Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth
Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitriou
Bloomsbury USA, 352 pg
Perhaps before reading Logicomix one should ask oneself do you believe that logic and rationality exist among human beings, and if it does not could you perfect it and, thus, bring humankind into some sort of new way thinking? If you answer no, you know more than Bertrand Russell did when he mistook logical certainty for truth, a truth that if extended from the mathematical to the social, one could escape the superstitions and hate that have dominated human kind. Unfortunately, Russell only learned late in life that one could not use logic to change the world and often the result was failure if not disaster. For Doxiadis and Papadimitriou, though, this not a tragedy, but the story of hubris and the human spirit that not only shows the growth of one man away from pure logic but to an understanding that even the Greeks in their prescient tragedies had: logic itself cannot lead to wisdom, but only serves it. While these are noble ideas, the execution of the story with its intertwining of Russell’s story, that of the Orestia and those of the authors, only makes for a simplistic debate (perhaps a Platoesque symposium is a better word) that confuses fascination with insight.
Logicomix opens with Bertrand Russell giving a speech in the United States during the early part of World War II before the US had entered it. A known pacifist, the unruly crowd of America Firsters expect him to say the US should keep out of the war. Instead, he gives a long history of his search for the logical basis of arithmetic and what that has meant for him, his family, and his colleges who all seemed to suffer from madnesses of sort or the other. On his search he meets all the great luminaries of mathematics and philosophy of the early 20th century, such as Kurt Godel, John Von Newman, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. If you are interested in a overview of their ideas, especially analytical philosophy and the Tractus Logico-Philosophicus, the book explains the ideas well. It was an especially interesting introduction, though brief, to the Tractus which had once interested me with its semantic elements. The real strength of the book is in these sections, although they are broken up a bit by the older Russell commenting on the story, which weakens it slightly.
Interspersed with Russell’s talk are scenes of the artists at work on the book, discussing what the ideas are and what their importance was. Amongst these is a debate between Doxiadis and Papadimitriou about the focus of the story: the human story or the mathematics. The debate, though, is somewhat pedantic and is akin to watching two friends debate tax policy at dinner. Lacking all passion, it comes off as unimaginative writing. You can almost hear the artists saying, see guys this is important because we are talking about it, and if we think it is important, it must be. But sadly, it isn’t, and reading their summaries on the Oresties reads like a second year English paper. The problem with the book is just too much earnestness and an inability to weave their obviously heart-felt ideas into a compelling narrative. While Russell’s life had a motivating force behind it, it was never really obvious why I should care about their search. I had Bertrand, what did I need them for? The inward look, the need to write about the writer, is a symptom of the self absorption that graphic novels often suffer from. The graphic novel may always feel like a third person form because the first person accounts usually create a visual representation of the narrator, but so many of them are filled with the inward look. The inward look can be liberating, and it can be blinding and Logicomix suffers from the latter.
Perhaps if Doxiadis and Papadimitriou had stuck to the life of Russell and his times the book could be called Logicomix: the Cartoon History of Analytical Philosophy. Instead, they chose to search for truth, an epic search at that, and just as it eluded Russell, it has eluded them. What they have found is that if you set out to find the truth you often only find platitudes. It is too bad, because the subject is interesting.