Thoughts Need A Master: Paul Valéry’s Gladiator

According to the Roman historian Livy, in 264 B.C. Junius Brutus had his slaves fight to the death with swords in order to commemorate the recent loss of his father; the blood of the slaves was considered munera (gifts) to the manes (spirits) of his deceased parent.  Gladiator combats, which were from this time called munera, lost their religious significance and became, instead, a popular spectator sport that was popular among Romans of every age and social status. Just as in the 21st century we go to an event and root for our favorite football, basketball, rugby, cricket or baseball players, so the Romans would flock to arenas and cheer for different gladiators.  Politicians and, later on Emperors, would sponsor games which were free to everyone and served as clever public relations stunts to keep the masses happy and occupied.

The gladiators themselves, recruited from slave markets, prisoners of war, and criminals lived and trained at ludi (schools.)  The owners of these schools, called lanistae which means “butchers” in Latin, ensured that their investments had a strict diet and exercise routine. High carb diets, strength training and practice with their equipment and weapons were the methods used to build up muscle and a chiseled physique.  Even though they might be in peak physical condition, it was rare for a gladiator to survive more than a few combats—a brutal, harsh and short life for these condemned men.

So why does Paul Valéry decide to use the gladiator as a metaphor for the type of mental training he undertakes in his Notebooks/Cahiers?  In the Peter Lang edition, the third section of Cahiers 1 is entitled “Gladiator” and contains all of Valéry’s entries on this topic.  It begins with:

……..I resolved henceforth to evaluate the works of man and other things too, only in relation to the operative processes I could recognize in them: i.e., I assumed, firstly in an unsophisticated way, and then with all my might, that in each case I had to implement myself the construction of each given thing; and I tried to reduce it to successive operations whose primary characteristic was that I knew how to carry them out. In this way, I set aside from my research/my work/, but not from my conscious mind, all uncertain or shifting judgements, restricting myself each time to measure my powers, /my strength/, – or, if you prefer, to measuring the data according to what my mind was capable of accomplishing.

A gladiator trains in the extreme because it’s a matter of life and death. Valéry tries to apply this severe type of discipline—and words like strength, power, exercise—to mental and intellectual training.  But without such high stakes as life and death, is any man really capable of training his mind to such an extent?  Valéry believes that a man like Napoleon certainly made an attempt: “Napoleon had the idea of making use of his mind in its entirety. of directing its movements with order and vigor, instead of submitting to the accidents of memory and impulse. Manoeuvres along internal fronts.” And Valéry speculates how a man ought to accomplish this: “A man skilful in his thinking, knowing it to be naturally irregular and commonplace—Thought needs a master, a desire, a model, habits, without which it’s like dreams—useless, terrible, circular, silly.”

There is also, not surprisingly, an emphasis on the action that is required in the gladiator-style mental activity.  Valéry himself got up every morning for most of his adult life to record and work out his thoughts in these notebooks:

Gladiator’s principle.
Restore (and even develop harmoniously) through sport the qualities which the increase in means leaves idle and risks causing to degenerate.
Muscles, mental calculation, meaning.

In short, Gladiator is the effort expended by one’s being against probability. An effort which is called Art, the transformation of chance into near-certainty-analysis of the fortunate coincidence with a view to reproducing it, or transferring it from one moment in time to stability (or stasis), or from one scale of dimensions (matter, as well) to a larger one.

Another idea, and what at first  I thought to be a more peculiar one, that recurs in “Gladiator” is that of purity.

Gladiator
or the Pure Individual—
or a treatise on purity or on forms of Purity.

How the notion of the pure (pure body-pure geometry)
leads to sport-to virtuosity.

Thus Descartes—Matter and Movement—Categories.

And:

(Treatise on purity)
Purity is a consequence of awareness. Awareness distinguishes as it increasingly develops, what the function of the mind uses indiscriminately at an ordinary level or in its ordinary states. Thus, walking is an indiscriminate act of the legs. But if one practices walking distinctly, as a sports man does, it acquire purity of pace—economy of strength—precise rhythm.

I sense more of a tone of hope in this section of his Cahiers as opposed to the previous one entitled “Ego.” In “Ego” he is grappling with who he is, what his worth is, and how he can contribute original thoughts and ideas to the arts. But in Gladiator he lays out methods with which he believes he can train his mind to the point where he reaches this type of purity of thought—the kind of thought that will lead to those novel contributions.

