Fatherhood and desire in a sick country

Cathy Wilkes, Dad Resting, 2009


Being a father in contemporary Brazil has to do with the challenge of saving the children's desire by helping them to support an almost unbearable limit around them.

A few days ago I received a somewhat curious question from a friend that made me think: “What is being a father like for you?” Caught by surprise, I didn't really know what to say... and now I think about how I could narrate through the written word the experience of being a father in our country. At the outset, it must be said that an important part of this experience passes through me and takes my voice. Something along the lines of the social and cultural conditions involved in the father's role combine with the place from which I am speaking.

When narrating my experience, other experiences that constituted me are also present: through my speech I hear the voices of my father, grandfathers, grandfathers' fathers... As in every self-report, the denaturalization of the place from which speech does not by itself guarantee neutrality and mastery over the normative determinants that constitute us. I say this because my subjective experience of being a father is marked on several levels, in affective, cultural, historical and social terms.

For me, being a father is not just any experience, but one that is so intense that it causes a discontinuity in life, an irreversible before and after. The experiences of discontinuity, as well as death and birth in life, confront us with the challenge of trying to sew together, in words, the loose threads of a cut that took place in an imprecise, inexact time. At the same time interruption and restart in the fabric of life, I find myself grappling with an enigma. And if to some extent I get lost in such digressions, it's because I'm also here with the inscrutable word: father.

Paternity admits a very singular temporality. It begins with just one name, father, and a profoundly hesitant articulation – although many know very well how to disguise this moment –, “I am the father”. A latecomer, which goes ahead despite knowing its inevitable delay. “They were born (the mother and the baby) and I am still here to be born.” It happens that at some point birth comes and then the word gains opacity, new layers and other ways of saying: “papa”, “papai”… A strange event: being said and founded by the other that we first name at birth. Even if he says it in a very rudimentary way, since the saying, before the word, has only the expressive form of an attentive and curious look, it makes us remember and relive the great passage through the threshold of birth.

As soon as he arrived in the world, creating worlds, we crossed together and inaugurated the instant of my own death and rebirth. I will no longer be who I was after being a father, something in me ceased to exist. The letter “p” that comes out of the child's mouth, addressed to the father that I am, reminds me of a trait that is impossible to say, but that I keep trying to write. At the big hinterland of Guimarães Rosa, the jagunço Riobaldo says: “A boy was born. The world has begun again.” How to write the instant of a beginning having been inaugurated by it?

From a psychoanalytical perspective, I try to write about this temporality that constitutes us very slowly, grain by grain of time, but also about the nature of the desire and obstacle present in the deepest part of the experience that constitutes father and son. The father, in the form and function of a “no/name-of-the-father”, according to Jacques Lacan, participates in a fundamental way in the articulation between desire and obstacle (law) in the psychic life of the child. The obstacle-father, paradoxically, founds a field of possibilities for the child to the same extent that he becomes something like "a stone in the middle of the road"... an "intruder" that appears within the mother-child relationship, inviting him to another way of being, of existing, mediated by the word. It so happens that – and here, more than anything else, I must try to say it based on my own experience of being a father – the birth of a child (re)inaugurates the articulation between desire and obstacle in the psychic life of the father as well. The father's world is reinvented at the exact moment he is placed in the role of an obstacle in the son's life.

The son teaches the father the difficult task of learning to desire again. As with the son, the father also sees himself facing the opening of a field of vital possibles and impossibles. There is no longer what there was before, and this meeting never ceases to provoke the imprecise crossing of desire. In a game of going down and up stairs, my son prevents me from removing the obstacle placed by him in the middle of the path: aware of my presence-potency-obstacle, he asks me not to disturb his quest, which consists of the pleasure of overcoming the obstacles that he himself created for the fulfillment of the desire to go down and up the stairs. At that moment, I see myself consenting and respecting his desire while preserving the obstacle. In other words, I see myself leaving the scene in order to save his desire to play.

