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CHAPTER 10


ANCIENT BEAUTY

Robert attended the morning meeting the following day. Orten mentioned in passing that Jonathan would be an hour late. Robert welcomed this news, because Jonathan’s absence would give him the opportunity to look around in the art studio alone for a while and get a better sense of what was there before he spoke to Jonathan.

After the meeting he went upstairs and walked through the Theoretics Library and into the art studio. In the middle of the room were Jonathan’s worktable and folding chair; on the table he saw a portable Casio musical keyboard. Looking around, Robert spotted the 3-D printer in the corner. The machine may have been used to produce sculpture and was itself a work of art. Its main part consisted of a large bronze cabinet covered by a high lid; painted reliefs appeared on both the cabinet and lid. To right and left sat a pair of sculpted bowls, each containing a collection of colorful, abstract shapes. On top of the lid, in the center, was a smooth dome with a finial in the form of an archaeopteryx with outstretched wings. To the right of the printer was a complicated-looking machine that Robert thought Scott had referred to as an Atlantean 3-D scanner.

On the other side of the room stood a low table with a stack of three books on top. The books, whose covers were stained and bowed, and whose pages were loose with cracked edges, were in such poor condition that Robert decided not to open them until he found out whether Jonathan already had documented them—perhaps he had translated parts of them. Robert looked closely at the cover of the book on top of the stack. Translating the Atl into English, he read the title: The Practical Truth-Engine Book of Musical Composition.

Next to the stack of three books was a small, slim book with a reddish cover. It was in better shape than the other books, so Robert opened it. Inside was a compendium of musical themes; he recognized the musical notation as the same as the notation in the Playing Music book he had translated, and the same as that used in the sheet music that sat on the piano in the Theoretics Library.

the piano score

The score on the piano

In the middle of the room’s north wall, extending into the room, was an enclosure just large enough for one person to enter. Robert walked into it. Inside, hanging on the walls, and lit by a single small light bulb installed by the team, was a group of framed, abstract, polychrome sculptures. Each sculpture, consisting of an artistically organized cluster of colored objects, had been placed in a box behind a framed plate of glass. The glass plates were spotted and dull, but Robert could see the sculptures through them well enough to be intrigued; he tried to imagine how they must have looked in Kholoruuf’s time.

;one of the framed sculptures

One of the framed sculptures in its original condition

;one of the framed sculptures

One of the framed sculptures

;one of the framed sculptures

One of the framed sculptures

;one of the framed sculptures

One of the framed sculptures

;one of the framed sculptures

One of the framed sculptures

;one of the framed sculptures

One of the framed sculptures

;one of the framed sculptures

A painting in the style of the framed sculptures

Robert considered the nonobjective nature of this art and of the objects in the sculpture-filled hallway in the Catskills. He thought about how this kind of Atlanian art was like music, and about how very different Atlanian art was from all the other ancient arts he knew about. He was aware, of course, that abstract patterns could be found on all manner of ancient pottery and architecture, but he could think of no other ancient people who valued complex nonobjective design like the Atlanians did.

When he left the tiny enclosure and stepped back into the studio, he noticed a piece of paper on a stool next to the enclosure wall. He looked closely at the sheet and saw, through a thin layer of dust, a set of tiny pictures of individual shapes that, in combination, made up the framed sculpture groups he’d just been looking at. Maybe this is an inventory of permissible shapes, he thought. An artistic vocabulary.

In the northeast corner of the room was an ancient computer—for music and graphic arts, he suspected. Next to the computer was a thick book with a dark-red cover. Robert read the title, translating it as Philosophical Dialectic on the Art of Painting. The book had no dirt or debris on it, so Robert assumed Jonathan had opened it; perhaps he had translated some or all of it.

Along the south wall, to the east of the music books, was a heap of papers and cardboard-like boxes. Resting on top of this pile was a decoratively designed portable Atlanian keyboard instrument.

Robert was still exploring when Jonathan entered the room, holding a notebook.

“Interesting room,” Robert said.

“It’s totally fascinating,” Jonathan said, as he placed the notebook onto the worktable. “I was wondering when you’d get in here.”

“You’ve noticed my peripatetic activities.”

Jonathan smiled. “You’re the wayfarer of our group.”

Robert liked the poetic image. “So what do you think of Atlanian art and music?”

“I love it. We have only a limited sample here, but I’m impressed.”

“You feel the sample is pretty limited?”

