WHEN THE BLACK BILE rises and clogs my brain with bitter opinion, I sometimes remind myself of this story I heard in college. It acts on me like a mild sedative, a pill that revives the juices of reasonableness.

The novelist Saul Bellow, it seems, was a guest lecturer, teaching a roomful of smug English majors about the "Ilaid." The discussion reached the place where Hector is slain and dragged by chariot three times around the city of Troy. Bellow asked the students what they made of this.

The didactic English majors, struggling to be profound in the presence of this great writer, rendered many brittle interpretations for him. The concentric circles of the chariot symbolize the unity of life and death. Hector's fallen position, dragging in the sand, represents man's fate. The three circles evoke the mystical connotations of the number three.

Finally, the novelist gave up in disgust.

"Doesn't anyone," he asked, "feel sorry for the poor bastard?"

That question is relevant to how we feel about Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and, yes, even John Anderson. Like all clever citizens, I followed their stumblings through the fall campaign with rising bile and scorn. These three are talking disconnected gibberish, I thought, the words and gestures of mechanical fools. All that's left for the audience is a mild laugh at their inane swordplay. As they stagger toward the final judgment, let the least fool win.

How grim and disappointing. Is this any way to run a democracy? Wher are our leaders anyway? Why don't real leaders come forward and make us feel good again about America?

Now I will take my pill and try to be reasonable.

In the dynamics of contemporary political campaigns, especially for the presidency, it is assumed that we will focus on the deceptions and personal idiosyncracies and obvious weaknesses of the candidates. In those terms, the campaign of 1980 has certainly been rich in material. This searching for flaws creates its own circular logic which you will read about ad nauseam after the election. The people's choice, it will be explained, stemmed from Ronnie's special weakness or Jimmy's particular deceit. If Carter had only gone to Texas again. If Anderson had understood blue-collar workers. If Reagan had only kept his mouth shut.

Let me suggest an alternative analysis which essentially lets all three of them off the hook, absolves them of responsibility for their sodden campaign.

I think, in a fundamental sense, that there isn't going to be a winner on Tuesday. I mean this: The voters will elect a president (or reelect Carter, which is my bet), but they will not choose a leader.

Whoever sits in the White House for the next four years will be debilitated by events, by his own speeches and actions.

Most of all, he will be diminished by the dissonant emotions of the nation. Yes, we must have a president, the Constitution requires it. He will be given all of the complex presidential powers and the theoretical freedom to make powerful decisions. But we will not grant him what he needs to be a leader: authority.

Power is one thing -- the ability to compel someone else to do something, whether it's paying taxes or bombing villages. It belongs to the office in a legal sense, checkmated by contending power centers, restrained by laws or by judgment or cowardice. President Reagan can chop down a lot of trees to eliminate air pollution, if that's what he wishes to do. Jimmy Carter can draw dizzy little boxes for the federal government and call it reorganization. That's power.

But authority belongs to us, a set of feelings that come from the people. The powerful president looks weak and even ridiculous when the followers refuse to confer a sense of authority on their leader. The conventional judgment is that this is Jimmy Carter's fault (just as the commentators will no doubt blame President Reagan when he fails to enthrall us). But I think we are looking at something much deeper than Jimmy Carter's awkward oratory or Reagan's fumbling memory.

It cannot simply be inept politicians. We are, if you haven't noticed, astride an historical era in which the traditional terms of authority, from the family to the church to the corporation, are universally weakened -- disappointed by failure, undermined by deception, by depersonalizing distances between leader and follower. The politicians utters confused symbolic gestures which no longer work. He is not speaking in the modern poetry of leadership because it has not yet been invented.

Turned off. The expression accurately implies the transaction. What's turned off is the collective feeling of assent, the willing acceptance of the powerful over us. That sounds like the opposite of freedom, but the feeling of authority gives us important assurances in return. I am drawing now from Richard Sennett's brilliant new essay in social psychology, "Authority" (Knopf, 1980), with apologies for my crude oversimplification:

"The authority can give guarantees to others about the lasting value of what he does. It is solid. . . . The strength those monuments of authority symbolize is a defiance of history, a defiance of time."

A Gothic cathedral evokes authority: "Fatih, sin and despair transformed into stone churches."

A solid thing in space which does not change over time, which will still be there, a thousand years hence, lasting beyond personal lives, aspirations, disappointments. "We are searching for consolation in authority," Sennett explains, "which time never permits."

