Selfishness vs. Generosity in Women—& Journalist Martha Gellhorn

Selfishness & Generosity: The Fight in Every Woman

By Nancy Huntting

With a consideration of aspects of the life of Martha Gellhorn

Martha Gellhorn, journalist (1908-1998)
Martha Gellhorn, journalist (1908-1998)

Like many people, I wanted to be generous, but was selfish in ways I tried to make look noble.  In 1973 I met Aesthetic Realism and learned what enabled me to be more truly selfish, and have a new, greater, honest generosity.

Tonight I speak about my own life and what a woman is learning in Aesthetic Realism consultations, and about aspects of the life of the writer and journalist, Martha Gellhorn; born in St. Louis in 1908, she died in 1998 at the age of 89.

Tall, lovely and blonde, Martha Gellhorn had nearly every advantage money and education could provide, and easily could have chosen a pampered, selfish life.  I respect very much that she could never settle for this.  There was a fight about it throughout her life which caused pain, including in the 5 years she was married to Ernest Hemingway—meanwhile, there was an impelling desire in her to meet reality in its diversity, to be affected deeply, to give her thought honestly.  This generosity made for powerful, valuable expression.

She is the only journalist ever black-listed and barred from returning to South Vietnam because the articles she wrote were so passionately critical of our horrible bombing and napalming of men, women and children. We can learn from the fight in her—and the way her life shows the most truly selfish purpose is fairness to the world.

Self-Love Makes for Emptiness

As a child I used my parents excessive praise of me to have contempt and to feel sated— that I didn’t have to give my attention to other things or people.  As I got older, this debilitating selfishness continued.

In 1968, after my college boyfriend, David Harper, was sent to Vietnam, I was angry that for months he didn’t write—not because I was concerned about his life, but because I wasn’t the most important thing in it.  I didn’t give one thought to what he was feeling and I made unreal the fact that children, mothers, husbands were being killed there.  When he came back and wanted to see me—I had a new boyfriend.  I saw David once because, I told myself, I felt “sorry” for him.  And then I had the nerve to complain that his return was presenting a tough situation for me!

Because I deeply saw taking care of myself as lessening everything else,  by the time I was 27 I felt dull, empty, half alive.  I had a terrific desire to be served, and the man I lived with made all the decisions and arranged all our social activities.  The most I gave myself was in refinishing chairs in my antique store; I had a feeling of pride as I saw a lovely vitality and color came out of darkly caked, dry wood.  But I always felt tired and we quarreled more and more.

Then, by the greatest good fortune, I met Aesthetic Realism.  In my first consultation I learned why I disliked myself and felt so stuck.  My consultants asked what I had most against myself, and I said:

Nancy Huntting:  An attitude I have that I’m not able to do things.

Consultants:  What’s the big competition to interest in other things?

NH:  A sense of insecurity, I think.

Consultants:  Do you think the big competition is interest in oneself?  You felt the world was not too worthy of your deep, constant consideration?

NH:  I was mostly concerned with myself.

I told them I thought I was afraid of the world, and they gave this tremendously important explanation of why:

Consultants:  Do you think you came to a picture of things that had too much contempt in it?

NH:  Yes.

Consultants:  If there were a situation or a person you were fair to, would you feel afraid of that?

As I thought about this question, I realized that I would not feel as afraid. In consultations and later in classes with Eli Siegel, my contempt and selfishness were beautifully criticized. Mr. Siegel described something so ordinary and hurtful in people as he explained :

“When one person looks at another, it’s so much easier to say, ‘This person has given me pain,’ than ‘Have I been fair to this person?'”

I began to learn what it means to think deeply about other people, beginning with my mother and father.  For the first time, I thought about what my father felt inside, and even though he had died I began to really try to know him; and my mother and I, instead of fighting, became so much kinder—we were really able to listen to each other and like our conversations! As I was more accurate and just in how I thought about people, I felt a self-respect and energy I had never felt before.  I began to be able to like myself and like being on this earth!

Generosity Begins with the Desire to Know

“As soon as one has the desire to know,” Eli Siegel said in an Aesthetic Realism class in 1974, “selfishness is being fought.” What, I believe, made Martha Gellhorn less selfish than many people was her desire to know. Her parents encouraged this, as she grew up with three brothers in St. Louis. Her father was a doctor who established free medical services for the poor; her mother and grandmother were passionate fighters for women’s suffrage and educational reforms.

Yet, I think she also used her family, the fact that prominent people in politics came to their home, to be superior.  There is a certain relation of arrogant dismissal with a yearning for something big in the following—a friend recalls Martha saying:

“St. Louis has taught me all I know and I’m leaving.” Later she said the same thing about Bryn Mawr….Adventure — she just loved it.

