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Douglas Hofstadter
Stanford Humanities Center

A Personal Pot-pourri of Hofstadteriana

by Glen Worthey



It’s not the task of the Presidential Lecture essayist to focus on or to draw attention to himself: and I would, of course, never do such a thing (wink-wink). No, we’re here to write and read about the Lecturer. Still, one of the most salient traits of Douglas Hofstadter’s writing is its deeply and intrinsically personal nature, and not only because all of his books and nearly all of his essays are written in the first person (really a rather remarkable thing in itself, considering that what Hofstadter writes is primarily non-fiction, although fictional vignettes abound, focusing on what, for most academic writers, would be basically “impersonal” topics: artificial intelligence, cognitive science, linguistics, literature, music, art... even his articles on geometry and computer science are written in the first person). Although this grammatical characteristic of his writing is certainly no coincidence, Hofstadter’s personal writing style, his ever-present “I,” has its roots deeper than mere style: it is deeply inherent in his approach both to the topics at hand, and to his own thinking and writing about them. Hofstadter’s “personal” approach allows us readers to participate in the writer’s journey of discovery (the path sometimes being at least as interesting and important as the destination).

All of this is meant to justify my inclusion in this Web site of this brief personal essay on reading Hofstadter — specifically, on my reading of Hofstadter. I don’t make any claims to being a particularly good reader, whatever that might mean. (I personally know several people who are much better readers of Hofstadter than I — and know of a good number more.) I certainly include myself in the “generation of readers” (mentioned in the main essay on this site) for whom GEB was formative “core” reading. But I’ve also chosen here to write about my own personal reading of this most personal writer. Not only in the main essay, but also in its bibliography and excerpts sections, I tried to give a more or less objective overview of DRH’s primary works, and tried to focus on what seem, more or less objectively, their most salient aspects. Granted, these aspects seem most salient precisely to me, and I’m not objective at all, no matter how hard I try — but that was my goal.

Here, though, I abandon all pretense (or some pretense, anyway) of objectivity and generality in order to gather a very personal pot-pourri of moments and mementos culled from my own experiences reading Hofstadter. I include here various and sundry jewels from Hofstadter’s writings — not necessarily those that someone else, including the author, would inevitably consider the most valuable, of course, but rather those that most sparkle in my own memory. I also relate a few things that I have gathered from coincidence (quoting a favorite bard): the coincidence of some particulars of my life with some particulars of Hofstadter’s work — again, not because my life is so extraordinarily interesting to people who don’t know me, but rather as an illustration of the potential meanings of coincidence, especially in the appreciation of Hofstadter’s work. Obviously, it’s the Hofstadter half of the coincidence that will be of most interest to most readers; but I would hope that other readers of Hofstadter might gather something from their own coincidences as well.

But enough of the self-justifications, and on to the pot-pourri.

For Meta, For Verse[1]

In the history of metaliterary endeavors, Hofstadter came a little before Dave Eggers, and a lot after Laurence Sterne. But in my own reading history, Hofstadter was first by many years. As much as I love reading the others, in many ways reading GEB was necessary preparation for reading them, and it remains, in my mind, one of the measures of the metaliterary. Every bit of the book is fair game for Hofstadter’s games, from cover to cover, and table of contents to index. Some of this metaliterary play is described elsewhere in this site, and really, there’s too much to mention without writing another set of books more or less the same length as Hofstadter’s own oeuvre. Some metaliterary aspects of Hofstadter’s books are not necessarily purely playful: for example, the multiple tables of contents in most of his books (Metamagical Themas has three!), each one recursively including the others, revealing the content of the book in a different degree of detail, are themselves wonderful pathways into each book; they also act as various retellings of their books — a function that seems obvious now that Hofstadter has developed it so nicely for us.