The Notebooks/Cahiers themselves and their creation of a unique genre of writing is the proof of Valéry’s success Nathaniel Rudavsy Brody, in the introduction to his translation of his poems says about the astonishing achievement that are the Notebooks/Cahiers:

Behind the published works, behind the uneventful life of the almost forgotten and then exceedingly famous poet, there hides another story, a private life of the mind, that has its record in 28,000 pages of notebooks revealed in their entirety only after his death. Their existence had been hinted at, of course, evoked in rumors and literary asides, but once made public it took years for their significance to be fully appreciated. It turned out that the prose fragments published in Valery’s lifetime were not what the had been taken to be: they were not after-the-fact musings of an accomplished poet, nor his occasional sketchbook, nor excerpts from his private journal. They were a disfigured glimpse of a vast and fragmentary ‘exercise of thought,’ a restless intellectual quest as unguided and as persistent, as rigorous, and yet as uncontainable as the sea which is so often their subject.

I’m looking forward to lingering among the pages of these five volumes of Cahiers throughout the summer.

A hand-drawn page from Valery’ Cahiers 1.

 

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La Jeune Parque by Paul Valéry

In Roman myth the three Fates— Parcae in Latin Moirai in Ancient Greek are referred to as sisters: Clotho, the youngest, is the spinner of a person’s life thread, Lachesis measures the final thread of life, and the dreaded Atropos cuts the thread of life.  Because of their absolute and unpredictable authority over all life—even Jupiter is subjected to their decisions—they are feared and rarely spoken about except in passing references.

In Petronius Satyricon, the three anti-heroes of this Ancient Roman novel visit a freedman named Trimalchio who has become filthy rich through his investments in shipping.  Trimalchio himself, as well as his sprawling house, is opulent and tacky.  His villa would be the perfect feature for the Roman version of MTV Cribs. The visitors to his home view a large mosaic installed in his dining room that features  the three fates spinning and measuring out the thread of Trimalchio’s life: praesto erat Fortuna cum cornu abundanti copiosa et tres Parcae aurea pensa torquentes.  “And right there in front of us Fortune was depicted with her horn of plenty and the three Fates spinning their golden threads.”  This is by no means a usual piece of artwork that would appear in any Roman’s home, but Trimalchio is a man obsessed with death and his own mortality.

And Vergil, when describing the hardships that his epic hero Aeneas will suffer, concludes (with the cleverly syncopated verb volverunt) : Sic Parcae volvere  (And that’s how the Fates roll.)

So why does the Paul Valéry write an entire poem about Clotho, the youngest of these fates? After a successful career as a poet he suddenly takes a break from publishing his works for more than 20 years.   La Jeune Parque, a poem as perplexing and enigmatic as the Fates themselves,  is the first piece of writing that he publishes after this extended period of silence.  The 512 line poem, written in Alexandrine rhyming couplets,  is dedicated to his friend Andre Gide, who comes up several times in Valéry”s first part of his first Cahiers/Notebooks.   He oftentimes remarks about his fondness for Gide, but he also likes to complain that in his own Diaries Gide writes incorrect things about him and misunderstands him.  Valéry also doesn’t like the sentimental and moral nature of Gide’s Diaries which are very different from Valery’s own Notebooks.  In Cahiers 1 “Ego,” p. 236 he writes: “Gide is an old tart. His Diary seeks to give value to his slightest moment. What an Anti for me!  Just as I’ve got an obsession for exhausting, for not-repeating, for having done with what seems to cost nothing—as with what is purely and simply exceptional—so he does the opposite—and so on.”

The best way, I think, and really the only way, to make any sense of La Jeune Parque is to read it alongside the poet’s Notebooks.  Valéry, who woke up at 5 a.m. every day for most of his adult life to think and write in his Notebooks,  is very much obsessed in the first part of them with intellect and what he can contribute to society with his thoughts and his intellect.  His writings and his observations were, he felt, his real life’s work and his job as a civil servant, which he needed to support himself and his family, was just a way of making money.  A lot of his time is spent in solitude contemplating his intellectual pursuits and figuring out who he is: “In a positive manner, intelligence is something like hunger, thirst, need—something seeking, demanding to work—to function , and it ruptures my sleep, worries my being and wakes me up too early every morning, whether or not I’m tired (Cahiers 1, p. 187).

