I Want to Know What Love Is: A Brief Book on Love, Loneliness, and Compulsion

I Want to Know What Love Is: A Brief Book on Love, Loneliness, and Compulsion

by Saul Rosenthal


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This confessional reminiscence is part autobiography, part self-help therapy, and part meditation on love. It is the heart of a journal over three decades of a tormented life. While searching for love, the author, a failed playwright and a loner, leads a secret double life. Publicly he is an English professor, but privately a dissolute and self-abusing racetrack tout trapped in a love/hate addiction to the horses.

Redemption comes, but comes slow and hard.

From an editor:
Dear Mr. Rosenthal,
Many thanks for sending your manuscript, I WANT TO KNOW WHAT LOVE IS. We publish only plays and musicals for the theater. You will find your manuscript enclosed.
I did, however, read your manuscript. The title entranced me. Once I started reading I could not put it down. What a beautiful piece of work. I apologize for keeping it for so long. But I did not want to part with it!
Best wishes on your search for a publisher.
Donna Cozzaglio
Editorial Department
I. E. Clark Publications

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504966856
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 03/12/2016
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.31(d)

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I Want to Know What Love Is

A Brief Book On Love Loneliness And Compulsion

By Saul Rosenthal


Copyright © 2016 Saul Rosenthal
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5049-6685-6


Many years ago I read a few words that cut me to the quick: "Love does not exist. ..." Perhaps among the saddest words imaginable. They were written by, of all people, Robert Penn Warren, one of America's foremost literary figures. Significantly, he qualified it: "but the dream of it does."

It needs more qualifications -- maybe even refutations. In the first place, he can only be referring to romantic love, or the ideal of it evolved especially since medieval and Renaissance literature (although it is really as ancient as the oldest legends, myths, songs and epics of mankind) as well as the late 18 and early 19 century, the great age of the Romantics.

Dr. Warren cannot be referring to all types of love, for that would be blatantly absurd.

The many forms of love are the magic of reality, not just the stuff of dreams, that holds our hapless lives together, that keeps us clinging to the life-preserver of hope when the odds and the facts are against us, and keeps us from drowning in despair and killing ourselves.

Lest us start with the love of God and the love of art. The two are often connected. They have richly fed each other. Religion has inspired much great art; perhaps most of it throughout history if we consider its Influence in Oriental and Semitic countries as well as ancient Greece, medieval and Renaissance Europe, and other Western examples. Oriental temples, the Parthenon, Chartres, Notre Dame, St. Peter's Basilica and St. Paul's Cathedral come to mind. Also the great epics and the literary and poetic aspects of the Bible, as well as other holy books. Michelangelo, DaVinci, Raphael, Handel, Bach, Milton, and countless others were inspired to surpassing works of art by their faith. In turn these works have filled countless mortals with a love of God.

There is also the love of nature and the love of country: like religion, no small solace and inspiration throughout history to both artist and non-artist.

I shall exclude such propensities as the love of pizzas, Mickey Mouse, Elvis, Doonesbury, wind surfing, hang gliding, golf, French fries, blue jeans, jellybeans, and kosher pickles, although the passion may be as great, or greater, than nobler loves. Clearly there are many varieties, degrees and dimensions of love.

Let us stay with the larger or less watered-down implications, which bring us to the love of humans. Maternal love first comes to mind as perhaps the most powerful and lasting. Other blood relationships are often no less intense, whether sibling love, the love of a grandparent, grandchild, niece, nephew, uncle, or aunt. Non-blood relationships, however, are often where the troubles begin. For years I have squirmed under the weight of Warren's cynicism (not overall cynicism, of course, but as related to the problem) and have, as a result, come to be more critical of it.

Evidence abounds on my side: Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Will and Ariel Durant, Heloise and Abelard, Edgar Allan Poe and Virginia Clemm, Anthony and Cleopatra, George and Martha Washington, Franklin Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer, and, dare I mention, whatever their peccadilloes, Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

I might also add the romantic liaison of G. B. Shaw and Ellen Terry. "Let those who may complain that it was all on paper," wrote the famous playwright, "remember that only on paper has humanity yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue, and abiding love."

Because romantic love does not last in 99% of couples (am I really that cynical!), we cannot say it does not exist at all. For the most part it seems more a matter of rhythm, of ebb and flow, of waxing and waning, of flourishing and fading, much as the cycles of nature: sunshine and night, warmth and cold, summer and winter, birth and death. Or perhaps less regular at times: quixotic (after Don Quixote), quicksilverish, spontaneous, eruptive, impulsive, or demented. In short, dynamic -- like a growing thing, organic, and therefore ever mysterious, illusive, and elusive, and ever more desirable, precious and beautiful.

