In Marco Bellocchio’s Sweet Dreams (Fai bei sogni, 2016), there’s a scene in which the teenage hero, Massimo (Dario Dal Pero), is questioned by his teacher, Father Ettore (Robert Herlitzka), about why he keeps telling his friends that his mother is alive when, in reality, she’s been dead for several years.
“If she were still here … “, says the kid.
“If, if … ‘If’ is the mark of failure. In this life, it’s ‘despite’ that makes you succeed”, responds the Father.
This statement comes directly from the autobiographical novel by Massimo Gramellini on which Sweet Dreams is based. But, for various reasons, it resonates much deeper in Bellocchio’s film. It resonates within and beyond the film. And it resonates with me — despite knowing (I learnt this from Bob Dylan) that “there’s no success like failure, and that failure is no success at all”.
One of my favourite uses of “if” happens when it comes preceded by a “what”: “What if … ?”. This is an opening of openings, an invitation to playfulness, a speculative trigger that unlocks the imagination. “What if … ?” traces pathways, fabricates hypotheses, invents situations, envisages alternatives and arrangements. “What if … ?” can come up with whole new worlds. But, more often than not, the “if” comes without the “what”; it comes without the joy of the multiple possibilities; and it becomes prisoner of one, single, heavy obsession. This is indeed Massimo’s “if”: an indicator of discontent.
“If she were still here … “. This is the “if” of a phantasy of longing. Of course, one can still long and fantasise with “despite”. But “despite” entails a totally different relation with the facts and with the phantasy itself. One thing is to say: “If she were still here, I’d be happy” (and, therefore, I’ll act as if she were alive, I’ll lie to myself, I’ll tell the others she’s working abroad). Another, very different thing is to say: “Despite that my mother is dead, I talk with her”. Only “despite” allows us to have conversations with the dead.
“If” and “despite” give rise to different verbal moods and tenses. To jump from one verbal mood/tense to another is a powerful event, even when it happens only in thought or speech. There’s a moment in Philippe Garrel’s The Birth of Love (La Naissance de l’amour, 1993) that truly attests to the high of this flight: fifteen seconds of a conversation between two friends, fifteen seconds (no subtitles seem able to do justice to them!) in which Jean-Pierre Léaud and Lou Castel mess and juggle with the treacherous conjugation of the verb “to do” (“faire”). Until the former, suddenly enlightened, blasts a declaration that makes his friend burst into laughter: “We’ve passed from the conditional to the future: I could do it, I will do it!”.
“If” and “despite” imply different attitudes and strategies; they convey different images of time. “If” provides a suspended limbo for a past that is not anymore. “Despite” throws you into a ravaged present that is too much. “If” creates an illusion at the cost of a denial. “Despite” insists on itself at all costs, notwithstanding the brutality with which facts and people deny to us every illusion. “If” searches for protection, “despite” stands in pure resistance. I once heard somebody say: “Life teaches you how to live it, if you live long enough”. I think “if” helps you to survive. But “despite” is a bet for life. A bet for life despite the senselessness, despite the uncertainty, despite the night …
This is an attempt at a distribution, not a prescription. I’ve inhabited (and keep inhabiting) the “if” a lot. “If” as condition, if as wish, “if” as affirmation that dares not, that shies away — that’s easier to see in Spanish where “if” and “yes” are only distinguished by an accent (“si”/”sí”). I’m not willing to give advice, even less to pass judgement. In the face of certain events, one does just what one can. It’s not enough to impose a word onto ourselves. In speech, as in life, everything must be conquered. Prepositions and conjunctions too.