Russell to the rescue

Published: September 8, 2010

All comic books are about a hero’s journey. Each hero must travel the path destined for him, be it Superman, Batman, Maus or as is the case with Logicomix, Bertrand Russell. Sure, Russell was a mathematician, logician, philosopher, pacifist and historian whose theories are considered prescient, but to many other left-hemisphere intellectuals Russell was very simple, a hero with a quest to save the world from ‘the devils…contradiction and paradox’.

The writers are Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, a writer and a mathematician, and a computer science theorist and researcher respectively. They both appear frequently in the major story arc of the novel. Logicomix takes the standards of comic book storytelling and inserts in them a series of Russian dolls of narrative arcs. Logicomix is about not a Bertrand Russell biography in the strictest sense, because along with scenes of Russell telling a captive audience the story of his search for true logic, there are discussions between the writers and the design team to be found as well, helping to clarify some of the more complex theories for readers with less of an understanding of logic.

But it’s not all about numbers and paradoxes with infinite possibilities. Russell also seemed to be quite a man’s man and — as illogical as logicians appear to find women — this never got in the way of Russell pursuing more than a few. His first marriage ended during the years he spent writing his magnum opus the Principia Mathematica — ‘Why 362 pages …to prove 1+1=2?’ But even more telling is third wife, Dora Black. One particular image stands out — Russell stands by a window talking to Black as she sits reading on a chaise. He plainly states that their lives and their marriage are a failure and she disagrees claiming that they are ‘an inspiration to truly modern souls’. A panel later, a random man is seen lying on the chaise with Black, his head in her lap. ‘I don’t mind your lovers visiting or even working here…but do they also have to live in?’ says Russell, perfectly calm, and as always, shockingly logical for a man living in an open marriage in the early 1900s.

It is these details that add life to what could otherwise be a fairly dry look at one man’s desire to challenge the traditionally accepted foundations of mathematics. Besides Russell, mathematicians and logicians such as Frege, Hilbert, Poincaré, Wittgenstein and Gödel all make appearances, and although most of these names and the work they have done may be alien to readers unfamiliar with mathematics, each character adds another dimension to Russell’s story. They are all affected by his work just as he had been by theirs. The characters who stand out the most are of course the ones who are most tortured — Georg Cantor who died in an asylum for the mentally insane trying to prove that Jesus Christ was Joseph of Arimathea’s natural son, the paranoid, racist and anti-Semitic Gottlob Frege and Kurt Godel, who died of starvation because he was so certain he was being poisoned.

Of course, mathematics is clearly not the only common factor between these men. Genius and madness haunts Russell through the book, with constant references to logicians and mathematicians who have been driven insane by their desire for the ultimate truth. The phrase from Hamlet, ‘method in his madness’ has now become a cliché, but for Russell it was one that held true.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 5th, 2010.

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