Godel, Escher, Dalek

Thirteen years ago, an old friend – a programmer, musician and one of the smartest people I know – introduced me to the fabulous romp through logic that was Gödel, Escher, Bach.

I don’t pretend to understand any of what I read of it. Jon once told me that he couldn’t function in a world where he wasn’t allowed to express logic, and I, conversely, couldn’t function in a world where I am forced to do so. Logic works for me as a concept, but I have a lot of difficulty engaging with it. I have a copy of the book on my shelf these days, having finally bought it a couple of years ago, but it’s still in immaculate condition because I’ve only dipped into it a few times since then, attempting a serious read once or twice but never making it past the introduction. Nonetheless, it is on my list of desert island books, along with Ulysses and Don DeLillo’s Underworld – all books that I’d be happy to take to a desert island because there, bereft of social media and old Doctor Who, I’d have no excuse not to finish them

Back in a landlocked county, I fear it may be a while before I get through the damned thing. Still, I’ve toyed with it, and some parts resonate, and I have carried them with me for years. This is down to a marriage of form and content: Hofstadter’s turn of phrase is wonderful, and the ideas he generates are mindbending. The works of Lewis Carroll are a recurring theme, and in one sequence, he includes a translation of Jabberwocky in French and German. (Hofstadter wasn’t the first to do this, of course, but the verse-by-verse layout allows for an in-depth comparison.) Perhaps it’s because of the poem’s suspected origin, or perhaps it’s because of some of the language in the original, but it works much better in German. Consider these three opening verses:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

“Il brilgue: les tôves lubricilleux
Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave.
Enmîmés sont les gougebosqueux
Et le mômerade horsgrave.”

“Es brillig war. Die schlichten Toven
Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben;
Und aller-mümsige Burggoven
Die mohmen Räth’ ausgraben.”

You see what I mean.

But it was the crab canon that always got me: the concept of a conversation that plays forwards and then backwards, where each line of dialogue acquires new meaning when then preceded by a line that initially followed it. This all sounds rather complicated, so here’s how Hofstadter does it.

[Achilles and the Tortoise happen upon each other in the park one day while strolling.]

Tortoise: Good day, Mr. A.
Achilles: Why, same to you.
Tortoise: So nice to run into you.
Achilles: That echoes my thoughts.
Tortoise: And it’s a perfect day for a walk. I think I’ll be walking home soon.
Achilles: Oh, really? I guess there’s nothing better for you than walking.
Tortoise: Incidentally, you’re looking in fine fettle these days, I must say.
Achilles: Thank you very much.
Tortoise: Not at all. Here, care for one of my cigars?
Achilles: Oh, you are such a philistine. In this area, the Dutch contributions are of markedly inferior taste, don’t you think?
Tortoise: I disagree, in this case. But speaking of taste, I finally saw that Crab Canon by your favorite artist, M.C. Escher, in a gallery the other day, and I fully appreciate the beauty and ingenuity with which he made one single theme mesh with itself going both backwards and forwards. But I am afraid I will always feel Bach is superior to Escher.
Achilles: I don’t know. But one thing for certain is that I don’t worry about arguments of taste. De gustibus non est disputandum.
Tortoise: Tell me, what’s it like to be your age? Is it true that one has no worries at all?
Achilles: To be precise one has no frets.
Tortoise: Oh, well, it’s all the same to me.
Achilles: Fiddle. It makes a big difference, you know.
Tortoise: Say, don’t you play the guitar?
Achilles: That’s my good friend. He often plays, the fool. But I myself wouldn’t touch a guitar with a ten-foot pole.

[Suddenly the Crab, appearing from out of nowhere, wanders up excitedly, pointing to a rather prominent black eye.]

Crab: Hallo! Hullo! What’s up? What’s new? You see this bump, this from Warsaw – a collosal bear of a man – playing a lute. He was three meters tall, if I’m a day. I mosey on up to the chap, reach skyward and manage to tap him on the knee, saying, “Pardon me, sir, but you are Pole-luting our park with your mazurkas.” But WOW! he had no sense of humor – not a bit, not a wit – and POW! – he lets loose and belts me one, smack in the eye! Were it in my nature, I would crab up a storm, but in the time-honored tradition of my species, I backed off. After all, when we walk forwards, we move backwards. It’s in our genes, you know, turning round and round. That reminds me – I’ve always wondered, “which came first – the Crab or the Gene?” That is to say, “Which came last – the Gene, or the Crab?” I’m always turning things round and round, you know. It’s in our genes, after all. When we walk backwards we move forwards. Ah me, oh my! I must lope along on my merry way – so off I go on such a fine day. Sing “ho!” for the life of a Crab! TATA! Ole!

[And he disappears as suddenly as he arrived.]

Tortoise: That’s my good friend. He often plays, the fool. But I myself wouldn’t touch a ten-foot Pole with a guitar.
Achilles: Say, don’t you play the guitar?
Tortoise: Fiddle. It makes a big difference, you know.
Achilles: Oh, well, it’s all the same to me.
Tortoise: To be precise one has no frets.
Achilles: Tell me, what’s it like to be your age? Is it true that one has no worries at all?
Tortoise: I don’t know. But one thing for certain is that I don’t worry about arguments of taste. Disputandum non est de gustibus.
Achilles: I disagree, in this case. But speaking of taste, I finally heard that Crab Canon by your favorite composer, J.S. Bach, in a concert the other day, and I fully appreciate the beauty and ingenuity with which he made one single theme mesh with itself going both backwards and forwards. But I am afraid I will always feel Escher is superior to Bach.
Tortoise: Oh, you are such a philistine. In this area, the Dutch contributions are of markedly inferior taste, don’t you think?
Achilles: Not at all. Here, care for one of my cigars?
Tortoise: Thank you very much.
Achilles: Incidentally, you’re looking in fine fettle these days, I must say.
Tortoise: Oh, really? I guess there’s nothing better for you than walking.
Achilles: And it’s a perfect day for a walk. I think I’ll be walking home soon.
Tortoise: That echoes my thoughts.
Achilles: So nice to run into you.
Tortoise: Why, same to you.
Achilles: Good day, Mr. A.

