Hugh Nibley on Fatherhood

Group photo of the Hugh Nibley family

Hugh Nibley, center, casts a skeptical eye on his role as father of a burgeoning tribe. The baby (Rebecca) seems to have doubts as well. The rest are straight from the Family Home Evening Manual.

[Letter to Paul Springer]

June 1956

Dear little bodybuilder,

The weirdest weather: three days ago the Springer Thermometer and Hygrometer registered 107 and nine resp. in the office, and the next day the mountains were covered with snow! The worst is the assorted pollens that crowd the air and get everybody snuffling and spitting and tweezing. I revert to my former thesis: IS this a habitable planet? Marginal at best.

It seems that the former and still owners of our house had planted an around-the-year catalogue of bulbs and whatnot, so that every morning we get up to find some new botanical confection throwing off waves of passion; it is like living in a forcing-house or the late Dr. Fu Manchu’s conservatory. We dare not stop watering for a minute lest our neglect blight some floral rarity found only in the steaming depths of Sumatra. At the same time phone beats out the canonical hours with urgent requests from restless committees wondering where the next two lessons are or what became of pp. 74 and 103 of the footnotes.

Don Decker dashed off to Alaska to make some money over the summer and his family plumped in on us on Friday – only for a short stay, but now it is 8 (eight) 8 kids around the house, all but one under seven (7) seven years of age, though the presence of a couple of gabbing dolls (their parents) does keep things somewhat in hand. Just the same I know now what it used to be like, even barring the Edwards [sic] Act, and you can have it! [Probably refers to the Edmunds Act of 1882.]

Then there is a little matter of bills. It is true, everybody in California is loaded and certainly deserves to be happy as that is the law in California. But it is also true that some poor suckers are paying for it. I never knew there could be such a difference in standards of living. All in all, S.F. Seems like something that happened in the preexistence or before the Fall – very far away and too good to be true. Here we are prepared for the worst because we already have it. The days since I got home have been an unbroken series of interruptions, the nights and unbroken festival of footnotes. We decided against taking the family to Seattle: I am taking Paul alone instead. The reasons for this great decision are painfully obvious. The baby has been having the measles but never for a moment gave up enjoying himself – the picnic is for him the life, especially after 2 A.M. …

Along with that, though poverty keeps me off many a sucker list, the nature of my writings has brought me into direct and heated correspondence with every crackpot in the country. I do take the kids out into the canyons and the sagebrush for overnight jaunts, but it always Ends with Mikey howling his head off if he doesn’t go, and then crawling into my sleeping bag in the middle of the night to kick the stuffing out of the bag and me. Still it is the one advantage of living here that one can escape into real wilderness without any difficulties at all. In spite of the furiously hot days the nights have been very cold (all last week the humidity stayed below 20) so we have been searching out the red-rock country and the pink sands, where nobody goes in summer and nobody can go in winter, even to hunt for lost cattle. I am beginning to acquire a perverse love for unwashed vagabondage in colored dirt – a touch of Bedouin defiance, you might say, that could lead to serious results. There is no danger of desertion here, since the kids are getting it worse than I am, but what if I we should sever all ties with society? That would be like having no TV – you might as well be dead.

What brings me back to earth is the good old B.M., the book that really tells you what goes on in the world. At this very moment without any preliminary roar or even the slightest trace of foreboding sultriness the frame of my glasses has suddenly and quietly come apart, broken right in two. That Means 8 bucks in the morning. That is what I get for writing letters on the Lord’s day.

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A Vast and Admirable Intelligence Dedicated to Wanton Destruction

Roguish caricatures of German soldiers singing, "Today, Germany is Ours; Tomorrow, the Whole World. Underneath a bold caption reads, "OH YEAH?"

An anti-German poster produced in America during World War II.

[Letter to Paul Springer. This letter was written during a time of solitude when Nibley went Zion Park and spent several weeks alone with nature following World War II. The earlier writings he refers to are letters he wrote from Germany during the occupation in which he harshly excoriated the German people, among whom he had previously worked as a missionary.]

