Monday, November 18, 2019

The Diary of a Mad Dancer: Nijinsky in Praise of Mistakes

Adam Phillips

Psychiatry has been so demeaning when it has sought to classify those people who have suffered most acutely throughout their lives from spurious classification: At its best, it misrecognizes those who have the most to tell us about misrecognition. If Joan Acocella, in her useful introduction to this extraordinary book, can agree unreservedly with psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler’s description of Vaslav Nijinsky–”confused schizophrenic with mild manic excitement”–it may be partly because we still can’t find good enough analogies for what the people who disturb us most are like. To treat the so-called mad as oracles is as diminishing in its own way as scapegoating them.

Now that the agony and the tedium of “madness” are evident, now that its waste is recognized as often being in excess of its revelations, it may be just the right time for this first, and excellent, translation of Nijinsky’s complete diary. Where previously we had his wife’s understandably expurgated edition, here we have Nijinsky with his shames intact, as it were. “Nijinsky,” Ms. Acocella remarks, “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 11-minute ballet, The Afternoon of a Faun , plus some photographs.” The erotic mystique of choreography–moving and placing bodies, relinquishing words as the medium of contact–combined with Nijinsky’s inspired instincts as a dancer, made him instantly fascinating to people. But as the Diary poignantly shows, this very fascination also made people inattentive to him. As a dancer he was famous for his jumps, those long pauses that seemed to defy gravity (in both senses); his “madness” at 30 seemed of a piece: Such daring and poise could never be sustained.

The consoling myth of genius–fantasies of hubris and punishment that make us lump together the inspiringly mad (Friedrich Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud, etc.) because their extreme singularity, their extreme worldliness stuns us–the myth is usefully exploded by even the most cursory reading of the Diary. The jumps in Nijinsky’s writing, the mixed magic of transitions, the way he moves the reader through to a climax of nonsense, are themselves a subtle commentary on the forces of progress (and profit) that had driven Europe into the devastations of the First World War. The Diary, that is to say, is not in any puerile sense a case history; begun in the immediate aftermath of the war and recording Nijinsky’s spiral into 30 years of invalidism, it is rather a dramatic monologue of a remarkable man devastated by his world. It often sounds like "The Wasteland" but written by Feodor Dostoevsky.

The Diary is at once insistently tedious in its obsessions and endlessly fascinating in the cunning of its artfulness. Nijinsky intrigues us and puts us off–indeed, he intrigues us by putting us off, as though all the time he were daring the reader to be sufficiently interested in him, to find out what will happen if we follow him. The Diary, in other words, is clearly written by someone who knows that those around him–mostly his wife and her parents, his daughter and his doctor–are beginning to think of him as mad. It is the text of a terminally scrutinized man, a man adored as a great dancer who is gradually becoming the object of a different kind of concerned attention. So it is perhaps not surprising, given the glare of specialness he has lived under, that the abiding preoccupation of the Diary is what people want from him. He is writing about the paradoxes of perfectionism.

It is a book by a perfectionist, in praise of mistakes. “When everything I am now writing is published, with its mistakes, I will correct it all. I wanted it to have mistakes and therefore put them in on purpose.” It is part of the wonderful logic of this that he can have it both ways by acknowledging that he can’t have it both ways. He tells us he believes in his mistakes, but he will eventually correct them–without telling us what they are.

There is a terrifying shrewdness about his logic. He writes like a man who has understood his audience so well that he can no longer perform for them. As though what they want from him reveals something impossible about wanting. “I like mistakes,” he writes in one of the letters that the Diary turns into, “because I want people to understand me. If I write without mistakes, people will think that I am a madman.” What people “understand” is imperfection, vulnerability; and yet now he must calculate his mistakes to assure people that he is not mad. In this self-protective second-guessing of the audience, he is no longer free to make genuine mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes, people give up on trying to understand you, so you are mad. “I am,” he writes, “a Napoleon who forgives mistakes.” This is the ordinary megalomania of so-called madness, but of an unusual subtlety.

When Nijinsky is God in this Diary , as he is all too often (“I am God. I am the spirit. I am everything”)–it is always nuanced by his interest in error, by his sense that perfectionism is a form of hatred. If God, by definition, doesn’t make mistakes, then He is mad. “I like perfecting things,” Nijinsky writes as a virtual God, “I do not like things.”

If you like perfecting things, it means you don’t like them. Nijinsky’s life seems to have been a chronicle of people–from his mother to Sergei Diaghilev to his wife–who urged him on to perfection. Dance was the only place, apart from this Diary , in which he could explore the terrible nature of their demand. It is not, therefore, incidental that this unexpurgated translation of the Diary reveals Nijinsky’s seemingly compulsive and (to him) shameful obsession with prostitutes (an obsession his wife air-brushed out of the version she published).

Having once felt like Diaghilev’s tart and having sought out prostitutes when he was touring in Paris with the Ballets Russes, the prospect of being sent to Zurich by his wife for psychiatric treatment brings one thing, above all, to mind: “I will not be writing in Zurich,” he writes, “because I am very interested in that town. I will go to a brothel because I want to have an intuitive understanding of tarts. I have forgotten tarts. I want to understand the psychology of a tart.” Nijinsky knew that what he needed to understand–or rather, to remind himself of–was the psychology of the prostitute. And he knew that this was the key to understanding not merely his own predicament, but also the mad “materialism” of prewar and postwar Europe that he so despises in the Diary . It was as though Nijinsky somehow realized that the response to him as a dancer was itself a symptom of something larger and more daunting. And once he could no longer use dancing to explore the problem his dancing had exposed, he had two options: conversion to a then fashionable Tolstoyism (spiritual vegetarian pacifism) or the (almost) muted violence of madness. His devout Tolstoyism couldn’t stanch the wound created by the image everywhere of the exploited body. The Diary becomes a last eloquent rant of the once-poised body finally humiliated.

“I am,” Nijinsky writes, “a simple feeling that everyone has.” Read for the unadorned poignancy of his predicament, or for the intricate canniness of his “mad” logic, the Diary is an extraordinary work, like a novel by Thomas Bernhard. The rhythm of its obsessions is integral to its power–it is, again, a dramatic monologue and could easily be performed as such.

The struggle to articulate is always a kind of madness. Nijinsky may have had to actually go mad because there was no one in the vicinity who could even acknowledge that fact. “The man who is right,” Nijinsky wrote, “is the one who feels but does not understand.” Music and dance make one believe this to be true; but the fascism that followed on from the war made that kind of truth horrifying. Nothing could be at once more belated, or more timely than this remarkable Diary.

Credits:  This book review of The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, unexpurgated edition translated from the Russian by Kyril Fitzlyon, edited by Joan Acocella (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) was originally published in Observer in 1999.

Monday, November 4, 2019

‘She was right to regard me with contempt’

Richard Pithouse

Pablo Neruda wrote in green ink, usually on a rough-hewn wooden table. From unremarkable provincial origins in Temuco, “the farthest outpost of Chilean life in the southern territories … where the rain fell, like long needles of glass snapping off on the roofs”, a tall, shy boy wrote himself, Chile and Latin America into the world.

Rodolfo Opazo

In 1924, at the age of 19 Neruda had written what is now the most popular volume of poems yet published in Spanish — Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. The 1994 film Il Postino made it hugely popular in English translation and launched a relentless avalanche of attempts at seduction involving reference to “sad nets” cast into “oceanic eyes”, and break-up emails with the subject line “Tonight I can write the saddest lines”.

Gabriel García Márquez affirmed Neruda as “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language”. Neruda’s weight as a writer is such that one doesn’t have to set out to read Neruda to encounter him. Neruda is the Poet in Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits.
His influence can be heard in the lyrics of the debut Juluka album, Universal Men, first released in 1979. In The Simpsons Lisa quotes Neruda, reads Jean-Paul Sartre and listens to Miles Davis.

Neruda had a portrait of Walt Whitman hung in each of his three homes in Chile. In his home in the village of Isla Negra, above the Pacific, he kept three photographs on a table set against a window — Whitman as a young man, Whitman as a greybeard and Arthur Rimbaud at 17, a picture taken seven months after the slaughter of the Communards in Paris.

Neruda bought every copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that he came across, and owned a first edition from 1855. He sought to do for the South what Whitman had done for the North. He wrote Latin America into the world with an extraordinary sense of the marvellous, an emerald perspective of buried jaguars, subjugated snows, torrents of sunbursts, and an abundance of roots and moons — the moon scarred, quartz, crystal, hot, cool, white, red and moist. Neruda wrote beyond his home, his name and his language, and into “the oneness of the ocean, a generous, vast wholeness, a crackling, living fragrance”. He wrote to give dignity to the ordinary — to the tomato, the lemon, salt, a rooster, a large tuna in the market, the light on the sea, a gentle bricklayer, a woman gardening and an aged poet.

Neruda read in factories and, from Santiago to Sao Paulo, in stadiums. In 1971 he was awarded the Nobel prize for ‘”a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent’s destiny and dreams”. In his acceptance speech he affirmed his affiliation to Rimbaud’s vision: “In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid Cities”. He declared that his “duties as a poet involve friendship not only with the rose and with symmetry, with exalted love and endless longing”, but also a “taking sides” with the “organised masses of the people” in struggle against the “condemnation of centuries” and for “justice and dignity”.

Neruda’s political commitment had begun to cohere during the Spanish Civil War. Before the war he lived, as a diplomat, in Madrid, in a suburb “with bells, and clocks and trees” in a house with ‘”dogs and children”, a house “called the house of flowers, because in every cranny geraniums burst”. He shared friendships with Federico García Lorca and César Vallejo. The war brought “dead houses”, “blood in the streets” and a “proletariat of petals and bullets, alone alive, somnolent, resounding’”. The execution of Lorca by the fascists in 1936 pushed him into open support for the Republic. In 1945 he joined the Communist Party.

