Other truths in the shadows

I got stressed out reading Logicomix. About halfway through the book there is a discussion of Russell’s paradox, a self-contradictory proposition in set theory. Very simply, it posits a set of all sets that do not contain themselves. At the time he stumbled upon it Bertrand Russell, whose biography Logicomix is, was working on set theory as a foundational logic to underpin mathematics, which he aimed to describe as proceeding necessarily from a collection of basic logical statements. If we examine the idea of a set which contains all the sets that do not contain themselves – such as the example given in the book, the set of all birds, which is not a bird, and therefore does not contain itself – we will see that if it does not contain itself, then it must contain itself, but that if it does, then it doesn’t. This is similar to the liar’s paradox invoked by the statement ‘this statement is a lie’; it’s one of those amusing formulations which language makes possible, and which generally do not bother us too much.

Russell was bothered however. It seemed to him, and to many other mathematicians and logicians of his day, that it endangered the status of set theory as a stable basis for the logical foundations of mathematics, and it apparently caused something of a stir in those circles. It puzzled me too. I lack any detailed technical knowledge of logic, but simple logical statements are accessible to all of us, and I began to worry at this aporia in much the same way that Russell must have, as a nagging suggestion of something fundamentally wrong with the world. I guess that the capacity for self-contradiction must have invalidated the uses that Russell wanted to put set theory to, as something which could subtend the concept of number (‘three’ as the set of all groups of three things), but for me, because of the way they were juxtaposed in the book I was looking for some logical relation to the ‘set of all sets that do contain themselves’, and began quickly to feel that I needed some kind of meaningful explanation to emerge. I felt a tightness in my temples and at the back of my throat, a physical affective reaction which I can’t really describe, but which I have learned to identify as the manifestation of stress. I could see no way out of this logical bind.

Perhaps one way out would have been to abandon all of my existing interests and fling myself headlong into an obsessive study of logic, until I could get to the ‘bottom’ of it. That is certainly what Russell did, and what many of his contemporaries and collaborators did. The affective discomfort I felt passed quickly, but I guess that for many of those attracted (or compelled) to the study of logic, it does not. This is one of the central theses of Logicomix, that there is a connection between the high incidence of mental illness among logicians and the particular characteristics of their object of study.

I soon came to realise that what puzzled me was not the status of the paradoxical proposition itself, but its reception among early twentieth-century thinkers. I have grown up in a world where the foundational physical descriptions of the universe are relativity and quantum mechanics, and although I am not a scientist, such views of existence have inevitably shaped my understanding of what kinds of observation might be normal or predictable. The relativistic and quantum physical universes have also had a profound indirect influence on the ways that certain scholars have thought about language, epistemology and culture, and those scholars have provided many of the tools which I use to think about the world. For me, a paradox is not a strange or frightening thing, and I can’t see that any language, however specialised or technical, would be of much use if it couldn’t formulate a paradoxical statement. Although we may think of ourselves as living in the same epistemological era as Russell and his contemporaries, the ‘age of reason’ or some such, there is a considerable distance between my basic assumptions and theirs.

I imagine the key to this distance is in the notion of logic as a language, rather than a description of a set of fundamental laws, akin to the laws of physics, baked into our universe at a structural level. To linguists, logic can be an interesting topic, but it is a topic which belongs properly to the discipline of semantics – in linguistic terms it is a detailed semantic investigation of the meanings of a very few, simple words. ‘And’, ‘or’, ‘not’, ‘therefore’: these words all invoke certain kinds of relation, which when we are reasoning, it seems impossible to get beneath. But these are words, formed in use, and their signified concepts are constructions of language. The reason that they seem, like mathematics, to have a foundational existence, prior to language, to knowledge, and to people, is that they are the only tools we have to think about them with. We can never stand outside the discourse of logic and reason in order to consider it in a logical or reasonable way. But also like mathematics, the particular, non-negotiable behaviours of these terms, are a product of their definitions. ‘Two’ plus ‘two’ must always equal ‘four’, because ‘four’ is a word we have invented to stand for that value. That we can’t argue our way out of certain numerical or geometric constraints, like the relation of a circle’s radius to its diameter, does not imply that the ideas and names of those constants are somehow external to language.

