In this country we have hotels that are democratized versions of European palaces. We have parks that are democratized versions of royal hunting grounds. And we have the novels of Saul Bellow, which are European novels of ideas adapted to the idiom of the American wisenheimer.
So much of the best American culture has been an imitation, adaptation or rejection of European forms and ideas. But Bellow's death reminds us that we're now living in a unipolar moment, culturally as well as politically. Today's writers and artists are much less likely to be Americanizing European stuff, and a way of writing and thinking is dying.
In the 1950's, when Bellow came of age, European ideas enjoyed immense prestige. Hannah Arendt and other émigrés brought their central European intellectual seriousness with them, and it was natural that a young, ambitious writer like Bellow would want to take on Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Proust and Kafka. It was natural that he would go on to write a novel, "Herzog," in which the hero tries to make sense of the world by writing letters to Martin Heidegger.
"American readers sometimes object to a kind of foreignness in my books," Bellow once observed.
But contact with European seriousness only made him more acutely aware of his own Americanness, as it has with so many others. While admiring the intellectual aristocracy of Europe, he grew up on the streets of Chicago, a full-bore democrat. Attracted by the hierarchies of the best that has been thought and said, he still had that American instinct to take any hierarchy and - Marx Brothers-style - ridicule it to smithereens.
Attracted by the rarefied but often anti-Semitic world of high culture, he had that Jewish instinct to want entree into that world and yet not want it at the same time.
Out of that tension between European elitism, which stoked Bellow's ambition, and America's leveling democratic shtick, which was in his bones, emerged Bellow's manic conception of the American dream. In his first great book, "The Adventures of Augie March," Bellow writes of "the universal eligibility to be noble." As Christopher Hitchens wrote in a wonderful essay for The Wilson Quarterly a few years ago, that's as "potent a statement of the American dream as has ever been uttered."
This idea, that we can all grow up to be noble, acknowledges the virtue of aristocratic greatness and reconciles it with equality. It spiritualizes the American scramble for success.
"Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand," Augie March exults. Bellow's comic twist on this idea is that these soaring big ideas and big ambitions often end up detaching Americans from reality. Bellow's characters are often on these epic voyages - even if only in their own minds - and they flit wildly between the hyper-materialism of American commercial life and the hyper-attenuated aspirations in their heads.
As one of the characters says to Augie, "You have a nobility syndrome. You can't adjust to the reality situation."
Bellow's best America would be a Times Square version of a German university, with intellectual rigor on one side and scrambling freedom - sex included - on the other.
The tension that propelled Bellow's work is now mostly absent from American life. On the one hand, you have a generation of students who are educated in a way that doesn't bring them into contact with the European canon, the old "best that has been thought and said." They don't have a chance to push back and assert their own Americanness. On the other hand, there are those in the academic and literary stratosphere who are part of the global circuit of conferences and academic appointments. They seem aloof from or ashamed of America, so they are not driven to define, the way Bellow did, an American identity.
Finally there are the rest of us who don't pay attention to what is being written and said in Europe because it doesn't seem that exciting, (Quick, what book is the talk of Berlin? Who is the François Truffaut of our moment?)
American democracy is no longer engaged in an Oedipal struggle with European aristocracy, the
way it was from the days of the American Revolution all the way up until Bellow's heyday.
We're living in a unipolar culture, and it's lonely at the top.