Logicomix: an epic search for truth
By Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou
Art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna
Logicomix is a graphic novel which combines fiction and non-fiction elements to depict logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell’s struggle to discover the rigorous logical underpinnings of everything, especially mathematics.
“A dramatic story of madness and reason, love and war,” so says the opening flap of the graphic novel, and is an apt description of the story in brevity.
Early on in the novel, Russell is called upon in a lecture at the start of WWII to explain how logic can answer whether or not the USA should enter into the war.
Cleverly explained by the authors via interludes of plot through flashbacks, part of the story is about Russell’s emotionally barren upbringing, the specter of madness seemingly surrounding him, and the many struggles that he had throughout his life.
Simultaneously with his personal struggles, there’s a theoretical struggle Russell wrestles with — whether there can be a firm foundation to logic and how logic relates to language, truth and the world.
Russell is presented as a classic, typical hero — orphaned, struggling in childhood with overbearing adults, moving on to his quest (for the foundations in logic), struggling with monsters (a streak of mental illness in his family, also found frequently among his colleagues), and coming to an end that is both happy and sad (depending on how it is viewed) but certainly complex.
The stories of Russell and other major mathematical figures (Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, and Kurt Gödel, and a leaves-you-wanting-more-out-of-his-story Ludwig Wittgenstein) are told enjoyably. Also, the theoretical discussions are both very clear and told in a way that any novice reader will find little difficulty in following the storyline.
The late Howard Zinn said of “Logicomix,” “This is an extraordinary graphic novel, wildly ambitious in daring to put into words and drawings the life of one of the great philosophers of the last century, Bertrand Russell. The book is a rare intellectual and artistic achievement, which will, I am sure, lead its readers to explore realms of knowledge they thought were forbidden to them.”
The novel offers a few take-it-to-heart messages, that knowledge is inherently complex and incomplete, that dogma should be discouraged, and that there is a certain pathological bravery found in intellectual giants. All these messages are presented in the novel with finesse, exposing the flawed fabric of reality in a way that makes life bearable.