M.C. Escher Cover Art for Great Books by Italo Calvino, George Orwell & Jorge Luis Borges

The writer David Auer­bach once post­ed a fas­ci­nat­ing inquest on left-brained lit­er­a­ture, an exam­i­na­tion of what he calls “a par­al­lel track of lit­er­a­ture that is pop­u­lar specif­i­cal­ly among engi­neers,” exclud­ing genre fic­tion (sci­ence- or oth­er­wise), with an eye toward “which nov­els of some noto­ri­ety and good PR hap­pen to attract mem­bers of the engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sions.” Favored author names turn out to include Richard Pow­ers, Umber­to Eco, Haru­ki Muraka­mi, William Gib­son, Ita­lo Calvi­no, and Jorge Luis Borges.

More of these lit­er­ar­i­ly inclined left-brain­ers exist than one might imag­ine. From the pub­lish­er’s point of view, what cov­er art could best attract them? Books tar­get­ed toward that demo­graph­ic could do far worse than to use the work of M.C. Esch­er, who spent his career with one foot in art and the oth­er in math­e­mat­ics.

In the hith­er­to unseen (and even unimag­ined) worlds pic­tured in his wood­cuts, lith­o­graphs, and mez­zot­ints, he made use of math­e­mat­i­cal con­cepts from tes­sel­la­tion to reflec­tion to infin­i­ty in ways at once impos­si­ble and some­how plau­si­ble, all of them still intel­lec­tu­al­ly and aes­thet­i­cal­ly com­pelling today.

The non-nov­el­ist Dou­glas Hof­s­tadter appears in Auer­bach’s inquest since his best-known work, Gödel, Esch­er, Bach: an Eter­nal Gold­en Braid, “which part­ly uses fic­tion­al forms, is too great not to list.” Not only does Escher’s name appear in Hof­s­tadter’s book title, his art informs its cen­tral con­cepts. “Hof­s­tadter wove a net­work of con­nec­tions link­ing the math­e­mat­ics of Gödel, the art of Esch­er, and the music of Bach,” writes Allene M. Park­er in the paper “Draw­ing Borges: a Two-Part Inven­tion on the Labyrinths of Jorge Luis Borges and M.C. Esch­er.” In Gödel, Esch­er, Bach he describes their com­mon denom­i­na­tor as a “strange loop,” a phe­nom­e­non that “occurs when­ev­er, by move­ment upwards (or down­wards) through the lev­els of some hier­ar­chi­cal sys­tem, we unex­pect­ed­ly find our­selves right back where we start­ed.”

Park­er iden­ti­fies 1948’s “Draw­ing Hands” as a “par­tic­u­lar­ly strik­ing and famil­iar exam­ple” of a strange loop in Escher’s work. We can inter­pret that image by rec­og­niz­ing that “it is Esch­er, the artist, who is draw­ing both hands and who stands out­side this par­tic­u­lar puz­zle.” Or we can “adopt a Zen-inspired solu­tion and let mys­tery be mys­tery by choos­ing to embrace a uni­ty which con­tains oppo­si­tions,” such as one described by the open­ing of Borges’ poem “Labyrinths”:

There’ll nev­er be a door. You’re inside

and the keep encom­pass­es the world

and has nei­ther obverse nor reverse

nor cir­cling in secret cen­ter.

The Esch­er-Borges con­nec­tions go deep­er beyond, and as you can see in John Coulthart’s orig­i­nal post, the selec­tion of Esch­er-cov­ered books extends far­ther.

Aside from count­less non­fic­tion pub­li­ca­tions, the Dutch math­e­mat­i­cal mas­ter’s work has graced sci­ence-fic­tion and fan­ta­sy mag­a­zines, one edi­tion of Flat­land, a col­lec­tion of “Forteana, weird fic­tion, occultism and his­tor­i­cal spec­u­la­tion,” Clive Bark­er’s The Damna­tion Game, and George Orwell’s 1984, a nov­el more wide­ly read than ever by the left- and right-brained alike. But no mat­ter which hemi­sphere we favor, Esch­er — like Orwell, Borges, and Calvi­no — shows us how to see real­i­ty in more inter­est­ing ways.

via John Coulthart

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch M.C. Esch­er Make His Final Artis­tic Cre­ation in the 1971 Doc­u­men­tary Adven­tures in Per­cep­tion

Meta­mor­phose: 1999 Doc­u­men­tary Reveals the Life and Work of Artist M.C. Esch­er

Inspi­ra­tions: A Short Film Cel­e­brat­ing the Math­e­mat­i­cal Art of M.C. Esch­er

The Cov­er of George Orwell’s 1984 Becomes Less Cen­sored with Wear and Tear

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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