Salt Lake City, “various dates,” 1946


Emerging from the lost world of the Utah-Arizona boundary country I find another of your notes awaiting me at the Hurricane post-office. They had given up hope of ever seeing me again and were on the verge of burning it; I hope now that they have learned a simple lesson — Nibley always comes back. It is a terrible blow to learn, as I do by inference, that things I wrote you long ago in a black and somewhat hysterical mood, are being preserved. For what? How much do you want? I assure you the tension, suspicion, and sheer despair that filled the air of Heidelberg were at times simply unbearable. Everybody was flying off the handle, but I was particularly miserable because I knew the fundamental excellence that lay beneath the rubble-heaps of folly and ruin, and that a vast and admirable intelligence was being dedicated to wanton destruction.

Why must the Germans behave that way? I was walking behind an elderly couple in the woods one day as they discoursed on Hitler. He was nothing but an Abenteuer, they decided, a sordid opportunist — and they might have known it all along, fools that they had been, for couldn’t anyone see that he had dark hair instead of blond!

My adolescent thinking was all cast in the German mold, and that I do not regret; it is the Germans themselves who have not been true to their great tradition — you have no idea how sterile and immoral the Nazi mind was, or do you? They were tactless and incorrigible and played right into the hands of the real perennial war-makers – their bad manners were their undoing, but I knew all along that in the field of geopolitics and trouble-making they were strictly second-string. Stop me, my sweet, before I get too specific.

I have been moving around like mad. Going to be stuck in Salt Lake for the summer. I am an editor, no less. Also doing quite a bit of hack writing. But when the leaves begin to fall I shall repair to Provo, for Brother Brigham’s celebrated academy has charms that make the blandishments of Claremont seemed positively repulsive by comparison…

The solitude of the desert did much to alter my weak and impressionable mentality…Right now I am finishing up one of my pretentiously documented studies, and desperately fear that the final touches will require a flying visit to Berkeley, in which case I hope to have a glimpse of your rude but noble countenance in the not too utter future and experience the benign offices of that delicious counter-irritant whom the world knows as your devoted, if misled, wife. Try to carry on until then, with the assurance that old Nibs will back you up every time you try to go forward.

Love & kisses (free trial package),


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Hugh Nibley’s World War II Diary

Pages from a small appointment book with notes scrawled in shorthand with an occasional word in cursive.

Pages from Hugh Nibley’s diary from June 4-10, 1944 including an entry for the D-Day landing.

[Post by Alex Nibley]

When we were working on his World War II memoirs, Sergeant Nibley PhD: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle, I sat down with Dad for several hours and read through his diaries of 1944 and 1945. I had made high-resolution scans of the diaries, so we could look at them up close without a magnifying glass. I put a video camera on us to pick up what he said, and he read each of the diary entries day by day.

His common way of writing in the diaries is Gregg Shorthand with occasional words in his distinctive style of cursive. He had told me that he had used code to write at times, since he was not supposed to be keeping a diary. I’m not sure whether this was a formal regulation for intelligence operatives like him or just something he worried about. One of the things he had been trained to do as an Order of Battle team member was to go through the diaries of captured German soldiers looking for intelligence, and I know he worried about the reverse happening to him if he were captured since at times he was privy to extremely sensitive information about the Allies’ plans.

As we read through his diaries together, we discovered several entries that were written in his secret writing, which turned out to be a combination of German words written in Arabic script.

The video of the sessions where we deciphered his diaries is currently packed away in archives and we don’t currently have a digital version of the video, so I’m not sure what all these entries say. Here are the entries from these pages as we deciphered them for Sergeant Nibley PhD:

June 4: Sail past Lundy Island. We are the leading ship. [The invasion army had been waiting on their ships for days at this point, hundreds of thousands of men in thousands of ships just waiting for favorable weather for the landing.]

June 6: D-Day. Pass the Bill of Portland and land across vast masses of flak in the morning. A ship next to us goes down in about 8 minutes. [Nibley’s landing was on Utah Beach. The ship next to him that went down so fast was most likely the USS Corry.]

June 8: Still

June 9: Plane drops 2 great mines and ruins my jeep.

Can anyone out there figure out the other entries?

Update: Okay, let’s make it a contest! The person who submits the most convincing interpretation of the diary entries here for June 5, 7 and 10 will win a free CD set of the audio book version of Approaching Zion. You have until noon Saturday, June 1 MDT to submit your entries. Since we don’t have access to Hugh’s interpretations (and he wasn’t sure himself about what he’d written in a lot of cases), we have no way of determining the accuracy of the submissions, so we will judge based on how convincing they are. Subjective? Yes, somewhat. So convince us that this is the first time subjectivity has influenced interpretations of Hugh Nibley’s writing.

