PIERRE MORNELL HAS written a provocative book in spite of himself. If his title doesn't repel nearly everyone, his slick pop-pysche packaging and the source of his subjects -- mellow Mill Valley, California -- almost surely will. A pity. Mornell is clearly on to something, rediscovering an internal truth that has been buried in the hype of the '70s: Men and women are different, and in more ways than one. Mornell pours old wine into a new bottle of the sexes.

Extrapolating from his patients and the couples he knows, Mornell argues that men and women today are on a collision course because they refuse to recognize that they are "two different animals." Most husbands and wives, he writes, "have needs at night which are 180 degrees opposite each other's." Whether the wife works as a full-time mother or at a full-time career, or both, when she is with her husband she wants to "tune in" and he wants to "tune out."

"The most important part of the man's day -- earning a living -- is over," says Mornell," "when he hits the front door at night." The crucial part of the woman's day, that of "making a connection in the relationship is still to come."

Opposites district. She wants more; he wants less. She wants conversation. He wants to read the newspaper, watch Monday-night football or the Tuesday-night movie, and to golf on Sunday. The more she entreats, the more he retreats. She waxes agitated; he wanes into silence. He may be active, energetic, and aggressive at the office or factory, and even with friends, but at home his dull, lethargic passivity drives her wild.

In a narcissistic society, where men and women are obsessively concerned with self-fulfillment and "doing their own thing," this conflict lies at the root of an increasing divorce rate and ambivalence toward commitment. The passive-wild syndrome is not new, Mornell concedes, but now it is more obvious, and without cultural cushions.

In the old days, he argues, women's assertiveness and male passivity occurred late in life with fewer psychological problems. Granny was free to become a dominating, "masculine" figure because Grandpa had already proved himself with sword or plough. Her aggressiveness, as she ruled over the larger extended family, was not in competition with his physical dominance. The old man was free to pursue religion, art and aesthetics, feminine interests, and relax, because he had already provided courage and strength during the hard early years, when they were too busy to work on their relationship.

"A man's greater muscular strength," says Mornell, "defended him against a woman's greater emotional strength."

But since the Industrial Revolution, which diminished the importance of physical strength, man became more susceptible to woman's emotional powers, and in the last 100 years the young husband has become like a "turtle without a shell." In a society which offers fewer rewards at office or factory, fewer jobs to nurture healthy male pride, and in a time when competition with women in the job market is greater and homes echo with the sounds of fewer children, male identify lies unprotected, exposed, and vulnerable.

Says one of Mornell's patients: "My husband suffers from premature emasculation."

This conflict leads inevitably to sexual problems. If the wife wants to communicate when the husband wants to perform, most of the heat is dissipated in argument. But specific sexual problems, however painful, are merely symptoms of a spreading social disease which Mornell calls "an epidemic." Even the language reflects man's increasing passivity. Today, when boy meets girl and everything clicks, he describes his passion as "feeling mellow" or "laid back" or "cool."

Passive Men, Wild Women is long on analysis and short on remedies. Mornell urges women to understand that a man's inner world is often the opposite of hers, that she should recognize that she shouldn't take her husband's passivity as a personal affront. She should aim for small changes.

But a man could try harder, too. "He must actively talk at night, actively listen, actively ask for privacy, actively fight through his wife's resistances and defenses, actively make love to her, actively express his feelings -- positive or negative -- in bed and out of it."

Mornell's romantic hero for our time is Superman, who uses his "powers not only for men, but for a woman named Lois Lane." He takes no note of the facts, that Superman can fly away, and often does -- leaving poor Lois with only the mild-mannered Clark Kent.

Mornell writes badly, generalizes loosely, and overstates some of his arguments not once, not even, alas, just twice. His history of misogyny is simplistic: He traces man's feat of women in scattered proverbs, but never discusses the issues of paternity, adultery or prostitution. He ignores male homosexuality as a sympton (or not) of male passivity. He reworks the hoary arguments of Marabel Morgan's Total Woman and Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch without providing new insignts into the changes wrought in women's lives by feminist politics.

Pierre Mornell's slender volume invites easy browsing, and he makes his central point with examples and anecdotes, often with genuine humor.He admits to bring a trifle corny, sometimes even romantic. "But passive -- never