When La Jeune Parque begins, the youngest Fate (her never names her directly)  is depicted as a beautiful, and lonely, young woman waking up in the dark after a dream on a shoreline and torn by between passion and duty.  Her silence is punctuated by the fact that she not only addresses but personifies the stars:

Almighty aliens, unavoidable stars!—
Who willingly across the miles of time
Make something pure, higher than nature, shine;
Who into mortals plunge to the source of tears
These lofty glimmerings, these invincible weapons
And shooting pains from your eternal life,
I am alone with you, here on the point
Gnawed by the marvellous ocean, shivering, fresh
From bed; asking my heart what pain has woken it,
What crime committed by me or upon me?

The last line calls to mind Ovid’s Daphne who is trying to fend off Apollo’s unwanted love and who considers any form of romantic love or marriage a “crimen” (crime). An image of a snake is used to signify desire and passion that has bitten her and whose poison now torments her:

Coils of desires, towed by this snake! What a jumble
Of treasures that evade my greedy reach—
And what a dark thirst for limpidity!

So often in myth we encounter immortal forces like the Fates, the Hours, the Seasons, and women like Daphne, Semele and Dido and men like Aeneas who are given a job or a role they must fulfill.  They have duties and obligations assigned to them that they didn’t choose and things like desire, passion and love are inaccessible to them.  It’s a stroke of brilliance that Valery chooses a Fate, who didn’t choose her own Fate, to contemplate choices or lack of choices.  Valéry’s young woman herself cites as an example the oracle at Delphi who also had no choice but to carry out her assigned task:

I think, as he world’s rime turns gold, I weigh
The taste for death of the priestess at Delphi
Inside whom moaned a hope the world would end.

At the tender age of twenty-one Valéry has his own battle with the passions when he falls in love with an inaccessible woman.  He reminisces about it briefly in his Notebooks as a negative part of his life that he would rather forgot.  In Cahiers 1, p. 177 he writes, “The past as a chronological and narrative structure has less existence for me than for others. It seems that my being likes to forget what will only be a picture later on—and keep what can be assimilated into itself so completely that it’s no longer a past, but a functional element of virtual acts.” Memory in general is a concept that Valery despises and feels uncomfortable with. The young woman in his poem also expresses anguish over desire and the memories of desire:

The mind is so pure it never kneels
To idols: lonely ardour does flare up
And drive away the walls of its sad tomb.
Anything can appear with infinite waiting.

The Fate also begins to reminisce about a chance passionate encounter in the woods that leaves a deep impression on her. The young woman’s torment over passion, her early awakening, and her inner turmoil wax and wanes as she falls into a peaceful sleep and wakes up again. But like Valery’s experience earlier in his life, this passion is out of reach. And it’s not only desire and love that are out of reach, but, like other immortals, she can’t even choose death. Death, ironically for her, is something she controls and is all around her but it is out of the question as an option for herself:

But if my tender smell goes to your hollow head,
O Death, breathe in at last this regal slave:
Call me, undo these bonds!..And drive off hope
From me, so tired of self, in this doomed shape!

Finally, I have to say a word about the Bloodaxe Books dual language edition that is translated with an introduction and notes by Alistar Elliot. The text is notoriously difficult and Alistar’s notes are a necessity to understanding Valery’s poem and the etymological interpretations of his translation.

 

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Six Years of Blogging and New Bookshelves

WordPress has reminded me today that I have been blogging on this site for six years now. A small and modest achievement compared to bloggers like Steve at This Space, flowerville, and Stu from Winston’s Dad.

However, there also seems to be a trend of bloggers declaring that the blog and blogosphere are dead, abandoning their blogs and moving on to the latest and greatest forms of media like Instagram, podcasts, and YouTube. I was joking with a writer on Twitter who said the next thing we know there will be literary TikToks.

