Gothic and Grimm: The grotesque and carnivalesque in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and Mann’s “Death in Venice”

©3 July 2016 Mary Crockford

For Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa and Thomas Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach, mind-body connection has deep and pervasive significance. Setting, dialogue, interpersonal dynamics, and distortion reveal protagonists embodying trauma and alienation as a result of war and industrialization, evidenced in warped perceptions of reality, and internalization of their trauma leading to deconstruction and death as their only means of liberation. Undermining of traditional family roles for the sake of state and commercial interests exacerbates their trauma through empowerment of commercial and bureaucratic institutions to benefit from social instability and chaos, demanding conformity for purposes of empowering and enriching of the leviathan (beast) of the state. While representing different geopolitical locales and proximity to wartime in turn-of-the-century industrialized Europe, both stories are constructed with elements of the grotesque and carnivalesque to represent the ways in which trauma and isolation lead to the destruction of the physical body.

Grotesque language and symbolism signal personal and interpersonal distortion in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as Gregor’s punishment for transgressing family and employer expectations of unquestioning servitude is internalized, manifesting bodily in his violent transformation into an insect while he sleeps. For the working-class commercial traveler, contorted images and internal dialogue signify an individual living with physical exhaustion as well as profound cognitive dissonance in the face of mass mechinization’s opposition to individual autonomy. Gregor’s saga thus rebels against Europe’s utopian facade by employing “a grotesque realism which mocks dreary officialdom and subverts its values and symbolic orders” (McNally 254) to expose institutionalized urban working-class oppression and suffering. Gregor’s familial home, rather than a source of physical, emotional and psychological stability during times of economic and social upheaval, becomes a microcosmic experiment within WWI Europe’s industrial laboratory which renders Gregor not whole and self-actualizing, but the rejected other or drone who finds himself “slowly retreating, as if being pushed back by a steady and invisible force” (Kafka 7) of external power structures holding him captive to a job he hates, with little hope of paying off parental debt. This retreat from his intolerable reality manifests first psychologically then physically, as a spineless creature embodying learned helplessness, simultaneously hatched and captivated within the walls of his room, where he is forced by his family members’ antipathy to lock his bedroom door “as a precaution so that no-one would have to suffer the view” of his devolving body (Kafka 13). Ironically, Gregor subverts his own assumptions about individual powerlessness, and as a “horrible vermin” (Kafka 1) possessing “the voice of animal” (6), he upends the Samsa household’s relational apple cart and becomes the fearful and mutated monster or beast who is the “essential principle of grotesque realism…degradation…that is the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, and abstract” to his own conception of nothingness (Bakhtin). The liminal animal-human, he inhabits both the real and the unreal, as the “beauty, harmony, and symmetry” of his youthful classical body is “usurped by ugliness, dissonance and irregularity” (Powell 131) so that he can no longer move through the world as before, but wanders the labyrinthine recesses of his mind where his thoughts are still his own. Like the transmuted, un-dead form of Frankenstein’s offspring, as a giant bug Gregor becomes the “cosmic monster” and “master metaphor” for the debased and dehumanized colonial individual (Thomson 80). As Shelley’s Gothic creation is a “strikingly thoughtful, impressively intelligent, and unusually well-read monster” (Bloom 66), Gregor throughout his bestial experience maintains a level of lucidity which exposes the “appalling and unsettling” nature of his ordeal, straddling “the perpetually shifting frontier that lies between ordinary life and the terror that would seem to be more real” (Powell 131) to the reader but for his decidedly unreal appearance. His ironic, detached tone suggests a quiet resignation which denies what the reader recognizes as an undeniably terrifying predicament:

“How about if I sleep a little bit longer and forget all this

nonsense,” he thought, but that was something he was unable to do

because he was used to sleeping on his right, and in his present state

couldn’t get into that position. However hard he threw himself onto

his right, he always rolled back to where he was. He must have tried

it a hundred times, shut his eyes so that he wouldn’t have to look at

the floundering legs, and only stopped when he began to feel a mild,

dull pain there that he had never felt before.

