Yasiru (reviews will soon be removed and linked to blog)'s Reviews > Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth

Logicomix by Apostolos K. Doxiadis
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really liked it
bookshelves: comics-and-graphic-novels

Logicomix is an impressive (graphic) novel, as much in scope as visually and structurally, and as a reader with some background in mathematics and philosophy, I'm very glad that at least this kind of fiction is written. After some contemplation, I also came to agree that its subtitle, 'An Epic Search Truth', wasn't disappointed either. I fluctuated between the present one star short rating and the full during the course of my read, mulling over this point a fair bit and this is what I hope to remark on here.

This is a fictionalised biographical account of Bertrand Russell with a backdrop of escalating war on the one hand, and a story about telling a story on the other (self-referential, if you will- reflecting the central paradoxes of Russell's and the 20th century academic establishment's quest for a solid basis on which to operate). The choice of Russell struck me as somehow both inspired and obvious- in succession let's say, to avoid paradox. Through Russell, himself a dominating figure in philosophy and logic during its most productive period, we encounter the giants on whose shoulders our certainties, and more significantly uncertainties, today rest. These are odd, eccentric sorts we meet, and the narrative doesn't shy from the the frank suggestion that insanity and logic are intertwined in some way. The problem is that many of the depictions are exaggerated (it recalled to me E T Bell's Men of Mathematics) to keep the plot focused and pertinent. However, the meta-fiction aspect came to the rescue here, and through the account of a disagreement between the book's author and consultant, this claim doesn't go entirely unchallenged even if it affects the tone of the work. The truly frightening quality of insanity isn't the possibility that some germ of it is within you, as Russell is made to mull over, but that it's a continuous spectrum which reaches sanity through ambiguous mists. The problem is often about settling on what's enough to label someone mad rather than a distinct insane vs sane divide. Logicomix provides no discussion on this, but it offers a metaphor, following a confused journey through modern Athens in search of a rehearsal, that reality is mapped in men's minds and madness is when it's confused with its impression. This segues nicely into Wittgenstein's solution in the main storyline.

The characters feel very real in that the reader's interest is sustained while their sympathies are made to vary, but they only broadly align with their historical selves. Certain details are preserved and recalled well where these are relevant, but the strength of Logicomix is that the finer points of logic interweave but never interrupt the drama of human failings and personal tragedy and the glimmer through all of it, of hope (for Russell, the quest is as much for this balance as for the truth that might liberate him from his foundational anxieties). As such when it comes to their field of study (which it often does!), characters tend to become mouthpieces for entire traditions of thought, some they founded, some they were the most famous part of, and thus exaggerated. This is a good way, combined with some of the other narrative techniques which allow for clarifications (like pausing for the questions and reflections at the studio and having the authors and staff voice the likely thoughts going through the reader's mind), to broadly do the concepts mentioned some justice, but it inflicts too much of the personal from time to time, if with the good intention of showing to the layman how some people can be so excited about such a seemingly dry subject (look at how the delegates from the International Congress of Mathematics at the turn of the century where Hilbert presented his famous problems come to embody collective reactions or the way Wittgenstein is shown to be 'intense' to the point of zeal).
More serious is the problem that many of these personalities are put together a little incongruously, and compared to Russell lack context for some of their thought and ways, that the logic from madness or madness from logic theme theme might be unconsciously invoked without it being warranted.
There is a note justifying some of the historical inventions and distortions at the end of the book which reasserts some of the historical, dare we say, artifice, and a detailed glossary and a bibliography follow, so to some extent this allowance is mitigated.

The art (a fresh, somehow very European style) and lettering (for an admirably clean, clear English suited to a book touching on logic, which nevertheless evokes Russell's period from time to time) reinforce the twofold nature of the ambitions chronicled, in that they strive for progress at great cost but also seem circular, and the nested stories are very smoothly brought back in line after digressions. I especially enjoyed the recurring and illuminating scenes from Aeschylus's Oresteia by way of the aforementioned drama rehearsal and how Wittgenstein's experiences in the war were portrayed.

A fantastic read in all, remarkable for its dexterity and character portraits (or at times suppositions, rather) as it shifts back and forth through a live history surrounding the 'foundational quest'. It's not a graphic-boosted textbook on logic or even particularly serious about logic at all, but an observation on the human condition through the frustrated efforts of some of mankind's greatest thinkers at establishing truth in the hopes of being free once and for all of continually shifting ground underfoot.


I thought I'd add this blog post and its follow-up.
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Reading Progress

January 3, 2013 – Started Reading
January 3, 2013 – Shelved
February 2, 2013 – Finished Reading
April 8, 2013 – Shelved as: comics-and-graphic-novels

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