But especially now, in the area of lockdowns and pandemic, the quiet, kind and interesting corner of the Internet that consists of literary bloggers has been a source of friendship and solace for me. This also includes the wonderful connections I’ve made on Twitter via the bookish and artistic communities. Many of us are in lockdown with only a few family members or even alone—for me the only people I’ve seen are my husband and daughter. Going to work and having social interactions with colleagues and friends has also come to a hault. We are social beings and loss of daily human contact with a variety of people feels like something we took for granted. I am particularly grateful these days for my blog, my book friends and my Twitter friends. And so I carry on with these primitive and so-five-years-ago media platforms despite what the other cool kids have moved on to.

In other news, my Mother’s Day gifts were three new bookshelves for my bookroom. My poetry collection was getting out of control and as my daughter quipped in a Mother’s Day poem she composed for me, “I admire that you count books by the stack.”

It was exciting, albeit exhausting, to load and organize my new shelves and I’ve come up with some new categories with which I have that grouped my books together. I have collected so many books from Carcanet that they now have their own section:

Carcanet Press Collection

And I have been very interested in reading the diaries and notebooks of authors. I’ve been captivated, for instance, by Paul Valéry’s Notebooks which were published in English in 5 volumes. So now I have a section dedicated to such notebooks and diaries:

Diaries and Notebooks

I’ve also collected quite a few titles from Ugly Duckling Presse which publishes some of most aesthetically interesting books and chapbooks:

Ugly Duckling Presse Collection

I described in a post back in January that one if my reading goals for this year is to read a series of books about music so they have been given their own section:

Books about Music

The rest of the poetry books are categorized by country/region— English, American, Italian, Latin American, Russian, etc.

English, American, Italian, Latin American, etc.
More American poetry, Robert Kelly and Michael Hamburger
Russian and French Poets and Poetry Magazines

And finally, I have a shelf of books for my read now stack that used to be covering and stacked underneath the coffee table:

The Read Now Section

Now I’m wondering if maybe these “gifts” were a bit self-serving so that we can all see, and use, the coffee table again.

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My Heart Laid Bare by Charles Baudelaire

Rainer Hanshe, in his informative and engaging introduction to his translation of My Heart Laid Bare, describes Baudelaire’s purpose in writing this odd journal of sorts:

As an apodictic work of aphorism, maxim, note and extended reflection, it is the arc of thought, the play of a mind in its everything breadth that is bared. It contains Baudelaire’s exhortations on work, faith, religion and politics, excoriating sociological analyses, diatribes on literature…, the arts, love (women, prostitution, sadomasochism, erotics en generale), and adumbrations of his concepts of the Dandy and the Poet.

This edition contains, in addition to a translation of My Heart Laid Bare, a selection of Baudelaire’s other scattered writings, ideas, fragments and aphorisms. The selections range in size from single sentences, to pieces that are two or three pages . Sometimes Baudelaire just writes a list, such as this one (I especially liked Baudelaire’s colorful use of Latin in this entry):

Portrait of the Literary Rabble
Doctor Estaminetus Crapulosus Pedantissimus. (Estaminetus, a crappy little, very pedantic doctor= my translation) His portrait made in the manner of Praxiteles.
His pipe.
His opinions.
His Hegelianism.
His filth.
His ideas on art.
His bile.
His jealous.
A pretty picture of modern youth.

Similar to someone keeping a journal or a diary, Baudelaire writes about whatever is on his mind on any particular day so there is no particular order or progression to the writer’s thoughts. Certain recurring patterns of topics that weigh on his mind, however, do emerge from the text. On a personal level, he writes about money and the stress of not having enough income to support himself. There is a sense of loneliness that also pervades his entries with many brief comments like this one: “Feeling of solitude, since my childhood. Despite the family,—and among my comrades, above all,—feeling of an eternally solitary destiny. However, a very keen taste for life & for pleasure.”

Another common thread that is related to his sense of loneliness is his struggle with his work as a poet and a translator. He is happy when he mentions Edgar Allen Poe, from whom he takes his title My Heart Laid Bare. There are countless passages in which he talks about the value and honor of work. But Baudelaire, who was always poor and liked to engage in various debaucheries, was not known for his work ethic. These entries felt to me more like he was trying to convince himself rather than his reader that hard work is important in a man’s life: “Do every day what duty and prudence want. If you work every day, life will be more bearable. Work six days without relent.”

