OLIVER NORTH a hero? It is absurd on the face of it, our public spasm of adulation for this self-professed liar and desk-chair martinet. By his own account last week, the former National Security Council staffer sold lethal weapons to a terrorist state, subverted the will of the American people, failed in most of his aims and then flaunted his actions before a congressional committee.

If this is "heroism," then common sense revolts and words have lost their Ollie North's defiant mug gaping from every slot of every magazine-rack, certified as a "folk hero" on Newsweek's cover. No wonder that, in the brief space of a dozen days after losing his Fifth Amendment lockjaw, North has progressed from role model to coiffure model to doll model for a forthcoming toy line.

But before the nation sobers up from its Ollie-bender (and asks whether it truly wants our foreign policy to be plotted in secret by burn-bag zealots, sticky-fingered mercenaries and Swiss bank clerks), it is important to understand the nature of our intoxication.

And indeed, the sudden apotheosis of Oliver North tells us far less about one egregious Marine than it does about the current state of our culture: our sense of what a hero is and should be; our response to tribal tele-rituals such as the Iran-contra hearings; our ethical standards during an era in which James Bond has supplanted Sgt. York; and finally about our citizens' psychic needs and collective desperations in the sunset of national self-esteem.

Charisma, writes sociologist Bryan Wilson in his classic study of the subject, is "a quality not of the individual, but of a relationship between believers (or followers) and the man in whom they believe"; not "a personality attribute," but "the social recognition of a claim." And if the believers are legion, well, "general social malaise is undoubtedly the primary condition for the persistence of charismatic manifestations."

Of course, there is ample doubt as to whether the "hero" appellation reflects an idea originating in the public mind or a concept implanted by the news media. When President Reagan called North "a national hero," it was widely reported; consequently pollsters waved the term at their respondents. ABC's survey, for example, gave its audience only three choices: "hero," "villain" or "victim" -- as if that exhausted the universe of possibilities. (If "beet farmer" had been one of the choices, how many votes would it have gotten?)

Moreover, when the American people use the word "hero," they are not overly fastidious about its meaning. Educational psychologist Frank Farley of the University of Wisconsin has studied the subject for years, surveying thousands of subjects and asking them to name their top five male and female heroes. The results -- from the 80 to 85 percent of those who have heroes -- are surprising.

"The most consistent names are their own mothers and fathers," says Farley, followed by an admirational gumbo including Martin Luther King Jr., Clint Eastwood, Jesus Christ, Mother Teresa, pop-warbler Madonna, Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Jane Fonda, Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy and Bruce Springsteen.

Farley ranks the responses according to how the heroes fit each of four criteria: Determinants (psychological qualities such as courage, honesty and generosity); Distance (how close the respondent is to the hero); Domain (the field of action -- including, Farley notes, "very few from business, sports or the military"); and finally Depth (how much one's choices resemble great heroes in significance and expected longevity of acclaim). Here Martin Luther King Jr. and Einstein score high, Madonna and Springsteen low.

Most respondents learn about their heroes from (in order of diminishing importance) TV, books, movies, radio and print journalism. The predominant visibility of TV news may explain why, despite widespread cynicism about government, "about one-third come from politics," with 20 percent each from immediate family and entertainment.

Survey subjects cite as the most desirable characteristics in a hero: courage and strength; a kind, loving and generous nature; intelligence and/or expertise; honesty; and lovability. Judged in this context, Farley says, North "comes out pretty well, except in honesty." And he shares a common trait with other notable heroes: A strong sense of role models. "Heroes themselves have heroes," says Farley. Among North's: His father, an Army colonel in World War II; and his mentor William Casey.

This is not to deny the effect of North's considerable appeal, distinguished combat record or superb manipulative abilities. He did, after all, succeed in shifting the hearings' focus from the contravention of law and democracy to soap-operetta; from the chain of complicity to the character of Ollie North; from fact to personality.

North's telegenic aura notwithstanding, one might expect from America's highly diverse populace a countervailing measure of vocal outrage and indignation. Yet that balancing force, observers suggest, is damped by the confluence of four cultural currents:

Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University, believes North is benefitting from the "delayed affirmation of the Vietnam veteran," the recent belated effort at reconciliation from a generation "cleft" by antipolar views of the war. To indict North for megalomania is to invoke the once familiar veteran-as-psychopathic-berserker cliche which is now as offensive to anti-war partisians as it once was to veterans' groups.

In addition, says Steve Barnett, a cultural anthropologist and chairman of Research & Forecasts Inc., a New York City consulting firm, North is taking a reputational ride on Yankee xenophobia: "While he was testifying, he emphasized over and over again that there was nothing wrong with getting money from the Iranians. The American people probably agree.

"We've done lots of research on how Americans view Arabs -- and they put Iranians in the same category -- and we've found that people regard them as very mature and intimidating. They're the adults, we're the children. Americans have very childish reactions to them. They say,'Boy, I'd like to punch those Arabs in the nose!' " So any money taken from Iran comes without moral sanction. "In fact," Barnett says, "it's seen as redemptive. It allows Americans to once again think of themselves as adults."

But what about the blatant contempt for constitutional process and the rule of law? "Our research," says Barnett, "shows that Americans haven't a clue as to what's in the Constitution." What North & Co. did apropos of its strictures is "irrelevant."