(Kafka 2)

It is only when Gregor invokes the analogy of Hell to describe his life, and is “overcome by a cold shudder” (Kafka 2) at his bodily condition that the full impact of his global abjection is apparent to the sympathetically “transgressive reader” (Booker 243). His physical discomforts – from the “slight itch upon his belly” and “floundering legs,” to his stiff, aching joints upon trying to rise from his bed (Kafka 2) – symbolize the degrading nature of his transformation into the “half-human, half-animal” functioning “as an overt symbol of the emergence of the abject side of human existence” (Booker 219) which defines grotesque art and literature. Like Shelley’s dejected monster with its “numerous grotesque elements” (Bloom 66) such as lumbering gait, malformed speech and simultaneously childlike and violent fantasies, Kafka’s “deployment…of the grotesque” through Gregor’s six legs, deformed mouth parts and befuddled ramblings on everything from his deaf boss to women’s undergarments – conveyed with his “comic and grotesque…deadpan style of narration” (Bloom 138) mirror “the disconcerting tension between humor and fear that is central to existential conditions of other(ness)” linked with the grotesque (Powell 131). Relegated to using his sticky, cumbersome arthropod body parts, and frequently high-centered by his bulging abdomen, Gregor possesses a grotesque potential commensurate with Shelley’s monster as his “fine form of man” is now “degraded and wasted.” Like Victor’s laboratory-born monster assembled from parts of exhumed cadavers, Gregor is little more than “food for the worm” as a universally loathed, ground-crawling, feces-consuming pest (Bloom 67). He persists in trying but fails to rationalize his way around the gross inadequacy of his new body for mastering his environment, as he attempts to allay his father’s and employer’s displeasure for missing work but cannot escape the claustrophobia and “overwhelming sense of entrapment experienced” of his locked bedroom (Powell 132). Attempting to open his door, he sustains painful injuries because his body has been rendered incapable of achieving his need for familial accord, or even the predictability of his miserable job:

Gregor slowly pushed his way over to the door with the chair.

Once there he let go of it and threw himself onto the door, holding

himself upright against it using the adhesive on the tips of his legs.

He rested there a little while to recover from the effort involved

and then set himself to the task of turning the key in the lock with

his mouth. He seemed, unfortunately, to have no proper teeth –

how was he, then, to grasp the key? – but the lack of teeth was, of

course, made up for with a very strong jaw; using the jaw, he really

was able to start the key turning, ignoring the fact that he must

have been causing some kind of damage as a brown fluid came

from his mouth, flowed over the key and dripped onto the floor.”

(Kafka 7)

The injury to Gregor’s mouth renders him symbolically mute, and his grief-stricken thoughts point to the unconscious role of his own fractured world view in initiating his grotesque state. Where the “dull yellow eye” of Frankenstein’s gothic monster gazes upon Victor “from the dun-white sockets in which they were set” (Shelley 58), Gregor through an insect’s compound eyes takes in details of his environment in miniaturized multiplicity, including the one-dimensional conception of beauty encapsulated in the picture of a “lady fitted out with a fur hat and fur boa” clipped from “an illustrated magazine and housed in a nice, gilded frame” on his wall (Kafka 2).

Such arrayed images reveal Gregor’s misshapen perceptions of the world and humanity, forming a kaleidoscopic collection of thoughts and memories which expose the failure of Western philosophy and psychology to bring order out of his past or present isolation. This mosaic of fractured thoughts and images results in a textual “assemblage” or “bricolage” effect (Booker 86) of “bits and pieces of seemingly unrelated narrative” located within The Metamorphosis (88). Bricolage, as a dialogic method was emphasized by Derrida for use “strictly within the framework and tradition of philosophy.” Booker later expanded its utility to explain the manner in which Menippean satire, through textual bricolage also “gains effect largely by its sheer difference from the norm” (Booker 87), often through use of the physical body as the site of the “timeless battle between two primordial principles: the grotesque and the classical” (Katkus 1). Kafka’s effective deployment of the “subversive potential” of bricolage lies in the technique’s facility for producing a “seemingly random method of composition in a field where one expects coherence and logic” (Booker 87), mirroring the breakdown of Gregor’s once familiar environment through a prismatic psychological lens which irreparably subverts Western assumptions about the family and home as predictable providers of safety and permanence. This method also gives additional symbolic meaning to Gregor’s deformed, transition-less body which is “fashioned like the dreams of a sick man so that neither head nor foot merge to a whole” (Andriopoulos 23). Using Andriopoulos’ example of “Walpole’s ‘Gothic Story’” for “inverting Horace’s classical aesthetic” criticizing “pictorial representations of monstrous bodies,” Kafka’s bricolage and assemblage techniques in The Metamorphosis affirm a similar “poetics of monstrous architectural and textual bodies” worthy of inclusion in the canons of gothic and grotesque literature (23-24).

