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  • Chronolibidinal Reading:Deconstruction and Psychoanalysis
  • Martin Hägglund (bio)

That Time will come and take my love away.This thought is as a death which cannot chooseBut weep to have that which it fears to lose.

Shakespeare, Sonnet LXIV

In his essay "On Transience," Sigmund Freud recounts a summer walk through the countryside with a famous poet. The scenery is resplendent, but the poet is haunted by the sense that all the beauty will be destroyed by the passage of time. Everything that may be desired as beautiful bears the force of its own destruction within itself because it is temporal and begins to pass away as soon as it comes to be. The poet's conclusion is that such temporal finitude deprives beauty of its value. The experience of temporal being would thus be the experience of a lack, since it can never measure up to the ideal of eternity. As Freud explains, "All that he would otherwise have [End Page 1] loved and admired seemed to him shorn of its worth by the transience which was its doom" (SE-14: 305).

For all its groundbreaking achievements, the psychoanalytic conception of desire has generally not questioned this supposed experience of lack. Both Freud and Jacques Lacan assume that temporal being is a lack of being that we desire to transcend, even though they deny the existence of a transcendent state of being. The absolute fullness of timeless being is rather figured as the imaginary ideal that propels desire while remaining forever out of reach.

In "On Transience," however, Freud opens the possibility for a quite different genealogy of the supposed experience of lack. In Freud's reading, the poet's denigration of temporal being does not stem from the lack of a timeless being. Rather, it is a defense mechanism against the threat of loss. By denigrating the value of temporal being, the poet seeks to avoid the experience of mourning that follows from the attachment to a being that is lost. As Freud puts it, those who "seem ready to make a permanent renunciation because what was precious has proved not to be lasting, are simply in a state of mourning for what is lost" (SE-14: 307). Importantly, what has been lost is not a timeless being but a temporal being: something that was precious but could not last and leaves the survivor in mourning. Furthermore, the mourning in question does not have to be the mourning of something that already has been lost; it can also be the mourning of what will be lost, as is the case when the poet finds his enjoyment of beauty "interfered with by thoughts of its transience" (306).

Hence, although the poet claims that he is lacking a timeless being, he is in fact mourning a temporal being. Freud himself does not elaborate this argument, but we can pursue the deduction in two steps. If the poet did not fear to lose a temporal being, he would have no reason to detach himself from it by renouncing its value. The apparent detachment presupposes attachment to a temporal being. If the poet were not attached to a being that could be lost, he would never anticipate the painful experience of mourning that motivates the act of detachment. What comes first, then, is not the desire for a timeless being that never can be lost, but the desire for a temporal being that always can be lost. In Freud's striking formulation, "Transience value is [End Page 2] scarcity value in time. Limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of the enjoyment" (SE-14: 305).

I call attention to Freud's argument because it provides a point of departure for the theory of chronolibido that I seek to develop in this essay. The theory of chronolibido proceeds from the premise that everything that can be desired is temporal in its essence. Even the most intense enjoyment is haunted by the imminence of death, but without such finitude there would be nothing to enjoy in the first place. The inherent finitude of life is not something that comes to inhibit desire but precipitates desire in the first place. It...


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