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What’s the story with Hannah Arendt? (in ten words)

What’s the story with Hannah Arendt? (in ten words)
© Patrick Tomasso

Ken Krimstein, author of “The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt - A Tyranny of Truth” shares how the stories of Hannah Arendt allow their readers to better understand her thinking.

By Ken Krimstein

When I set my sights on creating a graphic biography of Hannah Arendt, I’ll confess that I was daunted. Naturally, when I proposed the project to my publisher, I told them that I had no worries. But as I sat at my drawing board facing the blank page, I had the sudden shock of recognition, the chilling realization that my preparation as a cartoonist for The New Yorker and my bachelor’s degree in history might leave me unprepared to scale the intellectual heights of “Mount Arendt.”

But then, something remarkable happened, as it would so many times during the two and a half years it took me to research, write, and draw The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt - A Tyranny of Truth. The voice of Hannah Arendt seemed to reach out from the netherworld, to guide me. I came across a collection of her words that I taped on the wall in front of my drawing board:

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.

Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1968

With that phrase, Arendt gave me permission to explore her life and the incidents and actions that comprised it; both large and small, and to let her story guide me to her thinking, instead of the other way around.

Those ten words opened me up to a world of discovery, to a privileging of action and a lens into Hannah Arendt’s life that I couldn’t wait to show the world. Her thinking became active. Her struggles, triumphs, and failures all became tangible signposts and clues that I could bring to life in words and pictures to create an experience. Her story.

At the risk of sinking into cliche (a supreme sin for Arendt), in the next 3200 characters or so, I propose to “unpack” those ten words and show how they provided a roadmap for just about everything Hannah Arendt’s life and thought now mean to me.

First word: Storytelling. We live in Time. We exist as individuals who are isolated in so many ways from one another, behind our two eyes, staring out, and listening. We listen as if our lives depended on it, because, in fact, they do. We hunger to know who we are. And the only way we can assemble a picture of this, as Arendt observes, is by listening to the stories others tell about us to piece together some sense of who we are. These stories might be about our family, our country, our species, and no matter the subject, we listen voraciously, because they give us clues. Those clues offer hints about how others act, how they see us, and give us scenarios, possibilities, and “what if’s” that we can store away. They provide us with the resources we refer to and a roadmap for how to behave when things happen to us (contingency). In this way, storytelling, as opposed to being viewed as something “soft,” and “light,” and “just for kids,” becomes as key an element of our constitution as protons, neutrons, electrons, gravity and whatever else the scientists can divine.

In short, we are made of stories.

Second word: Reveals. This is a big one. We don’t fake it and we don’t make it up. The “stuff” of stories and the “action” that stories perform isn’t some sleight of hand or cosmetic gloss. Quite the opposite. Stories dig  down to the foundation (the “floorboards” as I said in my book) and distill a deeper truth that becomes ‘revelation.” This is an important distinction in how stories work to bring  each of us in contact with something fundamental that  we share in common with others. It is in this precious “in-between” or “liminal” space that makes up our human world.

Third word: Meaning. Another monumental word. Arendt was not messing around when she wrote it. It speaks to a deep understanding that extends beyond language, the fundamental power source that guides us to what to do and how to act. Even if whatever meaning is telling us to do doesn’t make 100% rational sense. For example, the notion of running into a burning building to save someone. Or falling in love with a certain individual. Or buying a new tennis racket. To quote the mid-twentieth century advertising creative director and philanthropist Bill Bernbach: “facts are not enough.” Because true meaning is the province of poets, not bean-counters. Again and again, as I worked on my book, I saw that the actions of Arendt’s life demonstrated that, despite her often cold-eyed gaze at the world she inhabited, she chose to filter it through the reality of the poets.

Next five words: Without committing the error of. Here is the cautionary clause. It says that, yes, there are principles, there are right judgments and wrong judgments. Arendt encourages us to all think “without a bannister,” and shows time and time again through her actions that “there are no dangerous thoughts, the act of thinking itself is dangerous.”

This danger alone doesn’t absolve us from the task of, as she describes it, “thinking through.”

Thinking through to what? By “thinking through” she is referring to not committing an error. To not making a mistake. And the more I read of Hannah’s Arendt’s “life in dark times,” the better I was able to understand that thinking (which signifies an action, although it only happens “between our ears”) has consequences. And what is the tripwire, the warning sign, the “or else,” that faulty thinking exhibits, that storytelling prevents…

Last two words: Defining it. Arendt lands it perfectly. Life between, amid, and among people, within a shared world, offers not just one “TRUTH” that can be defined with one example and etched in stone. Instead, life amongst others in our shared world offers myriad “TRUTHS” that vie and tussle and jostle in the public space, revealing meaning as an ongoing process that must be worked out between us, collectively and collaboratively and constantly. So that while without question, the “story,” 2 + 2 = 4 is powerful, it pales in meaning next to the “story,” Cinderella plus step-sisters plus pumpkin, some glass slippers and prince leads to how I may feel about family and love and betrayal or something like that…

It all comes down to the power and urgency of story and how we tell it.

And now, one book on, and a third in progress, the tape holding those ten words of Hannah Arendt’s above my drawing board is still holding strong.

Thank goodness.