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This review is taken from PN Review 123, Volume 25 Number 1, September - October 1998.

WORD GAMES DOUGLAS R. HOFSTADTER, Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (Basic Books)

A fancy: you, in a room with a mountain of manuals: through a small door lists of pictograms, probably Mandarin, pass through to you. Using instructions in the books, you slowly transform the lists into other symbols: Cyrillic? You don't know what information any symbol or list signifies, but to an authority, you (or this room) show full command of the two scripts and convincing control of composition. But did you actually grasp anything, or display a conscious mind?

In 1537 the French poet Clement Marot wrote a small poem - 28 lines of trisyllabic couplets - to a sick young girl. 450 years later this cigar shaped poem, 'A une Damoyselle malade' (or 'Ma mignonne' after its first - and last - line), captivated the cognitive scientist, Douglas Hofstadter, and he has used it as a central motif in this meditation on translation, creativity, artificial intelligence and poetry.

On the face of it, a cognitive scientist tackling such a 'literary' subject seems odd. However Hofstadter's earlier books - Godel Escher and Bach (1979), Metamagical Themas (1985), and Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies (1995) - pursued similar themes, particularly related to creativity. The new book takes threads from them and weaves a new pattern centred on poetry but also winding further afield.

Le Ton beau is a very personal book in both its opinions (which can be forthright) and in descriptions of the process of translation. Hofstadter presents close analysis of the ...


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