26 JULY 1968, Page 31

Fatuus homunculus


If there is one thing about which it is possible to generalise, it is that generalisations are seldom illuminating. To say that all ballet dancers are poofs, all Frenchmen are pigs, or that God moves in a mysterious way may con- ceivably confirm our prejudices and give us strength to blunder on through the hostile darkness, but it hardly helps us to see and understand any better our own situation or that of our fellow human beings. Details of individual experience, as any newspaperman will tell you, gleam like beacons across con- tinents and across the centuries, instantly interesting, lovable and enlightening. Generali- sations, on the other hand, are very hard to love, and it is perhaps for this reason that works of sociology and literary criticism based on the establishment of general lines, movements and types are so dry, boring and obscure.

Nothing could illustrate this more vividly than an attempt to generalise about wit. Buffoons, we are told, are naturally morose, gloomy and suicidal. They only flourish in a stable, social and theological order, where the points of reference are generally understood and the authority symbols generally accepted. The clown, more fanciful generalisers will tell us, is a type of Christ, and even at a time when newspaper proprietors, pop singers and poli- ticians are all clamouring for public identifica- tion with the Messiah, it is the drunken comic who is most likely to qualify for the crown of thorns. He is a man of sorrows, by no means unacquainted with grief: he bears our custard pies, and by his stripes we are, so they say, healed. The only disadvantage about formulat- ing such theories is that any single, individual and self-respecting buffoon within earshot will almost certainly take the half-pint of academic pale ale out of the formulator's hand, assume an expression of moronic goodwill, and suddenly empty it over the formulator's head.

Enid Welsford's book The Fool, His Social and Literary History was originally published in 1935, and has now been reissued in a Faber Papercovered Edition at 15s. Her temerity in attempting to demonstrate such theories in the presence of a great company of fools con- jured from two thousand or more years of history—she calls them 'this motley ring of eccentrics'—is breathtaking: her fate at their spectral hands is predictable, heartrending and awful. Having, with touching ingenuousness, dedicated the book to her mother, Miss Wels- ford arranges the worm-eaten volumes on her reading desk, takes a sip of water, and begins. Working painstakingly and with occasional low moans of boredom at the massive and barely manageable weight of her source material, she leads us doggedly through the recorded history of European and Middle Eastern jokes: she defines the Laughter-Making Parasite or Buffoon, the Fool as Mascot and Scapegoat, the Fool as Poet and Clairvoyant, and so on to the Harlequinade, Punch, Pierrot, Clown and his successors, who include Charlie Chaplin, Grock and Jack Hulbert.

As she proceeds, the whole ghostly and ghastly crew take their places one by one

behind her on the podium : hideously mis- shapen dwarfs dressed as bishops and trailing strings of sausages, obese grotesques with ex- pressions of vacuous idiocy or alarming squints, sixteenth century comedians with huge ruffs and flapping flat hats, hunchbacks and figures from the ancient world, described by Miss Weis- ford as being 'bald, idiotic, or with an exag- gerated phallus,' this latter peculiarity being classed among those misfortunes rendering one 'too wretched to excite either human or divine envy.' During the Arian persecution of the fifth century,' she continues in her level tone, 'a certain learned man from Gaul took refuge in Ireland and attached himself to the King's court . . . He called himself Vergilius the Grammarian'—a grave figure stalks on to the stage and bows—'but he was known to his friends as the "Fatuus Homunculus" '—the figure shrinks with a gesture of elaborate despair to the level of the lecturer's knees— 'which probably does not mean "the fatuous little man" '—it mimes exaggerated relief—'but the "mad or inspired dwarf."' From the beginning they fidget, pull faces at Miss Welsford's audience, and make it almost impossible to concentrate on the worthy theories being expounded at the lectern. She traces parallels between the construction of the French softie and the construction of King Lear: in the background dwarfs pop suddenly out of pies and chase each other gibbering over table tops: she discusses the place of Erasmus's In Praise of Folly in the development of western thought, and behind her we catch glimpses of the outrageous parodies of the Mass carried out during the Age of Faith in church and with the grudging approval of the authorities, 'provided that not more than three buckets of water at most be poured on the precentor stultorum at vespers': she examines the beneficial influence of the Fool in the pre- servation of the capitalist society and the buffoons go mad, falling in the water, perform- ing macabre dwarf funerals for their minuscule colleagues, being bricked up for the badness of their jokes, and struggling desperately on their deathbeds to pass on the skills and tech- niques of their craft to those who succeed them.

The worthier the work, the more distressing it is to see them tweaking at Miss Welsford's bloomers and making nonsense of her reasoned systems. She clearly has a donnish affection for the type of humour one might

find, were one prepared to make one's way through the advertisements, in Punch, and she does her best to conceal more vulgar manifes- tations of wit from the eyes of her audience: 'the buffoon then "baptised" his defeated ad- versary by a method too gross for description': 'the buffoon began his ecclesiastical career by inciting the Curd to commit an incredible grossness in Church, too coarse for repetition here.' Tell us, tell us, we scream, longing to rip aside the increasingly discomlited lady's long skirts and sec what the little felkm s are doing underneath : to hell with the generalisa- tions, let's get at the details: generalisations are subject to change and decay, details never. And it is the details that remain in the mind when the theories have long since been swept off the stage in sharded fragments: the last surviving court jester, belonging to the Emir of Katsina, with his 'spirited impersonation of Felix the Cat,' recovering, at the time the book was written, from a serious motoring accident, or Jack Oates, the sixteenth century idiot buffoon, standing up to his armpits in the moat, where he had jumped to eat a stolen and scald- ing hot quince pie in defiance of the pursuing rabble on the bank, dipping it in the water to cool it.