Please pass the aphorisms
The formal dinner party - once the preserve of The Beautiful People - has become so common an event that even an old Brooklyn Bohemian like Norman Mailer is said to be making the rounds three or four times a week, threatening the Guinness Literary Dining-Out Record currently held by Jerzy Kosinski.
Now that the lions are in the dining room, the level of cuisine may be allowed to decline, except perhaps when Saul Bellow, a dedicated chef, happens to be nibbling. But certainly the level of conversation will be on the rise - or else.
Indeed, writers are already terrorizing high society by publishing manifestoes that practically stipulate minimum cleverness tests for those they dine with. In the course of an article bluntly titled ''A Guide to Table Talk'' in the current House & Garden, P.J. O'Rourke demands that anybody at his table must possess ''an ability to tell a fully rounded anecdote, make an elaborate jest, convey news in piquant detail, or give an unexpected coif to the feathers of reason.''
As if that were not enough, O'Rourke's ''good talker must have all the qualitites of a good listener.''
We don't even know any bad talkers who are good listeners.
Where does Mr. O'Rourke expect an honest host or hostess to find these people? In effect, he is requiring that one field about eight Oscar Wildes at one's table, night after night, or else go to one's room without supper.
We're not at all sure we want to be invited to an O'Rourke dinner. Some nights we're just not up to being told that ''ideas are living things to be pruned, forced to blossom, or grafted onto as they pass around the table.'' Now and then, we just want to eat.
We have to assume that Mr. O'Rourke and other Utopians of the dinner table write less from experience than from Johnny-come-lately romanticism. It is Judith Martin, a veteran of 20 years in the trenches, who tells us what the metropolitan dinner party is really like. In ''Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior,'' she warns us that the person on our left is likely to ask, ''How much money do you make?'', while the person on our right is confessing, ''I've been on a journey of self-discovery, and I'd like to share it with you.''
The second diner will probably prove to be a writer; the first diner too, come to think of it.
The crossfire of table talk can become so high-powered these days that J.P. Donleavy, still another writer, felt obliged to invent a defense system in his manual of manners, ''The Unexpurgated Code.'' Mr. Donleavy recommends that ''the repetitive nasal yes should be employed'' by the captive listener between chews - about one yes to every five words form the monologuist, quickening to a ratio of one-to-three when (the listener can only hope) the assault is drawing to a close.
As a strategic alternative, he suggests a frequent ''Quite!'', followed by the ever-valuable ''Uhmmm.''
But what a way to eat. What a waste of - we trust - perfectly good food!
We're not arguing for the old 13th-century proverb, ''A man who wants to talk and eat at the same time will never find peace.''
We're certainly not trying to make a case for wordless munching under the Golden Arches, punctuated only by tortured grunts as a member of the party tries to tear open a packet of catsup.
But is there nothing between the practice of fast-food gulping and Mr. O'Rourke's high table, where everybody squints to read the Dr. Johnson quotes written on the inside of a tuxedo cuff?
All this, as we see it, illustrates the manners crisis of our time. Everything seems to be polarizing toward extreme formality and extreme informality, with little to choose from in the vast no-man's land between T-shirts and ruffled shirts, between Big Macs and pheasant-under-glass - between conversation as a disguised weather report and conversation as an aphorism anthology, chiefly in the French.
Until the confusion passes, we say, ''Bon appetit!''m, and ''May the best bon motm win!'' - and ''Dinner for one, please, James.''