The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, has a message for those of us in the twenty-first: radical love. While Nietzsche is not known for being overly emotive, at the heart of his project is a notion of love, or affirmation, so expansive that it says “yes” to “life” – all of it.
Why is this message for us? Nietzsche was struggling with issues not unlike those we face today. He was writing during the 1870s and 80s, when the newly unified Germany was celebrating its entrance on the global stage as a modern state; Germans were rushing to join other European countries in laying claim to the remaining spans of indigenous land around the globe, and plant pure Aryan communities. Nietzsche was appalled at the racism and the anti-Semitism that motivated these projects. He was appalled by those Christians who participated in them.
Nietzsche’s response: to teach a radical love of life. The affirmation he had in mind did not involve positive thinking or an optimistic attitude. It was not about seeing the bright side or finding the silver lining. To affirm life, for him, is to cultivate a visceral engagement with the creative energy of life so deep and strong that it overflows in feelings of extreme joy. The stakes were political, ethical, and religious.
This move to affirmation was neither easy nor obvious for Nietzsche. He lived with chronic pain. He suffered from headaches and nausea severe enough to keep him in bed for days at a time. His health was so sensitive to climate, that he moved between winter and summer, in search of enabling natural environments. He had no home. His one relief, when he could, was walking—preferably in the mountains.
So too, Nietzsche was not an outside observer of the German policies he abhorred; he was implicated. In 1885, his beloved younger sister, Elizabeth, his sole living sibling, married Bernard Forster a member of the German nationalist party. In 1887, the couple moved to Paraguay to displace indigenous peoples and found an Aryan, Nueva Germania.
Nietzsche railed against the hypocrisy of these German Christians—including his sister. The love they proclaimed extended only to Aryans—pure and white. The truth they proclaimed was otherworldly—abstract and distant. These Christians did not love all of earth’s creatures, nor the enfolded mysteries of our bodily sensory selves. As he writes in Zarathustra, “A state proclaims itself god. Dictates good and evil. Embodies the will to death. With a sword and appetites–as opposed to faith and a love, which unite a people” (160).
Here Nietzsche’s constant return to the idea of a radical, all-embracing affirmation—one that says yes to all life—is remarkable. It is not, as some readers have interpreted a nihilistic resignation to the inevitability of evil, as if evil will happen and there is nothing anyone can do except accept it.
What Nietzsche had in mind was the opposite of resignation: it involved flexing the sometimes small and subtle muscles needed to keep alive the faith, the resilience, and the strength not to act out of violence, pain, or fear. To love. And throughout his work, the human action that Nietzsche points to as a model for the nature and work and fruit of affirmation is dance.
Why dance? In his first book, published the year after Germany’s unification under Bismarck, Nietzsche explains. In an analysis of ancient Greek tragedy, Nietzsche identifies the dancing and singing of the chorus as key: they enable the harrowing narrative of the tragedy to deliver a paradoxical effect, and catalyze in spectators an affirmation of life.
How? “Elemental rhythms.” According to Nietzsche, the pulse and beat of the choral dancing stir spectators to the point where they feel compelled to identify viscerally with the ones who are dancing–the chorus. So moved, spectators experience their individual bodily selves as participating in a dynamic, creative ensemble that is eternal and ongoing beyond any particular person or loss. As Nietzsche writes of a spectator: “he feels himself a god.” Joy bubbles forth in an affirmation of all life—tragic, comic and everywhere in between. This joy comes from the sensory awareness of being a place where life is emerging, coming forth, to become what it will be. It is a sense that one’s own bodily movements matter.
By the time Elizabeth married Bernard, Nietzsche was teasing out the implications of this notion of affirmation for his time. Such affirmation, he thought, was decidedly lacking and desperately needed among German Christian nationalists as well as those who opposed them.
In his Genealogy of Morals, in a parable relevant today, Nietzsche describes two groups of people who embrace warring systems of value. On the one hand, are humans who are able to pursue their desires. These humans want to act and they can act and they get great pleasure out of acting. They are able to digest their experiences fully and not feel burdened by guilt or fear or remorse. They dance.
On the other hand are people whose desires are blocked and frustrated, who then turn against themselves and others, forbidding all parties from dancing. These people inflict violence on themselves, others, bodies, and the earth in the name of truth. And the law.
Both kinds of person, Nietzsche explains, believe in values—life-affirming or life-denying, respectively—that express and validate their physiological experiences of being able to move or not.
Yet Nietzsche’s point is not that readers must choose one system of values over the other. “We” cannot. “We” readers and writers in the modern world are always already both—free and blocked. For and against. We live what he calls a “physiological contradiction.” It is in our bodies. To choose one or the other would mean denying our responsibility–and thus our agency–in the ongoing conflict.
Rather than choose, Nietzsche exhorts, we must cultivate the kind of visceral affirmation stirred to life by the dancing of the chorus: a sensory awareness of our power as participating in an ongoing creative reality. We must greet whatever impotence we feel—not as a reason to inflict violence upon ourselves or others—but as an opportunity to go deeper, and find new sources of movement in ourselves that do not reinscribe the pain, but rather, produce joy.
Zarathustra explains, “As long as there have been men, man has felt too little joy: that alone, my brothers, is our original sin. And learning better to feel joy, we learn best not to hurt others or to plan hurts for them” (1954: 200).
Martha Graham’s early solo “Dance” (1929) sheds light on Nietzsche’s teaching. In the printed program under the title of the piece, Graham included a quotation from the Genealogy: “strong, free, joyous action.” Yet in “Dance,” Graham barely moves. She remains seated, rooted in one place, compressing all action and effort into subtle percussive shifts of her torso. Is this dance?
The riddle unravels when viewed alongside the Genealogy. By pairing Nietzsche’s phrase with her compressed movements, Graham situates her “Dance” in the space between warring systems of value where affirmation is needed most.
On the one hand, the dancer appears unable to move—stopped in her tracks, held back by whatever psychological, social, or religious constraints are blocking her.
On the other hand, the dancer’s percussive movements suggest that the very internal and external resistance she faces is what is making her “strong, free, joyous.” She is moving anyway. The experience of resistance is enabling her, forcing her, to go deeper within her bodily self to find sources of movement that support the creation of new dances—elemental rhythms that will compel others to move in turn, and thus communicate participation in an ongoing, rippling affirmation of life.
At the time Graham made “Dance,” she herself was engaged in such exploration, pressing against inner and outer resistance to find new sources of movement motivation. In 1927-8, she settled on the rhythm of breathing, whose small, nearly imperceptible pulses feed all human life. Graham stylized the patterns of breathing into what became, for the next sixty years, the seed for her unfolding technique and body of work: the percussive movements of contraction and release. Describing her dance, Graham repeated time and again as “an affirmation of life through movement.”
Graham’s “Dance” helps translate Nietzsche’s call to affirm life—all of it.
In this difficult time, keep finding and mobilizing the elemental rhythms that sustain your life–your capacity to love. Pay attention to the small movements you make every moment, every day—where and to whom you turn in frustration; what you do with your despair; where you find happiness and beauty.
Keep breathing. Keep feeling. Keep aching. Keep moving.
And however small your enabling movements feel, make them.
Feel the joy. And vote.