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Reviewed by
Erica Gene Delsandro
Bloomsburg University
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 nineteenth century, in which confines they can still be found today. In this role, rats embody the uncanny: inhuman in so many ways, rats have become the foundation for scientific experiments that shed light on human psychology. From rat behavior to human knowledge and back again, Ellmann turns her attention to Freud’s proclivity to transform his patients into animals, focusing on the case of the Rat Man. More than revealing a Freudian preoccupation with rats, Ellmann identifies literature as the source for Freud’s insights as well as for the Rat Man’s fixation. The relationship between rats and literature is where Ellmann ends her second chapter, specifically with the poetry of T. S. Eliot. The recurring presence of rats in The Waste Land signifies “modernist anxieties evoked by the figure of the rat”: tunneling underneath, infesting back alleys, linking the dead with the living, rats—vampiristic, capitalistic—represent the tenacity of the networks, and those that travel them, that Ellmann’s work seeks to expose (33).

Coincidence plays a role in Ellmann’s rat investigation and also forms the initial basis for her analysis in chapter four, “The Wolf Woman.” In this chapter, Ellmann reaches beyond the nominal coincidence between Virginia Woolf and Freud’s Wolf Man to explore [End Page 195] their biographical and textual resonances. Moving from werewolves to Woolfian dogs, Ellmann links Freud’s analysis of the Wolf Man’s experience of the primal scene to Woolf’s elegiac exorcism in To the Lighthouse, suggesting the convergence of trauma and scene-making. Ellmann offers a very Freudian conclusion when she refers to Woolf’s infamous declaration that she “‘meant nothing by the Lighthouse,’“ suggesting to her reader that the Wolf Man might have echoed, “I meant nothing by the wolf-tree” (92). In this chapter as in others, Ellmann, like Woolf, the Wolf Man, and Freud, makes her own scene, staging “the unoccurred and unoccurable” (92).

In The Nets of Modernism, Ellmann, like the authors she studies, is “caught in the nets of intersubjectivity and intertextuality” (1). However, unlike Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus who is “torn between the dream of flight and the recognition of entanglement,” Ellmann revels in the tangles (1). Although The Nets of Modernism does not impact the field in the manner of some of Ellmann’s earlier work, it does present a productive and playful model of academic constellating, providing context in the upper-level classroom and inspiration for the academic seeking to get all tangled up.

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Subject Headings

  • English fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Ellmann, Maud, -- 1954- -- Nets of modernism: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Sigmund Freud. -- 293985
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