At the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum from Gregor’s gilded-framed pinup girl is an “enormous, thick-boned charwoman with white hair” who replaces the the Samsas’ housekeeper because Gregor can no longer sustain the family’s standard of living. The charwoman is an androgynous, oversized assemblage of Mr. Samsa’s domineering maleness juxtaposed with Mrs. Samsa’s passive-aggressive female characteristics. The charwoman is herself grotesque as her gender and authority “subversion requires a target” (Booker 87) so she goads Gregor to leave the safety of his room, calling him an “old dung-beetle” and constantly disturbing his peace “for no reason” while he is too “slow and infirm” to protect himself (Kafka 20). Her ogreish appearance and loud, aggressive behaviors traditionally attributed to men, function in his father’s absence to maintain “unbroken power over his son,” and expose Gregor’s view of women as duplicitous, unstable, and by virtue of occupying a position of tacit leadership in the Samsa home, arguably subversive (Preece 35).

Gregor’s role confusion and grief are debilitating and stem from his abjection as the other – the transgressive beast of Grimms’ fables whose “seeping wounds” and “bitter tears” represent both the universal and individual body politic “disrupted…by many forces: violence, death and transformation” in the face of “authoritarian and subversive ideologies in dialogue throughout” his tale (Jorgensen 127). Similarly to banished stepdaughters fed poison apples by “wicked queens” who “demand organs” from huntsmen as proof of death, Gregor is the rejected male heir disgraced and expelled from false Paradise amid a barrage of apples, for the sin of noncompliance with depersonalizing authoritarian edicts. He grows “weaker and weaker” until his father throws a “decayed apple” which lodges painfully in his back (Kafka 24), effectively paralyzing him and mocking his hope of happily-ever-after in Europe’s burgeoning industrial utopia. With each of his father bruising blows, the permanency of Gregor’s alienation and the “crippling effects of unbridled paternal dominance” and socioeconomic indenture become clear (Preece 35). A grotesque and lonely death is inevitable for him as the “tragic, unfortunate creature, yet also likely immortal” (Powell 129) who “playing the martyr” (Kafka 24), releases his maladaptive family forever from the burden of his care by dying. His last autonomous act is to succumb to death, bleeding and blind, leaving the reader alone with a horrifying parting discovery: that Grete is yet another transgressed fairy-tale body in the Samsa family, as her father admires her “well built and beautiful” nubile form, stretching swan-like upon the remaining Samsas’ arrival by tram to “a better location” (Kafka 26).

For Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach, degradation of the body by disease and dementia results from transgressing societal sexual mores prohibiting idleness and pedophilia, and he becomes a carnivalesque romantic hero “revealing of or at variance with the cultural norms” of his time (Johnson 83). As an effeminate poet who regards “travel as a hygienic necessity” and admits to being “too much occupied with the duties imposed by his ego” to be “a faithful lover of that gay outside world” (Mann 4), Aschenbach is a caricature of the artist worthy of description as carnivalesque. His rationale for violating ideals of sexual propriety of his time by acting on his pederastic urges – transgressing against his own physical well-being in the process – embodies his ambivalence regarding the buttoned-up (implied sexually repressed) bourgeois social strata from which he ironically benefits as a privileged artist. Proclaiming art to be a form of “war, an exhausting struggle,” he attempts to rationalize away the nagging suspicion that his “masculine and brave” forebears would not have “highly regarded” his lifestyle embracing “that kind of Eros” which has “become his master” (Mann 40).

