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Ratatouille and Freud

On November 11th covering ,

In Brian Bird’s lovely film Ratatouille, the gastronomically inspired rat Rémy creates virtuoso improvisations in the kitchen of Auguste Gusteau’s restaurant. The other cooks insist on rote repetition of the deceased great chef’s recipes as their attempt at continuing his legacy. Rémy is visited by Gusteau’s ghost, who urges him to innovate and take risks. It is clear that Rémy is far truer to — literally — the spirit of Gusteau than the other cooks, ironically by deviating from his recipes. The other cooks are well-intentioned in their desire to follow Gusteau, but instead of emulating his love of creation and discovery, they make his legacy a dead thing — a fetish.

There is a paradox in taking an innovator as one’s hero. You cannot emulate an iconoclast by becoming a curator. This dynamic has been very much at work in psychoanalysis since Freud’s death in 1939. There were attempts to create a standardized, official Freud and official psychoanalysis. This had a stultifying effect in what should be a rich, exciting, living tradition. It has taken a couple of generations to seriously shake off the limitations this has created, but psychoanalysis has been damaged in vitality and reputation by the long years of doctrinaire thinking.

This is common to any field that is inspired by a great innovator. Examples in art and music are easy to come by, where the innovating hero leaves behind a group of followers who are increasingly rigid. The Life of Brian comes to mind here.

I have seen it many times in families where a fortune or reputation was made through risk-taking or innovation — perhaps by an entrepreneur — and the descendents wind up just maintaining the old man’s (or old woman’s) legacy and so couldn’t possibly be more unlike the founder. This is one reason it’s so rare for family businesses to pass through three or more generations.

This is a cautionary note for those of us who admire original thinkers. It is a challenge to find a way to celebrate what we admire without creating a dogma.

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