“Well, I think it’s mostly Kholoruuf’s sculpture, and the music, I think, was written by local composers. We haven’t come across any “great art of our times” books or anything like that—though there are some snippets of great musical works in one of the other books. I like Kholoruuf’s art—we assume that a lot of this, at least the sculpture, was made by Kholoruuf himself. It may or may not have been the best that his culture produced, but it’s…well, it’s fun.”

Robert gestured toward the small enclosure. “So those framed sculptures in there are his?”

“Yes, we believe so,” Jonathan said, his voice conveying a slight feeling of awe. “Here we have an entirely new art medium: abstract sculpture in a box, so to speak.”

“I saw that book of musical themes. Are those Kholoruuf’s as well?“

“Probably not. I have ideas about that—I like the tunes. This one for instance.“

Jonathan sat in the chair, turned on the Casio, and played several bars of music, a kind of sweet, monophonic. soprano line with simple chords. When he finished he looked up at Robert. “That’s from the book. That’s all we have of that piece. In fact the only complete score we have is the one that’s on the piano in the other room.”

“That theme you just played—it’s really nice,” Robert said. “You know, it sounds like it could’ve been written by a nineteenth-century classical composer.”

“Yeah. Isn’t that amazing? They had a scale of twelve notes, the same chords almost—everything.”

“It all lends credibility to the claim that the forms and structure of classical music are genuinely universal,” said Robert.

“I got that from your translation of the Playing Music book.”

Robert thought for a moment. “So tonal music wasn’t so much an invention as a discovery,” he said.

“An interesting thought.”

“These books here…” Robert said, gesturing toward the stack of three books. “Have you translated any of them? Do you know what they are?”

“I translated most of the top book and enough of the other two to see how the three of them relate to one another. I sent all the documentation out to the translators, so I’m sure they’re working on them.”

The off-site translators again. As before, Robert instinctively checked his impulse to ask questions, as he sensed it could be dangerous for him to show curiosity about the wider organization. “I read the title of the one on top,” he said. “The Practical Truth-Engine Book of Musical Composition.”

“That’s exactly how I translated it too,” Jonathan said.

“What is it?” Robert asked. “A book of ‘best arguments,’ like the Truth-Engine book I translated? I mean, the book that lays out the pro and con arguments regarding whether a flying saucer crashed.”

“No,” Jonathan said. “But this is interesting. In the Guide for Dialecticians you translated, three libraries are described: the Philosophical, the Critical, and the Practical. The Practical book here belongs to the Practical Library. It’s a step-by-step guide to writing music. It incorporates a theory—which I’ve translated as ‘moderationalism’—that comes from The Critical Truth-Engine Book on Music, the second book in the stack, which clearly belongs to the Critical Library. The Critical book includes arguments about specific works and specific composers, arguments that, to one degree or another, presume that moderationalism is true; there are some fragments from great composers in this book. And the bottom book is The Philosophical Truth-Engine Book on Music, in which moderationalism is argued pro and con in the most abstract way.”

Jonathan’s solid grasp of the Truth-Engine system impressed Robert. “So, here are three books on the same subject,” Robert said, “and they represent all three levels of the dialectic.”

Jonathan nodded. “Yes. Interesting, right?”

“Very. Would you be able to give me a copy of what you’ve translated so far?”

“Oh, sure. I’ll bring it in tomorrow.”

As Robert drove home that night, he thought about how Jonathan had been genuinely friendly and helpful, and how, in all the months he’d been here, almost no one else had come across to him as either friendly or helpful. To the contrary, they had been cold and sometimes even threatening. He thought of the note that had been taped to his door in the thunderstorm a couple days after he’d discovered Nell’s Koppie. His mysterious friend easily could be one of the members of this team. The author of the note had said “I know you.” Had Robert ever crossed paths with Jonathan before? He wasn’t sure.

The next day, at the morning meeting, Jonathan handed Robert a copy of his partial translation of The Practical Truth-Engine Book of Musical Composition. Its pages filled a large three-ring binder.

“This is incredible,” Robert told him. “You’ve done a lot of work on this.”

Jonathan smiled. “I got carried away with this project, Robert. I’m fascinated by this stuff. That we might understand an art not just intuitively but also through a philosophical analysis—it’s so intriguing.”

“Many people would be horrified by the thought,” Robert said.

“Yeah, like Orten. I know…I know, but to me it’s an interesting idea. I’ve been totally immersed in this translation. It’s been a real challenge, finding the right words to use, you know.” Jonathan smiled at Robert. “Are you horrified by the idea that art might be understood this way?”

