Gödel, Escher, Bach Critical Context - Essay

Douglas R. Hofstadter

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Gödel, Escher, Bach provokes thought about thought. In this sense, as in its very structure, the book is recursive. When Hofstadter makes the following comment about Bach’s Musical Offering, he is speaking about his own work as well:One cannot look deeply enough into the Musical Offering. There is always more after one thinks one knows everything. . . . Things are going on on many levels. . . . There are tricks with notes and letters. . . . There is beauty and extreme depth of emotion; even an exultation in the many-leveledness of the work comes through.

Clearly, the Pulitzer Prize committee and hundreds of thousands of readers who bought Gödel, Escher, Bach exulted in its many-leveledness, too, but the book has provoked controversy as well as admiration. Some reviewers complained about its length, its quirky style, and its scope. Other popularizers of scientific ideas— Stephen Jay Gould, Loren Eiseley, Lewis Thomas, Carl Sagan—may reveal less literary inventiveness but do not provoke a paraphrase of Gertrude’s plea to Polonius: “Less matter, with less art.” Hofstadter, certain critics claim, may bemuse rather than amuse his audience.

Some musical theorists have objected that Bach seems dragged into the book because Hofstadter wanted to discuss the composer, not because his music is truly recursive. The “Canon per Tonos” is clever, but it does not rely on paradox in the way that Gödel’s theorem or Escher’s prints do. Researchers in artificial intelligence are also divided on the merits of Hofstadter’s theories; some experts in this field refute his definition of machine...

(The entire section is 680 words.)