Sunday, July 8, 2012

Dances with words

My Blogger profile mentions that reading Douglas Hofstadter's Le ton beau de Marot changed my life. (I began another post exactly the same way five years ago, just to be self-referential.) My profile goes on to say, "I also like exploring other creative pursuits such as...writing poetry that rhymes; and creating effective translations (yes that's creative!)." I can say almost for certain that I would've written a lot fewer poems were it not for Hofstadter. Why, just three posts ago (which I'm embarrassed to say was three months ago), I blogged about a set of sonnets I wrote for my daughter, and that post includes links to quite a few other bits of MMrhyming. I also would surely never have embarked upon and completed a full translation of a French operetta into singable (I hope), rhyming English had I not read this book. The operetta is Gounod's The Doctor in Spite of Himself, and that translation had much to do with me becoming a doctor in spite of myself. That's a kind of self-referential loop that Hofstadter would love.

Hofstadter is most famous for another sprawling, crazy-brilliant work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning (1980) Gödel, Escher, Bach, which I have to admit I've never quite finished, though I've started it many times. It's all about self-referential loops such as Bach's Crab Canon, Escher's loopy drawings, and Gödel's "Incompleteness Theorem." But, it's really about consciousness, and the ways in which our minds (in Hofstadter's view) arise from incredibly intricate, self-referential patterns - sort of; remember, I never finished the book! (The Gödel math stuff is pretty complicated - so many symbols.)

Le Ton beau de Marot debuted in 1997, tackling some of the same questions through the prism of language. I first read it in 1998 and I just finished my second reading yesterday. Though critical consensus seems to hold that it is a lesser book than Gödel, Escher, Bach, I strongly disagree. I find its every page to be inspiring in a way that makes the mind dance which, by the way, is what music does as well. The book happens to be subtitled "In Praise of the Music of Language," and I was first drawn to it by that subtitle, and because I was becoming interesting in philosophical questions concerting musical transcriptions. Hofstadter's book is all about linguistic translations, which I (more than Hofstadter, as I'll discuss in posts to come) see as significantly analogous to musical transcriptions. Come to think of it, I find myself disagreeing with lots of what Hofstadter has to say about music, although he and I share pretty similar tastes, which reminds me of a fun little story...

Just a couple of days ago, I was reading along while simultaneously listening to some music. It's fairly unusual for me to double-dip like this, but I'd just downloaded this Cho-Lian Ling Lin recording of Prokofiev and Stravinsky concertos because I've recently fallen head over heels in love with Prokofiev's first concerto. (Listen to this from about 5:35 on if you don't know the piece; surely the most breathtakingly beautiful ending to any concerto ever, but I digress...) I've listened to that concerto, in various recordings, probably 20 times in the past few weeks; in this case, the first concerto had ended, and I'd gone back to focusing on Hofstadter as the second concerto played. The second concerto I've known and loved for years, having accompanied it many times, but I hadn't listened to it for quite a long time. Lin was ripping through the wild finale as I turned to p.460 of Le Ton beau de Marot, and suddenly I found myself reading the following passage. [Here, Hofstadter is discussing musical tastes and his trying to come to some understanding of why people would rudely blare rock'n'roll out windows into the neighborhood. He admits that he hates rock'n'roll, but feels that the blaring itself is unconscionably rude. Until...]
...up popped the following memory from April, 1966. It's a beautiful crisp sunny spring morning in Ravenna, Italy. My parents and my sister and I are staying in a pretty hotel, and I wake up in an absolutely exuberant mood, with the Prokofiev second violin concerto running incredibly strongly through my head. I happen to have brought my tape recorder along on our trip, and I even have a tape of that piece with me. Almost breathlessly, I pull the tape out of my suitcase, mount it on the machine, fast-forward to the proper number, turn the volume up to maximum, and then - I ecstatically blast the sounds of Prokofiev's second violin concerto throughout the halls of our hotel. Noise-pollution city! Luckily for me, nobody complains.
OK, it's just a crazy coincidence (though much moreso because it turned out to be the second concerto I hadn't been listening to non-stop), but on some more abstract level, I find that Hofstadter's thinking out loud (in print) always resonates with me. By no means does this mean that I always agree with him; indeed, I suspect one reason Le Ton beau de Marot has turned off some critics is because the author is so blunt about his own opinions, some of which are quite strong and even just plain obnoxious - and he goes after some pretty big names. In future posts, I'm hoping to blog about some points on which I disagree with him, but I hope it's always with a deep appreciation for the brilliance of his vision. When I say his writing "resonates," I kind of mean the term in its musical sense - Hofstadter's words bounce around in my mind, vibrate, and create a richly complex halo of thoughts - thoughts about thinking, which of course is yet another example of self-reference.

Although I'm sad to have finished the book (the fact that the final chapter is quite sad doesn't help), I'm sure these resonances will keep bouncing around in my head in the weeks ahead. Why, just yesterday I saw that my sister had corrected herself in a Facebook comment, apologizing that Auto-correct had rendered "ill-mannered" as "I'll-mannered." I mused to myself that "being I'll-mannered" suggests an ill-mannered kind of selfishness, so I started typing up a clever comment along the lines of: "Being I'll-mannered is more likely to make you ill-mannered than being you'll-mannered or we'll-mannered..." and then it just jumped off the page. Just as "I'll" converts easily to "ill," by the exact same apostrophe-dropping process, "we'll" converts to "well," and "well-mannered" is just as commonly used as its opposite.

Within minutes, I was tweeting my own brand-new apostroph-ic aphorism (though someone's probably thought of it before):
He who's well-mannered is likely to be we'll-mannered. He who's ill-mannered is likely to be I'll-mannered.
Now, this is hardly the most inspired or creative of discoveries, but this process of discovery is the kind of thing Hofstadter loves to deconstruct, a curious combination of computer confusion, coincidental connotations, and chance conscious connection. There's no etymological reason why these word pairs (I'll/ill - we'll/well) should yield such parallel meanings when paired with "mannered," but the fact that they do is a small thing of beauty - a musical pattern emerging from an unexpected place. I strongly suspect my immersion in Hostadterana primed me to experience this incidental insight.

Hofstadter's investigations of artificial intelligence are based on something much deeper than the kind of database-based "thinking" that confuses Auto-correct - he would rightly scoff at the idea that Auto-correct has the kind of awareness to experience actual confusion. For Hofstadter, thinking lies in the kind of pattern-matching that inspires us to make meaningful analogies - like saying a set of printed words on a page can "make my mind dance" or that they can "resonate" in my head. But, resonate they do.

More to come...including some of my own poetic responses to Hofstadter's translation challenges.

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