Tamil script sample from the book English Through Pictures by I. A. Richards and Christine Gibson.
Tamil script sample from prefaces of the book English Through Pictures by I. A. Richards and Christine Gibson.

Dear Mr. Griffee,

Thanks for your kind words about my writings, especially I Am a Strange Loop. By coincidence, I am currently teaching a seminar on that very book to a mixture of grad students and undergraduates here at Indiana University, so I have been going through it very carefully recently. I’ve also been reading a book called “Consciousness and the Brain” by the French neurologist Stanislas Dehaene, which forms an amazing contrast with my book. Dehaene is constantly talking about anatomical details (like the prefrontal cortext and the hippocampus and thalamocortical relays, etc. etc.), and I feel almost lost in these details. Of course what and who we humans are has to do with brain structures like these, but I feel quite lost in these details, and Dehaene’s book doesn’t seem to be asking the same questions at all about self and soul and personal identity that I deal with in my book. But maybe that’s to be expected.

In any case, I’ve attached an image taken from the book English Through Pictures by I. A. Richards and Christine Gibson, published in 1956, and which I first became aware of in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The book had prefaces explaining how to use it in 41 different languages, among which were several from India and surrounding regions, including Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Sinhalese, Telugu, and others. I was mesmerized by the swirly forms of these languages’ writing systems, and at that time I started obsessively copying them and imitating them and generalizing them and playing with them (first in pencil, then in ballpoint pen, and finally in felt-tip pen) — an intense activity that consumed me for several years, and that resulted in a long series of artistic explorations that I called “Whirly Art” (or rather, it was my sister Laura who playfully gave that name to these pieces of art).

Pieces of Whirly Art were felt-tip pen improvisations drawn on long, thin strips of paper, and which locally used curvilinear shapes influenced by many alphabets, and which globally tried to imitate multi-voiced time-evolving musical structures such as canons and fugues and so forth. In my pieces of Whirly Art, I started out relatively simply, imitating the swirls in the attached sample of Tamil text, but I gradually started making my forms more and more complex and intricate, until they became very elaborate structures. At first I was mostly visually imitating Bach-like polyphony, but later I tried doing “romantic” and “modern” Whirly Art (influenced by composers such as Chopin and Prokofiev). The felt-tip improvisations could be very long — a few of them exceeded 20 feet in length.

Doug and Whirly Art, c. 1980.
Doug and Whirly Art, c. 1980.

I’ve attached a photo of myself, probably around 1980, holding up one piece of Whirly Art — one of many hundreds that I produced in the years 1964–1971. (You can see a few other Whirly Art scrolls, wound up, at the bottom of the photo.) I tell some of the story of Whirly Art in my book Metamagical Themas, and I am hoping to come out with a full book devoted to my art in the next year or two, which hopefully will be called “My Wild Grace Chase”.

Tamil character.
Tamil “I” by me. —D.H.

In any case, I thought you might like adding this little sample of Tamil to your collection of inspirational images. I will add that there is one particular Tamil character that I specially love, and that is the leftmost character on the second line (also found later on that line, and in the middle of line 3, and a few other spots as well). I also love the rightmost character on the 6th line from the bottom, and many others. To me, the swirly forms of Tamil have an indescribable beauty that I just can’t get over. They (as well as forms from other related writing systems) have inspired me for my entire life. How can such beautiful, graceful shapes be the carriers of meaning? This was a mystery that constantly egged me on, constantly prodded me, constantly urged me to make my own artistic explorations, over a period of many years.

I guess that’s enough for now. I hope that this small contribution to your collection will please you. Thanks for asking me to participate.

All the best to you.

Douglas Hofstadter.

P.S. — I see you wanted a URL. By that, I assume you mean a Website where people can read about me and my ideas. In that case, here is the best one:


On the site, you will find (under “Hofstadteriana”) an essay that I call my “stripped-e’s act” — namely, a six-page autobiography written under the constraint of never using the letter “e”. You might enjoy reading it.

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