Metals with Breath Put into Them

‘IRON IN NATURE.—You all probably know that the ochreous stain, which, perhaps, is often thought to spoil the basin of your spring, is iron in a state of rust: and when you see rusty iron in other places you generally think, not only that it spoils the places it stains, but that it is spoiled itself—that rusty iron is spoiled iron.

For most of our uses it generally is so; and because we cannot use a rusty knife or razor so well as a polished one, we suppose it to be a great defect in iron that it is subject to rust. But not at all. On the contrary, the most perfect and useful state of it is that ochreous stain; and therefore it is endowed with so ready a disposition to get itself into that state. It is not a fault in the iron, but a virtue, to be so fond of getting rusted, for in that condition it fulfils its most important functions in the universe, and most kindly duties to mankind. Nay, in a certain sense, and almost a literal one, we may say that iron rusted is Living; but when pure or polished, Dead. You all probably know that in the mixed air we breathe, the part of it essentially needful to us is called oxygen; and that this substance is to all animals, in the most accurate sense of the word, “breath of life.” The nervous power of life is a different thing; but the supporting element of the breath, without which the blood, and therefore the life, cannot be nourished, is this oxygen. Now it is this very same air which the iron breathes when it gets rusty. It takes the oxygen from the atmosphere as eagerly as we do, though it uses it differently. The iron keeps all that it gets; we, and other animals, part with it again; but the metal absolutely keeps what it has once received of this aerial gift; and the ochreous dust which we so much despise is, in fact, just so much nobler than pure iron, in so far as it is iron and the air. Nobler, and more useful—for, indeed, as I shall be able to show you presently—the main service of this metal, and of all other metals, to us, is not in making knives, and scissors, and pokers, and pans, but in making the ground we feed from, and nearly all the substances first needful to our existence. For these are all nothing but metals and oxygen—metals with breath put into them. Sand, lime, clay, and the rest of the earths—potash and soda, and the rest of the alkalies—are all of them metals which have undergone this, so to speak, vital change, and have been rendered fit for the service of man by permanent unity with the purest air which he himself breathes. There is only one metal which does not rust readily; and that, in its influence on Man hitherto, has caused Death rather than Life; it will not be put to its right use till it is made a pavement of, and so trodden under foot.

Is there not something striking in this fact, considered largely as one of the types, or lessons, furnished by the inanimate creation? Here you have your hard, bright, cold, lifeless metal—good enough for swords and scissors—but not for food. You think, perhaps, that your iron is wonderfully useful in a pure form, but how would you like the world, if all your meadows, instead of grass, grew nothing but iron wire—if all your arable ground, instead of being made of sand and clay, were suddenly turned into flat surfaces of steel—if the whole earth, instead of its green and glowing sphere, rich with forest and flower, showed nothing but the image of the vast furnace of a ghastly engine—a globe of black, lifeless, excoriated metal? It would be that,—probably it was once that; but assuredly it would be, were it not that all the substance of which it is made sucks and breathes the brilliancy of the atmosphere; and as it breathes, softening from its merciless hardness, it falls into fruitful and beneficent dust; gathering itself again into the earths from which we feed, and the stones with which we build;— into the rocks that frame the mountains, and the sands that bind the sea.’

John Ruskin. ‘The Work of Iron, in Nature, Art, and Policy: A Lecture Delivered at Tunbridge Wells, February 1858’, in The Two Paths.




Finespun and impartial, the summer sunlight poured down prodigally on all creation alike. The war ended, yet the deep green weeds were lit exactly as before by the merciless light of noon, a clearly perceived hallucination stirring in a slight breeze; brushing the tips of the leaves with my fingers, I was astonished that they did not vanish at my touch.

That same sun, as the days turned to months and the months to years, had become associated with a pervasive corruption and destruction. In part, it was the way it gleamed so encouragingly on the wings of planes leaving on missions, on forests of bayonets, on the badges of military caps, on the embroidery of military banners; but still more, far more, it was the way it glistened on the blood flowing ceaselessly from the flesh, and on the silver bodies of flies clustering on wounds. Holding sway over corruption, leading youth in droves to its death in tropical seas and countrysides, the sun lorded it over that vast rusty-red ruin that stretched away to the distant horizon.


Pain, I came to feel, might well prove to be the sole proof of the persistence of consciousness within the flesh, the sole physical expression of consciousness. As my body acquired muscle, and in turn strength, there was gradually born within me a tendency towards the positive acceptance of pain, and my interest in physical suffering deepened. Even so, I would not have it believed that this development was a result of the workings of my imagination. My discovery was made directly, with my body, thanks to the sun and the steel.

As many people must have experienced for themselves, the greater the accuracy of a blow from a boxing glove or a fencing sword, the more it is felt as a counterblow rather than as a direct assault on the opponent’s person. One’s own blow, one’s own strength, creates a kind of hollow. A blow is successful if, at that instant, the opponent’s body fits into that hollow in space and assumes a form precisely identical with it.

How is it that a blow can be experienced in such a way; what makes a blow successful? Success comes when both the timing and placing of the blow are just right. But more than this, it happens when the choice of time and target—one’s judgement—manages to catch the foe momentarily off guard, when one has an intuitive apprehension of that off-guard moment a fraction of a second before it becomes perceptible to the senses. This apprehension is a quantity that is unknowable even to the self and is acquired through a process of long training. By the time the right moment is consciously perceptible, it is already too late. It is too late, in other words, when that which lurks in the space beyond the flashing fist and the tip of the sword has taken shape. By the moment it takes shape, it must already be snugly ensconced in that hollow in space that one has marked out and created. It is at this instant that victory in the fray is born.

At the height of the fray, I found, the tardy process of creating muscle, whereby strength creates form and form creates strength, is repeated so swiftly that it becomes imperceptible to the eye. Strength, that like light emitted its own rays, was constantly renewed, destroying and creating form as it went. I saw for myself how the form that was beautiful and fitting overcame the form that was ugly and imprecise. Its distortion invariably implied an opening for the foe and a blurring of the rays of strength.

The defeat of the foe occurs when he accommodates his form to the hollow in space that one has already marked out; at that moment, one’s own form must preserve a constant precision and beauty. And the form itself must have an extreme adaptability, a matchless flexibility, so that it resembles a series of sculptures created from moment to moment by a fluid body. The continuous radiation of strength must create its own shape, just as a continuous jet of water will maintain the shape of a fountain.

Surely, I felt, the tempering by sun and steel to which I submitted over such a long period was none other than a process of creating this kind of fluid sculpture. And insofar as the body thus fashioned belonged strictly to life, its whole value, I came to feel, must lie in that moment-to-moment splendour. That, indeed, is the reason why human sculpture has striven so hard to commemorate the momentary glory of the flesh in imperishable marble.

It followed that death lay only a short way beyond that particular moment.’

Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel, translated by John Bester.