Thursday, September 10, 2015

Hugh Nibley - "A Stage Without A Play"

"MIDGLEY: What book or books have influenced you the most?"
"NIBLEY: Well, actually the scriptures. And I do like Shakespeare, 
things like Homer's Odyssey, and so forth."1 

Hugh Nibley was a fan of William Shakespeare. In his youth he memorized MacBeth and a portion of Hamlet.2 In Nibley's writings and lectures Shakespearean quotations aren't difficult to find. One particular theme from Shakespeare's writings, however, finds a fair amount of recurrence in Nibley's works, and that is the adopted and adapted idea that "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women are merely players."3  This quotation comes from the character Jacques in As You Like It, who goes on to say that "They [the players] have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts..." The whole speech is one of Shakespeare's more quoted scenes and it seeks to address, to a limited extent, what happens in the play, but it doesn't address the nature of the play. Shakespeare's writings show an immense interest in searching for the plot - the meaning of life. The puzzling nature of our very existence, echoed in Hamlet's famous line, "To be, or not to be: that is the question,"illustrates Shakespeare's search for this missing piece of his metaphor. Nibley summarizes:
"Shakespeare says in his last play [The Tempest], Remember, "these our actors . . . were all spirits, and Are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve. And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind." So Shakespeare's last words were "It is all going away. It is all just a play and it won't even leave a wisp of cloud to show that it was ever there." See, this is where you stand without the gospel. The greatest philosophers of them all--including Shakespeare--come to the same conclusion. It is too tragic for words."5
In his various publications and lectures, Brother Nibley supplements Shakespeare's metaphor by asserting that Joseph Smith's plot, the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, provides the only feasible solution. This plot provides meaning to our current situation in contextualizing the present by explaining our past and future, as well as explaining why things happen in mortality. Shakespeare's Jacques discusses the phases of life, but his famous speech doesn't address what the purpose is all about and why the play is even happening. Nibley loved the metaphor, likely because of its pragmatic way of summarizing our place here on Earth, but apparently also because the knowledge of the gospel fills in the metaphor's missing critical component perfectly.

The purpose of this post is simply to provide a repository of Nibley's utilization of this metaphor. To address the plot of the play is beyond our scope, and I recommend reading the entire references listed in connection with the quotations below. Most of these extracted quotations are written in the middle of his discussion of the play and it is impractical to include Nibley's entire discussion of the play from these sources because: 1) he weaves in and out of the metaphor, and 2) in one case, his entire lecture - "A Stage Without A Play" - is devoted to the theme. Accordingly, inclusion of an entire discourse, or large segments of other discourses and writings, is impractical and only serves to distract from the purpose of this post.

Unless otherwise noted, all references below are to the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, 19 Vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS], Brigham Young University, 1986-2010); citations abbreviated.


"Mormons have a story to tell before Adam. But the scientists and other churchmen have none—absolutely none. They set the stage, but they have no play—only properties and props. Joseph Smith at least has give us a picture. With nothing going for him and everything going against him, he simply could not lose—he told us what the play is all about. But is it convincing? asks Nibley. "The fact is we never look at it closely, preferring to save a lot of trouble and take sides with the traditional schools. And yet, Smith gave the world the only creation story that has real substance."
“Hugh Nibley and Kimball Hansen: Candidates for the “Search Society”,” Eloquent Witness, 77

"We are participating in a vivid little drama being enacted in empty space. If blind chance can set this stage, put the characters on it, and set the plot in motion, then there is nothing that blind chance cannot do, including the staging of innumerable other plays on other worlds; and blind chance may very well have arranged to have this particular world quarantined to provide a testing situation in which we find ourselves--strained and awkward, but just the test for those particular qualities which are going to be needed in the really long run."

"...Blind chance isn't a force at all, but a term, denoting an unknown X. Just as Newton could never bring himself to believe that gravity could be a force operating across a completely empty gap, so I can't believe in a directing force which is itself completely without any sense of direction or an organizing force which itself has no concept of organization. That idea stopped even Darwin..."

