This chapter is part of Steiner’s first section, “Thoughts That Fit Like Air,” which lays out a history of and various approaches to the interartistic comparison. She begins with Lessing’s differentiation between spatial and temporal arts as an “obstacle” to the painting-literature analogy. Her chapter will then work from this problem, examining the ways in which modern artists and critics have tried to overcome the space-time differentiation. The example that begins her discussion is Stephen’s monologue from Ulysses, in which he walks, eyes closed, down the beach, trying to measure the world through the tap of his walking stick and the crackling sound of his footprints. Steiner claims that for Stephen “time and space are merely alternative modes of the same thing” (35), as opposed to Lessing, who holds them in opposition. This is an apt example for Steiner to use since it involves the mental processing of time and space.
Much of Steiner’s discussion in this chapter focuses on the function of the viewer to differentiate art and literature. She claims, based on scientific research, that the eye can perceive only small areas and that taking in a larger image, like a painting, would involve scanning. Thus, pictorial perception becomes “a matter of temporal processing” (36). The viewer must retain small portions of the image and then mentally recollect them into a united image, making the process more similar to reading. Likewise, Steiner explores instances in which our reading of poetry approaches a spatial response. With the “spatial form” example which she explains, we are unable to process the poem in a traditional manner because of the insistence on nonlinear associations. We must suspend our perception of the individual references until the internal references “can be apprehended as a unity” (37). Ultimately, “spatial form” does not overcome the space-time barrier, but it complicates our notion of reading and makes it, as a mental process, more similar to viewing a painting.
Steiner then shifts her discussion away from the mental process and meets Lessing head-on in his preference for “artistic semantics.” She deals with the “pregnant moment” in painting, in which the appearance of temporality is given (e.g. tears on a cheek) in comparison with ekphrastic poetry. Lessing found these artistic inclinations abhorrent, but for Steiner the spatial-temporal ambiguity runs deeper than an artist’s desire to imitate another medium. While ekphrasis can only appear to create space (the poem occurs, after all, in time), Steiner claims that “concrete poetry” serves as a better example of the blur between space and time distinctions. She focuses on a poem by e. e. cummings, which, because of the amount of repetition and the way stanzas “run into each other,” Steiner claims that “the poem as a whole need not end with the last line but could be read as a circle poem” (44). cummings then enacts a “literal stillness” where ekphrastic poetry can only represent stillness.
Perhaps the most useful example in this chapter, in terms of breaking down the spatial-temporal distinction, is Cubist painting. Steiner writes, “Modern painting has concentrated on clarifying the fact that motion is in the eye and not on the canvas” (49). The return to the mental process is vital to her argument, which attempts to link the different arts through a semiotic approach. Ultimately, Steiner cannot thoroughly break the distinction between painting as the spatial art and literature as the temporal art, but she complicates the distinction by illustrating spatial and temporal aspects of both arts. Her goal in this chapter has been to dismiss Lessing’s distinction between the arts as too simplistic a criterion and to suggest that we should seek a more nuanced definition of painting and literature. Thinking outside concrete evidence to the way that space and time are negotiated by the mind (as with the Cubist example) provokes us to define our study of the arts in different terms. This response to Lessing allows Steiner to move more freely toward her own semiotic approach to interartistic comparisons.