This understanding of logic as particular rather than universal, as linguistic rather than metaphysical, rescued me from my incipient feelings of panic and tension. Such a perspective is regarded with suspicion by many, as it seems to suggest that other domains of knowledge may have an equal claim on truth, and this also is true, but the truths they own are of other classes – they do not describe causality or physics. This notion of multiple truths is also anathema to many, especially among those working in the allied domains of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but I don’t propose to go deeper into that debate here. I might suggest that such a rejection is not unrelated, however, to the psychological difficulties encountered by some of those most directly engaged in using the discourse of logic to think about itself. If you are going to call into question the very foundations of your understanding, you had better have some good, solid emotional ground to stand on elsewhere in your mind and your experience. The length of this discussion of Logicomix to this point, at which I have not even begun to talk about the book, is probably in direct proportion to the discomfort I felt myself at deconstructing the basis of my thinking.

The book bills itself as ‘an epic search for truth’, which might suggest that it cleaves to the notion of a singular, logical truth outlined above. However, its epilogue, in which its creators attend a performance of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, seems to attribute wellbeing to the accommodation of multiple forms of truth, as Athena pointedly includes the Furies and their non-rational wisdoms in her just and reasonable city. This scene itself serves as a commentary on Russell’s own closing statements, in which he points to the limits of logic, and insists on individual responsibility in the moral domain – a domain enclosing as many truths as it does agents.

Russell’s own search for truth seems to fizzle out after his obsessive pursuit of a logical basis for mathematics culminates in a book he and his collaborator have to pay to publish, and which is essentially incomplete, but he continues to think, and it is with this strong statement of the multiple character of truth that the epic concludes. However, as with all biography, such a glib summary inevitably falsifies Russell’s life. His existence was not a search for truth, and nor was it any other form of narrative, but a collage of happenstance, fragmentary experiences, from which certain stories may be assembled, and from which he doubtless assembled stories, as we all must, in order to frame his experiences as meaningful.

The book includes some explicit discussion of the character of biography, and its relationship to the less flexible discipline of history. Specifically there is a justification of the use of biographical methods to explore the meanings of a subject’s work, and of the construction of coherent narratives to dramatise theses regarding a life and work. I do have some fundamental objections to both of these conventional assumptions, not least that both entail the substitution of the writer’s meanings for the subject’s. This is not to say that I regard such projects as without value, just that I take issue with any claims made on their behalf for ‘truth’ or ‘insight’ that are not also made for fiction, of which I take biography to be a genre. Specifically here, the writers Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou make a claim for the relationship between madness and logic in which logicians mistake the map for the territory – this is an interesting idea, but it is the kind of commonplace delusion that informs almost everybody’s understanding of the world. It is not likely to be a cause of mental illness. The notion I suggested above, that these thinkers were dismantling the very architecture of their own sense of self and universe, performing metaphorical brain surgery on themselves, seems to me to be a more plausible explanation. I’m quite happy to go with Doxiadis and Papadimitriou’s idea, but in the context of a story told for entertainment, not of an ostensibly ‘truthful’ account of Russell’s life.

The book is formally sophisticated, and beautifully executed. It performs ‘life-writing’ in just the way that is advocated in creative writing education, which is to say that it uses every available rhetorical device to persuade the reader of its theses. Personally, I prefer not to be persuaded, but to be engaged in discourse, and even when I’m reading fiction, I find that it resonates more powerfully when the telling is not completely seamless – although some kind of balance must be struck between the arbitrary real and the meaning-endowing fantasy of narrative. Doxiadis is at pains to point out in his opening monologue that the book is intended to be read as a ‘yarn’, but it would have been a more interesting read, for me, and perhaps more consistent with its sophisticated structure, if it had allowed for the presence of multiple truths in relation to Russell’s life.

The narrative of Russell’s biography is cleverly embedded within a double frame. In the outer narrative, the creative team discuss the ins and outs of the choices they must make to produce the story, and the character of Doxiadis playfully alternates between addressing the audience and his narrative interlocutors. He also discursively outlines to his collaborators aspects of Russell’s life, which seamlessly morphs into Russell outlining his own biography in a talk he gives at an American university in 1939, just after the outbreak of WWII.

