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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 January 2019

How cartoonist Ken Krimstein drew inspiration from German philosopher Hannah Arendt

The cartoonist comic strip biography of Arendt manages to convey the depth of her thinking and her humanity

A self-portrait of Ken Krimstein. Courtesy Ken Krimstein
A self-portrait of Ken Krimstein. Courtesy Ken Krimstein

A few years ago, in reaction to the state of world affairs, a sign outside a bookshop read, “Post-apocalyptic fiction has been moved to our current affairs section.” Then last year, two classics became ­bestsellers once again: George Orwell’s ­dystopian 1984, and political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt’s 600-page title The ­Origins of Totalitarianism.

One could say that Orwell’s novel is an easy read, but Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism and her other published works are definitely not. Arendt is undoubtedly one of the most important political philosophers of our times, yet how many of us have really read her?

Luckily, American cartoonist and writer Ken Krimstein has. He spent two-and-a-half years reading Arendt’s work and teaching himself about phenomenology. The result is The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth – a 240-page graphic biography about an exceptional woman and how her life influenced her thinking.

Ken Krimstein is a cartoonist for ‘The New Yorker’ and ‘Punch’. Courtesy Ken Krimstein
Ken Krimstein is a cartoonist for ‘The New Yorker’ and ‘Punch’. Courtesy Ken Krimstein

Not only was Arendt an extraordinary woman, but she also lived during extraordinary times. She first experienced the effervescence of ­Weimar culture in her native Germany, studying and spending time with leading intellectuals and artists, then living through the rise of Nazism, in exile in the United States, and experiencing the realisation of the horrors that unfolded during the Second World War.

Krimstein, who publishes cartoons in The New Yorker, Punch and other publications, had never worked on a full-length graphic novel before, and says he had always been intrigued by Arendt, but that as he dug deeper, everything about her drew him in. “I wanted to do a philosopher – someone who had difficult and controversial ideas and explained them in ways that people could understand them. Philosophy should not just be an academic discipline, but something people can embrace and use.”

The allure of Hannah Arendt

Arendt was born in 1906 and grew up in ­Konigsberg, (today a Russian enclave in the Baltics) with secular Jewish parents, although her father died when she was seven. Alternately using a Rapidograph, fountain pen, pencil, and paint, Krimstein’s two-colour drawings are tinged with echoes of master cartoonist and illustrator Saul Steinberg. They depict her as a curious, reflective little girl who blossoms into an alluring, cigarette-smoking woman who begins to study philosophy first in Berlin, then at the University of Marburg with Martin Heidegger, where the attendance sheet for the course “reads like a line-up of geniuses”.

While Arendt and her fellow philosophy students are pondering the world and its meaning, they are also having fun, going to parties, and hanging out in the historic Romanisches Cafe in Berlin. What stands out about life in the 1930s is that “people could smoke inside, men wore hats, and these details were important,” says Krimstein. “There was the media – people read a lot. Berlin in 1930 had 140 daily newspapers and some had three editions … life moved a lot slower … The whole notion of cafe society was a real thing. I don’t think you can overestimate the importance of people sitting together and having to talk.”

Germany was on the brink of the Second World War, yet the sense of bubbling creativity is palpable in Krimstein’s storytelling. “So much was happening in terms of technology, which was transforming the world. Radio, movies, electric light, aviation; we sit here thinking ‘oh the internet has really changed the world’, but how about flying? Or radio? The Germans had hubris in a good way; they were fearless about tackling the biggest questions, with an incredibly advanced university system, churning out really educated people. But with the collapse at the end of the Great War, people were also stunned at their capacity to be self-­destructive, and these people were boldly redefining themselves.

“In physics, in cinema, in theatre, in painting … In one way they were trying to wed the mystical with the non-­rational and rational side of men. The results were astonishing and horrifying. We have this notion that we get smarter. Wrong. There was great ­foment going on.”

The identification card of Hannah Arendt. Courtesy Ken Krimstein
The identification card of Hannah Arendt. Courtesy Ken Krimstein

As the Nazi Party seized power, Arendt managed to escape to Paris with her mother, where she joined her first husband, Gunther Anders, and spent time with his cousin, philosopher Walter Benjamin, who hosted a salon where “wild minds tangle with time, art, the tug of war between the sacred and the profane, and sometimes, each other.”

In Benjamin’s salon, Arendt met the man who was to become her second and lifelong partner and husband, German poet, philosopher and political refugee Heinrich Blucher, with whom she fled to the US (with her mother) in 1941.

'The overall goal was to make her seem real, not like a ­historical character'

Part of what makes Krimstein’s graphic biography so compelling, is that not only do we follow Arendt’s thinking and learn about the ­concepts that she later uses in her seminal works, but Krimstein unfolds her life story in front of us, which includes romance, self-doubt, political intrigue and suspense, with a feeling of warmth and humour throughout.

“The overall goal was to make her seem real, not like a ­historical character. I just imagined her stateless with her husband and her mother in a fourth-floor walk-up in the summer in New York. The mother didn’t like the second husband. Well, you’re in trouble. But Hannah had them all living together.”

A comic from The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth by Ken Krimstein. Courtesy Ken Krimstein
A comic from The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth by Ken Krimstein. Courtesy Ken Krimstein

Krimstein doesn’t hold back about how he feels about Arendt. “I don’t want to sound like some kind of crazy fan boy, but literally, the breadth of her thinking blew me away. I’ve been so influenced by what she has to say about art, poetry and people, beyond totalitarianism. Her character really appealed to me because she was very strong, questioning and bold, and I tried to show that. She was so engaged with the world and took it so seriously that she sometimes made mistakes, but she never did anything in half measures. She loved life. She was thinking all the time.” But she also knew how to relax, Krimstein says.

In our “post-truth” climate of fake news, with a reawakening of racism and nationalism in Europe and elsewhere, parallels to the 1930s are often made. Similarities may be overblown, says Krimstein, but “one thing is similar. When Hannah was in Berlin, she was very dismissive of the intellectual class that didn’t take what was happening seriously. Today, there is a tendency to not face reality like then. Of course, thanks to Hannah’s vigilance, we’re also very aware of how people dissemble, politicians in particular.”

Krimstein gives Arendt real depth as a female thinker and makes her human to boot. She is a thoroughly modern character both in her concerns and her personal situation, in particular in her status as a refugee in the US, where she remained stateless for many years. “So much of what informs her writing is what happens when you have been stripped of your identity and your country,” comments Krimstein. “She wasn’t a nationalist. But she would have anger and sympathy for ­refugees today, knowing that refugees are victims of violence.”

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Read more:

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Book review: What Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism signifies in the age of Donald Trump

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Like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, the graphic novel form here is a great way to take on with ease tremendous amounts of information with helpful footnotes and a suggested reading list at the end. Krimstein, who believes images are as valid a way of communicating meaning as are words, likes to quote Arendt, who said: “­Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” In The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, readers get both the storytelling and the images with the opportunity to come to their own conclusions.

Ken Krimstein’s The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth is out now. The biography has been translated into French and will be published in German next year. Krimstein is currently working on a graphic novel

Updated: December 15, 2018 01:45 PM

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