Creatures of grotesque allure with origins in Greek myth operate as both muse and monster in Gustav’s psychic and visual periphery, as he flees Munich’s hallucinatory phantasms and stone “apocalyptic beasts” signifying “declining resistance” to creative boredom and age. Perhaps worse for the declining artist, his patrician musings also hint at a growing fear of cultural obsolescence as he recalls the ease with which he once “kept the twenty-year-olds breathless with his cynicism about the questionable nature of art and artists” (Mann 9). His increasing susceptibility to fatigue and illness manifest in hallucinatory prefigurations of death as the ever-present specters of war and disease cast “a menacing grimace” over the European continent (1). His precipitous weakening and compulsion to flee his professional and social obligations lays the foundation for Mann’s employment of numerous “fantastic figures and phantasmagorias” (Katkus 2), “mythical manifestations of hybridity” representing the “fluid, transgressive body” or “classical, closed body…broken down into the grotesque, open body” central to the Bakhtinian motif (Arnds 21). Similarly to Kafka’s construction of Gregor Samsa, Mann engages in “intertextual use of folktale and myth” to illustrate Gustav’s “strange distention of the soul” and “juvenile thirst for the distant” (Mann 3) as an act of “protesting against the physical and mental docility prescribed by rationalizing societies in the name of utility and public health” (Arnds 20). While walking through the “increasingly serene paths” of Munich and contemplating a vacation in order to reignite the poet’s “heart of eloquence” within him (1), he encounters the first of many “foreign and far-traveled” apparitions (3) who predict the wayfarer’s “complete loss of peace” (Arnds 22) along the way to his ultimate destruction:

His demeanor — and perhaps his elevated and elevating

standpoint contributed to this impression — was that of cool

survey, audacious, even wild; because, be it that he was

grimacing against the brightness of the setting Sun or that it was

a more permanent physiognomic disfigurement, his lips seemed

too short, the teeth were entirely uncovered, so that they, quite

long and bare to the gums, gleamed white between his lips.”

(Mann 3)

Arnds explains such an intrusive and confrontational visitation as a “manifestation of the trickster archetype” which in fairy tale sits “in the very spot that the harlequin used to occupy in the medieval mystery play – centrally” on the stage of Gustav’s vision, belligerently taking “a position from which he can act and subvert” the weary Aschenbach’s quest for physical and spiritual rejuvenation (22). The “war-like” figure with his iron-tipped walking stick, protruding Adam’s apple, fanged teeth and other attributes of “permanent physiognomic disfigurement” (Mann 3) comprise the “drastically transposed and deformed” body of fairy tales and other “texts of mythical-realism” which translate “the real to the mythical to offer ways of coming to terms with trauma” (Katkus 2). This death figure of classic “Bakhtinian grotesqueness” peers at the ailing artist from behind the “grey zone between the human and the non-human” that is the homeland of carnival’s “cosmic perturbations of the distant past” (Tihanov 5) vivified as ghosts, vampires and other “literary monsters” (Arnds 24).

Similar manifestations of this persistent trickster appear as the “humpbacked sailor” steering Gustav’s ship over “the strip of dirtily iridescent water” in anticipation of leisure, and the smooth-talking “goatish man” with “a cigarette butt between his lips” – literally speaking through both sides of his mouth as he registers foreigners at the pier of the “magnificent city” of Venice (12):

The smooth dispatch of his movements and the empty talk that

accompanied them had something stupefying and distracting,

almost as if he feared the passenger might waver in his

determination to go to Venice. He speedily cashed the money

and let the change fall onto the dirty tablecloth with the dexterity

of a croupier. “Have a nice day, sir!” he said with a thespian bow.

“It is my honor to convey you. . . Next please!”

(Mann 12)

This flattering barker figure “with the physiognomy of an old-fashioned circus director” (11) indicates to the reader that the air of mystery and danger originating in Munich has followed Gustav on his voyage, and now circulates below his feet through Venice’s subterranean canals. The reader shares in Gustav’s epiphany that the man wearing “a bright yellow, excessively fashionable summer suit, red tie, and a boldly bent up Panama hat” is the same war-like ephebe from Munich, now appropriating the “garish dress” of the adolescent boys with whom he keeps company, clownishly popping out his dentures, licking his lips and giving the boys highly sexual “teasing nudges” (12).

