A.P. Rossiter has a few choice words about Falstaff which struck a particular chord during my reading today.
The ‘moral-historical’ approach diminishes Falstaff as Wit, leaving him with little more than the rascally quick-wittedness which gets Eulenspiegels and Harlequins out of tight corners. Sir John is more. He is not only witty in himself (No, I’m not going on with Familiar Quotations)—he is Wit ipse. And wit is critically destructive—of ideal systems which assume that human nature is what it isn’t.
This is a fine example of why, although I greatly respect what I’ve read of Rossiter’s criticism, I tend ultimately to disagree with his conclusions. I concur that a simple “‘moral-historical’ approach” flattens Falstaff deplorably—e.g., a recently encountered article that attempted to mash the Henriad into a humoral system, and in so doing put Falstaff down (against almost all reason) as the Phlegmatic Man! This is moralizing Falstaff nearly out of existence, a blasphemy which would have been impossible to envision were it not for the inspiring skill of a certain flavor of academic. Rossiter would never be guilty of such a thing.
But I do wonder, in identifying Falstaff as Wit Ipse, if Rossiter misses something even more important than Falstaff. Falstaff if witty; so was Oscar Wilde; so was G.K. Chesterton; so are the Thin Man movies. I enjoy all of this wittiness tremendously; and (as with Falstaff) the more tremendous the wit, the more I enjoy it. But I wonder if we (people of the temper of Rossiter and me) don’t put too great a premium on wit or (to paucify the term, for clarity, or at least to gain what Rossiter might call a “two-eyed view”), on “being funny.” Wit Ipse is a frightening great thing to contemplate, from one angle; from another, it is a great deal less than even a very dull man. And of course, wit can destroy not only “ideal systems which assume that human nature is what it isn’t” but also ideal systems (like that held perhaps by the dull man) that see human nature for what it is. Like all Platonic forms, it is simultaneously terrifying and—to use the word Rossiter uses above—diminished, diminishing: flat. (This is something Charles Williams gets splendidly right about his unleashed Platonic forms in the otherwise neglibile The Place of the Lion.)
I am willing to stand corrected. Perhaps there is something overwhelmingly glorious about wit, which would then justify the great stature Falstaff takes on in Rossiter’s schema. But I am inclined to think that the really great and human thing is not wit but humor; and of humor I do not think it can be said that Falstaff is it, ipse.
But the precise distinction between wit and humor, palpable to anyone at home in English, is for me another one of those unanswered questions to which I referred the day before last.