Unclassifiable: How to Symbolically Kill a Father-Child

by Martine Fourré, PhD

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Ce n’est pas tellement du meurtre du père qu’il s’agit que de sa castration.[1]

La castration relaie de fait comme lien au père ce qui dans
chaque discours se connote de virilité.[2] 


    This formulation strictly follows an imaginary institutionalization (Castoriadis 1975) of the Modern era in the West, one that may not apply to the other social and cultural contexts where psychoanalysis is practiced today.

    In 1999, I began teaching, influenced and inspired by the experience of my expatriation to Africa. In Le deuil de l’Autre (2002), I quoted Lacan who talked about “[les] conditions sociales de l’oedipisme” (Lacan 1966, p. 136) – “the social conditions of Oedipism” – when, as early as 1950, he depicted the decline of paternal authority. I will reformulate a definition of Oedipus to put an end to the futile infatuation with the question of whether Oedipus was universal or not, illustrated in two well-known books, Anti-Oedipus (Deleuze & Guattari 1972) and African Oedipus (Ortigue & Ortigue 1966).


Lessons from Africa

     In Africa, the individual is not an entity separated from others as he is often thought of in the West. Rather, the individual is thought of as a composite of “beings,” and is partly defined by the animal, the totem, the djinn, and the rab, as well as a host of other divine ancestors. In one of his texts, Riesman (1988-1989) presents a study on La notion de personne en Afrique noire [The Concept of Person in Sub-Saharan Africa], where he sums up the differences in the imaginary and symbolic reference points between our two civilizations. Riesman conveys the experience of confusion in the immersion in places where the meaning and use of words that concern the body, thought, parentage, affiliation, and even social laws are so different. For me, the discomfort was so profound that I found it necessary to take a fresh look at myself and rethink the world I came from, and in so doing, reveal that my notion of “common meaning” was far more context-derived than I had previously considered (Collomb & Collignon 1974; Dieterlen 1973; Diop 2000; Fortes 1989; Ortigue & Ortigue 1966; Ortigue 2004; Rabain 1979; Zempleni & Rabain 1965; Kaufmant 2007).

     While I had intellectually anticipated and considered this contrast of cultures, experiencing it called for more careful reformulation: If Oedipus is a universal fact constituted by the entrance of subjects, one by one, into the discourse of their respective languages, which in turn informs and impacts the drives, as well as the subjects’ sexuality and their affiliations, the actual or specific form in which Oedipus is broached in different languages, countries and parts of the world (the Other that legitimizes the imaginary and symbolic social bond) has nothing universal about it. The representation of the legitimizing Other often differs from one culture to another. Oedipus thus depends on the un-thought encounters of a subject with the signifiers of his personal and social history, as well as those of his historical moment, even with the unlikely encounter of a society in a constant state of reconstruction with the individuals that comprise and produce it. 

    In the West, for the most part, the father is this Other. He is the carrier of Oedipus, the legitimate guarantor of speech, which he introduces to the child. In West Africa, it is brothers, and the community at large, who perform that function. In this society, the imaginary register is not centered around the punitive function incarnated in the Roman paterfamilias. Here, brotherhood and sharing, and the non-dissolution of the group are the principal tenets of the process of relatedness and social mores. Finally, apart from the father-carrier, the guarantor of the lineage is the village chief or sorcerer, the guardian of the world of ancestors. More often than not, biological parents are figures the child shares life with unconditionally and figures he respects, more as a function of their age than as a function of authority that, in Western culture, derives from castration fear and the parents’ assertion of privacy.

    So, Africa has taught me (Collomb 1977) that contrary to our lamentations on the shortcomings of fathers – bemoaning the absence or waning of the father’s authority – the forms and vehicles of the subject’s Oedipal confrontations can vary across cultures and across subjective choices. The subjective choice can include a Western-type father figure, which might be atypical within the family culture, or may involve brothers, groups, or other formations that do not include the typical features considered in the West as canonically Oedipal.


Lessons from Treatments

     Inspired by the arts and crafts I received from the children in clinical treatment in Dakar (Fourré 2012), I became similarly receptive to the “crafts” of my patients. Several came to be cured of inhibitions [3], humiliations, failures, and complaints about having no place in the world. However, spared of feelings of persecution and guilt, they did not feel responsible for their situation. All of them were between cultures: Europeans in Africa, Africans trained in Europe, and Anglophones, a trait shared in common with me, a psychoanalyst who was herself between two cultures. Still, I was surprised by the strange relation to the father, known to me by its function in Western culture, understood by psychoanalysis as a non-expressed sign of discontent with civilization. This encounter led me to reread Lacan.

