In one of his famous animal fables, James Thurber told of an alcoholic bear who swore off the stuff, took up calisthenics--and became even more of a menace at social gatherings. Thurber's moral--"You might just as well fall flat on your face as lean too far over backwards"--is worth pondering as we approach this weekend's summit meeting in Williamsburg of the seven big Western industrial nations.

A year ago at Versailles, the Seven fell flat on their faces. The rancid recapitulations of what had been agreed upon led finally to an ugly rupture over the European-Siberian natural gas pipeline. Now the question for Williamsburg is whether, in their zeal to avoid a repetition of that fiasco, the Seven may not be leaning too far over backwards. There's to be no agenda, no reach for big decisions, and no end of unrecorded, free-flowing conversation in the strictest privacy. We are being told of the value in all this of the assembled presidents and prime ministers "getting to know each other"--as if they didn't all have ample opportunity to do so, one-on-one, regularly.

Still, there is something to be said for the leaders getting to know what they can safely say in front of each other without the whole thing getting out of hand. In this sense, the series of seven-nation economic summits that began in 1975 has become more in the nature of an annual physical checkup than an attempt at serious, on-the-spot treatment of the obvious ills that beset the industrialized West.

Only when this strictly limited point of the exercise is appreciated is it possible for the average observer to understand what former West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt had in mind when he said in an interview with French economist George de Menil earlier this year, that "it is terribly important that Williamsburg be a success." Schmidt said: "If it produces anything like the bickering that followed Versailles, the psychological effect could be disastrous. It could plunge the world into a real depression."

As one who had come to believe a few years back that the great Western industrial powers could not afford to go on meeting this way, I am about ready to agree that at this stage they cannot afford not to. In a recent pamphlet, "Economic Summitry," published by the New York Council on Foreign Relations, Menil and former U.S. undersecretary of the Treasury Anthony M. Solomon persuasively argue the case.

Menil finds it "critically important that the Seven demonstrate a unity of purpose and the political will to act in concert if necessary"--without necessarily doing so in the carnival, kleig-lit, photo-opportunity atmosphere of the summit. Solomon sees similar, largely intangible benefits: the participants get a better grasp of the limits imposed by each other's domestic political pressures; the preparations, by themselves, concentrate the minds of the various warring bureaucracies that must prepare their chiefs; the mere prospect of having to re-confront each other next year, after having pledged allegiance to lofty principles and common purposes, exerts a certain discipline in the intervening months.

Given Williamsburg's extreme informality, it is impossible to predict with confidence the final tone, let alone the content of the parting shots. But Thurber's rule may not fit: it would be hard to lean too far over backward when you consider what the consequences could be, this time around, of a second Versailles.