It's a trifle unfair to compare Jimmy Carter to a Gothic cathedral. The feelings are different. But the president seems like a lost transient in history, a passing figure who cannot guarantee us much of anything about overcoming the limits of time and space. We know too much to believe his promises.

Put aside Carter or Reagan.Who else comes to mind that speaks with the resonance of a great stone church? The pope in Rome who flies around the world on jet airplanes preaching against modernity? Or a great corporation like Exxon that tells us repeatedly on television that Exxon is our friend? Or the Baptist preachers of the Moral Majority who claim to hear the voice of God and inform us that God is angry about the Department of Education? Or -- good grief! -- The Washington Post, which each day presumes to capture the whirling world in newsprint?

None of these voices, powerful as they are, speaks with the sense of universal authority that one would expect from their stature. While some Catholics ignore the Pope and most automobile owners hate Exxon, most of us do not think the Moral Majority is in touch with God and some people, I am told, do not even believe everything they read in The Washington Post.

What happened to authority? We can go down the list of institutions, government and business, churches and political parties and newspapers, and identify particular weaknesses and deceptions, the same way we look at individual politicians. Buy my own opinion is that the real chance, the important difference, is in the audience, not in the preacher.

Human beings, at least at the advanced edge of change were Americans dwell, are in the midst of a profound redefinition of our imaginative selves. We experience life differently; the sensory dimensions of time and space have changed. Our eyes and ears take in distant provinces. Our minds are deluged with a surfeit of information, images, sounds, strange and competing voices.

Marshall McLuhan calls it "a new acoustic or resonant space whose margin is nowhere." We know it more familiarly as television, long-distance telephones, satellite communications, cheap travel on jets, rockets to the stars.

The presidential debate, thus, had a static, antique quality for an audience that feels every evening on the plastic colors of TV graphics and the quick-cut movements of video action, leaping from continent to continent in search of cheap facts. No politician has mastered that language. Carter and Reagan, bound by their own parrow formalisms, seemed to be talking from beyond the time wrap that divides us from our tradition-laden past.

What did they tell us of the future? Great leaders, whether they are churches or politicians, promise followers a piece of immortality, a sense that these things we are doing together will endure long after all of us must die. But Carter and Reagan were debating over which one of them is most likely to get us all killed.

Nuclear dread, whether it becomes a stated issue or not, is a permanent condition in our politics, a relatively new consciousness, which also undermines authority. Does the state protect us, promise us a place in the future beyond our own lives? Or does it threaten to obliterate the future?

Any president, regardless of his particular policies, inherits those skeptical feelings. Hilter, who understood the elements of authority, promised a thousand-year Reich and led his faithful followers to ruin. The power of the atomic president implies the same dreadful potential. We ask ourselves a pitiful question: Which candidate is the least dangerous?

Finally, while these things have happened to our social sense, the apparatus of authority has become more complicated and diffuse -- concealed by decadent bureaucracies, whether in government or business. Sennett concludes that authority must be "visible and legible," if it is to overcome the unwilling followers' skepticism, and yet in our enlightened age we are captivated by shallow paranoia about unseen forces, unnamed people, somewhere doing things to ensnare us. Undetected poisons, future calamities, bureaucrats, managers, conspirators, Them. We cannot see who decided this for us or hear his voice or even learn his identity.

This is the paradox which frames our time and undermines authority: a new sensory freedom which permits us to leap imaginatively beyond the old walls of time and space. And also a new dread of lost individuality, of the lost future.

Only a poet could reimagine the language and symbols that would successfully resonate authority in this new age. Or perhaps a cynical TV producer. Certainly a politician cannot invent them.

For, as confused citizens, we are unevenly divided on this question of authority. Many Americans turn backward to old orthodox certainties, trading the new freedom for reliable voices, while the rest of us float free in our leaderless skepticism, giddy and discontented. A politician cannot speak convincingly to one audience without terrifying the other. Only a long period of what Sennett calls disruptions, a kind of ongoing cultural revolution, will lead us eventually to new symbols, new language, even a renegotiations of the social contract in which authority can once again be convincing.

The presidency, at this hour, reminds me of the primitive cultures portrayed in Frazier's classic. "The Golden Bough." When a chief or king began to lose his magic, when a shaman could no longer prophesy the future of the tribe he was put to death.

The act of regicide was sometimes a powerful ritual in itself. One African tribe would dig a deep burial pit and the debilitated king would lie down in it. The tribal members would gather around the grave and, as the king uttered his last instructions and prophecies, they would bury him, clod by clod. Figuratively speaking, that is what Americans will do to Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan. Bury them, clod by clod.