"...From the tiny segment of the play I have studied, I like to think that things have been following the script recommended by Joseph Smith more closely than the other scripts written by scientists and scholars and altered from time to time. I really believe that the unfolding of the human comedy has shown a consistent tendency to adhere to the ancient script, and at present gives every indication of following it out to the bitter or glorious end."
“Dear Sterling,” Eloquent Witness, 142-143

"Where does the gospel differ from all the rest? There is no difference at all where their teachings are true. An old maxim of Mormonism states that all religions have some truth that we share with them. The first part of the endowment, the drama, is found throughout the world. Shakespeare sees the point when he says, "All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players." We are all actors in this world, "merely players," and nothing else."
"Abraham's Temple Drama," Eloquent Witness, 480

"But what about the drama? If you miss the first or last five minutes of a well-knit play, you may try to guess what it is all about, but you can never be sure; and if you should see only thirty seconds or less of any play, your guessing would be far-fetched indeed. Well, we are pushed onto this earthly stage in the middle of a play that has been going on for thousands of years; we want to play an intelligent part and, in whispers, ask some of the older actors what this is all about—what we are supposed to be doing? And we soon learn that they know as little about it as we do. Who can tell us the plot of the play? The Sophic mind assures us that the play is simply a product of lighting, rocks, and wind and has no plot aside from the plots we invent for it. In that book things just happen—and there is no way of proving that that is not so. The mystic makes a virtue of the incomprehensibility of the whole thing; he submerges himself in the darkness of unknowing and wallows in his self-induced and self-dramatizing mood of contradictions: he is strictly a Sophic, not a Mantic, product.

"The Mantic admits that the play is incomprehensible to people of as little knowledge and experience as ours, and insists for that reason that if we are to know anything at all about it, our knowledge must come from a higher source, by revelation. According to the Mantic way of thinking, things do not just happen—and there is absolutely no way of proving that that is not so. The same starry heavens that have supplied the Mantic with irrefutable proof since time immemorial that things do not just happen has always been the most self-evident proof in the world to the Sophic that things do just happen."
"Three Shrines: Mantic, Sophic, and Sophistic," The Ancient State, 370-371

"For the churchmen, the whole universe comes into existence in the week before Adam's own creation. But for the scientists, too, there is nothing to tell before the history. They set the stage for human history, but until a man with a book walks onto the stage there is no story, no play. Science studies the properties and the sets for the play, but the set is the play. The medium is the message. There is no more to follow. All around us in the universe, things are just happening. If they didn't happen one way, they would happen another. What difference does it make? The scientists of past decades have been proud of the erhabene Zwecklosigkeit, the "majestic meaninglessness" of it all. Since this is not to be my subject, one quotation, the classical remark of Tyndal, will suffice: "In the purely natural and inevitable march of evolution, life is of profound unimportance, a mere eddy in the primeval slime." The wise men gloried in the strength of mind and character that enabled them to look an utterly indifferent universe in the face without flinching (after all, they had tenure), insisting that the rest of us rid ourselves of our infantile longings for more. When we visit the planets and their satellites today, what do we find? Nobody at home! Somewhere the side of a cliff slips and slumps, somewhere dense clouds of dust are blown by super-winds, somewhere gas or magma seeps through cracks in the ground or huge blocks of ice collapse or collide, somewhere a meteor lands without a sound, somewhere. What difference does it make? It is all, as some of my professors used to remind their impressed but unhappy classes with malicious glee, utterly meaningless. Mount St. Helens takes on interest only because we are here. Globes on which nothing happens for millions of years are just as interesting as those on which change is taking place all the time. The static condition is in itself a happening, and with nobody around to measure the time, one scenario moves as fast as another.

"When science takes us to human prehistory, it is just more of the same. Since World War II, an immense lot of digging has been done all over the world, and the result is a great accumulation of properties but still no play. We learn from what is being turned up that people lived in shelters of various kinds, ate food that they gathered or hunted, warmed themselves and cooked with fire, wore clothing as they needed it, had pots to cook and store food in, had children, drank water, breathed air, and so on. And that is the whole story. The table is now set for the banquet, but no live guests ever show up. We sit in the darkened theater waiting for the show that never begins. It won't begin until we get a written record. Listen to the latest word on the subject by one of the foremost prehistorians, A. J. Jelinek (1977): "The overriding impression of the technological evidence in the archaeological record is one of almost unimaginable monotony. . . . The most overwhelming example is Olduvai Gorge where for approximately a million years no significant innovation is discernable." Even the later innovations "take place over hundreds of thousands of years; this means that we are talking about tens of thousands of generations of hominids maintaining patterns of technological traditions without discernable change."

"No Adam, no play—These can't be our people. Science promised an exciting new world, a great show, to which H. G. Wells offered to conduct us, but it all went stale in his own lifetime. To paraphrase the eminent biologist RenĂ© Dubos, existentialist nausea has found its home in the most affluent and technologically advanced parts of the world. The most poignant problem of modern life is probably man's feeling that life has lost its significance. The view that the modern world is absurd is no longer limited to the philosophical or literary avant-garde. It is spreading to all social and economic groups and affects all manifestations of life.

