This essay explores post-Kantian challenges to the Aristotelian proposition and the rationalist model of proof. The first part focuses on Friedrich Schlegel’s efforts to develop a discourse that could reconcile the demand to speak freely with the demand to speak the truth. The second part shows how Edgar Allan Poe and Stéphane Mallarmé continue Schlegel’s project as they grapple with Romantic ideas about wit and the autonomy of poetic language.
The Romantic Sentence
1. In a deceptively simple pronouncement that succinctly encapsulates the Enlightenment understanding of language, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac declares: “every science requires a special language because every science has its own ideas. It seems that one ought to begin by composing this language, but people begin by speaking and writing and the language remains to be composed” (Le commerce et le gouvernement, qtd. in Braudel 234). Although Condillac does not pursue the ramifications of these remarks, they bear further consideration. If a science is to be a process of genuine investigation and discovery rather than the presentation of predetermined results articulated within existing paradigms—if it is to speak a “special language” of true inquiry rather than rehearsing the rhetorical gestures of established systems—it must call for a discourse that is at present no more than a hypothesis. Whether or not such a language can or will become a reality may be irrelevant, since the scientific enterprise will never be patient enough to wait and see if its demand for a new discursive field will be met. Far from fashioning its own tongue, a science contents itself with surrogates, and the anticipated language—the language by virtue of which a scientific project would become the singular inquiry that it aspires to be—remains unrealized. Even hazier is the fate of each science’s “own ideas.” Their specificity may be preserved as they are articulated in whatever dialect can be cobbled together, or their uniqueness may remain a fantasy, as chimerical as the “special language” that is never seen to fruition.
2. In this essay, I argue that Friedrich Schlegel’s theory of language emerges within the economy of surrogate tongues that Condillac describes. As is well known, Schlegel finds in Kant the inspiration for an account of poetry as an unconditionally autonomous discourse. What is less often observed is that Schlegel, like his contemporary Hegel, works to unsettle the hegemony of the Aristotelian proposition (logos apophantikos), a sentence—a coordination of subject and predicate—that bears a truth or falsehood. From Descartes and Leibniz to Locke and Hume, the practice of philosophy is the evaluation of such statements. Without some reliance on this basic discursive form, the rigorous investigation of our opinions and beliefs would be impossible. In Kant, this state of affairs begins to change. With the antinomies, the categorical imperative, and his theory of taste, the preeminence of the proposition is severely tested; in many respects, doing philosophy for Kant means trying to unsettle the proposition’s authority. Nevertheless, his understanding of judgment remains at its core a conventional logical model in which the predicate of a subject is affirmed or denied.
3. Hegel goes further, explicitly rejecting traditional propositional thinking in which the subject is a stable element to which various predicates can be added or subtracted in order to fashion statements of truth or falsity. In his doctrine of the “speculative sentence,” it is not simply that the distinction between subject and predicate is erased or that they are melded together into some “higher” unity.  Conceptualized dialectically, subject and predicate are no longer independent terms to be coordinated or distinguished. Instead, they are constitutively transitional elements in an expressive dynamic in which the subject loses and recovers itself in the predicate, but this happens in such a way as to reveal that the substance of what is being articulated is precisely a movement of interruptions, reversals, and repetitions more than the identity of any specific figure or relationship. In Kantian terms, it is as if synthetic and analytic judgments were taking place simultaneously.
4. To analyze a speculative sentence is not to follow a linear trajectory from start to finish. The path is alternately a circle, an oscillation forward and backward, and a series of nearly discontinuous starts and stops. Throughout, the constitutive incompleteness and instability of any given sentence is glaringly on display. No individual formulation can be entirely self-determining, establish itself as the definitive iteration of a series, or have the final word. To the extent that the transitional elements of a speculative sentence do harmonize with one another, any equilibrium is short-lived, and the distinction between subject and predicate reasserts itself in a new statement whose substance is incompatible with the previous one. For Hegel, a sentence is understood “speculatively” precisely insofar as we recognize that it is one of many sentences, or if you like, there are speculative sentences, but there is no speculative sentence.
5. Although Schlegel may appear to go in the opposite direction with his account of an unconditionally autonomous utterance, I intend to show that he shares Hegel’s skepticism about the stability of the sentential form. To begin, I will describe Schlegel’s reconceptualization of the traditional proposition, focusing on his notions of wit and linguistic arbitrariness (Willkür). I will then turn to the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Stéphane Mallarmé, two authors who reflected extensively on the Romantic legacy and its implications for the theory of language. Their texts give us a glimpse of a discourse of Schlegelian perversion in which one may “begin,” as Condillac put it, “by speaking and writing” only insofar as the most basic syntactic and grammatical forms have become foreign and unpredictable.
