Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.
Citizen Toolkit

Can the Imagination Save Us?

Social movements are driven by imagination. I am not prepared to declare the death of dreams.

Susan Griffin 15 Nov
image atom

In Paris recently I went to see a small exhibit of photographs taken by Tina Modotti in the twenties and thirties in Mexico. Upstairs in the gallery, the harried mood of the Rue de Rennes rapidly peeled away. I was startled by the beauty of the images Modotti made and the impact of her life story. In one photograph, a line of Mexican men, mostly workers or peasants, stand staring at the camera. They have assembled at the headquarters of the Communist party in Mexico. One of them is holding a flag taken from the United States Army by the first Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The moment is a victory and you can see this in the men's faces. But the camera's eye also catches a tender quality of innocence and hope, an expression one so seldom sees any longer even on the faces of any but the youngest children.

One might say that life is so difficult now, or that there has been so much violence in this century that innocence is no longer possible. But this explanation is too easy. The lives of the men in this photograph were undoubtedly very difficult and violence was palpably present -- another series of newspaper photographs in this show depicts Tina Modotti as she is questioned by police just after her lover, a militant organizer, was assassinated. She was with him on the street when he was shot. He died in her arms.

Saturated with the beauty and sorrow of these images, my mood changes again as I descend the stairs. I join a line that is flanked by police who check everyone's bags. Throughout the summer a number of bombs have exploded in public places in Paris. The randomness of this violence is as much a part of modern life as the lone skyscraper of Montparnasse, which towers over me as I step out onto the street, reminding me once more that this is a different age than the one Modotti recorded.

Anonymous power

Outwardly the most obvious change is technological. Like surrounding armies, steel and glass structures can be seen at the edge of this old city of Paris. Efficiency with its faster cars and airplanes, television, computers, e-mail, faxes, defines modern life here. Yet strangely, in this brave new world with its promise of every possible sensation and comfort, one feels diminished. The unapproachable immensity of the skyscraper in front of me, blotting out the immensity of the sky, appears now as an icon of an anonymous power, in whose shadow I feel powerless.

Among those who would seek or want social change, despair is endemic now. A lack of hope that is tied to many kinds of powerlessness. Repeating patterns of suffering. Burgeoning philosophies of fear and hatred. Not to speak of the failure of dreams. Where once there were societies that served as models for a better future, grand plans, utopias, now there is distrust and dissatisfaction with any form of politics, a sense of powerlessness edging into nihilism.

Yet Modotti's beautiful images still speak in me. The eye of her camera is so fresh. A bunch of roses, encountered, almost as if caressed, come alive as if never before in the frame of her camera. And it's the same with a typewriter or a crowd standing under umbrellas in the rain, her vision original, allowing one to see the familiar again in a fuller dimension. Even in her photograph of the Mexican Communist Party, one sees a layer of existence beneath theory; a desire for a better life and for justice that is radiantly evident among those she photographed. Perhaps it's precisely now, as old systems of meaning perish, that new meanings can be revealed.

In these years after the end of the Cold War, a time of the failure of old paradigms and systems of thought, perhaps hope lies less in the direction of grand theories than in the capacity to see, to look past old theories that may obscure understanding and even promise. To assume what the Buddhists call beginner's mind. And to see what exists freshly and without prejudice clears the path for seeing what might exist in the future, or what is possible.

Shift in perspective

Even in the grimmest of circumstances, a shift in perspective can create startling change. I am thinking of a story I heard a few years ago from my friend Odette, a writer and a survivor of the holocaust. Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, she tells me, the surrealist poet Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Improbable as it is, Odette told me, Desnos reads the man's palm.

Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy.

As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If hey told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos has saved his own life and the lives of others by using his imagination.

Because I am seized by the same despair as my contemporaries, for several days this story poses a question in my mind. Can the imagination save us? Robert Desnos was famous for his belief in the imagination. He believed it could transform society. And what a wild leap this was, at the mouth of the gas chambers, to imagine a long life! In his mind he simply stepped outside the world as it was created by the SS.

What is possible?

In the interest of realism, this story must be accompanied by another. Desnos did not survive the camps. He died of typhus a few days after the liberation. His death was one among millions, men, women, and children who died despite countless creative acts of survival and the deepest longings to live.

In considering what is possible for the future one must be careful not to slide into denial. Imagination can so easily be trapped by the wish to escape painful facts and unbearable conclusions. The New Age idea that one can wish oneself out of any circumstance, disease, or bad fortune is not only sadly disrespectful toward suffering, it is also, in the end, dangerous if escape replaces awareness.

