TWO ABSOLUTELY incommensurate events led us to ponder the state of affairs in contemporary America. The first was the tragic loss of the Challenger space shuttle, an event known to the entire world, and the second -- the purchase of some bookshelves by one of the two authors of this essay. The latter event is known only to those directly involved in the transaction.

The tragedy in space was a painful blow to the entire nation. America, at the very peak of its prosperity, was seen by many as having lost face. It was an accident which placed in doubt the very essence of this prosperity. Shaken Americans compared their feelings to those that they experienced when John Kennedy was killed.

It is significant that America perceived the loss of these astronauts as symbolic. True, this perception was strengthened by the fact that the flight was conceived as a demonstration of the benefits of democracy and freedom. The failure of this beautiful effort not only cast a pall over the country, but also forced it to come to terms with the causes of such a catastrophe -- not just the technical details comprehensible only to experts, but the deeper and more fundamental social factors.

In short, the loss of the shuttle resounded as a monstrous note of dissonance in the all-encompassing ecstasy over the economic and political successes of Ronald Reagan's America.

It may appear obscene to compare this national tragedy with petty, everyday difficulties, but we found a common factor linking the cosmic accident with what we experienced in making a very ordinary purchase.

It started when we decided to buy some bookshelves. As a person grows older and his opinion of himself grows, it becomes more and more awkward for him to store his books on rough sawed boards held up at regular intervals by small tiers of bricks.

Like many others, we decided to order directly from the factory. We chose a design, the material, the lacquer color, made a down payment, and agreed on a delivery date.

When that day arrived, everything was prepared. The books had been removed from the old shelves and were strewn in untidy heaps on the floor. Family members, swearing incessantly, picked their way through these barriers, and the master of the house plopped himself down in an armchair in sweet anticipation of how he would arrange his library in the generous spaces provided by the new shelving.

Delivery time came and went, but nothing happened. A call to the factory revealed that the delivery men had been detained. Three hours later the same voice explained dryly that it was lunch time at the factory and that delivery men were people too. By the end of the day a secretary informed us with some irritation that it was foolish to constantly interrupt them with phone calls when it was now obvious that the shelves could not be delivered that day at all. Finally, however, she did give into Russian stubbornness and set off to learn what was holding things up. She succeeded in her task: no one had even begun work on the shelves, so they would be ready only after the holiday had passed. She did not specify just which holiday she had in mind.

We were overcome with a desire to complain, demand blood, truth, an explanation. But our English was not up to the task, nor was our knowledge of the American way of life. We recollected fondly how back home we used to shout: "We'll go to the District Party Headquarters if we have to, but we'll show you you can't treat us this way." Still, it was senseless to try to translate this tirade into English. There was nothing to do but wait.

Two weeks passed, the various piles of books began to be covered with dust and mildew, and family members shouted themselves hoarse with irritation. Finally the delivery men arrived. The first thing they did was collect the remainder owed for the shelves. Then they carried in the pieces from which the bookshelves were to be assembled.

A single glance at the unpacked boards was enough to convince anyone that they were more fit for a coffin than for bookshelves. None of them seemed to be the same size. All the components of what was ultimately to be transformed into furniture differed in height, width, depth, and virtually any other characteristics you could name.

Fit together, these parts resembled a sawed-off cone. For those who do not understand the tragic nature of this form, we should explain that the upper shelves would not fit in, and the lower shelves fell through. To make matters worse, the holes for fastening pins were strewn about in poetic disarray. The general impression was that the joiner had rejected Euclidean gometry in favor of Lobachevsky's constructs, so that parallel lines intersected and generally did whatever they felt like doing.

This sad saga could be continued, but it is sufficient to say that after 12 telephone conversations, in which a number of people participated -- including one United Nations interpreter -- the bookshelves were partly replaced, partly sawed into smaller pieces, and partly abandoned to the despair of the garbage can. Now noticeably grayer, the man of the house liberated his family from this bookish encroachment and himself from greedy acquisitiveness.

In recounting this unhappy experience in such nauseating detail, we fully realize that we are guilty of blatant plagiarism. Soviet newspapers overflow with stories just like this one. In fact such articles were our favorite reading material in the Soviet Union. One of the most popular Soviet newspapers, "The Literary Gazette," owes its popularity to precisely this genre. Even now we remember how passionately we followed the exposure of incompetents and bureaucrats justifiably scourged on its pages.

Still, the scene of our story lends an extra spiciness to it. After all, this happened in Manhattan, and not some provincial city such as Voronezh. And its chief participants were the sharks of capitalism, and not the Stakhanovites of socialist competition.

We lent a sympathetic ear to other victims of the American economic system. We learned that, aside from bad moods and premature grayness, the low quality of American goods has had enormous social and economic consequences -- among them our own unpleasant experience in purchasing furniture, the Challenger accident, the mushrooming trade deficit, and a general decline in the prestige of the "Made in USA" label.

