21 January, 2013Issue 21.1Critical TheoryLiterary CriticismPhilosophy

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Contradicted From Within

Zohar Atkins

Dying For TimeMartin Hägglund
Dying for Time: Proust, Woolf, Nabokov
Harvard University Press
208 pages
ISBN 9780674066328


There is little one can disagree with in Martin Hägglund’s second book, Dying for Time: Proust, Woolf, and Nabokov. It is essentially a variation on the same Derridean theme that Hägglund’s first book, Radical Atheism, champions: there is no such thing as “the unscathed,” nothing that is “absolutely immune.” Yet in his new book, this familiar deconstructive argument is given a new tag-line cum punch-line: “chronolibido.” This portmanteux, a cocktail of the Greek word for time and the Latin word for drive, says that fear of time (chronophobia) and desire for time (chronophilia) cannot be separated:

[C]are is necessarily chronophilic, since only something that is subject to the possibility of loss—and hence temporal—can give a reason to care. On the other hand, care is necessarily chronophobic, since one cannot care about something without fearing what may happen to it.

Who can dispute that?

Who can dispute that “the threat of trauma […] is latent even in the most precious experience”, that “the same bond that binds one to pleasure binds one to pain and the same bond that binds one to life binds one to death”? Who can argue that human existence is not thoroughly and inextricably “haunted from within?” That even the most magnificent works of art are not “contradicted from within” and confronted by a “double bind”? Who would not concede that “life is the source of both the desirable and the undesirable?”? That the “threat of loss is […] internal to whatever one wants to save”?

Yet beneath these graceful formulations—or perhaps hiding on the very surface of Hägglund’s virtuosic neologism, a number of familiar paradoxes lurk. The primary one is why we should care about chronolibido, either as a philosophical theory, or as a hermeneutic for reading literature. Why, for instance, is it important that we recognize that a “desire for immortality” “dissimulates a preceding attachment to temporal life?” Hägglund tells us that “the logic of chronolibido seeks to read the desire for immortality against itself from within,” but he never tells us why he seeks to do this.

Hägglund offers some magnificently thought-provoking aphorisms—for example, “Moments of being are not moments of timeless plenitude but testify to the inherent traumatism of temporal life” — but he never makes clear why we should take time to meditate on them, nor does he gesture at the therapeutic potential that such meditation might hold. Thus, reading Dying For Time, on its own terms, it is not obvious why one should read it. In fact, Hägglund is careful to maintain that an awareness of chronolibido does not, in itself, guarantee any therapeutic benefit, and may even lead to despair. He writes:

There is no way to come to terms with the double bind of finitude, no way of approaching life that would allow one to accept death resolutely or immunize oneself from the traumatic impact of being mortal.

For Hägglund, to seek a way out of the double bind is to fall back into a na√Øve Platonism, and to be—as he loves to repeat—”contradicted from within.” Yet Hägglund offers no compelling reasons for why we should care about avoiding such “contradiction from within.” Indeed, as Whitman sings, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself / (I am large, I contain multitudes).” Nor does Hägglund argue the Hölderlinian point that “where the danger is, there grows the saving power, also.” Instead, he contents himself to make only a very humble claim for the importance of his book: “the notion of chronolibido provides the resources to read the internal contradictions of the supposed desire for fullness.”

Hägglund’s argument is as elegant as its delivery is scrupulous, but the conclusion to which it leads—because of it’s own self-imposed limits—is underwhelming: “The notion of chronolibido provides the framework for thinking [the] double bind
and thereby opens a new way of reading the dramas of desire as they are staged in
philosophy and literature”. True as this claim may be, it says nothing of why we might turn to such dramas in the first place, nor does it gesture at what therapeutic potential these dramas might disclose. Hägglund’s fidelity to a consistent deconstructive logic is bought at the price of meditating on the various consequences our relationship to time could have for our bearing towards and with others. This is asking too much from the Manichean author of Radical Atheism, who writes:

The logic of autoimmunity is radically atheist, since it undermines the religious conception of what is desirable. Mutability, corruptibility, and violability do not testify to a lack of being that we desire to overcome. On the contrary, these features are essential to everything that is desired and cannot be removed. […] If one removes what threatens the object of desire—the evil that threatens the good, the death that threatens life—one removes the object of desire itself

and who concludes:

[T]he logic of radical atheism […] cannot […] finally teach us how to live or how to act. There is no cure for the condition of autoimmunity and every promise of change— every promise of a better future —only pledges to what is mortal.

