Terror and Beauty: Martin Hägglund’s “Dying for Time”

THE SWEDISH PHILOSOPHER and literary scholar Martin Hägglund has swiftly established himself at the center of some of today’s most lively intellectual debates. Since the publication of his pioneering book Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life in 2008, Hägglund has played a pivotal role in the ongoing appraisal of deconstruction’s place in the humanities. Even before the death of its founder Jacques Derrida in 2004, deconstruction — broadly, the practice of overturning implicit “oppositions” in texts, or indeed in entire systems of thought — had been absorbed by a diverse array of academic disciplines. During the last decades of his life, Derrida’s ideas spread not only to literary and cultural studies, but as far afield as legal theory and even theology. There was even talk of a “religious turn” in deconstruction, and in Derrida’s work in particular.

Radical Atheism, a bold and iconoclastic book, argued that “all attempts to assimilate Derrida’s thinking to a religious framework” were hopelessly “wrongheaded.” Christian thinkers like John D. Caputo had drawn comparisons between Derrida’s discourse and the similarly slippery language of apophatic or “negative” theology, in which words can only circle around a God whose name remains ineffable. Hägglund, however, held that such religious readings ignored Derrida’s deep commitment to atheism. Far from gesturing at an ungraspable transcendence (the “unknown God” of apophaticism), Hägglund demonstrated that deconstruction was firmly focused on the finitude of human life. Not only that, but religion, in reaching toward such transcendence — in its “desire for immortality” — was itself simply a “dissimulation” of a deeper “desire for survival.” That is, religion may strive to surpass the transience of temporal life, but, in so doing, it discloses an inescapable investment in it. In the last analysis, religion is rooted in our primal drive to go on living.

Derrida’s fans and critics alike are fond of quoting his famous claim, put forward in his 1967 book Of Grammatology, that “there is nothing outside of the text” (“il n’y a pas de hors-texte”), and for many his name remains related to a somewhat outmoded “linguistic turn” in philosophy, much scorned by metaphysically-inclined thinkers like Alain Badiou and Quentin Meillassoux. In contrast, Radical Atheism redescribed Derrida as a thinker for whom “there can be nothing beyond mortality,” and who was less involved with “language for language’s sake” than with life as it is lived. The political theorist Ernesto Laclau remarked that Hägglund’s argument had approached “the zero degree of deconstruction,” a bottom line that could not be “assimilated” to theology or any other supervening discourse. Indeed, in Hägglund’s hands deconstruction isn’t reductively “discursive” at all. Instead, it’s aligned with the most essential level of human experience: that of living and dying, and of the desires to which they give rise.

Hence, Hägglund could be said to have brought deconstruction “back to life.” His latest book, Dying for Time, further develops his revitalized version of Derrida’s thought. This time around though, Hägglund hones in on an area rather less abstract than theology. Dying for Time is largely a work of literary criticism, concerned with what another deconstructive critic, Jonathan Culler, once called “the concrete and exemplary dramas of literature.” Unlike theology or philosophy, literature can be considered “concrete and exemplary” insofar as it enacts and illuminates lived experience, tracking the texture of our everyday desires and dilemmas. And crucially, for Hägglund, deconstructive criticism, too, must keep close to this texture. As he states at the outset of Dying for Time, deconstruction “is not simply an extrinsic theory” that can be “applied” to literary texts; instead, it must be “derived” from those texts, just as they are themselves derived from our experience of “fundamental questions of life and death, time and space, memory and forgetting.”

Dying for Time revolves around close readings of canonical novels by Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Vladimir Nabokov. Broadly speaking, these three novelists could be called “modernist,” in at least one sense: each sought to reconfigure literature’s representation of time. Modernism, as Baudelaire memorably remarked, tends to express an essential tension between “the transient, the fleeting,” on one side, and “the eternal and the immutable” on the other. On the one hand, modernist writers strive to isolate specific instants or sensations: what Woolf called “moments of being,” and Joyce “epiphanies.” On the other, such moments may seem to evoke an otherworldly eternity. For example, Joyce identifies his epiphanies with earthly reality; they are “the most evanescent of moments,” fragile and fleeting, like life itself. Yet he also hints that these epiphanies amount to “a spiritual manifestation” of immortal bliss, as is implicit in the idea’s religious root. Hägglund’s contention is that literary critics have been misled by this theological impulse into finding a false transcendence within modernism. As he argues, “epiphany still tends to be aligned with a supposed experience of timelessness”; thus, modernism “continues to be read in accordance with a desire for immortality.”

To make modernism committedly mortal, despite its apparent desire to be otherwise: this is Hägglund’s aim in Dying for Time. His argument hinges on a newly minted concept he calls (recalling Derrida’s own fondness for striking coinages) “chronolibido.” Put simply, the theory of chronolibido recapitulates Radical Atheism’s claim that all desire, especially the religious desire for immortality, is bound up with a basic “investment in survival.” Even when we seek to transcend time, we do so because our time-bound lives can be lost. Our finitude is the foundation for all our desires, and all our fears. In fact, desire and fear — philia and phobia — form the flip sides of chronolibido, as Hägglund explains:

My key argument concerns the co-implication of chronophobia and chronophilia. The fear of time and death […] is generated by the investment in a life that can be lost. It is because one is attached to a temporal being (chronophilia) that one fears losing it (chronophobia) […] It is because the beloved can be lost that one seeks to keep it, and it is because the experience can be forgotten that one seeks to remember it.

So when we wish, like Plato did, to step out of time into a state of eternal repose, we don’t realize why we wish this. We cannot wish for, or care for, anything without a prior awareness that nothing will last.

Hägglund’s approach to Proust provides perhaps the best example of “chronolibidinal” criticism in action. First he surveys almost all of the landmark studies of À la recherche du temps perdu, and finds them wanting. (One of the joys of Hägglund’s work is his willingness to venture this sort of sweeping, bravura critique.) From Georges Poulet to Gilles Deleuze, Proust scholarship has, says Hägglund, mistaken the famed “involuntary memories” of Marcel, the book’s protagonist, for revelations of a “timeless essence.” What’s more, when Marcel himself speaks of memory as “extra-temporal,” Hägglund counters that such claims “are contradicted by the logic of the text.” This is a classic deconstructive move: reading a text against itself, so as to deflate the received ideas of other readers. For Hägglund, then, even when Marcel’s memories appear to free him from time and death, their effect is in fact to “recall him to the pathos of mortal life.” This pathos reaches its peak when memory shades into mourning, as in a passage where Marcel remembers his dead grandmother:

Lost forever; I could not understand, and I struggled to endure the pain of this contradiction: on the one hand, an existence, a tenderness, surviving in me such as I had known them … on the other hand, as soon as I had relived, as though present, that felicity, to feel it traversed by the certainty, springing up like a repeated physical pain, of a nothingness that had effaced my image of that tenderness, had destroyed that existence.

In Proust’s novel, Hägglund writes, memories of life are always also memories of loss. Even the most ecstatic recollection returns us to a world in which the remembered object is no more. Moreover, this is as true of our memories of ourselves as it is of our memories of others. Our lifetimes, too, are traversed by “nothingness,” since every moment we live through “must extinguish itself as soon as it comes.” Time is always passing away, each successive second negating the one before, such that “the present itself can come into being only by ceasing to be.” In this sense, “extinction is at work in survival itself.” Thus the epiphanies we find in Proust do not transcend time. Rather, these memories retrieve the ambivalent rhythms of persistence and disappearance that animate actual life. Proust’s real revelation is not that memory makes us immortal, but that life is at all times destructible.

In a subsequent chapter, Woolf’s “moments of being” meet a similar treatment. Time and again, Woolf’s writing tries (in the words of her classic novel To the Lighthouse) “to crystallize and transfix the moment.” In that book, the painter Lily Briscoe seeks “to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, it’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.” But to fill fleeting sights and sounds with significance is not to imbue them with “timeless presence,” as some readers of Woolf have assumed. Woolf’s privileged moments, like Proust’s memories, can’t help but reveal “how even the most immediate presence passes away.” Not only this: in Woolf temporality becomes traumatic, brutally attuned to the terror of transience. Clarissa Dalloway lives her life as a chain of charged moments that leave her full of “divine vitality” and at the same time “alone against the appalling night […] suddenly shrivelled and aged.” For Hägglund the two go hand in hand, since “the pathos of Woolf’s moments of living stems from the fact that they are always already moments of dying” (emphasis Hägglund’s). So, Woolf shows us how living in time is at once chronophilic and chronophobic; her characters’ encounters with existence are: 

not moments of timeless plenitude, but [they] testify to the inherent traumatism of temporal life. They may intensify one’s attachment to life […] but they may equally well shatter one’s attachment to life and make survival unbearable.

Hägglund’s analysis of Nabokov highlights writing itself, an act that could be considered continuous with our lived experience of time. Since it attempts to preserve its content for posterity, writing is clearly a chronolibidinal practice par excellence. But while Nabokov’s scholarly commentators have supposed that “his writing is driven by a desire to transcend time,” Hägglund has a more nuanced model in mind. For him, all writing is radically corruptible: to put pen to paper is to risk slips, mistakes, misinterpretations.

Nabokov’s late novel Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle is a case in point. The book recounts the reunion of Van and Ada, two siblings whose incestuous love story is told by means of Van’s memoirs. But what Van has written is incomplete, and is incessantly interrupted by notes and revisions — his own, Ada’s, and those of an unnamed editor. “Far from redeeming corruptibility,” therefore, writing here “highlights that inscription is inseparable from the risk of erasure.” Under such conditions, even Van’s most treasured memories — like that of when he and Ada first made love — dissipate into doubt and vagueness: “Summer 1960? Crowded hotel somewhere between Ex and Ardez?” When writing records and recalls times like these, the very “process of preservation” prolongs their exposure to “the threat of oblivion.” In this way, rather than transcending time, to write only ever deepens our investment in a double-edged struggle of “survival” and “disappearance.”

Dying for Time delivers a revolutionary reading of the ways in which modernist writers express elemental aspects of human existence. In the process, it disproves the idea that deconstruction — or, indeed, literary theory per se — is always off-puttingly arid and abstract. Hägglund’s approach is absolutely the opposite, attuned at all times to “the impossibility of being indifferent to survival.” Whether or not there is nothing outside of the text, Hägglund puts texts back in touch with “the terror and beauty” of being briefly alive; of being able to “suffer, lose things, and die,” and thereby knowing “what it means for something to be precious.” This is a book that brings literature and theory into forceful collision with life’s underlying realities. The resulting insight is resolutely atheistic: neither art nor thought allows access to another world of timeless perfection. Instead, each is irreducibly interwoven with the world in which we live. Some say that literary theory is dead, out of fashion, a thing of the past. But Hägglund shows how it can and should go on living: in unflinching fidelity to how it feels to be human.