Dying for Time
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Dying for Time

Martin Hägglund, Martin Hägglund

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Dying for Time

Martin Hägglund, Martin Hägglund

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Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Vladimir Nabokov transformed the art of the novel in order to convey the experience of time. Nevertheless, their works have been read as expressions of a desire to transcend time—whether through an epiphany of memory, an immanent moment of being, or a transcendent afterlife. Martin Hägglund takes on these themes but gives them another reading entirely. The fear of time and death does not stem from a desire to transcend time, he argues. On the contrary, it is generated by the investment in temporal life. From this vantage point, Hägglund offers in-depth analyses of Proust's Recherche, Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, and Nabokov's Ada.Through his readings of literary works, Hägglund also sheds new light on topics of broad concern in the humanities, including time consciousness and memory, trauma and survival, the technology of writing and the aesthetic power of art. Finally, he develops an original theory of the relation between time and desire through an engagement with Freud and Lacan, addressing mourning and melancholia, pleasure and pain, attachment and loss. Dying for Time opens a new way of reading the dramas of desire as they are staged in both philosophy and literature.

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CHAPTER 1
Memory
Proust
More than a year after her funeral, he understands that she is dead. During the past year, he has often spoken and thought of her; he has even supposedly mourned her. But he has not understood that she is dead. Then, one evening as he bends down to take off his boots, he is seized by the visceral memory of how she once assisted him in the same task. The repetition of the physical sensation not only recalls the past event but also resuscitates the self he was at the time—the one who sought refuge in her and who now comes back with his intense desire to be in her arms. This past self does not yet know of her death and still adheres to the time when they were together in all its concretion. For this very reason, he comes to experience the fact of her extinction all the more forcefully. On the one hand, the return of his past self makes him remember the impact of her “living reality” (4:155/3:153); the sense of her “being alive, real, swelling my heart to bursting” (4:156/3:155).1 On the other hand, it is precisely the proximity of her living being that makes him understand that she is dead: “it was only at this instant—more than a year after her funeral, on account of the anachronism which so often prevents the calendar of facts from coinciding with that of our feelings—that I had just learned she was dead” (4:155/3:153).
This scene from Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu will reverberate throughout my reading of his work. The protagonist and narrator Marcel recalls an evening at a hotel room in the seaside resort Balbec, when he was overwhelmed by the memory of his dead grandmother.2 The scene belongs to a section called Les intermittences du coeur, a title that Proust first planned to use for the novel as a whole. While the novel title changed, the experience of involuntary memory—and the intermittences of the heart that it records—remains central to the Recherche. Indeed, the notion of involuntary memory is generally held to be the hermeneutic key to the novel and the search for an aesthetic vocation that pervades it. From early childhood, Marcel wants to become a writer, but he is plagued by doubts about his talent. Not until the end of the Recherche does he discover what the subject of his book should be, namely, his own life as he comes to understand it through the experience of involuntary memory.