But in her decision during her 3rd year at the posh Eastern college Bryn Mawr to move to a settlement that cared for persons living in poverty there was generosity and feeling for people, not just a desire for adventure.

To convince her parents of her seriousness, she refused any financial support from them; it wasn’t easy and sometimes she even had to pawn her typewriter.  In her 1988 collection of articles, The View from the Ground she writes about this time:

Because of my own poverty… I absorbed a sense of what true poverty means…. Maybe that was the most useful part of my education.

It was the early 1930s and the Great Depression. Martha Gellhorn got a job with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, visiting suffering families all over the U.S.  The Roosevelt Administration’s providing of food, shelter and jobs saved thousands of unemployed from homelessness and starvation. In 1936 she wrote The Trouble I’ve Seenstories based on people she met—a mother who has to move from place to place; two factory workers fired for organizing a strike; an 11 year old girl forced into prostitution. There is this moving description of a wife thinking about the feelings of her husband, who had been looking for a job every day for four months:

“Perhaps he even stopped people on the street and said: ‘Could I clean your front steps?  Could I wash your car…?’  She didn’t want to think of that.  And when he came back home nights, there was no use asking him what luck he’d had.  The way he held himself told enough, and the empty unfixed look in his eyes.”

This writing is honestly unselfish—it comes from the desire to find out what another person goes through, to try to feel as they feel.

In her long career as a journalist, press colleagues tried to weaken her and appeal to vanity in her. When Time reviewed her war novel A Stricken Field, they headlined it “Glamour Girl,” writing mainly of her blonde hair and “long legs.”

Had she and others of her profession studied Aesthetic Realism, so much of the horror of our century would not have been. History will see the most brutal selfishness as that of members of the press who have kept from others the greatest and most needed knowledge ever come to.

Martha Gellhorn was never sure what to value in herself.  As her life went on, after large feeling would impel her to passionately fight injustice, she would retreat to some tropic island, which she called once her “escape from the world.”  Then she couldn’t stand herself for turning her back on people, and again and again showed something so generous and courageous—at 59 going to Vietnam, at 75 to El Salvador and Nicaragua to report honestly —reports no American newspaper would print—at 80 writing passionately against nuclear weapons.

What Does It Mean to Give Ourselves to Another?

“Selfishness is incompleteness,” Mr. Siegel explained; and Aesthetic Realism shows that we want to care for another person because we feel through that person we can be less selfish, more complete.

Martha Gellhorn met Ernest Hemingway in 1937. She had read all his work, respected him tremendously and wanted to learn from him. And his high opinion of her and how unselfishly she was dedicated to her work is in his statement: “she will get up earlier, travel longer and faster and go where no other woman can get and few would stick it out if they did.”

Their relation is complex, but like men and women right now, they had a fight between two purposes: one that was selfish, and one that was large and made for honest generosity between them and towards others.

The Spanish Earth, posterWhen they first met they found they both felt strongly about the Loyalists, the democratically elected government of Spain fighting for its existence against the fascist forces of Franco, and they encouraged each other to go there. Hemingway helped make the documentary The Spanish Earth, to raise support; she wrote articles for Collier’s from Madrid while it was under bombardment. She gave lectures in 22 American cities in two months—telling that Franco had 140,000 troops supplied by Hitler, warning it could lead to a “world crisis.” And she was right—it emboldened Hitler and directly lead to World War II.

In November 1938, with thousands fleeing the country and arms and supplies nonexistent because of the American embargo, she saw the Loyalists would be defeated. Bitterly disappointed, she joined Hemingway in Cuba in 1939. He was writing For Whom the Bell Tolls, his novel about the Spanish Civil War, which he dedicated to her.

hemingway, gellhorn
Hemingway and Gellhorn in Cuba

They married in 1940—and how much they used their disappointment about Spain against the whole world can be asked. Increasingly their life was one of little responsibility— hunting, tennis, drinking every afternoon. The purpose they had was so different from what they went after in Spain; she wrote years later:

You could live in princely comfort on very little money in Cuba….The children waved when I drove by…in rags, barefoot, and everyone was unnaturally thin….Who cared? Nobody, as far as I knew; including me.

She and Ernest Hemingway must have despised each other for this. By 1943, a friend said, there were “joint cruelties”—and two years later, after she had left him to go to Europe to report on World War II, they divorced.

The rest of her life she was resentful for being seen as important chiefly for having been a wife of Ernest Hemingway, and she eventually refused to give interviews if his name was going to be mentioned. I believe she was very troubled by seeing him in a narrowly selfish way; there is a bitter contempt in statements she made about him.

