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The stone in the middle of the path

Or how adolescence "swallows" the planet's adults

MIGUEL BOYAYANWhen during an interview program they asked Nelson Rodrigues what advice he would give to the young, the writer, staring at the camera, stated, almost imploringly: “Get old! As quickly as possible”. The fact is he had grown up, in his own words, in a “Brazil that was a scenery of the elderly,” in which “the young had have no function, nor destiny, an era which didn’t put up with the young”. Today there seems to be plenty of space for them, and it is the adults who have “disappeared”. “Youth has become a moral icon of the spectacle, or that is to say, from being a condition of change they have gone on to become an objective of change. The somatic culture is marked by the inflamed pledge of the majority of people to remain young in order to continue being and remaining young”, says the psychoanalyst Jurandir Freire Costa in Adolescentes [Adolescents], a recently published study, organized by Marta Rezende Cardoso. At the same time, appalled by the death of the boy João Hélio (brutally dragged in the  streets) the  media, and parliament, are attempting to resuscitate the lowering of the legal penal age, even though, among the five youngsters involved in the case, only one was an adolescent.

How can one understand this relationship of love and hate that society maintains with adolescence, curiously enough a modern invention, a myth of the 20th century, (as young, indeed, as the idea of sacred childhood), which consolidated itself only after the Second World War? “The adolescent is a creation of contemporary Western civilization, in which a childhood cult prevails, and is accompanied by a movement of postponement of the entrance into the adult phase, whether it be because of  the idea of maximizing the  use of a period supposedly void of concerns, or because one has in mind favoring a development that makes it possible to prepare for the assuming of life’s adult tasks”, observed Jacqueline Barus-Michel, from the University of Paris VII, in her article entitled, Entre sofrimento e violência [Between suffering and violence].

“Adolescents are more and more in the imagination of adults. The problem is that, when they look at us, it is our idealization manifests itself, becoming evident that adults would like to be adolescents”, says the psychiatrist Contardo Calligaris during the III Dossiê universo jovem [3rd Young Universe Dossier], presented last year by MTV. In it we discovered that 55% of the young find themselves uncomfortable with the absence of the “parenting part” and the excess of the “friendly side” that parents assume in their family relationship. “The young became the maximum worth, obsessively preserved by whoever naturally has it and arduously pursued by whoever is biologically distancing himself  from it”, the research says. “The stage of adulthood in our culture is vacant. Nobody wants to be on the ‘other’, the old-fashioned side of the generation conflict, which means that the conflict, for good or bad, has been dissipated. We can understand the increase of juvenile delinquency in our time as the effect of ‘teenagering’ of Western culture”, says the psychoanalyst Maria Rita Kehl. “The ‘outlaw’ adolescent, or on the edge of the law, is the result of a society in which nobody wants to occupy the position of adult, whose main function is to be the representative of the law in the face of new generations. When adults mirror themselves in teen ideas, the adolescents remain without parameters in order to think of the future. What will it be like to enter the adult world in which no adult wants to live? What is waiting for them then?”

The cult towards the adolescent (and, at the same time, concern for them, their fear and anger, called “boringscents”) came about from the divining  of childhood, observed by Freud in Sobre o narcisismo [About narcissism] (1914), in which the father of psychoanalysis speaks of the extreme love of parents for their children as a form of feeding paternal Narcissism. Since death will be the end of everything, the children are the hope of continuity and even of immortality. In life’s race, adults see their children as an extension that would make the sad modern existence supportable, since there would be to whom “to pass on the baton”. By way of “his majesty, the baby”, as Freud wrote, one would attempt to get around the laws of nature, ageing, illness, death, to recover, because of the power of attorney given to the son, the lost period of irresponsible happiness. Going along this line, if the child, asexual, should be the angel, the adolescent, to use the happy expression of the French psychoanalyst Bernard Nominé, would take on the role of the “fallen angel”, envied and feared. It is impossible not to agree with Calligaris in his separation of adolescence and puberty, in which the latter would be a phase of sexual maturing, whilst the former would have to be analyzed as a cultural phenomenon, a non-natural phase of human development.

