The father figure in contemporary society

Maria Grazia Fusacchia

“Even the most violent repression is forced to give way to deformed substitute motions and to any reactions that may follow. But if this is so, we can formulate the hypothesis that no generation is capable of hiding the ones that follow it, the significant psychic facts… “(S. Freud, 1912-13)

The complex and significant changes that have occurred in family relationships deliver an image of the father as a figure which is certainly in crisis, weakened, and at the same time invoked and rejected.

The inability to standardize the variety of couple relationships and the introduction of cases of assisted reproduction, have caused a disjunction between the biological father and fatherhood, the latter considered as an unconscious function, linked to the desire for a child, to take care of.

At this stage we cannot yet fully evaluate the possible relapses due to this “emancipation” of the body, which disengages and extricates himself from the role that nature has imposed on him for procreation. Nor can we imagine the processes which the psychic apparatus will use to metabolize and integrate the original source  with another dimension, in this case, the paternal one.

There are many questions that arise and that put the psychoanalytic theory and its own foundations to work, such as the primal scene, the Oedipus complex, the notion of castration and the difference between the sexes.

Which is the primal scene that we need to tackle? Which is the fate of desire? It seems to me essential that this primal scene must be observed in different terms, being invaded by the concrete presence of a third party (the physician), which actively takes on or replaces the biological, sexual, desiring and originating function belonging to the encounter between the father and the mother.

How can we consider these subversions within the chain of filiation? Which narcissistic pacts will be established in these father-child relationships? What place will the father cover in these new family portraits? Yet another need, more exquisitely clinical, inspired this reflection. It originates from the desire to reconsider and give a meaning to the new challenges that we are faced with from those functions in the primary process which, as F. Richard suggests, are driven by a libido that “is released into short-circuit streams incapable of retention, which flow only in discharges lacking any real satisfaction .” 

These forms of suffering, like the suffering of desire, also highlight significant technical problems that urge the analyst to conceptualize any paradoxical psychic operations, generally enclosed in that vast territory referred to as “borderline states”.

These patients, either adults, adolescents or children, under many forms and psychic configurations, convey their difficulty of being, that is the inhibition or the inability to think and to consider themselves. A sense of emptiness and worthlessness prevails, focusing on a loss experience of oneself and one’s own boundaries. Winnicott discovered that these patients encompass a feeling of nothingness, of “nothing in the middle” which I will try to bring to an initial flaw dimension, linked to the couple vicissitudes, including the desire for the father.

 I think that these narcissistic-identity diseases reveal the impasse and failures of an ongoing process, implanted in the relationship with the other, which takes shape in the desire that permeates the relationship between the father and the mother (from the moment of conception) and that subsequently unfolds in the relationship with the mother, as a representative of the mother-father couple’s bond.

What seems to be lacking, besides the behavioral excesses, is the dimension of desire, hence the impossibility to share, to represent oneself and to represent Other.
This refers to a complexity of factors and research trajectories, thus I will limit my reflections on the figure of the father, from the paradoxical assumption  of a consubstantial uncertainty of paternity, which is matched, on the other side, by the fact that the father is the one who gives the surname.

When referring to the father, in clinical terms, it is customary to say that the paternal function is constantly indicated in negative terms. The father is dead, absent, missing, evaporated, dismissed, suspended, abandoning, inconsistent, and his function is lost. It would seem that the father is thus a negative hallucination: when he is there, he is not seen.

Why such a denial? What is the cause of this blindness? The father is always elsewhere. A lot is said about what he is not, but ultimately, what is a father?


Freud and the father

According to Freud, the paternal function is a process which affects both father and son/daughter and that, despite hypermodern complications, is a necessary and universal invention, whose instinctual rearrangements alter the Ego, which transforms itself and develops through continuous processes of identification and introjection of the paternal function, based on the transmission of filiation, the recognition of sexual differences, taking place between generations.

“Every member of the audience was, once, a germinal and a fantasy Oedipus, and from this realization of a dream transferred into reality, each withdraws with horror and with all the weight of repression which separates the child stage from  adulthood” (Sigmund Freud, 1897).

So Freud reveals his discovery to Fliess, as “a trivial concept to describe in writing”, matured while interweaving the work of self-analysis, following the death of his “old man” and the intuition that the seduction scenes of his patients were nothing more than a put to work of unconscious formations. This clarifies “the compelling supramacy of King Oedipus, despite any objections that the reason opposes to the premise of fate, and thus, later, dramas based on destiny had to wreck so miserably.”

