“Dancing with Nietzsche” – Jack Maden


You may or may not be familiar with the below quotation. It bounds across the internet in meme form, usually laid over images of silhouetted people dancing at sunset… or on underground train carriages.

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music” — Nietzsche.

On a literal level, it’s a rather quirky observation. Nightclubs would look a little off if the music was muted – hordes of pissed-up punters bumping and grinding in silence, like there’s no bloody tomorrow…

With a bit of context and some deeper reading, however, the quotation points to an important and profoundly influential approach to thinking about the world – and our place within it.

Nietzsche is not an enigma

The very form of quotations – the apostrophes clothing the words before that combined hammer-blow of surname and full stop – fixes our attention, arouses our curiosity. Listen up brain, our eyes signal, this statement is followed by a mysterious, virtually unpronounceable surname, and therefore taps into an esoteric realm of knowledge and meaning that we must pay attention to.

‘Nietzsche’ thus appears as an enigmatic accompaniment to a lofty statement, an exotic brand, an unknowable badge of authenticity… when in actual fact, Friedrich Nietzsche (pronounced neat-cha) was simply a troubled German guy from the 19th century with a bonkers moustache and a brilliant mind.

Nietzsche wrestled not with obscure inaccessible esoteric realms. Rather, he simply attempted to unpack why we label some things ‘good’ and others ‘evil’, how these judgements are formed, and ultimately how we can transcend such categories to each fulfil our true potential and become the best possible version of ourselves.

Let’s return to our initial quotation, which is a good route into Nietzsche’s thinking:

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.

Those observing the dancers, Nietzsche says, cannot hear the music. The music here can seemingly represent anything – a particular idea, faith, desire – and the ‘dancers’ respond to it, feel it, appreciate it. The observers, meanwhile, untouched by what they cannot hear, dismiss those who respond to it as insane.

On reading the quotation we feel inclined to join the dancers and to condemn the judgemental observers for their ignorance: just because they can’t hear the music doesn’t mean that we are insane for dancing.

So, the take-home message appears to read thus: just because you don’t understand or respond to something, that doesn’t make it insane.

Now, why is Nietzsche spouting this sort of thing? The answer, in fact, might simply be: well, he’s not – for it is unclear whether he actually directly wrote our quotation at all. Indeed, a whole host of writers could lay claim to being its source.

That it is widely thought to belong to Nietzsche, however, is justified in that the attitude it expresses signifies a recurring idea that permeates his work. This idea emerges when we pair our quotation with something that Nietzsche wrote in one of his last and most read writings, Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist” — Nietzsche

This pairing – that not understanding something doesn’t mean you can dismiss or belittle it, and that there is no single or correct ‘way’ to life – reveals the core principles of what has come to be known as Nietzsche’s Perspectivism… [+]