The decisive aesthetic revelation is glossed at length in the last volume of the Recherche, but it is far from clear how it should be understood. The power of involuntary memory hinges on how it transforms the relation between the current self that remembers and the former self that is being remembered. In a voluntary memory, the current self is the active agent that ascribes meaning to the former self. Thus, when Marcel’s voluntary memory recalls his grandmother, he remembers that he loved her but not how it felt, since he has become a different self who does not need her in the same way. In contrast, the experience of involuntary memory allows his former self to become active once again. Rather than being passively subjected to the perspective of the current self, the former self emerges with its singular experience as it was given in the past: “The self that I was then and which had vanished all that time ago, was once again so close to me that I seemed to hear still the words that had come immediately before” (4:156/3:154). The basic structure of involuntary memory is the same in all the cases recounted by Marcel. An identical sensation (of uneven cobblestones, the sound of a spoon, the taste of a madeleine) recurs at two different times and causes a past self to be resuscitated. The question, however, is why the experience of involuntary memory is of such importance for Marcel, why it makes him believe in his ability as a writer and gives him the idea for his book.3
The established answer in Proust scholarship is that the experience of involuntary memory reveals a timeless essence. According to Samuel Beckett’s influential study, “the Proustian solution” consists in “the negation of Time and Death, the negation of Death because the negation of Time.”4 Beckett’s book on Proust was published in 1931, but across all the developments in Proust scholarship the account of his basic ontological commitments has remained remarkably constant. In different variations, Proust’s major readers reiterate that the Recherche expresses a desire to transcend temporal finitude. For Georges Poulet, Marcel’s aesthetic experience reveals “an essential self, liberated from time and contingency, a primal and perpetual being, the creator of itself,” so that “the existence traveling in search of its essence finds it in timelessness.”5 When Marcel in the last volume “regains” time through the experience of involuntary memory, he effectively gains access to a realm that is exempt from time. In Poulet’s formula: “time regained is time transcended” (320). The same figure of thought recurs in Paul Ricoeur, for whom “the revelation of art” leads to an “exaltation of the extratemporal” and allows one to reconcile time lost with the overcoming of time in aesthetic experience.6 Gerard Genette, in his turn, argues that “the difference caused by the final revelation, the decisive experience of involuntary memory and aesthetic vocation” has a structural similarity to “certain forms of religious literature, like Saint Augustine’s Confessions: the narrator does not simply know more, empirically, than the hero: he knows in the absolute sense, he understands the Truth.”7 René Girard is even more emphatic and claims that Proust’s novel “espouses the Christian structure of redemption more perfectly than the carefully planned efforts of many conscientious Christian artists.”8 While Girard concedes that Proust was not a confessional Christian, he holds that the revelation of involuntary memory fulfills the same function as a religious revelation: “Marcel knows that his body is going to die, but this does not trouble him, for his spirit has just been resurrected in memory. And this new resurrection, unlike the first one, is permanent and fruitful: it will be the foundation of the great work of art which Marcel had despaired of writing” (7). What is at stake in the Recherche would therefore be the conversion to an aesthetic religion. After having been led astray by the desires and fears of mortal life, Marcel at last finds the immortal Truth of art.
The above readings can indeed find support in the text. In several places, Marcel presents his experience of involuntary memory—and the aesthetic revelation that is connected to it—as a transcendence of temporal finitude. Through the experience of involuntary memory, Marcel claims to have discovered “the eternal man” in himself (6:227/4:497), an “extra-temporal being” who resides “outside of time” (6:179/4:450) and consequently has no reason to fear death: “We can understand how the word ‘death’ has no meaning for him; situated outside time, what should he fear from the future?” (6:181/4:451). I will argue, however, that these remarks are contradicted by the logic of Marcel’s own text. The experience of involuntary memory does not yield an identity that is exempt from time. On the contrary, it highlights a constitutive temporal difference at the heart of the self. While a past self is retrieved through involuntary memory, the one who remembers can never be identical to the one who is remembered.
Furthermore, as we saw in the scene with which I began, it is precisely by resuscitating a past self that involuntary memory makes vividly clear that the past is irredeemably lost. One of the few readers to address this problem is Gilles Deleuze. While pointing out that Marcel’s mourning of his grandmother may seem different from the other experiences of involuntary memory—since it “makes us feel a painful disappearance and constitutes the sign of a Time lost forever instead of giving us the plenitude of the Time we regain”9—Deleuze argues that the same negativity is at work in all involuntary memories. Even the most ecstatic experiences of involuntary memory recall the death of the past, so the joy of involuntary memory gives way “to a sentiment of collapse, of irreparable loss, in which the old sensation is pushed back into the depths of lost time” (20).
For Deleuze, however, the temporal finitude of involuntary memory entails that it has an “inferior” status. Involuntary memory is bound to the time of finite life and must therefore be transcended by the “eternal” time of art. According to Deleuze, “the superiority of art over life consists in this: all the signs we meet in life are still material signs, and their meaning, because it is always in something else, is not altogether spiritual” (41). In contrast, the signs of art are immaterial because they find their meaning in “an ideal essence” (13) that does not depend on anything other than itself. “As long as we discover a sign’s meaning in something else, matter still subsists, refractory to spirit. On the contrary, art gives us the true unity: unity of an immaterial sign and of an entirely spiritual meaning. The essence is precisely this unity of sign and meaning as it is revealed in the work of art” (40). Deleuze is quite clear that this spiritual unity requires the sublation of time in eternity. In opposition to “passing time, which alters beings and annihilates what once was,” Deleuze posits “an absolute, original time, an actual eternity that is affirmed in art” (17). The crucial move is to transcend the passage of time—which Deleuze describes as “time wasted” on being worldly and being in love with what passes away—in favor of the eternal spirit that is affirmed in creating a work of art.
