- Beauty That Must DieA Response to Michael Clune
Let me first thank mark mcgurl for organizing this joint event on my book Dying for Time (2012) and Michael Clune’s Writing against Time (2013). Reading Clune’s excellent and deeply original book in preparation for our exchange, I was not only delighted by the quality of his writing but also amazed by how much overlap there is between the questions we pursue, so I am really looking forward to the discussion.
I want to begin by calling attention to a striking shared feature of my book and Clune’s book. We both explore the fear of the passage of time—what I call “chronophobia”—and how it permeates literary writing. Thus, both of us highlight how the writers we treat do not just fear death and the severe effects of aging but also the passing away of the particular moment or sensation that is cherished. Furthermore, both of us explore how the fear of time leads writers to try to slow down the experience of temporality, to dilate moments of time and make them more vivid. Indeed, the writers I focus on—Marcel [End Page 101] Proust, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov—are all devoted to rendering the nuances and resonances of living in time. So when Proust and Woolf call for the reformation of the modern novel, it is persistently in the name of temporal life. Their experiments with narrative technique, structure, and style are not a turn away from realism but a challenge to those conventions of realism that fail to do justice to the texture of temporal experience. This project is in turn continued by Nabokov, most prominently in his last great novel Ada, which is explicitly devoted to what he calls “The Texture of Time.”
A key aspect here is the attempt to counteract habit, to prevent us from taking the world for granted and instead making us see the world anew, “not in the sense of revealing another world,” as Clune puts it with a succinct formulation, “but in the sense of genuinely experiencing this world” (59). Clune, however, sees this desire to slow down time as aiming at completely stopping time. One way of describing our differences, then, would be to say that we offer different diagnoses of chronophobia. Clune holds that we fear time because we want to be timeless. On this view, the tragedy of desire is that we can never have what we want. We want to be timeless but are condemned to a temporal existence. In contrast, I argue that the desire to slow down time—to linger in the quality of temporal moments—is incompatible with a desire to be timeless. We fear time because we want to live on in time. The fear of time (chronophobia) is generated by the love of temporal life (chronophilia), and one cannot even in principle disentangle the two. Rather, the fear of time is part of what animates the desire to hold onto and prolong temporal life.
To make this argument concrete, let us consider a scene from John Keats, which plays a central role in Clune’s book but also can serve to elucidate what is at stake in Dying for Time. In Keats’s poem “Bright Star” the speaker describes how he is resting on the chest of his beloved (“Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast”), listening to the “soft swell and fall” of her breathing. This is a scene of consummate happiness, underlined by his emphasis that he does not want anything except to be there next to her, listening to her “tender-taken breath,” pervaded by a sense of “sweet unrest.” In and through this experience of consummate happiness, he is seized by the thought that he does not want the happiness to end. He is thus seized by what I call chronophobia: the fear of the passage of time. Yet this fear is not driven by a [End Page 102] desire to be timeless but rather by a desire to prolong his temporal experience. In wanting to be next to her, he wants to continue being next to her...