6. What does it mean for an argument to be invested in its “own” terms rather than in words it has borrowed, as Condillac would have it, from somewhere else? In the course of questioning the hegemony of the proposition, Schlegel challenges the authority of established philosophical terminology, as well. Playing with the vocabularies of his predecessors, he repeatedly casts doubt on the internal consistency and completeness of the nomenclatural schemes from which they emerge. This considerably complicates the discussion, as Schlegel’s texts often seem to lurch back and forth between arguments about words and arguments about syntax and predication, without making it clear whether these analyses are mutually illuminating or incompatible. Schlegel does not simply present words as the “building blocks” of propositions or the parts that make up a whole. At the same time, his critiques of terminological and propositional thinking do appear to be intimately interrelated.
7. At the beginning of Athenaeum fragment 238, Schlegel writes, “There is a kind of poetry whose essence lies in the relation between ideal and real, and which therefore, by analogy to philosophical jargon [Kunstsprache], should be called transcendental poetry” (Fragments 50).  The German Kunstsprache and the English jargon are similarly ambiguous in naming both a precisely calibrated field of terms, i.e., the lexicon of a trade or discipline, and the private word stock of a group, which may seem obscure or impenetrable to outsiders. Jargon is the point at which the demand for verbal exactitude and the aim of finding precisely the right word for what one wants to say shade into confusion or obscurity. A term that proves to be singular in its reference or signification risks losing its claim to semantic generality, and hence its very status as a word, becoming either an impenetrable cipher or a transparent token devoid of any meaning beyond its mechanical application in a particular context. The fantasy of fashioning a language that is definitively one’s own or of appropriating someone else’s vocabulary for one’s own ends turns out to be as much a matter of limiting or destroying meaning as of creating it.
8. In Athenaeum fragment 238, philosophy’s jargon at first appears to assist Schlegel in devising his own jargon of “transcendental poetry.” As the fragment goes on, however, it moves from enumerating the common traits of poetry and philosophy to asserting that transcendental poetry must live up to its new name. In effect, the analogy becomes “aspirational,” that is, a variety of inferences are drawn about what this poetry must be like based on the fact that it now carries this new label. As much authority as has been conferred upon the transcendental, it is analogy itself that seems to be the real force here, albeit an analogy in which the alignment of terms generates correspondences between them rather than the other way around.
9. The violence of precisely this form of argument is a central concern in Athenaeum fragment 82, whose first half reads,
10. Introduced in the first sentence of Athenaeum 82, the fluidity of the phrase “in the sense of” potentially infects every word in the fragment, and it is difficult to ascertain what is being modeled with reference to what. The concepts under consideration—demonstration, deduction, definition—all begin with the letter d, as if Schlegel had opened his dictionary of philosophical terms to a random page and begun filling in the blanks, later turning the page to e and “explanation” when the reservoir of words beginning with d had been exhausted. Of course, these words happen to be some of the key concepts in the thought of Leibniz, who is celebrated in the fragment’s final lines as the “real” philosopher.  For Leibniz, “demonstration” names the foundational philosophical operation by which one attempts to determine a proposition’s status as true or false. Epitomizing the procedure that Schlegel’s fragment debunks, such an evaluation considers the inferences or deductions a statement generates, assisted by definitions, postulates, and theorems that have already been proven. With what Leibniz calls a necessary proposition or “truth of reason,” the assessment of a statement will, in a finite number of steps, arrive at an identity or equivalence such as A is A or 2 + 2 = 4, thereby confirming the statement’s validity; or else it will produce an outright contradiction, revealing the statement to be false. By contrast, with a contingent proposition or “truth of fact” in which what is at issue is a statement about the “infinitely complex individual concepts of contingently existing individuals,” the claim being considered may well be true, but “we can never demonstrate this, nor can the proposition ever be reduced to an equation or identity, [for] the analysis proceeds to infinity, only God being able to see, not the end of the analysis indeed, since there is no end, but the nexus of terms” (Logical 97). Here a conclusion exists only as a phantasmagoric endpoint, a limit to be approached, such that even an infinite number of inferences leave us an infinite number of steps away from a definite result. 
11. If the distinction between necessary and contingent propositions proves less stable than Leibniz implies, truths of reason may periodically give rise to demonstrations that flounder in a “nexus of terms” rather than crystallizing into expressions of equivalence or contradiction. This may not be a terribly destabilizing prospect, for in such cases the discourse will still be grounded in its core definitions, which ought to be exempt from the demonstrations required of propositions. “By definition,” a definition should be a reliably bounded utterance, a sentence or proto-sentence that begins where a demonstration of a truth of reason leaves off, with the affirmation of an identity or equivalence. Schlegel’s concern is that any definition is potentially under suspicion of being an arbitrary alignment of terms disguised as a proposition. On this account, a definition would be a military demonstration that makes no effort to dissimulate its martial character—the first step is the last, and vice versa. This is close to Hume’s critique of rationalist thought, which maintains that the very distinction between definitions and propositions is a fiction, since the latter are analytic in nature and thus constitute covert instantiations of the former.  This would mean, as Hegel might have it, that no proposition is ever as propositional as it proposes itself to be.