    As early as 1938, Lacan perceived the aloofness of the authoritarian father, his imaginary cohort of lawless children, and his appeal to the legislative function. Lacan directed his teachings beyond such pseudo-realities, particularly in the case of psychosis, where he considered the father figure as involved, but less as a person than as “nom-du-non” (“name-of-no”), a role he plays in obstructing enjoyment for the mother figure.  

     Lacan appears to discard the father himself, the structure of his desire, and his pleasure, as a figure involved in the psychic development of the child. This does not at all mean that he did not put forward a few hypotheses about fathers, especially as they relate to psychosis. But he always abandoned them in the name of preventing imaginary reductions of his conceptualizations (Lacan 1975). Thus, Lacan was less concerned with fathers than with the roles that “father” played in what the patient said.

    In SeminarIII (1955-1956), Lacan elaborates the problem of the differences between types of fathers. He says: "L’aliénation est ici radicale, elle (la psychose) n’est pas liée à un signifiant néantisant comme dans un certain mode de relation rivaltaire avec le père, mais à un anéantissement du signifiant” [Alienation is radical here, the psychosis is not linked to a negating signifier used in the service of rivalry with the father, rather it is related to an annihilation of meaning/signification]. Thus, in addition to the model of father who is the subject of rivalry, Lacan introduces a notion of father as annihilator of meaning, where rivalry does not function in the standard Oedipal configuration; rather, the rivalry is necessary so as to avoid being annihilated (by him).

    Being negated by the father, we find the inhibition and humiliation invoked by analysands. But Lacan does not describe a specific, logical process that explains how the father, considered to be the carrier of the signifiers that are experienced as annihilating, would impose this on his children. Instead, he considers that these fathers, in the position of paragons of law, are systematically on the side of those who incite the forced choice of psychosis (1974-1975, p. 108), as Schreber’s father did. 

    Lacan also describes other father figures: the father of little Hans as a wishy-washy mother (Seminar 1957-06-19); Hamlet’s two fathers, one idealized, the other despised (Seminar VI, 1958-59); Leonardo da Vinci’s father, a dream-father (Seminar 1957-07-03), Don Juan’s father who was nowhere to be found (Seminar 1957-07-03); and Joyce’s father, a drunkard (Seminar 1975-11-18). But his focus is always on determining the coordinates of the father in the unconscious and how his role generates ideas about fathers there. Lacan is also concerned with the way that the father is presented by the mother and thought about by the child, not as an abstract conception of what the father should be, but rather through the relationally-lived experience, as mediated by the mother.

    At this level of analysis, all fathers are equal in Lacan’s view because he conceives of them as:

une carence… dont la répartition ne laisse pas d’inquiéter: le père tonnant, le père débonnaire, le père tout puissant, le père humilié, le père engoncé, le père dérisoire, le père au ménage, le père en vadrouille." [an absence/gap which, in its distribution causes no worry: [as] the booming father, the good-humored father, the all-powerful father, the humiliated father, the cramped father, the insignificant father, the stay-at-home father, the wandering father] (1966, p. 578).

The father’s imaginary phallic presence in the mother’s discourse constitutes the versions of father in the desire of the Other.

    The term “absent” always seems to be reduced to an enumeration of flaws and fears related to the fact that these men do not use the phallic, virile power of the paterfamilias. Here there is an analysis of the interaction between the child and the designated man-father in his life, whether it is a choice or not and whether socially legitimate or not.


Absent Fathers

    If we take an extra step in this direction – what do we learn? What questions do these do-it-themselves (i.e., without parents) patients raise with their complaints of being overwhelmed and of their inhibitions? They act before agreeing, and fleeing transference without saying anything about it, they seek their own place in the world without being able to find it, a potential place beside a father they want to be potent but who they simultaneously disown and reject, extrapolating from their confusion between castrated and absent, virile and potent.  

    Michou, who has been in treatment for five years, is continuously returned to parental jouissance by his dreams. Awake, he pictures himself at the end of a corridor, exposing his nude erection to his parents, who are stunned and happy to watch him. He explains that he had to flee Europe, where there was no place for his desire; he lived as if dead, aspiring to a success that he attributes to riding the coattails of a “designated” mother, but in which he feels his life withering, his existence dissolving. His desire to live is a hope that degrades him. As an international senior civil servant with enviable professional success, he attempts to fill the emptiness of his world on a quest for an infantile love he knows to be transgressive. Always on the brink of pedophilic tendencies, fear allows him to limit himself. Because of this, he does not act; he says he does not need it: “These beautiful young boys are my living image through the eyes of my parents: a lonely little boy without any other place in their lives of great moralizing.” Fortunately, his parents sent him abroad to the scouts, the only place where, beginning at age ten, he felt dynamic, active, and able to exit the family circle, but also where most unexpectedly these kinds of (pedophilic) attractions began. He never spoke of his father except to say that he was never around, not available to him or anyone else, not limited by him; he was confronted with nothingness.

