Peter can't explain exactly what it was about Alice that turned him into a victim. From the first day he saw her walking around the office until they stopped dating three months later, he felt that he lost any semblance of human dignity. All he wanted was her approval.

And so when she casually suggested how nice it would be to have cranberry muffins, raspberries and croissants for breakfast, it became his reason for living one snowy Saturday.

Five hours and many dollars later he triumphantly returned home with the order. On Sunday morning he neatly arranged the fancy breakfast on his glass table, and anxiously awaited her surprised and grateful smile. Thirty seconds passed. She perused the table, expressionless.

"You know," she said finally, holding one croissant between two dainty fingers, "this is no croissant. I'm positively sure it's a regular roll."

Peter, a handsome, self-assured, $50,000-a-year professional, now looking back, wishes he had dumped the raspberries in her lap. But he couldn't.

"Oh," he said. "I'm sorry."

He meant it. He had failed. Alice was right. She was always right.

She was his Goddess.

"She had this power over me," recalls Peter. "She could get me to do anything."

What is it about certain men that allows them to wear angst like a medal of honor, all for the approval of one woSee GODDESS, B17, Col. 1GODDESS, From B1man--their Goddess? She is idealized and rhapsodized--the true love eventually lost.She is someone dreamed about for decades as the romance that Might Have Been, the shield against future hurts. Or she is the woman who became absolutely perfect--after she dumped him?

And, the Goddess is always unrequited love.

This is nothing new, of course. Men have been caught in the Goddess Syndrome for centuries. Dante's desire for Beatrice, whom he first encountered when she was 9, eventually inspired him to write "The Divine Comedy." In the 13th century, Eleanor of Aquitaine set up "courts of love" in the French province of Poitiers, where men were obliged to justify their love through long and detailed presentations. The ladies were regarded as priceless treasures befitting the highest pedestal.

Even contemporary movies have played out the syndrome: Prof. Immanuel Rath wrung his soul dry for the affections of chorus girl Marlene Dietrich in "The Blue Angel." David Axelrod nearly destroyed his life in Scott Spencer's "Endless Love" when he set fire to Jade Butterfield's house to get her attention.

Consider, also, these true stories:

* Not long ago, a 35-year-old California businessman blew $20,000 trying to persuade a 20-year-old former shoe clerk to marry him. She wouldn't.

* A Washington attorney sent his true love five $200 dresses and flew to Boston for dinner on command. She married someone else.

* A dental student, after he was dumped by his girlfriend, took a job dishing salad in the restaurant where she was a waitress, and later rented an apartment with a view overlooking her bedroom. She never spoke to him again.

"In reality men's attachments do last longer, there is a certain constancy," says Dr. Rex Buxton, a Washington psychotherapist. "To find the reason, you have to go back and look at why little boys get so attached to their mothers."

"There is a gender difference here that allows women to end feelings by getting angry more successfully than men," says Dr. Isaiah Zimmerman, a family and couples therapist. "Men will end very many relationships by not calling a woman, instead of fighting it out. This tends to make the ideal woman stay in their imagination by not exorcising her through anger." All the time I was idealizing her to the last possibility, I was perfectly conscious that she was about the faultiest girl I'd ever met. She was selfish, conceited and uncontrolled and since these were my own faults I was doubly aware of them. Yet I never wanted to change her. Each fault was knit up with a sort of a passionate energy that transcended it. Her selfishness made her play the game harder, her lack of control put me rather in awe of her, and her conceit was punctuated by delicious moments of remorse and self-denunciation that it was almost dear to me--almost dear to me . . . She had the strongest affect on me. She made me want to do something for her, to get something to show her.

--F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Pierian Springs and the Last Straw."

Language of Love?

Soon after the young man moved to Washington to answer letters in his congressman's office, he became infatuated with a woman who worked as a Senate aide. For six months, he tried to think up excuses to get her to go out with him. He would have done anything, he says. Nothing worked.

Finally, one day, he was invited to dinner at Sans Souci by an embassy official. The woman agreed to be his date.

Anxious to impress the her, the young man sneaked into the restaurant a day early and--in front of a grimacing maitre d'--stole the French menu.

By 4 a.m., the following morning, he had translated it, and practiced his high-school French.

But when it came time to order, the woman did it herself--for the whole table. She was, it turned out, fluent in French. The maitre d' stared at him all night. The couple never went out together again.

"I still think of her," says the man, now a defense lobbyist. "I think she married some rich banker and moved to San Francisco. But she's one of those people I'll always have a crush on." So like a bit of stone I lie Under a broken tree. I could recover if I shrieked My heart's agony To passing bird, but I am dumb From human dignity. --William Butler Yeats, "Human Dignity"

From Whence It Comes

The Goddess phenomenon persists in literature and locker-room lore. Not to mention in the hearts of women who have to deal with men who have a Goddess. But any woman can be a Goddess at any time. As long as she doesn't try.

"I think every man has had a Goddess in his life," surmises one Hill aide. "Women are much more practical about romance than men. They handle it like a business, a career decision. Men are more apt to idealize and idolize."

How to recognize The Goddess Syndrome:

* None of His friends likes Her. A common plea from the stricken male, usually expressed with a glazed look: "You don't understand her. She doesn't really want to be that way. She's trying hard to change."