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Hugh Nibley on the Power of Positive Thinking (sort of)


[Unpublished notes, undated]


Where one is in a vulnerable position, it is always wise to accentuate the positive and eschew the negatives. Can’t we do away with negatives entirely? I think we can. To call a person an unspeakable cad is negative; consider rather the story of the Speakable Cad:


It was a describably beautiful morning as the speakable cad finished a sipid breakfast and thoroughly gusted with the clement weather began his variable custom of a morning stroll to the firmary. His ruly hair was kempt, for he was a couth and solute person, a transigent soul, and withal a man of effable ertia, possessing counted millions, his digency the reward of an ept and dolent nature.

As he walked along haling the air his satiable curiosity was attracted by the fantile games of expressably energetic neighbors’ children; for a while he watched their imitable antics, fatuated by their bound skill, and, when they called to him, dignantly smiling at their sufferable souciance and solent manners. At the sight of his brother coming along the street, however, he bosomed himself, for though a man of bridled passions, this daunted gentleman had a superable like for his brother, an iquitous and nocent fellow, but withal transigent enough to face the world with givings.

Though his brother was a man of tegrity, and peccably attired, his comfiture was at once apparent, and at the sight of it the speakable Cad’s composure remained tact, for he was ured to the putable stories that had been earthed about his brother. The evitable result of his knowledge was an exporable dain for his genuous brother’s firmity.


At this point the story threatens to become UNpleasant — even negative — so we must stop it.


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Hand-in-Glove with the Persecutors of the Church

[Excerpt from an interview with Sterling Van Wagenen and Alex Nibley in 1983]

It has always been said by the Prophet Joseph Smith and Brigham that the Saints would be sorely tempted, and the nearer we were to promoting the Gospel the harder Satan would work, the more subtly he would work. [He would] never use a crude frontal attack or anything like that, but his main effort was in the bosom of the Saints. That was where he was really going to do his dirty work.

Now isn’t it an interesting thing that everything is going the same way today? We do not have two parties or anything else anymore. Everything is going into one direction. He’s working awfully hard. He’s been very successful, apparently. No, the  idea [is that] that there is no longer any struggle going on, as if he’d won, as far as that goes.

Utah is so…Notice where the church is always being fought…where the church has always received the most savage…resistance everywhere in the deep South. But…we are imitating the deep South here. We match Mississippi more closely than any other state in various things now: in our morality, in our politics, in our views of things, in our self-righteousness and in our intolerance. It’s a very interesting thing now how this heavy opposition that’s coming out of this film, you know, The God Makers and so forth, and this stuff they’re doing down in Arizona. This is done by the by the Moral Majority people, people like that with which so many Mormons are trying to identify themselves. We think like them, you see. They’re all of this right-wing war-mongering and all this sort of thing — we’re hand-in-glove with that crowd which have always been the persecutors of the church. The interesting thing is they still are. They don’t like us. They won’t let us get into bed with them. They won’t. They hate it, you see, these ministers. And that, I think is amusing.

Some people would love to join up with them as far as that goes…people…that would just love to cooperate with these people and try to capitalize on their common interests. But Mormonism is anathema for them. As long as you leave Joseph Smith out, that’s fine. Forget The Book of Mormon and so forth, but otherwise nothing is dirty enough to say about the Mormons. So, that’s interesting, isn’t it? We’ve got to be ourselves, after all, whether we choose or not, you see. The Lord is forcing us to be that way.

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Forty Easters Ago

[Reminiscence from Alex Nibley]

In the spring of 1973, Dad decided we should take advantage of Conference weekend for a jaunt to visit the Hopi reservation in Northern Arizona. He had heard that the Hopis were going to perform one of their sacred dances for the last time, and he wanted to see it before it vanished from the earth.

It was a strange crew: Dad, my brother Mike, BYU basketball star Kresimir Cosic, an Okinawan woman who was a convert to Mormonism, and seventeen-year-old me. We all piled into our aging Plymouth. Kreso coiled his seven-foot frame into the front seat and Mike and I shared the back seat with the Okinawan, who was maybe five feet tall in high heels and a classic east Asian lotus blossom. Dad said she was some kind of princess in her own country; I’m not sure exactly why she ended up in that back seat of our Plymouth driving through the desert subject to heat (Dad was always suspicious of air conditioning and wouldn’t turn it on even when we had it in a car) and the merciless teasing of the grinning Croatian in the front seat.