This is asking too much of one who appeals, over and over again, to “logic”: “the logic of chronolibido”; “the logic of radical atheism”; “the logic of autoimmunity”. This is asking too much of one who understands that “Every moment must negate itself and pass away in its very event“.

Everything Hägglund says about chronolibido seems to apply to the aspect of the self that says and thinks, “I,”—the linguistic ego—but what about the self that is not primarily or exclusively the property of the ego? For if we are to take seriously the claim of many thinkers and sages that the ego itself is ‘en-owned’ by Being, it is unclear why “the logic of chronolibido” should have the summary word. Within the assumption that consciousness is always ‘consciousness of something,’ —that consciousness is ‘intentional’ ‘all the way down’ — Hägglund’s logic is airtight. But if we begin to ask if awareness ‘of’ something presupposes what Heidegger calls “the clearing” or, in turn, “that which grants,” new questions emerge. Such an approach might help us clarify why human responses to the fact of temporality vary.

For these reasons and more, I am eager for Hägglund to confront the work of his unacknowledged intellectual grandfather, Martin Heidegger. It is remarkable that Hägglund does not once cite Heidegger in Dying for Time, and even more remarkable that Heidegger appears nowhere in the bibliography of his first book, Radical Atheism. For starters, Heidegger’s claim that “Being is time”— his understanding of time as the condition for the possibility of care, care as the basis for disclosure, and disclosure as the event in which “Being comes to presence”—are all claims that Hägglund intimately echoes, albeit in psychoanalytic terms, in his new book. Hägglund even borrows one of Heidegger’s most significant phrases —”always already” (immer noch) — and in a sentence that is almost word for word Heidegger: “The pathos of Woolf’s moments of living stems from the fact that they are always already moments of dying“.

I mention Heidegger as an obvious candidate for Hägglund to confront from within the European tradition, but it would be as significant for him to wrestle with thinkers from other traditions such as Lao Tze, Nagarjuna, and Sri Abhinavagupta, to name just a few. These sages do not just make theoretical claims that challenge “the logic of chronolibido,” but experiential ones. Such an encounter might help us understand why so many critics — mistakenly, in Hägglund’s view —equate “epiphany and aesthetic revelation […] with a supposed experience of timelessness”. Perhaps what these critics gesture at, even if their language is “logically” imprecise, is that by becoming aware of temporality itself, we become more capable of experiencing the sublimity of each moment in its singularity, irrepeatability, and irreplaceability, what some Buddhists call suchness.

In the end, Hägglund confirms for us in 197 pages, what the poet Robert Hass tells us in two lines in his poem “Meditation at Lagunitas“:

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.

Hägglund’s book explores, in its own way, Hass’s suggestion that

because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.

But that is perhaps where philosopher and poet part company.

After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves:
justice, pine, hair, woman, you and I.

For Hass, the realization that everything dissolves—(“chronolibido”)—is not the final word, but only the mid-point of the journey. The poem’s last word, even if, and precisely though its meaning must dissolve, is still blackberry. For Hass, the recognition of chronolibido leads not to austere prohibitions against the desire for fullness, but a delight in the talismanic splendor and vitality of things, and the desire to name them, in their mutability. The poet is less interested in formally diagnosing his desire for fullness as “dissimulation” or “contradicted from within” than he is in experiencing the fullness of desire.

What the example of the poet reveals is perhaps not a way out of the double bind, so much as a way into it. By contrast, what Hägglund seems to give us is a merely formal account of why there is no way out. Yet perhaps Hägglund, the logician, is himself contradicted from within by the liturgical kernel that thrives in his own desire for a name — a signifier that can linger long enough to masquerade as transcendental: “chronolibido.”


Zohar Atkins is reading for a DPhil in Theology at Balliol College, Oxford. He was the winner of the 2012 Oxonian Review Poetry Competition.