Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition

On February 28th, I participated in an author meets critics session at the Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, in Chicago. This is the text of my presentation:

Author Meets Critics: Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition: Taking Ridicule Seriously, by Lydia Amir (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

Critic: John Marmysz

Summary

In Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition: Taking Ridicule Seriously, Lydia Amir argues in favor of a worldview that she calls Homo risibilis; a perspective portraying humans as “ridiculous” animals. She characterizes the human condition as “ridiculous” in order to highlight our hopeless entanglement in the enduring incongruities and contradictions of life; incongruities between our ultimate desires and the impossibility of their final fulfillment. Humans, for instance, desire Truth, and yet our intellectual capacities are finite and unable to fully grasp the absolute Truth. We desire Goodness, Justice, Beauty, etc. and yet we are incapable of actualizing these ideals. Human life, in its essence, involves vain and endless striving for things that are impossible to actualize. So long as we live, we are trapped by the irresolvable contradictions between our aspirational desires and our reasonable capacities; and there is nothing that we can do to resolve and settle these contradictions. They are simply part of the human condition. Human life is ridiculous in this sense.

Traditionally, this condition has been interpreted as tragic. In tragedy, darkness and sadness color our interpretations of the world, encouraging us to view our ridiculous condition as painful and dissatisfying. And yet, argues Amir, there is another option open to us. The ridiculous incongruities of life can also be interpreted through the lens of comedy, a perspective that sees the world as a joyful and happy place where everything is just as it should be. It is possible to make the shift from a tragic to a comic perspective on life, argues Amir, because both tragic and comic perspectives represent responses to incongruity. And it is preferable to view the world through a comic lens, she argues, because of the joyfulness and happiness that such a perspective brings.

The benefits of shifting to a comic perspective, according to Amir, are powerful. Instead of feeling crushed and stressed by life, the comic perspective helps relieve the tension generated by the absurdity of our existence, allowing us to become reconciled to, and satisfied with, our condition. This aids us in transcending the unhappiness we often feel about our lives. With humor and comedy, we can embrace our ridiculous condition, become liberated from our dissatisfaction, overcome our alienation, and embrace life for what it really is: an amusing, ongoing and never ending navigation through a world filled with contradictions and incongruities.

In the first chapter of her book, Amir makes a distinction between tragedy as an art-form and “the tragic vision” of life (p. 2). As a literary art-form, tragedy is derived from a prior, more fundamental vision of life that sees the world as torn between conflicting forces. This vision has been articulated in at least three ways, according to Amir: First, there is the “absurd” vision, championed by Camus (p. 11), which identifies a conflict between the human desire for meaning and the impossibility of satisfying that desire. Second, there is the Sartrean view that characterizes human beings as caught between the contradictory demands of the self and others [“Hell is other people”] (p. 12). Finally, there is the Kantian perspective that claims while humans are naturally drawn toward addressing metaphysical questions (Does God exist? Does the universe have a beginning? Is the soul immortal?) they nevertheless lack the capacity to answer these ultimate questions using reason (p. 13). In all of these cases, there is a disconnect between what humans desire and what they can ultimately achieve. We desire meaning, but it eludes us. We desire both to be individuals and to be part of a community, but these desires contradict one another. We desire answers to our ultimate questions about the universe, but our reason is incapable of answering these most important questions.

This all sounds very depressing and frustrating, and so it is no wonder that traditionally these reflections have contributed to a dark and tragic vision of life. If you accept these ideas, then our condition is one in which the most deeply held human desires must go unfulfilled. The tragic vision is one attempt to impart a dark sort of affirmation and meaning to this condition. But there is also another very common reaction in which thinkers rebel against the contradictions implied by the human condition, treating our shared human situation as a “problem” and thus as something that needs to be solved. In rejecting the tragic interpretation of life, many thinkers instead turn toward philosophy and religion to solve the “problem” of life.

