Written by Christopher Michel, THE BROOKLYN RAIL
Thursday, 04 February 2010 09:53
In 1958, the noted logician and pacifist Bertrand Russell wrote an angry cartoon-style book called The Good Citizen’s Alphabet, with his wife, Franciszka Themerson. The book, an abecedary of bitterly defined words, each accompanied by an illustration, signified his deep frustration with humanity. For example: “VIRTUE — submission to the government.” Or: “PEDANT — a man who likes his statements to be true.” It was not a best-seller.
In 1962, Russell took another stab at integrating words and pictures with The History of the World in Epitome: for use in Martian infant schools. Russell was even more fed up with the human race by then; the book makes its point in just 11 pages. Here is the text in its entirety: “Since Adam and Eve ate the apple, man has never refrained from any folly of which he was capable.” The last picture in the book is of a mushroom cloud.
Russell was not known for moderate ideas, or for tempering his expression of them, regardless of the consequences. This made him a great speaker, and an exhaustive thinker, if a bit moralistic and overly unsubtle as the author of comic books. But he is certainly compelling as the subject of one: Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth is a fascinating and beautiful new graphic novel printed by Bloomsbury and telling Russell’s tale of, as authors Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou put it, “madness and reason, love and war.”
As a graphic novel, the book is a gem. Intricate, and compelling, it uses contemporary storytelling techniques to great effect. The central narrative, Russell’s biography, is framed twice. In the innermost frame, Russell has come to America to give a speech on “The Role of Logic in Human Affairs” and is beset by WWII protesters. Russell invites the protesters inside and begins his talk, assuring them that it is relevant to their anti-war concerns.
Framing that, the two authors Doxiadis and Papadimitriou meet to discuss the writing of Logicomix and how to best relate the relevance of Russell’s work. As the two authors talk, they wander through Athens where, in the background, the crumbling ruins of the Acropolis and other Greek landmarks remind readers of the history of human logical thought.
The central story is Russell’s biography, including his childhood, his discovery of the study of Logic, his attempts to define the foundations of math by writing The Principia Mathematica and his personal life including love affairs, children, and a growing interest in peace and world politics. The frames work because they allow the reader to become involved in Russell’s human struggles, while diverging at different points into related issues in the development of logic.
The structure also works because both the protestors and authors are able to interrupt at key moments to complicate and comment on events, raise questions, and argue over the meaning and importance of various ideas. For instance, at one point Russell has called his efforts in logic a “failure.” The authors are able to draw from other moments in his life by having the older Russell, the lecturer, explain himself. And then the authors, as characters in the story, are able to discuss the import of Russell’s achievements to add further context before returning to the main narrative. These jumps give the reader a more nuanced understanding of Russell’s story, by looking at it from several points of view.
In addition to the narrative, the book’s artists, Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna have added real wit and beauty to the book. They have a gift for visual invention, and despite the 300 or so pages of panel after panel, the frames never feel repetitive.
The inventions do more than just avoid visual repetition, however. Papadatos and Di Di Donna’s choice of angles, colors, and foreground and background elements tell the story as much as the authors’ words. In the beginning, the adults in Russell’s childhood loom over the frame. Rooms are drawn at low angles, and maps of the house are impossibly complicated. When Russell first falls in love, his antics are filled with all the tender awkwardness typical of those moments. Later, Russell’s nightmares of insanity break out of their panels, or race across pages.
The figures are not hugely detailed, but an extra line here or there indicates a raised eyebrow, or a vein in the forehead thumping with frustration. Characters pace in circles and run through the rain, and the artists handle it all with great visual inventiveness. Even scenes in which Russell does nothing more than stand at the podium and speak are depicted with enough variance and inventiveness to keep the story moving without overpowering the narrative, or seeming gimmicky.
When issues of mathematics arise, there is a sense that the authors know their material. And they do: both writers have backgrounds in mathematics. Papadimitriou is a professor of computer science at Berkeley, and Doxiadis studied math at Columbia. They also both have previous experience mixing fiction and science. Doxiadis is the author of the well-reviewed Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture and Papadimitriou, wrote the ambitious, if not altogether successful Turing: a Novel About Computation (which, incidentally, also does much with self-referential framing devices).
As a primer on Logic and its history, Logicomix does little more than whet the appetite. Doxiadis and Papadimitriou spend precious few pages explaining Russell’s famous paradox or concepts such as Set Theory. And outside of that, almost none of Russell’s other mathematical work is really explained, except in the most ambiguous terms. This is understandable. Detailed explanations of logic are often accompanied by eye-glazing in the reader, but it’s also unfortunate, as the book is incredibly entertaining, and it could have used that goodwill to provide a slightly more solid understanding of the tenets of logic thought—something that seems to be arguably harder and harder to come by these days. Still, the book tells an incredible tale, and is as of this writing, on the best-seller lists. If even a portion of the readers decide to look more deeply into Russell’s work, and what it means, Logicomix will have been of great benefit.
By the authors’ admission, the book is also not entirely factual. Though faithful to the larger ideas and general details of Russell’s life, Logicomix is much more a story than a statement of fact. People in the book meet who in real life never met, speak who never spoke, and travel places they never actually went. It’s interesting to contemplate what someone like Russell, who was so legendarily ardent about the importance of the truth, would make of the authors’ “simplifications” in service of a better narrative. But then, it turns out, Russell was a much better logician than he was a graphic novelist. Perhaps it’s better to turn to him when we’re interested in Logic, and to Doxiadis and Papadimitriou when we’re interested in logicians.
Read the article on The Brooklyn Rail’s website.