It’s the first time that the father of psychoanalysis mentions the Oedipus complex, having just set aside his neurotica, the seduction theory, which charged the father, including his own, with the guilt of perversion towards children, although Freud never abandoned the seduction theory as a founding and traumatic moment, introducing the notion of the complementary series.

It seems to me that this is the preamble of an idea that has permeated the whole of Freud’s work, which establishes a constrain between the father, the recognition of infantile sexuality and the Oedipal configuration of human desire.

For Freud, a father’s death is the most important event, the most heartbreaking loss, in a man’s life, and these tracks will come back over and over again in the course of his work, not eluding which important affective dynamics are played in the relationship with the father.

“The more tyranically the father ruled in the ancient family, the more surely must the son, as his appointed successor, have assumed the position of an enemy, and the greater must have been his impatience to attain to supremacy, through the deacth of his father… A physician often has occasion to remark that a son’s grief at the loss of his father cannot quench his gratification that he has at last obtained his freedom. Fathers, as a rule, cling desperately to as much of the sadly antiquated potestas patris familias, and the poet who, like Ibsen, puts the immemorial strife between father and son in the foreground in his drama, is sure of his effect”  (Freud, 1900).

Freud invites us to consider the nature of the investments that colour the generative father-son relationship, highlighting its ambivalent and reciprocally usurping features, from whose fate the transformation of a primitive hostile feeling to a positive attachment that will allow an emotional, affective, generative transmission will depend, rewarding for both parties.

In the quoted passage, Freud introduces us to the concept of dead father, a father who is a prey of the frenzy to cling to a currently decayed representation. In “Totem and Taboo” (1912-13), Freud detects in totemism, “an element intended to trigger, over time, an extraordinary intensification of longing for the father.”

In the sacrificial scene, he remarks further in this text: “the father is represented twice over in the situation of primitive sacrifice: once as God and once as the totemic animal victim. The two-fold presence of the father corresponds to the two chronologically successive meanings of the scene. The scene of the father’s vanquishment, of his greatest defeat, has become the stuff for the representation of his supreme triumph”.

He therefore suggests that the elimination of the father has produced a transformation in the relationship between father and sons, embracing other areas of human existence. However, in the family, the father regains his rights without declining the social achievements of the fraternal clan, thus differing from the ancestor of the horde who knew no boundaries, and keeps an implacable nostalgia for the father, whose footprints lead to the first and most important identification of the individual, the one with the father of his own personal pre-history, which strengthens the primary identification and defines the conditions for the formation of the ideal.

“What thou hast inherited from thy fathers, acquire it to make it thine”. (Freud, 1912-1913 )

Over the following years, Freud highlighted that psychic life is crossed by the struggle between life and death (life and death impulses), showing that the identification with the father is the solution to a transitory overcoming of the conflict. Later, he will define the complexity of this process, approaching different perspectives.

On the one hand, the identifications as “direct and immediate […] and takes place earlier than any object-cathexis” (Freud, 1921), prior to the history of the individual Ego, which belongs to the unconscious where the opposite bonds of love and hate,  primary identification and object relation coexist. In this sense, the identification with the father belongs to the Oedipus pre-history, it implants the central axis in a development that we call secondary identification, as clearly depicted in the well-known expression “The Child is the father of the Man” (Freud, 1913).

On the other hand, in “An Outline of Psychoanalysis” (1938), Freud emphasizes the importance for the human subject to tolerate the heavy frustration of instinctual drives, activating a psychic transformation, at the base of the sublimating activity, both as an artistic creation and as a training and consolidation of the ideal.

This brief reexamination of the text aims to give an account of the idea that the paternal function is an action of psychic processing, which is at the heart of Freud’s Theory. At the same time, it stresses that the meaning of the concept of father’s death greatly differs from that underlying the ferment of past studies and psychoanalytic insights, who turn their attention to the early stages of psychic life and the relationship mother-infant, with a tendency to exclude the father, whose influence is considered in the aftermath.

Acknowledging the complexity of such primitive relationships and their indelible influence on the subject’s mind, Freud identifies its main components in the triangular oedipal situation and in the constitutional bisexuality of the individual.

In Freudian Theory, the father figure appears as an insistent idea and yet, at the same time, elusive; as observed by P-L. Assoun, he is essentially the “necessary prerequisite which structures the conception of the unconscious and, in return, proves it”. In other words, the father is the prerequisite of all desiring beings. 

About the Desire of the Father … 

The father figure and its functions are constrained to the reciprocal nature of the investments within the parental couple. That is the place where the desire for a child takes shape, as an essential prerogative to the existence and functioning of the infans mind, which will face the magnitude of the original violence, according to Aulagnier represented by the maternal desire, precursor and manufacturer of a space in which the Ego will occur. Such violence, which belongs to the category of what is needed, since the mother-infant relationship goes beyond the infans demand, will occupy the mind in the metabolization of the other and of the other’s desire.

