Sunday 20 October 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Just before I started writing this post I realised that I was about to repeat myself. Yet again I was going to write how I was jogging the other night when I suddenly thought of something I’d read a few days before. I don’t like repeating myself, but I have noticed that most of the ideas I come up with for my posts arrive during times of physical exercise, whether that be riding my bike, jogging or walking.

So, the other day whilst out running a thought suddenly assaulted me. By which I mean that this mental intruder jumped out from a nearby bush, blocked my path, forced me to perform an emergency stop and delivered a storm of blows to my whole self for which I was, sadly, unprepared. The result was that for the rest of my run I was mentally bruised and desperate to avenge myself. I’m hoping that with today’s post I’ll be settling the score with the intrusive thought. You, fellow bloggers and readers, will the judges.

Nijinsky: mad genius or misunderstood creator?
An article that appeared in the London Review of Books recently (Half Snake, Half Panther by JamesDavidson) attempted to throw some light on the unfortunate fate suffered by the genius ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Charting his rapid ascension to fame as part of the Ballets Russes, the company directed by Serge de Diaghilev, the piece was not just an excellent analysis of Nijinsky’s achievements and misfortunes but also a good insight into the mind of the troubled artist. Especially, the artist gone mad.

Nijinsky’s final performance before being committed to an asylum took place at the Suvretta House Hotel in Budapest, Hungary. In front of an audience of two hundred people, the creator of L’Après-midi d’un faune, sat in silence staring at them. After half an hour he began to dance, but not to a set routine. His movements were unpredictable and wild. According to Mr Davidson, Nijinsky “laid a velvet cross on the floor and stood at its crosspoint with arms outstretched. He then proceeded to dance the First World War.” His encore saw him facing the wall and making strange movements.

Thus, Nijinsky’s “moment of madness” had arrived. Madness that had been accelerated by Diaghilev’s rejection of him when the latter found out the dancer had married the Hungarian socialite Romola de Pulszky (Nijinsky and Diaghilev had been in a relationship years earlier). Reading the article again for the purpose of this post I thought of a different reason for Nijinsky’s mental instability. My theory does not override James’s analysis at all; it merely expands on it. Besides, my totally unscientific proposition is based on what I’ve come to observe in and accept from what we have come to know as “the artist as a crazy genius”.

What if Nijinsky, like many other artists, had made an imaginary map, a map that signified the territory their art had created and struggled with the idea that not everyone would be able to navigate freely on that map? A piece of art, whether it is a choreography, a musical score, or a sculpture demands a rather intimate level of commitment from those to whom it is directed. When you, as an artist, are in the process of building this imaginary map, you must accept that between conception and completion, reality will set in and your map might look and feel utterly different to what you expected or believed it to be. This can be rather disappointing for many artists, but it becomes really frustrating if the audience (your audience) “gets lost” whilst traversing your map. For Nijinsky the answer to this question arrived on the night that he premiered The Rite of the Spring. We all know what happened that night at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. What is less known is that the audience didn’t have any problems with the musical score (after all, Stravinsky was able to play the entire piece a few days after without any interruptions) but with the choreography. Traditionalists were outraged, critics were divided over it and the attending public didn’t know what to think so many joined forces with the traditionalists. Unsurprisingly, Nijinsky fell out of favour with Diaghilev who thought the world was not ready for the former’s ballets. As a consequence Diaghilev spoke to the dancer’s sister, Nijinska, and asked her to advise her brother to take a sabbatical.

Was, then, Nijinsky’s madness partly a case of his art being misunderstood as opposed to mere pathology? If art lovers are used to a certain type of map, what happens when their cardinal points are dislocated? What happens if north suddenly becomes west and a desert is no longer barren land, but the depth of an ocean?

