The Paternal Function – Olga Pozzi


The purpose of the following remarks is simply to stimulate a discussion by relying on the principles successfully tested in previous SPIweb debates. Therefore, this contribution has no pretense of completeness, but only contains observations and suggestions waiting for a more complete processing. Besides, the proposed theme for this round of discussions is both current and highly relevant: it undoubtedly falls within our specific theoretical and clinical interest, but at the same time– as proved by its growing visibility in the mass-media – it touches upon sensible and widely perceived issues. A similar interplay between the developments of psychoanalytic processing and the transformations undergone by the “forms of life” which psychoanalysis deals with (while at the same time being immersed in them) represents an interesting opportunity for a much needed critical reflection.

The problem of the father, regardless of the perspective one may chose to adopt, requires a panoptic gaze that takes into account the close interconnection between the anthropological, religious, historical, socio-political, sociological and psychological fields. This may sound as a bit too obvious introductory remark, but it is nonetheless a necessary one since our interest concerns primarily the field of psychonalysis. Having said this, I will start with a few extradisciplinary remarks.



Cultural influences

Anthropological studies, despite their diversity and disagreements, have long documented the great diversification of the paternal function in different cultures, ranging from clearly identified paternal attributions (sometimes even distributed among various degrees of kinship and affinity, as in the various organizations of the matrilineal societies), to the absence of any paternal attribution as such (famously highlighted by Levi-Strauss’s structuralist theory, which was criticized by A. Green).

In the Western world, the socio-cultural transformations which took place in the transition from the medieval to the renaissance and humanistic models of behavior and values determined a corresponding transformation in the way of perceiving the parent-child relationship and the related parental functions. In the transition from one era to the other, a greater attention was paid to the problem of establishing new pedagogical techniques adequate to the education of the children. Children were increasingly perceived by their fathers as individuals endowed with features and needs peculiar to their developmental age and, more particularly, as needy of the affection of both the parents, and not of just one of them (this being traditionally the mother, considered the first natural contact).

Gradually, the model of the authoritarian father (patria potestas) as the source and custodian of the livelihoods or even, in the upper classes, of the economic well-being and of the hereditary transmission through male primogeniture, gave way to the modern idea of the father. Such idea was founded, still at this stage, on a clear-cut division of nature and culture, but only as regards the duties specifically assigned to each parent: the mother remained in charge of feeding and raising the children while the father’s duty was to educate and instruct the children and to procure the means of subsistence (only gradually was the role of breadwinner extended also to the mother). The role of the father was to teach renunciation, sacrifice, obedience and the control of the impulses, especially with respect to the inhibition of pleasure: in other words, he had to teach the respect of the rules.

Both parents, however, were now allowed – if not required – to constantly manifest their affection to the children, which led to a gradual decline of the imperative for a strong paternal severity, allowing for a greater family interaction and an increased tenderness toward the children. From a psychological point of view, this was the real and most significant transformation, although, as with any major change, the old patterns of behaviour continued to exist and re-emerge alongside the new ones. During these revolutions and restorations, however, generational conflicts took on new forms. The fact that the authoritarian model gave way to the need to respect the rights of the children was also due to the growing protests and rebellions on the side of the children against the dominance and power of the fathers. Thus, as in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, the continuity of the generational chain was eventually disrupted.



Paternal function and contemporary times

This brief sketch of the complex vicissitudes undergone by the parent-child relationships in the past two centuries can help us to formulate some assumptions about the meaning of the additional transformations of the paternal function during our – somewhat unsettling – present times.

The weakening of the authoritarian father role has undoubtedly contributed to the emergence, or at least to the consolidation, of a “brotherly covenant”, to the detriment of transgenerational power. The so-called “society without the father” (Mitscherlich), celebrated by the new generations, is beginning to pay the price for the lack of both metasocial (Touraine) and metapsychic (Kaës) guarantors, an absence caused by the crisis of the old models of the transgenerational chain. As a result, we witness, on the one hand, devastating identity crises and an increasingly widespread psychological fragility and, on the other, a strenghtening of the brotherly covenant against the paternal authority. The underlying and illusory idea is that without impositions and restrictions of any kind freedom, wealth, power and pleasure can be achieved. Such scenario shows an increasing problematization of the parental functions – particularly those traditionally assigned to the father – combined with an ambivalent mixture of inadequacy, guilt, rage and tendency to abandon the parental task. These problems inevitably affect the relationship between the partners and are often, at least in some measure, the outcome of their previous subjective experiences.

