Picky, warmth-loving beer-hater: Who was Immanuel Kant?

Deutsche Welle
8 Min Read

Immanuel Kant followed a disciplined bedtime routine and believed that light created bugs. The quirks of the world-famous philosopher – and his odd relationship to his servant – are the subject of a unique graphic novel.Known for his moral philosophy and reliance on human reason, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was also a man of structure and discipline – and had more than a few loveable quirks about him.

In her graphic novel “Lampe und sein Meister Immanuel Kant” (Lampe and his Master Immanuel Kant), illustrator Antje Herzog uses everyday anecdotes to make the philosophy “pop star” seem human and approachable.

DW: At the beginning of your book, you write that it is more about Kant as a person – and especially about his relationship to his servant Martin Lampe – than about his philosophy. What makes him so interesting as a person?

Antje Herzog: You think of Kant’s philosophical work first when you think of him. He is one of the most important philosophers in world history. It isn’t until you dive into his biography that you notice immediately that he was someone who thrived on routine and managed everything in his life down to the minute. I found that fascinating.

I first started exploring Kant’s life when I was confronted with the story of his servant Martin Lampe, who he fired after 40 years. He wrote himself a note: “The name Lampe must be entirely forgotten.” I think the fact that a genius would write himself a reminder to forget Lampe is so incredible and visual.

So I started to do some research, thanks to Google Books, which has scanned all these books from the 18th century and where you can do a search for words like “Lampe.” I very quickly came across anecdotes about Lampe and Immanuel Kant. I wasn’t able to forget these incredibly eccentric, charming and loveable stories and each one of them makes me laugh.

You write that Kant was theoretical and Lampe was practical. Why is their relationship suitable for a graphic novel?

I found the imagery very strong. When I learned of the story back then, I thought, Oh goodness, Kant stuck a reminder on his lamp to forget Lampe [Eds: Lampe is the German word for lamp.]. Of course it didn’t happen like that because they didn’t really have lamps back then. But the image was very strong and I’m a big fan of puns. The anecdotes brought a slew of other images.

I was also drawn in by the fact that Königsberg no longer exists. [Eds: Kant spent nearly his whole life in Königsberg, which is now part of Russia and known as Kaliningrad.] It was totally destroyed in the wars, but the so-called Prussian Archive has a lot of pictures of the city. I was very interested in bringing the city back to life.

Kant enjoyed routine and had a few quirks about him, as you write. He loved warmth, had bedtime rituals, hated beer, and believed that light led to the creation of bugs. If he were alive today, would you be friends with him, or would he be too odd?

He was a pop star at the time. I think I wouldn’t even be able to get close to him. But I like him very much as a person. I don’t think I’m as strange as he is, but I do like these Prussian traits very much: order, punctuality and structure. I also think his work ethic is very admirable. I would love to have him as a friend, but I don’t think I’d have the honor.

He surrounded himself with many clever people, but not necessarily with philosophers. He wanted to have a cross-section of people at his table, from doctors to politicians. He didn’t want to talk with other people about his philosophy – he did that in his lectures, but not in his private life.

It was more important to him to have exchange in other areas, which is why he had a huge base of general knowledge.

Can the origins of his philosophy be identified in his everyday life?

Yes, I think that he lived out his philosophy – especially his moral philosophy. He stuck to it very closely. His “Critique of Practical Reason” is about thought. I don’t think he took that into his everyday life so much, but his philosophy is very structured and disciplined and that is reflected in his life.

You hand lettered the text in the book as well, didn’t you?

Yes, hand lettering is common with graphic novels. I am a graphic artist and designer. For me, it’s more finished when the script and the illustration have a homogenous relationship. I worked with two fonts. Kant speaks in what was known as “Kurrentschrift,” or Gothic handwriting, which was used at the time. Martin Lampe speaks in “Fraktur,” or Gothic lettering from the time. The Gothic handwriting is so unreadable today that it couldn’t be done on the computer. Since I had to work on that by hand anyways, it was clear that I couldn’t print Lampe’s speech on the computer.

Kant’s yellow coat is like a leitmotif throughout the book. Tell us about your aesthetic approach to the graphic novel.

As I said, the image of the note on the lamp was really strong, even though it didn’t work out. I distanced myself from that at first, since the research was overwhelming. Then I found this quote from Kant:

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

That gave me the opening. The stars glow and merge into a lamp that then lights the stars. Stars are yellow, the lamp is yellow, candles are yellow. For me, philosophy was also always yellow for some reason. Kant once said that he likes to dress like the flowers, and there is a flower called an auricula, which is also yellow.

They all wore wigs in that day and age, so how is Kant supposed to stand out? I used yellow, because I mainly work in black-and-white and only use color when it makes sense.

Antje Herzog’s graphic novel “Lampe und sein Meister Immanuel Kant” was published by Edition Büchergilde. Herzog also illustrated Deutsche Welle’s German proverb project.

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