“I’m not sure,” Robert said. “I’ll be interested to read it, but you’re the art expert.”

“It does get kind of…technical,” Jonathan said. “But that’s my strong point. I’ve also given you a copy of my translation of the musical themes book, in which I redid the scores using modern notation. You might find that interesting too. From what I can gather, these themes seem to have pretty much been written by dilettante composers who were members of an electronic-instrument ensemble. They called these compositions ‘pieces of the countryside.’ I guess we’d call them ‘pastorales.’ The chords and their progressions appear exactly as they do in modern Western music.”

The next day Robert bought an inexpensive keyboard at a music shop on Buitengracht Street and began to go over Jonathan’s transcriptions from the musical-themes book. He had taken piano lessons and read music well enough to play the scores. He didn’t know enough music theory to be able to supply the chords, but listening to the melodies, he once again noted how similar this ancient music was to our own.

an ancient melody

another ancient melody

Whatever it was that made music appealing, Robert thought, had to be the same for all people, for all time. Perhaps today’s non-Western musical systems simply represent steps along the evolutionary path to perfection.

Over the next several evenings, he read Jonathan’s translation of The Practical Truth-Engine Book of Musical Composition. Although he skimmed over some parts, he paid careful attention to others.

Robert was intrigued, as Jonathan had been, by the way the creative art of musical composition as a means of producing beauty was considered in Kholoruuf’s time to be teachable, step by step. The book also had sections that covered expression and meaning.

He was most interested in the mereology section. Robert looked up the word Jonathan had chosen to translate the name of the section and found that mereology referred to the study of parts and wholes.

The Atlanians believed that even the aspects of composition that today we would be most likely to attribute to a native ingenuity could be taught. Here on the pages of this book were instructions on how to create beauty by paying attention to parts and wholes. Musical notes were thought of as belonging to groups. Beauty was said to emerge when a group was related to other groups in a way that was kashtartek (moderational). It was said, for instance, that if the first several notes in two successive measures were neither similar nor dissimilar but were moderational, then the listener would perceive beauty in those measures.

Robert realized that a theory of relations had taken center stage in Atlanian thought.


Robert talked to Jonathan after one of the morning meetings.

“In the part of the book you translated, some questions are left unanswered,” Robert said. “For instance I couldn’t find anything about exactly how the Atlanians thought musical elements might be similar or dissimilar to one another or how they relate in a moderational way. I also couldn’t find anything about why moderation causes happiness.”

Jonathan took on a thoughtful look. “Yeah, it’s not there,” he said. “But you’ll find material along those lines in the parts of what I’ve translated in The Philosophical Dialectic on the Art of Painting.”

“I saw that book next to the computer. I wondered whether you’d done any work on that. So you did translate some of it? Did you give a report to the team on these books?”

“Nah. Orten doesn’t seem all that interested in Atlanian art and music. I’ll let you have a copy of it, though.”

To really understand Kholoruuf’s world, Robert felt he had to fill in these gaps. He already had discovered how the Atlanians had analyzed their astrological principles in terms of relations and how they saw sameness and difference as defining important cultural cycles.

The next day Jonathan gave Robert a copy of his translation of parts of The Philosophical Dialectic on the Art of Painting, along with a CD that contained image files of the original pages. Robert went over the materials that evening.

This book catalogued the elements of the painted surface and showed how these elements could be compared in terms of sameness (mashek), difference (takatl), similarity (halan), dissimilarity (reshet), opposition (khatt) and moderation (kashtar). These elements were orientation, direction, color, hue, gray value, value, purity, and many others.

In this book Robert found the author’s answer to the question of why the perception of moderation relations among elements of a work of art causes happiness. The author wrote:

To say that an image is moderation rich is to say it presents an abundance of moderation relations.


Awareness of moderation richness makes us happy.


Why does moderation richness affect us this way? We have evolved a faculty for the immediate enjoyment of perceiving that which unifies the many—the species among the individuals, the genera among the species, the natural law, the general theorem. We have evolved such a faculty because learning via the general is on the whole more efficient than learning via the particular, and all other things being equal, a species that is fitter to learn is fitter to survive. This faculty has a simple character: seeking sameness in difference. Thus the search in science for some fundamental natural law could be said to be the response to a primary functioning of the faculty (since the faculty is operating toward those ends toward which it was designed to operate, so to speak), while enjoying a painting would be a response to a secondary functioning of it.