Philosophy and religion have long offered various solutions to the incongruity between human desire and those things that humans reasonably can attain in life. If the inconsistency between desire and reason could somehow be dissolved, then all of our problems would be over. According to Amir this leads to three common “solutions.” First, there is the approach advocated by systems like Buddhism, Hinduism, Epicureanism, Pyrrohnism, and by such modern philosophers as Schopenhauer and Russell. In this approach, it is suggested that we renounce our unreasonable desires in order to reconcile ourselves with the way the world actually presents itself to us in reality (pp. 49 – 52). The second approach is one advocated by various Western religions and by Nietzsche and the German Idealists. In this approach, it is reason that is renounced so that desire can be partially or wholly satisfied (pp. 52 – 54). Finally, there are various forms of mysticism – such as Taoism – that denigrate both desire and reason, encouraging humans to transcend the apparent contradiction between what we want and what we can reasonably attain (pp. 54 – 55). What all three of these approaches share in common is that they view the human condition as a problem; as something to be solved and overcome. As such, according to Amir, their goal is to dehumanize us; to make us into something other than human. Amir’s contention, thus, is that none of these “solutions” are really desirable. Instead, she argues that we should strive to become reconciled to the inherently contradictory nature of the human condition.

Humor has the potential to help us do this. Although it is rooted in the same source as tragedy, humor, according to Amir, addresses the incongruities of life from a different perspective than does the tragic vision. A sense of humor finds amusement in incongruities, interpreting them as comedic rather than tragic, and thus derives joy and happiness from what might otherwise cause suffering and pain. Humor does this by being tolerant of multiple, but conflicting, perspectives. This tolerance derives from humor’s tendency to detach us from our emotions and from our own egoistic desires. Whereas the tragic vision is preoccupied with the suffering of the ego, the humorous attitude relinquishes egoistic desires, allowing us to look at ourselves and at the world objectively in terms of its incongruous nature.

Just as artistic tragedy grows out of the tragic vision of life, so too does the worldview of Homo risibilis grow out of a humorous attitude toward life. This worldview consists of the recognition that human life is rife with incongruities, and that one of the key incongruities characterizing our world is that between tragedy and comedy. Life is both tragic and comic, and instead of trying to resolve one of these interpretations into the other, Homo risibilis instead accepts the truth of this conflict and derives joy from the ongoing repetition of its contemplation. According to Amir, this worldview offers a complete affirmation of the world, sublating all lower level incongruities into an all-encompassing meta-perspective that neither claims to offer a final understanding of reality, nor that abandons the passionate engagement with life. Homo risibilis overcomes individual alienation by recognizing and accepting the world for what it is: a place of irresolvable contradictions and incongruities that are at once tragic and comic. And in doing this, it reaches a paradoxical conclusion: “The incongruity that gives rise to the tragic and the comic will not be perceived as incongruous anymore” (p. 155). Through the perspective of Homo risibilis, the human condition is understood, paradoxically, to be congruous in its incongruity:

“The worldview I propose here amounts to a harmonious congruence with myself, others and the world, a situation that all philosophies seek to establish in their attempts to overcome alienation. [This worldview considers] conflicts as normal because they are constitutive of the complex being that I am and of the complicated relations I entertain with a world I do not fully understand” (p. 238).

Amir argues that Homo risibilis is the best alternative to the religions and philosophies that it competes with. Religions, in general, are inadequate, she claims, because they rest on something other than reason, and so are “lax” in their approach to understanding. They also, like many philosophies, rest on questionable metaphysical assumptions that must be accepted uncritically. Homo risibilis, on the other hand, is not dependent on any such beliefs, remaining open to new discoveries and skeptical of taken-for-granted assumptions about reality. In this, it is epistemologically skeptical (which Amir thinks is a benefit) and it presents an ethical picture of humankind as sharing a common condition, thus promoting compassion among humans while also encouraging joy and happiness in individuals.

Critique

Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition: Taking Ridicule Seriously is thoroughly researched, and draws from a comprehensive body of both classical and contemporary scholarship in the philosophy of humor. Amir does an impressive job of synthesizing this literature and harnessing it in support of her own original argument in favor of Homo risibilis.

