Chapter 19: Raw Silk and Uncut Wood
“What works reliably is to know the raw silk,
hold the uncut wood.
Forget the rules.
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
Chaos gets a bad rap in the West. It’s the messy room. It’s the sink full of dishes. It’s the formless void from which God has to wrest a cosmos in the opening chapter of Genesis.
And in the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth on which Genesis was likely modeled, it’s Tiamat: the ticked off dragon goddess of sea and winter on a mission to wipe out her fellow deities. Jordan Peterson never tires of drawing on this myth as the origin and essence of the Western dialectic of order and chaos, good and evil, white and black. And while his follow up to 12 Rules for Life, Beyond Meaning, gestures at the upside of chaos, there is an unmistakable preference for order. Not without reason has he become a guru to the alt-right, Trumpers, preppers, the “law and order” crowd, and in general young men intuiting the need to channel their testosterone toward a higher purpose than porn and video games.
Kierkegaard called anxiety “the dizziness of freedom.” Pure possibility frightens us, and reasonably so. Raw silk and uncut wood can evoke fear and trembling, so with great dispatch we move to make them in our own image and likeness. We scramble to impose a reassuring form and familiar frame on the raw material rudely jutting into our little window on the world. We make to rule it and, what is hardest, we do so automatically and unconsciously.
But the Daoist understanding of the dance between order and chaos is less black and white. There is no such thing as purely raw material, just as there is no purely raw food. Uncooked meat is not “raw” to a lion. To know raw silk or hold uncut wood is to behold what is before you in such a way that it reveals itself; the subtle forms, the hidden laws, the tiny rules will emerge from the thing like the image in a magic eye painting. You just need dull your focus. This is how to make beauty the rule rather than the exception of your perception.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”