These three narratives are clearly distinguished by the inks of Alecos Papadatos, who utilises a broad vocabulary of panel and bleed devices, and the colours of Annie di Donna, which render the outermost narrative brightly, the next in sepia, and the central one in a more muted full-colour palette. Important moments in the outer frame, often involving conversations between Doxiadis and Papadimitriou, are rendered by inserting their figures multiply into a single double-page image; this emphasises their movement through the world, in contrast perhaps to the inhabitants of the other narratives, who are already locked into a historical past, and also invokes the tradition of walking and talking which is so important in the Greek philosophical lineage. These discussions take place in Athens, which the framing narrative gives as the site of the creative work, although there is no reason why this might not be a narrative device. The connection made between the origins of logic in Classical Greece and its later importance in a global society of thinkers is significant, as the point is later made that Greek thought has the wisdom to place reason alongside other forms of knowledge, in a pantheon of thought.

The sophistication with which the central narrative is elucidated, so powerfully supported by its two frames that it becomes difficult for the reader to question its veracity, makes the question of other versions of Russell recede into the shadows. But this is a question that remains in play, and it is necessary to drag it into the light in order to query exactly what meanings inhere in the narrative decisions made by the creative team. In the first of their single-panel perambulations Doxiadis and Dimitriou discuss the ‘other sides’ of Russell – ‘…political activist, philosopher, ladies’ man’.

Let’s note that term, ‘ladies’ man’, and the way that it ideologises a whole raft of assumptions around gender – including the impossibility of its converse, the ‘gentleman’s woman’ – and move on to consider some specific elisions and transpositions made in the name of narrative coherence. Some of these, such as fictional meetings with other leading thinkers, have a very clear purpose in dramatising the intellectual debates of the time, and the exchanges that Russell conducted with such figures in print, over the course of years. Other departures from the documentary record may be justified in the interests of concision, making present aspects of Russell’s character which could only otherwise emerge from the inclusion of an impractical number of fragmentary incidents, disruptive to the narrative flow.

Russell’s first wife, the social welfare activist Alys Pearsall Smith, does not appear to have a particularly good time of it, as Logicomix tells it. Russell becomes thoroughly absorbed in his work soon after their marriage, and becomes distant, treating Smith coldly, and according her little importance in his life. He subsequently becomes infatuated with the wife of his collaborator A.N. Whitehead, an infatuation which lasts for years without consummation. We are later introduced to another wife, the author Dora Black, who arrives without any preamble; Russell opens a progressive school with her, which is not entirely successful.

The historical record tells us that Smith had to endure a long separation from Russell, during which he conducted affairs with Ottoline Morrell, and several other women, often simultaneously. I don’t propose to explore this history in detail, or to pass any moral judgement on a man whose second wife had two children with another man while they remained married. This was an era in which progressives were experimenting with a greater liberty in sexual relations, and Russell published a book which explored such issues in 1929, Marriage and Morals. This aspect of his thinking is not one which the authors of Logicomix chose to explore.

However, I think it is fair to speculate that had a feminist perspective been at the centre of this book’s writing, these matters might well have been handled differently. Some might accuse the authors of whitewashing Russell’s conduct. I can’t really comment on the ins and outs of such a claim, but I think it is a pity that the account which Doxiadis et. al. set out to relate is presented with such rhetorical and persuasive force that the possibility of other accounts effectively vanishes from the published text. Papadatos’ drawing is clean and clear, reminiscent of the ligne claire style of bande-dessinèes, although he is careful to retain evidence of its hand-crafted origins, in slightly shaky panel boundaries for example. This mimetically straightforward and technically accomplished style of art, which treats representation as an essentially transparent process, is consistent with the rhetorical agenda of the book, and it is also worth noting that Papadatos tends to represent women with overtly ‘pretty’, fine-featured and even infantilised faces – in contrast to the ruggedly individuated faces of his men. The world that is constructed in Logicomix is one that is hospitable to a ‘ladies’ man’.

Clearly then, I found a creative contradiction at the heart of this work, an unresolved and unacknowledged tension between its openness to multiple forms of knowledge, and the singleness it insists upon in its account of Russell. It is, as I hope I have made clear, an extremely well-made and engaging comic. It is certainly one which uses the medium of comics to convey truths and meanings that could not be expressed in any other medium without altering them, subtly or otherwise. If it has shortcomings, they lie in an a failure to examine its own premises; however, as I have argued that the insanity of many of the characters in this book can be ascribed to their willingness to do just that, perhaps its creators were prudent. That is, however, my own response to this extremely ambitious and highly accomplished book: it is too sane. Its superb rhetorical polish pushes it over the boundary between the simply persuasive and the slick, and there is precious little sign of the ‘other truths’ it endorses in the structure of any of its three narratives.

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