Celebrating thought – and life
A graphic novel about Hannah Arendt, probably the greatest philosophical and political thinker of the twentieth century – does that make sense? Does it ever! Ken Krimstein provides the proof.
By Marit Borcherding
Usually, Ken Krimstein creates cartoons for the New Yorker and other US magazines. With The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt (German Translation: Die drei Leben der Hannah Arendt) he impressively broke the mould. The graphic novel in which pictures and words work together is the ideal medium for showing how much Arendt’s thinking was shaped by her extraordinary life story, Krimstein writes in the epilogue of his book – and he proves his point.
Understanding the worldIt all begins with a childhood in Königsberg, the city of Immanuel Kant, whose works Hannah, always recognisably wearing green in the otherwise black and white book, devours early on in search of the ultimate answers. She inhales thoughts, and soon she inhales nicotine – the smoke from her ever-smouldering cigarettes meanders across the pages of the book as endlessly as her mental exercises to better understand the world. As a child, she experiences insults and exclusion because she is Jewish. Her mother Martha gives her a bit of advice that she will take to heart throughout her life: “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Now, do your homework.”
The highly gifted student soon moves to Marburg where she meets the superstar among the philosophy professors: Martin Heidegger. An intimate and complicated love affair begins between the 17-year-old student and the 35-year-old married teacher – Krimstein’s pen blends the contours of the couple. As is well known, Heidegger later joined the Nazi party and propagated its ideas. Hannah Arendt naturally distanced herself, but remained in contact.
Coming apart at the seamsHer first escape is looming, but before that, Krimstein transplants his heroine into the Romanische Café in Berlin, “birthplace of the modern world”. This is where all, really all of the intellectual greats of the metropolis met: artists, bon-vivants, theorists. But Nazi rule is making this illustrious world come apart at the seams; soon the Reichstag will burn. Krimstein’s café intellectuals ask sarcastically, “Wait, what about the communist Jews? It could have been them!”
Hannah Arendt and her mother are arrested, but manage to escape to Prague. From there they continue on to Paris: the second escape. Here Hannah meets her second husband Heinrich Blücher and deepens her friendship with the philosopher Walter Benjamin. Her life consists of the three roles of Lover, Thinker, Doer: Krimstein draws his Hannah with three arms on either side of her body, the inevitable cigarette in one of her six hands.
Taking action also means making use of the available means for action – Hannah Arendt manages to escape from the internment camp in Gurs in southern France and finally makes it to the USA. Hannah and Heinrich react to the death of their friend Walter Benjamin by reading to each other from his final manuscript: “...the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. ... But a storm ... irresistibly propels him into the future ....”
Once she arrived in New York, Hannah Arendt made a name for herself as a fighter for quarrelsome, resistant Judaism. An abyss is opening up, given the reports of German extermination camps in which millions of Jews are being murdered: “There is something going on in the world that causes people to cannibalise their own freedom and while they are doing so, they turn other people into a landfill. How does this work? And why?”
Without a banisterTo learn this and more, “thinking without a banister” is needed: Hannah’s third escape leads her away from Heideggerian philosophy to political theory and the search for an escape route from the patterns of totalitarian systems. For her, freedom is “a billion truths that are publicly represented in every moment. A mess? So what? Take a look at the alternatives.” And what does Saint Augustine, the church teacher of late antiquity, about whom Hannah Arendt wrote her doctorate, say? “I like that”, the philosopher confesses while chatting on a park bench – then bums a cigarette from her.
In his epilogue, Ken Krimstein hopes that he will be able to introduce a new readership to Hannah Arendt’s eventful life and that his book will invite them to deal directly with her thinking. Such a well-illustrated, incisive and knowledgeable invitation to enter an exciting edifice of thought is a rarity.
Ken Krimstein: Die drei Leben der Hannah Arendt
Aus dem amerikanischen Englisch von Hanns Zischler
München: dtv, 2019. 244 S.
Ken Krimstein: The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth
New York: Bloomsbury, 2018, 240 pp.