Do you remember that cherished label? Do you remember the tremulous bliss that overcame all of us when we saw those modest initials, whether we were from Moscow, Odessa, or Riga? No matter where we read them -- on a shirt, a chewing gum wrapper, a fountain pen, or a pair of sunglasses -- for us this label was a true mark of quality. And it had to do with more than any single consumer item; it signified a quality of life, the quality of an economic-social order. To be blunt, it signified the quality of the capitalist system of production.

By the middle of the '70s, the proud captains of American industry were resorting to a humiliating appeal: "Buy American!" That is, buy items with the "Made in USA" label, not because they are of higher quality, but because they are made on home turf. If you reject American manufactured goods, you are depriving American workers of their jobs, undermining America's strength and influence.

But Americans are too practical to permit patriotism to interfere with the family budget. They may purchase a flag decorated with stars and stripes, but their television is "Made in Japan." And how can you blame them if a Japanese TV is far more than its American competitor?

Today Japan is successfully competing in the domestic market in such areas as automobiles, steel, ships, home electronics.

Automobile manufacturing is particularly humiliating. If any one object symbolizes the proud American way of life' it is the car. The automobile has made the country what it is today and defines the lifestyle of the country. In the cultural history of America the automobile has played the same role as did the horse in the Tartar-Mongol period of Russia and Asia. It is not simply a means of transportation, but part and parcel of the very soul of the nation.

And after all this, ungrateful Americans will get into any car other than one built in America.

If ten years ago small, inexpensive Japanese automobiles squeezed out opulent Fords and Chryslers, today Japanese cars have themselves become expensive and luxurious. And they have remained competitive in the process.

The small Japanese cars have now been replaced by Korean Liliputians with a price tag in the $5,000 range and -- funniest of all -- by the Yugoslavian "Yugo," which has caused a true uproar in the market. In any case, inflexible Yugoslav socialist industry has not been able to satisfy the demand for this model. You have to queue up to buy a Yugo. Of course, this can all be explained away as "dumping" -- as was the case with the Soviet version of the Fiat, sold as the "Zhiguli" in the U.S.S.R. and as "Lada" in Europe.

But if you really want to spoil yourself, you buy a German Mercedes, a Swedish Volvo, or an Italian Ferrari.

There's no getting around the fact that Americans prefer anything not built in America. There now exists a psychology of mistrust for domestically produced items. (We former Soviets remember well how we frantically searched for anything manufactured abroad, even in Mongolia, just not in the U.S.S.R.)

This mistrust is strengthened by catastrophes such as that of the Challenger. We remember all too well that three of the eight helicopters sent to rescue the hostages in Iran broke down almost immediately. The ordinary consumer has the right to assume that if even specially selected military technology is unreliable, what can he expect of his toaster or stereo system? When the next tragedy occurs, this consumer will grieve together with his nation, but he will view the "Made in U.S.A." label with a still more jaundiced eye.

Today America is desperately striving to comprehend how the United States lost its economic prestige. Virtually every major company is studying the Japanese model of manufacturing. But none of this provides an answer to the basic question -- how did Americans lose the secret of making dependable and beautiful things?

Some sociologists see the explanation in technology. Why, they reason, do we pay extra for items bearing a "hand-made" label? Because the assembly-line process degrades quality.

Instead of improving the quality, the larger companies rely on a different method -- advertisement. It is simpler and cheaper to run commercials than introduce quality control.

As Abraham Lincoln put it, "you can't fool all the people all of the time." And no matter how much we are shown deliriously happy consumers of Maxwell House coffee on TV, we still know that Italian espresso is better.

The technological revolution is itself to blame for the failures of the American economic system. Like any revolution, it corrupts people. As one example, the innocent hand-held calculator has deprived people of the ability to count. You go to the store and the salesperson needs the register to add 10 and 10. Word processors now permit secretaries to get along without the rules of spelling. Thanks to the computer, the agent at the travel bureau no longer needs to know anything about geography.

These brilliant machines have heaped no small amount of misery on their clients. The link of man to soulless machine is not at all a painless one. We once received a bill for a book which we neither ordered nor received. We politely informed the company of this mistake and forgot about the bill. One month later, however, a letter arrived demanding that we pay immediately. And the witch's dance was set into motion. The mailman brought us all sorts of letters. We were flattered, begged and -- ultimately -- threatened. At first these were threats of criminal suit, prison, deportation. Toward the end the tone became quite familiar. They wrote that they had a long arm, hinted at sinister links with the Mafia.

Since our wives were upset and the amount was under $8, we were ready to capitulate. But a friend pointed out to us that the correspondence was one-sided. The letters were written by a computer, which was like the man in the Soviet joke who knew how to write but couldn't read. Our explanations were not reaching the machine. It was programmed to shoot out thousands of threatening letters an hour, and many timid clients simply cave in to such demands. This is simpler and cheaper than checking the machines.

Still, all these sociological excuses, which are used to blame a technological process, are rendered pointless when we recall that the computer is throwing the same sort of tantrums in Japan, but there the results are different. American problems have different roots.

