restricted access The Blinding Torch: Modern British Fiction and the Discourse of Civilization (review)
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Reviewed by
Brian W. Shaffer. The Blinding Torch: Modern British Fiction and the Discourse of Civilization. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1993. 208 pp.

This is a readable, purposeful, jargon-free study, old-fashioned by the standards of today’s trendies, the main drawback of which is that one agrees with almost all of it intuitively. Thus it presents nothing really surprising, but in fact it’s just the trendies who ought to ponder the issues it raises. Those to whom the Euro-American use of the term [End Page 180] “civilization” in the earlier twentieth century was only a shallow mystification, a hegemonic, self-deluded expression of imperialist ideology, are precisely the ones who need reminding that there was often great ambivalence and self-doubt in that form of cultural discourse, and that modernist fiction provided some memorable images of this gnawing mistrust of the Western mission to the world.

What the book retells is a series of episodes in the fitful attempt of Western man (sic) to justify his enterprises amid a self-questioning that could never be content with the chauvinism of imperialist ideology. The book is far from a comprehensive study, because a full analysis of the meaning of the term “civilization” would have to encompass many other concepts. Nonetheless, it is illuminating to have relevant quotations and ideas from Herbert Spencer, Freud, Spengler and others, set next to brief and pointed discussions of such works as Heart of Darkness, The Secret Agent, and several other classics, ending with Under the Volcano.

Some of these applications work better than others. Useful as it is to have Herbert Spencer laid out as background for Heart of Darkness, the relevance of the quoted material is limited, and sometimes causes Shaffer to seem to miss Conrad’s full irony. Perhaps he was distracted by a felt need to position himself properly in the world of Conrad criticism. In one of several clarifying footnotes, he writes of the psychologism, the “inner journey” motif, induced by “Albert Guerard’s staggering critical influence.” These days, we know to avoid that.

Whether Clive Bell’s sense of anything at all is worth resurrecting is a question that undermines, for me, the chapter on Virginia Woolf. Here, and at several other points, one misses a discussion of Forster; Shaffer apologizes for the omission but doesn’t really explain it. In spite of Forster’s nervous trivializing of some issues, Passage to India dramatizes the whole question in unforgettable ways.

Shaffer uses some late Freud, together with some Frankfort-School critique, with surprising cogency in relation to Joyce. Freud on “the narcissism of minor differences” gives us an amusing perspective on Gerty McDowell and Little Chandler, though again not all the ironies are drawn out clearly. (Shaffer also quotes Freud on civilization requiring more and more “coercion and renunciation of instinct.” This doesn’t look too prescient in the age of grunge, when instant gratification isn’t fast enough.) Moreover, in view of the last chapter’s use of [End Page 181] Spengler as pre-text for Lawrence and Lowry, Shaffer ought to have done something with Joyce’s use of Vico.

Often the readings of the various novels are sketchy, and of course there are a lot of other threads that—ideally—should have been followed up. However, the book still serves as a useful review for those whose think of modernism as something to be sneered at for “elitism.” In fact, its elitism often excluded just those imperialists who were most blinded by the torch of “progress.” The character of Haines in Ulysses, for instance, represents just that form of genteel privilege and subtle domination that the British educated classes, to this very day, maintain against the Irish, and against their own bad conscience for what they did to the Irish. “It seems that history is to blame.” Doesn’t it though! But Joyce’s revenge was brilliant: Edmond Dantes couldn’t have done it better.

Not that the British can see it. For Virginia Woolf, of all people, to complain of Ulysses that it was the “book of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples,” tells volumes. She could roar...