The esteemed Andrew Klavan once remarked (and here I paraphrase) that we as a culture are undergoing a mindset shift. Instead of focusing on a spiritual reality (here I do not mean spiritual in the religious sense, but in the non-physical sense, such as with emotions and ideas), we are shifting to the physical counterpart of the spiritual truth. The example he used was the shift, where now we tend to say, “I had an adrenaline rush,” or “I was on an endorphin high,” instead of the non-physiological, more spiritual “I was excited,” or “I felt elated.” One describes a state of being while the other describes a physiological reaction to that state. Klavan believes that these physiological responses are the expressions of the spirit in the medium of flesh.
Regardless of one’s religious or philosophical beliefs, there is some truth to this. Many actions are used to convey meaning, to act as symbols to express the ineffable and intangible truth. Take a kiss or a handshake, for example. If one simply analyzes the various physical aspects of the action (placing lips on lips, grasping another’s hand and shaking, etc.), there isn’t any specific aspect that contains ‘love’ or ‘trust’ within it, no way we can measure or point out these spiritual states of being. It is the ritual of the kiss or the handshake that conveys the love or trust. The action is not love (or trust) but it represents love (or trust). The flesh is an expression of the non-physical, in this case. However, as Andrew Klavan said, we as a culture are moving away from that, to a point where the physical, in our minds, becomes what it attempts to represent (We can see this in the culture’s treatment of romance and love).
When one peruses the current state of fiction, whether on TV, or in written form, one can see this effect. Romance has lost the grace, elegance, and purity of the days of old. When most think of the romance genre, they think of the Dread Empress, her works beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! All shall love them and despair! This Dread Empress is, of course, the numinous and brilliant Jane Austen. She harkens from a time where these spiritual, or intangible, states of being were widely known, and while associated with the symbolic actions that represented them, they were not confused with them.
This confusion manifests in two ways. The first form of confusion is a synthesis of the symbol and what it stands for, equating the symbol and what it represents, limiting it in a sense. This means that, in the mind of a synthesis materialist, the kiss means love (which we agree with), and that love means a kiss. Intangibles, such as love, have much more multiplicity to them, and by limiting them to a physical expression, the tangible is limited in meaning.
This is why our culture cannot understand the concept of non-sexual love (with the exception of parental/familial love). They can’t imagine two people loving each other and not wanting to sleep with each other. Two men or two women, to those not afflicted by this particular confusion, can be close friends, and can love each other, without having any physical desire for each other (such as David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, and Mary and Martha from a popular book known as the Bible). But to someone with this affliction, the only way they can understand this is to call them ‘family.’
There’s another form of confusion between tangible symbols and the spiritual, intangible concepts they represent. This other confusion is a divorcing of the symbol from its tangible meaning. The physical is pursued for only the benefits of the physical. This leads to physical hedonism. If someone sleeps with another, it is not as a symbol of love, but simply a process to achieve pleasure, more akin to sating one’s hunger or slaking one’s thirst. This was the view of several of the members of the Frankfurt School, a group of Marxists who invented the concept of critical theory.
The Frankfurt School wasn’t an actual institution, but rather a collection of Marxist philosophers from Germany fleeing persecution during the rise of the Third Reich (Many of the Frankfurt School members were Jewish). They were also very into the concept of free love. As Andrew Breitbart detailed in his book Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save The World, they sought to damage or rebel against the social, political, and (especially) moral code of Western Civilization.
Among their numbers was included Wilhelm Reich, who believed that most psychological problems stemmed from sexual repression, whose psychiatric practices incorporated this theory. Erich Fromm, another Frankfurt philosopher who bought into this belief, helped propagate the ideas that would grow into the self-esteem parenting movement that made the next generation especially susceptible to these messages. The most influential might have been Herbert Marcuse, whose book Eros and Civilization argued for sexual liberation as a cure for psychological ills on a societal level, where ‘polymorphous perversity’ (his words from the aforementioned book) would be what cures all mental ills (the phrase “Make Love Not War” was attributed to him as well).
The very nature of free love is that desire is like a closed pot of boiling water. Eventually, enough steam is going to build up until it blows, so the best idea is to take off the lid every so often to prevent that from happening. It is a physical need, a hunger to be sated, a pressure to be relieved, an itch to be scratched. In contrast, the traditional view of desire, of sex, would be that it is an expression of deep love and commitment, that you love the other person with such power and depth that that love can grow and become a new life. It represented a love that, with the rest of the symbols associated with it (that being marriage), says that you are ready to commit yourself to this other person. It is a symbol whose meaning is acted out not just behaviorally, but biologically.
That understanding of love has romance to it. That has allure and beauty to it. That act represents love so powerful that nature responds and new life is formed. However, in popular culture, that has become the less popular view. Watch any TV show, someone would sleep with someone else, who they weren’t in a relationship in, much less had that much love for, and assure other characters that ‘it meant nothing.’ That is the basis of the second confusion. The symbolic act is divorced from its higher meaning and becomes just an act. You kiss because it feels good, not to show you love them. You sleep with someone to blow off steam, not to say you love them so much you’d make a life with them (both in the sense of spending a life with them and procreating).
Now, one may look at this massive philosophical rambling and be content to wave it off. Why does this matter? If one wishes to call themselves a fiction writer, one thing that needs to be studied is the human condition. The two confusions are lies to our nature arising as a result of adopting materialism. The first confusion is the attempt to conflate the meaning with the symbol, trying to preserve the meaning that materialism, which states that only actions and matter exist, not intangibles, would destroy. The second confusion is the logical endpoint of materialism, reducing man from a creature who acted out intangible concepts via symbolic actions to little better than an animal, acting whenever his hunger, thirst, libido, or any other of the various physical urges strikes.
If you want to write stories that sell, you must first understand the nature of people. Andrew Klavan, in an e-pamphlet he wrote called A Crisis in the Arts, defined art as a method to convey the human experience. And a good story conveys the human experience, unadulterated, pure, and still vibrant with life. The human experience may be acted out in the flesh, but the true things we aim for -love, hope, joy, courage- are things of the spirit, things that the flesh can merely act out symbols for. If you want to convey the human experience, take heed of this fact. Oftentimes, the things we can’t touch or see are more real than the things we can.