I am not suggesting that there is a causal link between madness and art (or vice versa as some of you will rush to say). Plenty of artists go through life without ever paying a visit to a sanatorium. However, the history of art is full of creators who, sadly, lost their minds for various reasons. Lack of acknowledgement at the time they existed has always been one of those elements. Art is not just an ability we possess, but also a skill we develop through life. A reader who rejects a writer’s ability to create an alternative map; a ballet enthusiast who refuses to engage with a choreographer’s futuristic vision; they are not merely stating an opinion (for opinions are there to be expressed freely since we all have them) but also violating – albeit unconsciously – the artist’s individual human experience. No wonder, some artists go mad. It is this dichotomy of creating, first for him/herself, and then including an imaginary public. Here, of course, I’m referring to those artists for whom there is no such thing as “target audience”. If you are an author or a musician who knows which levers to tweak in order to get a reaction – and acclaim – from your “crowd”, then, this post is not for you. If you, on the other hand, have drawn or are in the process of drawing your own map, Nijinsky’s tale is a cautionary one. Even if a little bit of madness in the arts world is welcome every now and then.

© 2013

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Tuesday 22nd October at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Thanks for the Monk on a sunday morning....and very interesting reflections on that fine line between sanity and insanity in the context of creativity...Greetings from Nice

  2. That's a very interesting post, I had sometimes wondered about the details of Nijinsky's mental instability

  3. They'd prob lock me away if they knew i pretended to be a cat and talk to myself in the third person lol

  4. Interesting (and -shameless plug- slightly resonant with my latest post!)

    I used to be a social worker. I came to the conclusion that often, when I wasn't sure what motivated someone to certain behaviours then often they weren't sure either.

    I warm to things experimental but I've always found Nijinsky's choreography to The Rite to be most odd - I think if I'd felt moved to boo at the first performance (which I wouldn't have)it would have been directed at Nij-, rather than Strav-insky.

  5. Interesting stuff.Maybe the audience has the pathology & the artist thinks s/he has the "cure"?

  6. An outstanding post and such a valid question.

    For my Masters degree, my theoretical section was on What is creativity? and I lean towards the school that *true* creativity - that is, creativity that forges new paths, paths in art never before trodden at the time (eg Van Gogh, Mozart, Virginia Woolf), not merely a creative talent that taps into the collective psyche with the right idea at the right time to become A Famous Artist - that kind of creativity which future times recognise as "genius ahead of its time" is linked to madness.

    Whether that madness is as a result of the rejection or lack of recognition from mainstream society or whether it is something within the artistic soul/mind which slips the shackles of what is called sanity (I'm thinking of French artist Séraphine de Senlis), I can't say - possibly a combination of both. Perhaps it's not they who are mad, but we mediocre souls who cannot fly to the heights that their genius takes them. But because they are so rare and we so many, sadly, too many creative geniuses are lost because they were too far ahead of their time.

    Nijinsky's tale is certainly cautionary, but if one is an artist wanting to write your own map, can you fear the consequences of exploring the unchartered territory of your unique creative vision?

    Isn't that inner drive to create a fire beyond your control, sometimes a fire that burns so brightly it both blinds those who watch it and destroys he (the artist) who fans it?

    Essentially I think there are many many brilliant gifted artists who become hugely successful in a variety of ways, but I think the truly original creatives, the ones whose vision touches and changes an unready world, are also those who must pay the price of what that world calls "madness".

    I'll get off my soapbox now.Sorry. This is a very interesting post!! :)

  7. I do think he was a misunderstood genius! Most genius is hard to understand, isn't it?

  8. i think there is a fine line between creativity and madness...we begin to see the world in different ways when we pay attention and it can be overwhelming..and i think when we start to challenge the acceptible norms it makes people they too...we to lock away that which challenges our beliefs and fundamentals....

  9. As the artist acts like a priest, bringing two worlds together, the seen and the unseen, he/she has to be in both worlds, helping to convey the unknown in known ways. We expect that fluidity to be always active. But what of the artist who is deep in creation, forgets his audience's need for translation, and lays out the unseen in its original state? Can he ask forgiveness from his audience? Can he return to translating after such a faux=pas?

    What is madness if not an inability or unwillingness to translate one's vision into the other's language?

