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Notes to Dartblog: Oscar Wilde Edition


Don’t do this.

A “stressed student” who has “final exams coming up” writes:

On Dartblog I came across this quote: €œSurely one might pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals. Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde. €

I am just wondering if you can do me the favor of explaining to me what Chesterton means in that passage as well as why that meaning is significant. I am particularly interested in the first sentence though because that is really the only one I think I am confused about. Thank you for your time, and I’ll greatly appreciate it if you can get back to me with an answer as soon as possible.

P. Garcia.

Miss Garcia, I can certainly explain my appreciation of Chesterton’s remark, although I am sure I cannot explain its peculiar significance other than to say that it is a wise and probably true thing for Chesterton to have said. (Although this fails to distinguish the quotation in question from Chesterton’s others.)

G.K. Chesterton wrote without much sarcasm, which lubricates so much of what we read today; this has the effect of blurring much of his meaning to students. In this passage, from Orthodoxy, Chesterton cannot make out why the moral demands of Christianity are so popularly maligned as oppressive and unworkable when in point of fact they are, compared to any more fantastic moral code one might dream up, just the opposite: sensible and readily applied. When he writes that one surely “might pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals,” he is saying that it is quite sensible to offer obeisance to the moral code in exchange for the joy that is life. He is saying it is a small price to pay. And this trade is still more sensible because the morality one needs to adhere to is ordinary and common, whereas the joy received in return is entirely extraordinary; it is provisioned by one vendor only.

Oscar Wilde, the wild and ridiculous aesthete seen above, thought that there was no worth in a sunset, pretty though it may be, because one could not capture, buy, sell, or auction it. The sunset will exist any way, so what is the point of doing an encomium to it? “Nobody of any real culture…ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset,” since sunsets have no authors to glorify. Ah, but they have; and instead of elaborate paeans, all the author really wants is good behavior—which was, of course, a sum exceeding Oscar Wilde’s considerable wealth.


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