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Socrates, Remy, and the Solitary Contemplation of Beauty

March 9th, 2010 | 4 min read

By Gary Hartenburg

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates is shown to be very strange. In an episode related by Alcibiades, Socrates is said to have stood all day and night in an army camp—with the other soldiers lying down watching him—considering something. (Near the beginning of the Symposium, Socrates seems to have a similar kind of experience.) And at the end of the Symposium, Plato portrays Socrates as the only one at the party to be awake at its end. Having stayed awake all night, he leaves the party and goes about his daily business until he goes home in the evening. Both of these episodes reveal a kind of strangeness about Socrates.

These two episodes are in my mind related to the Pixar film Ratatouille and, in particular, to the character of Remy. At the end of his most successful evening as a chef Remy has a choice to make: will he go home with Linguini or will he go home with his father and brother? He does neither.

Under the narration of Ego reading his glowing review of his previous night’s dining experience—which narration is really a statement of Brad Bird’s working philosophy—the animation shows Remy ascending to a rooftop in Paris and remaining there until the sunrise. Because of the significance of Ego’s narration, I never really paid attention to Remy’s silent ascent until a few months ago when a friend pointed it out to me: “I don’t like the sequence; it’s too over-the-top,” she said. I’ve been thinking about whether that’s true ever since.

It seems completely appropriate that Remy does not go to live with Linguini. He can work with Linguini, but he cannot live with him. Linguini does not even know Remy’s name. He only refers to him as “little chef,” which is simply a job description. And the film suggests that Linguini and Colette will go on to share a life together. Remy’s presence in their shared home life would be odd.

At first glance, it also seems appropriate that Remy does not go back to live with his father and brother and the other rats. Remy is too exceptional to be part of the pack. It’s true that at the very end of the film after Remy has been reconciled to his father, Remy is shown making food to be served to his rodent friends and family. Their tastes in food have obviously been elevated, literally and not literally. They are now eating on top of a restaurant instead of underground, and they seem to be eating food that isn’t literally garbage. But this doesn’t mean that he lives with his fellow rats.

So it is not clear where Remy lives. Does he live by himself? In one sense, that’s a secondary question because Remy is clearly most alive when he is making food in the restaurant kitchen. (This doesn’t mean that he “lives” with Linguini by working with him. I think Linguini doesn’t understand Remy well enough to live with him while Remy is “working.”) In another sense, though, it’s a question that cuts to the heart of the relation between the artist and society. Where do the great artists live? Can they be at home among regular folk? The film doesn’t answer this question, and I think that’s a bit of a let down. It dodges a hard question.

Return to the earlier criticism of the scene of Remy’s ascent: Is it really necessary? I suppose that depends on whether we understand what Remy is doing up there. Like Socrates in the army camp, Remy seems to be paying attention to something, but we don’t know what that is. And like Socrates after the symposium, Remy does not go directly home. He goes to a rooftop to wait for and watch the sunrise. One thing about that sunrise: It’s beautiful, and Remy seems to be content in the presence of an expansive, subtle beauty. Likewise, having read the Symposium we suspect that whatever it is that Socrates is contemplating, it’s beautiful.

For Plato, the contemplation of beauty is part of what makes life worth living. (Indeed, if some commentators are right, for Plato the contemplation of beauty is the whole of what makes life worth living.) Remy’s awareness of and sensitivity to the beauty of a sunrise over Paris is part of what separates him from everyone else in the film. This distinctive indicates that for Brad Bird (and for Plato) the contemplation of beauty at the highest level is a solitary experience. Both Plato and Bird depict their heroes alone, contemplating some thing—probably beauty itself. If the contemplation of beauty is something that can only be done alone, then there is no way to avoid the necessity of Remy’s solitary ascent. The scene that my friend wasn’t so sure about turns out to be a (perhaps melancholy) necessity.

Two things in closing. First, I don’t know if the Symposium presents Plato’s last word on the contemplation of beauty. There are passages in the Phaedrus that suggest that after death two lovers can, as Socrates say, become “winged together” (256d–e) in a life of shining bliss. Secondly, I don’t know if the Christian view of the contemplation of beauty is any different from the Symposium–Ratatouille account. Certainly there is an emphasis on corporate worship in Christian practice, but I don’t know whether that’s comparable to the contemplation of beauty. If it is, then perhaps there’s a way in which the contemplation of beauty is not solitary.