The bit with the crab reads like Beckett, presumably on purpose, but the whole thing is brilliantly written, and I marvel upon it today just as I did over a decade ago.

“What does this have to do with anything?” you’re asking. Well, in the first instance, yesterday morning I stuck this on my Facebook wall timeline.

The end of top posting!

> What do we want?

Now!

> When do we want it?

Some among you will recognise this, of course, as an adaptation of an old joke:

A. Top posters.

Q. What’s the most annoying thing about usenet forums?

Later that morning, Gareth said “I wonder what Douglas Hofstadter thinks of top-posting, and what he could do with it.”

I replied:

“Curiously I had similar thoughts, although they mostly ran along the lines of ‘This reminds me of a passage in underground classic Gödel, Escher, Bach, a book I really should read again.’

Or, to put it another way:

A book I really should read again: Gödel, Escher, Bach, in a classic underground passage. Although they mostly ran along the lines. Curiously, I had similar thoughts.”

(Which works, up to a point, if by ‘underground’ you mean this.)

I then wondered about Doctor Who – a show which, in its most recent form, has become as obsessed with time travel as a form of narrative as, for example, certain episodes of Red Dwarf. Loops and holes and time-lagged conversations are all part-and-parcel of Moffat’s array of tricks and techniques. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. The across-the-years conversation in ‘Blink’, for example, as Sally fills in the gaps in the Doctor’s transcript, is absolutely breathtaking. His overuse of ‘Run, you clever boy, and remember’, on the other hand, is a disaster (not least because it’s a recurring phrase that’s different every time we hear it). You have to know when to stop, and Moffat seemingly doesn’t. But that’s OK, because he’s going to bring back the [spoiler] and then the [spoiler], and then [spoiler] will visit [spoiler] and [spoiler]. And that’s just the yellow ones.

But is there a way, perhaps, of making some Doctor Who scenes palindromic? In other words, could we tell them forwards and then backwards and have them make sense? One sequence in particular, from ‘Utopia’ (an episode I’ve watched recently) stood out, largely because the greeting between the Doctor and Jack Harkness could be interpreted as a greeting or a parting. For example, here’s how the scene reads forwards:

JACK: Doctor.

DOCTOR: Captain.

JACK: Good to see you.

DOCTOR: And you. Same as ever. Although, have you had work done?

JACK: You can talk.

DOCTOR: Oh yes, the face. Regeneration. How did you know this was me?

JACK: The police box kind of gives it away. I’ve been following you for a long time. You abandoned me.

DOCTOR: Did I? Busy life. Moving on.

JACK: Just got to ask. The Battle of Canary Wharf. I saw the list of the dead. It said Rose Tyler.

DOCTOR: Oh, no! Sorry, she’s alive.

JACK: You’re kidding.

DOCTOR: Parallel world, safe and sound. And Mickey, and her mother.

JACK: Oh, yes!

MARTHA: Good old Rose.

And backwards:

MARTHA: Good old Rose.

JACK: Oh, yes!

DOCTOR: Parallel world, safe and sound. And Mickey, and her mother.

JACK: You’re kidding.

DOCTOR: Oh, no! Sorry, she’s alive.

JACK: Just got to ask. The Battle of Canary Wharf. I saw the list of the dead. It said Rose Tyler.

DOCTOR: Did I? Busy life. Moving on.

JACK: The police box kind of gives it away. I’ve been following you for a long time. You abandoned me.

DOCTOR: Oh yes, the face. Regeneration. How did you know this was me?

JACK: You can talk.

DOCTOR: And you. Same as ever. Although, have you had work done?

JACK: Good to see you.

DOCTOR: Captain.

JACK: Doctor.

Which works surprisingly well. And, of course, it means that Martha is a crab, which I don’t think anyone would necessarily dispute.

“That’s all very well, James,” I can hear you not really asking. “But it would be better still if we could actually see it.”

Oh, go on then.

It’s as near-as-dammit a recreation as I could manage. Part of the problem is that certain lines of dialogue end on a shot of someone’s head, and it is to that same head that we cut when I paste in the previous line – resulting in an unfortunate twitch as the expression or position of their face changes from one frame to the next. I got round this by interposing shots of Martha, whose role is to stand there silently and look doe-eyed at the Doctor, but there are only so many times you can do that.

Still. The idea has potential. This could feasibly be the first in a series. There are other scenes that will work. Probably. I’ll find them, if I read through every transcript. Which I’ll probably do. But at some point I really should finish reading the Hofstadter.

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4 thoughts on “Godel, Escher, Dalek

  1. I do hope to get ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach’ some day.
    Not too cheap last time I checked.

    • reverend61

      No, it isn’t! I put it on my Christmas list one year, and my parents got it (although Em had a hand in persuading them, as she wanted to read it as well). As I recall, their exact words were “Whatever turns you on, James…”

      > Date: Tue, 15 Oct 2013 17:44:49 +0000 > To: reverend61@hotmail.co.uk >

  2. Emfour

    Dalek: Identify yourself!
    Cyberman: You will identify first.
    Dalek: State your identity!
    Cyberman: You will identify first.
    Dalek: Identify!

    Yup. This works just fine.

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