Stéphane Mallarmé, The Demon of Analogy

Have unknown words ever sung on your lips—accursed tatters of some meaningless phrase?

I left my apartment with exactly the sensation of a wing sliding over the strings of a musical instrument, lightly and lingeringly; this was replaced by a voice that uttered the following words in descending tones: ‘The Penultimate is dead’—in such a way that

The Penultimate

ended a line and

Is dead

detached itself from the fateful pause in a still more futile manner, into the void of meaning. I took a few steps in the street and recognized in the sound nul the taut string of the musical instrument—which had been forgotten, but which glorious Memory had certainly touched just now with its wing or with a palm branch; and, with my finger on the mystery’s artifice, I smiled and offered up intellectual prayers to a speculation of a different kind. Back came the phrase—virtual, released from some previous fall of a feather or branch—henceforth heard through the voice, until at last it articulated itself alone, alive with its own personality. Along I went (no longer satisfied with a mere perception) reading it as a line-ending, and once experimentally adapting it to my voice; soon pronouncing it with a pause after ‘Penultimate’, in which I found a painful pleasure: ‘Penultimate’—then the string of the instrument, which had been stretched so tightly in oblivion over the sound nul, evidently broke and I added as a sort of prayer: ‘Is dead.’ Constantly I kept trying to return to thoughts congruent with my tastes, arguing, to appease myself, that, after all, penultimate is the lexical term signifying the second-last syllable of a word, and its apparition was the imperfectly abandoned remnant of a linguistic task on account of which my noble poetic faculty daily grieves at being broken off: the very sonority and air of falsehood assumed by the haste of that facile affirmation were a cause of torment. Harried, I resolved to let the inherently melancholy words wander across my lips of their own accord, and I went along murmuring in consolatory tones ‘The Penultimate is dead, she is dead, well and truly dead, beyond all hope, the Penultimate’, thinking that this would ease my anxiety—and also harbouring some secret hope that I could bury it in the amplified chant when, alas!—by an easily explicable form of nervous magic—I felt that, as my hand, reflected in a shop window, made a gesture like a caress coming down on something, I possessed the very voice (the first one, which had certainly been the only one).

But the moment when the supernatural irrefutably intervened, and the anguish that racked my formerly magisterial spirit began, came when I raised my eyes and saw, in the antique dealers’ street where I had instinctively gone, that I was in front of a lute-maker’s shop, its wall being hung with the old instruments that he was selling, and, on the ground, some yellow palm branches and old birds’ wings shrouded in shadow. I fled—an oddity, someone probably doomed to wear mourning for the inexplicable Penultimate.