NEW ORLEANS. — It is 18 months later and there is no noticeable post-Communism Eastern European chic. From the suddenly unveiled barbed-wire compounds of Communist Europe there have sprung no new enthralling fashions. Romanian bark shoes haven't made a dent in France. Polish rock 'n' roll isn't hijacking the American charts, Czech poetry isn't on everybody's lips. Quite the contrary, whatever romance still pertains to those countries for Westerners is almost entirely from before, from the bad old days of dictators and the secret police.
When those countries were unavailable and mysterious we read Cioran, Milosz and Kundera, wore T-shirts with Soviet writing on them, wrapped our heads in babushkas and stamped our poetry ''samizdat.'' But now Eastern Europe is just one big garage sale and the depressingly shabby offerings are displayed out in the rain while our perfunctory glances pass over them.
Reality is infinitely more depressing than imagination. When Westerners imagined life under communism, they saw it through the eyes of dissident and poetic writers whose visions were a defense against the bleak reality around them. These writers spoke allegorically and intelligently, giving the impression that most citizens led a secretly rich inner life that would blossom if the police disappeared. But now that freedom of the word, if not much else, can be practiced, we see an explosion of scandal and gossip sheets, pornography and astrology, the very same stuff in fact that keeps our own masses enthralled. Especially popular are cheap mystical pamphlets written for the purpose of changing misery into luck, a universal wish no matter where you live.