Reviewed by Brent Cunningham
It isn't surprising that Logicomix has already received a couple of high-profile reviews: it's the kind of book that makes reviewers feel necessary and important. On the one hand, it's a good and deserving read in the history of mathematics, logic, and philosophy, yet because it comes in the form of a graphic novel, it could have some trouble finding its widest and most appreciative audience. Reviewers to the rescue!
The book tells and, of course, illustrates the life story of Bertrand Russell (1872 - 1970), British philosopher, logician, and mathematician -- or rather his life story until he turned from mathematical logic to moral and political philosophy. The heart of the story follows Russell's doomed but highly influential attempt, with his colleague Alfred North Whitehead, to establish unshakeable logical foundations for mathematics in their Principia Mathematica. It also explores, to great effect, Russell's personal biography, especially his erotic life and his ongoing relationship with madness via his family, his son, and many of his colleagues.
The authors of Logicomix do a number of things extremely well. They seem to have realized they were facing a tricky problem from the outset: how to build narrative tension while telling a "story" far too technical and abstract for most lay readers to follow. To create additional suspense they fall back on one of the most pervasive devices in all of literature, telling their tale in "frames," or stories-within-stories. This ubiquitous literary device is common for a reason, and once again it proves its worth, allowing Logicomix to pull its reader right in, along, and through.
In the inner frame, Russell is giving a lecture in the United States on the eve of America's entry into World War II. A mob of rabid pacifists, aware of Russell's pacificism throughout World War I, want him to come out against an American entry into the war. Russell, in his 1939 cartoon self, promises to answer them by telling the story of his life and work.
Meanwhile, in the outermost frame, the authors and artists of Logicomix are themselves characters in their own book, debating among themselves how to tell the story and what its central themes are, and also giving the reader interesting glimpses of present-day Athens, where the book was written and illustrated.
This widest frame was presumably designed to counter the easy objection to any comic book version of a complex and contentious subject. It allows the authors to present their version of events forthrightly as subjective and reduced accounts, insufficient and debatable. It isn't just the book's synopses of complicated ideas that are framed as tentative, but also its main themes. Throughout the story the graphic doppelganger of one of the authors, Apostolos Doxiandis, argues that they are telling a tragedy rooted in human passion. His foil in this argument is the cartoon version of the second author, Christos Papadimitriou, who holds that the events in the story are driven primarily by ideas.
It's possible to critique this whole subjective structure, as well as the resulting ambiguous answers to the story's core questions, as cheap attempts to blunt criticism. But at the same time it's hard to know how else the authors could have both told an enthralling story and also avoided the ire of specialists in the field. At the end of the book, when the authors have the intellectual integrity to detail the many parts of their story that have been invented to fit narrative goals, it's not much of a scandal since the story's outer frame has already hinted as much.
Taking a few factual liberties turns out to be important to the other thing the authors do extremely well. Despite their insistence, on the second page, that this book is not a "Logic for Dummies," the reality is that the graphic form is powerful not because it can go as deeply as hundreds of pages of closely-packed text but because the combination of visual experience and ideation lodges in the memory more vividly than text alone. Logicomix is too passionate and personal to be Logic for Dummies, but it's still a great way for a beginner to grasp and retain some fundamental concepts that were important in European fin-de-siecle proto-analytic philosophy, and also a great way to keep the biographies and personalities of the key figures distinct. The authors help the didactic function of their book considerably by having Russell meet, in their story, a number of mathematical luminaries he never met in person.
Unfortunately the inner frame doesn't work quite as neatly as the outer frame. Suffice it to say that the cartoon-Russell's eventual answer to the pacificists -- presumably the entire point of telling the story -- is disappointingly facile and recursive, whether considered as logic or as political philosophy. Russell's answer is not inconsistent with his later career as a celebrity social philosopher, when he was always bold and articulate, but seldom brilliantly original. Logicomix gets a little too excited about what is basically a tenable but depressingly self-evident insight into social dynamics.
Beyond that relatively small caveat, there's every reason for anyone even vaguely interested in 20th-century mathematics, logic, and philosophy to spend some enjoyable hours with this book. The biographical details are well chosen and well researched, the exegesis of the ideas is memorable and supportable, the artwork is superb, and the glossary at the back is simply excellent. Let's hope that Logicomix signals the beginning of a new wave of engaging "comic book" versions of the history of thought and science.
Books mentioned in this post