Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou

Well, here’s a surprise.

Of all the subjects that I think would make an awesome comic book, I’d rank logician Bertrand Russell at #219–one notch below Georgia O’ Keefe and just above garlic.

I clearly underestimated Logicomix‘s potential.

Damn it, Alys! You are not to interrupt me while I play with my dominoes!

It’s essentially a biography of Russell, but as a way of chronicling the struggle of twentieth-century thinkers to repair the field of mathematics. They judged the foundations of mathematics to be shaky; too many principles were accepted without proof, and some were even being disproved. This created panic among the eggheads but there was still hope.

Their Holy Grail was perfect logical certainty. If achieved, some logicians believed, it would not only solidify all human knowledge about mathematics, but it might also allow one to make the best moral decisions at all times, all according to reason.

If that sounds a little nuts, then you’re already catching on to the irony that Logicomix is interested in. In fact, much is made of the thin line dividing logic and madness. The former was assumed to eliminate the latter, but even early on we discover that Russell’s heroes, Georg Cantor and Gottlob Frege, have already succumbed to what seems to be the grand occupational hazard of the genius.

Madness–Russell’s lifelong fear–is a stalking shadow throughout the story.

Order to Chaos

In 1939, the U.K. had just declared war on Germany when Russell arrives at an American university to give a lecture. The American isolationists crowd the college to protest the prospect of U.S. involvement in the conflict, and they hound Russell, expecting him to be a leader for their cause. After all, he was one of the most famous dissenters of WWI. He insists on giving his lecture first, which will explain his stance on the war against Nazi Germany, and in a related fashion, the wisdom he gained from his quest for logical certainty.

His lovelife, not well served by his genius, is here in all its misadventures. Many of the other mathematical all-stars make an appearance, especially once Russell visits the Vienna Circle and can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a genius. (While talking at a café, a colleague says to Russell, “According to Poincare–“ and Russell hushes him: “Shh, or he’ll hear you…he’s over there!”). And that’s even before Wittgenstein comes onstage to tear his hair and shout obscure axioms.

POW! ZING! LOGOS!

This all comes together in a very entertaining and enlightening 300-page graphic novel (a “Logic for Dummies” jokes author Apostalos Doxiadis). The storytelling’s set up in frames, the outermost being about Logicomix’s collaborating authors and artists in Athens, who comment with each other on the story and argue its meaning. These quirky interludes are inviting and helpful at first, but they eventually tip the scales toward annoying. (It is proper that Logicomix is a Greek production, now that I think about it, the likes of Aristotle and Euclid being the great-granddaddies of logic…)

Now, there are a great deal of graphic novels that are decidedly un-superheroic, and lately including many adaptations of classic novels (I liked a weird, French rendering of Kafka’s The Trial).

Logicomix feels oddly like a superhero comic at times, with Alfred Whitehead and Russell “joining forces” to produce the Principia Mathematica–which intends to undo the destruction to mathematical theory that Russell had just done with his famous paradox. There’s even a frame of rival logician David Hilbert, who, foiled by Russell’s Paradox, strokes his chin almost sinisterly: “There must be some way around it!”

As for the theories themselves, the book does a good job of enlightening the unitiated. Anyone can come away from it with at least a basic understanding of what these guys contributed to philosophy and not feel at all condescended to. The art, though, is a bit too simple–you’ll feel like it doesn’t live up to the sophistication of the story. To be fair, it does make everything seem more accessible, which is one of the aims of Logicomix.

There’s even an encyclopedia in the back that further illuminates the people and ideas that play a part in the story.

I read this one in a couple days, good days. I’m not saying I’ll sit down in front of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (as advanced as many of these guys were in their thinking, most of them were horrible writers), but Logicomix definitely stokes some intense interest in its brand of philosophy. A study of reason that’s unreasonably fun.

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