The subject of the newest comic-strip sensation, though, might still raise eyebrows: it’s the story of the quest for the foundation of mathematics, starring and narrated by Bertrand Russell, the British logician, philosopher, mathematician, reformer, pacifist, activist, jailbird and chronic womaniser. It’s set 50 years ago on 4 September, 1939, when Russell arrived at an American university to lecture on “The Role of Logic in Human Affairs” before a sceptical audience, just after Britain had declared war on Germany. The book delves into Russell’s past, his childhood and the first inklings of his search for the certainties upon which maths, and therefore all science, ultimately rest.
It’s an extraordinary piece of work: the arid title, Logicomix, seems to suggest a genre of brisk, strip- guides to hard philosophy, like the popular Icon series (eg Introducing Aristotle) instead of an absorbing 350-page narrative about how the search for logic and first principles drove most of its practitioners round the twist and threatened to do the same to the 3rd Earl Russell in the early 20th century.
If the subject matter seems a little arid, with its theories of types, paradoxes and abstruse language (calculus ratiocinator?), and if its recurring theme of how logic and madness are psychologically intertwined seems a touch gloomy, don’t let that put you off. Logicomix tells its saga of human argumentation with such drama and vivid colour that it leaves the graphic novel 300 (Frank Miller’s take on the Battle of Thermopylae) looking like something from Eagle Annual.
Its great subject is the historical desire to make the world totally understandable by reason, and it itches us inside the debate. Doxiadis and his team make us feel how cataclysmic was the moment when Kurt Godel, the mathematician, in a lecture, announced: “There will always be unanswerable questions,” and proved that arithmetic is “of necessity incomplete” – pulling the rug from under the study of logic. (“It’s all over,” remarked Russell’s friend Von Neumann at the conference, meaning the whole of philosophical reasoning.) By the end, Russell tells listeners: “Take my story as a cautionary tale, a narrative argument against ready-made solutions.”
This looks awesome. Next I want to see a 1,000 page graphic novel of the life of Nietzsche with a full rendering of the entirety of Thus Spoke Zarathustra taking up half of it! Wittgenstein is also deserves an ink and paint testament to his own natural colorfulness. Ray Monk’s The Duty of Genius is, in the meantime, a must-read for all fans of eccentric maniac geniuses.
Finally, a great tidbit from the article, Neil Gaiman’s response when the graphic novel began to be respected as more than just comic books with their abysmal reputation for artistic merit:
“I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t a hooker; she was in fact a lady of the evening.”