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Bertrand Russell: superhero

Posted by Christopher Shea  October 22, 2009 09:50 AM

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Does an intellectual biography of Bertrand Russell in the form of a graphic novel sound at all promising, either artistically or commercially? The authors of the extraordinary (if somewhat misleadingly titled) new book "Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth" tackle that question head-on in a prologue to their book.

The prologue, or "Overture," is also retailed in graphic form: "The craziest idea I've ever heard," exclaims Christos H. Papadimitriou, a professor of computer science at Berkeley who has been recruited to help with the project. Nonsense, counters the writer Apostolos Doxiadis, who had hatched the idea, as the pair stroll the hills above Athens: "The form is perfect for stories of heroes in search of great goals."

Naturally, it's all in the execution, but in the hands of Doxiadis and Papadimitriou, not to mention the artists Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna, with whom they collaborated, Bertrand's quest for the foundations of human understanding proves as enthralling as any Spidey-v.-Doc-Oc epic clash. (At least so far: I'm a third of the way through the book.) The key is the the way the Russell character, who serves as a narrator, links his intellectual narrative to his own extraordinary personal tale: as a young boy, he lost his mother, father, and a sister in a matter of weeks. He was then sent to live with his grandfather, a former prime minister, and an imperious grandmother in a grand house filled with secrecy and familial shame. When the young Russell, a prodigy well-served by tutors of Greek, German, and math, reported hearing strange sounds at night, servants and his grandparents alike said he was imagining things. Russell feared he might be going mad. He clinged to logic amid the insanity as to a raft, insanity that proves to be literal as well as figurative.

Papadimitriou is scheduled to speak next Wednesday, at 6 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge, in an event sponsored by the Harvard Book Store. Tickets are $5.

A crucial moment in Bertrand Russell's early life
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