Thursday, February 26, 2009

The past unreal conditional

Yesterday at HCC I learned about a tense that I hadn't heard of before: the past unreal conditional. A website called English Page explained more about it. It says:

"The Past Unreal Conditional is used to talk about imaginary situations in the past. You can describe what you would have done differently or how something could have happened differently if circumstances had been different."

Some examples are:

  • If I had owned a car, I would have driven to work. But I didn't own one, so I took the bus.
  • She would have traveled around the world if she had had more money. But she didn't have much money, so she never traveled.
  • I would have read more as a child if I hadn't watched so much TV. Unfortunately, I did watch a lot of TV, so I never read for entertainment.
That's pretty straightforward. But what intrigued me about the past unreal conditional is that the phrase itself is almost like a little poem, very potent with meaning. The past IS unreal, in the sense that what really happened is almost always invisible to us, and what we think happened is what becomes our past: our story about the past. And many times our story about the past is not real; it's more imaginary than real.

The "conditional" part for me refers to the way our stories about the past condition the present. We see the present, as it were, through the lens of our stories about the past. But also, the technical grammatical meaning of "conditional" here also applies: we constantly think about how things might have been different. If only I had done things differently in the past, I could have avoided all this trouble in the present, etc. But that's unreal too: we did it the way we did it, and that's the reality of it.

I also thought about how the phrase "the past, unreal, conditional" reminded me of Faulkner's famous saying, "The past isn't dead. It's not even past." I think Barack Obama referred to that phrase in his famous speech about race. People think that Faulkner said it, but he actually made one of his characters say it. Gavin Stevens says it in Requiem for a Nun, talking to Temple Drake about her own terrible past, which she is now trying to put behind her. (The prequel to Requiem for a Nun is Sanctuary, one of the most bleak novels Faulkner wrote.)

I thought that if Faulkner were living today, and if he were teaching English at HCC, Faulkner might say, "The past isn't even past. It's actually the past, unreal, conditional." But Faulkner thought of the past as being almost the most real thing, the thing that governed all his characters' lives. However, at the same time, the characters' past always exists in the form of stories. Absalom, Absalom! begins with Quentin Compson sitting in a darkened living room with Rosa Coldfield, hearing her long, confusing story of her sister's marriage to Thomas Sutpen. She is not necessarily a reliable narrator, and her bitterness and hatred of Sutpen are evident from the beginning. So how "real" is this story of the past?

All our stories may be unreal and conditional, but we can't do without our stories. Our minds work by creating stories about the past. We can't stop doing that, but we can meet our stories with understanding, rather than necessarily believing all of our painful thoughts about them.

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