Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic Father
As Freud had already emphasized, the rather complicated paternal function is not assumed only by the real father, the progenitor, and the mother's partner. In his seminar on Object Relations (1956-57), Lacan proposed, based on his rereading of Freud's case of "Little Hans," a distinction between the actual father and the function of the father in its real, symbolic, and imaginary instances. In the reality of the child's life, these instances are incarnated by a variety of actual agents.
From the Lacanian perspective, the instance of the real father (a term that Lacan sometimes uses in the sense of the "father in reality") is not only embodied by the biological father or even the man who lives with the mother, that is, by a "Dad" with his own history, qualities, shortcomings, and psychic structure. The real father—insofar as "he" desires the mother and is the object of her desire—is also, and even primarily, embodied by anything that carries out the child's symbolic castration, that is, both the renunciation and the realization of the child's incestuous desire. Moreover, because he finds jouissance in a woman, this father does not seek an incestuous jouissance in the child. Still more broadly conceived, the real father is any being that, either in reality or by means of its reality, leads the child to give up being the mother's phallus, on the one hand, and leads the mother to give up trying to make the child into her phallus, on the other. This symbolic castration determines the way in which the boy and the girl will assume their masculinity and femininity. Insofar as fathers in reality are always somehow lacking as an embodiment of the symbolic father and cannot measure up to the imaginary father, to which they are inevitably compared, the real father also partially represents for the child the category of the impossible (Figure 1).
It should be noted that Lacan sometimes uses the term real father in a completely different way (in the sense of the "real of the father") to designate that which is impossible for us to say concerning the father. This is the unthinkable father, the primal father that Freud was unable to bring to light except in the myth that he developed in Totem and Taboo.
The imaginary father is the product of the child's imagination and finds support in the various cultural representations of the father as terribly tyrannical or immensely good, execrable or adorable, terrifying or fascinating. Inevitably, the child makes the actual father wear the masks and disguises of one or the other of these imaginary fathers. Even though the imaginary father can in some ways be a source of suffering, usually neurotic or masochistic, he is not entirely without beneficial effects, because he gives weight to the symbolic father and thus protects the father against the ravaging effects of the all-powerful archaic mother.
The symbolic father includes the two others. This more general instance of the father, also called the Name-of-the-Father, protects the child against psychosis. He imposes castration through the intervention of the real father (embodied in the actual father), frustration through the intervention of the symbolic mother, and privation through the mediation of the imaginary father. This all-encompassing instance of the father installs a definitive gap between the child and the mother, just as it institutes a distinction between the sexes and the generations.