A New Kind of Imagination

Those shocked by the recent London riots probably still think about England as a bastion of order and good rule, myths that died with Thatcherism in the 1980s.  But at the heart of such riots and our response to them is imagination. How do we imagine the world? How do we imagine our selves and our future?  Such questions intersect with what literature does, so let’s look at the situation more closely.

First of all, you can find out more about the causes of the riots here at Global Changemakers.

Forget for a moment that the riots were triggered by police violence or that the riots spread quickly through use of Twitter. What lies underneath both the London riots and the Vancouver Stanley Cup riots is a failure of imagination. High-end shops are looted more as a rejection of expensive goods than a desire to possess them, though, of course, cash is cash. The rioters can’t imagine a future for themselves that counts or feels good. They feel ripped off. And they know, despite what authorities might say, that no one is looking after the world they will inherit.

There is probably a close link between despair and violence. Imagining yourself burning, looting, and pillaging means that you have given up on positive change. Grab what you can while you can. And, hey, doesn’t this also seem like the unspoken motto of the bankers and financiers who were responsible for the market crashes of recent years? Such negative imagination is pervasive and runs across society, from poverty to wealth.

This nihilism is nothing new. You can find it in the conditions before revolutions and wars. The Irish poet Yeats writes “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity” in his great poem “The Second Coming” (1919). In the poem, he seems to be imagining the End of the World, but it may be he foresaw World War II in the terrible conditions following the first world war.

So, in these difficult times, either we’re trying to do our best or we’re doing nothing. The fact that booksellers seemed to be spared the looting in the London riots leads me to wonder what literature can do. Writers write. Their job is to tell a good story. But is that sometimes close to fiddling while Rome burns?

Today we can write technically well about almost anything. Never before have there been so many well-written books. But do the stories stay with you? Do they matter to you?

Steinbeck’s GRAPES OF WRATH exposes the plight of poor farmers and sharecroppers in the 1930s. Camus’ THE PLAGUE and Hemingway’s FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS capture the 1940s. Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD seem to fit almost any time period from the 1950s onwards, as does Heller’s CATCH 22 (1940s onwards).  They give us a way to imagine the experience of totalitarianism, or technocracy, or war. They give us neologisms such as catch 22 and newspeak to help us in that imagination. Can you think of any novels of the last 10 years that are as powerful and encompassing?

It may simply be a numbers game. So many novels, so many films, so many plays and poems that we can’t remember them.  Or maybe we’ve never come across that wonderful text that languishes in remainder piles without selling many copies.

Here are some questions we can ask ourselves about how we value good literature.


  1. Have you read novels with a hopeful vision that inspire you to re-read them? What are they?
  2. Do you think novelists have a responsibility to present a vision that allows us a way out of despair without sacrificing the demands of good storytelling?
  3. Is literature worth the effort if we have movies?

If we think literature is worth it, maybe the problem is that we don’t know why it’s worth it. What does literature do that, say, a video game or a television show doesn’t?

A wonderfully moving essay “Can the Imagination Save Us” by Susan Griffin, first published in the Whole Earth Review (1996) and available here, puts the challenge with us, whether we are writers or not. In her second paragraph she states, “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.”

Her anecdote about the poet Robert Desnos and his heroism during World War Two alone makes this essay worth reading.

It’s not enough to dazzle with verbal card tricks or describe the machine-gunning of women and children with extraordinary realism. All that dazzle has to lead the reader to safety. At least that’s my sense of it.

Writing a story or a poem well is half the task. I like to think we can write the story or poem the way we offer a gift to a friend or loved one. The gift may not be what they asked for, but we hope that it will make them feel good and change them in some small way.

What do you think?


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