Without obstacles, the "absolute desire" would be another name for the "absolute obstacle". Unlimited desire is a fusion or incest and therefore the death of desire. My son teaches me and reminds me of the desire to play. Strangely, he teaches me to save my desire by preserving my own obstacles: knowing how to overcome them and deviate from the path, reinventing new paths, does not mean destroying them. And when it is necessary to save him from his omnipotent childhood desire, when it is necessary to intervene in the game on the highest ladder to avoid falling too far (intolerable), he teaches me, without knowing it, the very subtle measure in which the imprecise construction of an obstacle can end up annihilating the desire. The intolerable, the fall that can seriously hurt, can kill the desire to continue playing. In this sense, says Adam Phillips in Monogamy: “One can recognize an obstacle – which can mean constructing something as an obstacle – only when it can be tolerated. We can only understand our fantasies of continuity if we know what we consider an obstacle”.

Christopher Bollas, in Hysteria, is also quite sensitive to the importance of the obstacle represented by the father in the economy of children's desire: “Without a doubt, the obstacle-father proves to be vital to the child's negotiation with all future difficulties, and boys and girls seek conflict with this other unwanted figure, unconsciously knowing that, by doing so, they will be at the service of their own futures”. Bollas refers here to the important process of psychic integration of the symbolic order. At the same time that it imposes limits, this way of ordering life results in the establishment of new life possibilities. A way of being and relating that is also a circuit of desire. The encounter with the one who inhabits this place, the obstacle-father, does not happen in a peaceful way, but when it happens in terms of a relationship in which the father does not become intolerable, there is a world to come.

At that moment, bearing in mind that the future depends on this game in which desire must recognize and survive obstacles, I wonder what to teach my son who was born in December 2018, the precise moment in which the country had just plunged into yet another of their dangerous political adventures. The overwhelming presence of the absolute-obstacle leaves no room for desire. The concept of trauma, central to contemporary psychoanalysis, must account not so much for that dynamic in which obstacles are built with the aim of delimiting and triggering desire. Here, we are facing a destructuring force where desire can never appear. The question posed to me, “What is being a father like for you?”, must necessarily respond to facing the intolerable social state we live in. Because the father must take care of the desire of the children.

For all these reasons, being a father in contemporary Brazil has to do with the challenge of saving the children's desire by helping them to support an almost unbearable limit around them. We are in a pandemic and deaths multiply every day. I find myself singing with Milton Nascimento: “Father, keep that silence away from me, father, keep that silence away from me!”. I think that the bodies of those who fell ill and died in Brazil in recent months do not allow us to forget the horror we faced. The mute cry in the streets, houses and hospitals is the intolerable mark of a traumatic time.

The father must never forget that the word addressed to the son is also the bearer of the many scars and open wounds in the course of a lifetime. Both the obstacles overcome, transgressed, made and redone, as well as those that could not be recognized – traumas that left shadows in the soul as traces of the intolerable – are insinuated in the father's clumsy ways. A look that sometimes gets lost on the horizon, a word that sometimes takes a long time to come out, a fear of small things. In this state of mind, unwittingly, he feels strange and does not understand the child's game. When it's time to go out for a walk on the street, my son says with immense joy: "daddy wants me, dad wants me". I understand that he would like to say “Daddy wants to go with me”. But maybe not...

This obstacle that language imposes on me to the point of seeing a gap in my son's sentence, forcing him to go through the labyrinth of language, is something that he, in his own way, knows very well how to get around. And then, despite my laughter and awkwardness, he keeps saying: "daddy wants me, daddy wants me". I realize now that this wanting, just wanting, in the form of an invitation to let go and go in search of new desires and obstacles on the way, only he can teach me.

*Joao Paulo Ayub Fonseca is a psychoanalyst and doctor in social sciences from Unicamp. author of Introduction to Michel Foucault's analytics of power (intermediate).


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