"Ma zot ahava" ("What is Love") by Yoram Yovel, Keter Books, 352 pages, NIS 89.

The question mark - that innocent, humble grammatical creature whose back is humped and ends with a dot like a tear, the one that Haim Nahman Bialik put at the end of his painful poem: "They say there is love in the world - What is love?" - is absent from the borrowed title of Yoram Yovel's new book, and its absence is blinding. Is the change in formulation that distances from itself the plea and doubts of the poet a hint to readers that the book before them is an exclamation point and that its aim is none other than to show them what love is!?

For many who seek an unequivocal answer and do not doubt its reality for a moment, the title of the book is no less than a trap for the gullible: Here it is, the most desired of all the promises of happiness, the least understood of all the propensities of the human soul, the most minute and the most fragile and the most capricious of all, love - on the binding of the book and its pages, the greatest human mystery that alone does not wonder about itself, which is about to be made clear.

And Prof. Yoram Yovel, Yeshayahu Leibowitz's grandson, a psychiatrist, neurologist and psychoanalyst whose first book, "Mindstorm," stood firmly at the top of the local best-seller lists for an entire year, is exactly the person from whom the broken-hearted layman will want to learn what love is and how it is vanquished. After all, Yovel is the new authority on everything that has to do with the prevalent popular version of psychoanalysis: He is the local I Ching, the ancient Chinese sage of our times, and he brings all the weight of his authority to the battlefield where the clinical and the ontological rip each other to shreds.

In all fairness, it must be said that he has not invented the wheel. "What is Love" belongs to the genre that, despite the intellectual sadism with which many of its critics are endowed, is very much beloved by the reading public that sometimes tends to use it to replace costly and demanding psychological therapy, despite explicit warnings by the writers themselves. This book joins a long series of books written about love by experts on the psyche, and its bibliography is full of them: "The Art of Loving" by Erich Fromm, "Falling in Love: How We Choose Whom to Love" by Ayala Malach-Pines, "Love's Executioner" by Irvin Yalom, "The Evolution of Love" by Ada Lampert and so on. In all of them this key noun appears, and from all of them the skeptical question mark is absent. All of them share with Yovel a common ambition and pretension: to dispel the fog and the great mystery, to make it comprehensible and, as a result, attainable.

Arrows in the quiver

Yovel is aware that to talk about love "means talking about the human condition," and at the same time the dimensions of the subject do not deter him. His mission is ambitious, and he embarks on it with a number of arrows in his quiver: psychoanalysis, brain science, cognitive psychology, neurology. He belongs to a growing research and therapeutic trend of neuropsychoanalysts who examine the classical theories at the biological level with techniques that come from the world of medicine, and try to confirm by scientific research the Freudian discoveries that have until recently been only theories. In other words, they are looking for the precise places where concepts like repression and denial are located in the brain, by mapping it. Therefore, Yovel, despite the camouflaging rhetoric of his book, believes that it is necessary to seek the concrete influences and not ghosts because, like Sigmund Freud in his day, he is above all a scientist, with more advanced tools than those that were at the disposal of the genius from Vienna.

In clear and comprehensible language Yovel fits the new information into the intervals that he opens between the case studies throughout the eight chapters of the book. It seems to him, as he writes in the introduction, that this coalition of disciplines provides scientific truths that are "surprising, exciting, intriguing, complex and sometimes - just like love itself - also cause us to feel taunted and cheated." Perhaps the reason for this lies in the reduction that science makes of love; perhaps it lies in the fact that although Freud's case studies were also read as short stories thanks to his rare talent for writing, this does not mean that literature can bear an interpretive psychoanalytic reading. It is hard to imagine what would remain of Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" after an examination of this sort. Almost certainly a heap of physical syndromes, Oedipal complexes, endocrine failures and burst chemical dams. And Emma Bovary's love - what will become of it? And of the sufferings of Werther and Effie Briest after a similar examination is forced upon them? And what does Pedro Almodovar's "Live Flesh" look like, and what need will we have of "The Empire of the Senses?"

The total enslavement to the passions of the flesh that those two films glorify will be reduced to the level of dopamine in the body, and in Yovel's special formulation, there will be no escaping "the conclusion that there is a common denominator between the love of Romeo and Juliet and the love of a field mouse." Almost certainly we shall find out that little Marcel was a narcissist, Emma suffered from a personality disorder, Werther could have benefited from therapeutic treatment that would have enriched his stores of serotonin and Effie, who apparently was sexually frigid, would do herself a favor if she improved her hormone balance. In short: literature in ruins, a poetic wasteland, a nuclear winter.

