Bleg: quotation source

Who said, approximately, “Those who dance seem mad to those who cannot hear the music”?

[Mystery solved: see second update]

A friend points me to a website called which attributes to someone named Mark Kleiman the following gem:

Those who dance appear insane to those who cannot hear the music.

The aphorism seemed familiar, and I could easily imagine having quoted it in a lecture, but I couldn’t possibly have come up with anything that good on my own.

So I Googled it, and found it attributed to George Carlin. Fine, except it really sounds too profound for Carlin: I would have guessed someone heavier, maybe Blake or Nietzsche. Except that Blake surely would have said “mad.” Indeed, it sounds like a translation; any English writer capable of inventing the thought would have had a good enough ear to have written “seem mad” instead of “appear insane.” Thoreau might have said it, instead of the “different drummer” line, but he didn’t.

Googling a subset of the words found zillions of citations to Nietzsche, and a few to Angela Monet (in the form “Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who could not hear the music”), but none with a source. [I found it cited to Milton (!), with a specific reference, but the reference turned out to be wrong, which was just as well for my sanity.]

If I had to guess right now, I’d go with Monet, a writer otherwise unknown not only to me but to, on the grounds that a bon mot is more likely to be misattributed to a Nietzsche, or even a George Carlin, than to someone less well known. (Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and George Bernard Shaw all said many witty things, but not nearly as many as are credited to them.)

None of my hard-copy quotation books seems to have anything relevant under “dance” or “insane” or “mad” or “music.”

OK. I’ve had my three guesses. I give up.

Update A reader writes:

I’m pretty sure the quote is from Henri Bergson, though it refers to comedy and not insanity. I came across it in the introduction to a 2004 James Wood book, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel. Here’s the passage (though I can’t find the page cite):

The philosopher Henri Bergson said that one definition of comedy was watching people dancing to music through a window, without our being able to hear their music…In the Bergsonian vision, the watcher has an advantage over the dancers. He comprehends them, sees how foolish they look and knows why they are dancing. He comprehends them because he is deprived of their music. His deprivation is his strength. But what if his deprivation was his weakness? What if that watcher did not know that the dancers were dancing to music? What if he had no idea why they were dancing? What if he felt no advantage over them, but felt, with mingled laughter and pity, that he was watching some awful dance of death, in which he too was obscurely implicated?

Bergson! Ugh! I think I preferred George Carlin. If my reader is right about Wood’s report, and Wood in turn about what Bergson said, this is a case where the bumper-sticker is substantially more profound than the philosopher.

If anyone finds the actual Bergson quote, please send it in.

Second update Jeremy Paretsky has the answer. Yes, Bergson is the source. Yes, Wood misquoted him. Yes, the bumper-sticker version is better.

In the course of arguing that lack of sympathetic understanding is a precondition of laughter, Bergson actually wrote:

Il suffit que nous bouchions nos oreilles au son de la musique, dans un salon ou l’on danse pour que les danseurs nous paraissent aussitot ridicules. (“It is enough for us to stop up our ears to the sound of music, in a room where people are dancing, in order for the dancers to at once appear ridiculous.”)

Full text, in English and French, after the jump.

Je voudrais signaler maintenant, comme un symptome non moins digne de remarque, l’insensibilité qui accompagne d’ordinaire le rire. Il semble que le comique ne puisse produire son ébranlement qu’à la condition de tomber sur une surface d’âme bien calme, bien unie. L’indifférence est son milieu naturel. Le rire n’a pas de plus grand ennemi que l’émotion. Je ne veux pas dire que nous ne puissions rire d’une personne’ qui nous inspire de la pitié, par exemple, ou meme de l’affection : seulement alors, pour quelques instants, il faudra oublier cette affection, faire taire cette pitié. Dans une société de pures intelligences on ne pleurerait probablement plus, mais on rirait peut-etre encore; tandis que des âmes invariablement sensibles, accordées à l’unisson de la vie, ou tout événement se prolongerait en résonance sentimentale, ne connaitraient ni ne comprendraient le rire. Essayez, un moment, de vous intéresser à tout ce qui se dit et à tout ce qui se fait, agissez, en imagination, avec ceux qui agissent, sentez avec ceux qui sentent, donnez enfin à votre sympathie son plus large épanouissement comme sous un coup de baguette magique vous verrez les objets les plus légers prendre du poids, et une coloration sévère passer sur toutes choses. Détachez-vous maintenant, assistez à la vie en spectateur indifférent: bien des drames tourneront à la comédie. Il suffit que nous bouchions nos oreilles au son de la musique, dans un salon ou l’on danse pour que les danseurs nous paraissent aussitot ridicules. Combien d’actions humaines résisteraient à une épreuve de ce genre ? et ne verrions-nous pas beaucoup d’entre elles passer tout à coup du grave au plaisant, si nous les isolions de la musique de sentiment qui les accompagne ? Le comique exige donc enfin, pour produire tout son effet, quelque chose comme une anesthésie momentanée du coeur. Il s’adresse à l’intelligence pure.”


I would now like to draw attention, as a symptom no less worthy of note, the lack of feeling which ordinarily accompanies laughter. It seems that the comic can only shake a person up on condition of falling upon the surface of a truly calm soul, one that is well integrated. Indifference is its natural environment. Laughter has no greater enemy than emotion. I’m not saying that we cannot laugh at a person who arouses, for example, pity in us, or even affection; only that for a few moments it would be necessary to forget affection, to tell pity to be silent. In a society of pure intelligences one would probably no longer cry, but one would perhaps still laugh; whereas souls that are invariably sensitive in agreement and at one with life, where every event would be prolonged as a resonance of feeling, would not recognize or understand laughter. Try, for a moment, to let everything that is said or is being done capture your attention; act, in your imagination, with those who act, feel with those who feel, let your sympathy open up as wide as possible, and as though struck by a magic wand you will see the lightest objects take on weight, and all things imbued with a severe color. Now detach yourself, look upon life as an indifferent observer; even dramas will turn into comedy. It is enough for us to stop up our ears to the sound of music, in a room where people are dancing, for the dancers to appear at once ridiculous. How many human actions would be able to resist a test of this type? and would we not see many of them go from being solemn to funny, if we isolated them from the feeling that accompanies them? Therefore, the comic, in order to produce its complete effect, in the end demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart. It is addressed to pure intelligence.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: