Whimsical article here by Jenna Krummings on Nietzsche and dancing, with prose of nearly Tarbettian quality. Excerpt:
He was, in any case, ill-suited to the activity. His health was extremely poor, and his energy often low. Many scholars have thus taken his exhortations to dance as metaphor—no, silly, he doesn’t mean it literally. But c’mon, someone who writes that beautifully about dancing has surely experienced its pleasures first-hand, especially someone so insistent on the flawed philosophical tendency to treat the intellect as separate from the body. This is, after all, the man who explicitly stated, “Every day I count wasted in which there has been no dancing.” Far more likely, in my opinion, is that people simply didn’t see him dance because he did it in private, alone. Several of his letters lend support to this theory.
Take, for example, a 1887 note to his friend Heinrich: “This morning I am enjoying an enormous benefit: for the first time a ‘fire-idol’ stands in my room—a tiny stove—and I confess that I have already performed a few heathenish hops around it.”
This is how I like to imagine him—alone in the mountains, performing heathenish hops like his great hero, Zarathustra.
5 thoughts on “Nietzsche the dancer”
“Nietzsche’s infamous Übermensch is not a hateful SS officer; he’s a somersaulting “free spirit” who has learned to rise above the staid morality and depressing herd-thinking of the masses…His famous rejection of Christianity is not so much a rejection of Christian morals as Christian repressiveness…”
But Nietzsche’s new man is a sort of SS officer, and putting him in clown pants doesn’t help. Nietzsche’s not tap-dancing. There is no row of painted ladies with short skirts kicking their legs. This isn’t Louis Armstrong tooting “it’s a wonderful world” or waltzing with Burt Bacharach. The tune he’s dancing to is something like this:
Like spiders weaving webs to catch prey, humans spin truth – reams and reams of it, all day long. Our ideas are biological extensions of a competitive lust for life, like claws or tongues or penises. Weblike values and morals are brilliant and often parasitic inventions, affirmed or denied only in their capacity to last – to hold up against the struggling of flies, or against other spiders. Truth is a dance of powers and drives.
The most delicious scenario for Nietzsche is two spiders becoming entangled – creates a more interesting web. Triumph and military glory are artistic jewels. And welcome to the real dance hall. Somehow we go quickly with Nietzsche from frivolity to spitting blood. This is no steamy samba; it’s a mosh-pit from which the weak are culled and trampled. The central value for the new man is hardness. Again and again he insists: hardness, hardness, hardness.
So let’s rethink joyous Nietzsche dancing around a little stove. On the one hand, he is someone who has learned to undo all his comfortable illusions to see the world’s real horrors – to openly view from a high mountain that long thread of history none of us have the psychological power to face wholly. He admires hardness for its ability to expand our understanding. We can love him for that, for the power of his eyes. Becoming harder to the world in this sense is part of maturity; it’s what “brooding undergrads” ought to be doing rather than playing on our phones. The author’s right that “we would all do well to take a page out of Nietzsche’s book.”
But she’s only half-right. The Dionysian joy comes from the fact the dancer has chosen – really chosen – not only to see the horrors, but to embrace them. We are no longer fighting wickedness; we are celebrating its value. That *is* the dance.
So we might reconsider thinking of jolly old Nietzsche cavorting around his sickbed as an old philosopher who’s just not taking himself seriously and having fun and eating cookies. There’s serious purpose.
He’s using unseriousness as part of a spiritual rebirth into a bigger, badder spider. A man with a sharp sense of humor about himself can overcome things others can’t, such as the very serious task of habituating new and interestingly evil experiments – the sort the old burden, conscience, formerly wouldn’t allow. Having the capacity to chuckle whimsically at the sharp blade of a knife cutting baby’s flesh is a virtue, as it transcends weak illusions with which historical man has grown up. A conqueror with a good sense of humor is more dangerous because he knows how to overcome objections put up by his learned seriousness.
So let’s all learn to dance and laugh? Really? This ain’t Mama’s jazz club.
For Nietzsche, joining in the dance is a rite of passage, a change in soul, a ritual in which someone passes from the nauseating hatred of blood, illusion and power, to their hurtful embrace and mastery. Laughing, dancing and somersaulting have a valuable part to play in becoming a bigger, badder, nastier spider, having appropriated a very novel and valuable sense of humor. Dance must have functioned for him as a sort of palliative or anodyne, as it does for all of us. But it’s hard to draw the line between a playful young Nietzsche with the philosopher. The latter’s dancing doesn’t seem to be quite as frivolous – it has very unfunny connotations of greatness.
Excellent, Tarbet! I knew you’d rise to the challenge. I think you are right that many readers of Nietzsche really want him to be a (mostly) harmless, joyous post-modernist, who is simply letting an intellectual chaos rule, where no one really gets hurt. But I think you are right that a darker chaos haunts his thoughts – he scares himself sometimes – and he expects his name to be associated with a great calamity (which it has been, though not the calamity he wanted). The dance is a dance macabre.
