We used to play this little bar in Mobile called Thirsty’s. We stayed at a funky motel across the highway called the Moon Winks that had a winking neon moon out front. Twenty minutes before our Friday night show, the power went out in the whole motel. We all had flowing locks back then, and when the entire band simultaneously fired up their industrial-strength hair dryers… boom. We looked like sea creatures on stage that night, and oddly attired since we all got dressed in the dark. Even the cops laughed, but we played pretty well, and no one got their panties in a bunch. It was a goof, and people gave us cocaine to make us feel better.
This reminiscence reminds me that the best thing about rock-and-roll is that you are free because you are presumed damned. Unlike the worlds of art and literature, nobody asks you where you went to school because you probably didn’t. Everybody knows, as Kris Kristofferson observed, that it takes more brains to get out of Kentucky than it does to get out of Connecticut. Fighting is okay, especially in gravel parking lots with distracted bass players who are failing to hit the note, but there are no grudges. When we finish fighting, we go play music together. The gig will end soon enough but we will still have the freedom of our chains.
My point: America doesn’t regulate the casually damned very well. Rock-and-rollers, artists, poets, strippers, and hookers generally get a pass, but these days we are learning from societies with more proactive compliance agendas. On a cool afternoon in 2002, Zarah Ghahramani was snatched off an urban sidewalk in Tehran and hauled away to the infamous Evin prison. Ghahramani was twenty years old at the time, a schoolgirl, and she arrived at Evin more dumbfounded than outraged. The prison, since its construction in 1972, has been a hardcore, old -school, pest-infested hellhole with a notorious political wing reserved for intellectuals—known as ‘Evin University’ in the schoolrooms of Tehran. Thrown into a cell in this wing, Ghahramani was stripped, beaten, degraded, brainwashed, starved, shorn, and brutally interrogated. Ominous, insinuating notes, purportedly from another prisoner (but probably not), were slipped through the cinder block wall of her cell, inviting her to imagine living forever in that cell, bruised and humiliated, without a book or a comb.
After a little more than a month of brutal degradation with no end in sight, Ghahramani was marched out one morning, thrown into a car, driven twenty miles outside of Tehran, and dropped off in the raw desert on the shoulder of an empty highway, and that was that. Thank you very much. Her crimes? She was doubtless spunky and insufficiently deferential in civilian life. She bitched about the Mullahs in campus bull sessions, but she also handed out pamphlets while tricked out in Prada—and her couture, it seems, was always a point at issue. She suspects that her troubles began on her seventh birthday when her father gave her a pair of bright pink shoes with flowers on the toes. Her affection for these accessories, and others like them, would lead her down the yellow brick road from tyro fashionista to enemy of the state.
This is the narrative of My Life as a Traitor, written by Ghahramani with Australian novelist Robert Hillman. It is a levelheaded account of a young woman’s travails in the early days of the twenty-first century. After I finished reading the book, I was thinking about the absurdity of the outrage over her nifty threads. The girl at the Starbucks window the other day was wearing cerise eye shadow. I told her she should dye her hair to match. That had been her plan, she said, but Starbucks demands ‘natural’ hair-color from its barristas, or hair that has been dyed a ‘natural’ color. Now I’m peeved that Starbucks of Seattle, of all places, has chosen to take a stand against grunge ebullience.
These seem like small things, and they are small things—until they’re not. The barista can’t dye her hair. I can’t wear my ball-cap at the Credit Union for fear of obscuring their surveillance cameras. Every day, citizens are expected to abjure the footwear, tattoo, hair-color, handbag, or do-rag of their choice lest they threaten the smoothness of the social order. This amounts to a reinstitution of the sumptuary laws whose absolution liberated the entrepreneurial classes, who built the modern world. This is a crime, and if allowed to proliferate, we will all end up locking our bedroom doors like closet queens and parading around in our exotic clothing.
Even so, we still believe that we will gladly die for our closely held and well-disguised convictions. We remain less sanguine about perishing for our taste in clothing, but who knows? It may just be the shoes! Maybe we would sacrifice our taste in frivolous accessories for the happiness of all mankind, but maybe all mankind would like a few frivolous accessories of its own. They do constitute a language. The protean array of trivial things, real and imaginary, for which we all reach outward, define us more profoundly than all our moral certainties. They wordlessly tell the world whether to fight or flirt or faun or just stand in awe.
Precedent to this, I opened My Life as a Traitor expecting moral grandeur, a tale of heroic good intentions escalating to tragedy. If My Life as a Traitor had been such a book, if its circumstances had been less preposterous, it might have attracted more attention. What I found was too close for comfort in Dick Cheney’s age of radical rendition. Girlish whimsy escalates to mindless brutality in a fundamentalist wonderland where a Pontiac full of wackos can snatch us away on a nasty whim—as Ghahramani was snatched away—her entire arsenal of defense against militant Islam residing in her school-girl taste for poetry, a penchant for hunky radicals, and her mother’s practice of Zoroastrianism, a religion invulnerable to the Mullahs on account of its ancient Persian credentials.
Ghahramani and her mother participated in ceremonies that celebrated the Zoroastrians’ ancient and unabashed affirmation of sweetness and light. She learned “to honor the light, to join in the ecstatic dancing that creates a unity of the soul and the life force.” She learned “to worship the beauty of all that lives and breathes.” This spirit proved sufficient to get Ghahramani arrested. It also provided her with sufficient resources to survive the Mullah¹s inquisition—nothing profound, just a willful commitment to the liveliness of things—a winsome credo adorned with pink shoes, gossip, and ecstatic dancing. This credo provides Ghahramani’s critique with a youthful heart—a dream of Eden that illuminates her book without sacrificing its modesty.