"I spend my days in the midst of noise, dirt, ugliness, and absurdity, in order to have easier access to well-equipped laboratories, libraries, museums, and a few sophisticated colleagues whose material existence is as absurd as mine. I doubt that mankind can tolerate our absurd way of life much longer without losing what is best in humanness. It is religion that makes man humble in the face of nature, Dubos infers, and science that makes him arrogant, not the-other way around.

"The humanists have always known that they have no play. Euripides has a little song to that effect, which he repeats no fewer than five times. What it says is, in effect, "I know this play makes no sense, but neither does anything else!" Shakespeare's last word on the subject in his last play, The Tempest, was: "Our revels now are ended. These our actors are melted into air, into thin air: and, like the baseless fabric of this vision, the cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, and, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind." (Act 4, scene 1, lines 148—56.) That's all there is. No one is going anvwhere. Or take the highest achievement of modem theater, a play that won the Nobel Prize, no less. The characters in Waiting for Godot, writes an admiring critic, "have nothing to say, nor have they anything to do. Language for them is a means for expressing the meaninglessness of existence—Godot is a symbol of hope that keeps man waiting for something big to happen, but that never happens. On the whole, all that man does centres round his physical needs and devices to kill time."
"Before Adam," Old Testament and Related Studies, 51-54

"The whole strength and astounding survival of the Hopis lies in their plot, in their scenario by which they live, and my point is that our world does not have such. The scenario was their real life. The vicissitudes of life were a parody, a sideshow, a mock play on the side, and that's the only play outsiders ever see. Our existence is a parody; it's not the real play."

"There was once a man who went to see a play at the theater. He arrived an hour and a half late, and had barely taken his seat when an emergency call obliged him to leave. The next day a friend asked him how he liked the play. What could the man answer except that he saw almost nothing of it? What he saw may have been gay or depressing, colorful or exciting, but it was no play at all; it was only a three-minute glimpse of what might or might not be a meaningful drama. Such is our position in the world. We come late to a play which has been in progress for ages, and we never stay long enough to find out what is really happening. We get a glimpse of the stage and the actors and hear a few lines of speech or music, and then we are hustled out of the house. From what we have seen, we may rack our brains to reconstruct some sort of plot, but our speculations can never be anything but the wildest guesses. Yet unless we know both how the play began (that is, protology) and how it ends (that is, escatology), the whole show remains utterly meaningless to us, "a tale told by an idiot, . . . signifying nothing." And not to know what the play is about is an intolerable state of things; it is not to be borne. For not only do we find the drama strangely engrossing, but we are actually pushed out onto the stage and expected to participate intelligently in what is going on. We are much too involved in the thing to settle for a play without a meaning, but who can tell us what it is all about?

"Literature and Art can help us enjoy or endure the play; they harp everlastingly on the tragic transience of our stay in the theater, help us to appreciate quickly passing beauty of the scene before us, and incite us to speculate and wonder whether there is any meaning to the thing at all and what it might be. But by their own confession (and the greater the artist the greater the frustration) the masters can only tell us that we are such stuff as dreams are made of and that as far as they can see, this world, the cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea all which it inherits, shall dissolve, and, like an unsubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. What went before? What comes after? Don't ask the artist: he has seen as little of the play as you have. Philosophy would like to tell us what the play is about, but will not allow itself to run out of scientific bounds; it [philosophy] remains too often the pariah dog, snapping at the heels of religion and scavenging in the camp of science. It is to science and religion that we must turn for definite answers..."
"The Doctor's Dilemma," The World and The Prophets, 268-269; 
a similar version of this quotation is found in Nibley, "Eschatology," (October 1960)

1 Hugh Nibley, “Hugh Nibley: The Faithful Scholar,” Eloquent Witness: Nibley on Himself, Others, and the Temple, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, 19 Vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, 2008), 19:31
2 Nibley, "An Intellectual Autobiography," Eloquent Witness, 9; Nibley is also quoted as saying, "I got started on it when I was ten by overhearing arguments between my grandfather and Charles W. Penrose. By the time I was thirteen I'd learned Macbeth by heart. I tried memorizing Hamlet, but couldn't. It was too long" (Nibley, "A Legendary Passion for Books and Languages," Eloquent Witness, 81).
3 William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Ed. F.J. Furnivall (New York: Duffield & Company, 1908), 32 (spelling and punctuation standardized)
4 William Shakespeare, Hamlet (London: William Heinemann, 1904), 65; for further discussion of Shakespeare's metaphor, see Gary Taylor, "Shakespeare plays on Renaissance stages," The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage, Ed. Stanley Wells and Sarah Stanton (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1; Anne Righer, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962)
5 Nibley, "Hugh Nibley: The Faithful Scholar," Eloquent Witness, 30

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