The father has ceased to be the power to be fought and the model he has been gradually encouraged to conform to is based on permissiveness, lack of rules and refusal to impose limitations to personal freedom. Therefore, it has become much more difficult for fathers to be regarded as a point of reference for the children while the children themselves no longer feel the need to contrast or fight their fathers. Thus, children often end up simply ignoring their fathers and losing even the incentive to build their own identity by contrasting that of their fathers, which in the present situation would still represent a positive attempt.

The kind of bond traditionally characterizing the parent-child affective relationships with respect to gender has also lost its specificity, particularly as regards the presence of “negative” feelings such as competition, rivalry, jealousy, desire for possession, and aggression. These feelings are now equally and symmetrically distributed in a manner different from earlier times (up to a recent past it was believed that between a parent and a child of the same sex a situation of competition and rivalry was more likely to develop, while in the case of a parent and a child of different sex a strong desire for possession and jealousy was expected to emerge). At the same time, the strengthening of the brotherly covenant, rather than promoting peace among peers, often leads to an increase in competition, rivalry and aggression between siblings. Anti-social behavior and fratricidal conflicts between youth gangs are increasing, and gang members are often very young.

According to the unanimous opinion of sociologists, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers in the field of juvenile distress, evidence of these recent developments lies in the spread of drugs and juvenile delinquency and in the increasingly uncontrollable phenomenon of the baby gangs. The target of the gangs’ attacks is no longer the paternal power, but rather an external power, one indiscriminate and spectacularly publicized and seemingly available, which, because of such characteristics, provokes ambivalent reactions such as frustrating appropriative envies and paranoid refusals. Besides, gang members do not come solely from the lower classes, but from all classes, despite their differences. On a different level, we find the equally widespread use of one’s own body as a communication tool, which normally implies practices of self-harm and self-disfigurement.

Faced with the spread of these social phenomena, society is, on the one hand, only a powerless witness; on the other hand, society itself, driven by the impersonal law of profit, allows and promotes models of behavior based on the pursuit of easy pleasures, thereby contributing to the dissolution of the educational role of the parents, especially with respect to the restraining of instinctual drives. The idea that the object of desire must be at hand, ready to be grasped all at once, without any delay and with minimal effort is nowadays enjoying a great popularity. When the drives of the children are not immediately satisfied – and since they are no longer monitored by the fathers nor creatively redirected by them – they trigger a destructiveness necessarily linked to the perception of an intolerable privation. The resulting imbalance in the delicate mechanism that regulates the paternal attitude toward tolerance and intolerance, permissiveness and authoritarianism with respect to the transgressions of the children can contribute to render the position of the father more confusing and less reliable in the eyes of his children.



Plasticity of the roles and parenting functions

Given the reciprocal influence of socio-cultural models, what specifically concerns us as psychoanalysts is the unresolved question of the transformations undergone by the paternal function in the present times and its relationship to the maternal function. The debate is widespread and still in progress and several alternative hypotheses have been proposed: this testifies to the difficulty of the problem, particularly when dealing with the comparison between the functions related specifically to each parent.

It was traditionally held (and it still is among many psychoanalysts) that, unlike motherhood, fatherhood should be built in the course of time with the help provided by the mother. According to this line of thought, the mother would gradually allow the father to step into the family relationship, thereby facilitating the transition from the mother-child dyad to the triad mother- child-father (the father being “the third one”). Typically, such third one would be the father in person, although that need not be so since his role may be taken also by other male or female figures.

Lacan’s reflections on the paternal functions were based on the distinction between the imaginary, the real and the symbolic. Lacan’s theory on this matter seemed to have reached a definitive systematization, with the clear dominance of the symbolic order summarized in the well-known metaphor of the Nom du Père, guarantor of the rules and custodian of the law. It is worth noting, however, that, in conjunction with the awareness of the increasing inadequacy of the father (Lacan himself referred to this phenomenon as “evaporation”), the singular and unique Nom – which no historically existing father could ever claim for himself – gave way to more modest and “lay” noms, while at the same time the “real” and even the “imaginary” gained, in the final stages of Lacan’s thought, an increasing relevance. This is, I believe, a remarkable instance of the previously mentioned mutual influence between theory and intepreted data.

In an interesting and recent contribution to the topic, Delourmel has quoted Michel Fain’s idea (expressed in Censorship of the lover) that, at the time of the necessary disinvestement from the mother, the psyche of the child develops an internal censorship against the unleashing of the drives, which testifies to the effectiveness of the paternal image in the psychism of the child. Green has argued that a primordial identification with the father gradually leads to the transformation of the passion and the separation between mother and child, also as the father offers himself to the mother as an object of instinctual satisfaction. However, it is the mother, says Lacan, who allows access to the father with her desire. The Lacanian discourse, therefore, argues for the antecedence of the maternal function and sees it as a necessary premise for the development of the paternal function. In any case, many contemporary authors believe that the complexity of the original situation revolves around issues related to the process of inhibition and tertiality, understood primarily in its proscriptive function over the mother-child dyad.

In his essay, Delourmel points out how many contemporary psychoanalysts are still committed to the idea of the universality of the Oedipus complex and of the centrality of the role of the father. However, he also clarifies that the reference to Freud should take into account other aspects of his thought: his phylogenetic hypotheses (murder of the father by the primitive horde as the origin of religions and social organization) are not exactly compatible with the ontogenetic ones (identification with the father during one’e own personal prehistory – as argued in Drives and their fates or in Negation). Such discrepancies may be explained by postulating a dialectical relationship between phylogeny and ontogeny. I will briefly summarize Delourmel’s discussion of the topic (which is undoubtedly partial since thematically limited to the French-speaking community, but still useful for our purposes and rich in terms of insights).

In Delourmel’s opinion, it is the awareness of the problems mentioned above that motivated the recent contributions by authors such as Diatkine and Le Guen (the non-mother), Green (the original “third” dimension of the paternal function mediated by the mother, even before its distinct personal representation), Fain (censorship of the lover), S. Botella (the Oedipus of the Id and the original patricide). For all these authors, the paternal function is still intrinsically linked to the vicissitudes of the drive as a force opposing its immediate resolution. Particularly incisive in that sense are the positions of M. Fain, who detects within the very essence of the drive the censorship coming from the paternal image, and Le Guen, who theorizes the figure of the “non-mother” (a sort of “pre-negation”), which is supposed to mediate the passage from a simple “excitement” to a – albeit minimum – structuring of the “drive”, thereby constituting an immanent obstacle and establishing the possibility of a limit.

In the context of his theory of primary narcissism, Green places this inhibition process at the heart of the drive. According to Sara Botella, the unrepresentable and traumatic root of the Oedipus complex responsible for the development of the triangulation process within the psyche lies in the original patricide. Lacan’s contribution follows an alternative route and, relying on the model of structural linguistics, frees itself radically from Freudian metapsychology and the related concepts of drive, conflict, psychic work, etc. But even within such a different perspective the centrality of the couple inhibition/tertialitystill remains at the core of the theory.

However, it is also true that the loosening of the traditional rigidity in the distribution of clearly differentiated roles and functions among the parents has facilitated, in the presence of favorable conditions, a more involved presence of the father, not only from the beginning of the newborn’s life, but also from the time of conception. Such presence is an affective one, which opens the way to alternative hypotheses about the time and mode of development of the paternal function, as also about the idea of the father as the sole bearer of the symbolizing and subjectivizing function and as the custodian of the law. In fact, the triad mother-father-child can even take form at the very beginning of the process (an instance of early and strong involvement of the father lies in the interesting anthropological evidence of the rite of couvade, typical of some cultures, which contemplates even hormonal changes in the father in preparation for the mother’s delivery), although functions different in terms of quality and intensity may be activated at different times. Besides, even if we assumed that the paternal function is activated only on a delayed basis, this would not necessarily imply its derivation from the maternal function: it might have existed independently since the beginning, while being ready to be activated at a different time. Delourmel mentions the Freudian concept of emergence in order to support the possibility of the existence of an original and underived paternal principle, which would emerge at a certain stage of the psychic development.