I do have a few criticisms, questions and comments concerning two related issues in Amir’s book. First, I will address Amir’s claim for the uniqueness of her proposal concerning Homo risibilis. Second, I will call into question Amir’s conclusions regarding what she characterizes as the necessarily affirmative psychological effects of the worldview that she proposes.

Amir compares her conception of Homo risibilis to the contemporary theories of Cohen, Critchley, and Marmysz (pp. 151 – 154), acknowledging that all of these theories present the humorous perspective as a manner of responding to the incongruities of the world while steering away from tragedy and encouraging the affirmation and embrace of reality. However, Amir insists that her perspective is even “more radical” than these other proposals insofar as it “enables a celebration of humanity, allowing the individual to accept finitude and grace his folly” (p. 152 – 153). My question in this regard has to do with the precise manner in which the proposal of Homo risibilis is “more radical” than these other theories.

It seems to me the most obvious way that Amir’s proposal might be considered more radical than other theories advocating humor’s affirmative power has to do with the ultimate meta-perspective that Homo risibilis carries us to, as described in Chapter 6 of her book. It is here that Amir suggests that a joyful state of mind emerges for the individual who reaches this epiphany. In this epiphanic state of mind, perception of the world’s incongruity seems to be dissolved when Homo risibilis comes to understand that the incongruity between tragedy and comedy is not incongruous at all, but a completely congruent aspect of a larger reality. To quote: “The incongruity that gives rise to the tragic and the comic will not be perceived as incongruous anymore” (p. 155). In the end, it sounds as if Amir is gesturing toward a perspective in which there is a monistic sublation of the world’s contradictions in the thought of Homo risibilis. In other words, despite its contradictory and incongruent appearance, the world as a whole is not contradictory or incongruent with itself. It is a single, “harmonious” whole that is more than the sum total of the parts.

Now, if this is what Amir is claiming, then it seems to me that she may be very close to repeating a strategy that she criticizes in many other philosophies and religions. If incongruity is not a “problem” in the first place, then why does Homo risibilis feel a need to resolve the incongruity between the tragic and comedic elements of life into a “higher level” harmonious congurity at all? Recall that Amir suggests (in Chapter 2) that there are three “solutions” commonly offered to dissolve the troubling incongruities of the human condition: 1. Deny desire; 2. Deny reason; 3. Offer a way beyond both desire and reason. All of these “solutions” view the human condition as a “problem,” and are focused on eradicating the incongruities characterizing human existence in order to solve this problem. According to Amir, the denial of desire is common to many Eastern religions (like Buddhism), while the denial of reason is common to Western religions (like Christianity) and the transcendence of both desire and reason is common to mystical philosophies/religions (like Taoism).

Amir herself claims that humor helps us to be more “objective” and to distance ourselves from emotion. In this way, she characterizes humor as allied with reason (p. 180). So, in advocating an attitude of humor toward our condition, is she leaning in direction number 1: the denial of desire? Is Homo risibilis just another way of talking about a non-theistic religion of the sort that we find in Buddhism? In Buddhism, the goal is to accept the world as it is, independent of how we desire it to be. This is the point of nirvana, which to me sounds suspiciously similar to Amir’s suggestion that Homo risibilis allows the “individual to accept finitude” exorcising “hubris and egotism” (p. 153). It also sounds quite similar to non-dual Hinduism, in which the dichotomies of the world are transcended and all is understood to be a manifestation of one underlying and completely congruent, self-sufficient reality. In coming to understand tragedy and comedy to be completely congruent with one another, doesn’t the perspective of Homo risibilis execute a similar transcendence?

And this raises a further question for me. If humor is a reaction to incongruity, then once one attains the perspective of Homo risibilis, thus coming to understand the world as completely congruent in its incongruity, how can humor survive? Does Homo risibilis become a humorless perspective, something like a sublime form of mysticism?