I’ll also add here “You are the all-singing all-dancing crap of the world” from Fight Club, not because it is relevant, but because I simply couldn’t resist adding it.
The romantics before Nietzsche are far more profound than he is. There’s something valuable in the love of darkness, nightmares, crags, fairy-tales, the moon, experiments gone awry (Frankenstein! Faust!) Nietzsche drew upon as ingredients in his weird Dionysiac vision. But he took a wrong turn away from romanticism somewhere. His is a different sort of darkness, and I think that’s what terrified him.
The old romantics were monists – God was nature, and nature may be chaotic and sublime, but nonetheless approachable. Nature is perceptible and understandable in evident ideals like Beauty and Love, witnessed in art, language, and human morality. This means poetry has purpose. “The whole world is alive, and all things are moral,” Emerson says somewhere, though many of his sentences like this hold the most weight on the fronts of old ladies’ fridges.
To Nietzsche that sort of drivel smells like baby’s diapers and the whiny slop you might overhear at a hot-dog stand at Bayreuth, so he throws out all ideals when he throws out Schopenhauer’s Platonism in disgust with Wagner. His ensuing chip on the shoulder – destruction of ideals and talk of power – took the poets’ interests away from ideals. His dance changes the beat. In fact, he kills the drummer.
The old romantics have the capacity for beauty and meaning, which many readers of Nietzsche (like the author of this article) want to plumb from somewhere in his philosophy, beyond his sophistic language. We all want to save Nietzsche from his own nightmares. The truth is that there is no capacity for real beauty anywhere, and the illusion of it lurks in his mastery of words. He replaces romanticism with words. Poetry isn’t possible for writers who fall to Nietzsche – there’s nothing left standing but language as power. He’s a pied piper.
Authors like Palahniuk and D.F. Wallace comment on the state of things, but their acid theatrics have nothing to add, really. Just dirt and ugliness and brief interviews with hideous men, like a pathetic literary gurgle. Art in a world without art. Like Fritz, they are dancers of a certain sort, the sort who enjoy fucking with social ideals due to a delight in meanness and irony. But they have none of Nietzsche’s lightning power, none of his reverence for ancients and contemporaries, nor his strange, polite demeanor as a vicious but gentlemanly enemy. They have vulgarity and nausea.
I miss the enlightened darklings enraptured by the unity of the cosmos, who had yet to have their rainbows drooped by Nietzsche’s humorless skepticism. In Shelley’s first stanza of Mont Blanc, there’s still reverence for something beyond perspective and power.
The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters—with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume,
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.
I’ll reply to your “Either/Or” with a “Both/And.” The romantic thinkers were offering a whole cosmos – tragic and frightening, perhaps, but a place with a certain order and dark beauty. But there are thinkers like Palahniuk and Wallace and Kafka and (in most of his moods) Nietzsche who find the so-called universe to be nothing but splinters and shards, and who laugh bitterly at our attempts to piece them together. I think we need to be able read and sympathize with both camps – yes, there is an ordered cosmos; and yes, nothing quite fits. As my new epigram has it, any philosopher who is not schizophrenic is missing half the story!
One analogy: it’s a table of great voices. Choking someone off and reducing the size of the table hurts everyone in the conversation. Every voice has some value. (Two farmers debating an interestingly-shaped cowpie has a part to play in the great conversation.) Part of the reason this century is so frightening is that so few people read anymore, so hardly anyone’s aware that there IS a table, much less that they are sitting at it. (We think Facebook is the table.)
The absurdists have a penchant for upturning the table, throwing a fit, shitting all over, and stomping out of the room entirely. It’s not long before David Foster Wallace has a gun to his own head. That’s why I think over-sympathizing with the worst of them is a dead-end. We can only breathe someone’s hateful spew for so long before we go, “Well, that’s really just a bunch of hopeless shit, get over yourself, life must go on” – even if that means we replace it with the empty, boulder-heaving groan of Camus or the embittered sigh of Vonnegut, the self-deprecating failed humanist doodling buttholes on the President’s face.
Another analogy: the “splinters and shards” materialists are manure scoopers. They are sharp agricultural tools, useful for digging up fallow ground hardened by long winters. But somewhere they get the idea that they *are* the field, that only thing there is to farming is churning soil. They never plant, they never reap. So it’s a surprisingly small role they play in a world where shit won’t stop growing.
At some point, their job overturning the old ways of thinking – criticizing – is done, and it’s time for them to shut up. Then the rest of the table has a chance to speak and create anew, knowing that the cycle will happen again. The creators are all more interesting than the scoopers.
Anyway, here are some lines from Wordsworth.
…For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Not harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and woul
Of all my moral being.