Alain Badiou, the French philosopher, understands the poem “as diction of being”, or “the song of thought”. He observes that “some truly great poets ... have been Communists” and offers the example of Neruda along with Nâzim Hikmet in Turkey, Rafael Alberti in Spain, Edoardo Sanguineti in Italy, Yannis Ritsos in Greece, Ai Qing in China, Mahmoud Darwish in Palestine, César Vallejo in Peru and Bertolt Brecht in Germany.Badiou offers no explanation for providing a list made up exclusively of men, or, even on those terms, the striking omission of Aimé Césaire in Martinique.

Badiou affirms “an essential link between poetry and communism, if we understand ‘communism’ closely in its primary sense: the concern for what is common to all”. In the work of the great communist poets he discerns “the poetic desire that the things of life would be like the sky and the earth, like the water of the oceans and the brush fires on a summer night — that is to say, would belong by right to the whole world”. This formulation sits very well with much of Neruda’s work.

Many militants have taken the poem into struggle, and life around struggle. Che Guevara read Neruda to his first lover, at 17, and, throughout his life, often carried Neruda’s works, and gave copies of them as gifts. During the guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra Guevara read from Canto General, Neruda’s 10th collection of poems, and arguably his most ambitious, to his soldiers in the evenings. Before he left for Bolivia in 1966 Guevara recorded a spoken selection of love poems, mostly from Neruda, on to a tape recorder for his wife.

It is just over half a century since Guevara was wounded, and then captured, in the potato patch of a tiny Bolivian village. The next morning he was executed on the orders of the CIA. After a little less than a year in the mountains Guevara’s small group of guerrillas were not in a good state. When Guevara was captured the record of the contents of his backpack was brief — some film, a broken radio, a few maps, two diaries and a green notebook.

Guevara had bought the notebook when he was in Dar es Salaam in late 1966, to meet with Frelimo. In the notebook, transcribed in Guevara’s hand, were 69 poems by four poets. They included Nicolás Guillén, César Vallejo, and León Felipe, but the bulk of the poems were by Pablo Neruda. The CIA initially assumed that the poems must have been some sort of code. But, after frantic efforts to decode the notebook failed, they eventually concluded that there was no deeper meaning to be discerned in the green notebook beyond the fact that Guevara was the kind of man who takes poems into battle.

Neruda’s political commitments brought him into a decisive confrontation with history in 1970 when Salvadore Allende, a democratic socialist, won the presidency in Chile. On September 11 1973 a United States-backed military coup ended this experiment in democratic socialism, and Allende’s life. Neruda’s home was desecrated by the military, and 12 days after the coup, and Allende’s death, Neruda himself was dead. It is now thought that he may have been poisoned. His funeral became the last open demonstration in support of the deposed government.

In what has been speculated to be his last poem, published after his death, he wrote that his country was “on the naked edge of her knife”, enduring a time when “heroes hop around like toads”. His “last call” was “to the garden, comrade, to the pale lily,/ to the apple tree, to the intransigent carnation, to the fragrance of lemon blossoms,/ and then to the ultimatums of war”.

In life and in death Neruda has, like Pablo Picasso, been held to account for his support for Joseph Stalin. When Stalin died in 1953 Neruda wrote an execrable poem in his honour. Lines like “Stalin is the noon, the maturity of man and the peoples. Stalinists, Let us bear this title with pride” have been excoriated for what they are, doggerel written in service of an authoritarian counterrevolution.

But it is only since 2011 that, generally in entirely marginal spaces, Neruda has begun to be understood in terms of his own account of a rape he committed when he was a diplomat in what was then Ceylon in 1928. For almost 40 years the rape was simultaneously in plain sight and ignored as if it were of no consequence. Neruda gives an account of it in his memoirs, which were published after his death in Spanish in 1974, and translated into English in 1977.

He describes the woman who came to clean out his toilet each morning with all the rhetorical excesses of the most baroque Orientalism — she is simultaneously presented as a goddess and a wild animal, a being from “another existence, a separate world”. He writes that: “One morning, I decided to go for all, and grabbed her by the wrist ... The encounter was like that of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes open throughout, unmoved. She was right to regard me with contempt.”

As a growing global movement serves notice on the ubiquity of predatory forms of sexuality we must take full measure of the weight of the fact, a fact that an incoming tide of feminist courage has placed on the other side of silence and in plain sight, that no space or project is immune to its ravages.

The family, the church, the university, the arts, and many forms of real commitment to urgent dimensions of emancipation, offer no guarantee of sanctuary. For Frantz Fanon, a prospect “is human because conscious and sovereign persons dwell therein”. That always has to mean, without exception, women and men, and it always has to include, again without exception, public life and private intimacies.

Credits:  This article was originally published in 2017 in Mail&Guardian.  

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