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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Reader's Diary #274- Douglas R. Hofstadter: Godel, Escher, Bach (up to p. 500)

One of Leonard Cohen's more obvious tactics is best illustrated with "Bird On A Wire": death by simile. Like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir...Like a worm on a hook, Like a knight from some old fashioned book...Like a baby, stillborn, Like a beast with his horn.


I see the logic behind it. With enough comparisons, at least one of them should resonate with the listener, right? Of course, I'm being a little unfair. Cohen seems to do more than grasp at straws. He tries to change things up enough so that each drop of figurative language has the potential to bring his point into sharper focus. You end up comparing the comparisons, looking for ways they are alike and how they represent the overall point he's trying to make.

However, the risk one takes in using such a tactic is confusing matters even more. What if the bombardment of metaphors, similes, and analogies muddies the waters instead of clearing them up? At a little over 3 minutes, Cohen can be forgiven. You can enjoy the melody and move on, not giving two hoots about how he can simultaneously feel like both a stillborn baby and a bird on a wire. At 742 pages, Hofstadter may not get off so easily.

As the title suggests, Hofstadter likes to touch upon a variety of topics. That's an understatement really. He presents a dizzying number of topics: philosophy, math, music, art, literature, psychology, biology, language, artificial intelligence, computer programming, and more. The problem I find is that you're never really sure how he's using them. Which are genuine topics and which are merely meant to illustrate his other points? Did he, for example, intend to focus equally on Godel, Escher and Bach, or did he intend to use Bach and Escher merely as examples to represent Godel's theories? His connections are hazy at best.

It's unfortunate really because during my brief moments of understanding, I can see that Hofstadter has some pretty profound points to ponder. I really enjoyed, for instance, his discussion on how our thoughts and sense of self arise from the physical structure of the brain.

I actually found the second third of the book more more easy to understand than the first. I'll concede that many issues I have with the book aren't to be blamed on Hofstadter at all. I'm quickly coming to the realization that my numeracy isn't nearly as strong as my literacy. The second he begins talking about typographical number theory, my brain fogs over leaving me confused and disinterested. However (and this is where Hoftstadter's responsibility comes in), discussions of Escher paintings and cute dialogues between Achilles and Tortoise shed hardly any light at all.

Hofstadter may be a brilliant man, but I'm not yet convinced he's much of an author.

13 comments:

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I have the feeling that Hofstader is one of those people who can write pages and pages without really saying anything.

Nice touch, making the comparison to Cohen.

richard said...

Re Cohen: I've always felt that in this song/poem, the repetition is itself a sign of the speaker's desperation, so for me it works.

Especially in Willie Nelson's lovely version on Tower of Song!

John Mutford said...

Barbara: Maybe. Or maybe he's saying plenty- just not coherently.

Richard: It works for me too- but I don't think it's a matter of simple repetition. He could have done that by sticking to the bird on a wire image, repeating it over and over. Instead he tries out all those other scenes. I like Willie's cover. k.d. lang's too. Not surprising though, I prefer Johnny Cash's cover.

Dewey said...

I took this out of my unread authors challenge list. I'll think of something to replace it. If it were just tedious, I might slog through it, but if it's this tedious and so LONG, no thanks!

John Mutford said...

Dewey: Ooops. I never meant to unrecommend anything! Actually, yeah, if I had my time back I probably wouldn't have started it. But still, plenty of people have enjoyed it- maybe you'd be one of those.

Carrie K said...

I picked it up from the library anyway. Longwinded and tedious! Right up my alley! lol

Leonard Cohen wrote my favorite song "Hallelujah". I like Jeff Buckley's version of it best. (Like you care. ;)

John Mutford said...

Carrie: I'll be interested to hear your thoughts when you get around to it.

And the Leonard Cohen thing? Au contraire, I care a great deal. I love Cohen and have amassed a lot of his songs and covers of his songs. Furthermore, I agree with you that Jeff Buckley's version is the best. k.d lang's live Juno Awards performance of it was pretty spectacular to see as well, but without seeing her do it, it easily falls short of Buckley. Bono's version is probably the worst, but I'll give him credit for doing something different with it.

A said...

I don't think you've read the Cohen lyrics correctly, because each pair of similes is then followed by a line specific to that pairing. The stillborn baby & the beast with his horn both inflict pain on others, which is why the speaker compares himself to them. His comment about the bird on the wire & trying to be free is a separate statement. As such, it isn't just random similes strung together.

John Mutford said...

A: No, I've read them. Many times. And while perhaps how I quoted them above seems to imply they're all similes for the same feeling, they are all used in the same short piece by a single narrator. I personally find the great contrast in images jarring. While one might specifically deal with freedom, another with hurting someone, and so on, they're all within one man. Plus, how he juxtaposes them within mere lines of one another implies, to me anyhow, that there must be a link to one another as well. If he was trying to keep them separate- or perhaps free- the similes themselves are but birds on a single wire.

a said...

I just don't see what's confusing about having those conflicting impulses come from a single narrator. I think most people refer to that kind of thing as "commitment issues." All it means is that he's been a dick to someone who loves him and isn't sure if he wants freedom or to be with someone else.

John Mutford said...

A: You've said that you think I was reading his lyrics incorrectly. Funny, since you're not reading me correctly. First you implied that I thought they were random similes strewn together. I said no such thing, nor do I believe that. Now you're telling me that they're not confusing. Again, I never said that they were! I do think the narrator conveys himself as a complex individual, but no more than is realistic. It's not usual that in a single poem, a reader gets presented with such varied images of a worm on a hook, a beast's horn, a bird on a wire, etc. These are pretty different images to get in almost rapid succession, and that's what I find jarring. Not confusing! Though I can understand why someone would think it so. For what it's worth, I'm a fan of Cohen and this song. And you're certainly entitled to your own opinions and to share them here, but please don't put words in my mouth.

a said...

Well, you did refer to the risk of his tactics 'confusing' matters and 'muddying the waters', and the general implication is that something is unclear, so I don't think I was wrong to use the word confusion. As for the similes being 'random', if you don't think they cohere or come together clearly, then that would imply that they are disconnected...which I would think is why you questioned how he could simultaneously compare himself to a bird on a wire & a stillborn baby.

For a poem that uses many far more jarring images & that pulls it off, see Plath's "Ariel."

John Mutford said...

A: Sorry if I'm coming across as snitty. Still, running the risk of being confusing is not the same as actually being confusing. Now, I'm being confusing! And while I don't think the images necessarily mesh, I think if the reader (or listener) steps back they can see them all as distinct emotions but within a believable single narrator (the common strand). When I said that part about simultaneously feeling like a bird on a wire and a stillborn baby, I was putting it within the context of someone (not necessarily me) not understanding the lyrics, but still appreciating other aspects of the poem. If you read my post more carefully, or perhaps if I'd taken the time to articulate it better, the whole point of bringing up Cohen in the first place was to show how the approach of using loads of similes (or other figurative devices) can work despite Hofstadter's ability to pull it off in my eyes.