I would believe only in a god who could dance.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra.
This is one of Nietzsche’s most famous quotes. Like a catchy tune, it sticks effortlessly in the memory after one hearing. Perhaps this is only because it conjures up such a silly image. I imagine the God of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, bearded and robed, skipping and dancing from cloud to cloud, filling heaven with capricious laughter.
But why is this image so silly? Why was Michelangelo, along with so many others, inclined to picture God as solemn, grave, and frowning? Why is a dancing deity such a paradox?
A true god would have no need to be serious and severe; those values are for stern parents, Sunday-school preachers, and ruler-snapping teachers. I know this from my own teaching experience: Putting on a strict, frowning, joyless countenance is a desperate measure. Teachers do it in order to reduce their yapping, fidgeting, giggling, scatterbrained kids into hushed, intimidated, obedient students. But would a god need to resort to such scare-tactics?
This observation is part of Nietzsche’s aim, to resuscitate the Dionysian in European life. By Dionysian, Nietzsche meant the joys of passion, disorder, chaos, and of creative destruction. The Dionysian man identifies with the stormy waves smashing the shore, with the lion tearing into its prey. He is intoxicated by earthly life; every sensation is a joy, every step is a frolic.
This is quite obviously in stark contrast with the Platonic ideal of a philosopher: always calm and composed, scorning the pleasures of the body, worshiping logical order and truth. A true Platonist would never dance. Christianity largely adopted this Platonic idea, which found ultimate expression in the monastic life—a life of routine, celibacy, constant prayer, scant diet, and self-mortification—a life that rejects earthly joys.
I have found myself thinking of this quote because I recently went to a dance club, something I seldom do. Now, at least in theory, I consider myself more of a Nietzschean than a Platonist when it comes to dancing. I don’t see any reason why it should be scorned. And yet every time I get into a situation where I need to dance, I find it distasteful.
The whole thing is a physical ordeal. There must be a better way to find a mate. Behind a booth, a DJ stand there (this one was a middle-aged man, clean-shaven), his head bobbing under the weight of headphones that look more like earmuffs, digitally splicing together song after song, which blare and pound on the strained speakers.
The sound waves bounce off the floors and the walls, creating a super-charged intensity in the atmosphere that makes every molecule in your body vibrate uncomfortably. Conversation is impossible. Men and women shake, jiggle, step rhythmically to the left and the right. None of them are sure what to do with their arms: some arms thrash about haphazardly, some hands are tensed into tight fists. A few are good dancers; the rest are ridiculous.
A few of the men come on rather strongly; they do nothing but prowl around the women, looking for openings. Most of this sort are not the most impressive specimens. Meanwhile, it is hot. Every bouncing body is covered in sweat, and occasionally you’ll get whiffs of the odor.
In short, I find it a bit ridiculous. My usual inclination is to stand in the corner, sipping a drink, wryly observing. But that’s anti-social. So I try to make myself dance. Usually, however, I am far too sober and aware of my surroundings to take any pleasure in it. I would rather have a conversation and learn about somebody else than stand there and bob next to them.
There have been times—not many, but a few—where I have successfully overcome my initial distaste. I need to be in a very specific mood, when I am simply tired of thinking, full of energy, and comfortable with my surroundings. And I admit, I had a good time dancing. I wish I could access this state of mind more consistently. I don’t like being so judgmental, delicate, and self-conscious (seeing everyone around me looking so silly makes me feel silly too). But no matter how hard I try, usually I can’t make myself enjoy it. So I do like I did the other night: I go home.
I don’t think Nietzsche did much dancing himself, anyway. Like him, I’d rather write.