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Book review: The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth

Ken Krimstein’s 2018 graphic biography of Jewish-German-French-American philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt is titled The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth.

The cover with its three cartoon-character images of Arendt as a child, as a young woman and as an older woman signals that here is a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Krimstein has fun, and so does the reader.

Still, when it comes to Arendt, Krimstein is very, very serious. 

Behind his jokey manner and often playful illustrations, he wants the reader to come away with the sense of Arendt as one of the most important 20th century intellectual figures.

He convinced me — to the point that I rounded up and have started to read several of Arendt’s books: The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, as well as the lively, evocative odd-angle view of her method of rethinking the core ideas of humanity Unlearning with Hannah Arendt by Marie Luise Knott.

Thank you, Ken Krimstein.

Searching for her books

Three Escapes is a sprightly, superficial retelling of the life and ideas of Arendt with an equal emphasis on her as a human being who, for instance, as a hot co-ed, sleeps with her teacher Martin Heidegger (who, later, became aligned with the Nazis in power) and as a thinker of courageously ground-breaking thoughts.

In this contest, “superficial” shouldn’t be taken as a criticism. 

Krimstein sets himself a daunting task to try to capture Arendt’s strenuous and muscular efforts to come to a new understanding of human beings in light of the previously unimaginable, the Holocaust and the deaths of millions of Jews, Gypsies, gays and other groups identified by the Nazis as not being worthy of life.

And he does a good job within the confines of a graphic novel.  Employing a smart-alecky approach, he finds ways to present complicated stuff in a simple manner, such as the subject that Arendt wrestled with her entire life, i.e., what does it mean to be alive and what does that require of a human being? 

This is a book that owes a debt to a highly successful literary pioneer — the 2015 Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, which isn’t exactly a graphic biography but could be described as one.

Three Escapes gives glimpses of Arendt’s big ideas, but, for me, at least, they remained only glimpses.  Hence, my searching out her own books.

A built-in problem

In that way, Three Escapes was frustrating because, as well done as it was, it could only present a limited amount of insight into its subject.

I suspect this is a built-in problem for any graphic biography. 

If you did a graphic biography of Abe Lincoln, I guess, you’d have to have images from his childhood, and of him as a rail-splitting laborer, and of him as a very tall lawyer, and of him debating the very short Stephen A. Douglas, and of him with his very short wife Mary Todd and their kids (two of whom die as young boys), and of him with U.S. Grant, and of him writing the Emancipation Proclamation, and of him touring the newly captured Richmond, and of him being shot to death by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater.

You’d have time in those pages to slide in some of his insights about America and about humanity and about the war and about morality…. but not a lot.

It’s the same here with Hannah Arendt.

This book got my feet wet in terms of getting me interested in her. 

For that, thank you again, Ken Krimstein.

Patrick T. Reardon


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