Realizations, Part II

After reading the Introduction, I skipped to Chapter 2 of Martin Meisel’s book: “Illustration and Realization.”  As the title implies, Meisel uses this chapter to distinguish between the Victorian concepts of illustration and realization. Realization, along with the verb form, “to realize,” “are often found in dramatic contexts,” Meisel says, “where they carry the sense of materialization, even reification” (29). This is the chapter that contains the quote Auerbach uses when she explains this concept–a quote that is worth reproducing again:

“Realization,” which had a precise technical sense when applied to certain theatrical tableaux based on well-known pictures, was in itself the most fascinating of “effects” on the nineteenth-century stage, where it meant both literal re-creation and translation into a more real, that is more vivid, visual, physically present medium. To move from mind’s eye to body’s eye was realization, and to add a third dimension to two was realization, as when words became picture, or when picture became dramatic tableau. Always in the theater the effect depended on the apparent literalness and faithfulness of the translation, as well as the material increment. (30)

In this section of Meisel’s argument, I can see some support for Auerbach’s equation of dramatic change and “realization” with the Christian narrative of original sin. Meisel quotes Charles Lamb, who describes his first experience of seeing a Shakespearian performance like this:

It seemed to embody and realize conceptions which had hitherto assumed no distinct shape. But dearly do we pay all our life after for this juvenile pleasure, this sense of distinctness. When the novelty is past, we find to our cost that instead of realizing an idea, we have only materialized and brought down a fine vision to the standard of flesh and blood. We have let go a dream, in quest of an unattainable substance. (30)

So, “realization” was an inevitable outcome of the Victorians’ obsession with realism, but it wasn’t necessarily an unproblematic outcome; it was in constant opposition to the idealism at the other end of the literary spectrum.

Illustration, on the other hand, was an entirely different concept. According to Meisel:

It carried a sense of enrichment and embellishment beyond mere specification; it implied the extension of one medium or mode of discourse by another, rather than materialization with a minimum of imaginative intervention. Exemplification and enhancement by any means were inherited meanings that persisted in the word; but the pictorial illustration that we have in mind nowadays when we speak of a book with illustrations was not taken for granted before the 1820s, that is to say before the rapid effect of a series oftechnological innovations on the production of illustrated books. (30)

Another way that Meisel distinguishes between the two terms is to say that realization involves “giving concret perceptual form to a literary text,” while illustration mainly involves “interpretive re-creation” (32).

Obviously, numerous scholars of book history take the concept of “illustration” as their object of study, especially the illustrations of serial fiction, like Dickens’ novels. Meisel does not cover any of that in detail here, but he does note that in the theater, “the illustrative bent shows itself pervasively, especially in the classics, in acting as well as in the hypertrophic elaboration of decor” (32). Actors tried to uncover new “points” in Shakespeare (“fresh readings that would stretch the text and startle a jaded audience”), while other Shakespearian readers became interested in “the archaeological illustration of Shakespeare’s plays in the theater” (32). Interestingly, Meisel notes that these interests provide precedents for the modern creative director (32).

Meisel goes on to analyze the fascinating relationship that illustration had with realism. Topographic dioramas were very popular during this period; “[i]n most of these,” Meisel notes, “the appetite for truth and fact shared the stage with the appetite for wonder” (33). Additionally, the pictorial theater specialized in illustrating current events, much like our modern news shows. As Meisel says, “the theater provided a form of topical news show that served the appetite for ocular truth and mastery over time, space, and materials, and anticipated not only the illustrated news magazine, but the newsreel itself” (33-34).

This distinction between illustration and realization was really the main point of this chapter, so I’m going to end this post with a last quote from Meisel, which I find fascinating:

In a consideration of those common features that unite the several arts in the nineteenth century, and of the outright collaborations between the arts, illustration is certainly the more complex and problematical notion. But realization is the more neglected; and realization is central to the persistent pressure toward uniting a concrete particularity with inward signification, the materiality of things with moral and emotional force, historical fact with figural truth, the mimetic with the ideal. (36)


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