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Dying for Time: Proust, Woolf, Nabokov by Martin Hägglund (review)

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 45, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 716-718 | 10.1353/sdn.2014.0013

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To begin, Dying For Time; Proust, Woolf, Nabokov is a crucial follow up to Martin Hägglund’s first book published in English, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (2008). In Radical Atheism, Hägglund masterfully rethinks the philosophy of Jacques Derrida in order to posit his theory of radical atheism, which disavows traditional atheism by refuting the very desire for immortality, the existence of the divine, and so forth that traditional atheism aims to reject in the first place. As Adrian Johnston and others like Michael Naas make clear in their trenchant responses to Radical Atheism, the theory of radical atheism hinges upon a theory of desire that is not yet fully developed in the early text. In part then, Dying for Time consolidates Hägglund’s response to his critics who have challenged the theory of radical atheism on the question of desire. But as Hägglund takes on a more sustained engagement with psychoanalysis—in addition to his philosophical and literary investments—in order to develop his theory of chronolibido (the central theory of desire that drives the text) it quickly becomes clear that Dying for Time is a tremendous philosophical achievement that will make it hard to understand desire without turning to the arguments Hägglund makes in his book.

Hägglund introduces the notion of chronolibido through a scene in Plato’s Republic in which Socrates proclaims his frustration with the tendency of Homer’s writings to make even the most keen of philosophical minds fall prey to the dramatic pathos of the Iliad and become victim to the “grip of desire for mortal life” (1). The problem for Socrates, in Hägglund’s reading, is that the philosopher is precisely the figure who should otherwise remain immune to “the loss of mortal beings; he should rather turn his desire toward the immutable presence of the eternal” (2). Socrates, in other words, discovers himself at a remarkable impasse in which the task of the philosopher—understood as converting “the desire for the mortal into a desire for the immortal that can never be lost” (2)—is challenged by the fact that poetry both conjures and inspires a desire for a mortal life that is threatened by the possibility of its own loss. Hägglund sets up the scene of Socrates’s discontent in order to elucidate how desire, in the tradition of western philosophy, is predicated on a constitutive difference between what one is and what one is not, and who one really wants to be and who one actually is. Hägglund also deftly deploys the scene of Socrates’s polemical response to Homer’s writings as an allegorical frame for establishing that desire has heretofore been erringly conceived—in psychoanalytic theory, contemporary literary studies, and in the tradition of western philosophy—as always therefore testifying to an ontological lack. Although Hägglund is careful to point out that the pervasive tendency to read difference in desire as affirming a fundamental lack of being does not indicate an inherent failure in logic, he does insist that this line of thinking fails to account for the very structural logic of difference in the first place.

In Dying For Time, Hägglund thus pursues a new account of the constitutive difference of desire that is not read as an ontological lack. To do so, Hägglund begins by tracing “the constitutive difference of desire to the condition of time” (3). Without spending too much time recapitulating the main tenets of the Derridean-inspired, Hägglundian logic of time that governs the chronolibidinal argument, it will suffice to say that Hägglund posits that the present is constituted by the simultaneous passing away of the past and the anticipation of a future that is yet to come. The present (and thus everything thought on the basis of presence), in other words, is not intrinsic itself; it is instead characterized by an infinite splitting between the past and the future. A particular moment can come into being only insofar as it is already becoming past and superseded by another moment that has not yet arrived. The present is always therefore negating itself because the very event...

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