The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Trouble about Communication

Dear Unknown Friends:

In this issue we publish two poems by Eli Siegel about the biggest matter in everyone’s life: how much should we value the world outside ourselves? And we print part of a paper by Jaime Torres, from a recent Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “Despite Cell Phones & Email—Why Can’t People Really Communicate?”

Yes: technology has made communication of a certain kind ever so easy. You can telephone a person as you walk down the street. You can sit in a chair in Ohio and exchange views over the Internet with someone in Asia whom you never heard of before. Meanwhile, people still feel, as persons did in previous centuries, that their emotions, thoughts, life within are deeply separate from other people; that even a person one is close to doesn’t know who one truly is. Eli Siegel describes the situation, and the everyday, taken-for-granted emptiness it makes for, in his eloquent essay “The Ordinary Doom.” For example, he writes:

We early come to feel we are not seen right, and it appears we never will be. So we accommodate ourselves to this. It is dull, basic tragedy. In the long run, it is unnecessary.*

That this non-communication is unnecessary, that Aesthetic Realism explains it and enables people to show themselves and be known, I consider one of the kindest, most important facts in human history.

This Is the Cause

Aesthetic Realism explains that the trouble about communication arises from the fight every person has about the world itself. It is the fight, present all the time in each of us, between the desire to like the world, see value in it, and the desire to have contempt for the world as a means of heightening ourselves. Contempt for the world is the impediment to communication, and this contempt has many aspects. In his article, Dr. Torres quotes some of the questions he was asked as part of his Aesthetic Realism education which enabled him to change about communication; and I’m going to present further questions on the subject so that more aspects of that enemy to communication, contempt, can be seen.

The Media Too

But first I want to point out the following: There is not only trouble about personal communication—as husband and wife don’t talk deeply enough, as someone jokes in the office while feeling hidden—but trouble about media communication. People are more aware than ever that news operations, whether print or radio or television, are not communicating all the facts and are often twisting the information they do convey. It happens that the two troubles—about personal communication and media communication—have the same source.

In order to communicate truly, whether you’re a wife talking to a husband or a network broadcasting to viewers, your central purpose has to be: to know what is true and have another person know it. That’s the prerequisite. If you have any other purpose, you may say a lot but you’ll be essentially evading, manipulating, or faking, not communicating. To want to know what’s true is the same as wanting to be just to the world. And so often that’s not the purpose. A wife can prefer managing her husband to seeing what is within him and showing what is within herself.    

The central purpose of a news operation’s corporate owners and sponsors is to make profit, and to have the world owned and managed in such a way that they can make as much profit as possible. Therefore we simply cannot expect the news operation to communicate truly. It will do things with the facts to make them serve that central purpose of the network’s owners and advertisers. There are ever so many facts and happenings in this world which, if communicated accurately, would have the people of America disagree vehemently with what the media owners desire. So every day in print and over the airwaves, much is deliberately not presented and much fake “communication” goes on.

Here, then, are some questions about communication and what interferes. In every instance the interference is contempt, as it was in what I just described. To see a human being (spouse or otherwise) as to be managed rather than known is contempt. To see people and reality as existing to provide profit for you, not to be thought of justly, is contempt.

Six Questions about Communication

1. Do you want people to see you as you truly are—or do you want to affect them with a picture of you that you can put forth? If it’s the second (and it usually is), you’ll never communicate what you really feel, because your purpose is fundamentally opposed to doing so.

2. Are you more interested in understanding people, or in whether they like you, are nice to you? Again, if it’s the second, real communication is impossible.

3. Is there a difference between gossiping with a person about how inferior others are, and communicating—trying to see and show yourself honestly? Yes. A lot of conversation is really two people making each other important by lessening other things and people.

4. If you make less of people and the world with another person, will you also be suspicious of that person and angry with him or her? Yes. You’ll feel the person has an ugly purpose and has collaborated with something ugly in you. You’ll distrust the person, and so, unless you’re honest about it, your desire to keep your deepest feelings hidden from him or her will increase—though you may gossip together for the next 50 years. The two of you will also bicker and worse, because you both somewhere know you’ve weakened each other and therefore resent each other and feel ashamed. This situation is frequent in marriage.