The importance of the paternal function for gender identity and bisexuality

In order to understand the relevance of the paternal functions for the child’s psychogenic development, it is essential to reflect on the fact that the male presence within the triad plays a significant role in the child’s path to a sexually defined identity. The perception of a gender differencebetween the parents, in fact, facilitates the formation of a network of multiple and differentiated identifications and counter-identifications which support the processes of subjectivation. But this is not all. Thanks to the identification processes, the existence of a difference of gender between the parents since the beginning of life creates the possibility of an openness to bisexuality which Freud acutely described in a 1914 note added to the first of his Three essays on the theory of sexuality:


[…] all men are capable of homosexual object selection and actually accomplish this in the unconscious. […] According to psychoanalysis, it rather seems that it is the independence of the obect selection from the sex of the object, the same free disposal over male and female objects, as observed in childhood, in primitive states and in prehistoric times, which forms the origin from which the normal as well as the inversion types developed, following restrictions in this or that direction. In the psychoanalytic sense the exclusive sexual interest of the man for the woman [or the other way round, I would add] is also a problem requiring an explanation, and is not something that is self-evident and explainable on the basis of chemical attraction.


These are the intial phases from which the most important paternal functions are traditionally thought to originate. Such functions – which, as we have seen, entered a profound crisis at the begininning of the modern era and an especially acute one during the last few decades (from the Seventies and up) – are: the capacity to help one’s children to develop their own identity and self-esteem and to provide them with ethical, social, affective and behavioral models grounded on one’s own transgenerational imprinting. It appears clear to me, however, that it is not possible to understand the modifications undergone by the paternal function by solely referring to the relationship with the children and by neglecting the parallel dynamics inherent to the relationship between the partners and related to the many complex issues regarding the question of gender.



“Post-modern” challenges to psychoanalysis: Incipit vita nova?

An additional contribution to the profound social transformation in place and to its impact on the parental functions is provided by the acceleration of scientific and technical progress, which not only corresponds in the most appropriate manner to ancient expectations, but inevitably tends to lead to new questions, precisely because new answers are made available. This often induces a mimetic adjustment whose adequacy to the current times is only apparent and is far from being a genuine integration. The traditional and reassuring configuration of the nuclear family seems to have become a thing of the past: test-tube babies, wombs for rent for infertile couples and homosexuals, the various techniques of assisted fertilization and the achievement of previously unimaginable targets such as cloning, offer the spectacle of a plurality of biological or non-biological and heterosexual or homosexual mothers and fathers who constitute new types of extended families and destroy the old certainties about the unique biological derivation, at least in the case of the mother.

The extent to which scientific progress may call into question and even destroy any given certainty can be clearly exemplified in the fallacious remark made by Green with reference to Freud’s claim that “[…] there is no one who has more than one mother and the relationship with her is grounded on a doubtless and unique event” (Contribution to the Psychology of Love). In La folie privée, psychanalyse des cas-limites(Italian trans., p. 146) Green confidently objected to Freud that not only the mother is unique, “because one has also only one father”. However, scientific progress and the increasingly widespread capacity to technically intervene in the “free course” of nature since the very beginning of life make it clear that both Freud’s and Green’s statements were enjoying only a temporary validity: who is the real mother in the case of a “surrogate mother”? And who is the real father in the case of a heterologous insemination? Not to mention the various “cloning” techniques, which, so far, do not apply to humans.

The shift determined by the acceleration of the new technologies in comparison with the much slower pace and rhythm of the social, scientific, cultural and psychological changes makes it difficult to adjust to such rapid transformations and induces a sense of displacement and disorientation that affects – in different but complementary ways – young people and adults, parents and children, and their relationship of course. Thus, it becomes increasingly difficult to evade the questions on whether to refer exclusively to the oedipal triangulation for the understanding of the affective relationships between generations and the definition of gender identity, forms of sexuality and identity tout court. Shall we just abandon the Oedipus complex and, in the wake of Fenelon’s adventures of Telemachus, welcome Massimo Recalcati’s suggestion to shift the emphasis on the vicissitudes of a son who looks towards the sea in the confident expectation of the return of a liberating father? Such a perspective, however, clashes with the fact that one of the main problematic issues of the contemporary world lies in the refusal of waiting for the return of an authoritative, right, strong and liberating father. It is true: new generations do not seek a father who brings order in their lives. They strive to find their space in a headless society, accomplishing what Recalcati itself has called “the failure of the leftist inheritance”: the refusal of memory and dependence and the severing of the link with the past.

