The People vs. Norman Flint

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

Damn, that’s a beautiful line. A little romantic maybe, but beautiful. Very much the Europe of la Belle Epoque. Vast wars are still in the future, ancient empires intact, and even weirdos were harmlessly dancing. Sweet. Nostalgic. Flowers in the rain.

Of course, Nietzsche wound up completely insane. Utterly mad. Which led me to wonder about his quote. It didn’t sound like Nietzsche. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Now that was Nietzsche. And it didn’t sound like German, either.  “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” That sounded German, with the verb sitting there solidly at the end. “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music” lilted. It’s musical. In rolls off the tongue in English and English has rolled off the tongue like that since the Normans dressed up our west Germanic language in layers of French finery. English and German deep underneath are quite the same. But we’ve moved a few things around, softened a lot of consonants and dipthonged every vowel we could get our hands on, and eventually our language developed a bit of a lilt–not a swish, certainly, but definitely a lilt–that pries it free from the German so far that you have to hit bedrock before you realize it’s a Germanic tongue you are speaking. But I’m digressing from my point that “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music” just didn’t ring German to me.

So I googled it. I found the same quote and same Nietzsche attribution everywhere, on site after site. Dozens and dozens, all the same. It’s one of those things that makes romantics swoon. Then, several Google pages in, I stumbled onto a site called Quote Investigator, whose quote investigator wrote a long and magnificent account of his elaborate investigation that established that it was definitely not Nietzsche, nor any of the myriad other people to whom it was attributed, including Anne Louise Germaine de Staël, John Stewart (not Jon Stewart), a science fiction fan, Angela Monet, the great Sufi philosopher Rumi, some more science fiction fans, George Carlin, or Megan Fox, who had it tattooed on her back which would give her away instantly should she be the victim of a celebrity sex tape. My favorite choice was a mysterious someone named Norman Flint. I love that name–Norman Flint. No lilt there.

The thing has been attributed to everyone, even just an unknown (“anon.”) . In fact now someone will attribute it to me if they are high enough and only look at the first two sentences of anything they see online, which is what stoned people do. Then they babble knowingly to their friends and urban myths are born.

Anyway, it turns out that back in 2005 a newspaper in Florida said it was Nietzsche. They probably found that on the internet which has since collectively settled on Nietzsche, so it must be true. Alas, it ain’t, and our dogged quote detective finally throws up his hands and admits he has no idea who said it. He even added a mess of footnotes to show how he tried. Several commenters chimed in with their theories of their own (none, alas, Norman Flint.) Then came this:

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music” is a translation from one of the lines in a French play called The Madwoman of Chaillot. It’s a fabulous play about living a life free from the pollution of money and all the dark, needless things that cause life to become dreary.

That rather nails it. The Madwoman of Chaillot (La Folle de Chaillot) written by French playwright Jean Giraudoux in 1943, first performed after the Liberation in Paris in 1945, though Giradoux himself died (no word on how) in 1944. Apparently it’s a satire, so I’m not sure if those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music was as overtly romantic as it appears to be all over the Internet. I suspect a subtlety or layered meaning but I can’t tell without reading the original (or the English translation, anyway). Alas, after some dogged googling myself it seems the play does not seem to be online, nor a script of the movie (starring Katharine Hepburn, Paul Henreid, Oskar Homolka, Richard Chamberlain, Donald Pleasance, Danny Kaye and Charles Boyer) that came out in 1969. That’s a powerhouse cast–and besides Boyer there’s dozens more French cast members as well–for a film that no one seems to have heard of anymore. Weird how that happens. But maybe Turner Classic Movies will show it. Or maybe they already have. So is the line in the movie’s script? I found a site that contained an online version of the screenplay…but it was gone. Poof. Funny how sites disappear like that, and right at critical moments. Makes you wonder about conspiracies, or bad luck, or meaningless chance. Something. Or maybe someone, who wants us not to know. There’s a danger in being a man who knows too much. Que sera sera. But Doris Day is not in The Mad Woman of Chaillot. You can look that up for yourself on the International Movie Database. IMDB don’t lie, baby. You can set your watches by that. Plus IMDB lets you look for crazy credits, those wacky, zany things. There are no crazy credits for The Mad Woman of Chaillot. The  French are very serious about these things. A lady probably takes her top off, though. You can’t make a French movie without a lady taking her top off. It’s the law.

You can watch the flick online. If you watch it you might hear the line in question. Katharine Hepburn would say and those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music. Unless it was Richard Chamberlain, who would say it in a perfect monotone that sounded so grave and sexy that all the ladies would want to make mad love to him right there on the spot. That’s what I think. Someone check with Robert Osborne. Though maybe if you had the right English translation of the play itself it’d be there, just like the commenter said.That would nail the answer in a heartbeat. That’s what I think.

But this is not quite good enough for our dogged Quote Investigator. He wasn’t so sure. Do you know the specific part of the play that you believe contains the statement? he asks. Do you know which character makes the statement, or what phrase was used in the original French? A good quote investigator is always suspicious. False flags and prevarications lay across the internet like mine fields.

Of course, he could have found out for himself by going to the library, or even calling a library information desk. My friend Linda works at the library. You could call her, she’d research around, and if they have the book she’s hold it aside for you. You wouldn’t even have to check it out but sit there quietly and read till you found the quote and shout Voila! Then Linda would bop you on the head. No shouting in the library. But you would have found your answer and set civilization at ease. Which is a good thing. That’s what I would have done. Called the library and then gone down there and found the quote. I wouldn’t shout Voila! though. Linda would bop me twice as hard and then tell everybody we know. Imagine my shame

But our dogged quote investigator would probably not even bother. No one goes to libraries anymore, he seems to hint. No one reads books, let along plays. What’s the point? If it’s not on the internet, it can’t be true.

Which is why I still think it’s by Norman Flint.

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