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Friday, April 3, 2015

A Sermon on Cheapness
The Speaker, March 29, 1902

It is really time that the absurd pretence of the vices to be romantic were given up. Ever since the time of Byron there has been vague and foolish conception clinging to all men's minds that there is some connection between lawlessness and poetry, between orderly images and disorderly acts. A thousand instances might be given to show the shallowness of this idea. For instance, blasphemy has been regarded as something bold and splendid, as if the very essence of blasphemy were not the commonplace. It is the very definition of profanity that it thinks and speaks of certain things prosaically, which other men think and speak of poetically. It is thus a defeat of the imagination, and a volume full of the wildest pictures and most impious jests remains in its essential character a piece of poor literalism, a humdrum affair. The same general truth might be pursued through all the Ten Commandments. Murder, for instance, is quite overrated, aesthetically. I am assured by persons on whose judgment I rely, and whose experience has, presumably, been wide, that the feelings of a murderer are of a quite futile character. What could be stupider than kicking to pieces, like a child, a machine you know nothing about, the variety and ingenuity of which should keep any imaginative person watching it delightedly day and night? Say we are acquainted with such a human machine; let us say, a rich uncle. A human engine is inexhaustible in its possibilities; however long and unrewarding has been our knowledge of the avuncular machine, we never know that the very moment that we lift the assassin's knife the machine is not about to grind forth some exquisite epigram which it would make life worth living to hear, or even, by some spasm of internal clockwork, produce a cheque. To kill him is clearly prosaic. Alive, he is a miracle; dead, he is merely a débris, a débris of unpleasant gore and quite inappropriate and old-fashioned clothes. Objection is sometimes brought against the absolute legal and medical doctrine that life should under all circumstances and at all costs be kept burning. It may or may not be moral and humane, but there can be no doubt of its impressiveness as a purely poetical ideal. It is the desire, so natural in an imaginative man of science, to preserve the only thing that can really be of any interest to anyone.

I have taken these two instances, as the first that come to hand, of the general fact of the mean and matter-of-fact character of the vices, the wild and thrilling character of the virtues. Many other examples might be taken of the raptures and roses of virtue, the lilies and languors of vice. But an example, stronger both in its truth and in its unfamiliarity than any other, chiefly occupies my mind. Of all the conventional virtues there is none that is so completely despised by the aesthetic and Bohemian philosophers as economy. It is represented as the very meanest of human standards, a merit for cowards and greasy burgesses, a thing that is even base when it is a virtue and dull when it is a vice. But in truth there is no quality so truly romantic as economy.

Economy is essentially imaginative because it is a realisation of the value of everything. The real objection to murder, aesthetically speaking, is that it is uneconomical. It is a failure in efficiency (I want to write that word down and look at it) to waste a whole man in order to procure a momentary emotion which is often disappointing. And the real objection to waste is that all waste is a kind of murder, a merely negative and destructive thing, the obliteration of something which we can neither value nor understand. We slay an uncle because we do not realise the strange dumb poetry of an uncle; we fling away a penny because we cannot realise the gorgeous possibilities of a penny. I have murdered many pennies, many trusting half-crowns, in my life. For let it be clearly understood that I do not maintain for a moment that this poetry of economy is an easy thing for any of us to keep up. We tend to forget the poetry of pennies just as we tend to forget the poetry of skies and woods and great buildings, because we see them so often. In practice it is most difficult to be the Economic Man. We have all heard of the clergyman who spoke in defence of teetotalism, saying that for twenty years he had tried to teach drunkards to drink moderately, and had never once succeeded. The reporters, with unintentional kindness, described him as having said that for twenty years he had tried to drink moderately and had never once succeeded. So it is with this great question of economy. For a long period (perhaps more than sixty years) the writer of the present article has tried to be economical and has never once succeeded. But I impute this entirely to a lack of true poetry in myself. I do not for a moment dream of shielding myself behind so transparent and canting a plea as the notion that there is anything artistic or romantic in being extravagant. The man who does not look at his change is no true poet. To give away a penny deliberately is indeed one of the highest triumphs of imagination: it means that the giver can realise the meaning of the existence of some ragged family herded in the lairs of East London. But to throw away a penny is sheer lack of imagination; it means that the giver cannot realise even the meaning of a penny. It means that he forgets the first and most thrilling of all the lessons of the universe, the lessons of every seed and germ, the lesson of the infinite and terrible power that may be found in small things. The French, the most poetical of all peoples, are also the most economical. The English working man, with his sterling, solid common sense, throws away every rag and bone that does not appear to him useful at the first glance; the French cottager turns those rags and bones into exquisite and civilised dishes. Economy is only another name for universalism; the true poet regards every earthly object as having some value and secret utility- with the possible exception of a dust-cart. The old romance of life was held to consist in expense- in the jewels and perfumes of the "Arabian Nights," in the cushions and cigars of Ouida. The newer and truer romance will be the romance of cheapness. It will address itself to the truly imaginative task of realising what is the real worth (a worth running into millions) of the penny cup of coffee to the tired pedestrian at midnight or the pennyworth of tobacco to the poor man in his half-hour holiday. It will celebrate the cheapness of ecstacy.

My bosom friend the Pessimist and I were standing outside a small toy shop, glueing our noses to the glass, when the long silence was broken by my remarking on the beauty of a solid stick of blue chalk, which was offered for sale (in some tempest of generosity) for a halfpenny. "Have you considered," I asked, "all that this stick of blue chalk means ? For a halfpenny I am possessed of it. I go home at night under the stars, between dark walls and through mazy streets. I shall be free to write upon those walls beautiful or stern sentiments, arraigning the powers of the earth, and write them in the very colour of heaven. At home I may beguile the evening in a thousand innocent sports, designing barbaric patterns upon the new table-cloth, drawing dreamy and ideal landscapes upon the note-paper, decorating my own person in the manner of our British predecessors, sketching strange and ideal adventures for strange and ideal characters. And all this blue river of dreams is loosened by a half- penny.”

The Pessimist replied, in his sad, stern way, "Drivel. It is only the blue chalk you buy for a halfpenny. You do not buy the stars for a halfpenny; you do not buy the streets for a halfpenny; you do not buy your dreams or your love of drawing or your tastes and imaginations for a halfpenny."

"True," I replied. "The stars and the dreams and myself are cheaper than chalk: for I bought them for nothing."

He burst into tears and became immediately convinced of the basis of true religion. For our very word for God means Economy: is not improvidence the opposite of Providence?

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