Sunday, 28 March 2010

Not Batman

Safe to say, this is a pretty unusual entry both for this blog and in the pantheon of graphic novels.

Logicomix, written by two Greek academics, Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou (plus two graphic artists), is a strange and original exploration of logic and its history in the first half of the 20th century (apparently the "logicist period"). The novel is fractured across three distinct strands: a long, and periodically interrupted, present-day discussion between the authors about logic; a lecture delivered in the USA by the logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell at the outbreak of World War II; and a biographical narrative of Russell's life, both professional and personal, that in part forms the subject of this lecture. While this sounds rather complex, it provides a framework for introducing and exploring the nature of logic, its promise of providing a unifying foundation for science and rationality, and its ultimate limitations. While Russell is not responsible for logic's greatest leaps (which, in fact, dash his hopes), his faith in its power and his efforts to promote it make him a key midwife to its evolution, as well as an appropriate choice for narrator. As the novel unfolds, the early gains by the likes of Russell, his collaborator, Alfred North Whitehead, and the members of the Vienna Circle (among others) give way to the wrecking ball of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Kurt Gödel's damning incompleteness theorems.

You've got to take your hat off to the authors of this volume. It brings a whole load of serious, serious thought to a medium where, traditionally, the deepest thought is that perhaps, just perhaps, Batman has ambiguous morality.[1] And it does so while still being a pretty easy read, and one that uses cross-linking narrative strands and trendy post-modern self-referencing to dodge potentially dry, stodgy point-making. Personally, I didn't learn an awful lot that I wasn't already (partially) aware of, but I don't think I'm the ideal audience. While the authors hail from academia, they're keen that such an important subject is communicated as widely as possible. And I think they'll generally be pretty successful given this novel.

Where the novel doesn't quite succeed is in making Russell serve as his own biographer from his 1939 lecture. This seemed unnecessary to me, since the (somewhat post-modern) discussion between the authors could have quite happily served the same job. And the portentousness of the timing is never quite realised or justified. I can only assume that beginning the novel with a direct reference to WWII is somehow supposed to either shed light on our own time, or to someone conjure a compare-and-contrast between rationality and senseless violence. Or something. If I'd been the authors, I'd definitely have either ditched this strand or been a lot more explicit about what its relevance was. Oh, and I might have soft-pedalled on the Greek Tragedy sections as well.

But, all that said, a pretty unique and engaging stab at something new. Consider my hat doffed.

[1] I'm saying this like I'm some sort of expert on graphic novels. I'm not - I've only read a handful in total, and while I like to think that I've chosen well and that they weren't brain-dead, they do include Aliens vs. Predator.

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