A FEW months ago I received a letter which praised Image for “adding to the stock of available reality.” As I read that phrase, I felt a strange elation—not because it was intended as praise, but because it distilled a great deal of wisdom into very few words. Since the words were set off in quotation marks, I immediately wrote back to ask the source and found it came from a 1935 book review by the eminent critic R.P. Blackmur. The first sentence of that review is worth quoting in full:
The art of poetry is amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse by the animating presence in the poetry of a fresh idiom; language so twisted and posed in a form that it not only expresses the matter in hand but adds to the stock of available reality.
Blackmur here provides as concise a definition of art as one could desire, for his terms apply not just to poetry but to any art form. True art achieves a “fresh idiom” by twisting and posing its materials in such a way that meaning flashes out and we suddenly learn something new (which is usually something old) about the world. In a sense, Blackmur’s definition is close to Coleridge’s famous distinction between imagination and fancy. Coleridge likens the imagination to God’s act of creation—a fusion of disparate elements into a new whole. Fancy, on the other hand, falls short of the imaginative fusion: it is merely the clever rearranging of fixed and lifeless symbols.
I doubt that Blackmur’s words would have struck me so forcefully if they merely provided a capsule definition of art. Indeed, they seem to resonate at a number of different levels. How, for example, does one think about the stock of available reality? Does the size of this stock simply accumulate over time, or does it rise and fall through the history of a culture? How much reality is available to us at any given time? If T.S. Eliot was right when he said that “Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” then that stock is always in danger of being diminished.
My reflections on these matters came to a head during the days leading up to the awarding of this year’s Oscars. Watching American Beauty sweep all the major awards, I wondered why another worthy contender, The Sixth Sense, faired so poorly. Both films were critical successes, featured wonderful acting, and dealt with a serious theme: the paradoxical presence of death in the midst of life.
In the end, I suspect that the success of American Beauty stems in part from the film’s appeal to some of our culture’s most deep-seated myths and fantasies. While there are many telling moments in this black comedy about suburban ennui, the film becomes radically incoherent by its conclusion. Lester Burnham experiences regeneration by quitting his servile job, reverting to his youthful habits of smoking pot and listening to classic rock and roll, and lusting after a high school cheerleader. To be fair, American Beauty isn’t literally endorsing Lester’s return to adolescence: it’s too ironic for that. But the moral of the story does seem to echo one of William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” At the end we are asked to believe that Lester’s pursuit of petty desires leads to a final purgation, so that he is able to recapture his love for his wife and daughter. But as with so many Boomer creations, Lester’s final liberation comes without cost—no contrition necessary, and certainly nothing like penance.
Forgiveness and penance are not aspects of reality that many of us willingly embrace. And yet they lie at the heart of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s enormously popular film The Sixth Sense. It is impossible to explain the success of this movie merely on the basis of a surprise ending or some spooky scenes or even the remarkable acting of young Haley Joel Osment, playing the visionary child, Cole Sear. What draws people to this film is the deeper mystery—the true surprise—that the story reveals: that the dead are not out to scare us silly, but to beg us for help: forgiveness, understanding, and compassion.
In The Sixth Sense adults think they see the world clearly, but pride blinds them; they go about their business without fear, believing what they want to believe. The boy, on the other hand, has no blinders, no defense mechanisms: he sees all the pain and confusion in the world, but because he doesn’t understand it, he is filled with fear. In the spiritual alchemy of this story, the child helps the man to see, and only then can the man help the child to set aside fear and gain the courage of compassion. Together they draw near to a mystery that the church tried to comprehend in the idea of Purgatory. And so an ancient religious theme is given a “fresh idiom.”
The Sixth Sense is a work of art that makes available—or bearable, to use Eliot’s term—layers of reality that most of us treat with varying levels of denial. Shyamalan’s film, so redolent of his Catholic upbringing in the Philadelphia area, is nevertheless representative of a wider revival of religious vision in contemporary literature and art. Image has sought not only to reflect this revival but also to foster it. The stocks are being replenished for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.