Isham Cook@magictheaterbooks Containing news and reviews of my books.
What do seashells, obesity, graffiti, and the American ghetto have in common? Nude hot springs and the Japanese theater? Atheists and family-values conservatives? Why do atheists go on religious pilgrimages? How have schools infantilized our understanding of Shakespeare, and the textbook industry conspired to turn our language’s history into agitprop? What is the single most dangerous sexual idea that even the liberated can’t handle?
Ranging across centuries and continents, Isham Cook’s far-flung essays, whether discoursing on the most radical or homespun of topics, are guided by the notion of the “edge.” The edge represents the limits of conventional understanding, the zone beyond stereotypes and groupthink; it is where received ideas are recast in fresh and striking ways.
“I like the tunic.”
“I don’t ask if you like tunic. I don’t like. Take it off!”
Wang tried to rip the tunic off Malmquist, but he broke free and ran out of the house.
“Wo qu zhui ta,” Giulia told her as she ran off after him.
He hid himself at a table in the back of the little restaurant down the street from the old eunuch’s domus.
“Cosa avrai?” asked a waitress.
He gestured apologetically.
“Vuoi una ragazza?” she said, pointing upstairs and jiggling her breasts. “Belle tette.”
Giulia found him. “Ho pensato che avrei trovato al ristorante.”
He stared silently in the distance. That earned him a hard slap on the face.
“Idiota! Perché sei scappato? Lei ti punirà. Può fare qualsiasi cosa per voi, tra cui ucciderti!”
He stood up. “Why did you do that!”
She dropped her head in her hand. He took her cheeks in his. “Giulia, I need this tunic. Without it I’m lost. You see the words on it? I can talk to people back home who can help me.”
How English arose is a captivating story with a great cast of characters, though they happen to be groups of people and texts rather individuals. It emerges out of the mists seemingly from nowhere, flounders, and changes into something else, before finally catching wind and taking over the planet as the first truly global language. It’s also a story that’s been told and retold by many authors and scholars. And it increasingly appears that for the past 100 years most of those telling the story have gotten it wrong.
The Celtic problem
Let’s begin at a starting point far enough back in time to take in the larger view, the situation of the British Isles some 2,000 years ago. One or two million Britons populated the land, scattered about in hamlets or homesteads, and the story goes, speaking various Celtic languages and dialects, about which there is much uncertainty as they were never written down. It’s assumed the Celts crossed over from the Continent in successive waves over the previous several centuries, bringing a new version of their language each time. The hostile tribes known as the Picts, for instance, who had been pushed up to northern Scotland by newly invading Celts, may have spoken an earlier form of Celtic. Collectively the Celtic tongues of Britain have been termed “Insular Celtic,” “Brittonic,” or simply “British,” to distinguish them from the Celtic on the Continent.
A deafening crack and the lights went out. Malmquist collapsed on the patio floor. Ray and the other customers were gone. Streetlight illumination revealed the premises to be empty and dilapidated and shrouded in dust. Malmquist sat up to get his bearings. Outside chatter suggested it was still early evening. He got up to explore the restaurant, and what he saw cautioned him to stay inside until well after midnight. The city wrapped in silence but for incessant ambulance and fire-engine sirens, he emerged after jimmying open a window — the front and back entrances were padlocked shut — and headed down Lunt toward Sheridan Road on foot, for his bicycle was gone. He had barely crossed under the El track bridge when a man pulled up pointing an AK-47 at him through his car window. “You’re a fucking pedophile!” “What did you call me?” He walked up to the car, grabbed the rifle out of the man’s hands and stuck the gun barrel down his throat. “If you don’t want your car interior to be soiled with brain matter, you’re going to do exactly what I say. Park the car in the fire-hydrant spot there. Nice and easy.” Malmquist walked with the car as the man pulled into the space by the curb, the gun in his mouth. “Now, take off your clothes. And drop them behind you in the back seat. Start with your shoes and pants. Underwear too. Move your hands slowly or I shoot. Keep your T-shirt on.” Malmquist got in the back seat, with the gun barrel now at the man’s neck. With his other hand he rummaged through the man’s pants and found the pockets empty. “Give me your watch.” He folded up the clothes into a bundle next to him. “Now, take Touhy over to 94 and head south down 90/94. We’re going to Indiana. Gary. New Gary.”
Ray put a condom on the dildo built into her bicycle seat and lifted her tunic as she eased it into her. “Keeps me supple,” she winked. Tattooed around her hips and groin was a scrolling text of Chinese characters.
“What does that mean?”
“It’s a poem by China’s national poet, Gu Sing: ‘Through jagged rocks I walk towards the seashore. I know all your languages. Speak! The sea laughs and proffers up birds that swim, fish that fly, sand that sings.'”
“That reminds me. Can we take a short detour over to the peninsula? I want to see the rocks,” said Malmquist.
“Sure, no problem.”
From Sheridan Road they passed through the Northwestern University campus. They got off their bikes on a sliver of land extending out into the lake. The shore was lined with giant rocks laid out as a breakwater. Some slabs were flat and occupied Chinese students, sunbathing by themselves or slave at hand. Most of the other rocks were jumbled and formed spaces and little caves.
“I used to play on these as a kid,” Malmquist said as he clambered over them. “They were all painted over and covered with graffiti, but it’s all gone now! No, wait. Here’s something I remember that’s still there, on the side of this rock. You can just make out the words. ‘Savor your sorrow like a fine red wine.’ It’s still there! Now I know we’re not in a simulacrum of the city. But why aren’t people painting on them anymore?”
They got back on their bikes and headed toward Chicago.
“Where are you taking me?”
“To start work,” said Ray. She looked at him slyly. “Now, would you tell me what’s really going on with you?”
A talisman has appeared in twenty-first century America, one with astounding magical powers. Fitting in the palm like a mini crystal ball, it can bring people to life on its screen. To young kids submerged in the dreamy developmental phase of childhood, this glass amulet must seem utterly bewitching and miraculous, a veritable Wonderland of miniature toy stores and colorful games. With parent’s permission, it even sends real toys and snacks to one’s home.
When they reach their early teens, kids begin adapting to the adult world of reality. The talisman soon becomes jaded and the magic fades. Still, it remains an engaging, multifaceted toy, capable of shooting videos and photos with incredible ease and realism, playing movies and music from an infinite list and packing more information at the fingertips than the city library.
If someone from the future had attempted to describe this mysterious thing to me back when I was a teenager in the 1970s, I would have found it pure science fiction and more or less incomprehensible, as we all would have. I refer of course to the smartphone, now the most mundane of objects. In the US, however, this talisman has a very peculiar status and function. For American teenagers, and only American teenagers, the smartphone retains its magical and untamable powers—of the black magic variety. It is a very scary, indeed terrifying object.