    To clarify his history: more than his relationship to his mother, who he clearly described as engulfed in a depression that tirelessly tied him to her, it is the relationship to his father that is most real to him, precisely because of his father’s complete absence from his life. In this total impossibility of any encounter with his father, he cannot fantasize about the desire of his mother, who says nothing about the absence of his father, making him wonder if she is even aware of it. His father absolutely dominates the signification of his unbridled sexual pleasure, becoming present only in it – likely akin to his depressed mother’s desire – but he is only able to approach this desire through his ideological conviction of the perfect man. Michou the child knows these are lies. He knows everything even though he can’t think about it. As a subject of desire, this father has no place in his speech, except in a few rare passages, through more coerced words. So, despite the symbolic separation coming from his mother, which he accepts – “Leave me alone, I’m tired” – he always finds himself in front of or in an unnamable absence: to be that little boy for whom she has dreams of satisfaction that his father does not fulfill. This father is absent and this absence appears less through the imaginary qualities attributed to his absence than through the real absence he protects his son from, but which the son nevertheless understands: that of his sexual deviations. Alone in no-man’s land, far from his mother’s words, restricting himself to experience some of his father’s pleasure, Michou does not stray; rather, he tirelessly seeks to satisfy the desire of the loving Other, which, if successful, could remove his inhibitions and allow him to go and meet the world. So, the son cannot recognize his father as such, insofar as the latter is so bogged down in his own enjoyment that he could not bear feeling the inadequacy necessary to allow him to want to meet his son. Michou knows his father would die from that. So he does not approach his father, tacitly agreeing to be left at the entrance to a world that is strange to him, even stranger to him than his father is; it is inaccessible. This is his son’s judgment, an unconscious vantage point to inhabit where he sees without seeing what cannot be reduced to the fantasy of the desire of the mother for a husband, a vision of his father that is not impossible to imagine, but is inaccessible at risk of death. But, it is impossible to symbolically kill this non-castrated father, as it is mentally overwhelming to never answer for one’s actions. As a result, his real death, and not his symbolic death, is the ultimate solution, an unthinkable hypothesis, which puts the subject in an impossible situation.

    Although Little Hans’s father shows his shortcomings by not being in a position to answer his son’s questions, he is present and available. Joyce’s father does not care about his son, leaving him in a situation where he deals with the maternal signifiers, excluded from all forms of paternal support. After separating from his mother, Michou’s father leaves his son in a void, crushed by the negating signifiers and discourses of his father’s sexual flight and moral lies, where Michou is made to be the specular double of this man whose infantile pleasure leaves his son speechless. Michou is inhibited from acting on his desires and is left with a semi-conscious pull toward this infantile sexuality, leaving him on a quest to realize his desire in the eroticized child that he was as the object of his father’s pleasure.

    Pola Kinski (2013), the German actress, tells with panic how her father raped her for about 15 years, because he considered her “his little doll.”

Dans sa manière de penser et de ressentir, il n’y a rien que lui… [In his way of thinking and feeling, there is nothing or no one but him] (p. 205).

Bien qu’il ait détruit le peu de choses qui m’appartenaient, qu’aucun millimètre de moi-même ne m’appartienne encore… j’ai réussi à dissimuler cette photo (de ma mère). [Although he destroyed the few things that belonged to me, no inch of myself belongs to me anymore…  [but] I have managed to hide this photo (of my mother)] (p. 218).    

She is less haunted by his sexual touching and more by what it stood for: she, as a subject of proper desire, has no place by his side. Two motives keep her alive: first, the will to resist, despite the paradox of being a prisoner of his pleasure; then, to show that she exists by running away once and for all, to break up with him: "à la recherche de son âme" [in search of her soul].