Deleuze’s supposedly heterodox reading of Proust thus reinforces the most orthodox understanding of his work, namely, that the guiding vision of the Recherche is the transcendence of time through the eternity of art. Deleuze famously asserts that the Recherche is about the future rather than the past, but the future in question adheres to the traditional notion of a telos. Indeed, Deleuze elaborates a strictly teleological reading of Proust, where everything is oriented toward “the final revelation of art” (65) that purportedly transcends time and death.
All versions of the teleological reading appeal to the last volume of the Recherche, which Girard eloquently describes as “the choir toward which all architectural lines converge and from which they all originate” (10). Yet for all the importance ascribed to the last volume, the proponents of the teleological reading are remarkably silent with regard to what actually happens in the closing pages of the book. Rather than celebrating aesthetic redemption, Marcel is preoccupied by how brain damage or various accidents may prevent him from completing his great work of literature. “It needed only the car I would take to crash into another for my body to be destroyed,” Marcel observes, “and for my mind, from which life would be withdrawn, to be forced to abandon forever the new ideas which at this very moment, not having had the time to put them in the securer surroundings of a book, it was anxiously keeping locked up within its quivering, protective, but fragile pulp” (6:347/4:614). Instead of exempting him from death, Marcel’s sense of literary vocation thus increases his fear of death. “I felt myself enhanced by the work I carried within me,” he writes, but “feeling myself the bearer of a work of literature made the idea of an accident in which I might meet my death seem much more dreadful” (6:346/4:613–14). An accident does indeed happen to Marcel after his aesthetic revelation, as he falls in a staircase and suffers from memory loss. Marcel insists, however, that “an accident affecting the brain was not even necessary” (6:347/4:614) for his memory to be threatened. Rather than positing himself as a being outside of time who recalls the past to perfection, he portrays himself as “a hoarder [un thésauriseur] whose strong-box had a hole in it through which the riches were progressively disappearing. For a while there existed a self which deplored the loss of these riches and tried to marshal the memory to resist it, but soon I felt that the memory, as it contracted, took this self with it” (6:347/4:615). Far from redeeming this temporal finitude of memory, Marcel’s aesthetic revelation and his investment in writing make him all the more aware of the threat of mortality. Marcel has discovered that his life is the “rich mining-basin” for the work of art he wants to create, but he is seized by fear because his death will entail “the disappearance not only of the one mineworker capable of extracting these minerals, but also of the mineral deposit itself” (6:346–47/4:614).
Both the subject and the subject matter of the book are thus destructible and no power of art can offer an antidote to the radical mortality of life. On the contrary, Marcel maintains that “no doubt my books too, like my mortal being, would eventually die, one day. . . . Eternal duration is no more promised to books than it is to men” (6:353/4:620–21).10 It follows that writing never can transcend temporal finitude but only serve as a resistance to and postponement of death. Comparing his position as a writer to that of Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights, Marcel points out that “I would need a good number of nights, perhaps a hundred, perhaps a thousand. And I would be living with the anxiety of not knowing whether the Master of my destiny, less indulgent than the Sultan Shahriyar, when I broke off my story each morning, would stay my death sentence, and permit me to take up the continuation again the following evening” (6:353/4:620).
The desire that drives Marcel to write is therefore not a desire for immortality but a desire for survival. The desire for survival is a desire to live on as mortal, since the death that one defends against in the movement of survival is internal to the life that is defended. On the one hand, to survive is to keep the memory of a past and thus to resist forgetting. On the other hand, to survive is to live on in a future that separates itself from the past and opens it to being forgotten. Marcel can only protect his past by exposing it to a future that may erase it, but which also gives it the chance to live on.
