in the work of his removal at her request.
                Then, in a note of terrible resignation: “I know that I must go to Zurich tomorrow and will therefore go to bed now.” At this point, we feel at both a visceral and rational level, he knows that he is going to his doom. — Somehow powerless to prevent it. As if his will is paralyzed, and he is to be a spectator at his own crucifixion.
                A fatal entanglement with Romola that would turn into a mad indifference and rage over the years of his coming confinement. How could he have been so helpless in dealing with the stilted, materialistic woman that she reveals herself to be in the biographies that she would subsequently publish about her husband? His dreadful entanglements with God and his old lady, his stumbling block of a self.
                Then the awful pre-arranged moment:
                “My wife came to me,” he writes “and told me that I should tell Kyra I would not be coming back…. I said if she was not afraid of me I would not remain in Zurich, but that if she was afraid of me I would prefer to be in a lunatic asylum because I am not afraid of anything.” — And we know that he wholly loved and doted on Daughter Kyra and that Romola was a cold-hearted and indifferent mother on her best days. We have her own words for this as well as Kyra’s testimony. — Yes, innocent he was and self-sacrificing to the point of martyrdom, this transcendent artist of whom the critic and eye witness, Cyril Beaumont, wrote, “Always he appeared to be part of a race apart, of another essence than ourselves …”
                As The Diary closes, he again drifts into his political obsessions, his feeling that Britain’s Lloyd George is the villain of the negotiations in Paris and that Woodrow Wilson represented man’s better instincts. For some reason believes that France’s Clemenceau, the most implacable advocate for punitive peace terms with Germany, will translate his written pacifist sentiments into French when he sees them.
                “I will show Lloyd George that I am man-God. Come on out. Come on out and fight with me. I will defeat everyone. I am not afraid of bullets and prison. I am afraid of spiritual death. I will not go insane, but I will weep and weep. I am a man. I am God.”
                That on-going debate with himself whether God/god is upper or lower case.
                               Man/God                               God/god
                Nearing the end of the Book of Death with Zurich looming over him and he raises the stakes: “I feel the Earth is suffocating, and therefore I ask everyone to abandon factories and obey me. I know what is needed for the salvation of the earth.”
                I am the Divine Savior. I am Nijinsky and not Christ. I love Christ because he was like me.”
                Is there a formula here? Every humiliation, threat to his manhood, danger of obliteration leads to more grandiose claims of divinity, prophetic vision. — And, of course, humanly, in the midst of a drowning confusion, he saw and intuited a great deal. — The callous slaughter of mankind and the indifference of the idle rich, the desecration of the living planet. There is also a question as to how he experienced his own on-rushing disintegration and the betrayal that went along with it.
                The end of the Notebook On Death:
                    I will go now ……………..
                    I am waiting ………………
                    I do not want ……………..
                “I will go to my wife’s mother and talk [is he actually looking for mercy from her and her crew?] — because I do not want her to think that I like Oscar more than her. I am checking her feelings. She is not dead yet because she is envious.”
                Oh, how wistful and lost he is in what is called a state of madness. — Cold blood and stone and barely a human twitch around him. — A man who could see, feel, create from the deepest part of himself.

The Idiot

                Prince Myshkin on the moments before his epilepsy seized him:
                     “Thinking of that moment later, when he was alright again, he often said to himself that all of these gleams and flashes of the highest sensation of life and self-consciousness, and therefore also of the highest form of existence, were nothing but disease, the interruption of the normal condition: and if so, it was not at all the highest form of being, but on the contrary must be reckoned the lowest.”
                Nijinsky’s mental illness, certain far-seeing aspects of it, pose a similar paradox —
                The epileptic “idiot” / the lunatic seer who identified closely with his fictional counterpart.
                               Studies in aspects of the nature of innocence.


                He will go now – the next morning, Nijinsky and Romola, his son-in-laws and Dr. Frenkel are off to Zurich and the fated meeting with the pioneering Dr. Bleuler. As he is trundled into a railroad car for the four-hour ride and as the wheels clack on the railroad bed, does he remember his summary lines written to his friend, the Uruguayan diplomat and writer Andre de Badet:
                “I am a man for God. I am a man for him. I love Him very much. I am a man. I am a man.”
                                              Like a rebellious and insistent Delta blues singer
                                              in an abyss of oppression and humiliation: I’m a man.
                                              Whatever else they try to make of me,
                                              I’m a man!


Flight — Ancillary

                                              “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.”
                                                                                           — J. Acocella
(A professional intellectual’s lame-ass aperçu.)
                The great athletic leapers — Michael Jordan and those who came before and after him — all created at least the visual effect of a pause at the top of their jumps. Nijinsky also seems to have believed that he took a brief rest at his apex before returning to the ground.

My own dreams of levitation:
                1) I would rise and incredibly, by a terrible act of will, stay two feet or so off the ground until I felt my head and heart would burst, then would wake up before sure death.
                2) A basketball in my hands, I would rise and pump and double and triple and quadruple pump, ready to shoot my jump shot — just treading air and for some unfathomable reason unable to get the shot off.
                There could have been holy dreams of levitation on Nijinsky’s part, but I do not believe that he deliberately left himself hanging. No one would wish to deprive himself of the sheltering truth of the earth like that for the rest of his mortal life.


All Nijinsky quotations are from The Diary of Vasllav Nijinsky, Unexpurgated Edition, Trans. from the Russian by Kyril Fitzlyon. Ed. Joan Acocella. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999.

Ivan Klein has published a book of poems, Alternatives to Silence, from Starfire Press and a chapbook, Some Paintings By Koho and a Flower of My Own, on the Japanese brush painter Koho Yamamoto from Sisyphus Press. He has been published in Leviathan, Long Shot, Flying Fish, The Jewish Literary Journal, and featured in Forward. He has been anthologized in the April 2015 Holocaust issue of the Poetry Super Highway. His most recent publications are in Urban Graffiti and Arteidolia.
previous page     contents     next page


Post a Comment

<< Home