- Dying for Time: Proust, Woolf, Nabokov by Martin Hägglund
In Dying for Time, Martin Hägglund argues that our common beliefs about temporality, mourning, and desire should be tested against the representation of these human processes in the modernist novel. This is not in itself an unusual proposal, but what distinguishes this important book is that it allows us to understand these canonical modernist concerns in a wholly new way. Hägglund revisits long-held assumptions about the “aesthetic and metaphysical vision” (16) of Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Vladimir Nabokov in order to overturn those assumptions. He does so by arguing stridently against canonical critical positions, by questioning extra-literary statements by authors about their own work, and even (in a fascinating move I will return to) by privileging the logic of certain descriptive passages in their fiction against more explicit synoptic statements in the same texts. As a consequence, Proust, Woolf, and Nabokov (along with Jacques Derrida, also the subject of Hägglund’s groundbreaking book Radical Atheism) emerge not so much as philosophers of time as writers of time. Their literary way of describing temporal experience outstrips attempts to conceptualize temporal being in a more traditionally philosophical manner.
Literature and philosophy are best distinguished not by their respective conceptions of time, however, but by their accounts of desire. Hägglund opens by citing Socrates’ famous claim in Plato’s Republic that while Homer leaves us in the grip of a desire for mortal life, it is the philosopher’s role to teach us that the immortal and eternal are what we ought to desire. This basic assumption about the desirability of immortality has long characterized western thought, even among those who want to resist privileging philosophy over literature. “To be sure, Plato’s denigration of poetry has been subjected to centuries of critique,” Hägglund writes, “Yet defenders of poetry have traditionally not pursued Plato’s insight into the link between the affective power of aesthetic representation and the investment in mortal life” (2). Dying for Time aims to pursue this insight through a revised account of [End Page 589] desire. Hägglund calls this account of desire “chronolibido”; the readings it produces he terms “chronolibidinal.”
Chronolibidinal reading challenges the understanding of the modernist novel as a writing against time. Proust’s involuntary memory, Woolf’s aesthetics of the moment, and Nabokov’s invocation of a transcendent afterlife have long been understood as driven by the attempt to resist temporal passing in favor of preserving a transcendent moment of full being. According to Hägglund, this understanding proceeds from a misconstrual of what he dubs the “constitutive difference” of desire (4), the difference between what we are and what we desire to be. Conventionally conceived, this is a difference between the imperfect and the perfect: our being and happiness are imperfect because they are temporal, therefore it is perfect, eternal being and happiness that we must desire. The chronolibidinal reading questions this logic of lack—central to Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis (the subject of the lengthy fourth chapter of Dying for Time), as well as to the work of religious thinkers like Augustine—by tracing the constitutive difference of desire to the condition of time. For time to exist, it must be the case that no moment can be in itself, that “every moment must negate itself and pass away in its very event” (3). The consequences of this seemingly straightforward insight are in fact radical: because things “can only be themselves by not coinciding with themselves,” it is never the case that a mortal subject desires an immortal object (whether God, everlasting fame, or eternal heaven). Instead, “both the subject and the object are from the very beginning temporal” (3). We can in fact only desire what is temporal, precisely because only what is temporal is threatened with destruction. In his beautifully written conclusion to the book, Hägglund formulates this problem urgently and humanly: “The fundamental trauma of libidinal being is that pain and loss are part of what we desire...