By Ken Krimstein
Am I intelligent enough to critique the life’s work of philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt? Highly unlikely. Am I smart enough to review a graphic novel based on her life? That I can do.
I love biographies and autobiographies, and I especially love graphic novel biographies and autobiographies. Several classics stand out: Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor series; Robert Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz’s Introducing Kafka; Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis; Art Spiegelman’s Maus; Nate Powell and John Lewis’ March; and far too many others to list here (so look here).
The uninspired might write off graphic novel biographies as glorified picture books for adults. Naturally, I disagree, and see them instead as a nexus between film and text, presenting a simulation of personality, place, and experience neither film nor text can individually provide. Through graphic novels we gain an approximation of not only “living” with the subject but also “thinking” with them as well.
And what better subject to live and think with than Hannah Arendt?
One of the great minds of the 20th century, Arendt is best known for tackling a particular issue that sprang up like a toadstool in her era: totalitarianism. A former German citizen, she had a front-row seat for it, and her three escapes (from Nazi Germany, occupied Paris, and the critical minefields of New York City and beyond) form the basis of cartoonist Ken Krimstein’s biography.
If you can picture Arendt it’s probably as an elder grande dame, silver-streaked hair in a roller-set bouffant above a pleasantly lived-in face and fiercely intelligent eyes (left hand up, ever-attended by a cigarette jutting from two fingers). Considering the ponderousness of her reputation, we may be forgiven for thinking she was always that particular Hannah Arendt. It’s easy to forget icons were once people. Krimstein introduces us to all the Hannahs. The Königsberg girl who faced cries of “JEW! JEW! JEW! JEW!” from the boy she’d have her first sexual relations with in their teens. The brilliant young autodidact who held her own against the famous philosopher boys club she studied with under Martin Heidegger—a lone yoni amidst a hothouse garden of lingams. The “no longer innocent” young woman who outwitted and, according to this account, intellectually seduced and escaped her smitten Gestapo guard. The celebrated, controversial woman of a million letters who wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, her unfinished The Life of the Mind, and Eichmann in Jerusalem, among others. Krimstein’s presentation of Arendt shows us the person behind the mind and vice versa; a pure intellectual who also very much enjoyed being human and a woman.
Krimstein did his research, supported by the suggested reading section in back and his copious notes—currently on display at the accompanying exhibit at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. Save for one howler—when he states tawdry biblical epic purveyor Cecil B. DeMille created The Birth of a Nation, which was actually directed by the innovative yet horrifically racist director D.W. Griffith—he appears consistently on point, taking pains to account for Arendt’s every movement. Krimstein’s Arendt is both fleshed out and fleshly, whose thoughts and thinking processes extend well beyond the lecture hall. We’re practically peeping Toms on her childhood with a syphilis-deranged father; her two marriages and affair with the much older and later nazified Heidegger; her interactions with historical luminaries from Marc Chagall to Billy Wilder to Albert Einstein; her rise in stature as an intellectual and author; and more. If you don’t know who Hannah Arendt is now, you’ll know her all too well after reading Krimstein’s book.
Krimstein’s art style is spare yet kinetic, reminding me of Jules Pfeiffer’s loose and squiggly style, with a dreamy undertone induced by his use of (I assume) ink wash. Panels become an afterthought as the book proceeds, the pages filled with montages spilling into one another. Notably, Krimstein drapes Hannah in a light green wash, giving the book its only touch of color. I’m not sure if this has a particular significance, but it works. Hannah is always, always the viridescent center of attention.
Which isn’t to say the combination of art and text always succeeds. Several pages consist of Mount Rushmore presentations of a who’s who of intellectuals, authors, philosophers, actors, directors, and other interesting folks who crossed her path. These, and other items Krimstein wishes to elucidate, are accompanied by excruciatingly small footnotes that bang against the art. An endnotes page would’ve been a more aesthetic choice, though after seeing several pages blown up at the aforementioned exhibit, I think The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt could have benefited greatly from a larger format. I’ve no doubt it all comes from a good place though. I suspect Krimstein wanted to share all he found in too small a space.
The book’s handling of philosophy and political theory is light but worthwhile, supplying a quick gleaning of Arendt and her fellow thinkers’ ideas. Krimstein provides exposition by showing Hannah in debate with herself, others, and in one instance, a ceiling water stain in the shape of her deceased friend, the polymath and flâneur Walter Benjamin. Overall, whereas Heidegger—as far as my poor, normal-sized brain can understand—sought a ponderous, overarching truth, Arendt saw truth as a shared experience. Well… I’m not going to pretend I know what the hell is going on here, and as I read and stumbled through Arendt and others’ reasoning I often wondered what was the point of it all? Then again, isn’t that philosophy’s ultimate purpose? As Arendt said elsewhere, “A life without thinking is quite possible; it then fails to develop its own essence — it is not merely meaningless; it is not fully alive. Unthinking men are like sleepwalkers.” Ken Krimstein’s The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt furnishes plenty to think about.
The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth is available here and at local bookstores and comic shops. Also see our review of Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Hannah and Martin (by Kate Fodor), which explores the Arendt/Heidigger relationship.