Friday, January 8, 2010

An Epic Search for Truth

By Russel D McLean

Warning: today’s post contains no crime or writing tips. But it does have comic books. So that’s gotta count for something, yeah?

Some of you will be aware – and others will only be discovering this for the first time – that I studied philosophy at university, to the point where I very nearly went for a PhD*.

Now, these days I don’t keep nearly as much of an eye on philosophy as I once did, but I still retain the curiosity and fully believe that philosophy as a discipline is infinitely more useful than many people – including some philosophers – might believe.

Which is why I snapped up Logicomix when it came into the dayjob the other day.

Logicomix – if you haven’t heard of it – is a brilliant idea. A retelling of the life of Bertrand Russell that takes into account the lives and passions of other famous logicians from the same period including pulp-fiction enthusiast and front line soldier Ludwig Wittgenstein (much of his most famous work, the Tractatus, was conceived of in the trenches of WWI). It’s a tricksy telling, using the comic’s creators as a greek chorus and trying up the thematics of Greek tragedy into the lives of these brilliant, but often troubled men; a balance between biography and trying to understand the importance of their work.

And it was important work, because without philosophy – and without mathematics**, which formed the basis of the much of these great men’s work – we would be unable to make sense of the world around us, of the way in which we live our lives. There are beautiful moments that make real-world sense of such abstract concepts as signs and signifiers which seemed even more relevant to me now as a creator of fiction, someone who uses stand-ins for real life on a regular basis.

But what is incredible about Logicomix to me is that it does its dual job of biography and introduction to philosophy in a way that would put many more scholarly works to shame. And yes, the real life moments have certainly been dramatised and shifted (Russell’s meetings with Frege, for example, almost certainly did not happen) but they provide an emotional framework that allows us to make sense of the philosophy, to understand in a way that may not have been obvious before.

That it is able to achieve this at all, I believe, is due to the form in which it chooses to tell its story. Such a tricksy and layered narrative would have been dense and uncomfortable in pure prose, and what Logicomix does – and in an exceptional manner – is show the way that comic storytelling can be used to direct and clear effect while still maintaining an intelligent and deep subtext. Simply put, if you wanted an argument for intelligent and mature comic narrative, Logicomix is it.

And who knows, it might even persuade people who thought philosophy to be dull or unrelated to their world to look a little more closely at the discipline and understand how it might relate to them, to the way they see and experience the world. In short, Logicomix is one of the most original and inspiring books I have read in a long time, and a massive argument for those of us who have long known that comic and sequential art storytelling can be about far more than thrills and spectacle; that the form can tell many stories in ways that normal prose cannot even hope to replicate.

*why didn’t I? Cost, mainly. And the fact that I’d already started to be seduced by the crime fiction, where, more often than not, the drink was cheaper.

**Logicomix uses the term Mathematics more often than it does philosophy, but I was introduced to the work of Russell, Wittgenstein et al from a philosophical perspective, which was perhaps the best way to come to them as before then I truly believed I hated mathematics. But since the work of these logicians was one of the aspects of my courses that came to interest me most, I have since had to rethink that hatred…

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Sounds like a great gift for my husband, a political theorist. Thanks!