But let me come down to earth again. Literally the good earth. I often walk (and sometimes jog when my old bones and back don't complain) through cemeteries because the earth there is fair to see and fine to feel underfoot, always tended with great care and the landscaping often done with great artistry. In the many years I have sauntered through these cemeteries seeking composure, solitude, resuscitation, exercise, fresh air, the sun, the ambience of nature, the endless islands of beautiful flowers (mostly plastic) brought by the mourners, I have thought about the visitors, many of whom come frequently and not just yearly. At first I said to myself how utterly, utterly idiotic of these poor fools to waste precious time, the most precious gift on earth, just to tidy up the gravesite or dress it up with flowers, plants, or shrubbery. Over the years the fidelity of these visitors of all ages, many of whom are husbands or wives or other non-blood relatives of the deceased, has come to make me far less contemptuous of what I once saw as silly obeisance to a few old bones, which we are all destined to become. A far, far better thing, I thought, would be to reverence, to celebrate, like Albert Schweitzer, the eternally rich and diverse profusion of life all around us. There, surely, is holiness and indwelling divinity.

But the persistence of the devoted and unfailing visitors convinced me at last that I had missed the heart of the matter, which was not a blind ritual of honoring old bones with flowers that either quickly wilted or, in the case of the plastic ones, were gathered up by the attendants and discarded or were scattered, broken, or soiled by wind, rain, snow, and ice. The heart of the matter, at least as I felt it, was that Warren's denial of love was wrong and that I myself was the fool for not seeing it sooner, or understanding sooner that it was not to be seen in flowers or gravestones chiseled with lachrymose poems or bromidic sentiments, but in the enduring love that brought the mourners back again and again. Hardly a delusion or a figment of their imagination, but a tug as real as the moon's tidal pull on the oceans of the world.

In the cemetery, the undying reality of love was an awakening moment. Paradoxically, it was also a moment of profound depression. My past flashed before me like a film gone awry and racing madly. I saw that I had been shut out my whole life from the total kind of love experienced by the faithful mourners.

I refer to those related not by blood but by marriage. The love of close relatives and friends most people have experienced. Blood relationships and platonic friendships sustain us in times of great crises, stress, failure, bereavement, or other tragedies. But rarely do they offer the solace of a lover to a beloved, united as they are in the flesh as well as the spirit.

One out of two marriages fails, and of those that last, few of the couples continue to share their affections in the countless little ways of intimacy that young lovers spontaneously display. Yet these happy few remain a constantly envied ideal of most of us, or at least those of us whose lust for life has not turned to ashes.

It is the very frustration of this passion for completion that makes so much of our lives miserable and drives us into compulsions that enslave or destroy ourselves as well as others. The fortunate loners find happiness in creative works, religion, sports, avocations, making money and other sublimations to compensate for the lack of love or the loss of it. Still, secret desires die hard and I imagine it is our fantasy life that more and more becomes our release valve, as the years mount, and saves us from the implosion of a breakdown, suicide, or other disasters of the mind or body.

No wonder that in the darkest years of the Depression, Hollywood thrived.

THE GLASS MENAGERIE, Tennessee Williams' first full-length play (and one of his best), takes place during that dark decade of the thirties. Since it is loosely based on the writer's family, the character of Tom betrays attributes similar to those of Williams. He is sensitive to a fault and a gifted, intelligent, highly imaginative young man who writes poetry and obsessively escapes to the fantasy world of the movies to avoid an irrepressibly dominant (but goodhearted) mother, a shy, pathologically introverted and crippled sister, and a humdrum job in a warehouse.

Admit it or not, the dream factory of Hollywood has been the salvation of many of us. Growing up in the 30s a child of a struggling family, I can remember the one overweening joy of my life was the weekly Friday night Western or Saturday matinee.

Like Williams' Tom, I became an accomplished, if not compulsive, escapist. I remember, some years later, seeing a French film that was thought too wicked and banned in New York before the courts allowed it. The title was LA RONDE, or round dance, after a play by Arthur Schnitzler called REIGEN. It was directed by Max Ophuls and starred the elite of the then-popular Gallic actors. So utterly enchanting was this brilliant, bittersweet, and naughty comedy about the whimsicalities and infidelities of love that I could not leave the theater. I arrived for the first showing of the film at 11 a.m. and left after the last, around midnight. The year was 1950.

It took hours to readjust to the real world. Frankly, I don't think I ever did, or wanted to, so disenchanting was the contrast. "The art of life is the life of art," said Henry Miller.

The real world was not exactly what I had in mind in my pursuit of happiness. At least it was not right for me. Or I for it. The philosophy of Auntie Mame -- "The world's a feast and all you poor SOBs are starving to death" -sounds great, but I could never seem to find out where in hell the cornucopia was located.

Hemingway made more sense: "Life breaks us all and then makes us strong in the broken places." The battle scars become our medals of honor.

