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.
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 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.
Group marriage does not look quite so terrible as the philistines, whose minds cannot get beyond brothels, imagine it to be.
— Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
Nothing need be said
Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, aka. the Marquis de Sade, has his first taste of prison at the age of twenty-three when he’s arrested for blasphemy, after forcing a prostitute to hurl abuse at Christ. At twenty-eight, he lures a homeless woman to his chateau, where he binds and whips her and pours hot wax in the gashes in her flesh he made with a knife; she escapes, and he does as well—from the police. He is never idle. While on the run he haunts the brothels of France. Five years later he organizes a sadomasochistic orgy with a bevy of prostitutes in Marseilles, one of whom almost dies after overdosing on the Spanish fly he’s forced down her throat. By this point the thirty-two-year old aristocrat has become fodder of Continental proportions for the tabloid press (by then already a well-established industry). His wife’s family, also of nobility, secure a letter de cachet from the King to have Sade put away and save the family reputation. He manages to return to his chateau and seduce his wife’s younger sister, who flees with him to Italy. She returns early; he’s arrested in Sardinia but escapes from his prison and wends his way back to his chateau in France. Two years later he conspires with his wife to hire a series of unsuspecting female servants on whom to act out yet more sadomasochistic fantasies. The orgies and the cat-and-mouse game with the authorities drag on for several more years, until he is finally incarcerated for a lengthy prison stay with a freshly issued letter de cachet, at the age of thirty-seven.
1. The right to health
It may seem a truism to regard health as a right, but for people the world over health has been anything but the norm. For millennia past until modern times, starvation or malnutrition was the rule for the vast majority, as it still is today in many locales, which includes pockets of the US, where poverty confines people to a harmful carbohydrate-based junk food diet. More momentously, the manmade famines in the Soviet Union and China in the mid-20th century alone, totaling some 60-75 million deaths, belie the notion that civilization has advanced much at all. If it has, it could easily slip back into barbarism. Predictions of manmade ecological catastrophe in the foreseeable future may return us to something even worse: the global collapse of agriculture.
O errant traveler, by your spirit of adventure that has caused you from tenderest years to leave behind father and mother…by the dignity man gains through voyages over distant territories and uncharted seas…
— Lautréamont, Maldoror
Pour us your poison wine that makes us feel like gods!
Our brains are burning up! — there’s nothing left to do
But plunge into the void! — hell? heaven? — what’s the odds?
We’re bound for the Unknown, in search of something new!
— Baudelaire, “Travel,” Flowers of Evil
In late 2015, I was one of the 1,900,000 visitors to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, its busiest year yet. I don’t know the attendance figures in the early years after it opened in 1973, but only a trickle of people were evident on my first visit to the museum in 1976. What a difference between then and now. I recall being a bit embarrassed for the place at the time, such a sad and forlorn little museum, much like the painter himself, forever destined to be misunderstood and ignored. The 2015 museum had undergone extensive remodeling and expansion, and I didn’t recognize it. The first floor, previously displaying Van Gogh’s early “potato eaters” paintings and a series of biographical displays, now served primarily to orient visitors to the two upper floors. I had no recollection of the upper floors on my previous visit. This was due to the many museums around the world I had seen over the decades since, not a few of them with Van Goghs of their own. His paintings had coalesced into a montage detached from time and place in my mind. I needed factual confirmation from the staff that it was indeed the very spot in the same building where I had stood forty years ago. Meanwhile, a new wing for temporary exhibits (one pairing Van Gogh and Edvard Munch on my visit) had risen behind the original building; the two structures were joined by an airy atrium and an elegant cafeteria.