Although Hofstadter’s metaliterary aspects are both entertaining and enlightening, as I point out elsewhere, they seem to be relatively rare in the non-fiction world. Of course, Dave Eggers's Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, one of my favorite books of the last several years, is also non-fiction — although of that fiction-like narrative genre of autobiography. Still, Eggers the writer of belles-lettres and Hofstadter the cognitive scientist and philosopher stand, somewhat oddly, very close together in the bookshelf of my mind. I even sometimes like to use the checkbox Eggers provides in his title as a sort of scorecard for the books I read, and both he and Hofstadter pass with flying colors: Genius? Check. Staggering? Check. Work? Check. Heartbreaking? Check. “Why even bother with a book that doesn’t live up to these tests?” I ask myself rhetorically. Well, of course, there are lots of useful, entertaining and enlightening books to read — but it’s the ones that meet this standard — initially set for me by Hofstadter, later enunciated by Eggers — that end up as my favorites.

There seems to be no end to the metaliterary moments to be found within Hofstadter’s major works. Self-ref and self-rep, jokes and giochi, and so on and so forth — one could create an entire typology! And of course Hofstadter does so, since the “meta” idea, far from being only icing on his cake, is also one of its main ingredients. As I hope to have portrayed throughout this site, a significant part of the pleasure of a Hofstadter book for me is discovering all these hidden treats gracing the surface and baked inside his cakes. (I also hope not to have spoiled some future reader’s appetite for them by pointing out too many!) But there is even some delicious metaliterary play to be found somewhat outside the books — perhaps, after devouring both cake and icing of a book, discovering these meta-metatextual moments is like licking the icing from a beater.

One of my favorite examples is in three parts — and in verse, no less! In brief: Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin begins with a poem of dedication to his friend and fellow poet Petr Pletnev, which Hofstadter of course translates. But in typical metaliterary fashion, Hofstadter begins his novel versification just outside the Pushkin text, with his own poem of dedication (identical to Pushkin’s in rhyme scheme and meter, of course) to his friend and fellow Onegin translator James Falen! This is a brilliant example of “the subtle art of transculturation” (as Hofstadter titles one of his chapters in Le Ton beau de Marot): not only is there a perfect analogy drawn between the dedicatees; there is also a deeper metatextual analogy drawn between Pushkin’s “haughty set” (in Russian “гордый свет” — which happens to rhyme with Hofstadter’s English, by the way), the imagined audience Pushkin doesn’t aim to amuse, and “Nabokov’s monde,” the imagined audience of that Nabokovian sort of “translation” with which Hofstadter justly finds fault. That’s one extra rich layer in this particular cake, but there’s more. In response to an unfortunately prominent review of his Onegin translation, Hofstadter wrote the following gem:

To the editor:

I write to counter Richard Lourie,
Who tried to trash my Pushkin verse,
“Eugene Onegin.” In his fury,
He called it “flat,” and even worse,
He claimed my English was deficient,
My Russian weak and insufficient —
Quoting my own disclaimers as
His proof my poem lacks pizzazz.
I have to question why a critic
Would crudely crow, “There’s not a line
That sings or zings,” yet quote but nine
From o’er five thousand. Such acidic
But feckless words to flout my rhymes
Did not well serve The New York Times.

Douglas Hofstadter
Stanford, California.

Now, there are at least few things to note about this response: First and form-most, it is written as a precise and strict Onegin stanza — obviously a metatextual move in itself. Second, it includes a few carefully-aimed guilt-by-association rhymes, notably “Lourie / fury” and “acidic / critic.” Third, it rather fairly sums up all two of the reviewer’s rather flimsy criticisms — fairly enough, anyway, that I don’t feel any need to quote much of the review itself, though for the record, it’s in the Times Book Review of September 12, 1999, where Hofstadter’s response appeared on October 12 of the same year. The only potentially substantive idea in this review (most of which falls squarely in the de gustibus realm) is about mistaking “the word-game surface aspect of poetry — alliteration and wordplay — for the thing itself.” This old fallacy, that “the medium is not the message,” is closely related precisely to the topic of the next section of this essay; but to finish this section, I would just point out that the beauty of Hofstadter’s response is in precisely its unity of medium and message, and that his poetic expression is clearly the meta part of valor.