12. In exploring these questions, Schlegel makes no attempt to define definition; in another nod to military jargon, he instead “deploys” a quip from the eighteenth-century aphorist Nicolas Chamfort in order to set out the various types of definitions, explaining the genus by enumerating its species: “To [philosophy’s] definitions one could apply what Chamfort says in remarking upon the sort of friends one has in worldly life. There are three kinds of explanations in science: explanations that give us an illumination or an inkling of something; explanations that explain nothing; and explanations that obscure everything” (Fragments 27). Echoing the analogy to philosophical jargon in the opening line of Athenaeum fragment 238, this is an argument by analogy—or rather, by homology: one trio is supposed to elucidate the features of another. Still, the parallels feel tenuous. In “The Cynic’s Breviary,” Chamfort proposes that friends can either love, ignore, or detest us. Although one could certainly make a case for how these three kinds of friendship could be aligned with Schlegel’s three types of explanation, this looks more like a mock comparison than a substantive demonstration; and the fact that Schlegel never explicitly spells out Chamfort’s claims adds to the artificiality of the set-up.
13. As it turns out, any skepticism we may muster proves irrelevant, for we have to make the alignment work if we want to follow Schlegel’s “demonstration.” In a perfect example of the military operation described at the fragment’s outset, we have no choice but to act as if the comparison between types of friends and types of definitions were illuminating. The juxtaposition of elements comes first, and we fill in the connections afterward, as if the substance of the links had been the driving force behind the coordination of the elements in the first place. If in Athenaeum 238 we have to play along with the name that Schlegel bestows on a particular type of poetry, here in Athenaeum 82 we have to play along with the form of analogy itself.
14. The significance of these claims for propositions about contingent individuals becomes clearer as Schlegel’s fragment introduces more Leibnizian terminology: “Correct definitions cannot be improvisational but have to come of themselves; a definition that isn’t witty is worthless, and there are an infinite number of real definitions for every individual” (Fragments 27–8). What Leibniz calls “nominal definitions” are based on clear and distinct knowledge of something and may even enumerate enough defining traits to distinguish that thing from everything else, but they do not confirm the possibility of their object a priori. In contrast, what Leibniz terms “real definitions” do substantiate the possibility of their object a priori because they go beyond an explanation of its core structure and show that it does not rest on any contradiction between concepts or axioms. 
15. Schlegel’s claim that there are an infinite number of real definitions of an individual may appear to be consistent with Leibniz’s claim that contingently existing individuals are infinitely complex.  Each of the infinitely many definitions of an individual that Schlegel envisions, however, is nominal, not real, because in isolation each definition only confirms the possibility of its object a posteriori.  To the question of how one might sum this infinite series of determinations and thus move from the nominal to the real, Schlegel’s answer is wit: “a definition that isn’t witty is worthless.”  For Schlegel, the key feature of a witticism is that it is “completely unconnected with what came before it,” but despite this fact, it somehow invariably stands “in glaring contradiction” to what preceded it (Kritische Ausgabe XII: 393, my translation). A flash of wit is entirely unexpected—it cannot be anticipated or shown to follow logically from what has already been said—but, as if by serendipity, it consistently negates what it follows. Independent of what has taken place and yet utterly at odds with it, wit’s manifestation is impossible. Nonetheless, it is in and through this impossible non-relation of disconnection that wit does bring things together, creating connections on the basis of disjunctions at the same time as it breaks connections that did not previously exist. As Schlegel writes in Athenaeum fragment 37: “Many witty ideas are like the sudden meeting of two friendly thoughts after a long separation” (Fragments 23). Wit reveals resemblances—for instance, between transcendental philosophy and poetry—only insofar as it threatens to undermine one or both of the fields it coordinates, challenging the capacity of each to account for the nature of its correspondences with the other. Witty definitions, in turn, facilitate determinations of individuals that respect their infinite complexity yet delimit them.  These definitions alter what is being defined in the course of defining it, in the process potentially changing the very definition of definition as well.
