In the last chapter from Ryszard Kapuściński’s Shah of Shahs, the writer concludes his book of unfair torments in pre-revolutionary Iran by reminiscing about a carpet-seller in Tehran:
Mr. Ferdousi, who has passed all his life in the familiar intercourse of art and beauty, looks upon the surrounding reality as if it were a B-film in a cheap, unsweapt cinema. It is all a question of taste, he tells me: The most important thing, sir, is to have taste. The world would look far different if a few more people had a drop more taste. In all horrors (for he does call them horrors), like lying, treachery, theft, and informing, he distinguishes a common denominator – such things are done by people with no taste.
What an astonishing ending to the book, having circled around the evil of despotic fear the entire time and suddenly landing on such a celebration of mankind. The word taste has been stalking me for some time, I keep bumping into it at the most unexpected places. Every time I get a glimpse of that word, I’m clutching to the story, trying to challenge it and understand why it should be a quality to aspire to. So boundless and airy, it sounds unpractical and self-indulgent in whichever language you say it, but I can still sense that it matters. The word has a problem of not pinpointing anything, the word could not be more aloof.
He believes that the nation will survive everything and that beauty is indestructible. You must remember, he tells me as he unfolds another carpet (he knows I am not going to buy it, but he would like me to enjoy the sight of it), that what has made it possible for the Persians to remain themselves over two and a half milennia, what has made it possible for us to remain ourselves in spite of so many wars, invasions and occupations, is our spiritual, not our material, strength – our poetry, and not our technology; our religion, and not our factories. What have we given to the world? We have given poetry, the miniature, and carpets. As you can see these are all useless things from the productive viewpoint. But it is through such things that we have expressed our true selves. We have given the world this miraculous, unique uselessess.
When it comes to trying on clothes, taste is the thing we reflect on while making the judgement whether “this is me”. Trying on different outfits basically makes me look in the mirror and judge myself: does it make me too serious, too goofy, too wannabe, too old, too much like the wrong subculture, too naive, too feminine, not approachable enough, etc. I guess that can be described as shallow – constructing how you’d like to see yourself, compared to working on what you’ve got inside. But it’s really about aspirations, right? A bowler hat or a furry Kangol hat, both are instant ways of expressing the taste in what you imagine yourself to be.