Monday, October 22, 2012

Ratatouille 4: Psychomachia Modern, with a Digression into Shakespeare

Let’s start with a definition. The best one I found is in the Muppet Wiki:
Psychomachia is a literary concept named for a Latin poem by Prudentius. The poem dealt with the inner conflict within one's soul, between virtue and vice, through allegorical representations. This concept of an inner struggle became key to the developing Christian religion, and was refined dramatically in the medieval morality plays. Works such as Everyman, Piers Plowman, and Faust featured protagonists struggling with temptation, literally personified through the seven deadly sins (gluttony, lust, et. al). A variation of this involved the use of a "Good Angel" and "Evil Angel," one to encourage the tormented soul and the other to push the protagonist further along the path to ruination.

This eventually developed into the popular comedy cliche wherein a character has an angel on or above his shoulder, literally, and a devil.
In the Disney canon both Jiminy Cricket and Timothy Mouse are in this tradition. They are companions to the protagonist who help guide him in his quest for maturity. Jiminy Cricket is quite obviously Pinocchio’s moral minder; Timothy Mouse’s job is more about Dumbo’s morale than his morals.

In Ratatouille Gusteau provides both functions for Remy. He provides moral guidance—don’t be a thief—and he provides moral support. Gusteau first appears to Remy when he’s lost in the sewer. Remy’s leafing through the cookbook and an image of Gusteau comes up off the page and addresses him:

Rat 23 Gusteau book

Later, when he’s running through the attics of Paris, Gusteau materializes out of the air:

Rat 23 Gusteau appears
Remy, in turn, serves a similar function for Linguini, but not in the ethical realm. Remy provides Linguini with technical competence in the art of cooking. He teaches him by guiding his motions through tugs on his hair:

Rat 24 Remy teaches

But he learns as well, but observe Colette from his perch atop Remy’s head underneath his toque—that’s collet to the left of center:

Rat 24 Remy learns

Gusteau is a figment of Remy’s imagination, and Remy knows that, more or less, depending on circumstances. He disappears from the story when he’s been captured by Skinner and is stuck in the cage: “I’m sick of pretending. I pretend to be a rat for my father; I pretend to be a human for Linguini; I pretend that you exist so I have someone to talk to. You only tell me stuff I already know.” Gusteau disappears after that.” After that, he’s gone.

In particular, he’s absent from preparations for the big meal to be presented to Anton Ego, the food critic, and he’s absent from the big reveal, when Linguini and Remy show Ego how they work. Notice that Ego’s looking at Remy in this shot:

Rat 25 they demonstrate

Where Pinocchio and Dumbo give us a two-level structure, protagonist and helper, Ratatouille gives us a three-level structure, protagonist, helper, and helper’s helper. The helper’s helper, interestingly enough, is the (spirit of) the protagonist’s father.

While we might want to speculate about whether the difference between the two-level and three-level structure reflects cultural events that happened in the half century between the two Disney films and the Pixar, I want to set that temptation aside and concentrate on the simple fact that in all three cases an aspect of the protagonist’s mind has been externalized in another character or characters. That’s what the conventiosn of psychomachia has come to provide as a dramatic or narrative strategy.

The fact that the helper characters ARE externalized aspects of the protagonist’s mind is underscored by the fact that in two cases the helper disappears before the end of the story, as though the function has been absorbed into the protagonist. As we’ve already seen, Gusteau exits Ratatouille before the big reveal. And Timothy Mouse doesn’t appear in the last scene of Dumbo, where he rejoins his mother at the end of the train. Once Dumbo had learned to fly we’d see him tucked into Dumbo’s cap. In this last scene Dumbo is wearing a skull-hugging aviator’s cap and Timothy Mouse has disappeared.

* * * * *

Now let’s take a look at Shakespeare. We can see the conventions of the psychomachia in his last, and certainly one of his greatest plays, The Tempest. Prospero is marooned on a deserted island where he is accompanied by two helpers, Ariel and Caliban. When this story was retooled into science fiction as The Forbidden Planet Arial became a robot while Caliban became the Monster from the Id, which materialized through Morbius’ interaction with the mind-machinery left behind by the ancient, powerful, and defunct Krell. When Morbius dies, so does the Monster from the Id.