The second issue that I’d like to address is Amir’s claim that the transition from a tragic to a comic perspective in Homo risibilis is necessarily accompanied by happiness, joy, and a compassionate, ethical attitude toward others. My thoughts on this issue started to materialize as I was watching the recent Academy Award winning film Joker. This film dramatizes precisely the perspectival transition that Amir describes in her book, with a central protagonist who inhabits a world of tragic pain and suffering but who then switches his perspective in order to view the absurdities of his world through the lens of comedy. The result, however, is not joy, happiness, or compassion, but rather psychosis, cynicism and brutality. The Joker becomes someone who treats the human condition as one big, sick joke. With the eradication of his own ego, he no longer cares if he lives, dies, or suffers. And he treats others with the same sort of detached cruelty that he treats himself.

Now, Joker is just a movie, but it does illustrate something that seems like a distinct possibility in the real world. Isn’t it possible that with the adoption of a comic perspective we might become so insensitive to the absurdity of the world that we could become less joyful, happy, and compassionate and instead become more insensitive, cruel, and cynical? Isn’t there a cruelty to laughter, humor, and comedy that is underestimated by Amir? After all, one of the oldest ways of explaining the power of humor and comedy, going all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, is in terms of superiority and dominance. According to this view, when we laugh at someone, we raise ourselves above the object of laughter, belittling and denigrating the target. We laugh down at people, making ourselves feel powerful at the expense of others. This suggests just the opposite of a compassionate stance in the humorist; one that potentially promotes a callous attitude toward the suffering of others. Is it possible that Homo risibilis could turn out to be more cruel than kind?

Conclusion

Overall, I find myself agreeing with most of what Amir argues in her book. I agree with her premise that the human condition is not a problem to be “solved” and that our reactions to life’s incongruities can take the forms of tragedy or comedy. I also agree that there are a number of affirmative aspects to the humorous, over the tragic, attitude toward life. However, I question whether it is desirable (or even possible) to adopt a final, meta-perspective that successfully and definitively synthesizes the comic and the tragic views of life.

Nonetheless, as with any worthwhile work of philosophy, it is the questions Lydia Amir’s book raises, rather than the answers that she provides, which make her efforts so interesting. The concept of Homo risibilis is one that I will continue to turn over in my mind for quite some time, and I look forward to further discussion of its precise contours, its meaning, it implications, as well as the methods by which it might be realized in thought.

The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook

Editor-in-Chief: Amir, Lydia

In cooperation with Destrée, Pierre / Gimbel, Steven / James, Christine A. / Marmysz, John / Olin, Lauren / Lintott, Sheila

Aims and Scope

The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook covers the various intersections of philosophy with humor (and laughter, irony, and the comical), historically and contemporarily, descriptively and prescriptively, seriously and jocularly. It welcomes excellent academic papers of both the analytic and continental traditions, reviews of relevant books, announcements of forthcoming events, and a section dedicated to humorous short papers on philosophical topics.

Details

Language:
English
Type of Publication:
Yearbook
Keyword(s):
Philosophy of Humor
Readership:
Scholars, institutes, libraries

Editorial Information

Lydia Amir (Editor-in-Chief), Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA.

Associate Editors

Pierre Destrée, University of Louvain, Louvain, Belgium; Steven Gimbel, Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania, PA, USA; Christine A. James, Valdosta State University, Valdosta, GA, USA; Sheila Lintott, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, USA; John Marmysz, College of Marin, Kentfield, CA, USA;¸Lauren Olin University of Missouri, St. Louis, USA.

Editorial Board Members

Noël Carroll, CUNY, New York, NY, USA; Simon Critchley, The New School, New York, NY, USA; Daniel Dennett, Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA; Stephen Halliwell, Emeritus, St. Andrews University, St. Andrews, UK; Kathleen Higgins, University of Texas, Austin, TX, USA; John Lippitt, University of Notre Dame, Sydney, NSW, Australia; John Morreall, Emeritus, The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA, USA; Robert C. Roberts, Emeritus, Baylor University, Waco, TX, USA; Quentin Skinner, Queen Mary University of London, UK.

Submissions should be sent to the Editor at lydamir@mail.com.