Hofstadter contra Addison

Continuing in this “meta” mode, I wanted to clarify that I find Hofstadter’s use of play (metaliterary play, wordplay, genre play, and so forth) to be marvelously meaningful. But it should be said right away that not all, and perhaps not most, find this to be the case for wordplay in general. I believe it’s common to declare that “serious” writing should be “serious,” and pointedly not playful. Hofstadter gives the lie to this rather stodgy old commandment. After I first encountered (reading LeTbM, of course!) the idea of the lipogram (a composition written with some letter-level constraint, such as without any E’s) in Le Ton beau de Marot, I looked for other evidence of the mysterious form. The OED entry for “lipogram” took me first to Addison’s Spectator, and the following harsh judgment of the lipogram and some of its brethren:

As true Wit generally consists in this Resemblance and Congruity of Ideas, false Wit chiefly consists in the Resemblance and Congruity sometimes of single Letters, as in Anagrams, Chronograms, Lipograms, and Acrosticks; Sometimes of Syllables, as in Echos and Doggerel Rhymes; Sometimes of Words, as in Punns and Quibbles....[2]
Of course, it’s hard to pick a fight with a writer of Addison’s stature, and I suspect the fight would not really be with him alone, but rather with an entire literary aesthetic or even with an entire epoch. Still, Addison himself offers a subversive example of the possibilities of “false Wit” a few lines later, as he divides the literary sheep from the “falsely witty” goats: “Mr. Dryden is very sparing in it,” he writes of false wit. “Milton had a Genius much above it. Spencer is in the same Class with Milton. The Italians, even in their Epic Poetry, are full of it.” Perhaps it takes a particularly colloquial reader of our day to appreciate the true Wit of this double entendre, but I suspect even Hofstadter, a known Italophile, would agree: yes, perhaps the Italians are full of it — thank the gods!

Related to this love of form at all levels — including even such lusty dalliances with form, like wordplay and letterplay, that some (Mr. Addison) might consider beneath them — is one of the most memorable central ideas of Le Ton beau de Marot: that formal constraints, paradoxically, often prove to be paths to higher artistic achievement. Rhyme and meter are obvious examples of these artistically “liberating” constraints; and Hofstadter would point to the contemporary victory of free verse, even — especially! — in poetry translation, as evidence of the general decline in the ars poetica. But there are other sorts of art-inspiring, mind-liberating formal constraints as well, including all those oddities in which Hofstadter takes such great delight (see the note on Oulipo, below, as well his lipogrammatic autobiography and his two strikingly different versions of the story of old One Stone / Einstein).

When Hofstadter embraces the theory and practice and importance of formal constraints, he’s in very good company: one of my favorite LeTbM anecdotes (pp. 538-539) is in praise of poetic constraints, and comes through Hofstadter from Willis Barnstone, a translator of Borges who worked in Buenos Aires with the poet himself. Barnstone relates a memorable lesson he learned from the master, related to rhyme and to formal constraints in general: “try a little harder.”

  “Borges has a message for you about the sonnets,” the editor said.
  “What’s the message?”
  “In your translation of ‘Camden, 1892,’ the one about Whitman,” [the editor] said discreetly, “Borges thinks your rhyme in the last couplet is incorrect.”
  I wondered why Borges hadn’t called me himself. Why the messenger? I began to fumble with words, defending slant rhymes, saying how modern poets in English like to use muted assonant rhymes, how...
  “Borges thinks you should try a little harder,” [the editor] coldly interrupted.
  So I tried a little harder. I discovered it was not much harder to make rhymes perfectly consonant. And this achievement had advantages beyond that of euphonious final vowels. Each new formal obstacle orders the imagination to look a little farther and opens escape from the map of the literal and the obvious.

Perhaps not all constraints are created equal. Perhaps not all constraints are equally important in all genres, or for all authors, or in all works. Addison surely understood and appreciated the constraints of rhyme and rhythm, somehow distinguishing between the very syllables of false-wit (doggerel) and true-with poetry. Surely this topic deserves a more nuanced treatment: it can’t be as simple as Hofstadter contra Addison. But to my mind, and in my limited experience, Hofstadter’s position is the more productive. And fun.

Mind as Kunstkammer, Hofstadter as Hoflieferant

Of the many possible metaphors for the mind,[3] my favorite for my mind is the cabinet of curiosities. I guess I’m fond of “big ideas”; in spite of a distressingly short attention span, I enjoy meaty books and substantial pieces of music and long historical periods. But for me there’s nothing quite like trivia (and even less like quadrivia): the curious bits of knowledge from the human endeavors I care most about. I don’t mean baseball statistics or World War II battles or the names of the British prime ministers — not that I have anything against these things, but they don’t delight the way these odd snippets of knowledge that I’m calling “curiosities” do.