    Much to think about in this post. Thank you for sharing your 'running' thoughts.

  10. I am sure that there is some truth in this, for some people. But not for all. Perhaps I am saying this because I am at present reading through a book of Van Gogh's life as told in his own words. It is clear that he had to behave the way he did because of reasons inside himself - madness, perhaps, but then he wasn't mad all the time. I actually don't think he cared about his work being misunderstood or unpopular. It was doing the work that mattered to him.

    Of course Nijinsky was a performer, so had to turn outwards to others in a way that Van Gogh did not.

    Interesting post.

  11. What a thought-provoking post today! (And what a story!) I do think that a lot of creative people (in whatever art) walk on the edge sometime. Thank you!

  12. Un buen domingo con esa buena música que nos dejas para recordar y disfrutar con ella.
    Que tengas un buen principio de semana y sigue tomando nota de tus ideas durante tus ejercicios.
    Un abrazo.

  13. Echoing everyone else here. I think that many artists (whatever their field) teeter on the edge of sanity. And that trying to explain what they are seeing/feeling/experiencing can push them over that edge.
    Being misunderstood is so alienating. Great thought provoking post. Thank yuo.

  14. This is a very interesting perspective. I think all creative geniuses are consumed with their craft. Many times that takes over their whole life and consumes them. They do feel misunderstood and may not understand why everyone can't see what they see.

  15. I am not so sure there is any definitive connection between art and madness or madness and creativity or any combination of those words. I think in many instances there simply is a chemical imbalance in people who "go off the deep end," so to speak. I think while there certainly are similarities in many examples of highly creative people "losing it" (whether involved in art or in other endeavors), each case needs to be examined and evaluated individually. In a sentence, it seems more like a problem with chemical juices than with creative juices.

    By coincidence, I have been reading about the actor Heath Ledger's final months. (Do not ask me why; curiosity, mainly, I guess, since I did not think he was gifted beyond the average film actor, simply more driven.) If there exists as detailed a record about Vaslav Nijinsky's problems (inability to sleep, for instance) during the periods he suffered significant bouts of abnormal behavior as there is of Ledger's last months, it might be found that the greatest difference between the two was the availability to Ledger of a cocktail of prescription drugs.

    I also think public adulation seems to be required in large doses among performance people, and not so much among novelists in the attics or painters in the lofts.

    This has been an enjoyable post, CiL, and a thought-provoking one. I wish I knew more about Nijinsky so I could form a more in-depth opinion. It also makes me feel badly not to have seen Nijinsky dance.

  16. An interesting essay. I think lack of acknowledgement is very difficult--especially as it also goes hand in hand with not getting financial support to make one's art. But I tend to think that artists are pretty sensitive people - and as such may sometimes be more prey to forces of instability. Of course, this is not always true, but I think that heightened sensitivity can make one more sensitive to pain and disappointment, but may also be itself a part of some mental illness! So some artists may be a little crazy from the start. Al interesting. Thanks much. (It was so interesting to learn about Nijinsky.) k.

  17. art and madness -- genius and madness - a thin line i think - refusing to think in certain norms and challenging ourselves to look at things from different angles - re-thinking - re-inventing - re-interpreting - it can take you everywhere

  18. A definite thought-provoker, this!
    Where does sanity end and madness begin?
    And is genius no more than a symptom of madness?

    Yes...I am left with more questions than answers today.
    Many thanks for expanding my brain! Haha:D

  19. Thank you all for your feedback.

    Interesting thoughts about van Gogh. I read somewhere that his madness (hallucinations mainly) was brought about by the syphilis he contracted when younger.

    I think imbalance is the right term for the condition some artists suffer. And adulation is sadly sometimes a side-effect of the (well-earned, in my cases) fame. There's much food for thought in this topic and I really appreciate all your comments.

    Greetings from London.

  20. Your ideas are always very insightful. I don't know why anyone goes mad and I think that even the person does not know. If someone had the answer, omg, maybe we could come up with a cure?



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