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Dying for TimeReview - Dying for Time
Proust, Woolf, Nabokov
by Martin Hägglund
Harvard University Press, 2012
Review by Paul-Gabriel Sandu
May 7th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 19)

Disguised as a literary analysis, Martin Hägglund's book, Dying for time, has much higher goals than simply challenging the established, traditional reading of Proust, Woolf and Nabokov with respect to questions such as time, mortality, memory or trauma and achieves more than it promises at its inception. The author begins by citing a few passages from Plato's Republic and Symposion, with the sole purpose of questioning the paradoxical structure of desire for immortality, so strongly advocated by Plato's Socrates, who perceives it as the hallmark of a philosophical life. The Socratic "logic of desire", according to which not the temporal objects, but the eternal ones should be the destination of desire, since only the letter can bring about fulfillment thanks to their time-transcending nature, seems to be self-contradictory: the desire to repose in a being "that is completely in itself" would then be "a desire not to desire".

Hägglund questions precisely this metaphysical logic of desire which derives from and testifies to an ontological concept of lack which, as he argues, fails to give an appropriate account to what he calls "difference of desire" (the fact that the nature of desire is determined precisely by the fact that it cannot be fulfilled). In developing the notion of chronolibido -- which "traces the constitutive difference of desire to the condition of time" (3) -- Hägglund's hermeneutic of lack takes a "temporal turn" and parts with the metaphysical understanding of the concept. According to the logic of the chronolibido, the fulfillment itself is temporal and therefore inherits the pure negativity of time: every experience of fulfillment is, at the same time, an experience of loss. "The desire for absolute fullness", as Hägglund puts it, "is not the truth of desire […] but rather a self-defeating attempt to deny the attachment to temporal life that is the source of all care" (9) -- or even more than that, a desire to deny the temporal character of being. The logic of chronolibido, which presupposes the co-implication of chronophobia and chronophilia, can be thus seen as an immanent critique of the Socratic logic of desire: "it is because one is attached to a temporal being (chronophilia) that one fears losing it (chronophobia)" (9). The desire for immortality is, in fact, a desire for survival. From Hägglund point of view, both the Socratic and the Epicurean "cure" for the incurable chronolibidinal condition -- one seeking to eliminate the chronophilia and the other the chronophobia -- originate in a misconception of the temporal condition of life. The quest for understanding the "truth of desire" turns out to be a quest of understanding the truth of temporal life.

In discussing some key passages from the works of the authors named in the title of the book, Hägglund hast to take issue precisely with this metaphysical logic of desire and its corresponding understanding of time which operates in the Proust, Woolf or Nabokov scholarship and opposes it the logic of chronolibido. This is also the reason why deconstruction is at work in almost every single text analysis made by the author, not primarily with the purpose of pointing out the metaphysical discrepancies and inconsistencies regarding the matters under discussion, but in order to disclose their complex and sometimes contradictory accounts of time which most of the times do not obey the "Socratic logic".

The first chapter of the book addresses the question of (involuntary) memory in Proust last volume of À la recherche du temps perdu, a question which seems to have long been answered by the Proust scholarship with the help of the traditional understanding of time which solves even the most intricate problems with the help of the distinction between finitude and eternity. Hägglund convincingly argues that the dominant reading of Proust considers the "the transcendence of time through the eternity of art" (24) to be the focal point of the novel; the liberation from time and alteration through the discovery of a timeless essence revealed in the experience of involuntary memory seems to be -- according to all of the critics cited by Hägglund -- the ultimate purpose of Proust work and of art in general. The fact that this hermeneutical perspective is reinforced by Proust himself, who speaks of "the eternal man", "the extra-temporal being", etc., doesn't stop Hägglund to argue that the logic of the text directly contradicts this perspective. According to Hägglund's own interpretation, the involuntary memory reveals the pure time by underscoring the temporal difference between past and present and thus revealing the negativity and finitude of time. What is "brought to life" through the involuntary memory, is brought to life as something lost forever; the involuntary memory does not reveal an eternal being, but rather -- as Proust himself puts it --  "the painful synthesis of survival and extinction" (34). In order to explain the "articulation" of survival and extinction, Hägglund makes use of the Derrida's concept of trace. But the trace (the memory, for instance) is far from being exempt from the negativity of time, and can best be understood through another Derridarian term, iterability (a concept which Hägglund doesn't discuss in here). Iterability is not simply repeatability because it involves alteration (According to Derrida's etymology of the term, the Latin "iter" can be traced back to the Sanskrit "itara", meaning "other"). The trace is itself subject to time and negation, so that "extinction is at work in survival itself" (36). In order to endure the past, it exposes itself (as text, in the case of a work of art) to a future which can reinterpret or erase it. Being essentially temporal, life is, in itself, constituted by loss and death; and, most important, it is not compromised by them, but rendered with meaning and value. "The true paradises are the paradises that one has lost" (as Proust famously stated) because something that can't be lost can't be desired.