* He gives Her complete power over His life.

* She hates all the attention. Except when She needs a ride home at 5 o'clock and He's in the middle of a meeting.

* There is always an element of unrequited love, either physically or emotionally.

* The syndrome often strikes during flux: The writer who just moved; the Hill aide who just finished law school; the musician who recently was divorced. Says Dr. Zimmerman:

"Men seem to want an icon, a shrine, a woman to keep in an album. That they really did meet the perfect woman gives them a vaccination against being hurt by other women. They never want the ideal woman discussed in an unfavorable light. It's like defending their mother. They can't just get mad and be done with her."

The Company of Misery

A 30-year-old Washington reporter was unable to decipher his feelings about his girlfriend of six months--until he discovered he was up against some stiff competition. Only then did he vow his unfailing love. She married the other guy two years ago, and agonizing about the breakup has been one of his favorite pastimes ever since. To remind himself about just how miserable he is, he carries in his wallet the following excerpt from Norman Mailer's "American Dream":

A familiar misery was on me. I was separated from Deborah as much as a week or two at a time, but there would come a moment, after everything else had gone, when it was impossible not to call her. At moments like that I would feel as if I had committed hari-kari and was walking about with my chest separated from my groin. It was a moment which was physically insupportable, it was the remains of my love for her, love draining from the wound, leaving behind its sense of desolation . . . she was an artist at sucking the marrow from a broken bone, she worked each side of the street with a skill shared only in common with the best of street walkers and the most professional of heiresses.

The reporter's girlfriends invariably came to know his story, his misery and his excerpt by heart.

The Other Woman

It usually starts out the same way. The next girlfriend meets him just as he is coming out of his Goddess experience--which could take two days, two months or two years.

They meet for drinks at a dive on a rainy night. He stares a lot and tells of his lost Goddess. She tells him it's going to be all right. He takes her hand. She melts and decides she can bring him out of it. Sometimes she can. But it could be after one year, seven breakups and reconciliations, and severe weight loss on her part.

Such was the case with the 30-year-old Beth, who met her Ivy Leaguer at work. His Goddess has just told him she was in love with someone else. But, the Goddess told him, if he was that broken up . . . he could walk her home from work three days a week. He did this for a year. While he was seeing Beth.

"It was absolutely sick, and I let it happen," says Beth, who is still dating him, although the Goddess has been pushed out of the picture for now. "I felt so cheap . . ."

Another woman married a man whose first sexual experience had been with a woman who wore purple sweaters and Arpe ge perfume. "For eight years, he gave me Arpe ge for Christmas, my birthday, Valentine's Day--everything he could think of--and I'm allergic to perfume," she says. "He suggested purple sweaters but fortunately never forced them on me."

They're now divorced.

Love Not Returned

Although most men will swear sex has nothing to do with Goddess worship, some have argued that when it is withheld, it turns any woman into Minerva.

An international businessman recalled becoming deeply infatuated with the woman who became his college sweetheart, with whom he had never slept. He daydreamed about her for eight years until he heard she had left her husband. He began sending notes and calling. She moved in with someone else. He still called and sent notes. And then he left his wife.

Finally, after 13 years, they both found themselves unattached. They engaged is a cross-country tryst for six months. Alas, the mystery had vanished.

"It was definitely the fact that I couldn't have her that kept it alive for all those years," he says. "It wasn't there in the end."

Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams--not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. --F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby"

First Love

First loves create a ripe environment for Goddess attachments to breed--an intensity of passion like than described in Spencer's "Endless Love."

A Washington writer became nearly as stricken by his first college love as Spencer's David Axelrod became with Jade Butterfield. He dreamed about her for years after they broke up.

"My goal in life was to worship her," he says now, 10 years later. "We were at the age when having a good time meant drinking and throwing up. When I did it, she was disgusted. When she did it, I thought it was cute.

"When she broke up with me I was destroyed," he says. "I felt she was perfect, so therefore I must be flawed. I got a terrible chest cold for two months and couldn't go to school. I was absolutely paralyzed with rejection. I ran through a glass door and almost bled to death."

Long after they broke up, he saw her blond hair in the dusky light of a midwestern spring evening. She was sitting on a campus wall, singing "American Pie," with her friends. "Whenever I hear that song, til this day," he says, "I still see that vision of her."

The End

And while the vision of the Goddess might sometimes fade like a springtime dusk in the imaginations of those who wooed, worshiped and wondered, there never really was any passion on the part of the true Goddess herself.

Ten years to the month after the writer and his Goddess had broken up, he arrived at work one day to find a note from her. With sweaty palms and rapid heart beat he tracked her back to Seattle and within a week had arranged a business trip there.

They met for lunch at a hot-dog emporium. She brought a girlfriend along. He was a nervous wreck. Finally, the girlfriend went to the ladies' room.

"Do you have any idea how I have carried memories of you and dreamt about you all these years," he said, desperately seizing their moment alone.

She stared back, not comprehending.

"No," she said.

He got up and walked out into the Seattle mist feeling "strangely liberated."

"I never dreamt about her again."

The names of the Goddesses and the men who loved them have been changed.