YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 6, 2012

Gellhorn’s “blind spot” on Israel

Caroline Moorehead

[For a related blog see http://clarespark.com/2012/06/16/the-social-history-racket/.]

According to Martha Gellhorn’s most prestigious biographer, Caroline Moorehead (a champion of “human rights”), Gellhorn, the famed war correspondent and novelist (1908-1998), was dead wrong in her enthusiasm for the Jewish state, an error that Moorehead seems fixated upon in her much lauded biography of 2003, for she does not hesitate to dilate upon her own under-researched opinions on the history of Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors.  (I have been rereading Moorehead’s biography and another feminist study of MG. It was not Moorehead, but British leftist “Rosie Boycott” who used the term “blind spot.” Moorehead does report that in time, MG came to see Israelis as “arrogant and boorish.” This was solely CM’s characterization of MG’s letter to Robert Presnell in 1967. These words not in quotation marks.)

What is perhaps most striking is that Gellhorn, who did have some Jewish ancestry, had no apparent Jewish identity until she was present at the liberation of Dachau, and was struck down by the visible presence of evil, evil of such magnitude that her prior faith in human perfectibility (inherited from her parents, especially Edna) was shot forever. Indeed, the recent HBO film (Hemingway and Gellhorn) uses archival footage of Dachau’s victims, and then affixes the face of Nicole Kidman (playing Gellhorn) upon one of the victims in the pit of corpses, suggesting that this might be some kind of awakening or turning point for MG. (In the just-issued DVD and Blue-Ray edition of the movie, this latter scene is edited out, and we see MG fleeing into the woods, instead. There will be nothing about MG’s attachment to Israel in the HBO script.)  Indeed, the Wikpedia entry on Gellhorn plays up her ancestry as German, not partly Jewish. Gellhorn herself wrote these words after visiting Gaza in 1956: “These kibbutzim are the only places I know where a daily practical effort is made to follow the teachings of Christ.” (The View From The Ground, p. 136). So much for Gellhorn’s enthusiasm for Israel (or the “half-Jewish” identity ascribed to her by the HBO movie Hemingway and Gellhorn?).

It should be noted that Moorehead has had exclusive access to Martha Gellhorn’s papers at Boston University, and hence her lengthy biography had detail and heft that was presumably denied to competing biographers. It is also true that a wandering scholar cannot go into these papers and check Moorehead’s claims for accuracy.

Now that I have finished reading this supposed tell-all biography, I do have more ammunition to complain about the HBO rendition of the Gellhorn-Hemingway marriage (the notion that MG was having great sex with Hemingway is preposterous), but important questions are raised about authors who are not scholars, but biographers soi-disant, and who use archival materials to grind their own political axes. In Moorehead’s case, we learn about matters that are only of passing relevance to those interested in the achievements of the first major female war correspondent, whose colleagues, friends, and acquaintances were among the most significant social democrats, fascists, and/or communists of her time, H. G. Wells, Bertrand de Jouvenel, Robert Capa,  Joris Ivens, Lt. General James M. Gavin, Leonard Bernstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt for just a few examples. But CM’s details do appeal to our lower instincts, for instance the reader’s voyeuristic curiosity about bad sex, affairs with married men, abortions, a rape, naked sunbathing and swimming, facelifts, friendships with other celebrities, the absence of maternal instincts, and her final exit as a suicide.

I have no doubt that Moorehead thinks of herself as a feminist, yet she trots out as many as four abortions, perhaps to undermine her subject’s credibility as a humanitarian like herself. (Moorehead wrote other biographies, for instance of Freya Stark, an Arabist, or Bertrand Russell, whose anti-Zionist views are well known.) And I wonder if Moorehead is not a Third Worlder, for she slams MG for suppressing her initial negative reaction to Chiang-Kai Shek and Madame Chiang: i.e.,  Moorehead, unlike MG,  is truly devoted to The People. (For more on this point, see my review essay http://clarespark.com/2011/06/30/links-to-review-essay-on-hemingway-spy-mission-to-china/.)

Now Moorehead could have, had she been any kind of serious intellectual, asked about the political significance of writing about the effects of 20th century wars upon civilians, using imagistic (pictorial) language, as Gellhorn was wont to do. Is there no problem with the aestheticizing of violence, as Walter Benjamin powerfully argued? Do we not end up by focusing upon the demise of Western civilization as an aesthetic experience, distanced from the horrors described, left in despair, overwhelmed by the magnitude of mass death, and launched upon a death trip?

No less than Hollywood pictures, Gellhorn was focused on violence, and put herself in harms way with such daredevil frequency, that one must ask if her restlessness and carelessness about her own safety did not have some neurotic component.  She read thrillers throughout life, CM tells us, but what was the emotional payoff for MG? Was she not striving to live up to her high-achieving parents’ expectations, and punishing them vicariously by risking her life, over and over?

After wading through 424 pages of text, I felt that I had just read a cleverly masked hatchet job. There is much of lasting significance to learn from the life of Martha Gellhorn, but this book has left a bad taste in my mouth.

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5 Comments »

  1. […] Leftists took her up in her old age, while rejecting her partisanship on behalf of Israel. (See http://clarespark.com/2012/08/06/gellhorns-blind-spot-on-israel/.) For another blog on celebrated primitivists, see […]

    Pingback by Ernest Hemingway and Gellhorn in China, 1941 (2) « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — August 12, 2012 @ 5:14 am | Reply

  2. The change of view on Israel and Zionism that took place over a generation is the most divisive issue among what remains of a British Left. When I was very young what was there not to like about Israel – with its Kibbutzim and sexual equality? Now Zionism is seen as colonialism, leaving the shell of British Marxism with some very unfortunate alliances in the Islamic world.

    Comment by Caedmon — August 8, 2012 @ 7:21 am | Reply


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