For a Godly materialism

Thanks to a typo (“inox” for “inbox”) I found myself blathering this morning to a correspondent in email about steel. My mistake was Freudian, I’m sure: “inox,” from inoxydable, is what they call stainless steel in France. Everything is Freudian, once one has become a Freud. Or as we discover in perusing such as Partridge’s learned glossary on Shakespeare’s Bawdy, there is not a word or topic in the world that will fail to carry some sexual or scatological innuendo, if it is worked carefully enough. This, I suspect, is because we are animals, and subject to decay.

I know little about this subject (steel; I’m fairly well-informed on bawdy), but perhaps enough to make a couple of points.

As my father the industrial designer used to say, “Stainless steel is so called because it stains less than some other steels.” But give me, by preference, wrought iron from a puddling furnace, for I don’t like shiny. Unfortunately it is not made any more except on a small craft scale: but I have, in the kitchen of the High Doganate, a pair of Chinese scissors that I’ve owned nearly forever, which have never rusted and whose blades stay frightfully sharp (they were only once sharpened). They cost me some fraction of a dollar, back when forever began (some time in the 1970s).

Too, I have an ancient French chef’s knife, nearly ditto, made I think from exactly the steel that went into the Eiffel Tower. It holds an edge like nothing else in my cutlery drawer, and has a weight and balance that triggers the desire to chop vegetables and slice meat.

And there are nails in the wooden hulls of ships from past centuries which have not rusted, after generations of exposure to salt sea and storm. Craft, not technology, went into their composition: there were many stages of piling and rolling, each requiring practised human skill. (The monks in Yorkshire were making fine steels in the Middle Ages; and had also anticipated, by the fourteenth century, all the particulars of a modern blast furnace. But they gave up on that process because it did not yield the quality they demanded.)

What is sold today as “wrought iron” in garden fixtures, fences and gates, is fake: cheap steel with a “weatherproof” finish (a term like “stainless”) painted on. These vicious things are made by people who would never survive in a craft guild. (Though to be fair, they are wage slaves, and therefore each was “only following orders.”)

However, in the Greater Parkdale Area, on my walks, I can still visit with magnificent examples of the old craft, around certain public buildings — for it was lost to us only a couple of generations ago. These lift one’s heart. I can stand before the trolley stop at Osgoode Hall (the real one, not the Marxist-feminist law school named after it). Its fence and the old cow-gates warm the spirit, and raise the mind: if the makers sinned, I have prayed for them.

Almost everywhere else one looks in one’s modern urban environment, one sees fake. This, conversely, leaves the spirit cold, and lowers every moral, aesthetic, and intellectual expectation. To my mind it is sinful to call something what it is not — as is done in every “lifestyle” advertisement — and to my essentially mediaeval mind, the perpetrators ought to be punished in this world, as an act of charity. This could spare them retribution in the next.

Craft itself has a penitential aspect. I have a friend, since childhood, whose name he would never permit me to mention. In the last moments when Latin was mandatory in Ontario high schools he won an international prize for a translation from Horace. The lyrics were also very clever, in the songs he wrote. He was and remains a fine string musician, with a voice that can animate a sleepy choir. As elder, now, in an old Anglican parish, so backward it still has a congregation, he has the opportunity. He was raised in poverty by an old widow-woman, who taught him his prayers. He is a doer, not a talker like me; though like me, he grew into a religious nutjob. He aspired to become a farmer. We cannot always accomplish our dreams, and his fell by the wayside. Instead he found employment in what can only be described as a blacksmith’s shop: a specialist manufactory of antiquated steels, on a very small scale. It has thrived, because what it makes has high-tech applications.

His work necessarily involves continuous exposure to what is, for humans, an extremely high-temperature environment. He is the last man still willing to go in there, for hands-on operations that can be done in no other way. He could retire, and collect a good pension; or get another job with his skills. But he will not think of it. The livelihoods of eight or nine other people depend on what he does; most of those have families. Too, he loves his work. The penitential aspect is quite real — he would not choose to spend his days sweating, except to some purpose. He has that purpose, and will sacrifice for it.

As for his family, and the high-school sweetheart he married, and whom he loves rather to distraction, and who bore him more children than I could count. And she is a wonderful craftswoman, especially in the culinary line; and I have the happiest memory of drinking a little too much with her husband, then following him home to a resplendent table, where the Angelus was said before Grace; and so much good-hearted laughter followed.

This is how we should live, in penitence, and likewise in joy. The farmer, too, sows and reaps in all weathers, and every other craftsman knows of pains different in kind from the boredom of the modern office. And even without craft, there are weights to be lifted, by the fragile human frame.

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Or as Guiderjus sings in Cymbeline: “Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” For Shakespeare was not a romantic.

All of our technical “progress” is geared to taking the pain out of our everyday lives: the unnecessary pain, but also the necessary and painstaking. We have a societal obsession with finding the easy way out, reflected even in the usurious financial instruments I touched upon the other day, now leading us to ruin. We have come to be boxed by fakery on every side, so that we no longer feel it: until we discover that the scheme cannot work. We think of our ancestors today as hunchbacks; not of what compromise has done to the shape of our own immortal souls.

Thence comes it that my name receives a brand
And almost thence my nature is subdu’d
To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand. …

But the work of the dyer is also exalted.