I was fortunate to hear recently in Aesthetic Realism classes the recording of a 1972 lecture which I wish so much she could have known.  Eli Siegel looked at passages from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Mr. Siegel centrally understood this great American writer, his life and work, as no other critic has. “This book,” Mr. Siegel said, “has some of the best prose in American literature in it”—and he noted that at times things are said by Hemingway “with such simplicity, people felt at last English was dealt with justly.”

Honesty about Regret

In 1967 Martha Gellhorn went to Vietnam and wrote a series of articles, only two accepted for publication in the U.S.  These sentences appeared in the January 1968 Ladies Home Journal in her article titled “Suffer the Little Children…” They piercingly, powerfully oppose selfishness:

“American weapons are killing and wounding uncounted Vietnamese children…. I have witnessed modern war in nine countries, but I have never seen a war like the one in South Vietnam….  In the Qui Nhon provincial hospital I saw… what napalm does.  A child of seven… lay in the cot by the door. Napalm had burned his face and back and one hand…. All week, the little boy cried with pain, but now he was better.  He had stopped crying.  He was only twisting his body, as if trying to dodge his incomprehensible torture….More and more dead and wounded children will cry out to the conscience of the world…. Someday our children, whom we love, may blame us for dishonoring America because we did not care enough about children 10,000 miles away.”

As I read the many articles and obituaries written at the time of Martha Gellhorn’s death in February 1998, again and again they only mention the word Vietnam in a list of the wars she covered. I saw with new vividness how our country is hurt now by its huge evasion of regret about that horrendously selfish, ugly war. 

Mr. Siegel is the person who described it straight and described it early—he said about Vietnam,

“That war was to prop up, maintain, show as inevitable a profit system that the keenest and kindest people of the world have talked against for many years, from John Stuart Mill to Matthew Arnold, from Emerson to William Dean Howells.”

Martha Gellhorn’s courageous honesty about the Vietnam War is something I respect tremendously; I believe it made for a greater kindness, aliveness, keenness in her. 

That our very lives and sanity depend on our criticizing and honestly regretting selfishness of the past is in an interview she gave in 1997, the year before her death.  Asked by Sheila MacVicar of ABC News:

Sheila MacVicar: With all of the conflict you saw, what haunts you now?
Gellhorn:  I hated Vietnam the most, because I felt personally responsible.  It was my own country doing this abomination. I am talking about what was done… to the people whom we, supposedly, had come to save…. My complete horror remains [with] me as a source of grief and anger and shame that surpasses all the others.
.  .  .  . 
Peter Prichard (Freedom Forum Fdn. USA): So you do not really believe in objectivity, the way it is traditionally defined?
Gellhorn: I don’t know what [objectivity means].  We have only our own eyes and our own ears. You can’t just look…and say there is no difference between right and wrong,… between just and unjust.  I believe that is a definition of insanity.

Good Will: The Real Selfishness

What Martha Gellhorn, so admirable, needed to know about how to see a man close to her, women are now learning in Aesthetic Realism consultations. Stacey Mathews*, an English teacher, told her Aesthetic Realism consultants she had increasing difficulty teaching and had thought of giving it up. Divorced, she was bitter about love and was troubled about a man she was dating.  “I don’t feel I’m kind in my thoughts about him,” she said.

We began teaching her that good will is generosity and true selfishness at once. It is, Eli Siegel explained, “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful” and begins with the desire to know. We asked her, Do you think when you were married you wanted to know your husband?”  She answered courageously:

Stacey Mathews: No. I was interested in the things I could get for myself, but I didn’t want to know him, no.

What has made it impossible for women really to know a man is our seeing him as existing to glorify us. When we asked Miss Mathews, “Do you think you want a man to exist, fully, outside yourself?” she said, surprised, “I’m not sure I do.”

One of the questions we asked about her father, whom she both extolled and resented, was: “Which is grander—seeing him alternately as a cad and a hero, or understanding him?” She was surprised by this question and very thoughtful.

Stacey Mathews education has continued. She has been learning what it means really to take care of herself, to be truly selfish. She has done many assignments: for example, writing about how her father sees his own mother; about the hopes and fears of a student of hers; a sentence every day about how she is like another person—this was a turning point—and reading and commenting on novels such as Jane Eyre, Tom Jones, and Madame Bovary as a means of understanding all people better. She wrote to us:

“I once felt nothing could penetrate me very deeply. Aesthetic Realism has made possible the changes occurring in my life. My relation with my family is changing, becoming kinder. I am a better teacher. My feelings for the subject and for my students have increased tremendously. I care more and more for people.”

Through the study of Aesthetic Realism every woman can learn how to make sense of the fight in her between selfishness and generosity. There is no more important education for individuals and nations —and when it is known and studied everywhere, our dear, generous earth and all its people, which Mr. Siegel loved and understood so magnificently, will come into their own!

* Stacey Mathews: This  name has been changed for public presentation