Saturday, 23 January 2021

The knife's deity

The story of weaponry has been the saga of actions at increasing  distance.  The mutual danger of hand-to-hand grappling gave way first to the impersonal stones and clubs, and then to slings and arrows which removed the attacker from the immediate arena of the attack.  Following them were guns whose thousand yard reach was then lengthened into miles with the development of artillery.  Today the ultimate weapon will be launched with the press of a button by people buried deep in the earth against unseen and unknown populations half the world away.  Target and effects will be little more than figures on a monitor, the final de-personalisation of the business of murder.

Amidst this abstract death by technology, the knife remains the most intimate of weapons, and still provokes an elemental fear in us.  The very act of stabbing is like a violation of the tissues it penetrates.  To be cut with a knife is to feel an invasion of the body: it is as if the blade were probing for the soul within.

The knife is not gross like a blow from a club; it is not sudden and brutal like a bullet.  There is something haughty and horribly clinical about a knife; it is no coincidence that the sharpest and most efficacious knife of all is that wielded by the disinfected, omnipotent surgeon.  Such antiseptic sterility suggests the inhuman; and what is inhuman is by implication inexorable.

Hence the propensity of crazed murderers to choose some old fashioned blade for their worst and most depraved acts.  Often those acts tend towards the ritualistic, and the knife has always been a pre-requisite for sacrifice: picture the spiritual squalor of a ceremony in which the victim - animal or human - were shot or clubbed to death.  The knife sanctifies that which it destroys, as if it were the mysterious touch of something that blesses.

We acknowledge frankly this ever-present god of the knife.  Given a honed and glinting blade, we hold it gingerly, and handle it reverently.  We know that there is a powerful spirit within, whom we treat without due respect at our peril.  Vengeance is swift and terrible.

This I found to my cost once.  Handling a Swiss army knife with a positively baroque multiplicity of tools, I began carelessly exploring its secrets.  After opening the main blade I found its lesser brothers and sisters.  Then there were corkscrews, bottle-openers, and a pair of scissors, first cousins to the knife.  All of these were released awkwardly, but the scissors proved particularly difficult.

In frustration, I tugged hard on them.  Finally they emerged in their miniature Swiss neatness.  All this while I had neglected the splay of razor-sharp knives already arrayed.  As I sprang out the scissors suddenly, my thumb drove deep onto one of the waiting blades.  For a second or two I gazed abstractly at the clean parting of the flesh; then a huge bright red blossoming welled up.  I realised I had sinned against the knife's deity, and that this was my punishment and reparation.

(1987)

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