Once upon a time there was a horseshoe mountain. Some said it resembled a human ear. On the Western side lived the Professionals. Between them and the Audiophiles encamped to the East lay a deep rift, spanned by a single, rickety, and seldom-used bridge. Bickering carrion birds watchfully circled the canyon.
On entering the valley below, visitors from the outlands saw above them on the Northern cliffs a very distant, isolated tower, shrouded in mist, where a tiny group of researchers laboured largely unfunded and widely unregarded to comprehend sound and the comprehension of sound.
On the floor of the valley, rarely touched by sunlight, lived a tribe whose dominant cultural characteristic was belief in the Truthsayer Boxes once endowed to them by a mischievous wizard. The wizard, having been expelled from the order of scientists, continued his own ghastly research – not in the acoustic realm, but social engineering of the impressionable.
To each community he gave a terrible gift, and with it a terrible lie. To the people of the valley floor he gave Boxes of Divination, promising them these spoke the whole and only Truth and all else was Heresy. To the Audiophiles on the cliffs above he gave magical transducers imparting The Gift of Hearing, exhorting them above all to trust their sacred feelings. To the Technicians he gave narcotics imparting The Gift of Music, convincing them they alone could channel the holy vibes.
And so there was – not war, as such – but enmity. The tribes jousted for supremacy in specially contrived arenas that amplified and reinforced their respective creeds.
Once a month the people of the valley floor – profound aesthetes – celebrated the Pageant of Symmetry. Beautiful women from across the land were brought to the Priests of Operation, who passed over and about them the Truthsayer Boxes and declared one above all The Acme of Symmetry. All were ranked below her in descending order, with diminishing honours. Newly crowned victors were paraded for all to marvel at in the high countries and the low. And this was curious, because the people of the valley floor, so long in the dark, were blind. Not all were truly so: some were merely myopic; others (the Double Blind) chose to wear opaque, tightly-fitting masks lest they glimpse the world, for in that land it was a crime punishable by exile to make a personal distinction discriminating for or against the good-looking. Only the Truthsayer devices, mechanical and aloof, were permitted to pass judgment on aesthetic matters. Curiously fevered passions were excited among the valley people about the beauty of women they never saw, and whose constitution compelled them to regard as equal among equals. However, as a clownfish swims among anemone, most of the valley people lived with this contradiction unremarked, proud of their egalitarianism.
The symmetrical women lauded by the valley people were at least palpably symmetrical, for in this at least the Truthsayer boxes did honest work. However, it was (not unreasonably) noted by sighted observers that the proportionate distribution of a woman’s kidneys was rather less impactful on her desirability than size 12 feet, baldness, polydactyly and psoriasis – which had afflicted previously garlanded (and indisputably symmetrical) Pageant grandees. Conversely, it was observed that the Pageants, with their reliance on artificial metrics, habitually denigrated spectacularly attractive women because of trivial defects such as fingernails of fractionally odd-handed length.
The Audiophiles, too laboured under curious traditions. Once a month the people of the high country gathered to read the Pronouncements of Oracles: those whom the mischievous wizard had allegedly given special gifts of acuity. Those whom the Oracles pronounced worthy in the sacred writings achieved mythical status and were revered by all. In distant times, the wisdom of the Oracles was unquestioned, but in a particularly malicious experiment the wizard gifted the audiophiles a machine that allowed everyone to talk at once. Instantly there were many experts, and as many contradictory opinions as to what sounded best. And this was strange, because the Audiophiles were now so old that almost to a man they were deaf – a fact whose acknowledgment infrequently surfaced above the subconscious, but which was outwardly demonstrated by their reliance on received opinion. Perversely, personal opinion – the achievement of a uniquely personal communion with the sublime – was all that mattered to Audiophiles whose unswerving habit was to esteem subjective impressions over facts, no matter how things actually sounded.
The wizard also worked his cunning on the Guild of Makers, itinerant craftsmen from the Southern lands beyond the mountain and occasional visitors to the high tower of the North. To them he gave Reality Warp Crafting that projected a Field of Unknowing around their mechanisms, which greatly disturbed the people of the valley floor for – according to the Guild – it interfered with the operation of their Truthsayer Boxes. Among the valley people of course the reverse was claimed: that the Truthsayer Boxes disrupted the Fields of Unknowing, and on this point wars were somewhat inconclusively waged, with Audiophiles frequently joining, and changing allegiances, according to their choleric velleities.
As I said, the wizard was diabolically mischievous, but not without a plan: the gift of Truthsayer Boxes to those without sight, and the Pronouncements of Oracles to those without hearing caused him great mirth – the Audiophiles deified the unlistenable just as fervently as the valley people celebrated a definition of beauty they never saw. In venerating The Truth the valley people were caught in their hubris just as surely, and farcically, as the Audiophiles’ veneration of Their Truth.
Meanwhile, the Musicians, who lived with the Technicians in the West were a world unto themselves – and too bladdered to care. When differences of opinion became contentious, they flared up and passed as quickly as an altercation between two drunk uncles at a wedding, ending with a beery clap on the back and an agreement that each should go their merry way.
And eventually people forgot about the scientists in the tower, who (mainly) quietly continued their work, inviolate to the predations of the wheeling birds, and rarely visiting the people of the valley or the communities on the clifftops, hardly noticing their squabbles which, from a distance, sounded like static, or the whispering of tiny waves sifting through innumerable grains of sand.