Rejecting Kafka’s tendencies toward mysticism runs against most interpretations of his fiction. One might suspect Nabokov of seeing too much of himself in the author when he compares Kafka to Flaubert and asserts, “Kafka liked to draw his terms from the language of law and science, giving them a kind of ironic precision, with no intrusion of the author’s private sentiments.” Ungeheueres Ungeziefer , however, is not a scientific term, and its Middle German literary origins—which Kafka would have been familiar with from his studies ---clearly connote religious ideas of impurity and sacrifice.
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In the 20th century too, the public execution of circus elephants was a relatively common sight. Elephants who went on rampages, taking the lives of humans in their unhappy wakes, needed to be punished. Crowds demanded justice and they received a spectacle in return: Mary, a five-ton circus elephant who killed her new trainer, was hanged for the crime by heavy-duty construction equipment in 1916 in Tennessee; more infamously, Topsy, another circus performer gone bad, this time on Coney Island in New York, was fed poison, electrocuted and strangled in 1903, all the while being filmed by a crew from the Edison Studios. Dumbo , it seems, wasn’t all that fantastical.