16. However witty a philosophical demonstration may be, it is always at risk of degenerating into formulaic patterns that remain rhetorically powerful but predictable, or worse, become mere “etiquette.” Whereas Condillac cautions that we are unlikely to outfit our new ideas with a new language, Schlegel warns that the more convincing our proofs become, the more mechanical—and unremarkable—they will seem. This leads him to the bold conclusion of Athenaeum fragment 82:
17. Such an utterance must be witty. As Schlegel writes in another fragment, wit “is like someone who should perform his social duties according to the rules, but instead simply does something” (Fragments 33). Witticisms propose without confirming their capacity to do so, which is why they never become models for future speech acts, even witty ones. They posit “the facts of reflection” without becoming implicated in reflexive gestures that might facilitate inferences about what they have proven or what needs to be demonstrated in their wake. Witticisms are the paradigm of an autonomous claim, yet for this very reason they remain a-paradigmatic. If the rationalist ideal—or fantasy—of precise, transparent communication envisions absolutely stable terms whose content is at once fixed and self-explanatory, witticisms are both anti-demonstrative and anti-definitional. Their significance lies solely in what they do—in the impossible connections they make and the non-existent connections they break.
18. Read with the sentence that precedes it—“Leibniz proposed and Wolff proved”—the final sentence of Athenaeum fragment 82, “Das ist genug gesagt,” can be translated as “Enough said,” or more archly as “Need I say more?”  “Das ist genug gesagt” is, however, more than just a coda to the punchline it follows. Schlegel maintains that if a proposition is to be autonomous, it cannot depend on any supplemental clarification, explanation, or proof. In this sense, “enough said” is the implicit conclusion of all truly unconditioned, unqualified utterances that actually say something rather than prepare us for what will or must subsequently be said. Of course, in being articulated at the end of a fragment that maintains that “enough said” is the message of any genuinely substantive pronouncement, this particular instance of “enough said” threatens to undermine the argument it purports to conclude. Its appearance compromises the completeness of what has come before by suggesting that “enough said” was not implied loudly or clearly enough. The attempt to clarify that enough is enough undoes the tautological certainty of the idiom at the very moment that enough is enough is identified as the basic statement of identity underwriting any verbal assertion. No pronouncement about enough can ever suffice to bring a witty demonstration to a close. “Enough said” will always be both a truth of reason, a truth about the very nature of speech, masquerading as a truth of fact, and a truth of fact, a truth about a contingent utterance and a contingent discourse, masquerading as a truth of reason.
19. “The main point is that one knows something and that one says it.” Is the distinction between knowing and saying sustainable, or is the very need to express oneself, to say what one knows, itself restrictive, amounting to an acknowledgement, however minimal, that what is being said is dependent on at least the possibility of a supplementary explanation or proof that would validate it? In another fragment, Schlegel describes a truly unconstrained discourse that unfolds such that a commitment to continue is never in force. He writes, “Even a friendly conversation that cannot freely break off at any moment, completely arbitrarily [aus unbedingter Willkür], has something illiberal about it” (Fragments 5). This is a call for a language that would be entirely indifferent to the need to continue with, much less complete, any given utterance. No longer simply the punctuation at the end of every pronouncement, “enough said” should inform every word or phrase before it is articulated, meaning, paradoxically, that silence itself may signify that enough has been said.
20. Insofar as each and every verbal element is to be distinguished by the fact that it need never have been expressed because the speaker might have broken off at the previous moment, no utterance can constitute a promise that there is more to come. No instance of a truly free language submits itself to a regulation that would require that it be followed by more language. Syntax and grammar, the norms of narrative, or the logic of philosophical demonstrations—none of these paradigms will necessarily be violated or compromised, but they are all subordinated to the possibility that the discourse may stop at any point for reasons that have nothing to do with grammatical, narrative, or logical dictates.
21. Informed neither by an internal nor an external compulsion on the basis of which its appearance might be legitimated, this is a language of pure choice (Willkür), pure arbitrariness (Willkür).  Crucially, the power to break off at any point completely arbitrarily is not the confirmation of a speaker’s capacity to resist or negate, both of which would be responses to impulses that preceded them rather than instances of spontaneity, evidence of constraint rather than proof of reason’s unfettered freedom in its pursuit of unconditioned praxis. This is why Schlegel maintains that any actual interruption “must still at bottom be simply necessary and rational [vernünftig]; otherwise the whim [Laune] becomes willful [Eigensinn], becomes illiberality, and self-restriction turns into self-destruction” (Fragments 5). To demand that a writer be forever capricious would be to organize the potentiality of pure fancy into a method or posture that was only a step or two away from devolving into the rhetorical etiquette critiqued in Athenaeum fragment 82.
