These shadows of imagination


by Blair Brennan

“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” This quote comes from German-born, American philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt’s essay on Danish author Isak Dinesen.1 Some time ago, I heard a radio documentary on Arendt 2 and was struck by this line because it supplemented my belief that the human brain is hardwired to understand and recall information in story form and programmed to derive deeper meaning or generalize broader lessons from a specific story. Visual arts deploy similar tools with symbols and imagery drawing viewers deeper into deciphering the artist’s meaning by following the chain of referential clues to find the hinted message.

Arendt’s remark suggests the reason for the timeless, cross-cultural importance of all story forms. She tells us that story can deliver meaning without necessarily declaring that it will do so. In effect, a story seduces us by hiding the message and compelling us to read on to find out what happens next, to seek out more stories, or even to listen to the same story again (the Hollywood reboot explained!)

Here’s a rudimentary example of the storytelling process described by Arendt: I may want to prevent someone from going into the forest. My message to them would be: “Do not go into the forest!” I might say exactly those words or, instead, I may tell them a story about the perils of talking to a wolf while going through the woods to their grandma’s house. The story itself does not “commit the error” of announcing its subtext of teaching vigilance when navigating the dangers of the world. The tale comes out, innocently weaving its elements. Whether the details are sparse or ornate, each individual listening to the story will embellish it and find the key message for their ears. In a story, every hidden thing wants to be found. Simple stories can deliver complicated meanings, but we often don’t even know this process is taking place. We just enjoy the story. This is why Little Red Riding Hood’s adventure will get more requests for retelling than the simple admonition to “Stay out of the woods!”

The most absurd stories could be accepted, Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested, through a willing suspension of disbelief—certainly a requirement for listening to a talking wolf! Coleridge coined this term in the pages of his Biographia Literaria, stating, “My endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief.”3 A reader would willingly set some of their objective or critical faculties aside in order to accept a story and let the story reveal its significance. If we accept Arendt’s position, then readers may suspend disbelief specifically because it enables them to receive meaning embedded in the story.

While story is celebrated in our culture, this is less true for contemporary visual art (we need only think of the success of the Hollywood story machine and the challenges faced currently by most contemporary art galleries). We often overlook the primary role that visual art plays in our storytelling and similarly forget that story telling with images may represent one of our first ventures into symbolic thought. Of the first rock paintings, science journalist, Jo Marchant writes:

“Such sophisticated thinking was a huge competitive advantage, helping us to cooperate, survive in harsh environments and colonize new lands. It also opened the door to imaginary realms, spirit worlds and a host of intellectual and emotional connections that infused our lives with meaning beyond the basic impulse to survive. And because it enabled symbolic thinking—our ability to let one thing stand for another—it allowed people to make visual representations of things that they could remember and imagine.” 4

Human survival may have relied on the skill of verbal and visual storytellers—writers, poets, musicians, dancers, artists, and all image-makers. Noted mythologist Joseph Campbell identified artists as the first storytellers. And, in our Paleolithic past, the ability to draw an auroch or a babirusa on the wall of a cave—and to comprehend that drawing and the stories that went with it—would have been as important as the capacity to make tools to hunt those animals.

Our enlarging brains and symbolic thought were a winning combination. The evolution and long-term survival of humans may have depended on our ability to think symbolically and suspend disbelief in order to receive messages that were best delivered in story form. It would have been evolutionarily advantageous to understand pictures and stories and it would be essential for a culture to produce skilled storytellers which, of course, includes image-makers. This is a good thing for contemporary artists to recall on those dark days in the studio.


1 The full quote from Hannah Arendt’s “Isak Dinesen: 1885–1963” in her collection of essays Men in Dark Times is: “It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication that last word which we expect from the Day of Judgment.”

2 CBC Ideas: The Human Factor: Hannah Arendt, April 22 2014.

3 Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria; or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. Project Gutenberg, 2004.

4 Marchant, Jo. “A Journey to the Oldest Cave Paintings in the World.”, 2016.


Image credits:

Object in the Grass, gouache and pencil on paper.
Springing, Singing, Sinning, ink, gouache, red pencil and steel metal stamped text on paper.
Red Wolf on Red and Green Plaid, gouache and red pencil on paper.

All works by Blair Brennan, 28 x 21.5 cm, 2015.