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.

Wasted by Words

‘I have often noticed that after I had bestowed on the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly placed it. Although it lingered on in my mind, its personal warmth, its retrospective appeal had gone and, presently, it became more closely identified with my novel than my former self, where it had seemed to be so safe from the intrusion of the artist.’

Vladimir Nabokov, ‘Mademoiselle O’, Nabokov’s Dozen.

‘When I examine closely my early childhood, I realise that my memory of words reaches back far farther than my memory of the flesh. In the average person, I imagine, the body precedes language. In my case, words came first of all; then—belatedly, with every appearance of extreme reluctance, and already clothed in concepts—came the flesh. It was already, as goes without saying, sadly wasted by words. First comes the pillar of plain wood, then the white ants feed on it. But for me, the white ants were there from the start, and the pillar of plain wood emerged tardily, already half eaten away.

Words are a medium that reduces reality to abstraction for transmission to our reason, and in their power to corrode reality inevitably lurks the danger that the words themselves will be corroded too. It might be more appropriate, in fact, to liken their action to that of excess stomach fluids that digest and gradually eat away the stomach itself.’

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

‘“Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice. Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased. Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or, perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little”.’

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities. 

Style and the Body – I

‘Today, what are hands good for? Hands, poor hands which hang down at our sides. How do you expect there to be painters born, when our hands are dead? And musicians as well. And even writers. Because style, for the latter as for all the others, is born of the memory of the entire body’.

Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, as quoted and translated by David Carroll.

‘What, now, of my dealings with words during this same period? By now, I had made of my style something appropriate to my muscles: it had become flexible and free; all fatty embellishment had been stripped from it, while “muscular” ornament—ornament, that is, that though possibly without use in modern civilisation was still as necessary as ever for purposes of prestige and presentability—had been assiduously maintained. I disliked a style that was merely functional as much as one that was merely sensuous.

Nevertheless, I was on an isolated island of my own. Just as my body was isolated, so my style was on the verge of non-communication; it was a style that did not accept, but rejected. More than anything, I was preoccupied with distinction (not that my own style necessarily had it). My ideal style would have had the grave beauty of polished wood in the entrance hall of a samurai mansion on a winter’s day.

In my style, as hardly needs pointing out, I progressively turned my back on the preferences of the age. Abounding in antitheses, clothed in an old-fashioned, weighty solemnity, it did not lack nobility of a kind; but it maintained the same ceremonial, grave pace wherever it went, marching through other people’s bedrooms with precisely the same tread as elsewhere. Like some military gentleman, it went about with chest out and shoulders back, despising other men’s styles for the way they stooped, sagged at the knees, even—heaven forbid!—swayed at the hips.

I knew, of course, that there are some truths in this world that one cannot see unless one unbends one’s posture. But such things could well be left to others.

Somewhere within me, I was beginning to plan a union of art and life, of style and the ethos of action. If style was similar to muscles and patterns of behaviour, then its function was obviously to restrain the wayward imagination.’

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

The Active Life

‘Having a horror of any action, he keeps telling himself: ‘Movement, what folly!’ It is not so much events which vex him as the notion of participating in them; and he bestirs himself only in order to turn away from them. His sneers have devastated life before he has exhausted its juice. He is a crossroads Ecclesiast who finds in the universal meaninglessness an excuse for his defeats… Bearing the image of what he might have been as a stigma and a halo, he blushes and flatters himself on the excellence of his sterility, forever alien to naive seductions, the one free man among the helots of time.He extracts his liberty from the enormity of his lack of accomplishments; he is an infinite and pitiable God whom no creation limits, no creature worships, and whom no one spares. The scorn he has poured out on others is returned by them. He expiates only the actions he has not performed, though their number exceeds the calculations of his wounded pride. But at the end, as a kind of consolation, and at the close of a life without honors, he wears his uselessness like a crown.’

Emil Cioran, A Short History of Decay, translated by Richard Howard.

‘The active life has always struck me as the least comfortable of suicides. To act, in my view, is a cruel and harsh sentence passed on the unjustly condemned dream. To exert influence on the outside world, to change things, to overcome obstacles, to influence people – all of this seems more nebulous to me than the substance of my daydreams. Ever since I was a child, the intrinsic futility of all forms of action has been a cherished touchstone for my detachment from everything, including me. To act is to react against oneself. To exert influence is to leave home.

Abstaining entirely from action and taking no interest in Things, I’m able to see the outside world with perfect objectivity. Since nothing interests me or makes me think it should be changed, I don’t change it.

Whenever my ambition, influenced by dreams, raised above the everyday level of my life, so that for a moment I seemed to soar, like a child on a swing, I always – like the child – had to come down to the public garden and face my defeat, with no flags to wave in battle and no sword I was strong enough to unsheathe.’

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith.

‘How many lazy men’s truths have been admitted in the name of the imagination! How often has the term imagination been used to prettify the unhealthy tendency of the soul to soar off in a boundless quest after truth, leaving the body where it always was! How often have men escaped from the pains of their own bodies with the aid of that sentimental aspect of the imagination that feels the ills of others’ flesh as its own!

Yet my dreams became, at some stage, my muscles. The muscles that I had made, that existed, might give scope for the imagination of others, but no longer admitted of being gnawed away by my own imagination.’

Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel.

Day and Night

‘True knowledge comes down to vigils in the darkness: the sum of our insomnias alone distinguishes us from the animals and from our kind. What rich or strange idea was ever the work of a sleeper? Is your sleep sound? Are your dreams sweet? You swell the anonymous crowd. Daylight is hostile to thoughts, the sun blocks them out; they flourish only in the middle of the night…Conclusion of nocturnal knowledge: every man who arrives at a reassuring conclusion about anything at all gives evidence of imbecility or false charity. Who ever found a single joyous truth which was valid?’

Emil Cioran, A Short History of Decay.

‘A hostility towards the sun was my only rebellion against the spirit of the age. I hankered after Novalis’s night and Yeatsian Irish twilights. However, from the time the war ended, I gradually sensed that an era was approaching in which to treat the sun as an enemy would be tantamount to following the herd.

The literary works written or put before the public around that time were dominated by night thoughts—though their night was far less aesthetic than mine. To be really respected at that time, moreover, one’s darkness had to be rich and cloying, not thin. Even the rich honeyed night in which I myself had wallowed in my boyhood seemed to them, apparently, very thin stuff indeed.

Little by little, I began to feel uncertain about the night in which I had placed such trust during the war, and to suspect that I might have belonged with the sun worshippers all along. It may well have been so. And if it was indeed so—I began to wonder—might not my persistent hostility towards the sun, and the continued importance I attached to my own small private night, be no more than than a desire to follow the herd?

The men who indulged in nocturnal thought, it seemed to me, had without exception dry, lustreless skins and sagging stomachs. They sought to wrap up a whole epoch in a capacious night of ideas, and rejected in all its forms the sun that I had seen. They rejected both life and death as I had seen them, for in both of these the sun had had a hand.’

Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel.