The psychoanalyst

The value of extraneousness

 Il valore della estraneità  DCM-011
04 December 2021

An antidote to the risks of paternity


It has been said and written about that fathers today are not doing very well. On the other hand, Freud, at the beginning of the last century, already foresaw a destiny of impoverishment of the symbolic figure of the father due to progress. An authoritativeness undermined by the horizontality of relationships typical of the American way of life; by the redefinition of the family institution that is more affective than normative; and, by the unstoppable progress of scientific discourse, which as we know, seeks objectivity and certainty while a shadow of uncertainty inevitably falls over the father figure. As has been said, and not without a certain irony, we can be certain who the mother is, yet the same cannot be said of the father.

The concluding word of psychoanalysis on the father, however, enhances his “other” identity, foreign (see the Freudian essay dedicated to Moses “the Egyptian”). Commencing from his entrance onto the family scene where he appears in the guise of a third party called to interrupt the idyll mother-child, which, of course, plays in favor of the future facing of the child to the extra-familiar reality.  In other words, the biological evidence of the descent from the father is too rarely compared to the symbolic value of a presence that establishes healthy boundaries and correct measures, and as such transcribes the experience of the child in the dimension of the Word. 

In the eyes of a Freud who was nostalgic for the good old days of patriarchy, this made him the champion of spirituality as opposed to the naturalness of things. However, today, when confronting challenges such as artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization or surrogacy and their effects on the prestige of the father, it is still important to grasp the structurally putative nature of parenthood that belongs to him. On the one hand, this condition, in terms of bodily intimacy, keeps him at a certain distance from the child. However, on the other, this permits him to present himself as the bearer of a law based on a love that is not born, as in the case of motherhood, in the context of bodily intimacy, but which is marked by its gratuitousness.

An “unjustified” love, which is not based on evidence. In one case the figure of the relationship lies in the immediacy of the bond, here the father introduces into the experience of the child another logic, a field of mediations that involve the need for waiting and renunciation as, however, preparatory forms of desire.

This dose of “extraneousness” can be the antidote to the risks that the paternal function runs today. The “absent” fathers are those who are horrified by the asymmetry of their own position with respect to that of their children, and who consequently prefer to think of themselves as friends or older brothers. Authoritativeness certainly does not lie in speaking up, but in guaranteeing a difference, a solution of continuity in the order of things. Paternity should, in short, reveal the existence of a logical leap between natural processes and much more complex cultural acquisitions. On the other hand, paths with unpredictable outcomes, far from a simple and painless adaptive imprinting are foreseeable. It is, in fact, the “foreign” position of the father that opens his son's eyes to the harshness of life without sparing him in advance, thus favoring his psychic and social emancipation, an indispensable step for the success of intergenerational transmission. In our time, more than ever before, the ethics of fatherhood cannot be reduced to an aseptic and listless transmission of rules or more prosaic techniques of life. The “generative grammar” that, as Pierangelo Sequeri writes, is the driving force behind “the syntax of history” coincides with the act of one who knows how to stir the waters to make room for the newcomer, not without opening up in him the feeling, at times even the vertigo of his own presence in the world. It is in this sense that Lacan can say that the decisive function of the father is not so much that of the legislator as that of the one who “must astound the family”. For the children, the father is a detonator of desire. All this takes on great importance in an era like ours in which the voice of the father is drowned out by the uninterrupted clamor of a society that combines happiness with the consumption of goods and human fulfillment with individual success. However, this is not enough in order to complicate things and force him to leave the nostalgia of the good old days in which he could imagine himself as the derivative on a smaller scale of the all-powerful pater familias of the ancient world. To this, we have added the broadside resulting from the important processes of women's emancipation as well as, as we have already mentioned, the taking place of a method of birth that seems to depower the function, or can even do without him.

Is there, therefore, despair for the fate of fathers?  Are we faced with a free fall of the very concept of what fatherhood is all about? Not at all, if we take into account the fact that every father is in some ways an adoptive parent. The word ‘Adopto’ means, “I choose”. Therefore, someone is not a father for the fact of having materially brought someone into the world, but for the responsibility one takes on in the process of humanizing him, offering in all this a testimony of one's own desire.

We have indeed spoken of a symbolic position, but what is a father’s true substance? Like everything important in life, it can only be grasped in retrospect, even though it represents a legacy capable of withstanding the challenges of the times. To illustrate this perfectly, here are the words of writer Susanna Tartaro taken from her recent La non mamma [the un-mother] to help us here; “After my father's death, his chair or his sweater became memories of air, pneuma, the breath of the life that he was, of the life that they had within them”. About his watch, “By fastening it on my wrist I was looking for the hole to fasten it, the air trace of the passage here on earth... I was looking at it with tenderness”. A curious, paradoxical incorporation of the father, whose human figure assumes nothing more and nothing less than the impalpable consistency of the breath that keeps us alive.

by Francesco Stoppa
Psychoanalyst and essayist. Francesco Stoppa has recently published Le età della vita [The ages of life], with Feltrinelli.