YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

July 29, 2013

Gellhorn: the “we are all lost” generation

MGEHWhat follows are very personal thoughts and intuitions I have about Martha Gellhorn. I have drafted a review of the HBO movie Hemingway and Gellhorn for an academic journal. I may not disclose it, so here are some of my impressions that are not in the review.  The movie has been discussed in newspapers and websites all over the world, with only two critical ones: in Vanity Fair and GQ. But neither delved into the politics of the movie. One should wonder at the capacities of movie reviewers to open up a film for critical scrutiny (by that I mean its ideological content). (The politics are described here: https://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/.)

Briefly, MG was much more interesting than the picture drawn in the silly HBO movie. She reminds me of all the Pacifica radio listeners and programmers I have ever known; i.e., she presented herself as a pacifist and the champion of the underdog; she was often despondent. What her connections might have been to the hard Left is unknowable: she was dogged, but not optimistic about the future, unlike Party members.  None of her articles on the Spanish Civil War suggests any kind of historical understanding of the differing factions in either the Loyalist side or the Franco-led Rebels. She retained a love for the Spanish “people” (they were not Reds!); she loved them as she would later love “Poles” but not Russians. That she despised “America” is clear; she appears to have believed in national character, much as today’s anti-American New Left does. HBO capitalized on the British Left’s elevation of her as a feminist heroine, to the detriment of Hemingway. He was sexist, vindictive, mendacious, and needy, while she was a liberated pioneer in journalism: up and about living her own life. In the HBO ending, she tenderly reads a letter of EH that she had kept in a drawer. This defies explanation, for she refused to discuss him with interviewers, and was enraged at the mention of his name. (She had “rage attacks” frequently, as one biographer reports.)

faceofwar

In 1959, she brought out a collection of earlier articles (The Face of War) with added material suggesting that we are the “all is lost” generation. Between the bomb and pollution, she saw only decline and death ahead. But as a vibrant personality, she attracted the arty celebrities of her day, Leonard Bernstein for one. She had great patter (humorous), but was, as EH said, ambitious and attracted to danger. She continued the politics of Edna Gellhorn, her uber-progressive mother (who became a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt), but was most influenced by her doctor father, hence the cleanliness fetish and her preoccupation with public health, along with the detailed obsessive descriptions of damage to bodies from war and poverty.

More: George Gellhorn, her gynecologist father, a German immigrant, (“half-Jewish”) was disappointed that she dropped out of Bryn Mawr after her third year and thought that her first novel, WHAT MAD PURSUIT (1934) was trashy. It is not surprising that she committed suicide when she was diagnosed with cancer at age 89. Earlier, she was a non-stop smoker (using it for calm?) and a heavy drinker. The movie got that right. But she put up with sex as an ineluctable male need that she must needs gratify until she met a doctor friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Daddy! He wouldn’t leave his wife for MG. In my view, she was as neurotic as hell, a superheroine and daredevil, seeking scenes of so much fighting and danger that sometimes I think she made stuff up; other times I think she was just plucky and lucky. With all that said, I would have liked to have known her. She is ever so much more intelligent, even fascinating, than the character played by Nicole Kidman.

mgellhorn

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February 17, 2013

[Aristo-democrats?] want pre-school for four-year-olds?

Evelyn Waugh aristocratsThis is more of an autobiographical blog than a scholarly one. There is no more agreement over how to raise children than there is over what constitutes mental illness or mental health, or how to fix our public schools. (For related blogs, see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/16/gun-control-laws-quick-fixes-undoing/, and https://clarespark.com/2011/08/31/review-steven-brills-class-warfare/.)

Nevertheless, as one of his magic bullets, POTUS proposed in his State of the Union speech that “pre-school” for all middle class and poor kids would go far in lifting them out of poverty and on to employability in the [brave new world] created by social media and other math-science-heavy fields.  Charles Krauthammer had a good time making fun of this proposal, suggesting that four year olds would no longer be allowed to dawdle and play without being pushed in a direction that did not even pay off with results past the third grade, as some studies of Head Start have shown.

This blog attempts to inject a bit of realism into the endless debate over child-rearing, with most of the Right lamenting the lack of father-headed households, and the decline of religion; presumably both repairs, bypassing overindulgent (yet pistol-packin’) mammas, would inject the sort of paternal superego that reduces crime and postpones gratification in favor of distant goals: family harmony, success in life, and fitness for family re-unification in Heaven. (Take three minutes to hear http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b39ALX4neIk.)

Almost no one utters the curse word “Puritan” any longer, for they, in all their variety, have been discredited as axe-wielding killjoys (Carrie Nation!), or worse:  Harvard’s Talcott Parsons identified “romantic puritans” in America as resembling Hitler in his world-destroying rage, as if the temperance “crusade” and its related Protestant reform movements had been disastrously feminized. (There is an entire academic bibliography on whether or not Victorian women were good or bad for today’s feminists.)

Carry Nation

Carry Nation

I do not pretend to be any kind of expert on child-development, and in my own case, relied upon maternal instinct and my own favorite activities, shared with my three children.  After I found a housekeeper, I amused myself and them by reading good children’s literature aloud (A.A. Milne, E. B. White, Roald Dahl), playing both classical music and folk songs on the piano or guitar, and with frequent trips to the local hardware store that sold art supplies. And then there were museums and concerts, with a few family trips to exotic locales such as Yosemite and New Mexico.

Had I not been a grandchild of immigrants, but rather a European aristocrat (or the child of a “political” family), I would have discussed world affairs at the dinner table as my children grew older (and returned from elite “public” schools), for it would have been assumed that my children would someday be running the world  as men of affairs, probably with their wives as powers behind the thrones and competent, stylish hostesses for an elite,  with both parents as experts in hiring multi-lingual governesses and/or tutors,  and in selecting clothing, interior décor, and gardens as proof of class position and legitimacy.

What the President is proposing is typical for an inexperienced elite, who wave their magic wands to lift up the poor through government-imagined programs, without sufficient consideration of the dire material conditions in which inner-city ghetto kids live, and the likely confusion of their single mothers, whose education would  have been inadequate to begin with, owing to outdated and/or partisan curricula (assuming that they were not high school dropouts owing to teen-age pregnancy).

My most popular blogs have been given to speculating on Barack Obama’s “narcissistic” personality and ambiguous politics. This I can say with rare certainty. No leftist would propose such a pathetic Band-Aid for the poor and badly educated as an enlargement (?) of Head Start (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Head_Start_Program.). This hit and miss proposal should be pinned on welfare statists, formerly known as “aristo-democrats” by the more sophisticated observers.

FDR, Lucy Mercer, Eleanor R.

FDR, Lucy Mercer, Eleanor R.

August 6, 2012

Gellhorn’s “blind spot” on Israel

Caroline Moorehead

[For a related blog see https://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 https://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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