APA Central Division Philosophy of Humor Meetings

APA Central Division, Chicago 2020

The International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

Program

Three groups meetings

 

Thursday, February 27 Thursday evening, 7:30pm – 10:30pm

 

G3P. International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

“West and East: Humor in the History of Philosophy”

Chair: Lydia Amir (Tufts University/ Founding-President of the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor)

Introduction: Presentation of the Association (IAPH): http://www.philosophyofhumor.org

Announcement of a new journal, The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook (first volume, June 2020).

Announcement of a new book series, De Gruyter Studies in Philosophy of Humor (2021).

Speakers:

1. John Marmysz (College of Marin)

“That’s Not Funny: The Humor of Diogenes”

2. Lydia Amir (Tufts University)

“Clarifying Montaigne’s Thought through Homo risibilis: How the Philosophy of Humor Bears on Unresolved Problems of Interpretation”

3. Jonathan Weidenbaum (Berkeley College, New York)

“To Laugh in a Pluralistic Universe: The Relevance of William James for the Philosophy of Humor”

4. Choong-Su Han (Ehwa Womans University, Seoul, South Korea)

“An Elucidation of the Meaning of the Buddha’s Smile”

5. John Charles Simon (Independent Scholar)

“From Wildlife Biologist to Laughter Theorist: One Lone Scientist’s Relentless Pursuit of Obscurity”

 

Friday, February 28 Friday evening, 7:00pm – 10:00pm

 

G4U. International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

“Author-meets-critics, Lydia Amir’s Taking Ridicule Seriously: Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition.”

Chair: John Marmysz (College of Marin)

Author: Lydia Amir (Tufts University)

Critics:

1. John Marmysz (College of Marin)

2. Michael Picard (Douglas College, Vancouver, Canada)

 

Saturday, February 29 Saturday afternoon, 2:00pm – 5:00pm

 

G5D. International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

“Philosophy of Humor”

Chair: Lydia Amir (Tufts University/ Founding-President of the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor)

Introduction: Presentation of the Association (IAPH): http://www.philosophyofhumor.org

Announcement of a new journal, The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook (first volume, June 2020).

Announcement of a new book series, De Gruyter Studies in Philosophy of Humor (2021).

Speakers:

1. Matthew Meyer (The University of Scranton)

“Between Tragedy and Comedy: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra IV as Zwischenspiel”

2. Lauren Olin (Center for Neurodynamics, University of Missouri- St. Louis)

“Comic Dispositionalism”

3. Michael K. Cundall, Jr., (North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University)

“Why the Case for Humor and Health Isn’t as Weak as Thought: Methodological Paranoia We Can Laugh At”

4. Michael Picard (Douglas College, Vancouver, Canada)

“Achenbach, Humor and Philosophical Praxis”

5. Dianna Niebylski (University of Illinois)

“20th and 21st Century Philosophies of Women’s Humor”

That’s Not Funny: The Humor of Diogenes

Abstract:

That’s Not Funny: The Humor of Diogenes

John Marmysz

College of Marin

USA

The term “cynic,” as it is commonly used today, tends to be associated with negative evaluations. To call someone “cynical” is to suggest that a person sees the worst in others, distrusts the motivations of others, and has a generally dark and critical perspective on the world and people in it. Today, a cynic is rarely thought of as an affirmative, happy or joyful individual; and if the cynical attitude is associated at all with humor, it is with a cruel, spiteful and mean-spirited sort of humor that holds others in contempt. This obscures the historical fact that the origins of the “cynical” perspective are actually found in a philosophy having more to do with the affirmation of life than with dismissive and negative criticism of others. This philosophy began with the ancient Greek figure Diogenes of Sinope (c.412 – c.323 BC), a man who was exiled from his homeland and who spent the rest of his days in Athens, living a barrel while using humorous means to educate others concerning the nature of a good life.