But that, however indicative it might be, is not why I bring up Shakespeare. Some years ago I published an essay on Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy, Othello, a tragedy, and The Winter's Tale, a romance. All involve a protagonist who mistakenly believes the woman he loves to be unfaithful—in Much Ado I’m talking about Claudio-Hero plot. In the comedy the male protagonist makes the mistake during courtship; in the tragedy the mistake happens shortly after marriage; and in the romance, the mistake occurs well into the marriage. If we examine the relationships between the characters, we find that it gets closer as we move from one play to the next. And that's not all. There seem to be systematic differences among the configuration of characters in these plays. And that has led me to wonder whether or not those differences are related to the fact that we are dealing with three different genres, comedy, tragedy, and romance. Are these configurations merely incidental features of the plays or are they intrinsic to the different genres? This line of thinking was suggested to me by a remark Frye had made in his Anatomy of Criticism, to the effect that a tragedy is a comedy where the last act, the reconciliation, has gone missing.

With this in mind, consider the following table, in which the first column names the function a given character takes in the play:

Much Ado Othello Winter's Tale
Protagonist Claudio Othello Leontes
Mentor Don Pedro
Deceiver Don John Iago
Paramour Borachio Cassio Polixenes
Beloved Hero Desdemona Hermione

Does this table depict something for which an explanation is necessary or does it depict a mere contingent set of relationships between these plays? If an explanation is necessary, what kind?

What that table suggests to me is that we have three different ways of “mapping” a single mind—Shakespeare’s, the reader’s, whatever–onto the multiple characters of a play. Claudio, Othello, and Leontes each has different capabilities; and so they draw on different capabilities within the reader.

Neither Othello nor Leontes has a mentor comparable to Claudio's Don Pedro. Don Pedro talked with Hero's father, Leonato, and arranged the marriage. We see that happen in the play. We must infer that Othello arranged his marriage to Desdemona, whose father didn't even know about the marriage. We know nothing about how Leontes managed his marriage to Hermione, but he doesn't have anyone associated with him who could be called his mentor.

Further, there is no deceiver in The Winter's Tale comparable to Don John or Iago. Leontes deceives himself. Iago, Othello's deceiver, is closer to Othello than Don John is to Claudio. Among the presumed paramours, Cassio is closer to Othello than Borachio is to Claudio. Polixenes and Leontes have known one another since boyhood; they are so closely identified that we can consider them doubles. Thus relationships between key characters and the protagonist become more intimate as we move from the comedy to the tragedy to the romance—and some characters, mentor and deceiver, seem to disappear.

Finally, note that the protagonist becomes more powerful as we move through the sequence of plays. Claudio is a youth just beginning to make his way in the world. Othello is a mature man, a seasoned general at the height of his career; but there are men who have authority over him. Leontes is king (and father); there is no mundane authority higher than his. Perhaps this increase in power is correlated with the apparent “absorption” of functions into the protagonist:

Much AdoOthelloWinter's Tale
MentorDon Pedro[Othello][Leontes]
DeceiverDon JohnIago[Leontes]

The absorption of functions increases the behavioral range of the protagonist. And this increased range is symbolized by higher social status.

Before going on, let us think about that table psychoanalytically. The absorption of the mentor role into the protagonist himself, does that not have the feel of an internalized father? And the absorption of the deceiver role into the protagonist, does than not feel a bit like the repressed unconscious that never quits, that keeps influencing behavior from the depths?

The conventions of these three plays are quite different from those of our two films, Dumbo and Ratatouille. Those films participate in the conventions of the psychomachia and so, at the end, we can see one of the helpers “absorbed” into the protagonist. The externalized function has become fully internalized.

Nothing like that happens within any of these three plays. But they were written at different periods in Shakespeare’s career, the comedy first, then the tragedy, and finally the romance. The apparent absorption I’ve postulated behind those plays is, I speculate (and wildly so) a reflection of Shakespeare’s own maturation, as he integrates more aspects of his psyche into a coherent personality structure. And so, at the end of his career, he projects that integration into The Tempest through the conventions of the psychomachia so that we can see Arial and Caliban as externalized aspects of Prospero. That, I submit, is the burden of Prospero’s great and simple line: “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.”

But then, isn’t that one of the reasons we watch movies, even, perhaps even especially, cartoons, to see our things of darkness turned into images of light and wonder and, in the process, making ourselves whole.

If only for a moment.

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