22. According to Schlegel, a truly autonomous sentence simultaneously says “enough said” and “this might not have been said since the discourse could have arbitrarily broken off the sentence before.” This is not simply a language in a perpetual state of becoming, forever nearing the ideal of submitting itself exclusively to the laws it fashions for itself, as Schlegel’s “progressive universal poetry” is often characterized. While Schlegel’s willingness to borrow from Kant and Fichte invites us to gloss his claims in terms of imperatives, promises, and language’s paradoxical positing of its own ground, each of these dynamics risks becoming another form of “illiberality” that compromises the autonomy of an utterance. Similarly, Schlegel cannot be content with Hegel’s insight that any proposition will inevitably generate new statements that counter it, since this ties a statement’s meaningfulness to something other than what it says.
23. In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, various authors grapple with Schlegel’s pure linguistic Willkür and the curious sentential forms it inspires. One of the most far-reaching of these contributions is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, who throughout his career was preoccupied with Kant’s philosophy. Poe’s affinities with Schlegel are nowhere more in evidence than in the short story “The Imp of The Perverse,” the title of which offers an epithet for the darker, more tyrannical side of Schlegel’s notions of autonomy and arbitrariness.
24. Poe’s first-person narrative relates the story of a man who commits a crime to considerable financial advantage and gets off scot-free, leaving everyone convinced that his victim died from natural causes. A few years later, a mysterious impulse drives the narrator to confess, and he recounts his experiences to the reader from his cell only hours before his execution. Prior to revealing his fate, the bulk of the text unfolds as a treatise on philosophical psychology with an almost parodic indulgence in terminological excess and speculative reflections on a “radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment” that is universal to our species, “an innate [. . .] principle of human action, a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term” (827). 
25. The narrator insists that the power of this drive that he settles on terming “perverse” has never been recognized because it serves no need or goal. So strong is our allegiance to utility that if something’s usefulness cannot be identified, we are prone to overlook its existence altogether, however influential it may be.  This line of argument opens into a critique of human self-understanding as such. Recalling the military demonstrations Schlegel diagnoses in rationalist philosophy, Poe’s narrator claims that we begin with a set of premises about God and His aims for humanity and reach our “conclusions” about what people do and why they do it by assuming that their goals and behaviors reflect these divine designs, in effect positing our “results” at the start. This mix of utilitarianism and bad-faith idealism is critiqued in many of Poe’s texts, although here as elsewhere the playful tone makes it difficult to decide just how widespread or consequential these suspect doctrines are supposed to be. 
26. As the blind spot of human self-understanding, such perversity is not simply difficult to talk about—it defines the ways in which people use and abuse language. From the Latin perversus (“turned away from what is right”), perversion has a long history as a linguistic concept, sharing an etymological root with “verse” in the Latin versus, “a turn of the plow” or “a line of writing.” As is often noted, the logic of this nearly-dead metaphor marks off units of poetic text as furrows in a field, each line of verse delimited by the turn into it from the previous one and its subsequent turn into the next. (The Latin vertere, “to turn,” has the sense of “to translate” as well as “to transform.”) In post-classical Latin, a perversio names the reversal of words in a sentence, whereas in medieval Latin it comes to denote a falsification, an erroneous inversion of terms, or even an outright corruption of the text (e.g., a copyist’s error). Poe’s story is thus perched on the uncertain border between a substantive reversal of words or meanings and a mistake. A per-version is a verbal movement that has gone too far, a turn of language that pits the exchanges and substitutions essential to language against language itself such that it ceases to be possible to distinguish between “legitimate” linguistic operations and errors.
27. Emerging where linguistic self-reflexivity becomes linguistic self-diremption, perversity inevitably confounds the discourse on perversity. This is why the narrator’s prime example of being beset by the imp of the perverse involves a “usually curt, precise, and clear” individual who gives in to the desire to “tantalize a listener by circumlocution” (828). Unsurprisingly, this is precisely what the narrator does to his reader, discoursing repetitively about this perverse impulse from as many different perspectives as possible before finally making it clear that he has fallen victim to this primitive, irreducible sentiment not once but twice, first in confessing to his perfect crime and then in trying to tell us about it. Perverse words beget more perverse words and deeds, and it quickly becomes uncertain if there is any other kind.
28. When Poe’s narrator says that he “settles” on “perversion” as his jargon of choice, he indirectly acknowledges that “perversion” is exactly the right word for his discussion, because what is at issue is the always-already-perverted quality of terminology, which inevitably confronts us as the product of one turn too few or too many and therefore as overly transparent or inordinately obscure. A discourse may lay claim to its own words, but only insofar as it abuses them. This is why the narrator, having explicitly questioned the suitability of the word “perversion,” nonetheless has to embrace it, his tale building to the title’s sole appearance in the body of the text as he grandly names himself “one of the many uncounted victims of the Imp of the Perverse” (830). If this right-wrong word was selected “for want of a more characteristic term,” the narrator adds insult to injury by showcasing it via its instantiation in the figure of the imp who ostensibly embodies this uncharacteristic character trait.
