As I was driving north of Princeton this afternoon, a sudden movement in the woods at the edge of Route 206 caught my eye. Roiling bodies crashed in the underbrush and in an instant a large winged creature lifted out of the fray. As it fought to gain altitude above the cars speeding by, its wings seemed to span my entire windshield. In its talons it held an animal about the size of a football, probably a groundhog by its dark grey color. At first the reddish brown color of the bird had me thinking of a hawk. But it was much too big to be a hawk. There are eagles in the woods around Princeton, but not reddish brown. I think this was a Great Horned Owl. The moment was as stunning as it was quick.
Trying to look for deeper meaning in this incident and to put that into words may get me into more trouble than that poor groundhog. In fact, the very passage in the Dàodéjīng that this incident immediately brings to mind ends with a call for silence.
Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs; the sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs. … Much speech leads inevitably to silence. Better to hold fast to the void.
In the context of a similar Western trope, Carol Newsom cautions in The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations against our tendencies to construct moral orders based on “the structures of reality itself.” We have a hard time recognizing our limited ability to use reason to organize the world “into structures of meaning and human purpose.”
That is why “straw dogs” and the story of Job are such a hard texts, and why “the voice from the whirlwind” knocks Job down a peg. “The face of Leviathan exposes the hubris and the self-deception of the human rage for order,” in the face of a world marked by “intrinsic and unmasterable violence” and “indifference to human values,” This caution applies as much to the social Darwinism of Scrooge as to the bleeding heart of Pollyanna.
It will be interesting to listen to Nielsen’s 4th symphony again to examine if his music avoids the potential traps in his words: “yesterday, today, and tomorrow, life was, is, and will be in struggle, conflict, procreation and destruction.”