The political innocence of Ghahramani’s candor also allows us to test W.H. Auden’s proposition that we judge a critic’s judgments by teasing out the critic’s “dream of Eden.” We know Ghahramani’s dream. Auden’s dream of Eden, appended to his essay “Reading,” includes Paris couture from the 1840s, one extinct volcano, and a law restricting public statuary to renderings of “famous defunct chefs.” My own Eden would include paintings by Ellsworth Kelly, a white beach, and serious waves. There would be an adjacent restaurant with space between the tables, and Palladian doors open to the breeze. There would also be palm trees in the fog.
Sharing intimate fantasies is against my nature, of course, but Ghahramani’s candor is so disarming and feels so right that I found myself thinking: What if she is right—not personally right, not locally right, but generally right? What if the “culture wars” of our time are not armed struggles between low-blink-rate fundamentalisms? What if there is only one, one-way war being waged by fundamentalism in its dying frenzy against a newly refreshed, permissive, cosmopolitan paganism that couldn’t care less and never has? What if organized religion in America, except for its media-muscle, its dark power over children, and its tax status, is no more than a prim excuse for getting undressed in the closet? Not one of the art collectors, fashionistas, music mavens, designers, and dilettantes that I know is fighting a war. They are accessorizing the social universe while they’re alive. When they die, the accessories they have created or acquired will be passed along, like Aunt Georgia’s milk glass. When personal memories fade, these accessories will be dispersed and speak for themselves. Aunt Georgia’s milk glass will be all she ever was. This seems to me an elegant mode of fading away.
So I have been contemplating dreams of Eden. Compared to the visions of Utopia that laid waste to the last two centuries, they have much to recommend them. Edens are non-exclusive. Edens have no moral qualifications or liturgical standing. Most critically, Auden argues, we stand fully revealed in our Edenic dreams. For this reason, common-folk always want to visit rich people’s houses—because, knowingly or not, according to Auden, our dreams of Eden render us transparent. Edens fashioned by jerks, crooks and sleazoids reveal their moral idiocy with paintings by LeRoy Neiman and his ilk, because Edens are not Utopias. Edens are not big, white places with moving sidewalks and coveralls with numbers stitched above the pocket. They are tangible redoubts that we inhabit in fact or imagination.
Utopias are all idea; Edens are all details. They exist in the fashions, the china, the art, the landscape, and the climate. Eccentric and additive, they require exquisite ensembles. They may require doilies, Keds, Balthus, T-Rex, Dave Brubeck, Gilbert and George, or Gilbert and Sullivan but they can and do exist. Botticelli’s Garden of the Hesperides existed in the hills outside of Florence. Every painting of Eden ever painted exists or existed somewhere in the sentient world, excepting the heavenly thunderbolt and the cowering naked couple being served their walking papers. When I was twelve, I slipped the surly bonds of parental disinterest, took on two early morning paper routes, and transformed a dry-wall garage apartment into a teenage Eden. I bought a coral and cream Ford Victoria. Everything I needed to work, eat, sleep, or entertain was positioned within easy reach of my mattress on the floor. Over the years, my working environment has become more comfortable. It has undergone technological upgrades, but it has not changed significantly. Even Brubeck is still here, now as an MP3 file.
By comparison, all our darkling utopias feel like tarted-up tribal parables or cautionary fantasies like the Iliad that was formulated to exaggerate the threat posed by alien beauty to the unity of the tribe. At their worst, these pop-up Utopias blossom from the malignant dreams of slow-pitch authoritarians to suture their inadequacies. All the cruel, self-serving specifics have been redacted from the utopias of Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Warren Jeffs. Specifics are all suppressed, like who’s in charge; whom must we fuck; what must we wear; will we starve, and what about our shoes? If Lenin could have imagined the nuts and bolts of the future he was proposing, he would have withdrawn his proposal, but Lenin’s Utopia required no act of the imagination, nor does any Utopia. Utopias are inflated, theorized community preferences. Edens are about our desires.
That said, Edens and Utopias both arise from our propensity to take names. We habitually catalogue the discomforts and inequities of our everyday-lives, its blemishes and irregularities, its ugly shoes and ‘daring’ pantsuits. Confronted with these perceived defects, Utopians first strive to ‘communicate’ as loudly as they can, then they demonstrate in public, then they plot revolutions for the good of all humankind while denying themselves even the aroma of payback. We Edenic dreamers shop. We poke around for what we want, or we make it ourselves out of stuff we bought at Home Depot or Pearl Paint. We don’t want to recruit you, although we have occasionally teased young people out of the closet because the answers we seek are physical and undeniable. Our Edens reside in a world that we can touch, that sings in our ears and shines before our eyes—the only world that we can inhabit while living in our bodies with all our senses intact. (“Virtual reality” means just that.) So when Edenic dreamers complain, they complain about the shopping—about the shortage of interesting people, or local opportunities to accessorize their private dreams. Inundated, as we are by German metaphysics, it’s easy to forget that we make ourselves from the outside in. We strive, as best we can, to be worthy of our beautiful shoes.