Review: ‘Logicomix’, the Sorrows of Young Bertie and the Great Quest
By Alexandra Honigsberg, COMICMIX
Despite the modern framing at the end of this book arguing about whether or not this was a tragedy or a happy ending by bringing computers into the whole thing to support the side of happy, which puts a pimple onto something that is quite near-perfection otherwise, I will say that this is, in the imperfect vernacular, freakin’ awesome.
Being an Aristotelian and Thomist (Thomas Aquinas, 13th C.), mainly an Ethicist and Metaphysician, though I am acquainted with modern philosophies, they are not my favourite dance floor. I am neither adept at nor a fan of analytical philosophy – where they turn premises and sentences into symbols like mathematical equations. So I am absolutely gobsmacked that three Greek guys and one Italian-French chick got a hold of Bertrand Russell (19th-20th C. Logician, Mathematician), and not only made this titled noble Welshman from Cambridge comprehensible, but a sympathetic human character.
How did these wacky geniuses – Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos, and Annie DiDonna – manage this great feat in all their fabulous geekitude? Very simply. They went straight to the heart of what makes Philosophy philosophical. It is the human quest. Every Philosopher is on it and always has been for nearly 3000 years.
Philosophers are, as a general lot, idealists. They are insane enough to dare to view the best and then to try to find a way to get there, through the Labyrinth, past the Minotaur, and give us mere mortals a map by which to follow along (maps being symbols of reality). The story is framed by our authors as they try to write this book and get it published and, just like their philosophical hero, they got turned down in their initial efforts, but persevered ‘til you have what is now before you.
The artwork is sweet, gentle, old-fashioned, nostalgic, very well-suited to this story starting in Victorian times and running through both World Wars, in Britain and across Germany, Austria, and Belgium. It’s approachable and easy on the eyes, but never talks down to the reader or the material – this is not Russell for Dummies. This is Russell for honest seekers who really want to understand him and his related colleagues but just aren’t wired for 360+ pages of symbols to indisputably prove that 1+1 = 2.
The story is told in Russell’s own words as he tells the story to others – so we have stories within stories within stories – but this never gets convoluted like some of Anne Rice’s non-linear storytelling. You’re always right there in the midst of things. And the voices are clear – you can hear each character, as Russell must certainly have heard them: his inspirations of Boole, Bolzano, and Frege, detractors and supporters Poincaré and Hilbert, his collaborator Whitehead, his student Wittgenstein, Gödel and Schlick (Vienna Circle), the children and women in his life. They all sing. They make the story live in a very immediate way.
Every story has a conflict – what’s at stake? In this book, Russell is prompted to tell his story at the dawn of WWII in Britain – should we enter the fray or not? But the core quest for Russell was that fine line between Logic and Insanity. As Edgar Allen Poe had his fear of being buried alive, Russell had his abject terror of falling into the insanity he’d seen in his and his first wife, Alys Smith’s, family and later in his colleagues.
Like Luther (16th C.) had sought the perfect certainty of salvation, fearing the eternal hellfire, the atheist Russell sought salvation from his fear of the boogey-man of insanity in his quest for perfect logic, perfect certainty. From Young Bertie to Lord Russell, he tried everything to reach his goal and he was thwarted at nearly every turn, his flashes underneath his metaphorical bodhi tree being more like the bombs of the blitzkrieg than saving insights (Luther had gotten his in the privy, via reading St. Paul).
Our authors employ every element in a good geek’s arsenal through this medium that is perfect for the quest story, as it plays like a stage production or movie: there are quotes in Greek and Latin, Bible excerpts, Gothic German, French and Italian, musical references, scenes of familiar art and architecture, super-heroes and super-villains, ethical dilemmas, and science fiction becoming science fact! It is all seamlessly woven together to make the narrative flow without being self-conscious about it.
This book, like other genre novels before it – see A Clockwork Orange – has a great appendix, Notebook, in the back that is part glossary and part character sketches, complete with thumbnail portraits. You can’t tell the players without a playbill! This, too, is very logical and very human.
Russell’s hero Frege defines Logic as “Rational beings telling the truth.” Approaching WWII, Russell would be horrified by Frege’s irrational descent into insanity and paranoia, siding with Hitler regarding the Jews. Still, Bertie’s admiration for Frege’s earlier work stood for a lifetime. But what is “rational” and what is “truth”? Kant (18th C. Germany), with his Categorical Imperatives, tells us that we must never lie ‘cause that way lies chaos, crushing trust vs. the good society. Russell was all about fighting off the chaos with his sword of Logic.
Logic is a journey, as is all philosophical discourse – so the graphic novel is a perfect vehicle for this hero’s journey. Just as Bertie traces his Herculean struggles (see Descartes’ “I think therefore I am!” systematic doubt of all axioms 300 years prior), you can see how he got there if you follow a few breadcrumbs, even when the man, himself, does not admit of them. His famous Sets theory and The Set of All Sets is his answer to Plato’s idea of Forms (the ideal other-world where perfection lies, unreachable reachable only via the mind-soul of nous – later see Leibniz’s impenetrable monads and Kant’s noumena, disputed by Schopenhauer’s ding-an-sich, penetrable only via the will). Russell’s ideas seem to me to be Aristotle’s Categories taken to the nth degree (Ari disagreed with his famous teacher, Plato, as is common in philosophical family trees – the sons do, inevitably, kill the fathers!)!