29. “The main point is that one knows something and that one says it.” That the unavoidable consequence of this injunction is the perversion of the most fundamental language of the self becomes clear when Poe’s narrator recounts the circumstances of his downfall as he went about town enjoying the fact that he had killed with impunity:
30. In the course of Poe’s story, Schlegel’s Willkür is perverted into perversity, the rightest wrong word for a basic human drive that is not human at all, and perversity is “in turn” perverted into the “the imp of the perverse.” With the standards for “enough said” hopelessly confounded, one anticipates that there are more, and potentially more disruptive, per-versions to come, and one is not disappointed. Poe’s great admirer Charles Baudelaire translated/perverted the “The Imp of the Perverse” into French, titling it “Le Démon de la perversité,” and this demon re-turns in yet another perverted form in Stéphane Mallarmé’s early prose poem “Le Démon de l’analogie,” a text he wrote shortly after he had begun translating/perverting Poe into French.
31. As a number of scholars have noted, “The Demon of Analogy” is a close reading of Poe’s story. While it is not immediately obvious why analogy as such is perverse, its transformative powers are on exhibit in every sentence of Mallarmé’s poem. In a tribute to—or parody of—Baudelaire, symbolic correspondences proliferate in the text to the point that almost any alignment of two terms becomes potentially meaningful. Various sensory and intelligible orders stand in for one another metonymically and metaphorically, ensuring that the dynamics of perception, memory, and language become hopelessly intertwined.
32. From the first words of Mallarmé’s prose poem, we are also dealing with a ghostly, if not a monstrous, sentence, and the poet’s trials and tribulations will focus on trying to reconcile sentential and analogical powers:
Have unknown words ever played about your lips, the haunting and accursed fragments of an absurd sentence?
I went out of my apartment with the distinct sensation of a wing sliding along the strings of some instrument, languid and light, which was replaced by a voice that, with a downward intonation, pronounced the words: “The Penultimate is dead,” in such a way such that
ended one line and
broke off from the fateful suspension more uselessly in the void of signification. I took a few steps down the street and recognized in the “nul” sound the tight string of a forgotten musical instrument . . . (17)
33. Like “I am safe,” there is nothing grammatically or syntactically puzzling about “the Penultimate is dead.” However, if this proposition is first presented to the reader as a compact four-word statement, this is decidedly not how it initially manifests itself to the poet. He describes the mysterious voice that articulates these words as pronouncing them such that they are part of two distinct lines of a poem; or rather, based on the intonation, the first two words constitute the end of a line of verse, then the turn (versus) into the next line is deferred as the last two words break off, perversely, if not aus unbedingter Willkür. Versification invades and begins to pervert the prose poem, only subsequently to be turned back into prose. Perhaps in response, the word “Penultimate” itself is subject to considerable violence at the level of the letter. Both here and later in the text, the poet perverts the word’s syllabification as he creates a new syllable and a new word: n-u-l.
34. For better or worse, building a word with which to comment on the vexingly meaningful instances of meaninglessness with which he is confronted does not help the poet escape the utterance that stalks him and the incomprehensibility that it evidently brings with it:
35. As a sentence that is not quite a sentence, a section of two lines of a poem that is not quite a section of two lines of a poem, an utterance with straightforward grammar comprising four eminently definable words whose literal and metaphorical meanings are nonetheless mysterious, “the Penultimate is dead” begs for exegesis. Mallarmé’s poet, however, is content to recite it and then reword it, as if this will somehow neutralize the insistent haunting: “I resolved to let the sad words wander on my lips, and I walked on, murmuring comfortingly, as it offered condolences, ‘The Penultimate is dead, she is dead, really dead, the poor desperate Penultimate,’ thinking that . . . by expanding the speech, I might bury her once and for all” (18). “Enough said” has been said, but the ghostly sentence is not listening. If anything, it is the simplicity and compactness of the spectral formulation that must be combatted, as if the Penultimate will never truly be dead and buried if all one can say about it is that it is dead and buried. This is why melancholia comes to the fore in the final line of the text, as the poet declares that despite his best efforts to come to terms with this linguistic phantom, he is “condemned forever to wear mourning for the inexplicable Penultimate” (18).
36. Perhaps the mistake lies in treating the Penultimate as an autonomous unit, since by definition it is subordinate to an ordering logic that it does not control. Considered in isolation, as a self-same term, the “next-to-last” inevitably appears as a sort of ghost, an apparition that hints at a larger series that may be invisible or lost. Having raised this problem in the form of a sentence that comes out of nowhere, Mallarmé’s prose poem closes with the “Penultimate” as its last rather than its second-to-last word, which could be read as the poem’s attempt to kill the penultimate by transforming it into the ultimate. The logic, however, cuts both ways, since the gesture to close with the next-to-last risks negating the authority of the poem’s last word as “last.” If the last word is no longer final but merely almost final, then there must be more to come, if only in ghostly form, in which case the false conclusion of the text would affirm the continued supremacy of the Penultimate’s haunting. 
