The Nets of Modernism: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Sigmund Freud by Maud Ellmann (review)
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Reviewed by
Maud Ellmann. The Nets of Modernism: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Sigmund Freud. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. xi + 238 pp.

“What is the omphalos?” (167). With this question, Maud Ellmann begins the Afterword to her recent book, The Nets of Modernism, a study more interested in questions than answers, more generative than conclusive. Rather than answering the question, Ellmann ends her book by revisiting some of the omphalic associations she elaborates on in the preceding chapters: James Joyce’s multiple references to navels in Ulysses, “telephonic navelcords” of communication technology, sewers, odysseys, rats in a maze, and the twisted pathways connecting memory, trauma, and authorship, to name a few (4). The Afterword does not provide a return to origins—and thus, answers—as the allusive question might suggest. Rather, since the navel “represents only one filament in the entangled themes of modernist fiction” that Ellmann explores, the Afterword instead recasts the questions and repeats the metaphors that constitute the complex and exciting systems of connections that The Nets of Modernism gracefully and ambitiously traces.

Representative of Ellmann’s work over several years, the chapters can be read as stand-alone essays; they have been revised and collected into a single volume, Ellmann explains in the first chapter, at the request of friends and colleagues interested in her “forays into modernism and psychoanalysis” (1). Itself a kind of net, woven together by shared themes and productive associations, Ellmann’s volume offers a rigorous intellectual romp through some of modernism’s best-known texts and a sharp but often playful look at its most significant products and purveyors. Thus, rather than a “single go-ahead polemic,” Nets presents a series of interconnected arguments, sewn together by recurring themes, images, metaphors, and authorial preoccupations—James’, Woolf’s, Joyce’s, and Freud’s, as well as Ellmann’s (13). In contrast to the nontraditional nature of Ellmann’s collection, her emphasis on traditional modernist texts —Joyce’s Ulysses, Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, James’ The Ambassadors—is enlivened by a theoretical approach, psychoanalysis, that has captured the imagination of both modernist writers and the scholars who study them. However, this is not to say that Ellmann’s essays are “old-fashioned” (13). Infused by Deleuzean rhizomatics and indebted to, as well as participating in, the emergence of animal studies in the academy, Ellmann’s essays feel fresh and vital even as they return to familiar texts, revisiting some of modernism’s most iconic moments.

“The Modernist Rat,” Ellmann’s second chapter, exemplifies her approach in Nets and is, arguably, the most provocative in terms [End Page 194] of offering to her readers—teachers and their advanced students, as well as scholars—new insights that will inform further reading and research. Beginning with a reference to the rat-king, a mythical creature of many heads born by the fusing together of multiple rat tails, “The Modernist Rat” attempts to trace and untangle these rodent fusions only to conclude what, by the end of the chapter, seems inevitable: that rats, “revenants from the dark ages” assume “the role of foreign bodies in the mazes of modernity,” figures that erode oppositions and break down barriers with their simultaneously attractive and repulsive familiarity (33).

In this chapter, Ellmann suggests that rats are the first animal cast out of modernism’s bounds to “creep back in again” and once back in, they multiply and move with rapidity (25). Usually associated with disease, contagion, and disaster, rats briefly ascended to the ranks of domestic pets in the late nineteenth century, encouraged by their presence and sentimentalization in children’s literature. At the same time, rats were infiltrating the growing subgenre of vampire fiction; in the case of Bram Stoker’s story, Dracula, the villain disguised itself as a swarm of rats in order to sneak past British customs. As boundary-crossers, rats penetrate genre divisions, national borders, as well as tunnel through the vast networks—literal and metaphoric—that connect the underground with the world of the living above ground. Being such intrepid navigators, it is not surprising that rats found themselves in the man-made mazes of behavioral psychologists in the late...