As Hanshe mentions in his introduction, one of Baudelaire’s greatest struggles—if not his greatest—is with women and by extension love and relationships. He often equates the opposite sex with images of Hell and Satan and even a female writer like George Sand he doesn’t consider very smart or worthy of the title of author. There is an array of what I found to be amusing sections of his thoughts on the fairer sex. For example, “Woman does not know how to distinguish the soul from the body. She is simplistic, like animals.—A satirist would say that it is because she has nothing but a body.”

And:

Woman is the opposite of the Dandy.
Therefore she must inspire horror.
Woman is hungry and she wants to eat. Thirsty and she wants to drink.
She is rutting and she wants to be fucked.
Beautiful merit!
Woman is natural, that is abominable.
Thus, she is always vulgar, that is, the opposite of the Dandy.

As a result of a woman’s nature, love is oftentimes described as a torment. In one of his longer entries he writes:

I believe that I have already written in my notes that love has a strong resemblance to an act of torture or to a surgical operation. But this idea can be developed in the muost bitter manner. Even if two lovers enamor one another very much and are full of reciprocal desires, one of them will always be calmer or less possessed than the other. He or she is the surgeon or the executioner; the other is the subject, the victim. Do you hear those sighs, the preludes of a tragedy of dishonor, those groans, those cries, those rales? Who has not uttered them, who has not irresistibly extorted them?

He also equates love with prostitution in more than one entry:

What is love?
The need for self-abandoment.
Man is a worshipping animal.
To worship is to sacrifice and prostitute oneself.
Therefore all love is prostitution.

Finally, my concentration for activities like reading is still not what it was since lockdown and transitioning to online teaching. But reading My Heart Laid Bare was the perfect book to take in and absorb a little bit at a time, in the same way that Baudelaire composed it. Speaking of pandemics, there are two final passages I would like to share that seem relevant to the current situation around the world. Baudelaire writes about politics and journalism. Both quotes I am sharing have no need of comment and I will let them stand on their own:

On Politics:

Need I say that what little remains of politics will struggle painfully in the clutches of general animality, and that those who govern will be forced, in order to maintain themselves & to create a phantom of order, to resort to means that would make our present-day humanity although so hardened, shudder?

On Journalism:

Every newspaper, from the first to the last line, is only a tissue of horrors. Wars, crimes, thefts, impudicities, tortures, crimes of princes, crimes of nations, crimes of individuals, an intoxication of universal atrocity. And it is with this disgusting aperitif that civilized man accompanies his every morning meal. Everything, in this world transudes crime: the newspaper, the wall, & the face of man. I do not understand how a pure hand can touch a newspaper without a convulsion of disgust.

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the idea of a sm. exercise persisted: études by Friederike Mayröcker

Friederike Mayröcker is one of the most important and prolific comtemporary Austrian poets. Even now, well into her nineties, she is composing gorgeous, profound and experimental volumes of poetry like études which was just translated from the German by Donna Stonecipher and published by Seagull Books.  Etudes are small musical compositions, of considerable difficulty, designed to provide practice material in order to master a specific musical skills Mayröcker ‘s composes 200 pages of prose poems, varying in length from a few sentences to a few pages,  that feature her innovative experiments with language, punctuation and grammar.  Her topics are nature, memory, writing and art.  The poems are not given specific titles, but are usually dated and oftentimes dedicated to a friend. In one of the earlier poems she works out her use of  as études exercise books:

exercise of the summer: zenith: with bare feet, magnolia tree, while working on this book the idea of a sm. exercise persisted: étude of a blossoming branch, of a little leaf in my hand, a Swiss pine LINE by the unprepossessing Francis Ponge &c., back then from the living-room window Mother’s head, she waved to be for a long time while I ran down the street turning back again and again to wave, she was already fragile but she smiled in this film &c.

The poet often finds herself wandering through the woods or her garden or opening her window and listening to the sounds of nature.  In this one short excerpt she moves us from the image of a magnolia tree to a blossoming branch, to a leaf; her bucolic surroundings bring about other memories—in this instance the work of Francis Ponge (a French essayist and poet that developed a form of prose poem which explores the minutiae of everyday objects)  and an early memory of her childhood and her mother.

