In his recent book Dying for Time, Yale Professor of Comparative Literature Martin Hägglund has articulated a philosophical understanding of our experience of life and death that he has developed over at least the last decade on the basis of a powerful reading of Derrida’s thought enriched by a sustained engagement with Heidegger, psychoanalysis, and classic authors of modern literature such as Proust, Woolf, and Nabokov.
Hägglund’s major philosophical contribution is the concept of chronolibido, which he characterizes the mutual implication of chronophilia, or the love of time, and chronophobia, or the fear of time. Against the philosophical tradition spanning from Plato to psychoanalysis, which implicates our fear of death with the desire for immortality or permanence, Hägglund insists that our desire for permanence is not a desire for immortality but for survival, that is the desire to keep on living even while subjected to the potential of losing what we hold most dear.
When a father says, for example, that he wishes his child will live forever, or a mother says she wishes that her child would forever remain how he is right now, Hägglund argues that this wish is in fact opposed to a desire for immortality. While philosophical and religious traditions have figured immortality and eternity as a state of timelessness, the parents’ claims dissimulate an entirely different desire: namely, that their child survive, that he go on living in time, which is in every way a process of growing, changing, and necessarily being exposed to loss.
I have spent a long time struggling with Hägglund’s ideas, from the seminar rooms of the University at Buffalo to my intervention and his response in a symposium and volume dedicated to his first book in English, Radical Atheism. Hägglund’s articulations of his position in Dying for Time have led me to a point where the differences that we’ve often discussed over the last ten years have been reduced to a breath, and perhaps even to only one of terminology.
At a conference a few years ago in Buffalo, after Krzysztof Ziarek gave an exposition of some major terms in Heidegger’s thought, Hägglund asked him to clarify what possible difference a proper or an authentic relationship to one’s death could make in how one actually lives one’s life. In response to a question I later posed about that exchange, Hägglund seemed to agree that Derrida’s repeated critique of the distinction between the authentic and inauthentic registers in Heidegger should not be read as a repudiation of the difference between doing philosophy more or less correctly. Nevertheless he insisted that he did not see how producing a more accurate philosophical description of our relation to temporality could resonate with everyday life, as Heidegger seems to imply with his language of resoluteness and authentic being-toward-death.
However, I believe that the philosophical difference that Hägglund has articulated does in fact entail an ethical difference, and that it indicates a kind of comportment in everyday life that approximates a belief structure I have identified with certain forms of moderate religious practice. I am also convinced that interpretation of the formative texts that have led us to these positions, be they the writings of Borges and Lacan or of Proust and Derrida, is secondary to how we articulate the positions themselves, and I believe that Hägglund would agree.
If religious moderation is characterized by a fundamental mistrust or refusal to believe in what I call the code of codes, that is, the belief that the total knowledge of the universe is somehow already written and lying in wait for us to discover, then it is animated by the same philosophical insight as is chronolibido: an understanding of life as not subordinated to some absolute endpoint or ultimate goal of eternity or immortality, but rather as attaining its value always in relationship to and against the image of its constant passing and always potential loss.
That Hägglund also believes attentiveness to chronolibido makes a difference in everyday life is evident in Dying for Time. As he writes there, “Accordingly the affective experience of being alive—which Woolf explicitly seeks to call forth through her aesthetic practice—depends for its effect on a chronolibidinal investment. If we are moved by how Woolf records singular moments, it is because we care about the fate of a mortal life that may be lost.”
If something as fundamental as the affective experience of being alive can be dependent on a philosophical attitude or an aesthetic practice, it makes sense that the same attitude can affect private decisions, social behaviors, and ultimately can have political consequences, in addition to having profound implications for our aesthetic experiences and interpretations. In the end, Dying for Time is also a clarion call for the relevance of philosophy, and reading, to life, and to how we live it.