Jacques Lacan made famous an expression by Freud, the “little man” (“petit d’homme”). By using it, he shows his respect, his particularised interest, endeavouring to mark what the child had been confronted with and what had been offered to them at the level of knowledge (the parental discourse), of jouissance (what they had encountered as traumatic in their encounter with the Other) or of the object a (what they had been in the desire of the Other). This is in contrast to the adults, whom he willingly refers to with humour and sarcasm to point out that the real children in a family are the parents, or to reveal to us that “there are no grown-ups”, and that, from then on, it was rather a matter of studying how each one makes oneself responsible for one’s jouissance or not.
The real grown-up would be a subject responsible for their jouissance or capable of responding to it in a way other than that of complaint or evasion, unlike the father described by Franz Kafka in his Lettre au père: “He who was so prodigiously authoritative in my eyes, did not observe the commands he dictated to his son”. This “impossibility of a serene relationship with [his] father”, whom he reports complaining in public and lamenting about himself, “had the dangerous side effect of accustoming the child not to take very seriously the very things he should have taken seriously”. As a result, “he unlearned to speak”.
In Les Mots, Jean-Paul Sartre links the demand for respect to the function of the father. It would have been enough for him to have had a father entitled to respect and love so that in return he could have loved and respected himself. His father would have had to be alive in order for him to receive in return the proof of a living desire allowing him to feel inhabited by the respect of oneself. But he died a few days after his birth. It is thanks to the father that a purely symptomatic function of the rules of filiation in the Other can be invested with jouissance, and thus make a symptom. “It is necessary that anybody is able to be an exception in order for the function of the exception to become a model, but the opposite is not true – it is not necessary for the exception to linger in anybody in order to thus constitute a mode. This is the ordinary state – anyone can reach the function of the father’s exception, and we know what the result is, that of his Verwerfung in most cases through the filiation that he engenders, with the psychotic result that I have denounced”, says Lacan. When he was seven years old, J.-P. Sartre was struck by the thought of a little boy of his age: “When my father is not there, I am the Master”. He realised on this occasion that he was nobody’s master: “My reason for being was slipping away, I suddenly discovered that I counted for nothing and I was ashamed of my unusual presence in this orderly world”. He suffered from this place left empty, not tolerating that his father was reduced to his signifier, demanding a living father who could be affected by the exception so that he could be the support of a self-repeating and reverberating differentiation. “A father would have weighed me down with some lasting obstinacy; making his moods my principles, his ignorance my knowledge, his resentments my pride, his mannerisms my law, he would have inhabited me; this respectable tenant would have given me respect for myself. On respect I would have based my right to live. My progenitor would have decided my future […] But if Jean-Baptiste Sartre had ever known my destination, he had taken the secret with him; my mother only remembered that he had said: ‘My son will not enter the Navy’”. Such is his version of the misunderstanding of his birth.
The function of the father has not proved to be constitutive of the function of the ego Ideal, a jouissance has not come to be written in effective letters, in a unary trait, concerning his body. The contingency of this particular symbolic trait has not been incarnated and, not being weighted by this function, he does not find a foundation for his reason for living. However, it is up to him to create it for himself, and he does so through his encounter with writing, which he will foster just after this episode: “For lack of more precise information, no one, starting with me, knew what the hell I had come to do on earth. Had he left me some good, my childhood would have been changed; I would not be writing since I would be someone else”. In the absence of this signifying good, he made a name for himself through writing: “In my rare minutes of dissipation, my mother would whisper to me: ‘Beware! We are not at home!’ We were never at home: neither on rue Le Goff nor later, when my mother remarried. I didn’t suffer because I was lent everything; but I remained abstract. To the owner, the goods of this world reflect what he is; they taught me what I was not: […] I was not the future continuator of my father’s work (the paternal work), I was not necessary for the production of steel: in a word I had no soul”. He does not have that point from which he could see himself worthy of being loved, and therefore respected. But it was enough for a contingency, that of the word of a seven-year-old boy, for him to encounter, in an exemplary way, the paternal function. This sequence is equivalent here to the triggering of a symptomatic function insofar as it came to constitute letter for J.-P. Sartre. And it is from this encounter that he finds writing as a modality of jouissance which allows him a particular knotting of the paternal function. Through his work, he created a name for himself. “It is on respect that I would have founded my right to live”, he affirms in Les Mots.
In Mauvaise réputation (Bad reputation), Joey Starr describes the violence of a father who goes so far as to feed him his pet rabbit, which he had been so attached to since his father kicked his mother out of the house, even though he kept telling him that she had left with another man. Joey felt wronged and abandoned by his mother and wrote that he was fucked by her, hence the name of his rap group, Nique Ta Mère. His father never gave him presents at Christmas: “I never had a Christmas with a pure toy. Besides, in the neighbourhood, on the day after Christmas everyone goes down to show who has a miniature motorbike, who has a bionic robot. And what did you get? Only one answer: ‘Shut up’. I am furious”. Rage and aggression become the only possible relationship in this imaginary transitivism. His father threw away under his very eyes all the toys his friends gave him, and formulated incomprehensible prohibitions such as eating yoghurt. “You’d be surprised if at the age of twelve I started to steal”. The first time he thought he was going to be arrested by the police, on the pretext that he was black and had no metro ticket or papers, he found himself at the police station. When his father came to pick him up, he beat him so much, that the cops had to calm him down. The son hears: “You won’t get anywhere, you’re a piece of shit”, which opens the way to the margins where, eventually he writes, “It became a doctrine even for me”.
If Lacan had situated the paternal exception on the side of the one who é-pater (wows) his family, in the place of pater familias, these three portraits illustrate what it is like when sons write about the decisive function of the father, who for each one of them was not as wowing as that.
References from the author:
 Lacan J., « Allocution sur les psychoses de l’enfant », Autres Écrits, Paris, Seuil, 2001, p. 369. Jacques Lacan reprend la formule qui introduit les Antimémoires de Malraux.
 Cf. Laurent É., « Les grandes personnes et l’enfant », Préliminaire, n°4, 1992, p. 70.
 Kafka F., Lettre au père, Toulouse, Ombres, 1994, p. 24.
 Ibid., p. 33.
 Ibid., p. 27.
 Cf. Sartre J.-P., Les Mots, Paris, Gallimard, 1964.
 Cf. ibid., p. 76.
 Lacan J., Le Séminaire, livre XXII, « R.S.I. », leçon du 21 janvier 1975, Ornicar ?, n°3, mai 1975, p. 107.
 Sartre J.-P., Les Mots, op.cit., p. 74.
 Ibid., p. 75-76.
 Ibid., p. 76.
 Ibid., p. 76-77.
 Ibid., p. 76.
 Starr J., Mauvaise réputation, Paris, Flammarion, 2006, p. 19.
Translation: Polina Agapaki
Proofreading: Marina Caiaffa Bardi
Picture : © Marie-Thérèse Steen