37. We might surmise that it is imperative that the Penultimate not have the last word, even if it is the last word of the poem and if this last word concludes a pithy pronouncement of the Penultimate’s death. In fact, this does not turn out to be the central concern. As the poet tells it, the truly shocking aspect of the experience is not the prospect of interminable mourning, with which he associates sadness or resignation rather than surprise or dread. The real horror is the moment in the penultimate paragraph of the poem at which the poet realizes that the voice that has been autonomously articulating the sentence plaguing him is actually his own. This uncanny instance of linguistic self-recognition as self-alienation is followed by a second shock in the final paragraph when the poet notices that he is standing outside a shop selling string instruments. A complex web of wing, plumage, and string motifs runs throughout the text and is repeatedly perverted into all manner of sensible and intelligible forms. When this forest of symbols is suddenly instantiated in a collection of physical objects in the shop window, the poet is confronted with a signifying field in which analogism has been generalized to such a degree that it elides the very distinctions that make comparisons possible, and resemblances lose their capacity to signify. If the sentence “the Penultimate is dead” is powerful, it is because it stands outside of the field of correspondences structuring the poet’s experience of it. The ghostly utterance marks a limit at which the demon of analogy and the perversity of pure linguistic arbitrariness are at once most similar and dissimilar.
38. Schlegel asks us to envision a discourse in which every word or syllable is completely informed by and yet utterly indifferent to the fact that it may be the last word or syllable. The spontaneity of expression, or silence, is thereby pitted against the sentential paradigms of syntax, grammar, and logical predication. In Poe, the authority of the sentence persists, but in a perverted dynamic, turned not simply against the formal and semantic features that underwrite its constation or performance, but against linguistic iterability itself. The narrator’s stutter, “I am safe—I am safe,” is a Schlegelian witticism, its second instance emerging out of nowhere at the same time as it both dutifully repeats what has come before it and negates it. No matter how short or simple, a perverted sentence can never account for the connections, or the lack thereof, between its terms. In the end, “I am safe” is more terrifying than comforting because it cannot guarantee that this “I” has any relationship with “am” or “safe.”
39. In Mallarmé’s reading of Poe’s perversion of Schlegel’s language of Willkür, the notion that every word will potentially be the last is displaced by the proposal that each word is no more or less than the penultimate one. In these terms, verbal autonomy occurs as the universalization of an ordering principle that, like a flawed application of Kant’s categorical imperative, undermines the condition of possibility of that principle—in this case, of sequencing in language. The status of the penultimate as penultimate is thus negated at the very moment that this perverse penultimacy threatens to take over every other place in the series: first, middle, and last.
40. Read together, Schlegel, Poe, and Mallarmé present us with an eccentric cousin of Hegel’s speculative sentence that I have termed the “Romantic sentence.” On the one hand, such an utterance stridently gives voice to its own limitations, laying the groundwork for new sentential formations to come. On the other hand, it implies that the syntactic and semantic dynamics it comprises are singularly powerful and not easily superseded. According to Condillac, systematic inquiry never takes the time to fashion a “special language” for its ideas, instead contenting itself with discursive stand-ins. When the Romantic sentence becomes one such surrogate, it proves to be far from benign, perversely rendering the assumptions and goals of its would-be speaker all but unrecognizable.
Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century: The Wheels of Commerce. Translated by S. Reynolds, U of California P, 1992.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Deutsches Wörterbuch. Leipzig, S. Hirzel, 1854-.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar, Hackett, 1996.
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. Logical Papers. Translated by G. H. R. Parkinson, Clarendon P, 1966.
---. New Essays on Human Understanding. Edited by Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennett, Cambridge UP, 1996.
---. Philosophical Essays. Translated by Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber, Hackett, 1989.
---. Philosophical Papers and Letters. Translated and edited by Leroy E. Loemker, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1969.
Lyu, Claire. “The Poetics of the Penult: Mallarmé, Death, and Syntax.” MLN vol. 113, no. 3, April 1998, pp. 561-87.
Mallarmé, Stéphane. Divigations. Translated by Barbara Johnson, Harvard UP, 2007.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Poetry and Tales. Library of America, 1984.
Schlegel, Friedrich. Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe. Edited by Ernst Behler et al., Schöningh, 1958–. 35 vols.
---. Philosophical Fragments. Translated by Peter Firchow, U of Minnesota P, 1991.