     To listen to them, we are going to consider three benchmarks. [4] 


Figuring the Father Out: Three Benchmarks

     First, we must concern ourselves with the formation of the fantasy in these cases of neuroses. The father, in his function – the father as such – cannot acquire the imaginary characteristics of a signifying chain, or the subject’s oneiric play. This is because the father saturates the signifying space in the Other, where the desiring subject tries to find himself. This saturation is expressed by Lacan’s phrase: “signifiant néantisant” ("nullifying signifier"), that is to say, a Master Signifier (S1=S2) by which the subject is nullified, inhibited, or mistaken for the father-child. Fantasy is not invested with imagination when the father is too present, as in Kinski’s case, or else, as is the case with Alexandre Jardin (2013), the subject is overwhelmed by imagination because the father is never present. In both cases, it is hard to perceive an object of desire, to snatch an object from this grip, because these fathers, who saturate the space in the Other with a too-real phallic nothingness, or total presence, force the subject into a constant search for him. This search becomes a real amputation of the part “father,” taken from the subject’s own body (and can include scarifications and other tattoos, and even diseases) as a way of widening the emptiness to signifiers. 

     The second concern regarding these fathers is separation, which appears as a breach, allowing the subject symbolic elaboration of his capture by the Other. Knowing that he has been castrated, there is no other solution than to elaborate upon his deadly relations to paternal pleasure, which is a paradox insofar as it is at the same time a quest for the recognition of a legitimate father the subject can accept and listen to. 

     These cases teach us that the legitimate outcry of a father is not enough; the subject still has to be legitimately acceptable in society by him. The tragedy of these subjects is to always cross-examine the very legitimacy they are so eagerly looking for, and even to destroy it, except if they themselves accept the deprivation that the father did not, a privation they consider necessary for their lives. If this does not happen, death will catch up, in the same way it did with Sandor Ferenczi (1932) or Guillaume Depardieu (2014), and so many others.   

     The third and final benchmark concerning these subjects and the father is about the symbolic ways they invent their appeal to the father, in the transference to their analyst and to discourse in general. 

     In Mes trois zèbres (2013), Alexandre Jardin talks about his inhibitions, his quest for a beyond-the-father; he also talks about stifled ease. About Sacha Guitry, he writes: 

"… il avait imité Lucien (Guitry) parce qu’il ne pouvait pas se passer de sa présence … il se l’était incorporé en imagination … j’ai moi-même aussi dépensé une passion extrême à ressusciter par écrit mon père. Absence incomblable … l’imagination est ce qui tend à devenir réel … je n’ai survécu à ce drame absolu – la rupture d’un lien vital fusionnel – qu’en continuant à faire vivre le personnage éblouissant de mon papa grâce à ma plume." […he had imitated Lucien (Guitry) because he could not do without his presence…he was part of himself in his imagination…I myself have spent too much mental energy trying to resurrect my father through my writings. An inconsolable absence. Imagination refers to all that yearns to come true. I have only survived this absolute tragedy – the breaking of an intensely close and vital tie – by continuing to bring to life the dazzling figure that my father was, with my pen] (pp. 102-103).    

     Let us put it more clearly: because he did not have a father, he himself was that very father. However, he was no fool; he knew that he was cheating his own truth, and that in his enjoyment of that absolute Other, who was dead, he was misleading himself. "Cet homme empêché qui me navre" [That forcibly prevented man upsets me] (p. 74). So, as an act, the book records his quest for, and encounter with, a castrated father –who, as a result of the writing, is symbolically dead. This is like those historical figures whose very historical reality has allowed them to become fallible, and as a result, acceptable and legitimate. As a historical and symbolic figure, the father becomes castrated and is no longer a threatening emptiness.

     Jardin testifies, like the hero of Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” (2002), that in his breaches or flights that create an edgeless world, the subject resorts to the law, less for the limits that the law can impose on him than for the flaws inherent in the law. It is this imperfection in the law that stands in for the absent words of the Other and allows for castration. Contesting and opening breaches and gaps in the contradictory certainties of discourse is not an empty word or a gaping void, but the site of a true desire. His unconscious knows that this work depends on him, on his own castration, and this worries him. Like Jardin, he inhibits this movement more often than not; he is guilty of becoming, by way of it, the father of his own father, giving shape to his life, and to life in the larger sense of the word, i.e., “s’auto-créer ouvertement” (Jardin 2013, p. 149) – to openly create oneself. As Michou says: total inhibition – "I always have a good excuse not to live by my desire" – to flee from being the double of my father-child and of my depressive mother. 

     To become subjects at this crossroads in their lives, these beings have to face the ethical requirement that consists of finding again the emptiness filled up by the enjoyment of a father-child, as though he is not to be blamed, and he does not have to grow up himself. These fathers also have to stop demanding their wives be absolute, flawless mothers. To become subjects, the children of these couples have to resort to their fathers while not imposing an unbearable castration on them, nor can they kill them by imposing an emptiness they cannot bear. In this regard, Jardin says about Guitry: “La loi ne le concernera jamais” [The law will never concern him] (p. 84). As a son, he makes it clear for himself: “Je ne suis pas hors-la-loi – je n’en ai ni le courage ni les ardeurs – mais un loin de la loi… Elle ne m’inspire aucun désir, ne me vivifie pas”. [I am not an outlaw – I have neither the courage nor the ardor – But I am far from the law… It does not inspire any desire in me; it does not invigorate me] (p. 84). As a matter of fact, if the law did not concern his father, he himself was nevertheless spared by it. The law did not provide the vigor of an openness onto desire that it could have had in a more simple neurosis not marked by such paternal peculiarity. 

