Bertrand Russell and the Simpsons
by Weston Cutter
Again: I don’t read graphic novels often, though this is the second I’ve read this year and it was a second very strong argument for reading them far more often than I presently do. Subtitled An Epic Search for Truth, the book functions both as a sort of historical novel slash intellectual bio of Bertrand Russell (the guy who said he would, if he ever got to heaven and was asked why he hadn’t believed in God, say “You didn’t provide sufficient evidence.”) and as an exploration of the ideas of logic.
Which term could, of course, be swapped out for something like ‘pure truth’—that’s what the mathematicians and semanticians are seemingly after in logic, after all: some totally True (meaning: purely, blemishless reflection of reality) depiction of how the world actually is. So here’s what’s totally messy and hard and strange about this book: if you’re like the majority of us, you don’t let real fundamental questions of logic undo you on a daily basis. In truth, you sort of can’t afford to: raising a fork to your mouth and getting the day’s work done present enough challenges of their own without necessitating significant excavation of what we conceive of as basic, simple, day-to-day steps (for the simplest/easiest example: math fundamentally relies on logic, and it’s impossible to even conceive of logic without language).
But this book will, in fact, make you ask questions you might not’ve otherwise asked, questions about real essential ideas of logic and Truth, and it’s like the good ache from a run or something, how this book can make you feel. If you’re at all like me, you’ve felt a sort of emotional, tactile thrill at the actual process of thought—those early days in JH or HS or whenever in which you started to piece thoughts together into coherent tapestries. In lots of ways, if you’re the sort of person who ever liked thinking like that, ever, this book’ll act as something like a crush, a new flirtation: it’ll get you amped up to do some fun thinking again. Also: Bertrand Russell was one of the coolest men ever, and he seems even moreso once you’ve read this book.
A posit: the best histories are oral histories, and all the evidence you need to support that claim could be found in three books: What Goes Up, a sadly under-appreciated messy nightmarishly great book on the history of Wall Street; Live From New York, about SNL; and, now, Ortved’s The Simpsons, which’ll all but force you back to those multi-dvd sets you got, holidays past, of the first ten or so seasons of The Simpsons.
First, for those of us who would wish for things to be otherwise: no, there’s not enough George Meyer, Sam Simon, or John Swartzwelder, and so that sucks tremendously (and by ‘not enough’ I mean, essentially, none: Meyer’s bits are mostly from interviews elsewhere, and by ‘elsewhere’ I mean The Believer). Second: yes, there’s plenty of Conan, though (of course) there could always be more Conan.
Third, for those who don’t want their idols besmirched: Groening doesn’t emerge from this book whistle-like re: cleanliness. In fact, Groening ends up getting quite a hammering herein, and, unfortunately for maybe everybody, he seems to sort of earn it in lots of ways, though I’m horribly biased: it’s hard to read anecdotes about Swartzwelder or Simon or Meyer or Conan and not just wish the story and The Simpsons had remained theirs.
But, of course, it wasn’t just theirs, and Groening’s talents have everything to do with the show getting made, season after season, and being the cultural phenomenon that it has become. Last: this book does a fine balancing job between being one of those for-the-choir-only books and an entry-level primer-like deal: it is, in the best ways, a book for anybody who cares (at any level) about The Simpsons.