The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt
By Ken Krimstein
Bloomsbury, 232 pages, $28
In “The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, a Tyranny of Truth,” a graphic biography, Ken Krimstein, a New Yorker cartoonist who teaches at DePaul University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, depicts Arendt in a way no other book has — bringing her passion and physicality to life using the medium of comics to distill Arendt’s dense writings to their essence and to make us feel the passion of her thinking.
For Krimstein, a comic turned out to be the perfect way to tell Arendt’s story. In contrast to the impersonal fonts and digital photo-edited images we are so used to seeing on our screens, seeing the artist’s hand-drawn words and images makes his book feel intimate, immediate and real.
Krimstein’s book couldn’t have come at more opportune time, with Arendt in the spotlight because of her prescient writing on totalitarianism. Richard J. Bernstein, a professor at The New School, recently released the book “Why Read Hannah Arendt Now?” in which he argues for the relevance of reading Arendt. Promoting her new book “The Death of Truth” in the Guardian, former New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote that Arendt’s words offer a “chilling description of the political and cultural landscape we inhabit today,” with fake news and lies issued daily by Russian trolls and in incessant tweets from the president.
What Krimstein’s book does differently from the books that came before his is to make the reader feel the passion of the mind and the life of Arendt, to see this brilliant philosopher as a flesh-and-blood person, not only by making her experience as a refugee of various escapes visually immediate on the page, but also by portraying her with the wit and emotionality all too easily missed when immersed in her brilliant writing itself. The story is told in the first person, so we experience everything from Arendt’s perspective, and because the comics medium allows us to see her interior thoughts and her physical figure on the page, simultaneously we feel that we know Arendt in a way that we wouldn’t from reading a more formal conventional book. Although sometimes, Arendt’s voice is a tad anachronistic and the word choice not particularly Arendtian (“Despite my love of tragedy in plays, in real life, things really suck”), Krimstein’s choices come across for the most part as charming and wry.
Krimstein’s line drawings — black on cream save for Arendt, who is always wearing dark green — are simple, not highly detailed, offering just enough to show distinctive people’s features, suggesting a speed, fervor and energy that reflects the spirit of Arendt herself. Krimstein deftly depicts the physicality of Arendt’s life: He shows us the adolescent Hannah “emerg[ing] from my cocoon and lying in bed post-coitus with Hans (reading Plato, nonetheless), the same boy that called her ‘Jew.’”
Elsewhere, he draws the swirling plumes of her cigars, and writes how they “seduce every man and woman in the Romanisches.” He makes us feel the passion that Arendt and Martin Heidegger felt for each other. And he shows how words themselves can be erotic, on one page sketching a letter that Heidegger slipped under Arendt’s door. He depicts Arendt and Heidegger’s first embrace, and their high-level philosophical exchange of thoughts as they shed clothes. Surely this is the first book to depict Arendt lifting her shirt over her head and wearing only a bra. The sequence of images as she and Heidegger make love is sensual and erotic, not tawdry or exploitative. Similarly, Krimstein shows how Arendt seduces a German SA officer during her first escape, and how she is attracted by the sex appeal of Heinrich Blucher, her second husband.
Krimstein even succeeds in making the very act of Arendt’s thinking come across on the page. Some of my favorite pages are where Krimstein portrays the act of writing — we see Arendt writing fervently and can feel the power of her thinking underneath her mass of curls. Watching someone writing is not usually a visual delight, but Krimstein portrays Arendt writing her books so that we can feel the pulse of her brain, the vibrancy of her thought. Krimstein makes clear in the book Arendt’s contention that even “thinking has become erotic.”
Laura Hodes is a Chicago-based writer and attorney.