5. Do you feel people are good enough to show yourself to?

6. Can you have contempt for people and yet show yourself sincerely to a particular person? No. We either feel essentially that our importance comes from looking down on people and feeling superior, or that it comes from knowing and being known.

The Best in People

There are many other questions. But the fact is that there is a longing in people to communicate, to be known and know another truly. This longing is huge and beautiful and—despite the contempt that fights it—will not die. It stands for the best thing in everyone: our desire to like reality outside ourselves.

The following poems by Eli Siegel contain the greatest friend to and encourager of communication: his accuracy about and love for the world.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Poems by Eli Siegel


How worthy Is what is earthy?

How valuable Is the reality we dwell In?

How good Is that gathered multitude

Of objects we call existence?

What agreeable significance

Has earth as such; has the space Earth has?

What dear place

In our minds does this universe

Deserve to have? And of being

—Just what is the right thing

For us to feel?

What is the right judgment

Of all that is and is not evident?

Stuffy Town

The ego

Is a small, stuffy town

In which we keep ouselves prisoner,

And count it glory

Why Can’t People Communicate?

By Jaime Torres

“Communication,” explained Eli Siegel, “is the way a person makes his thoughts part of another person’s life.” But, Aesthetic Realism shows, there’s something in every person that wants to keep our thoughts to ourselves. I often felt I was my own best company and preferred my inner monologues to conversation with people. Though I envied persons who seemed at ease talking to others, I also mocked them, thinking people talked too much. I felt if it could be said with a few words, save the energy for something else.

In his lecture Aesthetic Realism Looks at Things: Communication, Mr. Siegel describes an “agonizing problem of today”: the fact that people may have to do with each other “for years and really not transmit what they feel to each other.” He explained: “You have to respect and like what you express yourselves to...before the job of communication can have a fair chance” (TRO 485, 486).

Communication didn’t have a fair chance with me because I had two competing feelings about the world and people. In high school, I’d spend hours writing letters to pen pals in Nicaragua and Italy, telling them about the lusciousness of the land of Puerto Rico, where I grew up, about my life, hopes, and concerns. I would eagerly await their letters, about their countries and experiences. Yet I’d drive with my father for hours, seeing the same beautiful vistas I had described, and not exchange one word with him.

I was in a painful jam between wanting to talk freely with my parents, and telling myself they weren’t interested and would never understand. The truth was, I felt strongly that the world wasn’t good enough for me to show my “deep, sensitive thoughts” to and it was best to pretend to be friendly while keeping myself secretly aloof and superior. This way of mind, I would learn from Aesthetic Realism, was contempt, and contempt is the force in us that corrupts communication and makes us feel separate and ashamed.

My life began to change and real communication began to have a fair chance when I learned that the world was friendlier than I’d thought—that, surprisingly, everything and everyone in it had in common an aesthetic structure. Opposites such as surface and depth, toughness and gentleness, for and against were in my father, the Caribbean Sea, a roommate I disagreed with, and myself. Seeing how I was related to the world had me feel increasingly that I could express my thoughts to another person and had me feel for the first time that someone else’s perception of me added to my life.

Concealment versus Communication

As with many families, there was a big lack of communication in our home as I was growing up. When my grandparents took care of me during the day, though they were very devoted, we never spoke much. I felt I only needed a few words to let them know what I wanted. I said “hungry” and they would go through a list of choices of foods to eat. If I said “out,” it meant I wanted to go for a walk. Who these two persons were, why they cared for each other, what their hopes were, what they had endured when they lost their farm during the Depression, was not real to me: they existed to satisfy my whims without much conversation.

In public, my parents, sister, and I were very sociable, but when we got home we drifted silently to different rooms to watch television, sometimes even watching the same program.

I came to feel early that the world was boring, not worth knowing, and full of insensitive people. What I found exciting were my inner thoughts. In my mind, I’d go from imagining myself as Robin Hood fighting evil in Nottingham, to making fun of people, feeling that anyone whose thoughts were different from mine—which was most of the population—was stupid.

