Logicomix: Big on Myth, Short on Math

Dear CF,

I just finished Logicomix, a graphic novel on logic and “the epic search for truth” that tries to give a history of mathematics through the story of Bertrand Russell’s life. Bear with me. I’m counting on the tightrope of friendship to get us both through this here little review.

Fondly,

M

As a palatable intro that’ll prepare you for future readings of philosophy and math, or at least give you a cast of characters, Logicomix works. I’m reading Russell now and I honestly do think I’m following his reasoning better for having the hook of his story to hang my philosophical hat on. Three cheers for the concept of intellectual comics! And for biographies, which are not quite the same thing!

That said, this needs to be said too: Logicomix tries so hard to be formally clever that it ends up failing to deliver on substance.

It’s nicely illustrated and does a lot of interesting stylistic work I’m ill-equipped to comment on. Example: Godel’s face is wide and flat, unlike Wittgenstein’s narrow angles, and the blankness of his glasses makes him look eyeless and qualitatively different, as if Dilbert and Mark Trail lived in the same comic. I don’t know to what extent this is meant to comment on the differences between these mathematicians and the kind of math they did—I want to believe that Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem is somehow reflected in the incompleteness of his face, but a part of me wonders if stretching like that doesn’t lead to sprains.

As a story, though, it doesn’t hold together. Logicomix wants to be intriguingly metatextual. It namechecks Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler and seems to want to invite a comparison. It shouldn’t. Calvino’s frames are slippery and confusing. They blend so you stop being able to distinguish the “real” from the “story.” The relationship between reader and read is basically unstable (like math!); the novel forces you to question your position as a reader of texts.

No such destabilization happens here. Everything in Logicomix is color-coded: Russell’s childhood memories are in sepia tones. The interludes where we watch the makers of the graphic novel talk about how the story should be told are clearly distinguished by their bright colors. These interludes are also banal (handshakes! dog-walking!), vaguely sexist (must every woman, even Annie Di Donna, one of the illustrators, appear only to provide the males an expository opportunity?) and boring. The making of the novel isn’t the gripping tale they think it is.

The problem they’re working out IS interesting:  how to tell the history of mathematics in comic book form.  They decide to tell it through one character, Russell. In order for this to work, they have to falsify the actual history of mathematics and stage all kinds of meetings and conversations between Russell, Frege, and others that never actually happened.

Given that logic is the subject of the novel, it’s hard to understand the payoff of such a illogical approach.

If we’re to take the “authors” at their word, they decided that the narrative rewards of forefronting Russell’s personal struggle to negotiate the opposition between logic and madness offset the sacrifice of historical accuracy.

Fine, were the narrative reward there for our brains to snack on. It isn’t. Their second meta-frame, the story of Russell’s lecture on World War II, is a story-telling mistake. If it were an actual transcript, its messiness would be excusable and interesting, but as a piece of fiction, it’s frankly unworthy of its subject.  The novel trails off (apparently burdened by Russell’s failure) and gestures vaguely at a future discussion of computers, which will offer hope for the quest for truth. An odd tangent, clearly a nod to Papdimitriou, one of the authors, who studies mathematics and narrative but seems underread on the theoretical possibilities the comic form offers. More on this in a minute.

The lecture (at Berkeley!) is ostensibly the vehicle for Russell to tell his life story. His audience (rightly) asks what that life story has to do with the question of whether or not the US should join the war. He keeps insisting on a payoff that never comes. The lecture isn’t believable, not as a lecture, not as a confrontation of unthinking pacifists, not as a piece of philosophy, not even as a piece of political agnosticism re: American intervention in the war. And certainly not as a story. While any and all of those things would have been interesting, the choice to make a political lecture bear all that work is an obvious  narrative expedient that does none of it well.  (Having read some Russell by now, I can say he would have paled at the careless segues attributed to him in that lecture.)

What Logicomix does well: explain Russell’s barber paradox. Narrate his formative years. Highlight its own decisions to cut Russell’s older brother and shape the story as they see fit. Do a little sloppy work with Greek drama. Introduce Wittgenstein. Show the eccentricities that plague mathematicians and their long-suffering companions.

What it does badly? Math. The overview of the Principia tells me nothing I couldn’t have gotten in one paragraph off Wikipedia. The set theory stuff is actually pretty well done, but by the time we get to Godel and Wittgenstein, the math is fuzzy to nonexistent.

This was a huge missed opportunity, especially given the medium. Scott McCloud has shown over and over how powerful comic books can be at delivering information and helping you see things in new and different ways. The gutter is a frame: think of what they could have done if they’d exploded the gutters of the comic and used the built-in tension between gutter and panel and page to do some actual math!

Comics have their own bizarre and self-constructed logic:  they instruct and direct the  reader not only through content but through form. Think of how the authors could have exploited this feature! How it could have demonstrated Russell’s desire to free mathematics from the tyranny of the axiom by doing the kind of work McCloud does in Understanding Comics, when he’s talking about the Magritte portrait of the pipe!  Wish I could link to it.

McCloud’s conceptual work is comparable to Calvino’s. So is Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland, a graphic novel that takes Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland and adapts its mathematical and social concerns to the faddish eugenics of the twentieth century. Logicomix isn’t, but it’s a fun myth, and it’s been a useful introduction to Russell, whose life’s work does seem to be so inscrutable that he might disappear altogether if someone didn’t recover him for the popular imagination.

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