What may be more culturally relevant is that North's actions -- especially the cloak-and-blather welter of code-names, poison pills and so forth that he described to the committee -- accord conveniently with the protocols of our most dependably popular literary genre: the thriller. As America shed the moral certitudes of the '50s, writes culture critic Marshall Fishwick, the detective story gave way to the spy novel with its slippery ethics, ambiguous world-view and radically altered perspective of the hero's function. Fishwick depicts the shift this way:

Detective

Super-Spy Unilinear

Multi-linear Regional International Detects

Projects A loner

Team Man Fights a man Fights an ideology Moral

Amoral Job-oriented

Role-oriented

In the modern spy thriller, goodness, justice and legality are extraneous nuisances; efficacy is the measure of worth, techno-cunning the milieu. Who would cavil at a few guns for Iran or snow-tire slush funds when they've got Robert Ludlum on the bedside table, "Mission Impossible" on the VCR and Ollie North on the tube?

Which is where audiences are most vulnerable, says Walter Dickie, an anthropologist and vice president of Creative Research Associates, a Chicago market-research house. When the viewing public faces events such as the Iran-contra hearings, they put aside the fine-tuned tube-leery skepticism. "What American consumers are very good at," says Dickie, "is watching TV and responding to advertising. You can show 'em a Coke ad with puppies and they'll be sitting there with the tears streaming down their faces and still say, 'I know what's going on here.' But they have not learned to take that same kind of arms-length view of the news."

That credulity, Dickie says, is compounded when a subject like North seems to embody a quality the public craves. "Our research has shown a real desire on the part of a lot of people to increase the degree of personal control over the stuff in their lives. So old Ollie, if you take a look at him that way, he looks like a guy who apparently has control over things. The can-do colonel who gets things done."

Never mind, then, that the arms-for-hostages gambit flopped, that the contras got a mere fraction of their expected swag: It's the appearance that counts, the will to be conned.

But ultimately, the cultural significance of the North phenomenon is mythic. It begins on the superficial level:

"North fits into a classic fairy-tale structure," says Barnett. "And Americans right now are very involved in fairy tales. Our movies have fairy-tale endings to simplify the world we live in." In what one might call Ollie and the Beanstalk, "we have an evil ogre like the Ayatollah. Then a pure, innocent person enters and succeeds through a trick -- he gets the Iranian money" and in a prankish irony gives it to the contras. "He enjoys a certain amount of success, but then is challenged by elders. And ultimately he wins out over the committee." (Note also that the typical fairy-tale hero travels with an irascible wise man or comical sidekick. North's attorney Brendan Sullivan functioned handsomely in both capacities.)

North is intuitively attuned to such folk rituals, Barnett beieves. "In testimony, he actually said he would tell the committee 'the good, the bad and the ugly.' He actually used a Clint Eastwood title!" That allusion, Barnett says, "is a form of contagious magic" (the notion that things that have once been in contact will continue to operate on each other after the contact has ceased), and thus magically empowered North with the Eastwood animus.

Innocence is essential to the fairy-tale hero. And North, as if sensing this, made the point explicit: "People snicker that Ollie North might have been doing a little hanky-panky with his secretary. Ollie North has been loyal to his wife since the day he married her." (This propensity for third-person self-description suggests that North regards himself as a character in a tale.)

But on a more profound mythic level, the celebration of Ollie testifies to what Ernest Becker in "The Denial of Death" called "a constant hunger for heroes." Ronald Reagan was keenly conscious of that craving when in 1979 he wrote in Readers Digest that the late John Wayne "gave the whole world the image of what an American should be." Reagan crafted his campaign on the deliberate manipulation of such symbols, to enormous success.

That was seven years ago. Today, Reagan's mythical "new morning in America" has faded to the twilight of national self-respect, a sense of debility, of a society humiliated by Japan, baited by Third-World gangsters, presided over by an old man of feeble memory and diminished vigor.

Analogous, precisely, to the last days of King Arthur. As Jessie Weston explains in her analysis of the grail legends, "the condition of the king is sympathetically reflected on the land; the loss of virility in the one brings about a suspension of the reproductive processes of Nature on the other."

As our latter-day Camelot turns to Waste Land, it is natural that North is being perceived as the grail-questing knight who will revivify a society dying of anomie and ineptitude. The analogy is not accidental; it is a pattern graven deeply in the human mind which returns perennially in times of need. And it is clearly reverberating now as we wallow in Ollie-mania.

"The universal hero myth," Carl Jung writes, "always refers to a powerful man or god-man who vanquishes evil in the form of dragons, serpents, monsters, demons {ayatollahs? communists?} and so on, and who liberates his people from destruction and death." The worship of such figures in communal rituals (or TV hearings) can "exalt the individual to an identification with the hero." Thus the spectator-celebrant "can be liberated from his personal impotence and misery and endowed (at least temporarily) with an almost superhuman quality."

The trick is to separate the need from the knight, our very real longing from its accidental embodiment in Oliver North -- no easy task in our image-addicted society. "We risk," Daniel Boorstin writes, "being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so 'realistic' that they can live in them. We are the most illusioned people on earth." meaning. Yet there it is:

Curt Suplee is an editor of Outlook.