Realizations, Part I

Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England, by Martin Meisel, is a voluminous work that may, perhaps, be the most important book I read for my project.  At 438 over-sized pages, this book basically focuses on all artistic production in the nineteenth century, heroically refusing to limit itself to just one movement, form, or sub-period.  One of Meisel’s ambitions, he says in his Introduction, is “to suggest ways of organizing and perceiving representational art that cut across medium and genre and constitute a common style” (3).  So, he looks at points of connection between pictorial art and pictorial theater, between pictorial theater and narrative, between narrative and art, and between all the beautifully monstrous permutations in between.  This book is such a glorious production that I think I’m going to measure all other works of scholarship against this.

I’ll start with Auerbach’s Private Theatricals, which I’ve summarized in my previous posts.  I really liked Auerbach’s connections, although it seems like everything in the nineteenth century becomes ghosts and demons pretty quickly in her works.  And just judging based on the feeling the book left me with, I think Auerbach is, at some points, trying to paint the Victorian mind as equating any kind of change with the original fall, and so anyone who changes becomes suspect.  Therefore, the anti-theatrical prejudice persisted even as theater flourished, presumably following some paradigm of Foucauldian paranoia, whereby we revel/wallow in the things that terrify us.  I’m really ready to buy into Lynn Voskuil’s revision of this anti-theatrical prejudice reading of nineteenth-century history, but it’s not really the focus on anti-theatricality that bothers me about Auerbach’s analysis.  What leaves me a little unsatisfied is that she glances at a few representative works of nineteenth-century theater, like East Lynne and Peter Pan, but she’s really interested in biography.  Biography is really, at the end of the day, her object of study, I think.  This spawned a tradition of other nineteenth-century scholars who wrote books on how influential the theater was on X form of literature, without really looking at any plays in great detail.  This is fine–I like all that interpretive work.  But I just think it leaves a gap, especially in the area I’m interested in: novels that were rewritten as plays.

This is where Meisel comes into the conversation.  I feel like Auerbach says, “Hey, theater really influenced the way Victorians conceptualized the life cycle.  Let’s look at some biographies and novelistic bildungsroman to see how that works,” which is wonderful, but not as majestic as Meisel.  Meisel basically says, “Hey, every form is connected to every other form.  Let’s look at all the forms to see how they’re connected.”  This sounds like a more diffuse argument, but Meisel addresses that directly:

Such diffusion encourages the normal disposition of cultural critics and historians to find that everything connects to everything else. The problem is compounded  where the arts are concerned, since there analogy is a legitimate mode of action; it is how invention and imagination work. In the arts, both patrician and popular, the obscure transforming leap of the imagination sometimes eludes chains of cause and effect, networks of demonstrable influence, chartings of source and stream. But where such sensible canons of proof  cannot provide a limiting corrective for the intuitions of a rationalizing interpreter, the critical ground turns to quicksand. This discovery of analogies and pointed differences […] is itself the work of the imagination, and risks degradation from the imaginative to the imaginary. […] Unregulated analogy has been the plague of those who would generalize about period style. Not knowing how to take analogy seriously enough has been the defect of traditional historians of the several arts. (4-5)

Meisel deals with this difficulty in this way:

In the end the critic-cum-historian has to remember, for reassurance, that seeking connections, making analogies, and constructing dialogues are not his own bizarre peculiarities, but are much more characteristic of the inventive minds and dispositions that called forth the pictures, plays, and stories here discussed. (5)

This was an interesting meditation for me to think about in relation to my own project.  In the arts, analogy is a “legitimate mode of action.”  A playwright reads a novel and decides it would make a good play. Or a novelist decides s/he wants to write plays too.  So we could just keep making comparisons until the cows come home. But making connections is what creative minds do, so I think I’m on the right track by looking at scenes of writing and scenes of performance in these works.  I’m looking at the way writers represent the connections they’re making through scenes of writing and performance. This is all really broad, but I think that’s part of Meisel’s point. He’s not just looking at three different forms of representation; he’s looking at the points at which those forms intersect and show the implicit connections between all forms of representation.

Anyway, he moves on to talk about the role of gesture in these different forms–stereotyped gesture as opposed to individualized externalization of internal feeling. “The aesthetic problem for the age,” he says, “was to incorporate such individuation, for which it had an enormous appetite and which it perceived as the real, with the glamor and readable moral and intellectual coherence of the faceless ideal” (8). Here’s a great quotation:

The nineteenth-century artist, especially the Victorian artist, working for a comprehensive audience, had a double injunction laid upon him. He found himself between an appetite for reality and a requirement for signification. Specification, individuation, autonomy of detail, and the look and feel of the thing itself pulled one way; while placement in a larger meaningful pattern, appealing to the moral sense and the understanding, pulled another. (12)

“In its own terms,” he concludes the Introduction, “it is an art seeking the technical means and structural matrices for what was surely the most paradoxical of aesthetic enterprises, the Realization of the Ideal” (13).  I can definitely see all these things happening in the sensation novel and its theatrical adaptations, so for now I am going to use “realization” as a lens through which to look at how these adaptations are rewriting writing.

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