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Robert Hofstadter

“One gloomy day in early 1991, a couple of months after my father died, I was standing in the kitchen of my parents’ house, and my mother, looking at a sweet and touching photograph of my father, taken perhaps fifteen years earlier, said to me, with a note of despair, ‘What meaning does that photograph have? None at all. It’s just a flat piece of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It’s useless.’ The bleakness of my mother’s grief-drenched remark set my head spinning because I knew instinctively that I disagreed with her, but I did not quite know how to express to her the way I felt the photograph should be considered.

After a few minutes of emotional pondering — soul-searching, quite literally — I hit upon an analogy that I felt could convey to my mother my point of view, and which I hoped might lend her at least a tiny degree of consolation. What I said to her was along the following lines.

In the living room we have a book of the Chopin études for piano. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photograph of Dad — and yet, think of the powerful effect that they had on people all over the world for 150 years now. Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning. Those pianists in turn have conveyed to many millions of listeners, including you and me, the profound emotions that churned in Frédéric Chopin’s heart, thus affording all of us some partial access to Chopin’s interiority — to the experience of living in the heart, or rather the soul, of Frédéric Chopin. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards — scattered remnants of the shattered soul of Frédéric Chopin. Each of those strange geometries of notes has a unique power to bring back to life, inside our brains, some tiny fragment of the internal experiences of another human being — his sufferings, his joys, his deepest passions and tensions — and we thereby know, at least in part, what it was like to be that human being, and many people feel intense love for him. In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his gentleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again, but in the medium of brains other than his own. Like the score to a Chopin étude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed, and it is something we should cherish as long as we live.

Although the above is a bit more flowery that what I said to my mother, it gives the essence of my message. I don’t know what effect it had on her feelings about the picture, but that photo is still there, on a counter in her kitchen, and every time I look at it, I remember that exchange.”


From the beginning of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s remarkable book I Am a Strange Loop.

Pictured above: Robert Hofstadter, 1961 Nobel prize winner in psychics, discoverer of the structure of protons and neutrons, and father of Douglas.

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