Descriptions of this novel seem alternately overblown or underinspired, but it is a playful reimagining of the Creation with scientific and philosophical bits woven in (in classic Lightman form). Belhor & the Baphomets remind me of Woland & co. from The Master and Margarita.
“Sometimes provocative, sometimes fanciful, always elegantly conceived and written, these meditations offer readers a fascinating look into the creative compulsions shared by the scientist and the artist.”
“We have learned something about what a material mind is capable of,” said Belhor. “It is capable of great goodness, and also great evil. And more extreme in either case than I would have thought. But that is what happens with intelligence.”
“Is it a consequence of intelligence, or materiality?” I said. “Because we have even greater intelligence.”
Belhor smiled and said nothing.
And the individual atoms, cycled through her body and then cycled through wind and water and soil, cycled through generations and generations of living creatures and minds, will repeat and connect and make a whole out of parts. Although without memory, they make a memory. Although impermanent, they make a permanence. Although scattered, they make a totality.
But … not all things can be contained. That, I have learned. The suffering and joy, they cannot be contained, they spill, like events and like time. The irrational lives with the rational. Another thing I have learned, and this of myself: I can take chances. I can act, even with doubts.
“And please tell me, how do you know whether a particular deed benefits another being? And please tell me the definition of ‘beauty.’”
“You understand these things as well as I.”
“Yes,” said Belhor. “But I understand them only because I understand their opposites. I understand evil. I understand ugliness. I maintain that good can be defined only in its contrast to evil, beauty only in its contrast to ugliness. Qualities such as these must exist in pairs. Good comes with evil. Beauty comes with ugliness, and so on. There are no absolutes in the universe, no unitary qualities. All qualities are bound to their opposites.”
Nowhere is the joy of existence so apparent as in music. … The music dances and glides and swoops. Not that all of it is melodic or soft. But even the dissonant and the jarring contain a rapture, an ecstasy, an embrace of existence.
One of them said something else to the other, they exchanged smiles, and then the moment was gone. What an extraordinary event! No one noticed but me. What an extraordinary event! Two men who had never seen each other before and would not likely see each other again. But their sincerity and sweetness, their sharing an instant in a fleeting life. It was almost as if a secret had passed between them. Was this some kind of love? I wanted to follow them, to touch them, to tell them of my happiness. I wanted to whisper to them: “This is it, this is it.”
One thing I have learned: the mind is its own place. Regardless of natural conditions and circumstances, even of biological imperatives, the mind can contrive its reality. The mind can make hot out of cold and cold out of hot, beauty from ugliness and ugliness from beauty. The mind makes its own rules.
“…intelligent creatures must be able to make decisions on their own, without intervention, in order to know who they are. If they choose to do good, then they know something about themselves, and if they choose to do bad, then they know something else about themselves.”