     No matter the structure of the desire they have “chosen,” these subjects know that the law pacifies the only emptiness that articulates it to desire, but the access is complicated for them, hence their varied achievements.  



     All these beings who spend their lives looking for their doubles rarely find them. They are still caught up in the urgent necessity to be seen and recognized by the world. In place of the father, should the world give them the recognition they deserve? Should the trap close around issues of symbolization? Overcoming their inhibitions consists of acting on their emptiness, by targeting what is not thought of until it becomes thinkable, and finally recognizable, in place of the Other. They become unclassifiable, regardless of the laws they learn to abide by in order to modify them, or to do without them. They use these laws as their too-absolute and strange name-of-the-father

     When they attain the truth of their desire, these unclassifiable subjects become budding nonconformists, true nuisances, revolutionaries without revolt, hard-working inventors who are completely mistaken, but who are not so mad. Because African culture does not produce such loopholes, its discontent is that of sibling jealousy. I have understood the way the father’s authority in Roman law had, right from the start, produced fathers without limits, and ultimately edgeless and unclassifiable children. Can we see the anchorite as a paradigmatic figure of such unclassifiable subjects, the sine qua non of civilization’s certainties, a recourse to silence that leaves open the stream of signifiers? These patients made me realize that beyond the void of their lost fathers, other social as well as individual father figures are invented every day in our world in which administration – a function that conceals civilian identities – can be a path of negotiation despite its blindness.  

     The administrative function is not without consequence on the psychoanalyst’s praxis with people of all ages and psychic structures. This praxis teaches us to pay attention to the subject in his grappling with the representative(s) of the paternal role and the way he questions and invents for himself. It also teaches us the necessity of deciphering the social issues at stake in the new paths of Oedipus invented on the basis of these encounters. In the current affairs of our societies, where and how, and for what ethical hope, do subjects seek psychoanalysts? 

     As psychoanalysts, we are expected to welcome in life, in our schools, in our practice these subjects and their inventions to ease the autocratic tensions that engendered the history of Oedipus and psychoanalysis in Europe. On the social side, it is the way psychoanalysis is able to be accepted as part of everyday life: psychoanalysis makes a space, and serves as a crucible of invention of space-to-be, paths of Oedipus whose nonsense keeps us occupied, lending to the 21st century discontent of these hollow fathers, the creation of figures that are always renewed afresh, opened towards a breathable world, a world that we recreate again and again, differently.



    The author is grateful to Dr. Michael S. Garfinkle, Professor Mamadou Kandji, and Dr. Manya Steinkoler for their assistance with translating this manuscript.



[1] Lacan, J. (1976-1977). Séminaire XXIV: L'insu que sait de l'une-bévue s'aile à mourre. Lesson March 13, 1977.  “It is less about the murder of the father than about his castration.”

[2] Lacan, J. (1973). L’étourdit, in Scilicet no. 4, Paris: Seuil, p. 16. “As a bond to the father, castration de facto takes over from that which connotes virility in each discourse.”

[3] On this point, I refer to the distinction made by Freud between inhibition and symptom in the first chapter of Inhibition, symptôme et angoisse (1926; Paris: PUF, 1951): "An inhibition can therefore be also a symptom. Consequently, the terminology used is about inhibition, in the case of a mere diminution of the function, and also about symptom, when it comes to an unusual modification of this function, or to a new type of functioning" (p.1). “In this respect, any in-hibition (reference to castration anxiety) that the self imposes on itself can also be called symptom" (p. 69).

[4] The pun is lost in translation. Repères means benchmarks, in the original as re-pères, playing on père as father.



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Address correspondence to:

Martine Fourré, PhD
Résidence École en soin psychosocial Vivre Art
Yoff rue 460
Dakar, Sénégal

13, rue Montenotte
75017 Paris, France


Martine Fourré, PhD, is a psychoanalyst (Espace analytique, Forums, Du Champ Lacanien), a psychologist, and a researcher associated with CRPMS, University of Paris VII Diderot/Sorbonne. She is the founder of the residence Life-Art Dakar and the Association LIVING ART International. 


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