An essay I wrote for the Logicomix sac in mainstream english. Not perfect but could be useful for others studying the graphic novel in the future. -Jason Li
Albert Einstein stated that “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.” In the graphic novel Logicomix Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou explore the life of Bertrand Russell’s “epic search for truth” and its effects. In many ways the novel tells the dangers of chasing logic in a chaotic and inexplicable world. Many individuals who continue down this difficult path surrender to mental illness. Furthermore, by committing their lives to hard work, they not only expose themselves to disappointment but also then find it hard to maintain close relationships. However, Logicomix also suggests that the pursuit of logic is not necessarily perilous as fame and satisfaction can be gained. Therefore, while the authors clearly warn against the dangers of devotion to the pursuit of order, they also suggest that there are certainly hidden benefits.
One of Logicomix’s main themes is the dangers of being involved in the quest for logic. Those who are involved in this pursuit are obviously deep thinkers who question “even what every child knows.” This different view of the world and constant questioning can lead to madness. Cantor is one such victim. He is depicted in a, presumably mental hospital with the frames featuring dark colours and strong contrast creating a sense of gloom. The rain during the scene also foreshadows Cantor’s madness as it represents the countless thoughts pounding constantly in his brain. Cantor’s work with infinity, something “you cannot count” seems to be the direct cause of his mental state, as his brain cannot cope with trying to use logic to explain everything about such a complicated subject. Frege is similarly damaged. His “rigour” and intense constant concentration on logic leads him to believe that Jews are “undermining the nation’s foundations.” The colouring of the frames is also very dark. Moreover, the fact that the window frames of his study are highlighted suggests he is imprisoned by his own obsession. The large bold font in phrases such as “THE DANGER IS TOO GREAT!” and “THE JEWISH ONE OF COURSE!!!” as he frowns angrily through gritted teeth and thumps the desk, seems to suggest that he has lost his senses and that his obsession is totally illogical. He is also depicted as obsessed by his wife, as shown by the fact that he is scribbling busily and surrounded by piles of paper. Looking Russell observes “logic is a tool…you can use it to cut bread with – or kill” it is clear that the novel is suggesting that mentally disturbed academics can actually be dangerous for society as a whole, since Frege seems to be supporting the eventual genocide of Jews in the Holocaust. In this way, Logicomix shows the dangers of pursuing logic for society as a whole.
There also seems to be dangers in becoming so obsessed with pursuing logic that relationships suffer. In order to achieve goals, hard work is necessary, but people must also face competition and devastating failures. During Russell’s career, he is constantly aware of competitors. When he attends a talk in Paris with “everybody who was anybody in mathematics” his entire competition is laid out in front of him, placing him under intense pressure. At this point, he feels it is necessary to work harder as he sets out with “fiery, though rather misjudged, optimism, to write” a book following his return from Paris. The detrimental effects of pursuing logic can be clearly seen when Russell decides to write the “Principia Mathematica” with Alfred Whitehead. Believing that “hard work was all” that was needed, they take “ten years to complete the first three volumes.” They even live together “to gain more time for work.” Yet, despite all these efforts, their work is a failure. The publishers could not “find a single reader to evaluate the manuscript” and leaves the two with an ultimatum to either publish if they “pay for the printing” or not publish. The rain and grey colour of the outside world represents the disappointment and sadness of the two men which the artists also show through their slouched bodies with shabby clothes, silence and emotionless faces. Russell’s time and effort into building “foundations for logic” is also challenged and dismantled by his student, Wittgenstein who writes a book contradicting his teacher. This event leaves Russell terrified at the possibility of “total annihilation of his life’s work” as Wittgenstein’s work gains influence. Wittgenstein’s decimation of Russell’s work echoes the way Russell himself took apart Cantor’s set theory with one paradox showing that however successful an academic is, he can still be challenged. Thus, Logicomix warns about the hard work and commitment required to work towards an intangible result, and the failures along the way.
Additionally, Doxiadis and Papadimitriou suggest that chasing logic obsessively can destroy relationships. When men devote their every living moment to their quests, they inevitably have no time for their wives. Women are depicted as secondary to their husbands, with no real input or thoughts of their own. They are just left alone, and seemingly regarded as a mere inconvenience. Frau Frege is clearly frustrated with her situation as seen by her tired facial expressions and having to tell Frege when he has enough flowers, living with a man whose rigour and absent-mindedness strains their relationship. A concerned Alys witnesses Frege’s eccentricity and later remarks that she “wouldn’t want to be the great man’s wife.” Although Frege’s marriage stays intact the same cannot be said for the Russells. His decision to “uncover the treasures of logic came at a price.” Russell’s obsession with logic has visible impacts on his relationship with Alys. One such occasion is when she kindly asks Russell if he would “require anything” and he snaps back with “peace from further interruptions.” She is diminished in the background and seen with back turned symbolising how unimportant she has become to her husband. When the stress finally boils over at Whitehead’s house, Russell releases his rage against the long-suffering Alys, insulting her as “a total ass” and claiming that he is “sick and tired” of her. The red walls in this scene represent Russell’s anger and the abruptness of the fight that separates the two forever. After this divorce, his marriage to Dora also fails as he moves “out of Beacon Hill and his marriage with Dora.” A result of a fight which was because of his obsession with trying to give his “own children an ideal education” and selfishness seen when he doesn’t care about his baby’s crying and leaves Dora to check.He later concedes that his quest deprived his children of both “home and parents.” By focusing on these marriages Logicomix highlights the danger that relationships face when a man commits to logic.
On the other hand, the text also suggests that minds can never stop enquiring and the pursuit of logic can achieve fame and satisfaction. Even as a child Russell has an inquisitive mind. From just one “unearthly moan” Russell’s “eagerness to know” drives him to investigate. This curiosity extends into his adolescence as he challenges a professor at Cambridge University on the definition of “infinitesimal”. His “thirst for knowledge did not diminish” and is one of the main driving factors in his quest. Russell’s discovery of a paradox existing in the idea of sets is portrayed in five frames showing his deep thoughts and shock when he makes the discovery which “made him an overnight celebrity mathematical circles.” The wall in the background changes in turn with his surprise showing his sense of satisfaction in the discovery. His holiday in Wales shows what the pursuit of reason gives him. Rather than be worried about his dark past, he is ready to battle against his “old enemy irrationality” and pursue the “natural harmony of Reason.” This section of the novel is filled with greenery, flowers and birds and an entire page devoted to Russell standing arms outstretched and shouting at the beauty. He describes himself “strong enough to cry out” as he could he could finally “turn [his] back on [his] dark legacy. Here the authors show that the pursuit of reason allows Russell to move forward in life. Furthermore, despite his failures he becomes a highly respected “philosopher, mathematician and above all, great logician.” The audience’s clapping indicates how respected he is, something he may not have achieved had he not pursued his quest. Therefore, the novel suggests that although that pursuing logic can have rewards.
Clearly, Logicomix offers a variety of messages about the effects of pursuing logic. Extensive thinking can lead to madness, no guarantee of results from hard work and difficulty in maintaining a close relationship. Despite the dangers, fame and satisfaction can be gained and minds cannot stop enquiring. The dangers of pursuing logic in a chaotic world is clear but there are benefits which come out of the inevitable chase.