Curiously, over the years, as the occasional conversation or book review or sound or sight causes me to recall some curiosity within my private little Kunstkammer, and then to trace the source of that curiosity in my head — curiously, a quite significant portion of times, that source has been one of Hofstadter’s books. I don’t know whether this is a matter of similar tastes (though I certainly know of some divergence in our tastes); or some measurable abundance of these sorts of things in Hofstadter’s work (though one certainly couldn’t say this was the primary purpose of any of these books — one certainly wouldn’t call them miscellanies); or the consequence of my not having read enough other books in my life (perhaps getting closer to the truth) — but I know that many of these favorite little things I read first, or learned most memorably, in Hofstadter. Here’s a sampling:

  • Bach self-referentially encoded his name as the melody B-A-C-H, both rather slyly in A Musical Offering (one of the central texts of Hofstadter’s GEB) and more directly in the final Contrapunctus of his Art of the Fugue. In Contracrostipunctus, one of the most masterful and masterfully playful dialogues of GEB, Hofstadter has his principal characters, Achilles and the Tortoise, expound memorably on this curiosity, on its relation to Bach’s biography, and on the endless possibilities of hidden messages in music, poetry and — of course — dialogues. (I won’t risk a spoiler by commenting further on this most delicious dialogue — but I do encourage you to read or/and re-read it! It’s on pages 75-81 of GEB.) This, though, doesn’t nearly exhaust the possibilities of the B-A-C-H melody for Hofstadter: he later reveals a simple intervalic transformation through which B-A-C-H becomes C-A-G-E — with diverting digressions, both metaphysical and musico-critical, on these two “related” composers.
  • Bach’s Crab Canon (Musical Offering) is the same played backwards and forwards, with the voices reversed. (I suppose all crab canons do this, but Bach’s is the first I’d ever heard of.) Of course, M.C. Escher’s Crab Canon engraving, and Hofstadter’s own Crab Canon dialogue (GEB, pp.199-203), in which the other two Crab Canons are discussed, do somewhat the same thing; most amazingly, certain long stretches of crab DNA do sort of the same thing too! Hofstadter isn’t too shy to reveal both his devices themselves and, later, the creative processes that led to this lovely constellation of playful formalisms and hidden meanings. These become the source material for an important later discussion of human and computer creativity (GEB, pp.665-668) — but it is the backwards-forwards-reversible property (in other words, the crab-canonicity) of Bach’s Crab Canon that first delighted me and stuck in my mind.
  • Umberto Eco and Humbert Humbert are isomorphic. The real-life Italian novelist, medievalist and semiotician was born in 1932, and had his first publication in 1956. Echoing his first name, as literally instructed by his surname, he becomes “Umberto Umberto”; translating that into English gives us Humbert Humbert. The fictional European scholar and pedophile was born in 1910 in the fictional world, but first revealed to our world in 1955, as the main character of Nabokov’s Lolita. The two coincide, Hofstadter points out (Le Ton beau de Marot, p. 127), when Eco writes a preface to a book of lipogrammatic Italian sonnets, the last of which is a retelling of Lolita. ¡Olé!
  • Fascinating Literary Formalities. Through Hofstadter’s books, particularly Le Ton beau de Marot, I first learned of the Oulipo writers and their curious linguistic and literary antics: Raymond Queneau and his mathematical and Bachian Exercises de Style, Georges Perec and his e-less lipogrammatic novel La Disparition, and others. I also heard here first of Vikram Seth and his Silicon Valley-set, Onegin-versed Golden Gate — that “one novel in verse that doffs its hat to another,” as Hofstadter memorably put it in Ton beau de Marot (p. 234). This menagerie of literary curiosities (and let this designation never be called a denigration!), together with some slightly more canonical but still deeply curious works from Borges, Lem and others that are included in The Mind’s I — and of course a sampling from the imaginary Egbert B. Gebstadter — would form a delightful and quirky book club program, for example, or a well-stocked literary Kunstkammer.
  • The Last Shall Be First, Part I: e-Commerce. I conclude this inventory of my mental cabinet of curiosities with two wildly contrasting Hofstadter “firsts” — one which is perhaps frivolous, though certainly significant in certain realms; and another which is profoundly esoteric and deeply meaningful. Hofstadter’s Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies on May 10, 1995, became the first book ever sold over the Web by that symbol of the Internet Age,[4] In addition to being a nice note in the sales history of a very deserving book, as well as a handsome feather in’s e-commercial cap, this is also perhaps a bit ironic because of Hofstadter’s eschewing of “glib technological glitz and surreal futuristic promises” (GEB, Twentieth Anniversary Ed. Preface, p. P-22). Not that is necessarily glib, glitzy, surreal or futuristic — but there has been more than a hint of each of those aspects in its history. And Hofstadter and team’s wonderful book was an unwitting yet proud part of it all!
  • The Last Shall Be First, Part II: A Fractal Found.
    Hofstadter’s 1975 Ph.D. dissertation in physics, The Energy Levels of Bloch Electrons in a Magnetic Field, describes and illustrates one of the first ever fractal phenomena found in nature — more particularly, the first fractal phenomenon that ever cropped up in physics, and as the energy spectrum of a very ordinary-looking equation, where no one ever would have guessed that anything like this would turn up. When he graphs the energy levels described in the title, a fantastically beautiful butterfly pattern emerges, its nested, recursive forms repeating endlessly on many different levels, so that each piece contains copies of the whole. What Hofstadter originally called Gplot is now popularly and fondly known as “Hofstadter’s butterfly,” an important contribution both to solid-state physics and to the aesthetic appreciation of the beauty, simplicity and harmony of the universe. Hofstadter describes the basic structure and meaning of his Gplot in GEB, pp. 138-142.


