I have made frequent reference to Ernest Becker’s (The Denial of Death, 1973) observation that “man is the god that shits” because it so graphically describes the human condition that unavoidably leads to existential anxiety and dread. I’ve just given it a reread and recommend it to anyone who might wish to understand this condition and its psychological consequences from a “scientific” psychoanalytic perspective. It amazingly parallels (my take on) Zhuangzi’s analysis and proposed response.

Becker tells us that this human condition results in two unavoidable neuroses—repression and transference. Repression is essentially the denial of death, and though we do well to face it squarely and as “heroically” as we can, there will always be some degree of repression involved. Becker is careful to avoid the mistake of “psychoanalytical religionists” who suggest a possible end to all repression. Instead, he suggests a project of continual approximation of that ideal.

The great paradox of the human experience is seen in the inevitability of death, on the one hand, and the organismic impulse of the “life force” (qi?!) on the other. We wish to live, but must die. Our task is to create (not discover) a creative response to both without negating either. To do so is to live in authenticity.

Transference is our natural response to this paradox. (To be “normal” is to be neurotic.) Transference is the psychological act by which we attempt to resolve our need for the ultimate and sure grounding that we cannot find in ourselves. Religion has typically fulfilled this role, though there are innumerable other ways in which it manifests. A life-project (“making a difference”), trusting a guru or a psychoanalyst, stamp-collecting, foot-fetishism, and philosophizing are all types of transference. Some form of transference is both required and unavoidable. The trick then is to choose the object of one’s transference in full awareness of the necessarily illusory nature of the act. This too is to live in authenticity.

Becker makes much of Soren Kierkegaard’s psychological insights and response, putting him on a par with Freud and his greatest disciples. Kierkegaard recognized both this need for a seemingly religious transference and the inauthenticity of religious belief taken as objectively “true”. Thus his “leap of faith” and life lived in ambiguity and doubt. But Kierkegaard’s response still had the Judeo-Christian God as its object—and could not, therefore, be open and empty—the most authentic and consistent reflection of the human condition. Becker, unfortunately, seems to have been unaware of the possibility of a transference that has no object, but rather expresses itself as a release into the utterly unknowable, and is therefore empty. (He dismisses Buddhism out of hand, and correctly criticizes Jung for his religious forays into Eastern mysticism.) This was Zhuangzi’s response to the human condition—a trusting release into openness—as valid today as it was two and a half millennia ago. This is an open transference where some transference will happen in any case, and one that allows for greater existential authenticity than foot- or God-fetishism.


  1. Hi Scott,

    Could you possibly explain and elaborate “He dismisses Buddhism out of hand”?

    Kind regards

    1. Hi! Nice to hear from you.

      I don’t have the book at hand at the moment, but have a picture of the passage in my mind. He doesn’t specifically say Buddhism is especially misguided, but lumps it with other religious belief systems that he feels are instances of inauthentic religiousness. It’s not that religion is misguided, but that those which are not chosen in an awareness of their tentative nature are. Transference (finding a grounding meaning outside ourselves) is necessary, but to do so without also acknowledging that there is no escape from our apparent meaningless is an inauthentic form of transference. He’s very Zhuangzian in that he believes that we must in fact walk two roads–embracing a remedy while realizing that it cannot ever completely cure our inherent “creatureliness.”He criticizes Jung along similar grounds

      I mentioned his dismissal of Buddhism in this regard to suggest that he did not have a sense of emptiness as an alternative to a “positive teaching”–eg. God. Buddhism, in some of it’s forms, offers a very Zhuangzian type of transference–and identification with . . . nothing-in-particular.

      I’ll take a look at the book and see if I can be more specific. (I have no internet where my boat is at the moment.)

      Great to hear from you. Scott

  2. Hi Scott,

    Nice to hear from you. I hope you’re in good heath and spirit. Presumably, you must live a very interesting life on your boat. It all sounds really fascinating.

    Thanks for your reply to my question. I might add that book to my long reading list. Right now I’m re-reading Zhuangzi and comparing all the various translations, which is a fascinating and stimulating task in itself. It doesn’t cease to amaze me how differently translators interpret Zhuangzi. Sometimes it feels as if I’m reading completely different philosophers. I go through phases as to which my favourite translation is, but right now I’m reading the more poetic and nuanced translation of Sam Hamill and J. P. Seaton. If you haven’t already read it, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

    Perhaps in the future, would you consider doing a post/s reviewing and comparing different translations? I’ve noticed how Zhuangzi fans love talking about the merits of their favourite translation/s. I get the feeling your favourite translation might be Ziporyn’s?

    Anyway take care and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Kind regards

    1. Hi. Though I do recommend The Denial of Death, I have to add that it’s not always an easy read–all the Freudian sex-related complexes can get to be a bit much.

      One benefit of realizing that the various translations of Zz are so different is that it helps us remember that it’s not scripture. Whatever we get out of it is far more important than what the translators got out of it, or even what Zz might have intended.

      Yes, Ziporyn’s is my favorite since I think he “gets” it. But that’s only because I agree with him.

      I haven’t read Hamill’s translation and will put it on my to get list, though I do want to find and focus on some other project for awhile. I feel like I’ve cognitively taken Zz as far as I can–though I want to continue to see how much of what I’ve gotten from him can be more practically part of my life.


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