Finding a universal truth

Ken Krimstein’s graphic memoir of Hannah Arendt offers a rose-colored view of the philosopher’s work.

(photo credit: RICHARD SHAY)
New Yorker cartoonist Ken Krimstein’s graphic memoir, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth, is startlingly original and offers us insights that traditional literary criticism can’t. His wonderful drawings and provocative and unconventional text illuminates unfamiliar aspects of philosopher Hannah Arendt’s controversial life.
Arendt was born in Königsberg, Germany, in 1906, and barely escaped the Nazi death machine multiple times before arriving in the United States in 1941. As a 17-year-old, she became intimately involved with her college professor, Martin Heidegger, who later became an avowed Nazi. Disturbingly, she resumed this affair for a brief time after the war. Her intellectual contributions are enormous but have often enraged Jews worldwide.
Her masterwork, The Origins of Totalitarianism, compares Stalinism and Hitlerism and seems to give them equal footing, ignoring the specificity of the Jewish tragedy. Arendt further infuriated Jews with the insights she put forth in her infamous New Yorker piece in 1961, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” which presents Eichmann as a mindless bureaucrat simply following orders. She went on to criticize the Jewish Councils as responsible for the Nazis’ efficiency in exterminating Jews, seeming to blame them for the extent of the tragedy.
“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil,” she wrote.
While it is true that later in life Arendt expressed regrets to friends about her previous comments and proclaimed an indisputable identification with her fellow Jews, many saw her misgivings as less than heartfelt. She never really had any interest in Judaism or Jewish history and spent most of her life thinking and reading while obsessively smoking. She was consumed by thoughts of finding a universal truth that would explain the mysteries of the world to her. It was this pursuit that seems to have impressed Krimstein more than any other. From the get-go, he makes clear that he is an ardent and unapologetic fan.
KRIMSTEIN BEGINS by showing us a drawing of a serious and somewhat homely Arendt while the caption above her head set in all caps reads “TOO SOON. TOO ANGRY. TOO SMART. TOO STUPID. TOO HONEST. TOO SNOBBISH. TOO JEWISH. NOT JEWISH ENOUGH. TOO LOVING. TOO HATEFUL, TOO MANLIKE, NOT MANLIKE ENOUGH.” One senses that Krimstein is granting her a premature pardon for some of her more inexplicable proclamations.
We soon see a young Arendt reacting to the early death of her father, and witness her stern mother offering her cryptic messages about the importance of her Jewish identity that seem short on substance and validity. We watch her school friends turn into enemies overnight, calling her “JEW JEW JEW JEW” as she walks home from school, her eyes bulging with fear and bewilderment.
A Jewish first husband appears soon enough, but doesn’t last long. She leaves for Berlin in 1933 and is swept up by the electric currents at Café Romanisches, which Krimstein dubs “THE DELIVERY ROOM OF THE MODERN WORLD.” It was here that Arendt cavorted with painters, musicians, theorists and filmmakers who were immersed in the rethinking of the world. There were names for these new schools of thought: futurism, fauvism, Dadaism, expressionism, socialism, Marxism – and Zionism.
Krimstein presents us with brief biographical profiles of the luminaries she meets: a kaleidoscope of some of the best minds of the century, many of whom would not survive the Nazi assault. We meet Max Ernst, Mark Chagall, Artur Schnabel, Arnold Schoenberg, Irving Berlin, Dr. Rudolf Hilferding, Fritz Elsas, and so many others. With hindsight, we look with melancholy at Krimstein’s drawings, seeing the futility of each man’s grand proclamations in relation to what is soon to follow; to all that will be forever destroyed. Arendt listens and smokes, still searching for the person who can lead her to some sort of promised land; convinced there must be a certain wisdom that trumps all others.
The Germans begin. Krimstein describes this with an agonizing simplicity “A STEW THAT’S BOILING OVER AT THIS VERY MOMENT,” and his pictures grow dark and frenzied. People’s faces become grotesquely contorted as they attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible. Arendt flees for Paris where she becomes infatuated with Walter Benjamin, convinced that perhaps he is the one who possesses the truth she can’t yet see. Krimstein describes Arendt’s initial impression of Benjamin writing in caps as he always does: “SECULAR, MYSTIC, AGNOSTIC, DEVOUT, ART-WORSHIPPING, ART DESTROYING POET WRITER RABBLE ROUSER.” Arendt has a second husband by now, a gentile, Heinrich Blücher, who shares her love of philosophical pursuits. Paris now darkens, and Krimstein shows us an unforgettable drawing of Jews who have been rounded up and are walking down the street to the horrendous fate that awaits them, while Parisians munch croissants at the cafes that line the street. They pretend not to see the Jews passing.
KRIMSTEIN IS a master storyteller and uses his talent for compression to capture the insanity and turbulence of the times. But he seems blinded by an admiration for Arendt that puzzles the reader. He seems to only be able to view her through rose-colored glasses, and this detracts from his otherwise moving narrative. Krimstein never explains what drew him to this project in the first place. Why Hannah Arendt?
He says little other than describing her admiringly as a “conscious pariah,” “an ironist,” and a “lightning rod for controversy.” He believes that the attacks often leveled upon her by many cultural critics say more about them than her. He even has the chutzpah to describe her 1961 assessment of Eichmann as “a masterpiece of political journalism, a hybrid socio-intellectual screed agitprop that shows her ‘too-soonness’ in all its fierce, possibly misguided glory.”
He says all this despite the mountains of evidence that have surfaced in recent decades proving that Eichmann was no simple functionary but a vicious and unrepentant Nazi until the end. He never comments directly on the antisemitism that permeates the world today, and seems to be naively convinced as Arendt once was, that a certain truth is waiting to be unearthed that will make such matters as antisemitism inconsequential. There is a grotesque sort of perversity and denial about such logic that defies any easy explanation. But the result of such errant thinking is that Krimstein seems unable to condemn her – not even on Eichmann.
But I will. Norman Podhoretz wrote these enlightening words years ago in Commentary about Arendt’s disturbing musings on Eichmann’s so called “banality.” They could not be more relevant today:
“No person could have joined the Nazi Party – let alone the S.S. – who was not at the very least a vicious antisemite; to believe otherwise is to learn nothing about the nature of antisemitism,” he wrote in 1963. “No person of conscience could have participated knowingly in mass murder; to believe otherwise is to learn nothing about the nature of conscience... No banality of a man could have done so hugely evil a job so well; to believe otherwise is to learn nothing about the nature of evil.”
Podhoretz’s assertions shine a much-needed light on Arendt and Krimstein’s willful blindness. In a mere few sentences, Podhoretz pulverizes all of Arendt’s philosophical assertions and inquiries into strains of toxic dust.