“Adolescence in modern times has the sense of a moratorium, a dilated period of wait for those who are no longer children, but as yet have not incorporated themselves into adult life”, analyzes Maria Rita. The “fallen angel” looks at itself in the mirror and notes that it has lost its childhood grace that had captivated adults. “This lost security should be compensated for by a new look from adults, who would recognize the puberty image as that of another adult, their imminent peer. But this look fails, and the adolescent lives through the lack of the impassioned look that it deserved when a child, and the lack of words that admit it as an equal in adult society. Insecurity thus becomes the very trait of adolescence”, writes Calligaris in Adolescência [Adolescence]. “How to re-conquer the lost space? What do they expect of me?” are the questions that are asked. To make things worse, they have developed in a society, notes the psychoanalyst, in which “the imperative dominant culture is individualism, is ‘to disobey’, ‘to prove one’s autonomy’. Thus, to disobey could well be, in the adolescent’s mind, a manner of obeying. And to obey, who knows, is perhaps the right way of not conforming”. As Calligaris notes, they want the adolescents to be autonomous and they refuse to grant them autonomy. They want them to pursue social and amorous success, and then ask that they postpone these efforts in order to be “better prepared”. “It’s justifiable that the adolescent asks: ‘Do they want me to accept this moratorium, or they prefer, in truth, that I disobey and affirm my independence, thus carrying out their ideals'”.


If the “angel” receives the entire load of perfection and happiness that we don’t manage to comply with and project over our children, then the adolescents receive the burden of taking forward the adult ideal of liberty, transgression and derision without limits. “If adolescence is a pathology, then it is the pathology of the desires of rebellion repressed  by adults”, explains  Calligaris. Thus, if the adults idolize and estheticize their fantasies of what a happy childhood is, they fear and reject the dark desires projected over the young. This delicate relationship expresses itself in the very etymology of the words: “adolescent” which comes from the present participle of the Latin verb adolescere, to grow. And the past participle adultus gave origin to the word “adult”. In English the words would be equivalent to “growing” and “grown”. An increase of size implies an imbalance, a change of status quo, which is always accompanied by pain. “What a disgrace! I’ve lost all my energy, I see myself falling into restless indolence, and I can’t do a single thing. I no longer have imagination or sensibility; nature no longer impresses me and books bore me”, laments the patron of adolescents, the Werther, of Goethe, on coming across the inherent loses of adolescence, such as liberty and the tranquility of childhood. “Adolescence brings about an identity weakening. The image of the body in the mirror is a theater of uncontrollable changes and the young person lives, in the same way,  through disordered pulses. The look of others changes, the other stops being continent and supporting, as was the childhood father, and becomes a rival and predator, in the middle of conflicting power relations”, evaluates Barus-Michel. “The adolescent ventures into risky conduct, plays with death in order to feel alive, in order to prove that he is someone, that he is worth something, in order to avoid the discomfort linked with the unhappiness of living in a universe in which he no longer sees any sense. To attack the body, with piercings and tattoos, gives to the young person the sensation of existence and of personal worth, proven by way of such proof.”

But: as noted by Calligaris, shut out from the adult community, indignant because of the imposed moratorium, he moves away from adults and invents micro-societies that run from groups of friends to gangs, always searching for the absence of moratorium or, at least, a faster integration and with clearer and more precise criteria of admission. Anthony Burgess cleverly recreated this gregariousness in the film Clockwork Orange. “The adult demonizes the feared adolescent group, as a kind of tribe within the tribe. The very constitution of adolescent groups is, from the adult point of view, a transgression”, observes Calligaris. The contradiction is now greater and greater between the discourse and the practice of adults. In Brazil during the 19th century there sprung up, hidden under the discourse of hygienist, the relationship between adolescence and juvenile delinquency, since poor people did not have, according to  the thinking of that time, conditions to rear decent citizens. “In the 20th century, with scientific discourse, adolescence presented itself as a phase in human development in which the risk of transgression, and thus delinquency was a fact of nature, surrounding the young. Vigilance was the combat weapon and segregation was taken as the solution”, reveals Maria Rita César, a psychologist at the Federal University of  Parana, in Da adolescência em perigo à adolescência perigosa [From adolescence in danger to dangerous adolescence]. “Misguided youth” was born, from the start linked to “scooters owners” and “playboys”, “authentically abandoned members of the family” according to the pedagogue Imídeo Nérici, and, later, associated to the idea of political subversion, passing as well through the stigma of drugs, of “stupefacients” used in the “insatiable search for fun”.