In the theory of Piera Aulagnier I have detected a consistent opening for the purpose of observing the desire of the father. The author complained about the lack of attention given by other psychoanalysts to this subject, as if they had forgotten that this is “the prerequisite for all desiring beings”, also adding that the father is as closely related to the transmission of cultural values and traditions, by being “the representative of a law that makes sorrow an experience that cannot be avoided”.

In the theory of Aulagnier, the desire of the father is conceived according to a dual perspective: “the desire for a Child” and “the desire for that Child”. This highlights the reciprocity in the parent-infant relationship.

If we assume that a pre-existing maternal and parental discourse precedes the infans, yet concerning him, this is the elsewhere of desire, its anticipation, which needs to be sought in the primal scene, which is the scene of all origins.

The father’s first appearance before the child occurs when the child, whatever his or her own culture may be, discovers that the anatomical destiny is accompanied by a mental destiny. That is, when the child is forced to admit his condition of impotence with respect to maternal desire and pleasure, and comes across the father and his desire.

The encounter with “the desire of the father” is a revelation to the child, that “the last factor that drives the space outside the mind to organize itself, to allow a smooth functioning of the Ego or, on the contrary, to hinder it. ” This extract, referring to the desire of and between the parents, is crucial since the exclusion of the father from the mother’s discourse (as a misunderstanding, denial, cancellation) will lead the child towards a psychotic destiny.

The effects due to the presence or absence of the father will depend on the context in which paternity takes place, according to some ready-reference:

“Father uncertainty of his procreative role…”

“Fatherhood is directly linked to a denomination that, by law, designates the person or persons who may be called fathers.”

“In the child, the father meets the evidence that his own mother transferred a desire concerning his function and the laws of this transmission. It follows that, for the father, the child is a sign and a proof of the phallic function of his own penis”.

“The woman, by giving him a child, shows him her own desire to transmit a function that passes from father to father. By accepting this gift, the father can finally consider his debt paid off to his own father, who, in turn, will then be borne by his son. Echoing the maternal voice and due to this presence, the father discourse peals, as a sequence of statements that, by being transmitted, grants the permanence of the laws that govern the kinship system”.

In support of this hypothesis is the anatomical reality of the body, an insurmountable rock on which the fulfillment of the woman’s desire is incardinated, and is subject to the difference and the complementarity of the sexes. This reality, which is the warrantor of the transmission of the filiation chain, is the one currently in jeopardy.

It seems useful to retrace the steps of this journey to the origins of filiation and to the search for the desire of the father, that both sexes inherit from their mother. The desire for children is the hope that the mother turns to her children so that they may become, in turn, parents. Becoming a father/mother finds its roots in the desire of the mother.

For the son, this anticipation of the mother withholds an identificatory enunciation, that delivers his own desire: “to become the father, a function that the mother does not have and that can only be referred to his father.”

In this perspective, the mother admits that there is a function that is passed on from father to father, connecting two positions and functions: one occupied by his own father and the other one that shall be occupied by the child once he becomes a father himself. The real father of the child is in the middle, as an intermediate ring. The child addresses him, to understand what it means to be a father, and what does such function consist of, which Aulagnier briefly summarized on the basis of three references:

a) “the interpretation that the mother has given of her own father”
b) ” the function that the child attributes to his father and the one that his mother grants him”

c ) “what the mother wants to transmit and what may she wants to prohibit of this function”.

These sources refer to the affective dynamics of the parental couple, including their own unresolved childhood conflicts, which will affect the parent-son relationship.

In the mother’s desire, two libidinal relationships are condensed: one that the woman has established with her own paternal image and another which lives with the father of her child. These desires interact with one another and affect the couple’s relationship. In Lacan’s terms, we can say that “the mother is the representative of the Other on the scene of the Real, while the father, in the same scene is the representative of the others and of their discourse”. The father’s fragility is linked to the fact that he can preserve his hinge function within the kinship system, only if the father-child relationship is able to evolve. This notation gives space to the many questions raised by clinical situations and makes us ponder on the fantasies triggered by the new techniques of assisted reproduction, in particular, the heterologic ones.

The reciprocity of the encounter between father and son brings up significant psychic experiences such as:

“The encounter with the voice of the father (if we place ourselves on the side of the child) and the access to paternity (if we observe from the father’s perspective);”
“The desire of the father, indicating the child’s desire for the father, as much as the father’s desire for the child.”

