Probable Impossibilities and Improbable Possibilities — Part Two

‘She was well under ninety, poor late Mrs, and had tastes of the poetics, me having stood the pilgarlick a fresh at sea when the moon also was standing in a corner of weet Standerson my ski. P.L.M Mevrouw von Andersen was her whogave me a muttonbrooch, stakkers for her begfirst party. Honour thy farmer and my litters. This, my tears, is my lastwill intesticle wrote off in the strutforit about their absent female assauciations which I, or perhaps any other person what squaton a tofette, have the honour to had upon their polite sophykussens in the real presence of devouted Mrs Grumby when her skin was exposed to the air’.

- James Joyce, ‘Finnegans Wake’

A passage from a chapter that opens with the sound of bells tolling at midnight, and in the repose of the heartbeats of sleep, the speaker dropping asleep somepart in nonland pictures the public acclaim achieved by Shaun the Post; a chapter that Joyce described as ‘a postman travelling backwards in the night through the events already narrated. It is written in the form of a via crucis of 14 stations but in reality it is only a barrel rolling down the river’. The via crucis, the way of the cross, or the via dolorosa, the way of suffering, the path that Jesus, (c. 4 BCE — 30/33 ACE) walked on the way to his crucifixion, of which there have been fourteen stations identified since the late 15th century; (I have discussed this already in ‘The Cartesian Spring’ — Part Four).

However, as it happens what is really occurring is that there is only Shaun in a barrel floating down the river Liffey; for the sleeper dreaming this dream is round like a barrel and latterly replete with drink and now a drifting barrel of Guinness, in a chapter comprised of an extended interview with Shaun, fourteen questions in all; and the above passage is part of the answer to question number six; a question that begins by commending a song Shaun has been singing, but then enquires of him what it is that he is truly after. As I have noted before, it may not be particularly fruitful to read anything into the number of the question and the corresponding station of the cross, but as it happens the sixth station is that of Veronica wiping the face of Jesus as he fell under the weight of the cross; the face of Jesus subsequently being imprinted upon her face cloth; a story that appears nowhere in the Gospels, and given that her name derives from the Latin vera (true), and the Greek eikon (image), it is very likely to be a made up story, unlike those that do appear in the Gospels.

‘Your face, Lord, do I seek. Hide not your face from me’, (‘Psalms’ 27:8–9). How all believers yearn to see the face of God; ‘blessed are the pure in heart’, saith the Lord, ‘for they shall see God’, (‘Matthew’ 5:8). Veronica witnessed a bleeding, battered and bruised, agony-ridden face; and as a consequence of her loving deed the true image of Jesus was impressed upon her heart; for love purifies in this way and grants us the capacity to observe and to recognize the God who is all love in itself.

Odilon Redon, ‘Christ’s Head’, c. 1895.

Compare this to ‘the real presence of devouted Mrs Grumby when her skin was exposed to the air’; Mrs. Grundy, the prickly muse who presides over disapproval rather than the contrary; in a constant state of irritation, an easily offended lady whose first appearance was as an off-stage character in the play ‘Speed the Plough’ by Thomas Morton, (1764–1838), her name now representative of a self-righteous inordinately peevish adherent to standards of conventional propriety and who demands from us all a pointlessly precise conformity to such correct behaviour; a prig and a puritan, an archetype of the despotism of society’s reproaches; for we must beware of grundyism, of being overly concerned about what others think; grumbly, grunty, mumbly, Grundy is a name that evokes through language associations of an underlying and continual mental displeasure. As John Poole, (1786–1872), noted: ‘Many people take the entire world to be one huge Mrs. Grundy, and, upon every act and circumstance of their lives, please, or torment themselves, according to the nature of it, by thinking of what that huge Mrs. Grundy, the World, will say about it’. And John Stuart Mill, (1806–1873), cognizant of the potential that social reproach possesses for authoritarian force, invoked Mrs. Grundy in his essay ‘The Subjection of Women’, noting that: ‘Whoever has a wife and children has given hostages to Mrs. Grundy’. And Mrs. Grundy is alive and well even unto this day.

Now compare that to Mrs Sanders, the Mrs referred to in: ‘She was well under ninety, poor late Mrs, and had tastes of the poetics…..’ In 1909 a public institution called Julia’s Bureau, the purpose of which was to facilitate those who were sorrowing over dead friends and relatives to get in touch with them again, was founded by newspaper editor William T. Stead, (1849–1912), victim of the Titanic disaster, and commemorated by Joyce in the final line of ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’:

‘Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

April 27. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead’.