To understand the next ingredient in my pot-pourri you need to know that I studied Russian literature in graduate school, before coming to Stanford as a librarian of digital things. A few years after coming to Stanford, in 1999, I attended conference here in honor of the bicentennial of Alexander Pushkin’s birth. As a Slavist, I had of course known it was Pushkin’s birthday, and was interested in the conference. What I hadn’t known until then, and really couldn’t have imagined, was that Douglas Hofstadter was going to appear at the Pushkin conference — and moreover, was presenting his freshly-minted translation of Eugene Onegin! (In the many-year flurry of graduate school reading and writing, I had missed Hofstadter’s books of the 1990s; had I read Le Ton beau de Marot, of course, I wouldn’t have been quite so surprised at the appearance of EO. A little surprised, sure — as Hofstadter says he was himself! — but not head-spinningly so, as was actually the case.)

During the few days of the conference, I heard Hofstadter read from and discuss his new translation of the foundational work of Russian literature. I bought a copy, and stood in line to have it signed. Another surprise awaited me there: instead of just signing the book, Hofstadter proceeded to draw this crazy picture on the fly-leaf! It only took him half a minute or so, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, representationally speaking. (Even without heads or tails, I did notice the little whiskers.) Since this was the first time I’d ever seen or communicated with him at all, I knew this wasn’t a special gift for me, and I presumed this was just the way he signed his books — though it seemed like a lot of effort as I imagined the number of books he had probably signed! I only learned recently that Hofstadter’s “Jazz Scribbles” period had begun only a few years earlier (see Hofstadter’s own description of his Jazz Scribble practice — and note the constraints and lessons he draws even from this seemingly random artistic act).

As much as I enjoyed my own personal Jazz Scribble in my own signed copy of Hofstadter’s Eugene Onegin, what really moved me at the time was the very fact of that translation, which I took as a gift to me and the whole Russian literature profession, from a famous writer in a totally different field who had inspired me so much in my late adolescence: after all, he could have chosen to translate Don Quixote (Pierre Menard’s version,[5] of course!), or The Tale of Genji, or something else instead — but he chose our novel in verse! This sense of gratitude only increased as I read the translation itself, as I realized what a labor of love it was, and what an interesting and delightful contribution it made to the appreciation of Pushkin in the anglophone world.

