Proust, Nabokov, and intertemporal choice

In a recent post on whether the Fed can credibly pledge itself to higher inflation, Paul Krugman wittingly notes that “commitments are hard, especially in the future.” Making credible promises is a classic decision-making problem well beyond monetary policy, with a large literature in economics (e.g. Kydland’s and Prescott’s classic article) and in the social sciences more broadly (see, for example, this book). In fact, the root of the problem, namely the temporal dimension of choices, is a surprisingly common occurrence even in everyday life. An article on procrastination (aptly titled “Later”) in the October 11 issue of The New Yorker gives many examples and sums up effectively two key arguments. The first is the idea of a “divided self:”

[The] person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person […] In that sense, the first step to dealing with procrastination isn’t admitting that you have a problem. It’s admitting that your “you”s have a problem.

The second argument is that a solution to this problem is self-binding, namely using “external tools and techniques to help the parts of our selves that want to work.” The classic example, discussed at length by Jon Elster (for instance in this book), is Ulysses asking to be tied to the mast to resist the irresistible voices of the Sirens.

The reason I am writing this is that several years ago I came across two literary passages that illustrate the two points perfectly, and this looks like a good time to share them.

First, Proust on the “divided self” (Du côté de chez Swann, Paris, Folio Gallimard, 1987, p. 371):

Jadis ayant souvent pensé avec terreur qu’un jour il cesserait d’être épris d’Odette, [Swann] s’était promis d’être vigilant et, dès qu’il sentirait que son amour commencerait à le quitter, de s’accrocher à lui, de le retenir. Mais voici qu’à l’affaiblissement de son amour correspondait simultanément un affaiblissement du désir de rester amoureux. Car on ne peut pas changer, c’est-à-dire devenir une autre personne, tout en continuant à obéir aux sentiments de celle qu’on n’est plus.

And here is Nabokov on self-binding (King, Queen, Knave, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1968, p. 86):

Martha had decided that tonight he would kiss her for the first time. Characteristically, she chose one of her monthly days lest she succumb too soon, and in the wrong spot, to a yearning that otherwise she could no longer resist.

Isn’t that beautiful?

PS: Nabokov being Nabokov, “he” is Martha’s nephew.

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