Diogenes’ use of humor remains an innovation that, while frequently highlighted and noted by scholars, has rarely been explored systematically and in depth. In this paper I shall offer a methodical analysis of the role humor plays in the philosophy of Diogenes. I shall argue that the cynicism authored by Diogenes is a philosophy premised on a number of doctrines – none of which are essentially negative in character – and that among these doctrines humor holds the central place. The cynical humor of Diogenes, I shall claim, is more than just a feature of his personality or a method through which he communicates his real message. It is, in fact, the foundation of the philosophy of cynicism itself.

The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook

I’ve agreed to serve as associate editor for a new journal called the Philosophy of Humor Yearbook, the first issue or which is scheduled to be released in 2020 by de Gruyter. The journal will publish both scholarly articles as well as shorter, humorous pieces dealing with philosophical themes.

Those interested in contributing should send papers, ready for blind review, simultaneously to Lydia Amir at lydamir@mail.com and philhumor@degruyter.com by May 1st, 2019 along with a 100 word abstract and five key words. The call for papers can be viewed online at: http://lydamir.wixsite.com/humor/jour

The journal is part of the efforts of the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor (IAPH), which has held meetings in connection with the American Philosophical Association, and the World Congress of Philosophy. Membership in IAPH is free. You can join by emailing Lydia or by filling out an online form: http://lydamir.wixsite.com/humor/membership-dues-and-donations


Call for PapersPhilosophy of Humor Yearbook

The Berlin-based publisher, de Gruyter, has offered to sponsor a new journal dedicated to the philosophy of humor. A board consisting of top philosophers in the field has been assembled, among them John Morreall, Simon Critchley, Stephen Halliwell, Noël Carroll, John Lippitt, Daniel Dennett, Kathleen Higgins, and more.

The journal was launched in 2018, and will publish its first issue in 2020.

The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook addresses contemporary interests in the philosophy of humor. It invites philosophers from various traditions to share their research into humor, laughter, and the comic, and their roles (e.g., epistemological, ethical, aesthetic) within the history and practice of philosophy. The sole publication of its kind in this new burgeoning field, it publishes not only scholarly articles of the highest quality, but also humorous or satirical pieces of philosophic interest, as well as articles on the pedagogy of philosophy involving humor, jokes and cartoons.

The yearbook aims to be the authoritative periodical in the field. A peer-reviewed journal open to submissions by all philosophers, its goal is to advance the study of the philosophy of humor, understood as an umbrella term, by encouraging top-level scholarship in the field. The editorial and advisory boards are deeply committed to creating a genuinely international forum for publication, which integrates the many different traditions of philosophy and brings them into a constructive and fruitful dialogue.

​Apart from the scholarly articles making up the main part of the journal, the journal will also include a shorter part including humorous, witty, or satiric articles in the service of philosophic ideas. As humor is used, and has been used in the past, by various philosophical schools as a pedagogical device, the last section of the journal also addresses the pedagogy of philosophy, including appropriate witticisms, jokes, and even cartoons.

Finally, books will be reviewed and events related to the association will be advertised.

The deadline for the first issue is May 1st 2019.

Please send your submission to: lydamir@mail.com and philhumor@degruyter.com with an abstract of 100 words, 5 key words. Erase all traces of personal identity in the text. Name, affiliation, and contact details should be sent separate from the main paper.

​All submissions will be blind refereed by established scholars in the field. Only high-quality papers, written in excellent (American) English, will be accepted for publication. Potential authors should be prepared to make changes to their texts based on the comments received by the referees.

Articles should not exceed 25 pages, double-spaced and in 12 point Times New Roman font. All references should be in the notes, sent first as endnotes and published later as footnotes.

The manuscript should be sent in a Word version that is unlocked.

In Defense of Humorous Nihilism

51X+kM8FR-L._SY300_[1]My article, In Defense of Humorous Nihilism, appears in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Philosophy Now: A Magazine of Ideas. This is a special issue devoted to the philosophy of humor.

You have to be a subscriber to view it online, but the magazine is also available in bookstores and on amazon.

