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  • The Blinding Torch: Modern British Fiction and the Discourse of Civilization
  • Paul B. Armstrong
The Blinding Torch: Modern British Fiction and the Discourse of Civilization. Brian W. Shaffer. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993. Pp. xii + 208. $27.50.

The title of Brian Shaffer’s study derives from Kurtz’s painting in Heart of Darkness of a blindfolded woman holding a lighted torch: “instead of enlightening the world this ‘stately,’ civilized woman is in fact ‘blinded’ despite the torchlight, oblivious to what actually transpires in [End Page 279] the jungle” (2). For Shaffer the image of the “blinding torch” is a “trope of civilization’s duplicity” (2). This trope loosely organizes his readings of works by Conrad, Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, and Lowry. These writers all portray civilization as “shedding light while obscuring vision, captivating the eye while deadening perception,” and their fictions suggest that “the price of allegiance demanded to civilization appears to necessitate thought and actions that diverge sharply from its purported tenets” (3). The idea that civilization is duplicitous is hardly new, of course, but Shaffer does not insist on it too much. As he notes, his book is “more a collection of interrelated essays than one sustained thesis” (43). Although conceived in the spirit of the recent historicisms that see the context as the way into the text, The Blinding Torch does not offer the sort of daring conceptual reconfiguration of its subject that much contemporary cultural critique strives for. The modesty of Shaffer’s ambitions is perhaps refreshing—not every book has to turn its field upside down—but the originality of his contribution and the significance of his claims are sometimes less apparent than one might wish.

The most valuable chapter is the long “Introduction” in which Shaffer charts in rich detail the debate about the value and the prospects of “civilization” from Herbert Spencer’s optimistic Darwinism at the turn of the century through Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West and the discussions it spawned in Bloomsbury and among other high modernists. Shaffer’s impressive research is a useful reminder of how widely and heatedly the question of civilization was debated between the two world wars. Although the map he draws is not surprising, it is an accurate, helpful guide through important territory. His demarcation of the debate’s three primary themes is also illuminating. First, following the controversy between Spencer and Spengler, comes the question of whether civilization is headed toward “progress and perfection” or “decline and death.” For Bloomsburyites like E. M. Forster and Clive Bell, however, the issue about civilization is whether it is a national, corporate entity or a “state of mind” and an “attitude toward life” that requires individual cultivation. Finally, skeptical voices as disparate as Leonard Woolf, John Dewey, and H. G. Wells wonder whether “the rhetoric of civilization” constitutes “a legitimate call to arms” to defend valuable traditions and institutions “or instead a propaganda ploy” to stir up a belligerent patriotism, justify imperialism, and preserve class stratification (28). Shaffer’s narrative about the “discourse of civilization” gives a coherent picture of the intellectual climate to which his five chosen novelists sought to respond.

The readings that this contextualization produces are, however, disappointing. The analysis of the civilization debate should offer new ways of understanding the novels just as, in turn, the fictions should be shown to have important comments to make about the issues in question. This sort of reciprocal illumination would seem implicit in the Bakhtinian model of “dialogic interaction of text and culture” (38) that Shaffer invokes as his methodology. Again and again, however, Shaffer’s elaborately constructed intellectual framework yields all too little interpretive gain. One doesn’t need to contrast Conrad and Spencer, for example, to see that Heart of Darkness suggests “less that the uncivilized are savage than that the civilized are banal and morally complacent—‘hollow’ to the core” (68–69). Clive Bell’s complaint in On British Freedom that “England is ‘enslaved’ by various ‘enemies of freedom’” is plausibly a view Virginia Woolf would share (84), but readers of Mrs. Dalloway will not be surprised to hear that “in this novel ‘proportion’ is synonymous with the repression...

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pp. 279-281
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