The Spyglass, Views and Reviews, 1924-1930: Selected and Edited by John Tyree Fain

By Donald Davidson | Go to book overview

Perfect Behavior* Critic's Almanac November 3, 1929

Ernest Hemingway novel A Farewell to Arms is like a direct and most remarkable answer to the recent wish of Dr. Watson, prophet of behaviorism, that somebody would write a novel containing people who act in a lifelike and scientific manner. That is exactly what Mr. Hemingway does, with such astounding verity as to overwhelm, befuddle and profoundly impress all readers. Mr. Hemingway here is playing scientist, and he is watching people behave. It is a mistake to suppose that people behave morally or immorally, becomingly or unbecomingly. That is not the point at all: they merely behave. There is no good, no ill, no pretty, no ugly--only behavior. Behaviorism argues that there is stimulus and response, nothing else, and Mr. Hemingway's books contain (ostensibly, but not quite) nothing else. The novel is a bold and exceptionally brilliant attempt to apply scientific method to art, and I devoutly hope that all the scientists will read it and admire it immensely.

This comment on a book that is apparently taking the public by storm requires further demonstration, which I shall attempt to give.

Look first at the people of the book, who happen to be people, not cockroaches or mice, acting and reacting in

____________________
*
Davidson's letter to Tate of December 29, 1929, comments as follows on this selection: "I am afraid I sacrificed Hemingway (to some extent) in order to make a point against science. But I should add that I did this the more readily because I felt that he was exposed to criticism, at least to debate, on this particular point. I certainly respect him and I'm glad to have your opinion of him to take to heart. And what you say about literary judgments in general, as not to be made from a sectional basis, but on a higher level, I'm in perfect agreement. I've felt for quite a while that I was in danger of losing balance and becoming merely a cantankerous localist, and your admonishment warms my conscience to its task."

-88-

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