Financial Times review of Logicomix
By Neville Hawcock, FINANCIAL TIMES
Some superheroes leap tall buildings with a single bound. Others catch thieves just like flies. But the ones in Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou’s graphic novel just think – really hard – about an incredibly difficult dilemma. And they get nowhere. Like all the best superheroes, they are deeply, fascinatingly flawed characters.
First among them is Bertrand Russell, the English philosopher whose life story this is – at least as far as 1939. Also present are his fellow pioneers in the philosophy of mathematics: Alfred North Whitehead, with whom Russell sought, in the years before the first world war, to provide a logically rigorous, good-for-all-time foundation for mathematics; Ludwig Wittgenstein, the austere Austrian who argued that Russell’s project was misconceived; Kurt Gödel, Wittgenstein’s compatriot, who proved that it was; and assorted other pin-ups of higher mathematics – Cantor, Poincaré, Hilbert.
This sounds as if it could be terribly dry – the quest for mathematical foundations is an abstruse one, far removed from mankind’s more pressing concerns. But an intellectual passion is still a passion, and writers Doxiadis and Papadimitriou succeed in bringing out the humanity in their story. Logicomix exposes the roots of Russell’s need for certainty – a troubled childhood, what else? – and tracks the collateral damage it caused in his and his loved ones’ lives. The book is a visual treat as well, thanks to Alecos Papadatos and Annie di Donna’s crisp, richly coloured drawings.
The story is told by Russell himself, in the course of a lecture on “the role of logic in human affairs” delivered at a US university just after the outbreak of the second world war. A group of demonstrators, demanding that the US stay out of the conflict, want Russell – jailed for his pacifist beliefs in the first world war – to support their stance. Russell acknowledges their concern but points out that they must be guided by reason – and to explain what this is, he embarks on the intellectual autobiography that is the book’s core.
It’s a yarn as rich in dark family secrets, forbidden love and lurking madness as a teenage vampire soap. At the same time, it gives due weight to the horrors of 20th-century Europe and – while mercifully free of equations – cleaves to the essential intellectual drama. Not that that tale is lacking in gothically outré details: we learn, for example, that it took Russell and Whitehead 362 Principia pages to prove that 1 + 1 = 2.
Doxiadis and Papadimitriou freely admit to inventing convenient meetings between protagonists who, in some cases, never actually met. They insist, though, that they have taken no liberties “with the content of the great adventure of ideas that forms our main plot, [or] with the philosophical, existential and emotional struggles which are inextricably bound with it”.
The authors themselves debate questions that may be a breeze compared with the ones Russell wrestled with, but they are still far from easy. Logicomix is a wonderfully persuasive answer.
Neville Hawcock is the FT’s deputy arts editor
Read the review at the FT website here.