Looking at the transition from the original mother-infant couple to the encounter with the father, “the other without breast”, despite receiving affection and pleasure, the child must compete with one major difference: the encounter with the father does not take place in the register of need, but in that of desire, of the symbolic.

The father is the one who causes the first breach in the original mother-infant fusion, based on the correspondence between the satisfaction of bodily need with the appeasement of the libidinal need. It is from the mother’s side that the child seeks and finds the reasons for the existence of the father, who appears as an object to be seduced. Later, as the father is seen the agent of maternal pleasure and of the infant’s legitimacy, he becomes the object of rivalry and hatred.

The father thus receives from the mother the right to determine what forms of pleasure the child can give her and which others will be subject to interdiction, and in this perspective, he can be seen by the child as the object to seduce and/or hate.

When the infant discovers the desire that binds his parents, he will be able to bear “the mother’s deceit, if hatred without object” will be addressed to the father, and this will allow him to make sense of the affection “that is imposed before an ineluctable truth”. 

According to Aulagnier, the scandal of psychoanalysis did not consist so much in the discovery of infantile sexuality, but rather in the postulation that the child might want to kill the parent, becoming a potential parricide.
 “This first rationalization of a disappointment – Aulagnier states – of which the traces will never be erased, allows a state of transient complicity between mother and infant, moving outside the unjust verdict. The desire for death, transformed into a desire to kill, finds in the father figure both a substitute and a reassurance: the desire of his death is balanced by the image of a higher power, which resizes the chances of its achievement.”

We are in the scenario of the oedipal father, in which the Author’s thought follows the Freudian trail. Nevertheless, she suggests that before occupying the rival’s place (Oedipus), the father has embodied a defense function, of preservation of the integrity of the state of pleasure. In other words, by surviving the destructive challenge, the father allowed the death drive to be deflected and caught in a trap, and the child could therefore attribute the causes of his sorrow to the outer-psyche.

In the Oedipical dimension, he sees the doubling of a psychic operation transaction of which one can only perceives the second stage: the father before even covering the role of the oedipal rival, offers himself to the psyche as incarnation, in the out-of-self, of the cause of his impotence to preserve the state of pleasure intact. In this sense it is the representative of a law of sorrow that cannot be escaped.  

I close these reflections aware that this essay leaves many issues unraveled and  also leaves many questions: what is the fate of the paternal function? What events will affect the processes of subjective appropriation of its functions? In that way may the father or his substitute cover this role in accordance with the narcissistic pact, fulfilling the mandate that his social group assign him? And again, will the changes in the methods of procreation affect the paternal function, expanding the power of the mother further?

On the contrary, how do we interpret the growing presence of clinical cases of  postpartum depression in fathers? Or, as a recent research assesses, how do we interpret the decrease of testosterone levels in fathers who have a close physical contact with their children?

It is difficult to imagine the future scenarios, reflexes of a change that takes place at an accelerated pace while we seem unable to grasp the structural resonances of the processes of psychic construction. I wonder how the paternal function shall be recovered, in case of absence of the father in real flesh.
I conclude with a note of Piera Aulagnier which, with prophetic intuition wrote:

“You can well imagine a system where this representative is not the father. But whoever he might be (an uncle, a relative, a priest, a class or a caste, as well as the class of the Mothers), his role is nonetheless necessary. The maternal discourse must therefore find this reference point and then accept to be the voice that states the existence of this reference to the infans. The maternal function asks to rely on a model and that this model is invoked in relation to the infant, as a reason, law, and foundation of his act. The support which, in different cultures, holds the role of representative of the discourse of others is not indifferent to the fate of the psychic subject, as the major or minor model enhancement is not indifferent to the group. Accordingly, there are cultures or moments of a culture that will exacerbate or reduce the psychotic risk”.



Assoun P-L. (1997), Introduction to psychoanalysis,  Borla, Roma (1999), pag. 168.

Aulagnier P. (1975), The Violence of Interpretation, Borla, Roma (1994). 

Freud S. (1896)  Letters to Wilhelm Fliess , Boringhieri, Torino,   Letter to Fliess n. 142

Freud S. (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams, OSF,  Vol. 3 Boringhieri, Torino (1966), pag. 239

Freud S. (1912-13) Totem and Taboo. OSF, Vol. 7, Boringhieri, Torino (1977), pag. 61.

Freud S. (1922) The Ego and the Id. OSF, Vol. 9  Boringhieri Torino (1989)

Recalcati M. (2013) Telemachus Complex. Feltrinelli, Milano.

Roussillon R. (2013). Transizionalità della figura paterna. Lavoro letto alla SIPsIA, Roma, 9 mar. ‘13.