Encouraged by the ephebe on the pier who offers him a rose for his “most lovely and beautiful sweetheart” (15) upon his arrival in Venice, and the “mercenary tunes” of the siren-like “musical mendicants,” Gustav pursues Tadzio, a pubescent boy vacationing and staying with his Polish bourgeois family and entourage in the Hotel de Bains. He extends his stay, chasing the boy through Venice with increasing ardor as his behavior becomes essentially predatory. Inverting the fairy-tale trickster motif of the Pied Piper abducting healthy boys for military conscription, Gustav transgresses sexual taboos by feminizing the delicate Tadzio, even entertaining fantasies about his “little Phaecian” sleeping late in bed and enjoying “jewelry, a hot bath and rest” before breakfast (21). On one occasion of stalking he gets close enough to “place his hand upon the crown”of the boy’s head and contemplates warning his “pearl-wearing” mother of the deadly epidemic incubating throughout the city, but “intoxicated” by the boy’s nearness and his own complicity in the city’s deadly secret, stops and declares “I will keep silent!” (47). By his silence, the intemperate artist becomes subversive and grotesque in his own right, no longer only the transgressed but transgressor and destroyer of Tadzio’s young and “docile body” (Arnds 20).

The whispering “rogue” gondolier who conveys Gustav from place to place as he pursues Tadzio is Charon the ferryman of Greek myth, who like the foreigner and ephebe, prefigures Gustav’s death voyage down the river Styx. The ferryman’s deafening hum and vague statements of “you will pay” make him an especially overt and unsettling symbol of Gustav’s paranoia and subliminal death wish (16). The repeat appearances of these grotesquely alluring figures creates a carnivalesque atmosphere of masquerade, their costumes and marred faces offering “complete, if false, messages about identity” and “partial or fragmentary messages” about their purpose (Castle 59). They divert Gustav’s fear and seduce him further from reality, and deeper into the liminal world of decay and death in the watery Venetian underworld.

Even money serves a grotesque purpose in Death in Venice, including the symbolical sealing of Gustav’s fate as he gives the ferryman double the amount of coins others around him are paying, and his spending idle days in the Hades symbolized by the Hotel de Bains, consuming strawberries purchased one evening while following Tadzio, and washed in infected water so he contracts cholera. His gorging on the ripe, red fruits is symbolic of his entrapment in the underworld of Venice, unable to muster “the self-discipline required…to deny and sublimate” his pederastic desires into productive pursuits such as art (Robertson 50). Each episode of hunting Tadzio renders him more exhausted, increasingly liminal in his perceptions, and seemingly oblivious to his own sickness. He continues to deny the growing virulence of the cholera epidemic even after “printed notices…warning the populace of the water in the canals” (38), disappearance of hotel guests “under ambiguous circumstances” (46), and accosting by the freakish lounge entertainer with the “large and nude-looking Adam’s apple” allude to disease and death festering beneath the “disinfectant smell” everywhere he goes (43). The cholera epidemic ravaging Venice, and its concealment by government and merchants renders the city “the Menippean motif of the kingdom of the dead” traditionally associated with “the totalitarian state and its propagandist apparatus” (Katkus 2), but in Death in Venice exposing “the great upheaval of the bourgeois capitalist world-system” (Shookman 114) characterized by the “physical excess and transgression” of Gustav’s tourist experience (Katkus 2).

