In our eight-part series Life Sentence, the literary critic Jeff Dolven takes apart and puts back together one beloved or bedeviling sentence. The artist Tom Toro illustrates each sentence Dolven chooses.
The question: Are you ill? The answer:
Kings do not collect the money, in this way the letters have been taken away from me, as I that at last of those that particularly believe as I at last chipecially think, and all are burned.
A sentence, an ordinary sentence, is an image of sanity. It collects the wits. A sentence that doesn’t work out can usually be written off as merely careless, or rushed, or as the stumbling of a non-native speaker. Sometimes, however, the failure is more ominous. The question above was posed sometime early in the last century by the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, and the answer came from one of his patients; it appears in a 1913 study translated into English as Dementia Praecox and Paraphrenia. Kraepelin, or whoever took down the words, must have followed the usual cues of spoken cadence in deciding where the sentence started and stopped. In between, the relation of the parts is unsteady. Imagine someone you love calling you up late at night and speaking that sentence; it would be very frightening.
Indeed, is it a sentence? Grammatically, yes, at least if you fix the comma splice at the start with a semicolon. Grammar, however, may not be enough to altogether reassure us. “In this way” connects the first two clauses; but in what way? Perhaps, just as kings take their taxes by tax collectors, so the letters are seized by some intermediaries, some middlemen? The “as” that follows promises to clarify the situation by some analogy. It does not. The ensuing string of monosyllables starts to pick up some rhetorical momentum, with its “I that at last … I at last.” But those intervening polysyllables, “particularly” and “specially,” strike a lonely, even paranoid note. And then, “all are burned.” All the letters? All the kings? All of us? The antecedent has got lost along the way, and the fire races backward across every word.
If grammatical construction makes a sentence, so, too, does interpretation—we want not only structure but sense, and most ordinary interpretation assumes that the author is a subject of sound mind. A grammatical subject, capable of organizing the parts of speech into a whole; a logical subject, capable of managing the rules of argument, premise and consequence; a rhetorical subject, aware of self and audience and the difference between them. Each sentence released into the world is a little promise that the person it comes from has an analogous integrity. The sentence of Kraepelin’s patient—suffering from dementia praecox, what now gets called schizophrenia—is by contrast “an aimless series of words and fragments of thoughts,” or so the doctor writes. The modern clinician might speak of a thought disorder, marked by repeated derailment, tangentiality, and evasion, a general loosening of associations. Certain failures of a sentence are clinical symptoms.
Should we then give up on the sentence, then, as a sentence? Let it be merely a symptom? It may not let us go quite so easily. There is a complaint somewhere in it, a specific complaint that the letters aren’t getting through, that some people believe me but most don’t, and really only I see it clearly—that the letters are being burned. And whoever the kings are, they may not dirty their hands—but aren’t they to blame? Kraepelin himself makes no effort at such an interpretive rescue. His contemporary Sigmund Freud might have, had the text come his way, but Kraepelin did not believe in Freud’s “complexes,” and by his lights language might be a symptom of schizophrenia, but interpretation—the clinician’s, or the patient’s own—would never be the cure. “One may here certainly find the assumption helpful, that it is a case of suppressed and transformed ideas, of ‘masks,’ ” he wrote, “the real meaning of which can only be guessed by an interpretation, dependent on the fine feeling of the observer.” But that would be “a proceeding which, judging by the examples forthcoming, has little attraction for me.” Kraepelin was a champion of humane asylums, a gifted clinician, and also, as it happened, a committed eugenicist. What he did not think was that understanding what his patients were saying had much to do with restoring them to health.
The twentieth century was mostly kind to Freud the interpreter; the twenty-first has found a new admiration for Kraepelin’s experiments in psychopharmacology. It remains the interpreter Freud and his critical descendants who let us best make new sentences about this patient’s words. They have something of the allure of a poem, full of meaning that might just yet make sense. And that may be what the interpreters, we interpreters, want to do with a poem—not just to understand it but to cure it, to translate its disordered speech into sentences that are synecdoches of our good health. That would be a generous impulse. The form of the sentence is one of the basic things we might know about our own sanity and one of the basic ways we affirm it, again and again. To care for someone who is ill is to want to make sentences about them, and for them, minor mirrors to hold them whole. But need it be said that there is thinking and feeling that a sentence will not contain?
You see as soon as the skull is smashed and one still has flowers with difficulty, so it will not leak out constantly. I have a sort of silver bullet which held me by my leg, that one cannot jump in, where one wants, and that ends beautifully like the stars. Former service, then she puts it on her head and will soon be respectable, I say, O God, but one must have eyes. Sits himself and eats it. Quite excited, I was quite beside myself and say that therefore there should be meanness and there is a merry growth over. It was the stars. I, and that is also so curious, the nun consequently did not know me any more, I should come from M. because something always happens, a broken leg or something, they’ve had a quarrel with each another, the clergyman and she; a leg has just been broken. I believe it is caused by this that such a misfortune happens, such a reparation for damages. I have also said I shall then come in the end last, with the sun and the moon, and too much excitement, and all that makes still a great deal of trouble. Kings do not collect the money, in this way the letters have been taken away from me, as I that at last of those that particularly believe as I at last specially think, and all are burned.
Jeff Dolven’s poems first appeared in The Paris Review in 2000. He teaches at Princeton University, and his new book, Senses of Style, which looks at the work and lives of Thomas Wyatt and Frank O’Hara, will publish in January.
Tom Toro is an American cartoonist whose work appears regularly in The New Yorker, Playboy, The American Bystander, and elsewhere. His book of Trump cartoons, Tiny Hands, is available now through Dock Street Press.
Read earlier installments of Life Sentence here.