The second and shortest chapter of the book discusses the concept of trauma in Woolf's novels, To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. Hägglund's reading conflicts yet once again with the most knowledgeable readers of Woolf's novels, who -- according to the passages cited by the author -- talk about "diamantine present" and "transcendent realms" (p. 66). Still, it is again the "relentless negativity of time" (57) which -- according to Hägglund -- is brought to light in Woolf's aesthetics, and which finally leads to a "traumatic conception of temporality" (61).  From Hägglund's point of view, the traumatic event occurs simultaneously too soon and too late. It aggressively imposes itself to consciousness, exceeding the human capacity of coming to terms with it (too soon) and remains inaccessible to consciousness until it returns to haunt the memory or the imagination (too late). This violence is not something characteristic only of the traumatic events, since the same structure characterizes temporal experience as such -- even that of plenitude. The trauma only amplifies a dynamic that is at work in every single event of our lives, although not in an equally dramatic manner. There is no future (and subsequently no life) without the possibility of trauma; every experience is itself both deferred (too soon) and delayed (too late): "moments of living are always already moments of dying" (78). This understanding of time from the perspective of trauma stresses the same contiguity of extinction and survival characteristic of Proust's account of time -- albeit from a slightly different perspective.

In the third and most elaborate chapter of the book, Hägglund offers consistent proof that Nabokov's aesthetics is to a great extent indebted to the chronolibidinal logic at work in Proust's and Woolf's novels. The passion for survival, expressed as an irrepressible urge to write, to continuously imprint and revise every memory of the love story between Ada and Van, the main characters and narrators of Nabokov's novel, Ada or Ardour, has to deal again with the imminent threat of death and forgetting inherent to every love story and every written text. Nabokov's novel is the perfect scenery for bringing to light the chronolibidinal drama, because it employs a writing strategy which allows the narrators not only to tell their story, "but also to record the act of narrating the past, thereby documenting the ten-year period of writing as a drama in itself that gradually evolves in the margins of the book" (100). At first, the thesis that through writing their story in such detail and with such meticulousness, the narrators would express their hope and desire to transcend the condition of time, and entrust their love in the omnipotent hands of art seems to be the appropriate interpretation of the work. Though this is one of the central claims of the Nabokov scholarship, Hägglund convincingly argues that it is not necessary true. Enabling us to witness them in the act of writing, of correcting and revising their own text, Ada and Van make us aware that in spite of all their endeavors, the text exceeds their possibility of controlling it. As Hägglund points out, "the momentary disruptions of the progressing narrative create the same effect as when the needle of a gramophone is caught in a track: we become aware of how the act of reading or listening is dependent on a fragile mechanism" (104). Committing themselves to a medium that does not belong them, and which is susceptible of being reinterpreted again and again (even by them), they reenact the chronolibidinal drama they were trying to avoid in the first place. Art cannot create a perfect paradise, unless it is a paradise lost.

In the last chapter of the book, Hägglund takes issue with Freund and Lacan understanding of death drive, temporal being and the experience of loss, arguing that, to some extent, their perspectives are still indebted to the metaphysical understanding of time and to the Socratic logic of desire. Arguing that the excitation of life is traumatic because it is impossible to experience it directly, Hägglund challenges Freud's notion of the death drive and argues that only the process or function of binding precedes and makes the death drive possible. In Hägglund's opinion, Freud's account of the death drive is based on the same logic of ontological lack employed by Plato's Socrates. Committed to this logic, Freund will have to admit that absolute pleasure and absolute death are synonyms, and to argue that death itself is the proper destination of pleasure. Freud's death drive seems to be nothing more than a radicalization of the Socratic desire for immortality. For a better understanding of the pleasure principle, Hägglund employs Derrida's concept of postal principle, arguing once again that the difference of desire is a function of the negativity of time, because every moment bears the "stamp" of deferral and delay, being nothing more than an inscription of the past exposed to the violence of the future.

Apart from opening an innovative hermeneutical perspective on the works of Proust, Woolf and Nabokov - which could prove itself very fruitful for further and more in depth literary and philosophical analysis of the texts -- Hägglund's book successfully challenges the traditional understanding of time, finitude and temporal being and offers a sound solution to the paradoxical logic of desire. Although Hägglund's work is to some extent indebted to Derrida's thinking, the concept of chronolibido can nevertheless be seen as one of the book's original contributions to the revisal of the traditional understanding of time and our relation to it and to our temporal finitude. The only puzzling fact that remains is why Hägglund never even mentions Heideggers's extensive analysis of the ecstatic character of time or his critique of the concept of lack in Being and Time, to which both Hägglund's understanding of finite temporality and  his own account of the question of lack are closely related.

 

© 2013 Paul-Gabriel Sandu

 

 

Paul-Gabriel Sandu, PhD-Candidate, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg


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