Of course, we cannot simply overlook the evidence of new forms of discontents with (and within) civilization. Our own clinical activity forces us to recognize this. The new diseases of the soul, those changes of (and in) our patients on which Gaddini called our attention in 1984 with far-sighted sensitivity, together with Corrao’s fascinating idea of an ongoing transition from the time of Oedipus to that of Dionysus (1992) are a daily remainder of this situation. Yet we cannot even neglect what we might define as a kind of “inertia” of the psyche, especially in its unconscious dimension: a resistance to simply let itself being shaped “in the image and likeness” of social transformations.

The human psyche not only “reacts”, but – to a considerable extent and for reasons determined by the long process of human evolution – also “acts” on the world in which it lives, raising questions and expressing wishes and needs – often untimely ones – which do not necessarily match those imposed or suggested by the “society of spectacle” or the “capitalist discourse”. In a sense, the “symptoms” of our patients, up to the most radical ones shown by the psychotics who “do not want to know anything about it” (not even in the ways of the “repression”) represent an incontrovertible evidence of this. The undeniable difficulties experienced by many “real fathers” are not necessarily met with disappointment and refusal by the children. On the contrary, the children, although perhaps in ways far removed from their consciousness, often appear needy of characters (fathers) in search of an author.

In an unpublished note by De Renzis (personal communication, 2013) we find a dialogue between two characters in a story written by a patient. This story seems particularly suitable to illustrate the kind of creative opposition to the absence of a “real” father we are talking about. Here are the key lines: – But don’t you have a father? – I have never met my father except in my dreams: he had the arms, the color of the eyes and the hands of my mother’s memories. Yet, he acted as my father even in the dream. Sometimes he would tell me: “Look, you can’t do that” or “Help your mother now, tonight she can’t even stand up”. […] The dream was my father […]”. Referring to similar situations, De Renzis remarked: “the transfert, we may say, seems in some cases to go against the traffic: it creates an antecedence in place of an absence”. Despite the most evident and rapid historical and socio-cultural changes, we may say there is a kind of invariance (however relative) in the psyche, particularly in its deepest layers. Faced with such invariance, however, psychoanalysis can cling to no fixed interpretation or dogmatic canonization: in fact, the pluralization of its many theoretical orientations is clear evidence of a totally opposite attitude.



Concluding remarks 

“Evaporation of the Father”: such was Lacan’s terse definition of the crisis of the paternal function in the contemporary world. But what exactly has evaporated in the paternal function? Is there anything left of it on which to build a new parent-child relationship? And again: is it possible, in the wake of this growing “apprehension”, to hypothesize (though perhaps only provocatively) the disappearance of the unconscious itself from our disoriented post-modern times? Can the human psyche be considered just as a simple storage receptive of (and therefore purely adaptive to) inputs coming from the external environment? Given the complex interplay between social inductions and subjective prerogatives, it is not easy – perhaps it is even impossible – to give a credible answer to such questions and we should avoid the temptation of proposing, against the renewed forms of discontent typical of our “civilization”, new “illusions” for the future.

Not even the recourse to the “Witch” may authorize us to predict that, after the evaporation of the authoritarian role, of the strength and the power of the alleged certainties, there will remain (or come back) the moral honesty to admit one’s doubts in front of the the new generations and the capacity to really listen to one’s children in order to face together the difficult challenge represented by the simultaneous drives toward identity and difference (identifications and counter-identifications, identity and dis-identity) that are the cornerstones of personal growth and of the achievement of autonomy. A profound commitment to the criterion of responsibility remains an unavoidable wish, but it does not necessarily constitute a reasonable prediction.





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