Session 7

[Serge Lifar: Nijinsky's Tombstone (Paris Montmartre)]

Lecture 7
Vaslav Nijinsky:
Diary (1919 / 1936)

Anthology texts to read:

  • Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950): from The Diary (1936 / 1999)
  • Richard Buckle: from Nijinsky (1971)
  • Lu Xun: "Diary of a Madman," from Cheering from the Sidelines (1918-1922)
  • Romola Nijinsky: from Nijinsky (1933)
  • Romola Nijinsky: from The Last Years of Nijinsky (1952)



I write about the things I have lived through and am not imagining anything. I am sitting at an empty table. In the drawer are all my paints. They have dried up, for I do not do any more painting. I have done a lot and made good progress. I want to paint but not here, as I feel death. I want to go to Paris, but I am afraid I will be too late. I want to write now about death. I will call the first part of this book "Life," and this part "Death." I will make people understand life and death and I hope to be successful. I know that if I publish these books people will say that I am a bad writer, but I do not want to be a writer. I want to be a thinker. Mind is life, not death. I write about philosophy but I am not a philosopher. I do not like philosophy because it is a whim of spoiled people. I am not Schopenhauer. I am Nijinsky. I am the one who dies when he is not loved. I pity myself as I pity God. God loves me and will give me life in death. I do not want to sleep. I am writing at night. My wife is not asleep either, she is thinking. I feel death.

I understand people. They want to enjoy life, loving the pleasures of life. All pleasures are horrible. I do not want pleasure. My wife will be frightened when she finds out that everything I write is the truth. I know she will be sad because she will think that I do not love her. It is possible she will not want to live with me any more, because she will not trust me. I love her and I will suffer without her. But my sufferings are necessary and I will bear them. I cannot hide the things I know. I must show the meaning of life and death. I want to describe death. I love it - I know what it is. Death is horrible. I have felt death many times.

I was dying in a hospital when I was fifteen years old. I was a brave boy. I had been jumping and fell. They took me to a hospital. There I saw death with my own eyes. I saw a patient foaming at the mouth. It was because he drank a whole bottle of medicine, which keeps one well, but if one drinks it all it makes one die and leave this world. Beyond this world there is no light, and therefore I am afraid of death and what is beyond. I want light, the light of twinkling stars. A twinkling star is life - and a star that does not twinkle is death. I have noticed there are many human beings who do not twinkle. Death is an extinguished life. The life of people who have lost their reason is an extinguished life. I have also been mad. I had lost my reason, but I understood the truth when I was left in St. Moritz - for I have felt deeply about things. I know it is difficult to feel when one is alone. But only alone can one understand feeling.

I know it is my fault that my wife is trying to calculate. I have told her not to do it, for all accounts have been settled. I want to go and have a drink and to eat and, after, to write down my impressions. I will write about all the things I see and hear.

I drank the whole bottle of mineral water. I want to live as I have lived before. After finishing this book I will do so. I want to write about death and therefore I must have impressions fresh in my mind. When a man writes about his experiences, this must be so. I will write about all my experiences I want to live through.

I know that everyone will be frightened of me and they will put me into a lunatic asylum, but I do not care. I am not afraid of anything, and want to die. I will be ready for everything. God wishes to improve life and I will be His instrument.

It is past one o’clock and I am still awake. People ought to work during the day but I work at night; tomorrow my eyes will be red. My mother-in-law will be frightened and will think that I am mad. I hope I will be sent to an asylum.

- The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky , ed. Romola Nijinsky, 1936 (Berkeley & LA: University of California Press, 1973): 98-100.

Some Possible Analogies:

Franz Kafka, Der Process [The Trial] (1925)
(English translation, by Edwin and Willa Muir, first published in 1935).

Jemand mußte Josef K. verleumdet haben, denn ohne daß er etwas Böses getan hätte, wurde er eines Morgens verhaftet.

[Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one morning.]

- a bureaucratic nightmare of confusion and mistaken identity.

[Woodcutter, commoner and priest]

Akira Kurosawa, dir. Rashomon (1950) - based on two stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa: "Rashomon" (1915) provides the setting, while "In a Grove" (1921) provides the characters and plot.

- multiple points-of-view on the same event contradict the notion of a simple, discoverable truth.

Why did Nijinsky's diary have such a wide vogue when it was first published in the 1930s? What precedents are there for a work of art composed on the very borders of sanity?

Henry Darger's outsider art might offer some possible comparisons also.

[Nijinsky's Diary]

Workshop 7
Diary of a Madman

“Maybe there are some children around who still haven't eaten human flesh.”
– Lu Xun: "Diary of a Madman" (1918)
from Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. 1911-1925. Trans. William A. Lyell. Honoloulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. 29-41 (41).

After a brief discussion of the prescribed texts, followed by any seminars which have been scheduled for this week, we'll move onto your responses to the writing exercise below:

Exercise 7:

"I have had a good lunch, for I ate two soft-boiled eggs and fried potatoes and beans. I like beans, only they are dry. I don not like dry beans because there is no life in them ..." Nijinsky begins his diary by discussing the taste and texture of beans and other foods. This exercise aims to recapture the intensity of childhood perceptions through the use of sense impressions.

  • Try to remember when you were seven years old. The exact age doesn’t really matter: we're thinking more of a stage when the world still seems new and strange, but babyhood is far behind.
  • Going through the five senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste – jot down one particular sound, texture, and so on that brings that time back to you. It can be pleasant or unpleasant: the taste of new bread or of cod liver oil. A few words are all that you need at this stage, just enough to jog your memory. Some people will relate to one sense more strongly than the others. It doesn’t matter if you have to leave one out.
  • After that, go through the sense impressions on your list, describing not only the details of texture, taste and so forth, but the associations they bring with them. Sometimes the sense impressions will connect with one another. The smell of sliced green apples might lead on to the taste of the pie, which, in turn, conjures up a Sunday morning and the noise of suburban lawnmowers.
  • If you put these sense impressions together, you will find yourself shaping anecdotes about them into longer stories. A student once recalled the smell of the canal, which reminded him of having to carry a large pane of glass through Salford for his father. Just by describing the feel of the glass, he was communicating some of the terror of being seven years old, at the illogical mercy of adults.

NB: This exercise was adapted from The Creative Writing Handbook: Techniques for New Writers, edited by John Singleton and Mary Luckhurst (London: Macmillan, 1996): 80-82.

Next week:

Exercise 8: 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird and Seminars on Jean Cocteau's Opium: The Diary of a Cure due.

[The countdown has begun ...]

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