I really wish I could find a way to fit the seven-foot Yugoslavian basketball star and the diminutive Okinawan princess into the story in a way that makes sense — the two of them going back and forth in their respective accents almost unintelligible to the Americans in the car much less each other. The Croat caustic, rude — every word a jibe or a sarcastic retort all in broken English. The Asian with impeccable Japanese manners and equally broken English who, even when she understood his words, had no clue what the giant in front of her was saying, since sarcasm in Japanese doesn’t work like Croatian sarcasm translated into very bad English. I guess I feel a need to mention this odd pair because it contributes to the felliniesque nature of my memories of that trip. Like an image in a dream it was something I could never make up in my conscious mind.

But the story is not about them.

On the day before the dance, which was to be on Easter Sunday, we visited an old Hopi man whom Dad had known for decades. Dad used to buy kachina dolls from him. When we went to his house below one of the mesas, Dad asked him if he was going to the dance the next day. No, the man said. He had joined a Christian church, and his pastor had admonished him against participating in the old Hopi rituals. His religion wouldn’t allow him to attend the Hopi dance.

It’s hard to remember Hugh Nibley getting angry in a discussion about religion. Usually he took attacks in stride and found them stimulating rather than making him lose his tempter. I had certainly never seen anything provoke such an immediate and negative response from him than the old Hopi telling him that his preacher wouldn’t allow him to attend the dance.

“Don’t you know,” Dad said, getting right in the old Hopi’s face, “these are the same danced Jesus did at Easter time!”

But the old Hopi still wouldn’t go to the dance.

Forty years later I still remember fox skin aprons and the feathers the dancers wore and their sense of purpose, their clarity and simplicity in repeating the exact movements their ancestors had made generations before. I can hear in my mind the melody and rhythm of the song the Hopis sang as they danced. I remember how moved Dad was by the dancing and how connected he felt to this land and this people who were so far removed from his Edwardian upbringing in Los Angeles.

What the sarcastic seven-foot Croat and the diminutive princess from Okinawa thought of it all I can’t say.

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A Strange World in which East and West, Past and Present Intermingle

[Excerpt of a letter to Margaret Reid Sloan, Hugh’s grandmother. This letter was written from the Military Intelligence training center at Camp Ritchie, Maryland when Hugh was preparing to go overseas. It’s also interesting that this letter was written before Hugh began his study of Egyptian.]

June, 1943

The past few days I spent in New York among the wonderful Egyptian collections there. The Egyptians are so different from every other ancient people that one hardly knows what to make of them. They are the only people we know of who deliberately planned to convey information to other ages than their own. They had one abiding passion — to conquer time and nullify its power. The devices they try are sometimes pathetic, sometimes ingenious and, strangely enough, sometimes successful. I shall tell you more about that when I have located a couple of manuscripts which I have been seeking thruout the libraries of the east.

From these oddly preoccupied ramblings you will see that I am living in a strange world in which East and West, past and present, are wildly intermingled. This is part of a process of tying things together — an ambitious project for which I am by no means well suited or situated, but which I feel must be undertaken. I have been talking to the best scholars everywhere and everywhere it is the same story — they are interested only in their careers and think of everything in terms of reputation and promotion. They are all looking for projects that will “pay off” without too much work and seek not knowledge but only to exploit what they know. “Every man walketh after the image of his own heart, which is the image of the world.”

I must confess with some shame that the rough, restless and unscrupulous ways of Combat Intelligence are rather well suited if not actually agreeable to my temperament. This is a way of life that does not pretend to be a finer thing than it is. Our peace-time life, of which we have suddenly grown so sentimental, was too often a drab and embittered domesticity or a meanly acquisitive manipulation of others, a la Dale Carnegie, for what we could get out of them.

One arrives at these hard judgments of our times by comparing them with the image of what should be. For me, as I have often said, you are that image. With what justice could you complain against fate, with what unanswerable arguments condemn the world! But of course you do nothing of the sort. A nature so totally devoid of anything negative or dark gives the same joy to the beholder as a perfect work or art. If you were only feeble-minded or simply not aware of things, such an aloofness from evil would still be wonderful–for dullness can be perfectly intimate with folly. But to be wholly alive and at the same time wholly generous is an angelic achievement.

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