Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth

12May11

Bertrand Russell titles like Unpopular Essays and The Conquest of Happiness helped shape the way I write essays and remain among my favourite books. One of the brightest minds of his generation — and certainly among the more privileged — Russell purposely turned away from obscure academic work at one point in his life, embracing writing that would be accessible to more people.

A graphic novel about his earlier years, Logicomix attempts quite a bit. While I can hardly blame it for ignoring his later work (the book states it’s about his “early life,” and somewhat more generally “the quest for the foundations of mathematics, whose most intense phase lasted from the last decades of the 19th century to the eruption of the Second World War.” While I can appreciate the attempt to give dramatic weight to intellectual struggle, the stage of his life where he took 362 pages to prove that 1 + 1 = 2 certainly proves to be a difficult one to dramatize.¬†Adding thunder and lightning to dialogue like “A new set of axioms!” doesn’t, I’m afraid, come across as anything more than clumsy and heavy-handed. The books frequently visits his personal life, from an unhappy childhood to several marriages, but the reader is yanked out of the narrative at least as frequently because the writers and illustrators felt the need to repeatedly insert their own commentary as a form of narrative framework, in addition to another narrative framework that has Russell telling the story of his life in a lecture hall, to make a point to a crowd that objects to the war.

There’s much to admire in a graphic novel that takes on such mature and intelligent themes, and the illustrations are certainly unpretentious and down to earth. I just can’t help but feel the book goes in a few too many directions. And an opportunity is missed — at least in terms of creating an introduction to his work — when there’s little or no mention of his very different career later in life. Our time with Russell has an ending of sorts, and then the final chapter is hijacked by the writers and illustrators as they march off to see a production of¬†Oresteia — suitably dramatic and epic, but I did find myself wishing they’d instead found room to add a little more to the remarkably complicated and fascinating life they’ve tried to present.

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