Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language

BasicBooks, 1997. ISBN 0-465-08643-8 (hardcover edition). 632 + xxiv pp.

IMHO, Hofstadter's best book. It's quite different from Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, although in characteristic Hofstadter style it covers as wide a multiplicity of topics. To top it all, it quotes a few Tom Lehrer songs.

Le Ton Beau de Marot is, on the surface, about translation, especially of poetry. It centres around various translations of the poem `À un damoyselle malade' by the not-very-well-known French poet Clément Marot. It also talks about Pushkin, AI, and the death of Hofstadter's wife Carol.

If you're at all interested in poetry, translation, Hofstadter, or just plain cool stuff, it's a must read. If you found yourself wishing GEB had more code, it's probably not.

A prelude-and-fugue-styled book by Douglas Hofstadter (but it seems all of them are in that style). As billnye points out, the title literally means ``The Beautiful Tone of Marot'', but it is also a pun on ``Le Tombeau de Marot''---``Marot's Tomb''. Hence the cover art, which shows the poem ``À un damoyselle malade'' carved into a tombstone.

I find some of Hofstadter's remarks on modern poetry a bit annoying. For example, he expounds about his detest of modern free verse, in the writing of which, he claims, the only creative decision is deciding where to put the line breaks (the implication being that this is not really creative at all). To which I say, rubbish. One of the more difficult aspects of writing poetry, in my opinion, is creating exactly the right texture. Many features of a poem contribute to this; sure, meter and rhyme can create textures, but for some textures, those must be dispensed with. Inserting line breaks, or even gaps between lines, are often an important part of the texture of a poem. So I would rather Hofstadter had studied more modern poetry before he claimed that modern poets were not really artists at all.

That criticism aside, however, I really enjoyed this book.

I can remember reading Gödel, Escher, Bach...

Personal computing was new, and I was young, and the notion of artificial intelligence was hot, hot, hot. Even though my interests in music tended more towards the latest punk, New Wave, and electronic sounds coming from Europe and the UK than classical per se, and my sight reading skills were almost nonexistent (I still rely on such aids as Sibelius for scores that I don't have recordings for), the quotations from Bach and John Cage (though he disparaged the latter) were exciting, Gödel was close enough to what I knew of Russell and Whitehead not to be too difficult, and Escher was an old friend, having become fascinated by his work while still in high school. By turns Douglas Hofstadter was reverent, cantankerous, playful, and deep, and his neutron-star density defied sequential reading... this book was like running through a miles-wide field of flowers, with new discoveries waiting to be made over every hillock, or a glorious city, full of endless streets full of exciting clubs and fascinating shops, as wonderous in the smallest focus as in the broad.

However, with Metamagical Themas, I began to detect a certain rigidity sinking in. His enthusiasm to the point of obsession and penchant for repetition, which had seemed charming in the first book, now seemed less appealing. Sixty pages on the Rubik's Cube, ending with a sigh that cubing had peaked "...but still, I am bullish on the cube." looked, to me, to be more the product of a borderline mental condition than a brash over-exuberance. While it's true that Chopin, the subject of another essay, is, indeed, a great composer, there's something less than monumental about him, unlike Bach, Beethoven, or even Mozart or Wagner. And the last section of the book, which deals with the fear of nuclear war during the Reagan administration, is now simply embarrassing.

Which leads me to Le Ton Beau de Marot, a whole book constructed around the translation of a get-well-card in rhyme, in which he updates some of his computer science, and tells us that he loves his wife and hates rock music. And he bemoans the problems of translating GEB, upbraids Dante and his translators, and imparts loving praise to his wife and a few witty putdowns of rock music. He also talks about various linguistic tricks, and gives a few little you'd-have-to-know-her anecdotes about his wife (whom he loves) and some sharp criticism of rock music (which he hates), and he loathes, detests, and hates rock music, and his wife, whom he loves, very, very, much, is dead.

While the subtitle of GEB is An Eternal Golden Braid, with its connotations of suppleness, timelessness, and light, the dominant image in Le Ton Beau is, literally, a "tombeau", tomb, or grave, specifically the gravestone of his wife, of black basalt, dark, heavy and engraved with dates and a poem about the evanescence of flowers, voices, and beauty in general.

Accordingly, what seemed supple and light in the first book now seems turgid to the point of being leaden, even though there is much less material to work with. Throughout the book, he proffers various translations of the poem, only to state "No, that's not quite right, what the poem is actually saying is...Which reminds me, my wife once..." In the same manner, he presents countless vignettes of his relationship with his wife, which also, in the manner of memories of all the Loved Ones across the world, lose something in the translation -- while they undoubtedly mean a great deal to him, are somewhat less than interesting to a general reader. However, he seems somewhat less aware of this problem than the other. There is a substantial amount of material, of course, on computers, and the problems of machine translation, but this isn't quite as much fun as the original -- for one thing, computers themselves aren't quite so much a source of wonder anymore. There is, however, a good deal of interesting material on lipograms, pangrams, and the like, where Hofstaedter shows a bit of his old spunk; likewise there is good commentary on such things as the problems of dubbing voices into musicals, but these are exceptions, warm bright spots in a muddy catacomb.

What the main issue seems to be is that, having discarded the traditional views of religion and philosophy in favor of hard skepticism, he's now faced with the age-old paradox of love continuing even after the object of this love has become a collection of decaying organic material. Since he cannot rely on the comfort of an afterlife, or even (as Dante himself seemed to indicate) of her qualities reflecting a greater good, and cannot bear to think of himself having so human an emotion as grief, he's fallen back on reinventing the wheel of superstition. If only he could convey....in just the right words...remember her...in just the right circumstances, just the right moment... if he could translate this poem, her favorite, with just the right shades of meaning.. then, perhaps (his madly grieving mind seems to be saying)... she might...live again?

It's a truism to say that writing this book was likely theraputic for him: it has more than a whiff of the infirmary about it. But what is theraputic to write is not always easy or pleasant to read, especially when the stench is that of the asylum. Sad. Sad.

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