We believe that the decline in the prestige of American goods, as well as all the other catastrophes such as aviation losses and our own vain expectations of bookshelves, can be explained by a decline in the American ethic.

Although we well understand the foolishness of such tactics, we nevertheless want to hide behind the back of authority. Hermann Hesse in his 1943 Nobel Prize-winning utopian novel "The Glass Bead Game" had this to say about the collapse of Western Civilization:

"It soon became clear that the intellectual spinelessness and low moral level of several generations might be sufficient to cause real harm to everyday life and that in technology and all important areas, skill and a sense of responsibility are encountered more and more infrequently . . . . People either know or vaguely sense that if thought becomes muddied and sluggish, then respect for spiritual and intellectual integrity will be weakened. Once that happens, ships and machines will soon cease to move, and neither the engineer's slide rule nor the mathematics of the bank and stock market will be respected, and chaos will ensue."

A total idealist, Hesse believed that a strong army or a healthy economy is less important for the survival of humanity than the creation of a spiritual-intellectual aristocracy capable of devoting a lifetime to writing a dissertation on "the Latin pronunciation of institutions of higher learning in Southern Italy in the late XII century."

Hesse was not at all troubled by the obvious uselessness of such a labor. His was a quite different view: that only those societies would survive which could tolerate such intellectual curiosity and were capable of disregarding commercial value.

The American dream seems to have no room for the intellectual side of life. There is prosperity, freedom, and justice. The Founding Fathers believed that a person possessing these virtues would automatically become an intellectual who would read Horace in the original.

They were wrong. America has no time for Horace. The average American family watches television something like eight hours a day. Eight! One third of the time is spent sleeping, one third working, and one third watching TV. Television no longer competes with other forms of recreation. It has replaced them.

Television has to be comprehensible to everyone. It is a medium totally dependent on the size of the viewing audience. Since the chief consumers of American TV are the least educated segments of society, television cannot afford to spend time on intellectual frills. Supposedly the reason that subtitles are relatively unpopular here is that the audience has trouble reading them.

Of late, art in the United States has taken on a more popular nature, become more primitive, more tawdry. Film critics complain that Hollywood is lowering quality in direct proportion to quantity. Last year Amadeus won the Oscar; it was made by Milos Forman, a Czech. But the viewers preferred Rambo, Police Academy, and Spielberg films, which are pleasant but absolutely mindless.

To add insult to injury, wealthy America somehow cannot scrape up money even to experiment with quality. Tarkovsky's new film The Sacrifice was financed by Swedes, Frenchmen, and Englishmen, but not by a Hollywood which spent twenty million dollars on Superman-IV.

The great American tradition in literature has been in decline ever since its chief figures -- Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner -- passed from the scene. (Incidentally, when people speak of Japan's economic successes, they generally fail to mention that more books are sold there per capita than in any other country in the world.)

American mass culture has created an extremely unattractive image of the American. The entire world is now troubled by the spread of bad taste associated with the "Made in USA" label. The French are demanding that American slang be removed from their word stock, and the Italians are protesting against the opening of a McDonald's in Rome. Even the backward Third World is trying to hold back the flood of American serials on the television screen. Throughout the world (with the possible exception of the Socialist countries) "American" has become a synonym of bad taste.

The lack of a healthy intellectual core, as discussed by Hesse, can reveal itself in the most curious fashion. Religion is now experiencing something of a renaissance. This ought to be a source of gratification, since religion is a fundamental source of spirituality. But just listen to what the television preachers are feeding their 30-million strong audience: Ask God for money, and He will give it to you. In California there is even a sect called "I-Want-To-Be-Rich." All a believer has to do for the appropriate sum to rain down his head is to repeat these words and attend the proper church.

The people who failed to properly build the Challenger, who neglected to properly position the holes in our bookshelves are people who are contemptuous of their work. But how is this related to culture?

The mysterious and perhaps even mystical link between the Dynasty television series and the trade deficit becomes visible if we take a close look at American youth.

Young people now choose, not a profession, but a salary -- be it that of a physician, lawyer, or computer programmer. We know a mathematician who left the university to open a video-cassette rental. It's a rapidly growing business. Another friend, a sociologist, dropped his university teaching career, lured away by the income from a Chinese restaurant. In Russia an engineer who renounced his profession to become a furrier would be embarrassed by such materialistic motives.

But why should we be surprised if a person who is interested, not in his work, but only in its lucrativeness, creates non-competitive goods and services. One Canadian writer, asked why he became a writer, suddenly lost his temper and shouted: "Why ask me a question like that? Why don't you ask other young men why they become bank clerks. That's amazing!"

We realize that our view of America is tendentious and biased. This country has many fine museums, orchestras, and publishing houses. Most of the Nobel Prizes from Stockholm end up here. America has a refined and even esoteric culture at many levels.

Nevertheless, every time we turn on the television, every time we hear of a plane crash, every time we buy a hot dog, when we see lines of people waiting to get into Star Wars, every time we see the latest list of best sellers, we recall what that gloomy idealist Herman Hesse said about the role of intellectual culture in the cheerless year 1943.