Turin, January 1888—a dreary month, even in Italy. Candida Pino is doing her rounds of the inn she keeps with her husband, Davide. She hears odd noises coming from the room of one of her lodgers. She knows she shouldn’t, but curiosity gets the best of her—she leans down and peers into the keyhole. Inside, she sees a naked man prancing around in a state of rapturous ecstasy. Who is this wild dancer? You know him as the guy who said “God is dead.”
Actually, what he said was, “If they want me to believe in their God, they’ll have to sing me better songs… I would believe only in a God who knows how to dance.” It’s shocking, right? Nietzsche, that gloomy nihilist, frolicking around naked, on the hunt for “fellow revelers [to] lure into secret alleys and dance floors”? If you’re like most people, you think of him more as Debbie Downer than blissed-out Brahmin—thank you, brooding undergrads and tortured denizens of the solemnity-is-a-prerequisite-for-seriousness world. Campus clichés notwithstanding, this perception has mostly to do with Nietzsche’s anti-Semitic sister who, after her brother’s death, deliberately isolated his ideas from their context in service of ideologies to which Nietzsche himself had no affinity. Sure, by quoting selectively, it’s possible to see him as a sinister anti-democrat. But 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. “Learn to laugh at yourselves,” exhorts Nietzsche, “as you ought to laugh!...Though there be on earth swamps and thick melancholy, he who has light feet runs even across the mud, and dances as upon well-swept ice.”
Nietzsche’s philosophy is life-affirming, not nihilistic. His famous rejection of Christianity is not so much a rejection of Christian morals as Christian repressiveness, especially regarding the pleasures of the body. Instead of praying, advises Nietzsche, the best way to start the morning is “to think how one can give joy to at least one person that day.” How sad, then, that he exists in the popular imagination as such a party-pooper. Camus was right: “We shall never finish making reparation for the injustice done to him.”
But let’s try anyway, OK? Because, especially in this dismal geopolitical climate, we would all do well to take a page out of Nietzsche’s book. Though what, exactly, is a Nietzsche book? His works defy easy placement. Are they philosophical tracts? Plot-driven novels? Outpourings of manic energy? Whatever they are, they’re filled to the brim with dancing—dancing Dionysian revelers, dancing satyrs, dancing ladies and men and children of all stripe and color.
Nietzsche considered it folly to believe that the material body is a physical thing that exists independently of the mind or spirit. “Soul is only a word for something about the body,” he insists. Even thinking—philosophizing—is a physical activity: “thinking wants to be learned as dancing wants to be learned, as a kind of dancing.” His language, too, is physical—it sings, it shimmies, it flashes. It is full of color; it luxuriates in texture. “My style is dance,” said Nietzsche. “It plays with all kinds of symmetries then leaps over them and mocks them! That is true right down to the choice of vowels.” No surprise that this lover of bodily ecstasy should privilege the lyrical over the discursive. He wanted his words, like his Zarathustra, to move on light feet, to leap over their traditional limits, to transcend their conventional meanings. Consider the following passage—can you imagine anything like it from Kant or Hegel?
Be like the wind when it rushes forth from its mountain-caves: to its own piping will it dance; the seas tremble and leap under its footsteps. That which gives wings to asses, that which milks the lionesses: Praised be that good, unruly spirit, which comes like a hurricane… Praised be this spirit of all free spirits, the laughing storm, which blows dust into the eyes of all the dark-sighted and melancholic! You higher men, the worst thing in you is that you have, none of you, learned to dance as you ought to dance—to dance beyond yourselves! What does it matter that you have failed? How many things are still possible! So learn to laugh beyond yourselves! Lift up your hearts, you good dancers, high! higher! And do not forget good laughter!
Nietzsche’s own exposure to dancing seems to have come primarily through reading. He was a great lover of the Greek classics, declaring himself a “disciple of the philosopher Dionysus,” that mad, drunken hedonist. Whether he himself actually danced is a question to which there is no definitive answer. He certainly never studied dance as an art form, which at the time meant classical ballet. Maybe he danced folk dances as a boy while vacationing at his mother’s country estate; maybe he even learned social dances like the waltz as a university student. But dancing was no proper occupation for a Christian child, certainly not one intended to follow in his father’s footsteps as pastor of a Lutheran Church.
Besides, it doesn’t seem likely that Nietzsche would have been drawn to waltz or ballet. For him, dancing was a form of freedom—a far cry from the constraining movements of those formal dances. What’s more, he viewed it as an essentially solitary activity. For Nietzsche, virtue is something best elaborated in solitude; the virtues exemplified by the dancing Zarathustra are very much the virtues of a hermit. It’s much easier to imagine Nietzsche dancing alone in his Turin boarding room—spastically, euphorically—than to imagine him at a staid society ball.
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. And who is to say this image is false? When Signora Pino saw Nietzsche dancing naked through the keyhole, she summoned a local doctor to examine him. “Pas malade! Pas malade!” cried the philosopher—French for “not sick.” This incident is usually considered the beginning of Nietzsche’s notorious descent into madness, but the patient himself teaches us how to read it more accurately: “and those who were seen dancing,” he writes, “were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
Jenna Krumminga is a freelance writer based in Berlin and New York. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Virginia and is currently enrolled in a doctoral program in History at the CUNY Graduate Center.