The surprising link between the subjunctive, desire and daily life
What’s the subjunctive (“congiuntivo”) got to do with life? Since I was a child, I’ve had a particular sensibility for language and the use of words. I began to read books precociously, and I’ve never stopped writing since I learned the rudiments of the alphabet. I’ve always enjoyed writing short poems for family celebrations and occasions, or writing stories to share with friends. Subsequently, as I grew older, I discovered what could almost be called a vocation. I decided to transform my passion into my work: that of teaching. I studied Classics motivated by the desire to penetrate deep into the mechanisms of language, such that I could communicate to others the same love I had for this knowledge. To be frank, I don’t know how successful I actually was. Now some time ago, while I was trying to formulate something I could write to my friends for Christmas, I found myself reflecting on the use of the subjunctive. A question rises almost spontaneously: “What on earth can the subjunctive have to do with a Christmas greeting or, more in general, with life and its interactions?” I believe that the connection, although not immediately evident, is nonetheless a rather deep one. I’ll try and explain.
I’ve stopped trying to keep count of the number of times I’ve felt my bowels twist up in knots at the improper use or omission of the subjunctive, particularly in spoken or colloquial language. Yet I’m convinced that this vexata quaestio (troubled question) is one that goes beyond the correct and appropriate use of grammar. It’s got nothing to do with a banal linguistic purism. To hell with a badly formulated hypothetical clause, if it’s between friends drinking a beer. However, I believe that it’s well worth reflecting on that which language, with its riches and its varied formulations, allows us to modulate through our particular way of communicating. Deep down – and we know this well – words convey concepts. For the most part, therefore, one speaks as one thinks. Or rather, I would say, one speaks more or less as one feels and in the way in which one approaches life.
So, I asked myself, what does the decline in the use of the subjunctive in the Italian language mean, a decline which, for that matter (and in different ways), also appears to be the case in other romance languages, such as French and Spanish? Some have hypothesized that this is a physiological phenomenon, the simplification of language; others think it’s got something to do with a poor command of style. But here’s not the place where to enter into a debate which would carry us far too far away from the point this article is trying to make. I would, however, like to share with you the hope-filled greeting I wanted to send to my friends this year for Christmas: that is, the wish that they would take back ownership of this verbal mode, not only that they might learn to speak better but, even more importantly, that they might begin to conjugate their lives in the subjunctive (“congiuntivo”). You might ask me why, precisely, it should be the subjunctive. Precisely because the subjunctive, as opposed to the indicative, expresses possibility as well as – being the heir to the old optative in Greek – desires and dreams. It’s the mode – the way – of invocation and of hope, the way of prayer and of waiting. It’s the mode mothers and fathers prefer as they try to foresee the life of their child, imagining how many and which kind of potentialities yet unknown are concealed, as a promise, within their child. It’s the mode – the way – in which the young person faces life and tries to imagine what his future will be like, asking himself if he will have the courage and the strength to see his dreams realized (or, simply, whether he will manage to receive a pension). It’s the verbal mode of the one who has heeded his intuition, who has left all to follow the person he loved but who, at a certain point in life, has found himself lost and asks himself where and how he had made a mistake. The subjunctive is the mode of the one who loves allowing himself to be amazed, of the one who is ready to learn a new language or explore new flavours every Saturday night; of the one who doesn’t want to give in to habit and is prepared to be reborn and to reinvent his entire life each year, each month, each day or, perhaps, even each moment, putting into play all the creativity and the originality he’s capable of. Given that I’ve also collected my fair share of mistakes along the way, this coming year I’d like to learn how to allow myself to be conjugated in the subjunctive, not allowing myself to remain enclosed within pre-conceived frameworks, pre-confected positions or the well-certified ideas of the group I belong to … I’d like to allow myself to be inconvenienced by dreams, and not fear – once again – taking the wrong road; or making a mistake with the subjunctive.
During this past year studying abroad, I’ve come to realise that at times we run the risk of living our lives deluding ourselves that everything should run smoothly, that everything should proceed in the same direction, that is, the one that we have chosen to give it: I am, I do, I go! And that’s the point. We often live our lives conjugated in the indicative, flattened out onto the things we know, onto our comfort zones, onto those small angles of the world in which we move with familiarity. A comfortable life, as safe as a non-transferable cheque, as guaranteed as an open-ended contract with a state-owned company (even though this metaphor, for some time now, doesn’t seem as well-fitting as it once was!). The indicative is the mode – the way – of objectivity and of definition!
Yet sometimes, as we walk, a gap opens up unexpectedly beneath our feet. We find an interrupted pathway, which leads us to a small, marginal, footpath, an untrodden piece of earth forgotten by all. And sometimes, it happens that precisely because we take that wrong road – turning down one of those side-paths unrecommended by any authorized tourist guides – that we manage to rediscover and recover the sense of things, of our lives or even of a vocation. It’s always the same story, that of uncomfortable roads, of small doors and of left-overs to throw away. Of discarded stones becoming the corner-stones of new houses to be built. It’s the story of poor and insignificant infants, born outdoors, perhaps in a crib, who end up changing History. And an infinite number of other stories. Could losing sight of the subjunctive also mean, therefore, having forgotten the destabilizing strength of our desires, and the beauty of discovering oneself vulnerable before what’s unexpected and new? And so, between one subjunctive and another, between a desire and a dream, I sometimes hope that I might take the wrong road, because it’s precisely on one of these pathways forgotten by all, on one of those small side roads that cross the highway, that God waits for us. Even there, where the tourist guide marks out only a pile of stones or a cliff, He allows Himself to be found and met. Why, if God exits, I hope that, He at least, loves the conjunctive!
 The “subjunctive” is a verbal mode much more common in Italian than in English, where it looks a lot like the “indicative”. The “subjunctive” isn’t a tense. It doesn’t show the time at which something happened, but the way in which it happened.