Logicomix – An Epic Search for Truth
Written by Apostolos Doxiadis & Christos H. Papadimitriou with Art by Alecos Papadatos & Annie Di Donna
Published by Bloomsbury 2009
Logicomix is a baffling yet entertaining read. It tells the story of famous British intellectual and pacifist Bertrand Russell’s life long struggle to discover the fundamental mathematical logical that supposedly, well, explains something about everything…I think. As you can imagine, explaining this to a lay person like myself who hasn’t spent years studying philosophy is a daunting task. I can’t say that after reading this book that I have any more idea of what all the fuss is about than when I began. What seems to me as mere amusing logical conundrums and paradoxical word games are to the philosophers, mathematicians and logicians that appear in these pages deadly serious business.
The story starts out with Bertrand Russell giving a lecture at an American university on the day that World War Two breaks out in Europe. He is confronted by demonstrators who demand he, as a well known pacifist intellectual, clearly support their efforts to keep America out of the war. Before he gives his answer, he recounts his life story which is the body of the graphic novel (along with interspersed scenes of the creative team behind the book debating how best to tell his story). It’s an intriguing moment; would this ivory tower intellectual abandon his long held belief in pacifism to urge confrontation with the evil that is Nazi Germany? You’ll have to wait to find out…
Russell from a young age went on a quest for certain, mathematical truth. As the graphic novel makes clear, this is a dangerous pursuit. We meet many searchers for truth in this story who begin with logic and end in madness. Frege becomes an raving anti-Semite, Cantor is committed to an insane asylum, Hilbert turns away indifferently as his child is carried off to another insane asylum, Schlick is murdered by a nazi fanatic for his un-Aryan philosophy and Wittgenstein is a whole category of crazy on his own as he volunteers for dangerous frontline duty in World War One to further his insights into reality. At conferences, lives are destroyed over proofs as eminent thinkers get into brawls over competing esoteric philosophies. Is it any wonder Russell’s own son was schizophrenic when a trip to the seaside Russell admonishes a man for saving his young son from drowning, calling it a learning experience?
Bertrand Russell and his colleague Whitehead spent years writing a 364 page book proving conclusively that “two plus two equals four! It all seems to be a life and death search for the bleedingly obvious or the hopelessly obscure that has nothing to do with real life. (Although in a scene in the book one of the writers pleaded to explore how philosophy led to computers, which I understood were invented by the military to overcome purely practical problems of artillery ballistics. Something for Scott McCloud.).
A book like this might be dismissed as appealing to the vanity of the reader, one educated enough to flatter themselves with some passing familiarity to the characters, their philosophical theories and arguments, the egghead equivalent to pop culture referencing that passes for humour in so many films these days. What saves it is that you really don’t have to understand what they are talking about, few people do, to enjoy the story and truly bizarre characters in it. The art is “clear-line” school, but a looser and less anal line in common with other contemporary European comics. I thought they were occasionally pushing things trying to give the subject more drama than it deserves. It has the excellent European quality of placing the characters in a convincing time and place, the wider world around the characters is no mere backdrop (for example, Russell admires Ibsen but is mystified by Dada). The team does try it’s level best to explain through comics complex ideas and succeeds to an extent but this is no textbook. It’s better than that.
Oh, and “would this ivory tower intellectual abandon his long held belief in pacifism to urge confrontation with the evil that is Nazi Germany“?
I’m not telling.