I had yet another sort of epiphany related to Hofstadter’s 1999 visit to Stanford and contribution to “my” field: although I hadn’t thought about it in this way before, I suddenly realized while sitting at this conference that my first academic publication (just a few years earlier), about a much lesser-known Pushkin poem,[6] was in fact a deeply and uniquely (if, at the time, subconsciously) Hofstadterian reading. Once again, Hofstadter had been hovering the background of my field of study, and suddenly came into view! The gist of my paper was that Pushkin’s humorous narrative poem “Little House in Kolomna” — long thought to be a somewhat trifling jumble of metaliterary references and a bawdy cross-dressing anecdote — was in fact a poetic fractal, and perhaps one of a kind. (In the paper I show that Pushkin’s 40-stanza poem serves as a huge, 8x5 model of each of its own eight-line, pentametric stanzas, complete with alternating masculine and feminine rhymes and a cornucopia of other self-referential formal features.) How I missed that obvious Hofstadterian nature of my own article is a mystery to me — perhaps it was a forest/trees scenario — but as I read Hofstadter’s “new” books a few years after, and have since re-read the old ones, I see how clear the connection is. I now believe that it was the very same affinities that I have been trying to illustrate in this essay, and my deep-background reading of Hofstadter’s works many years before, that made my own little discovery possible. It’s far afield from Hofstadter’s butterfly — but in an odd way, not altogether different.

Gratitude and Generosity

There’s always more that I could say about the personal experience of reading Hofstadter, for example, about working in the very places he grew up. For some lovely Stanford scenes, I recommend his description of typesetting and printing the galleys for GEB in the building where the Stanford Daily was printed. This is in the Twentieth-Anniversary Preface to GEB. Or his description of learning to program on, meanwhile “interacting” with, the University’s only computer in the basement of Encina Hall (in the 2003 article entitled “Moore’s Law, Artificial Evolution, and the Fate of Humanity”). It would also be fun to include here a list of all the ways that Hofstadter and Nabokov are alike, and how they really should get along better than they seem to (and, how they too, in the bookshelf of my mind, stand close together). Or to banter Hofstadter a bit about his sometimes outspoken opinions of pop culture: he gets a kick out of Cole Porter — and even relishes the thought that his Eugene Onegin sounds as if Porter had done it! — yet takes delight (in Metamagical Themas) in expressing his “heretical opinion” that John Lennon’s wonderfully silly books In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works are “perhaps better than the Beatles’ music”!

There’s so much to be found in Hofstadter’s books — he’s such a generous and genial writer, with such wide-ranging interests — that this sort of collecting of curiosities, and recalling of readings, and engaging with the writer — this pot-pourri of a reading journal — could almost go on forever, or at least as long as the books themselves. That, though, would be absurd: that’s what the books are for. If I have helped you to recall some of your own moments with Hofstadter, or have inspired you to spend some time gathering curiosities from him for your own mental museums, then I think my somewhat self-indulgent personal essay as a grateful reader of Hofstadter will have been worthwhile.


1. In an early draft of this essay a curious and punny quote was attached to this particular section on metaliterary topics. The phrase was based on an Irving Berlin song in which a cocky smart-aleck of a character boasts in song of her supposed superiority over her supposedly inferior interlocutor. Well, this quip, based on the pun “meta” in place of the word “better,” has been attributed falsely to Hofstadter, who rejects that attitude out of hand and would much rather not be associated with it! Rather than continue this false association, I’ve chosen a different (perhaps more labored, and certainly less memorable) pun. If you, dear reader, know or can figure out what the rejected pun was, please promise never, ever to associate it with Douglas Hofstadter! And may the meta ban win.

2. Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 62 (May 11, 1711). Cited from The spectator. ... Carefully corrected, Glasgow : printed by R. Urie and Company, for A. Stalker, and J. Barry, 1745, v.1, p.242. In Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), distributed by the Gale Group.

3. Thanks to Stanford’s Brad Pasanek and his current “Metaphors of Mind” project for thought-provoking research and discussion of this.

4. SmartMoney (a publication of The Wall Street Journal), August 1998, p.104.

5. “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote.” In: Jorge Luis Borges, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, 1941.

6.“Gender poetics and the structure of ‘Domik v Kolomne’.” Elementa, 1997 (v.3), pp.271-290.

©2006 Stanford University Libraries.


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