 The fragment in its entirety:
 The complete fragment:
 Given what Schlegel argues about the military fiat that undergirds philosophical operations, it is not obvious whether his reflections on these terms will prove more substantial if the words are pulled arbitrarily from the dictionary or invoked in a scholarly flourish as part of the core legacy of his rationalist predecessor. As the fragment continues, it neither steers clear of jargon nor takes care to define its own terms, particularly when it comes to the string of near-but-not-so-near synonyms for Philosophie or Wissenschaft, including Kunstphilosophie, Symphilosophie, and Naturphilosophie. BACK
 Schlegel’s engagement with Leibniz’s doctrines is heavily influenced by Kant. Considerations of regressive series abound in the Critique of Pure Reason, where Kant at one point attempts to distinguish regressus in infinitum from regressus in indefinitum (A514/B542). Kant specifically addresses the infinite analysis of the infinite complexity of individual contingencies with his claims about the regulative rather than constitutive nature of the ideas of reason. He argues that a constitutive idea would be akin to Leibniz’s divine comprehension and that to have access to “the absolute totality of the series of conditions,” one must mistakenly attribute objective reality to an idea that is actually only a rule (A509/B537). BACK
 Leibniz writes, “Only someone who is capable of grasping the infinite could know the principle of individuation of a given thing. This arises from the influence, properly understood, that all the things in the universe have on one another” (New Essays 290). BACK
 At points, Leibniz allows that some real definitions confirm the possibility of something a posteriori rather than a priori, a qualification that in its own right potentially threatens his real/nominal distinction. BACK
 In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century letters, wit designated a kind of cunning or cleverness distinguished by the ability to make surprising connections or unexpectedly illuminating associations. For Schlegel, it also has a lighter side. “Reason suffers,” he writes, but wit is “free” and “thoroughly playful” (Kritische Ausgabe XII: 393, my translation). Of course, wit’s characteristic flash of insight—what Schlegel describes as a “lightning bolt from the unconscious world”—is also frightening, for it is not so much a question of deciding whether or not to make use of wit as of surrendering to its designs, which may not be our own (393, my translation). As August Wilhelm Schlegel maintains in Athenaeum fragment 106: “You must consider that man wittiest who is witty not merely without intending to be so, but actually against his own intention” (Fragments 30). BACK
 For Leibniz, a real definition demonstrates the possibility of something; for Schlegel, a real definition of the individual shows that the possibility of defining that individual is also the impossibility of defining it insofar as such a definition would have to be a finite proposition. Each of the infinitely many real definitions of the individual is both infinitely complete and infinitely incomplete—or rather, each of the infinitely many real definitions of an individual is witty in that it is absolutely unrelated to any of the other real definitions of that individual and nonetheless potentially contradicts their claims to define. BACK
 In Kant, Willkür names the ability to make choices that are yours and yours alone, a radical caprice, if you like, that is entirely free of exogenous pressures. According to the Grimm, the original meaning of Willkür was “freie Wahl oder Entschließung”; by the early nineteenth century, it had begun to acquire the negative connotation of “despotism” it has today, e.g., the tyrant is the individual who can decide at his whim to spare or execute someone. This last connotation plays an important role in Schlegel’s “Essay on Republicanism.” BACK
 The core provocation of this perversity seems to lie in the narrator’s claim that it compels us to act “for the reason that we should not”; it is “the tendency to do wrong for the wrong’s sake” (827). This is not an anti-moralistic or outright nihilistic impulse; in the narrator’s terms, both would constitute a reaction to something rather than being, as he repeatedly insists this perversity is, a purely primal impulse. The challenge, then, is to conceive of this perversion as the first term of a causal sequence. It is not that we confront a norm—the reasonable, the logical, the morally upstanding—from which it is then possible to deviate; rather it is only in virtue of this distortion or corruption that a norm is made manifest at all. If one does not insist on this paradoxical point, then “for the sake of”—whether it is “right for the sake of right” or “wrong for the sake of wrong”—may still be implicated in a standard of usefulness, part of an evaluation of how well something makes use of itself. BACK
 Throughout “The Imp of the Perverse,” the elaborate interweaving of philosophical, medical, and psychological jargons, often with a polylinguistic flair, keeps the tone light, if not outright humorous. The narrator moves without comment between the tenets of phrenology and “metaphysicianism”; his discussion touches on the a priori and the a posteriori while confronting various principles, sentiments, and logical schemas; and he hunts after a “mobile without motive” and “a motive not motivirt [sic]” (827, emphasis in original). In many sections, the narrator appears to take it for granted that we all have the same philosophy of action, and he is explicitly self-reflexive about his argumentative tactics, constantly identifying his presuppositions and showing how he draws inferences from them: “Through [this impulse’s] promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not” (827, emphasis in original). BACK