The subject of Personal Relations kept popping up last week until you almost envied St. Anthony in the desert. It all began with a series on National Public Radio, dedicated to the ''New Masculinity'' and featuring such spokesman as the theater critic Clive Barnes and the lawyer Roy Cohn, with Shere Hite along as color commentator - sort of the Howard Cosell of the New Masculinity game. ''Sensitivity'' got mentioned about 3.8 times per minute. A number of the chaps said they had always wanted to cry, and now that the New Masculinity was ''in,'' it was perfectly OK to. We sobbed all the way to the off switch.
Then the Village Voice fell into considerable agitation about what sort of Personal Relations the New Woman should have with the New Masculinity, or the Old Masculinity, or any masculinity for that matter. The brilliant writer and feminist Ellen Willis came under attack from Robin Morgan as an enemy not only of feminism but of other women. She was forced to answer the charge that she had been coopted, if not corrupted, by her excessively serene coexistence with men, rather like a Marxist ''gone soft'' during a tour of duty in America.
With the New Masculinity breaking down on one side of the room and New Women splintering off on the other, the social contract began to look like Humpty Dumpty. Could all the king's men put Personal Relations back together again? Not for those of us who, at this point, stumbled across Janet Malcolm's definition of Personal Relations, as quoted in the London Review of Books: ''An uneasy truce between powerful solitary fantasy systems.''
Worse was to come. Shivering from the Malcolm chill, we plunged on, as in a nightmare, into an even bleaker prospect. During this week of weeks an article in New York magazine confronted us with the ghastly term, ''Apartners.'' The word seems to sum up the exquisitely canny evasiveness that Personal Relations have arrived at.
''Apartners,'' if we read them correctly, are the new stars of what we may think of as the Not-We Generation. ''Apartners,'' as the name suggests, live apart as a more or less permanent arrangement but visit when, and for as long as , it gives them pleasure. Comes the first sign of ennui, ''Apartners'' run. At life's moveable feast, they are the movers - lapping up the goodies, so to speak , but not staying around to do the dishes.
Behold, the wholeheartedly half-committed.
We were just about to hang the ''Out to Lunch'' sign on the door of our Department of Personal Relations when we got a break. A friend leaving town bequeathed a set of Tolstoy, and we found ourself reading ''Family Happiness,'' a short novel about the courtship of the 17-year-old Marya Alexandrovna by the middle-aged Russian landowner Sergey Mikhaylych and the ups and downs of their first years of marriage. In short, a Tolstoyan essay on Personal Relations.
There are lines here that could come from 1982 just as well as from 1859.
Marya Alexandrovna, the increasingly independent wife, says: ''Now I know what I'm like.''
Marya Alexandrovna, the young mother, says: ''I love my child. But to sit beside him all day would bore me.''
Marya Alexandrovna, the woman, says: ''I don't want to play at life.''
There are also less palatable opinions - the smell of patriarchy in the air. But in the air also is the smell of lilac bushes. The taste of cherries crushes on the palate. Frogs croak in the moonlight. A nightingale sings. Peasants harvest in the noon fields. The reader feels the weight of sheaves on their backs. The reader hears the creak of the carts.
The rhetoric - the politics, if you will - of Personal Relations is present, but in context. And that makes all the difference.
It is not that our '80s aspirations are wrong. Sensitivity - even the kind in quotes - is better than brutality when it comes to (help us!) interfacing. It is just that we do get lost in theory. Everything we touch turns to an -ism.
Then, when we read Tolstoy, we know what's missing and we ask ourselves: Where is the comic buzz of everyday existence? Where are the sun and rain that beat down unpredictably on the people of ''Family Happiness'' and make them gloriously human, and maybe a little bit more?