At the basis of the stories that Yovel brings from his clinic are the social and cultural givens about the character and nature of love, and their depressive effect on his patients. Each of the stories was chosen to serve as a different prism of the many faces of the myth of romantic love, on the one hand, and the manner of treatment, on the other. As in his previous book, Yovel alternately tells the story of the case and imparts wisdom. He builds his case studies cleverly, and they read like small thrillers interspersed with theoretical background information: The story of Yael, a girl from the national religious community, who is pushed into marriage at a time when chronic depression leaves her emotionally indifferent and sexually frigid, affords an opportunity to discuss drug therapy and the relativity of cultural conventions.

In the story of the calculating Ilan, who married Michal in a dizzying and stupefying ecstasy of falling in love that robbed him of his good judgment, leaving him to face its destructive results, Yovel reports to the readers on a breakthrough in the field of neurology and explains Ilan's emotional frenzy in light of the evolutionary model of the tripartite brain: the primitive reptilian, the early mammalian and the new mammalian (if the neurologists are to be believed, this model gives an adequate answer to Bialik's question, and it is possible to read the greatest love stories of all time in its light).

The story of Noa, who snares a partner for fulfilling her sadomasochistic wishes, is afforded a surprising and almost ridiculous denouement and opens a window to the issues of sexual perversions and the Internet revolution at one and the same time. The case of Ofer Saguy is the most interesting of the stories because Yovel succeeds in rescuing his character from the flattening that case studies impose on their protagonists, because the young millionaire's skirt-chasing invites discussion of fascinating characters like Don Juan and Casanova, and also because the process that Yovel underwent with his patient reveals to readers the mechanism of transference and counter-transference.

The big question that has to be asked of the book is its raison d'etre. The success of popular psychology literature in general, and the phenomenal success of "Mindstorm" in particular, are a decisive answer. What remains to be clarified is whether the book works - whether it affords stimulating and active reading, as the best books of this genre arouse the imagination and temporarily construct an analogous story that finds its meaning in the psychological biography of the reader. There are such books, which are rare and precious among works of popular psychology, although it is hard to find them and easy to dismiss them in the sea of inferior texts ("The Road Less Traveled" by Scott Peck and "Women Who Run with the Wolves" by Clarissa Pikola Estes are two examples), and also in the "dry" professional literature: "Playing and Reality" by D.W. Winnicott is one example and "The Primitive Edge of Experience" by Thomas Ogden is another excellent example. Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia" is a lovely piece of writing in every respect, and Carl Jung's books are required reading for every artist and writer who wants to enrich his dictionary of images.

The power of "What is Love" does not lie in its selection of case studies. Even if they are well-written, to my regret most of them remain mysteriously flat, nor does the support that is afforded to psychoanalytical theory by the neurological information make the book essential. Yovel does adopt the skeptical and cautious approach that holds that research studies cannot encompass human complexity and explain the uniqueness of love. However, in the fact of writing the book, the fact of the pretension, he knocks the ground out from under his own arguments.

The force of the book resides in fact in the writer: Yovel's voice rises clear and warm from the written dialogues and he emerges as a reliable person and a responsible therapist throughout the encounter. He does not hesitate to berate himself for mistakes or to reveal his weaknesses, his prejudices and his petty moments. There will no doubt be skeptics who will argue that this is a calculated and transparent tactic that is aimed at arousing trust, but I am not among them. So that we can abandon ourselves to the book, Yovel demands of us, as from his patients, basic trust in his good intentions. The trust that offered gladly during the hours of reading was returned to me unharmed.

I am prepared to pluck up my courage and say, on the basis of my instincts alone, that he is an excellent therapist, but I would like to beg him to consider, even if I cannot point to it directly, that art, music, literature and film have a minor but cumulative effect as their influence on life itself, on body movements, on the system of identity, on consciousness, which even though science cannot take into account is huge in its significance. These, "the news that doesn't grow old," are the internal permutation that evades the mapping of the brain and the ultra-sound waves, but one can be certain and trust in the fact that it will help us evade the disturbing and depressing determinism that science is offering us as an explanation and reason for our existence.

Iris Leal's book "An Accidental Happiness" was published by Keter Books.