- Beauty That Must Die: Hägglund’s Dying for Time
In Dying for Time: Proust, Woolf, Nabokov, Martin Hägglund advances the project he initiated in Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (2008). In the earlier text, Hägglund underscored the “ultratranscendental” status of temporal finitude in the writings of Jacques Derrida, and so demonstrated the absurdity of attempts to marshal these writings for ethico-religious ends. The same notion of finitude is central to the argument of Dying for Time, though here Hägglund is much more willing to speak in his own voice. The results are impressive: a compelling rethinking of the link between time and desire coupled with singularly insightful readings of novels by Marcel Proust (À la recherche du temps perdu), Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse), and Vladimir Nabokov (Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle). Both as theory (of desire) and as practice (of literary analysis), Dying for Time is an unqualified success, though given the short length of the book—not quite two-hundred pages—questions are bound to remain concerning some of its claims. At the end of this review, I shall turn to one of these questions—the question of the specificity of the literary in Hägglund’s argument, and what it means for the relationship between this argument and a more traditional philosophical aesthetics. Before doing so, however, I need to address in more detail what Hägglund describes as the “chronolibidinal” interlacing of time and desire.
Under the heading of “chronolibido,” Hägglund develops an original theory of desire, one for which desire is grounded in the ineluctable finitude of temporal existence rather than driven forward by the experience of lack. The latter theory, for which desire is always the desire for an absent fullness, has been regnant in the philosophical tradition since the time of the Greeks and governs even the most sophisticated versions of psychoanalysis. The chronolibidinal alternative, Hägglund explains, describes the necessary co-implication within desire of “chronophobia” and “chronophilia.” All desire is chronophobic because all desire is directed toward spatio-temporally finite beings, beings that—as finite—can, and finally will, be lost. And so, desire “fears and resists the passage of time that negates every irreplaceable moment” (29). And all desire is chronophilic because the very fact that the object of desire is finite, is capable of being lost makes it something to be pursued or sheltered in the first place. An object that could not be lost could not motivate desire; it could never inspire “care” (9). The theory of chronolibido thus reminds us that desire, even when it appears to have been satisfied, is constitutively insecure. Its horizon is the experience of loss brought about by the negativity of successive time.
Chronolibido is perhaps easiest to grasp when the object of desire is another person. When we desire an other, we desire someone whom we could fail to attain and, if attained, we could always lose. This threat of failure or loss, coupled with the irreplaceability of the object, structures chronolibidinal desire. And yet, Hägglund insists that this desire is no less effective in cases of so-called “auto-affection,” in situations where the object of desire is ostensibly oneself. If I desire myself—if I desire to preserve myself in a certain state, for example—both the subject and the object of my desire are subject to the passage of time. If I desire my own happiness, I desire the origination or perduration of a state that invites desire because its loss is inscribed within it as a necessary possibility. If, on the other hand, I could be assured of an eternal happiness, a happiness that could not be lost because I had reached or would reach a heavenly state of immortal bliss, I could not relate to this happiness in terms of desire. Why? Desire, Hägglund argues, is the desire for survival (one’s own or another’s), for a temporal “living on” rather than for immortality (8). The latter—a...