Mayröcker isn’t merely composing études for herself–or her audience–but she recognizes études happening everywhere around her, especially in the natural world.   This French word appears throughout the collection in many contexts:

sm. rain puddles I mean they look like white membranes namely little-petal exercises of the jasmine bush = ‘études.’

birdlet’s practice chirping in early evening (“étude”), practice in the evening before the thunderstorm, in darkened boughs…

your long life passes by you, crosses over you, while the moonshine’s pearls = gleams of tears “études” your memory’s exercises & etc.

night practice=étude: Rhode Island, ’71, in Rhode Island to bed that time America ’71, at his side, I say, exhausted in the CAHIER (Durer’s violet boquet over the bed &c.).

as I awoke, lying on m back with my hands balled into sm. fists and I adventure when we had long forgotten each other namely the ribs of each little leaf (“études”) namely we ADORED each other &c……

There is an underlying nostalgia for romance and love in Mayröcker’s poetry as well.  Ernst Jandl was her long time companion and the poems in her collection Requiem for Ernst, written after his death, have that same tone of sentimental affection and longing. Ernst isn’t mentioned specifically in Etudes, but one of my favorite, romantic poems made me wonder if she were thinking of him.  The rolling waves of the sea become a metaphor for a long relationship, now gone, which has left its “pressure marks” on her like the waves do on the sands:

you know endless infinity symbols in my
hand what does Ajax mean you know the sea ROLLS do you know
how the sea rolls up to your feet and over mountain
and valley your path and past the olive trees
wisteria woods bougainvillea you know the lianas
the lilies the waving cypresses and palm trees to the shores of
the sea you know you are alone (with pressure marks from love)

ach the dark clouds leaning on the window. Don’t see any moon
any stars, but the rod blossomed in the sand……for
our days are just 1 breath &c., for the water
rolling to your feet: bare feet dark blue the waves
roll up to you they take you in their arms so that
it is like 1 crying…..and I screwed up my courage &c.

(inconsolable branchlet you know, am dumbstruck)

Mayröcker’s use of the word “ach” is peculiar but in an intriguing and jarring way.  Many of the poems in the collection have this word at least once.  I’m assuming that the word is the same in the original text since “ach” is a German exclamation.  In one of the earlier poems she explains it was the birds that first inspired her to use this word:

then light blue in the window, natures shifting: murkinesses: Handel’s “Berenice” e.g. bitter oranges namely chirping ACH like the young birdlet in the budding tress whose sawn-off brances in heaps in the wafting grass and purple tones on deepest girl…..

The poet continues to use it as an exclamation and, I think, as a jarring transition between images, thoughts and memories.  I offer few examples from various poems throughout the collection:

After the death of the mother the deep feelings belonged more profoundly to her since the words SOUL and TEARS rose on her face ach shattered her eyes and mouth.

 the cherries ach in our mouth am your adagio the pale hair and pale tears.

1 wan morning meanwhile, I had kept some of my ailments to myself but the doctor could read them in my eyes, he was very magical “and followed me into death” &c. ACH WHAT CUSTOMS.

imperative vegetable I mean from the past I dreamed of the past ach into the river that branched, 1 certain type of field-flower. Fleurs.

ach little heart ran riot with fear circa many years ago, deep-black blueberries, how they grow wild in the woods, or SNACKING on the wood-beauties namely infiltration of a love.

One of my favorite side effects of reading this collection is  the new books and new artists that I’ve discovered.  I read this collection slowly, over the course of the last few weeks while in lockdown–my attention span for reading hasn’t been great–but I’ve have found it very soothing to explore her poetry and various rabbit holes down which she sent me. Mayröcker mentions in one poem, “and everyone asks what are you reading these days &c” and she answers this time and again in just about every poem.  Old favorites, Goethe, Schiller, Musil, and T.S. Eliot, and Handke are comforting to her.  But she also reads widely from different languages (Jean Genet is a favorite French poet of hers) and different periods of time.  For instance, I’ve discovered the poetry of the contemporary German poet Thomas Kling. I’ve also stopped to look at and ponder Cy Twombly’s Orpheus series and Durer’s Violet Bouquet.  Mayröcker ‘s poems and Durer’s painting are both nice reminders of spring, renewal, and rebirth.  I hope everyone is doing well and staying safe.

 

 

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