It's gotten worse, says Jules Feiffer, who ought to know. In the 21 years he's been cartooning the posturings and pseudoprofundities of modern times, "the nonsense has moved to a higher level.

"The so-called sexual revolution introduced a new form of sexual repression, pornography became a new Victorianism, and the Guru of the Week became a new attempt at clouding men's minds, something in the shadow did much more effectively in the 1940s."

But don't be misled here. Feiffer, an easy going, owlish man of 48 who knows he should be worrying but doesn't feel quite up to it, is not a pressimist. His might be a world of the chronoically maladjusted, where happiness is just a cover-up for depression, where even Superman can find himself talked out of being Super and into being "a lot better than average," but that, according to Feiffer, is hardly any reason to give up on things.

"My sympathetic characters are sizes. "Whatever their problems, they never give up, never collapse. They are without despair. Depression yes, but no despair."

So how did Feiffer, in Washington to talk on cartooning at the Smithsonian, get a reputation as the pessmimistic author of things like "Little Murders" and "Carnal Knowledge?"

"It's because mine were the first cartoon characters in a strip who ever lived in a real, urban world, who relate to each other like the readers did. It's just taking the world on its real terms, and God knows there's a hell of a lot of defeat involved. Often if you simply tell what's happening you end up with a negative label."

Because of this, Feiffer finds, people he meets feel like they've always known him, "even when it's not true" and are more likely to admit affinity with his work than they have been in the past. "When I began the strip people would say, 'That's a friend of mine,' but it's now become much more confessional, with someone saying, 'Boy you really got me last week.' But friendly, not like they want to haul off and sock me."

Better than that, "The things that really thrill me are when I get the response that 'I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels that way.'

"About a year ago, for instance, I did a strip about a kid who was afraid to leave the house to go to school because his parents might move while he was gone, who was afraid to go to sleep because his parents might die. The idea was how awful it was to be a child, how it's a 24-hour guard duty."

"It turns out that a friend of mine had a 6-year-old son who had really retreated from life after his grandmother died. He had all sorts of professional advise, but it didn't help. Then his father showed him my strip, and he was so amazed, he said, 'You mean other people feel that way,' that he really broke through. After I heard that story, I kvelled for two weeks."

As if you couldn't tell, Feiffer, despite bursts of perfectly timed humor, is very serious about what he does, "deadly serious" in his own words. "The drive behind me," he says, "is the feeling that there is still a lot of work to be done, a lot of things to be said."

But whatever needs to be said, Feiffer will never spit it right out. "Whenever I saw a play I despised the voice of truth, honor, dignity, the author's voice, inevitably the most boring character in the play. I think pleading in the form of a polemic does the opposite of what's intended. I like to go through the back door, seduce them through humor, make the point much more subtly, more effectively."

And despite doing it for 21 years, Feiffer is not worried much about being passe, about losing touch. "The cartoons are an extension of me, so that will happen only if I as a person become passe, if my thinking becomes so fixed and rigid that I fail to grow.

"So every five years or so I have to get out of the house, get more involved, force myself into changes of habits. My tendency is to be as settled and moribund as anyone else, it's very easy to collapse in front of the TV and not make a move until you're sobpoenaed. But I also know that professionally I'm not allowed."

Because his weekly strip, which starts in The Village Voice and goes to about 100 papers around the country, doesn't usually take that much time - "from a half-hour or 45 minutes to 5 or 10 years - Feiffer has endless numbers of other literary projects to fiddle with.

He has just published a novel of private detection called "Ackroyd," his play "Hold Me!" will be opening at Ford's Theater Nov. 21, and most intriguing of all he is working on a screenplay for a film version of "Popeye," tentatively set to star Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlon as the old salt and Olive Oil.

"I want to make it as real as possible in its on terms, like "The Wizard of Oz," not camp it up. I want it to be a good meal for the audience, I want them feeling fat and happy when they leave, and I want to take a shot at what George Lucas tried in 'Star Wars,' deliberately creating mythic heros. Here you have an ugly hero and a homely heroine, he righteous and narrow, she often compulsive and obessive, both fighting a lot, yet there's a hell of a relationship there."

But what about life itself, Jules Feiffer, what can you tell us about that?

"What I do is like following a trail, like a bloodhound sniffing, the process itself is interesting, even if there is nothing at the end of the trail but another trail," he says, smiling as he spins out the metaphor more and more.

"One's interest in life is in trails, in finding the good from the bad, in the scenery surrounding them. There's not going to be that satisfactory answer that ties it up in a knot, there is no answer in the back of the book, there might not even be book. But I take joy in that, I think that means not depression, but freedom."