- Dying for Time: Proust, Woolf, Nabokov by Martin Hägglund
Rethinking Trauma, "Reckoning" with Loss: Martin Hägglund's Dying for Time
Broadly speaking, Dying for Time is about temporal finitude, particularly how canonical modernist writers negotiate anxieties about transience and mortality. Hägglund's reading takes issue with a dominant critical tendency to read modernist fiction's pervasive concern with time as testifying to a desire for immortality, permanence, and stability in an age of increasing vulnerability. In Hägglund's account, Proust, Woolf, and Nabokov have been misread in terms of a "desire to transcend mortal life - whether through an epiphany of memory, an immanent moment of being, or a transcendent afterlife" (14). But the apparent impulse to transcend time, he argues, evinces a deeper commitment to transience and impermanence as the very conditions for desire in the first place. Desire is fundamentally ambivalent because of the "double bind" and co-implication of chronophobia and chronophilia: we fear time because we are bound to what can be lost, but at the same time, we love because we can lose. Not only is the possibility of loss the necessary (but not sufficient) condition of possibility for care and love; the passage of time, the threat of decay, and the potential for loss is internal to the things we love and desire. Central to these claims is a distinction Hägglund makes between survival and immortality. Rather than read desire as motivated by some sense of a lost plenitude of being, Hägglund recasts it as part of a dynamic of survival, the temporal process of living on, not the perpetuation of a timeless, immortal state in which there is no change and in which the desired object is exempt from threat. Since desire is chronophobic and chronophilic, since it depends both on the attempted preservation of something one might lose and the fact that the attempt at preservation might fail, it can neither be satisfied by a fleeting moment of fulfillment nor by a timeless state of immortality.
Hägglund spends roughly the first half of the book meticulously elucidating this argument through close readings of Proust, Woolf, and Nabokov's novels. These chapters, which offer a thematic focus on memory, trauma, and writing, respectively, provide the framework for the final two chapters, which [End Page 1207] offer a fuller theoretical discussion of Hägglund's theory of chronolibido. In his chapter on Proust, Hägglund convincingly repudiates two dominant interpretations of the Recherche: one in which involuntary memory is read as proof of "timeless being," and one in which Marcel's reflections on art and writing are purported to advance an aesthetics that offers redemption from the condition of time. On the contrary, what emerges from Marcel's discussions of time, self, and memory, Hägglund argues, is a desire for the temporal dynamic of survival, not the timeless state of immortality. Rather than gesture to a "realm that is exempt from time" (22), involuntary memory intensifies the experience of temporal succession, in which the present moment is annihilated in the very instant of its becoming present, and in which the "dream of an immortal paradise" is subverted by the fact that any paradise must be potentially compromised or threatened by loss in order to be desired in the first place. This threat of loss is part of what Hägglund comes to characterize in the Woolf chapter as the "undecidability of survival," the way in which temporal experience is characterized by the interplay of delayed recognition and deferred expectation. Although many of Woolf's critics have interpreted her "aesthetics of the moment" as related to a timeless presence, an act of rendering the moment eternal, Hägglund explains how even the crystalized moment cannot be "immune from alteration." Crucially, in Hägglund's account, the threat of alteration or destruction does not impinge on experience from outside; it constitutes experience from within. This is the case for experience as well as for writing, as he explains in his chapter on Nabokov. The very material on which memory...