Hirohito Blackmetal Blues

When I was just a child my parents would often take me to museums. I liked the blue whale at Natural History. The staircase in the Guggenheim wasn’t bad. But cetaceans and Rothkos alike get old eventually. So we’d always end up, sooner or later, at the Met.

I liked Dendor. Mainly because Big Bird spent so much time there in that made-for-TV movie. The Buddhas weren’t bad, neither were the mummies. In general I did not have the patience to appreciate smaller works, nor the context (in my life, or the life of the piece) to spend much time on any one exhibit.

Perhaps if I had been more immersed in fantasy worlds I would have been drawn closer to the arms and armor. It would have given me a context, of gore and chivalry (or at least, magic and majesty) from which to draw. As it was they were as foreign to me as the Pollocks at the MoMA. Their katanas might as well have been dowel-rods.

When I revisited the exhibit as a teen-ager I was baffled by what I had failed to appreciate. Arms and armor were quite clearly awesome incarnate. Before me were pieces of plate that had once been worn by paladin and templar, polearms wielded by defenders of the faith of landsknecht in the roving employ of a hundred petty conflicts. Each piece was a connection to history. Bloody, wonderful history.

My favorite pieces were the ones which conjured in me the greatest feeling of attachment. The faintest hint of a dent, a nigh-undetectable stain that may have been blood, all these things helped bind me closer to ages past. The more directly explicative the piece, the more it was incised with decorations or enameled with stories like a Grecian urn, the more it would drag me in. I was looking for narrative. The Met’s collection met that desire pretty well.

Their collection of Nipponese impedimentia did not capture my imagination. The samurai helms were curious affairs, but spoke less of the martial than of the theatrical. The swords were clean and pretty, but did not stimulate the imagination as the dented rapiers did, or provoke the mind like the unwieldy zweihander or filigreed bec-de-corbin. They looked the sort of thing that you could buy on eBay for seven dollars a piece. If you were a nagaphile – what we now call, a weeaboo.

Just recently I returned to the Met. I looked at the pretty pictures, noted how my memories of them had changed, how my tastes had changed over the years. Some meant nothing to me anymore. Others, in light of my life, meant a great deal. I knew more of the history of many things and saw more of my ignorance in other places. I still couldn’t afford anything in the gift shop. Some things are not likely to change any time soon.

My reaction to the arms and armor was noticeably different. In the intervening years I had acquired new context for my observations. I had become a blacksmith, and worked in making knives and daggers myself. I could begin to appreciate what had been required to make these things. As such, I spent most of the day in that room with my fucking jaw on the floor.

Sometimes I would look at something and say to myself, “Holy shit, I could make that!” Sometimes I would stop and stare and try to figure out how something had been done, once and a while picking up a trick with a feeling like inspiration striking me right in the forehead. And sometimes I would stop and stare at something, and stare, and stare, and wonder just what the hell was going on.

I would look at some of these things, and think to myself: “You can’t do that.”

I’ve made a couple of knives now. They’re bitchy hard work. You have to get them in the exact right shape. Across three axes. You need to taper them along two axes, one as a point, one as a bevel. They need to be absolutely straight. Uniform. Smooth. And that’s just to make an ugly little cutstick that will hold an edge, suitable for cutting the semifirm cheese of your choice.

I have been blacksmithing for over a year now. I’ve logged around five hundred hours at the forge. I’ve made some nice pieces. I know a thing or two. And I’m standing there, looking at those katanas, and I still have no idea how the hell these things were made.

Of course it’s easy with modern technology. To be a knifemaker, as opposed to a knifesmith, is not hard work. You take a piece of steel. You cut and mill it to the shape you want. You polish it up. Slap a handle on it. And sell it, often for some nice money.

All you need for this is a milling machine. A vertical and a horizontal bandsaw. A hand grinder. A bench grinder. A wire brush. A drill press. As well, most likely, as a couple of machines I’ve never even heard of, for exact shaping, for precision polishing, for sharpening without the bother of striking a whetstone about a thousand times per blade.

The swords in front of me, long katana, offhand wakizashi, short tanto, were made by men who had no access to these things. Some of these swords were half a millennia old. Their makers didn’t have electricity, not even steam power. They had no knowledge of metallurgy beyond what they could feel between their tongs and beneath their hammers. It is not hard to imagine them working in a woodframe building open to the elements, leather bellows pumping air into the pine-charcoal fire, apprentices striking with iron hammers onto iron anvils, only the swords themselves worthy of the tiny amounts of steel available in the world.

These swords before me saw combat. They struck other swords with weight and skill, they cut through armor and flesh and bone, they grew wet with dew and blood and the water of the sea. They were kept honed by running them along flintstones and drawing them along strops of tanned leather. They were treated with religious deference, it is true. Yet with centuries having elapsed, still they are as clean and beautiful as anything that could be made today.

They are absolutely perfect. Their blades are evenly, ideally proportioned; they are firm and solid without being weighty, masterpieces of design upon which modernity is hard-pressed to improve. The slash of such a blade through the air can conjure comparisons only to things like lightening strikes, like whirlwinds. They are polished to a glow. They are sharp as a razor-blade. They are just as functional as they were the day they were made. Separated from me by half an inch of glass, they are just as deadly as they ever were.

I cannot but compare them, in my mind, to my own work. On these there is not a stray hammer mark at all on one of these blades. You cannot tell at all that each was shaped by the raining blows of hammers, giant bolts of steel stuck on the end of ungainly lengths of wood. There is no scale at all on the blade, giving no indication that it was once raised to over two thousand degrees Farenheit, and was constantly growing crusted in layers of oxides and impurities the color of broken pencil tips. There is not an errant mark, not a degree’s deviation in shape, not a hint, indeed, that these blades were made by the hand of man. Whereas my best efforts betray their human origins as readily as a dartboard shows the attentions paid it by bar patrons – and in much the same way.

As a blacksmith, it is difficult for me to understand just how these swords could have been made. The more I know of swordmaking, the harder it is for me to escape the conclusion that the swordsmiths of medieval Japan were aided by some sort of magic.

Surely these constructions are the result of nothing but technique, temper and tenacity. The exacting requirements of the society, the competition from other swordmakers, the religious attachment which a samurai would have to his blade, all these things required only the best efforts from these swordsmiths. Their determination must have been great, their attention to detail boggling, their abilities to plan and execute astounding. But in their technique, I cannot begin to fathom the disccoveries which they made and then perfected. Kept alive in the constant heat of their forges, past down from generation to generation, now lost to us in the hail of bullets and noise of machines.

There is much for me to learn at forge and anvil. I could spend my lifetime hitting metal and discover many things myself. But the conditions which produced these weapons have gone, the need for them has left us, the knowledge which shaped them has been forgotten. Perhaps I could be a master just as they were. Yet I will never do what they did; I cannot. In looking upon them I am not like Keats looking upon the Elgin Marbles. I am just a schoolyard poet, reading Keats.


~ by davekov on 3 April 2010.

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