The desire for survival is on display throughout the Recherche, but it has never, to my knowledge, been analyzed as such by Proust critics. To the extent that Marcel’s articulation of an essential mortality has been recognized, it has not been employed to call into question the desire for immortality that is regarded as fundamental to the concluding aesthetic vision of the novel. A telling example is Malcolm Bowie’s acclaimed and indeed brilliant study Proust Among the Stars. On the one hand, Bowie rehearses the traditional teleological reading of the novel, where Proust is seen as providing a “convincing answer” to the riddle of temporality: “In due course, time will be redeemed and the dying creature’s messianic hopes will be fulfilled.”11 According to this reading, “the plot leads slowly toward a grandly orchestrated redemptive view” (62) and the experience of involuntary memory offers “a celestial exit from loss and waste” (65). On the other hand, Bowie offers an incisive critical resistance to this “supposedly overriding ontological programme of the novel” (6) and seeks to highlight structures in the book that do not adhere to the teleological schema. As Bowie emphasizes, even “the last cadence of the book, its last well-made proposition, is a call back to the unredeemable temporal process which makes writing possible. At the close, closure is most to be resisted” (67). Paradoxically, however, the latter observation does not lead Bowie to challenge the legitimacy of the teleological reading. Bowie provides deeply insightful readings of the theme of temporality and mortality in Proust, but he does not employ his observations to provide a new analysis of the aesthetic presented in the last volume or to undercut Marcel’s supposed vision of immortality and redemption. Rather, Bowie maintains two positions that are mutually exclusive: “The Platonic dream of eternal life is not countermanded by these mesmerizing images of mortality at work upon the human frame. The redemptive power of art and the vanity of art are both to be recognized and no resolution between them is to be sought” (318).
In contrast, my chronolibidinal reading of Proust will seek to demonstrate that the so-called desire for immortality is contradicted from within by the desire for survival. The chronolibidinal conception of desire holds the key to a new reading of both the aesthetics that Marcel presents in the last volume and the perennial Proustian themes of time, self, and memory. Indeed, the logic of chronolibido is not simply an extrinsic theory to be applied to Proust’s text; it is intrinsic to his own writing, which exhibits remarkable insights into the chronolibidinal constitution of desire.
A good place to begin is a scene in the second volume of the Recherche. The young Marcel has just arrived in Balbec for the first time, and he is trying to fall asleep in an unfamiliar hotel room (the same room where he will come to mourn his grandmother years later). Plagued by his nervous disposition, he is unable to feel at home in the new room because of his attachment to the room he has left behind in Paris. Marcel explains that “the anguish and alarm I felt when lying beneath a ceiling that was unknown and too high was nothing but the protest of my surviving attachment to a ceiling that was known and lower”; an attachment that was “in revolt at being confronted with a future which had already taken place, in which there was no role for it” (2:250–51/2:32). The operative anxiety here is not only an anxiety over having abandoned his room in Paris but also an anxiety that he will abandon his attachment to that room, that he will become attached to other rooms and thereby betray the affective commitments of his present self.
The attachment to a particular room—and the resistance to letting go of this attachment—may seem like a trivial example of the problem of desire. Marcel, however, regards it as symptomatic of a pathos that is at the heart of any libidinal attachment. When Marcel loves someone, he fears not only external factors (e.g., that the beloved may betray him) but also his own internal ability to have a change of heart. To cease to love someone is for Marcel not simply an alteration within a self that persists as the same; it is to become another self whose life depends on the death of the former self. This temporality of the self is a persistent theme throughout the novel. The temporality that makes Marcel a unique, irreplaceable being is also what makes him liable to betray himself and become someone else than the one he has been. Consequently, in being bound by love, Marcel is haunted not only by the possibility that the beloved may leave him behind but also by the possibility that he may leave himself behind:
The fear of a future deprived of the faces and voices of those we love, those who today give us our dearest happiness, this fear, far from being dispelled, is made worse by the thought that the pain of this deprivation is to be compounded by something which at the moment seems even more unbearable—our no longer being affected by it as a pain, but being indifferent to it—for that would mean our self had changed, and not just that we had lost the delight in our parents’ presence, the charm of a mistress, the warmth of a friend; it would mean that our affection for them...

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