Knowing/Not Knowing–Classic Comics version

We live in odd times, don’t we? I have just read an enchanting book (this may require some further explanation) called Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth. Spent a few hours reading it this afternoon and liked it so much that, as soon as I’d finished it, I started to re-read it.

Interestingly, it showcases many hot-button ideas, both in its contents and its format. To begin with, it’s not exactly what I would call a book. It’s a graphic novel AKA a comic. I suppose that, having grown up with the Classic Comics version of serious literature, I shouldn’t be so surprised that someone (in this case, some four–it is a collaborative effort among two writers and two artists) thought of using the format to address some serious ideas.

The book is supposed to be based on an address given by Bertrand Russell at an unnamed American university in September 1939, fresh after the invasion of Poland by Germany. It is a review of his intellectual development from his childhood days in care of his grandparents until the confrontation between the pacifism of his World War I self and the isolationists opposing US involvement in WWII. Russell’s narration describes and comments on his earlier self.

However, there is a meta-narration as well, since the address is set inside a framework in which the writer of the book addresses the reader directly, introducing his collaborators and discussing their difficulties in writing the book and deciding to call in an expert to help them with the hard bits in describing Russell’s progress through mathematics, philosophy, and logic. This self-referentiality is both modern and Russellian, reminiscent of his famous “set of all sets that do not include themselves” paradox

In this meta-narrative (still in comic book format), the authors admit to deep-sixing facts such as the existence of Russell’s older brother — a not insignificant omission given that the family’s history, including Russell’s early loss of his parents, his exile to his grandparents’ home, and his efforts to discover what had happened to his family, are a major motive in his lifelong search for truth and certainty.

The irony of trashing the facts in favour of narrative smoothness (there is an afterword that points out many inconsistencies and changes–this time in prose form, which strikes me as a more serious format) seems to have escaped the authors. Russell’s passionate search for truth, his struggles with the intransigence of language and the indifference or antagonism of his colleagues, and his determination to find a strong logical footing upon which mathematics can stand, are the antithesis of the authors’ attitude.

And yet…this is still a charming book. The illustrations have that authentic Classic Comics style–especially in the gothic sections where Russell discovers his mad uncle living in an isolated section of his grandparents’ mansion, or where he has a nightmare about the Guardians of Infinity coming for him because he “messed with infinity.”

And it raises real issues. Is there a connection between lunacy and logic? A surreal proportion of logicians have come from families with a history of madness (Russell, Wittgenstein) or have themselves sunk into it (Cantor, Frege, and famously Goedel). Do they pursue the study of logic as a prophylactic against the feared onset of insanity? Or is an obsession with logic a precursor of certain kinds of madness? At the famous International Conference in Paris in 1900, Poincare called the already insane Cantor’s set theory “a disease of which mathematics must be cured!”

Also, what allows us to mediate between the map and the world? between representation and reality? How do we create these correspondences? How can we recognize which representations are real, having objective correlatives (I still believe there are such things) and which are fanciful or false? A resonant question in every field of human endeavour, whether in the arts or in the sciences. (And not distant from the question of lunacy either.)

While I was familiar with much of the contents of this book (it references old friends like the liar’s paradox, the infinite hotel, “turtles all the way down”, and Euclid’s fifth postulate about parallel lines), I enjoyed reading it. You might do so too.

Yours illogically,


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