Glaswegian Nightlife

Crazy_womanGlasgow is a city with more than enough nightlife to keep a visitor engaged once the sun goes down. There are vast numbers of pubs, bars and restaurants, as well as a vital arts scene that assures a good selection of music and live theater almost every night of the week. While I was there, the city center was vibrant and active well into the early hours of the morning, even on Sundays when the weather was horrible and I imagined that locals should be deep in slumber before the start of the work week. Who needs sleep anyway!

The center of neighborhood nightlife, for better or worse, is the pub. I write “for better or for worse” because I found, over the course of the month and a half I was in Glasgow, that the steady stream of alcohol fueling Scottish nightlife quickly wore me down. I’m not normally a drinker, but since the pub is the neighborhood meeting place, drinking is a central, and daily, activity that is hard to avoid. Scarlet Johansson, while she was in Glasgow filming Under the Skin, noted that the city has a real “drinking culture,” and this is true. Scotland has the 8th highest level of alcohol consumption in the world, which contributes to something known as the “Glasgow Effect;” a name given to the fact that those living in and around the city have significantly higher rates of physical and psychological morbidity than people living in other parts of the UK.

Nonetheless, there is something appealing about walking down the street for a pint and being able to socialize with neighbors and their dogs. Yes: the family pet is welcome to hang out along with everyone else at the local pub, since in addition to a drinking culture, Glasgow has a real dog culture as well. If you don’t like dogs, then this is not a place for you to be.

Church_barI discovered more evidence of how important drinking is to Glaswegians when I went out with my nephew one night to the West End for dinner. After having a meal at an Italian restaurant, our first stop was a place called The Lane Bar, which occupies part of a converted movie theater. After that we stopped at The Book Club and then ended up at Oran Mor, which is a bar in a converted Church. All of these places were busy and crowded with hipsters having a raucous and loud Saturday night. This is not unusual in any big city of course. However, what fascinated me was, first of all, that a bar had been incorporated into a movie theatre and, even more, that a Church had been converted into a bar and nightclub. I have seen two other churches in Glasgow that have been converted into apartments and condominiums; which indicates just how far the death of God has progressed in this Scottish city. When churches are converted into bars and living spaces, it seems obvious that religion has lost at least some of its hold on the population. Couple this with the conversion of movie theaters into drinking establishments, and you get a sense of how people’s priorities here have changed.

DownloadedFileMy own favorite Scottish beverage is not whiskey, but Irn Bru, that bright orange-colored, sugary and vaguely citrus-flavored soda possessing pretensions toward somehow being good for you. This is a drink that I never get tired of, and I think that there should be bars established that serve it exclusively. This is, in fact, what I ended up drinking toward the end of most of my nights out. It helped me to flush my system and to wash down the various sorts of deep-fried street foods that are inevitably consumed at the evening’s conclusion; things such as deep-fried potatoes, deep-fried fish, deep-fried haggis and deep-fried sausage. In Glasgow it seems that everyone has their favorite “chippy,” or fish and chip shop, where you can get battered and deep-fried anything, including such bizarre items as deep-fried slices of pizza, meat pies, and of course the infamous “Mars fritter,” a battered and deep-fried candy bar. At the end of a night out on the town, these are the sorts of foods that bring festivities to a close.

I think I experienced something of the “Glasgow Effect” during my stay, as I became very sick for about a week and so missed seeing a couple of bands that I had been looking forward to: Control and The English Beat. Nevertheless, I did get the opportunity to see a couple of other acts, both of which I enjoyed quite a bit. The first was Nathaniel Rateliff, an alternative folk singer from Colorado. This show was at a venue called Broadcast, which is nestled in amongst a number of other small clubs along Sauchiehall Street. The performance space is in a basement underneath the main bar, reminding me of many punk rock clubs from days gone by. The club was packed and the band’s reception was enthusiastic and rowdy. I was surprised that a small, alternative folk band from Colorado would have such a large following here in Glasgow, but it was clear the audience, who stood crushed together while singing along with the lyrics, loved the music. Initially I wasn’t all that excited about it, but as the show progressed, I eventually got into the mood and rhythm the band created. They projected a self-consciously down-home image, with the lead singer sipping whiskey as he drawled on about growing up in the rural countryside, about his great grandfather’s adventures making moonshine, and about his own troubles in love. It was a good act that was entertaining, if not completely convincing.

