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Dancing Towards Madness

By Elaine Cassel

The world-renowned Russian dancer and choreographer, Vaslav Nijinksy, was one of the first persons to be diagnosed with schizophrenia by Eugen Bleuler, the Swiss psychiatrist who coined the term. After what was his last public performance, Nijinksy began a journal-writing marathon that consumed most of the next 45 days and nights, ending on the day he became Bleuler's patient. Published now in its unexpurgated form, The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) is a window on the world of an artistic genius slipping into madness.

The year was 1919, and 29-year-old Nijinsky had taken up residence in St. Moritz, Switzerland to escape the World War I ravages taking place in his native Russia. For some time he had been exhibiting bizarre and often violent behavior, throwing his household into a state of turmoil. His wife, Romola, took him to Hans Frenkel, a medical doctor in St. Moritz, who, though not a psychiatrist, administered some word-association tests in an effort to diagnose Nijinksy's disorder.

On January 19, 1919, after a series of daily visits to Dr. Frenkel, and the night on which he gave his last public performance, Nijinsky began writing in a torrent of words that filled 381 pages. His neat penmanship was a stark contrast to the paranoia, grandiosity, and sexual obsessions of the text. In an ironic twist, the word-association tests opened up a whole new world for Nijinksy, who, up to that time, spoke rarely (some reports say he was virtually mute in social situations) and wrote even less. His mode of communication lay in his sense of kinesthesia, developed to genius proportions. His last entry was penned on March 4, 1919, the day he traveled with his wife and mother-in-law to the office of Dr. Eugen Bleuler in Zurich, Switzerland. The verdict: schizophrenia, a term newly coined by Bleuler. On that day began a course of hospitalizations and extreme therapies that would consume Nijinsky's life until his death of renal failure on April 8, 1950 in London, England.

Why did this virtually wordless man suddenly become consumed with writing? The psychodynamic approach suggests that the word-association tests unleashed a torrent of hitherto unconscious thoughts and feelings. The writing could have been a defense against the onslaught of full-blown madness. Nijinsky's mania, lasting 45 days and nights, fueled his recordation of obsessive, self-contradictory, and meandering thoughts about the disintegration of his life and mind, his thoughts and feelings about his wife and mother-in-law, and his experiences with art, religion, and the occult.

Nijinsky's diary ends with a mundane, unfinished thought, penned as his mother-in-law arrived to take him to Zurich. In a final ironic twist, his psychiatric treatment silenced the voice and the magnificent body from which it came.

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