For over 30 years I have read a score of books on positive thinking, starting with Napoleon Hill's THINK AND GROW RICH, Dale Carnegie's HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE, and Norman Vincent Peale's THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING. In recent years there must be a thousand of such books strumming on the same theme. I've read many of them and listened to the shrinks, health and fitness experts, and other hucksters of instant and easy happiness hyping their books.

As much as I've tried throughout the years, the guilt and agony resulting from my stupidity or sins have not disappeared.

Fulton Sheen, Norman Vincent Peale, Billy Graham, Robert Schuller, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, and a host of other persuasive or flamboyant celebrities have brought help and happiness to millions upon millions. The New Testament idea of being reborn in an instant, or being granted instant forgiveness for all sins and a guarantee of eternal salvation merely for belief in the Messiah, are offers not easily ignored.

But neither are the less euphoric visions of Sophocles' OEDIPUS, Shakespeare's KING LEAR, Ibsen's GHOSTS, Sartre's NO EXIT, Camus's "Myth of Sisyphus," Becket's WAITING FOR GODOT, Hersey's THE WALL and SchwarzBart's THE LAST OF THE JUST.

The thinking man is forever condemned to a battlefield where hope and despair contend. Easy answers, immediate absolution and unalloyed happiness either in the here and now or the hereafter are suspect. If we could in fact divest ourselves of all our sins of commission and omission, venial and mortal, and all the pain and misery that stubbornly persist, merely by a trick of the spirit or verbal assertion; if our inglorious past is not only forgiven but forgotten (see Isaiah); if all things shall pass away and all become new once we are creatures in Christ, what becomes of our individuality, our duality, the tensions and tragic dimensions that make for evolutionary struggle and spiritual growth? If our past as well as our memories are obliterated, do we not become lobotomized? "Without the hurt, the heart is hollow," according to a popular ballad.

Is it blasphemous to suggest that growth is essential to happiness, whether in this life or another, and must be a dynamic struggle?

Battle scars cannot be disavowed. Sin, suffering and failure are the only way to wisdom, to the perfection Hermann Hesse writes about in SIDDHARTHA.

The world, Govinda, is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment; every sin already carries grace within it ... the Buddha exists in the robber and dice player, the robber exists in the Brahmin. During deep meditation it is possible to dispel time, to see simultaneously all the past, present and future, and then everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahmin. Therefore, it seems to me that everything that exists is good – death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me. I learned through my body and soul that it was necessary for me to sin, that I needed lust, that I had to strive for property and experience nausea and the depths of despair in order to learn not to resist them, in order to learn to love the world ... to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it.

Inspiring words, but for me a bridge too far to love the world as it is and leave it as it is. Despite many efforts over the years, it has not been easy to embrace the positive aspects of either Oriental or Western religions, though the struggle goes on. I guess I have always had a deep-seated prejudice that a larger love must be rooted in a personal love ... something I sorely missed.

Yet I was not without early exposure to those whose love of God precluded mortal mates. At the Catholic University of America in my hometown of Washington, I studied the humanities. What impressed me then beyond the sophistications of philosophy and theology was that those priests and nuns, or novitiates, who led the most austere, studious, and prayerful lives, seemed the happiest. Over the past half century, this impression has not been diminished but strengthened after studying ascetics of many faiths. Philosopher and transcendental poet, Henry David Thoreau, stated well the paradox: "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to leave along."

Those who shunned the ratrace, took vows of poverty, and lived simply abstemious lives in convents and monasteries or dedicated themselves to the sick and needy, did not seem to be failures, nor plagued by all the mental and physical problems others were, and achieved a serenity, a positive attitude, and a happiness rarely achieved by those caught up in the competitive and acquisitive scrimmaging of life.

In spite of exposure to the exemplary aspects of religion, philosophy, and literature, I seemed not to be on the side of the angels. Being the child of an atheist mother and a communist father, I was oriented otherwise. My earliest search, not unlike most youths, was for "profane" love. Unfortunately, matriculation in the school of hard knocks did not help the search. My father, whose life was as marred by failure and depression as mine was destined to become, hooked himself up to a gas pipe in the basement of our D.C. home one day when I was 11 and my brother 13, tried to suck away his life and all its torments, and ended up a catatonic schizophrenic in a series of unsavory mental wards. The trauma of the experience, plus what seemed hopeless years of dead-end visits to mental asylums (primitive by today's standards), were a blight upon his sons not easily forgotten.

Mental problems and maladjustments seemed to dog our family. Was I a victim of genes or events? Or both? Whatever the cause, failure darkened my days and frustrated the search for love.

The early trauma, plus economic hardship for the family, left me frightened, neurotic, and reclusive. Anxiety problems hindered concentration and school studies. I was placed in a high school remedial class for those with retarded reading ability. Stomach disturbances became severe, kept me out of the Army, and remained sporadic. Despite a desperate need, I had only a few dates during my teenage years.


Excerpted from I Want to Know What Love Is by Saul Rosenthal. Copyright © 2016 Saul Rosenthal. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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