HomosexualsLater in the month, in connection with the Glasgow Film Festival,  The Homosexuals played at the Center for Contemporary Arts. This was a tremendous show. Originally formed in the mid-1970’s, the first incarnation of The Homosexuals was called The Rejects. They were part of the early wave of British punk rock, playing at the Roxie in London with other legendary acts such as Wire, Sham 69 and Chelsea. I had never heard of them before, and it was only because I had tickets to see a documentary about the life of the lead singer, Bruno Wizard, that I became acquainted with their music while in Scotland. Their sound reminds me of the Buzzcocks, with Bruno Wizard delivering snotty, sing-songy lyrics against a stripped down and raw backdrop of guitar, bass and drums. This is simple, energetic, emotional music from the days when punk was unmarred by commercial aspirations or the desire to please anyone. Watching this band, I was swept away by the driving power of the songs and the passion of the message. Bruno Wizard is a man who has stayed true to his ideals over the course of his life, and his music testifies to this fact. I have not enjoyed a punk show this much for quite some time.

The music scene in Glasgow is quite healthy, even if many Glaswegians are not. I couldn’t help but think how lucky they are to have such a steady stream of great bands playing in their city. After I departed for the US, The Stranglers, Motorhead and Stiff Little Fingers all were scheduled to play. That must be what Sparky Deathcap means when they sing Glasgow is a Punk Rock Town.

Citizens_TheaterIn addition to the city’s food, drink and music, I also sampled the local live theater, attending a performance of Glasgow Girls at the Citizens Theatre. Glasgow Girls tells the true story of a group of seven high school students who, in 2005, mounted a campaign in order to keep some of their immigrant classmates from being deported from Scotland. My cousin Amanda, who works doing educational outreach for Glasgow University, supervised Amal, one of the real-life students who appears in the play, so there was a personal connection to this story that made it especially interesting.

In addition to being emotionally moved by the performances, I was fascinated by the cultural references that occurred throughout this play. Glasgow Girls unapologetically caters to the native audience. It is filled with in-jokes and references directed specifically toward Scots. One character is flattered to think that Peter Mullan might portray him in a movie; Glasgow is sung about as being “basically OK”; Robert Burns’ poetry is turned into protest music; public artworks on the road between Glasgow and Edinburgh put in appearances. I found particularly interesting a line spoken by Noreen (played by Myra Mcfadyen), an older woman who is a resident at the public housing complex where Jennifer (played by Karen Fishwick), one of the Glasgow Girls, lives. In response to the young girl’s lament that all her hard work and effort to keep one of her friends from being deported has resulted in failure, Noreen responds, “Well, welcome to Scotland!” The audience responded to this line with uproarious laughter and a round of applause. It is a sentiment that in many ways seems to summarize the Scottish self-image. Whether it is in the realm of politics or sports, cultural recognition or economic development, the Scots see themselves as underdogs who fight against the odds and often fail to triumph in the end.

This last point – about the Scots as underdogs – is one that I encountered continuously during my visit to Scotland. When I was out on the town, in the pubs and at the night spots, I always tried to remember to ask those around me what being Scottish meant to them. Without fail I was told that being Scottish is special. It is an identity unique, precious and difficult all at once. Scots are proud to be Scottish, but they also have a sense of being like the small kid on the block who needs to fight for respect. From the Scottish perspective, life is not a fun game, but an ongoing struggle against forces that continuously threaten to undermine one’s dignity. A history of English domination, bad weather and poor health are just some of the factors that have shaped the Scottish worldview. Through all of this, however, there remains a stubborn resistance against pessimism and despair. To be Scottish involves exercising a sense of ironic and dark humor toward life and everything it throws at you. There is tragedy here, but it is a good-natured tragedy that, even while it recognizes the inevitability of failure, still affirms life as something worth while.