Le Ton Beau de Marot

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Douglas R. Hofstadter has the infuriatingly charming ability to produce enormous books about what initially appear to be small but intriguing connections. His first major work, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1979), relates the incompleteness theorem of Kurt Gödel’s mathematics to the drawings of M. C. Escher and the musical canons of Johann Sebastian Bach. Essentially, Hofstadter argues in this work that mathematics, art, and music display a pattern characteristic of human thought, that they are open-ended rather than closed, that they admit of infinite possible collaboration, and that they are reversible to an indivisible grounding element.

The implications of such a hypothesis are what are really remarkable. First, linear time ceases to have aesthetic significance. To illustrate, imagine a popular musical canon such as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” recorded on tape. An infinite number of singers is possible, an infinite number of openings occur in series for new singers to join. Were one to stop the tape arbitrarily, the song would not really have ended; moreover, if one were to slow or speed the tape, put it on an endless loop, or even to play it backwards, only the song’s accidental signification would change. If represented on a spectrograph, the pattern would remain constant.

Another consequence of this argument is that traditionally accepted divisions of cognitive activity necessarily blur if a mind producing music, or one producing mathematical equations, or one producing a work of plastic art employs a comparable mental paradigm. This is not, however, an argument for aesthetic relativism. Michelangelo likely begins a sculpture with a grounding element that most would consider more excellent than a novice attempting the same project, yet the pattern of execution which each employs is comparable.

In themselves these observations are not new, though others have made them for theological reasons and without Hofstadter’s glittering technological tools. Saint Augustine, influenced by Roman philosopher Plotinus, posits a unitary pattern of cognition which points to the divine essence. Some theologically inclined computer scientists have employed computer graphics to deduce a unitary pattern in the molecular structures of diverse natural elements and conjecture that this singular molecular signature has theological implications, a single pattern of thought underpinning all matter. Hofstadter consistently gives any theological conclusions one might draw from his assertions about cognition a wide berth.

Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language explores Hofstadter’s theories on the relationship between thought and its product by focusing on the translation process. With a view to technology, Hofstadter broadens the standard definition of translation to include any process of transfer which occurs through a medium. Language can, therefore, apply not only to spoken or written signs but also to behavior, process, and mechanical activity. As a result of his broadened conception of translation, this is a highly personal book. It relies to a large extent on anecdotal evidence which author and reader are likely to have had in common, and it is a work filled with playful language and double entendre rather than formal citations of evidence. Hofstadter sought this unconventional style, this “tone” as he would likely say, so as not to miss an opportunity for wordplay with his title. Indeed, his emphasis on the relationship of French and English, as explored through the poet of his title, makes this book appear more like that of a French deconstructionist than of an American physicist turned professor of computer science.

Hofstadter’s playful iconoclasm is but one unusual feature of his book. The work’s method of organization and even its appearance are unconventional, pairing typefaces unusually, containing dual pagination, and interweaving translations with narrative, autobiographical reflections, and asides to readers. The book itself becomes the translation, but it is also a product, highly individual and aware of itself as it is evolving as a book. At times, Hofstadter’s recollections of personal encounters seem almost Proustian in their awareness of the authorial voice. This is not, as it might first appear, merely a reflection of egoism but rather Hofstadter’s way of exposing the highly personal process of thought achieved through recollection. Even the faux pas Hofstadter makes, as for example in his desire to produce an idiomatic Chinese version of his first book, become indications of the author’s brilliance as he recalls them. The memories, if not always completely accurate, are entirely sincere and indicate...

(The entire section is 1935 words.)