In his concluding chapter, Robert Miller (Buddhist Existentialism) makes reference to ‘pataphysics, a largely literary movement that began in late Nineteenth Century France. I have only a superficial knowledge of ‘pataphysics which, in any case, is essentially undefinable by design. (Where in the dictionary does one put a word that begins with an apostrophe?) For the moment it suffices to consider only one attempted definition: “a science of imaginary solutions and the laws governing exceptions.”
Most pataphysicians are of artistic and literary bent and Zhuangzi would have been most comfortable among them. What they have in common is the equation of the serious with the humorous. Only in the voidance of the serious in humor can the serious reflect the actual condition of existence. Where no “true purpose”, true self, or any other of the multitude of essentialist fantasies are recognized, life presents as an opportunity for make believe, for play.
Existentialism, in taking the raw experience of existence as its point of departure, puts the burden of becoming squarely on the shoulders of the individual. It is up to us to decide how our life might best be lived. In this, it too is “a science of imaginary solutions”. And this is what I believe Zhuangzi was also about—suggesting we use the power of imagination to find a way of being in the world that is in harmony with both our experience and our natural élan for enjoyment. Yet this can only work when done in the humorous spirit of play.
Play is the act of taking things most seriously in the awareness that they are not serious at all. It is walking two roads at once. We play to win, but if winning is the only goal, we are not playing at all. Life lived as play is life lived as open and empty. Nothing is grasped as essential; no personal dao excludes the daos of others. We are all “exceptions”.