From that to  the current urban marginalization it was a jump. “A poor and black youth is a socially invisible being on Brazilian streets. To jump out of the dark in which we have forgotten him, the youth now armed, acquires an anthropological density, and becomes a true man. The world is turned upside down: whoever used  to overlook  him is obedient to him. A Faust pact is celebrated: the youth exchanges his future, his soul, his life, for a moment of fleeting glory; his destiny for access to the planet’s surface, where he is visible”, observes the anthropologist Luiz Eduardo Soares in Juventude e violência [Youth and violence].  “Doesn’t it appear logical that invisible youths, lacking everything that participation in a group could offer, look to adhere to groups whose identity forges itself in and for war?” Add to this, the youth’s transformation, from a  lost and anguished one, into a “new slice of the market” and the reaction is explosive. “The youth goes on to be considered a citizen because he has become a potential consumer. The association between the youth and consumerism created a highly hedonist adolescent culture in which the youth has the benefit of the liberties of adult life without the responsibilities”, analyzed psychoanalyst Maria Rita. “From university student to drug trafficker, all identify themselves with the advertised ideal of the free youth, handsome and sensual. This is what favors, clearly, an exponential increase of violence among those who feel included by the pathway of the image, but excluded from the possibilities of being a consumer.” And we must not forget: the youth culture requests people of all ages.

As well, the adolescent cannot resist the appeal of the periphery look. “His son imitates me / He sways and speaks slang / This is no longer yours, I took it, you didn’t even see / I got in through your  radio, whoops… it’s me!”, sings the rapper Mano Brown. “The young identify with the marginalized, the young boys and girls of the periphery and the shanty towns. The concern is when curiosity and the daring to break with the strict circle of middle class life end up  identifying with the esthetic of criminality”, says the psychoanalyst. But perhaps the parents should concern themselves not only with the example of the drug traffickers, but of the elite criminals as well. “The transmission of values by the family is more and more colliding against the fragility of the cultural values to be transmitted. How can one leave adolescence in a culture that devalues the very position of the adult as the one who can renounce the fun of immediacy in the name of an ideal to be achieved?”, questions the psychologist from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro Luciana Coutinho in O adolescente e os ideais [The adolescent and the ideals]. “Adults teach the young to judge them as people devoid of social or moral merit. By rearing opportunistic children, they are shooting their own foot. They begin by devaluating and ridiculing the honest, branding them as ‘goofs’, and end up being seen as ‘goofs’ by their children”, says Freire Costa.

MIGUEL BOYAYAN“The paradox of the relationship between generations: the adolescents transgress, even seriously, not to get around the law, not in the hope of escaping the consequences of their acts, but, on the contrary, to stimulate it, so that the repression runs after them and in this way recognizes them as adult peers, or better, as the dark and forgotten part of adults”, notes Calligaris. “Hence the danger of leaving the door open so that the tribunal can decide if the young deserve to be judged as minors or adults. If judged and condemned as an adult, it would demonstrate the fact that adults only listen to the language of crime and that this language works.” The question of the lowering of the legal penal age is presently polemic, even when many psychologists point to the fact that psychopaths exist in whatever age group, and that Article 121 of the Child and Adolescent Statute (which establishes the maximum period of internment for adolescents as three years) does not give time for the psychiatric institutions to be able to resolve serious mental problems. No matter what, the most recent research, entitled Crime Trends, carried out by the UN, reveals that it is a minority of countries (only 17% of the 57 nations analyzed) that define the adult as a person younger than 18 years of age and that the majority of them is made up of countries that do not safeguard the basic citizen rights of the young.

In the researched countries, the young represented 11.6% of the total of law breakers, whilst in Brazil the adolescent participation in criminality is around 10% (surprisingly in Japan it reaches up to 42% and the legal penal age is 20 years).  “In the developed countries it could make sense to argue that society gave to the young the minimum necessary and, based upon this presupposition, to (they) individually hold responsible those who transgress the law. But in countries such as India and Brazil this is false. It is immoral to equate the Brazilian juvenile penal legislation to that of the English or the North American, forgetting about the quality of life of the young in these countries”, says  the political scientist, from the University of Sao Paulo, Túlio Kahn.

In a recent article in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo (Penal legal age and hypocrisy: our “generous” soul sleeps better with the idea that prison is re-educative), Calligaris made an important consideration concerning the theme, without exaggerated passion: “In summation, the legal penal age could be reduced to16 of 14 years, but this is not what is truly important. Hypocrisy lies in Article 121 of the Child and Adolescent Statute. In the case where he is considered a minor or having a personality disorder, the youth should only be returned to society once his development or cure is ‘completed’, whether this takes 3 or 10 or 50 years”.

Leaving the conflicts aside, what is the moral of the story? The duty of the young, as already stated by Nelson Rodrigues, is to grow old. “Pure wisdom. But what happens when the aspiration of the adults is manifestly to rejuvenate?”, questions Calligaris. “It’s so hard to get old without a cause / I don’t want to perish like a fading horse / Youth is like diamonds in the sun / And diamonds are for ever”, states the music, of doubtful taste, whose chorus, nevertheless, is a beauty: “I want to be forever young”.