But there are other dangers. What is called "realism" can lead to a kind of paralysis of action and a state of mind that has relinquished desire altogether. Especially now, when the political terrain seems so unnavigable, the impulse is toward cynicism. For months before the World Conference of Women met in Beijing, an informal debate circulated among women in the United States. Alongside the serious questions of China's violations of human rights, another question was posed. Why should we meet at all? What good will it do?

Walking the tightrope

What is required now is balance. In the paucity of clear promise, one must somehow walk a tightrope, stepping lightly on a thin line drawn between cynicism and escape, planting the feet with awareness but preserving all the while enough playfulness to meet fear. For those who went to the conference in Beijing, though, something momentous occurred. In the creation of a different arena, defined in different ways by women from all over the world, another possible world began to exist, if even temporarily, and this has nurtured desire and imagination.

One might say that human societies have two boundaries. One boundary is drawn by the requirements of the natural world and the other by the collective imagination. The dominant philosophies of Western societies have pitted imagination against nature. The effects of this dualism upon nature are devastatingly clear. But the effects on the human imagination are also terrible. Dividing the mind from the body, sensuality, experience creates small and tortured thought from which frenetic, soulless, and destructive societies have been born.

In the harsh world of the concentration camp, whose regime was designed to crush both body and spirit, how was it possible for Desnos to keep the larger possibilities of life alive in his mind? I find the thread of an answer in the lines of one of his poems,

Having said having done
What pleases me
I go right I go left
And I love the marigold.

It is ironic that a society that has dreamt of mastering nature would create a feeling of such terrible powerlessness for the great majority. Though for at least the last two hundred years, technology itself has been the source of a hope for freedom and equality -- new machines that would free us all from labor, chemicals that will conquer disease, methods of agriculture that would feed everyone -- and now the latest hope, that computer networking will somehow magically create a more democratic public arena. But what I see now, standing in this brave new world, is that this technological mandate has become more deterministic in our minds than any law of nature. In this light, progress assumes a demonic aspect, like an engine that cannot be stopped but must bear down on whoever or whatever is in its path.

Seeing what one wants to exist

Such a moment does not require less but rather more imagination. For to imagine is not simply to see what does not yet exist or what one wants to exist. It is also a profound act of creativity to see what is. To see, for instance, that the freedom of public discourse is being circumscribed by corporate power requires an imaginative leap.

At the same time, the act of seeing changes those who see. This is perhaps most clear with self-perception. By my perceptions of who I am or what I feel, not only do I re-create my idea of who I am but I also change myself. Perception is not simply a reflection of reality but a powerful element of reality. Anyone who meditates has had this experience: Observing the activities of the mind changes the mind until, bit by bit, observation creates great changes in the soul. And the effect is the same when the act of perception is collective. A change in public perception will change the public. This is why acts of imagination are so important.

Like artistic and literary movements, social movements are driven by imagination. I am not speaking here only of the songs and poems and paintings that have always been part of movements for political and social change, but of the movements themselves, their political ideas and forms of protest. Every important social movement reconfigures the world in the imagination. What was obscure comes forward, lies are revealed, memory shaken, new delineations drawn over the old maps: it is from this new way of seeing the present that hope for the future emerges.

What remains with me from Modotti's images is not just a portrait of dreams that failed but of dreams that are still alive and of aspiration itself, that learning of the soul that never ceases. No one can stop us from imagining another kind of future, one which departs from the terrible cataclysm of violent conflict, of hateful divisions, poverty and suffering. Let us begin to imagine the worlds we would like to inhabit, the long lives we will share, and the many futures in our hands.

This is excerpted from The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, edited by Paul Rogat Loeb. Two more excerpts will appear on Mondays in The Tyee. 

This essay originally appeared in Whole Earth Review (  and then in Utne Reader ( Susan Griffin’s books include The Book of the Courtesans (Broadway Books, 2002), The Eros of Everyday Life (Anchor, 1996), Woman and Nature (Sierra Club Books, 2000), and A Chorus of Stones (Anchor, 1993).  [Tyee]

  • Share:

Get The Tyee's Daily Catch, our free daily newsletter.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context

Most Popular

Most Commented

Most Emailed


The Barometer

Will the BC Conservatives’ Surge Last?

Take this week's poll