The book contained a short section regarding beauty in music, but Robert had to admit that he didn’t really understand music theory well enough to grasp this part of the text.

After reading Jonathan’s translation, he felt he had a much better idea of how the Atlanians conceived of the role of relations in the generation of beauty.


The next day, Robert was in the art studio alone when Jimmy looked in and told him they finally had opened the door to the Core Room. When Robert arrived downstairs, almost all the other team members were there, clustered around the door. Orten was slowly and with some effort pushing it open. Eddy was looking up at the doorframe and pushing something up, as if the thing were preventing the door from fully opening.

Once the door was open, Orten went in carrying a flashlight. The others made their best efforts to see inside. Robert saw there were two smaller cylindrical rooms inside, each with a door. He watched Orten open the door of the inner room closest to, and to the right of, the Core Room door.

Orten shined his light around inside then looked out at the group. “It’s a big archaeopteryx display,” he said. “Like the one upstairs but a lot bigger.” He handed Jennifer the flashlight and moved out of the way as she stepped up to the door.

The crew members took turns looking in. Robert was impressed by the ornate structure: A large boxy cabinet at the bottom supported a superstructure of sculpted wood and polychromed metal pieces. At the top was a model archaeopteryx, brown and gold, perched, with wings elevated and displayed. The display filled the little room almost completely; there was space on all sides for only one person to walk around it.

Orten next opened the door to the second inner room, and everyone took a look. The room was almost empty. In the center stood a wooden cube, about two and a half feet high, on which was a folded piece of cloth that might have been a garment of some kind. The fabric was coarse and thick.

Eddy called everyone’s attention to a trapdoor in the floor between the two inner rooms. Orten lifted the door and shined his flashlight into the hole. “There’s a stairway leading down.”

“Into that enclosed space in the basement,” Robert said.

Orten looked up at him. “Do you want to go down there?” he asked.

“Sure,” Robert said, and went over to the hole. Orten handed him his flashlight. Shining the light into the hole, Robert saw a flight of metal stairs; parts of it were bent, and some rivets seemed to be loose. It didn’t look completely safe. That’s probably why Orten picked me to go down, he thought grimly. Flashlight in hand, he carefully walked down the steep stairs. He felt the stairs move under his feet, but there was a metal handrail on the right side that seemed solid enough to help him keep his balance.

When he shined his light around, he saw he was inside a very tall room with wooden interior walls. Partway down, he came to a landing; from there he went down the lower flight in the opposite direction. At the bottom he stepped onto the rocky floor. Although the floor of the basement outside this room was made of metal—sculpted to simulate an earthen surface—the floor inside this little room was made of natural rocks and dirt. In the center of the room, he saw a hole surrounded by a circle of white, rounded rocks. A metal grid covered the hole, and looking through the grid, Robert saw a layer of shells and smooth river rocks about three feet below the opening. There must have been a subterranean stream here once, he thought.

Robert shined the flashlight around again. At first glance there seemed to be nothing else of interest in the room. But then his attention was drawn to a small light-colored rock against one of the walls. As he examined the rock more closely, he saw an inscription on it.

the stone

He recognized the symbols instantly; the expression meant “not mashek and not takatl,” that is, “not sameness and not difference.” Robert thought of the expression, found in discussions of Eastern religions, “annihilation of opposites.” Could this strange room be a little temple? A place for worship? Then he thought of the gazebo-like structure on the roof. A room on the roof open to the sky, a room in the basement open into the earth. A sky temple and an earth temple?

Later that day, Robert went up to the gazebo-like structure and carefully inspected the curved wooden bench. Carved into the bench on its western side was the same expression, “Not sameness and not difference,” that he’d seen in the room beneath the Core Room. He decided he’d call this room the “Sky Temple” and the other room the “Earth Temple.”

That evening, at home, Robert had an idea: Not meaningful perhaps, he thought, but still interesting. He sat at his desk with a piece of paper and wrote out the temple expression. Above it, using similar notation, he wrote an expression that would translate as “sameness and difference.” Above that he wrote the expression for “not sameness but difference,” and above that the expression for “sameness and not difference.” To the right of the top term, he wrote “Apollonian.” On the next line, he wrote “Dionysian.” On the third line, he wrote “a unified psyche.” To the right of the expression on the bottom, he wrote, “Cosmic unity?”

Robert's note

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