Bertie is encouraged and inspired by Hilbert’s Humeian (18th C. Nominalist) Skepticism: there are no intuitive axioms. Remember all those geometric proofs we did in high school and the theorems we had to memorize? Russell was seeking to prove every last one of those axioms (Euclid was his childhood hero). Damn Plato! Sweep it all away! Nothing is innately known or to be taken for granted! Beyond Locke’s tabula rasa. Not just senses. Not just not-senses. Not just reason. All. Unified theory. From scratch. Using mathematics. (Note that Russell would be very good at understanding and explaining other people’s philosophies in his great History of Western Philosophy that is still a field standard.)
Russell and Whitehead vowed to tackle this together and collaborated in more ways than one. This was consistent with Russell’s non-traditional personal and professional life. Bertie and Alys moved in with the Whiteheads and Bertie fell in love with Evelyn and out of love with Alys, who retired to a sanitarium. Evelyn never returned those romantic affections. Bertie was poly in his 2nd marriage, with Dora, though he was more married to his work and so she took lovers who lived with them – Bertie always seemed to find his women on the side. He was married four times, had children and grandchildren who were schizophrenic, and mentally ill aunts and uncles. Insanity was all around him. Hilbert’s son was also schizophrenic and committed and Hilbert never visited him ever, putting into question that master’s sanity. Russell’s colleague Cantor was also a mental casualty, and Gödel died of malnutrition caused by paranoia. Logic was a two-edged sword, those driven by it blest or cursed.
In this work with Whitehead, Principia Mathematica, completed before he was 40, Bertie walked face-first into Russell’s Paradox, illustrated thusly: all adult men must shave daily, but all those who don’t shave themselves must be shaved by the barber: but then who shaves the barber (I always tell the truth: I am lying to you! – Euboulides…this is all later solved by the concept of Self-Reference…)? Where is reality between is and not-is (Plato), what’s in the set and what’s not? It’s Aristotelian and Thomistic – lest you be stuck looking back into an endless string of mirror images, you must have a 1st Cause, 1st Mover Unmoved, or you’re stuck with a whole lot of very hairy barbers! In order to combat this paradox after 10 years of work, Bertie and Whitehead set up Types (echoes of Ari’s Categories!) so that you can only connect between same Types to form Sets (like only being able to marry within your Caste). For instance (see Wittgenstein’s update), if you see the number “3” it is not merely “3,” but the symbol for and descriptor all things in 3s – so 3 cars, 3 cats, 3 pigs. For Bertie it does not exist beyond reality, by itself. He was going for Occam’s Razor (13th-14th C. Nominalist vs. Scholastics like Thomas) before he’d realized it – go for the simplest possible explanation of any phenomena, no Forms (Plato). Not being a religious man, Bertie followed the Hilbertian axiom that, “Questions rigourously stated can be logically answered,” that all is eventually knowable via reason – a rather god-like statement.
Philosophy, the Mother of All Sciences, is the quest for meaning, and Logicians see themselves as the stewards of that quest and see mathematics as the rational tool by which they fend off the chaos, their zanpakutos vs. the Hollows (see Bleach). Yet pure logic, pure reason, like pure justice, is too cruel without the temperance of mercy. Why? Because it is not human. Science without humanity is insanity – e.g., Dr. Mengele or any other mad scientist or super-villain you care to name. Logic, by itself, is an emotional void. Bertie sees this in the insanity of war and fights, with reason, through his pacifist and educational activities. And despite following his friend Hilbert’s towering optimism that though there are 23 Open Problems that Hilbert thought would eventually be solved (many of which have been!), that there may, indeed, be unproveables, unknowables, unsolveables, beyond reason and logic. And whilst that crushes Bertie in some ways, as in most apocalyptic literature, the flames of the Phoenix give birth to the New Beginning – hope. But bold ideas create martyrs and Philosophy is no exception – Socrates was politely told, like a samurai, to kill himself for his ideas. Schlick was shot in the streets by a Nazi who was soon released from prison by the Reich and hailed as a hero vs. that dangerous “Jew sympathizer”. Bertie, too, suffers for his ideals – is imprisoned and repudiated. And let’s not forget the abused and neglected children of these men who’ve danced between genius and insanity. Bertie’s boogey-man is very real. Even the passionate Wittgenstein, in whom Russell saw a younger version of himself, said, “All the facts of science are not enough to understand the world’s meaning.” Like the mystics, metaphysicians, and theologians, they all came to grudgingly accept, whilst continuing the quest, that there were just some things that we can’t know and some things that must admit of imperfection to reach the imperfection that is human perfection. How’s that for a tautology?!
So our creatively brilliant authors end with Athena’s speech to the Athenians and the Furies – how do we release Orestes and yet uphold Law vs. Chaos? How do we stop the irrational cycle of revenge? Only the application of a fair dose of non-logic will solve this Solomonic dilemma. There is no Reason without Non-Reason. This is the greatest struggle of human existence. The Quest.
What drives Philosophers? What makes us keep on fighting the dragons? Passion, human and messy. And Quest stories, especially in comics are, indeed, about Passion.
Go ye forth and be passionate.
Alexandra Honigsberg is an adjunct professor of Ethics at St. John’s University and a corporate Ethics consultant.
Read the review on the COMICMIX site here.