These death figures, rooted in Jungian/Fryean archetype as well as Greek myth, also act as carnivalesque mockers of the “’antiquated and neurotic underground’ of the German soul” (Robertson 35) which Aschenbach rejects. Through their masquerade as incidental members of the Venetian economic machine, these apparitions are able to function as clandestine extensions of his own psyche, utilizing his “Faustian ‘yearning, hungry unrest for the unattainable’” (35) embodied in the boy Tadzio to lure the artist to destruction through unchecked aesthetic and physical desire. Each phantasm’s disguise “hides something, keeps a secret, deceives” Aschenbach by assuming “a sinister, alienating aspect” which mirrors the “rebellious element” of his own “gay assault on the cultural categories” of the West. Cloaked in their “fragmented and diffused” disguises, their “hallucinatory reversals” of his reality represent the masquerade’s carnivalesque potential for providing “voluptuous release from ordinary cultural prescriptions and a stylized comment on them” (Castle 6). The circus-like Venetian employees and performers like the pederastic “ephebe,” “humpbacked and dirty sailor” (Mann 11) and “part pimp, part gagman” entertainer (Mann 43) reflect Gustav’s closeted homosexual “experiences of multiplicity” and anxiety regarding the adequacy of “both German and broader Western traditions and values” (Johnson 83) to fulfill his aesthetic aspirations. They also personify institutionalized deviance, disease and Death, denied but encouraged by complicit government and commerce which view both the bourgeois and working classes as disposable dual sides of the capitalist Janus coin.

By linking half-animal, half-human figures with their respective protagonists’ death and degradation, both The Metamorphosis and Death in Venice use elements of the carnivalesque and grotesque to demonstrate the body’s “political implications” as the site of “decentered, even dislocated humanism” and societies’ continual “reworking and redrawing…boundaries and cultural taboos” through “the irreverent life of folk (community) culture” (Tihanov 5). The Metamorphosis employs elements of Rabelais’ grotesque open, misshapen, transformed body to convey the trauma and paranoia engendered by Gregor’s “embodied experience” of the traumatized WWI individual (Staiff 213). His is the “metaphoric body” of the rejected son of man and unchecked capitalist society, “the grotesquely” and “severely alienated body” suffering from “the destructive power” of his father and employer which have placed both his future economic security and unique individual “identity at risk” (Ryan 1) for collective gain. Gustav’s embodiment of war, isolation and violence is artistic and more gradual and nuanced than Gregor’s, and facilitated by hedonistic gods and monsters of myth who are both carnivalesque and grotesque, and active agents of his seduction toward a lonely decline and untimely death. Where Gregor’s death is that of the grotesque familial and corporate martyr, Gustav is vulnerable to classification as the grotesque and carnivalesque trickster. By facilitating the destruction of Tadzio’s physical body to gratify his own sexual desire, even going so far as to wear makeup and dye his hair in the hope of being sexually attractive to the child, Gustav himself becomes an ephebe whose “duplicity aligns him with a host of mythological relatives of the Pied Piper as a manifestation of the trickster archetype” displaying “beastliness and satanic nature” (Arnds 22). Both protagonists represent the abject other, disparate casualties of the failed European bourgeois ideal who are at times pitiable, and in Gustav’s case, perverse. Like Shelley’s and Stoker’s gothic “children of the night” (Stoker 14) drained of life even as they “still walk with earthly feet” (34), for Gregor and Gustav intimacy and inclusion are unattainable abstractions, and only the darkness of eternal night brings actualization. It is only through bodily deconstruction and death that each achieves freedom from their unique forms of suffering. In so doing, each serves to “subvert popular notions of romanticism” (Staiff 213) and fairy-tale endings by emerging from behind the mask of the “Miserable One” not rescued or restored to the classical body, but rather immortalized as the doomed man-monster of Menippean satire.

Works Cited

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McNally, David. Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Netherlands: BRILL, 2011. Google Books. Google. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.

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Preece, Julian, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Kafka. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Robertson, Ritchie, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

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Shelley, Mary. “Frankenstein.” (n.d.): n. pag. Planet EBook. Web. 13 May 2016. Shookman, Ellis. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice: A Novel and Its Critics. Suffolk:Boydell & Brewer, 2003. Google Books. Google. Web. 15 May 2016.

Staiff, Russell, and Russell Staiff. “Chapter 14 Venice, Desire, Decay and the Travels into the ‘Dark Side.” Travel and Imagination. By Garth Lean. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016. 213-25. Print.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1897. Project Gutenberg. Gutenberg.org, 16 Aug. 2013. Web. 14 May 2016.

Tihanov, Galin. “The Gravity of the Grotesque: Bakhtin’s Dislocated Humanism.” Grotesque Revisited: Grotesque and Satire in the Post/modern Literature of Central and Eastern Europe. Ed. Laurynus Katkus. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2013. 5-17. Print.

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