THE MANY WORLDS INTERPRETATION OF NOH
“You do not dip twice in the river/Beneath the same tree’s shadow/Without bonds in some other life.”
Heraclitus? No. We find this enigmatic verse at the beginning of the Second Act of Nishikigi, a Japanese play of the Noh genre. Noh originated in the 15th century CE, evolving out of religious performances that had dominated Japanese drama for the previous 6 centuries. Like the Greek drama that evoled from religious festivals two millenia earlier, Noh combines a chorus with a very small number (1, 2, or 3) of individual roles. Costume (including masks), music and dance play just as important a role as libretto in moving the action of these relatively short plays.
We have the poet Ezra Pound to thank for the popularity of Noh in contemporary Anglophone cultures. His translations of Noh dramas and his frequent references to Noh plays in his Cantos have brought this great art form to the attention of thousands of students of English language literature. And no wonder!
There are approximately 300 Noh plays extant today and virtually all of them involve dialog between the world of the “living” and the world of the “spirits”. As ‘Poet of the Eschaton’, Pound could hardly fail to recognize the importance of this art form.
Nishikigi follows this pattern. An old priest on pilgrimage encounters the spirits of two ‘lovers’ long since dead. Actually, these lovers never actually met on the plane of the living but Nishikigi courted Tsure for three long years with messages (‘wands’) professing his devotation and desire. Now the old priest encounters their spirits. They persuade him to remain with them and perform a religious ritual.
In Noh, religious ritual constitutes a portal that connects planes of existence. In Nishikigi performing the ritual enables the priest to view the historical lives of our heroes in real time and also enables our heroes finally to consumate their long frustrated relationship.
Tsure’s verse (above) is the key to understanding the ontology at work here. To illuminate that ontology, it will be helpful to compare Tsure’s teaching with two verses traditionally attributed to Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who taught in Ephesus 2,000 years earlier:
(1) “Everything flows.”
(2) “You can never step into the same river twice.”
Actually, there is no evidence that Heraclitus ever said either of these things. As far as we know, “everything flows” was first written by Simplicus more than a 1,000 years later. But Heraclitus did say, “Ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers,” which is less poetic but carries a similar message.
Questions of authenticity aside, there is no doubt that Heraclitus did profess an ontology deeply rooted in the phenomenon of process. For him, space was immutable, a kind of container through which time flows, carrying forward ever evolving events.
The ontology advanced in Nishikigi is more profound and more consistent with what we believe today about spacetime. To Tsure, both space and time are ever changing and it precisely the relation between the two that can never be repeated. Tsure contrasts the evident impermanence of the flowing river with the relative permanence of the tree overlooking its bank. But it is not just the ever flowing river that varies continuously with time; it is the tree as well. The tree is not really the same tree any more than the river is really the same river. In fact, it is the relationship between the river and the tree that ‘flows’.
But unlike Heraclitus, the author of Nishikigi provides an ‘out’, an escape clause: “bonds in some other life.”
The ever-changing spacetime that characterizes the world of the living doubles as the immutable spacetime that characterizes the world of the spirit. This view is close to that of Parmenides, a contemporary of Heraclitus, who contrasted an ever-changing world of appearance (doxa) with an never-changing world of truth (aletheia).
But the spirit world is not merely an historical memory bank, a bulwark against ever-perishing spacetime. It does not just store events from the world of the living in an eternal present (marvelous as that is!). Nishikigi‘s spirit world also stores events that might have been but never were.
Here Noh’s ontology soars above that even of the great Parmenides; it combines the Parmedian insight with something akin to today’s “Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”.
According to Quantum Field Theory (QFT), when “two roads diverge in a wood”, the quantum traveler, unlike Robert Frost, takes both roads simultaneously. In real life, our awareness is ultimately limited to one of those paths (usually the one ‘more travelled’, in accordance with probability theory) but in the laboratory it is possible to show that both paths are actually traversed.
So it is in Nishikigi. Taking one road, our lovers never even meet. But take the other road “…and the meeting comes now/This night has happened over and over/And only now comes the tryst.” Read: in many worlds, no tryst; but in one world, tryst.
The multiple worlds of Noh not only function to preserve a permanent historical memory of events that happened in real life but they also provide a venue for ‘alternate outcomes’ which are just as real and just as much a part of the historical record. If we imagine the world of living experience as a (time) line, then the world of the spirit is a plane. One axis plots the historical record of (a) continuous experience; the other axis plots every other possible history. In the eternal present of the spirit world, not only is every historical event preserved in real time but every possible historical event is preserved as well.
It is improbable that Noh dramatists in the 15th century had any knowledge of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers and it is certain that they had no access to the 20th century work of Everett and other Many Worlds theorists. The work of these playwrights demonstrates a totally independent origin for an extremely robust theory of “many worlds”.