I felt understood to my core the first time I read “The Ordinary Doom,” by Eli Siegel. He writes:

Concealment is equated, unknowingly to ourselves, with individuality: the more we conceal the more it seems we are asserting our very personality, resisting a somewhat repellent, unwelcome intrusion of other things into ourselves....Through secrecy, we can be defying the world and deceiving it.

I began to see that the contempt of using my secret thoughts to make less of reality was hurting my life. Because the self is made ethically, when we go against our deepest desire, to know and like the world, there is a kickback: I was often depressed and had a pervasive feeling of unease. I’d rehearse conversations and prepare witty remarks to make people laugh. I couldn’t communicate what I deeply felt because instead of listening to and learning from a person, I was more concerned with the effect I’d have on him or her. As to why I was this way and how to be different, I didn’t have a clue.

I Learn the Cause

Then I had my first Aesthetic Realism consultation, and I was asked what I wanted most to change in myself. I said I wanted to overcome my shyness. And my consultants asked: “Do you have a world inside and a way of presenting yourself to people that are two very different things?” I answered “Yes,” thinking, “How do they know?!” In college I had wanted to “fit in” with different crowds and would tell different stories about myself depending on the group I was with. I had felt victorious, but also terrified that everyone would find out.

My consultants asked whether I thought I had an attitude to the world, and “Can a person who finds the world not so good feel some importance? That’s the principle of contempt.”

JT. It happens quite often.

Consultants. Do you think you have a disposition not to see the feelings of others as real?

Though I answered, “People say I’m perceptive,” I didn’t see the feelings of others as real. With people I wanted to impress, I acted like a sensitive guy, giving advice, pretending to listen; but since my own depths were not involved, inevitably I felt like a fraud. My consultants asked whether, despite my looking affable, I had a secret inner “dialogue about people that they wouldn’t like so much.”

“All the time,” I said, remembering my feeling I could “read” people very well—for instance, “He’s a workaholic,” “She’s looking for attention,” or “Just say something nice and she’ll be happy.” Did I think, my consultants asked, that such a way of seeing people “has anything to do with how a person gets to be shy?”

The logic made so much sense! I’d given myself the right to think of people any way I wanted, and the result was that I couldn’t be at ease in their presence. I thank my lucky stars that I met Aesthetic Realism and had the pleasure of hearing questions like these, which changed the direction of my life.

I began to have conversations with people as I’d never had before. One of those people was the woman who is now my wife, Donita Ellison, a New York City public school teacher of art. Often we spoke for hours about what she was teaching, what we both were learning from Aesthetic Realism, about art, politics, our families. I’m very grateful that we’ve been married for ten years and are continuing our education in professional classes taught by Ellen Reiss.

Communication and Marriage

Meanwhile, though I had changed a lot, I often expected Donita to be satisfied with my two-word answers. And sometimes I would keep my opinion to myself because I knew Donita had a different one and I didn’t want mine challenged. When I spoke about this in an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss asked me: “Is there anything in you that doesn’t want to communicate with Ms. Ellison?” When I said yes, she asked with humor: “Do you have the feeling that your self is precious—there is something that is just you and only the very best company should have it?” I did! Ms. Reiss continued:

Suppose you were to really communicate with Ms. Ellison and she were to see what you felt—what do you think you would lose?

JT. A feeling I should have myself to myself.

ER. Do you feel in some way you would lose your soul, your personality, your being? Do you think there’s something in a person that just feels, “I’ll be nothing—it will be all gone, given away to these plebeians”?

Ms. Reiss was so right. I saw that part of what I felt I’d lose was my conceited notion that my way was the best way. That’s why I would undervalue things Donita said, not listen carefully, or try to stop her after a few sentences, assuming I knew all that she was trying to say. Ms. Reiss taught me that good will was the only purpose that would enable me 1) really to communicate with Donita, know her and be known by her, and 2) to see communication as thrilling and truly selfish. Mr. Siegel defined good will as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful” (TRO 121).

As Donita and I have talked, she has encouraged me to see friends, my parents, people who may seem so different from me, with more depth and kindness. As my thoughts meet her thoughts, I feel more complete, more the person I want to be.

*The Frances Sanders Lesson and Two Related Works (NY: Definition Press, 1974), p. 41.

Dr. Torres, a podiatrist, is on the Advisory Board of the National Hispanic Medical Association.