‘Automatic Drawing’, Andre Masson, 1924

Free communication was thus being provided by the Bureau with the beyond, an idea initially suggested to Stead by the author of his own automatic scripts, the spirit of the defunct Julia A. Ames, (1861–1891), an American journalist, dead of pneumonia at 31, in constant communication with Stead after her passing, moving his hand to produce written words without conscious writing on his part, from which came her ‘letters’, subsequently published. The Bureau was expected to certify the after-life existence of the loved ones of the members of the public who availed themselves of its services; and the cost of the mediums and of the transcribers, and of the cataloguing of their records, was borne by Stead himself; and therefore it was a requirement of applicants that they authenticate their serious intent, which they did by completing a number of bona fide printed forms. Shaun’s mysterious letter, the subject of analysis in the chapter from which the above passage is taken, is addressed to ‘The Very Honourable The Memory of Disgrace’, on behalf of ‘The just defunct Mrs. Sanders’ and is mocking the forms and information required of applicants to the Bureau….the Old Artificer, the master craftsman, has become shrouded in mysticism and spiritualism, while the amplified and intensified message of the Wake has been rendered cryptic to the accompaniment of the sound of the bells tolling at midnight, echoing throughout Chapelizod, Dublin.

‘Post-Obits And The Poets’

by Marcus Valerius Martialis (c. 38/41 AD — c. 102/104 AD)

He unto whom thou art so partial,

Oh, reader! is the well-known Martial,

The Epigrammatist: while living,

Give him the fame thou wouldst be giving;

So shall he hear, and feel, and know it —

Post-obits rarely reach a poet.

‘Musefed with his thockits’, to borrow a phrase from the Wake … busy with his thoughts … be a muse to the living, a muse not of disapproval but of approval, and you may just find yourself muse fed.

‘To the Muses’

by William Blake (1757–1827)

WHETHER on Ida’s shady brow

Or in the chambers of the East,

The chambers of the Sun, that now

From ancient melody have ceased;

Whether in heaven ye wander fair,

Or the green corners of the earth,

Or the blue regions of the air

Where the melodious winds have birth;

Whether on crystal rocks ye rove,

Beneath the bosom of the sea,

Wandering in many a coral grove;

Fair Nine, forsaking Poetry;

How have you left the ancient love

That bards of old enjoy’d in you!

The languid strings do scarcely move,

The sound is forced, the notes are few.

‘Polyhymnia, Muse of Eloquence’, c. 1789–1800, Charles Meynier

O for a Muse of eloquence, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention … The poor late defunct Mrs. Sanders did have the taste of the poetics, a taste for writing poetry, but also Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ of course. To continue my brief run through the work, Aristotle has arrived at the notion of purgation, (katharsis), applied, in the definition, to pity and fear, by which the spectator is moved; and reference to Aristotle’s ‘Politics’, and to his ‘Rhetoric’, and to medical writings of his time, serve to shed some extra light upon this purgation than the ‘Poetics’ shines by itself. Pity and fear are regarded as painful emotions by Aristotle; pity is what one feels upon observing another in a situation in which one would fear for oneself; and just as the playing of frenzied music has the effect of calming those possessed, which was an actual practice in Aristotle’s day, the presentation of events arousing pity and fear would, so the theory asserts, allay these emotions latent in the spectator, and thus bring pleasure; and these are the very universal elements of human nature that it is right and proper for tragedy in particular to imitate (I discussed mimesis in the previous part).

Tragedy, Aristotle continues, requires six parts, rhythm, song, metrical wording, these three are the kinds of ornament that embellish the language; and spectacle, that is to say, the staging of the play, character of those portrayed, and their thought; but what the completeness of tragedy requires, however, is that the piece have a beginning, a middle, and an end (but not necessarily in that order as Jean-Luc Goddard, (1930 — ), reportedly and wittily observed); a beginning is that which does not necessarily follow anything, but is naturally followed by something else; an end is what must follow another thing but need not be followed by anything; a middle both follows and must be followed by something else. (Bertrand Russell, (1872–1870), once said of Aristotle’s writings on friendship that it was sensible enough but not one word rises above common sense … on occasion he is not so much a philosopher of common sense as of the patently obvious). As to magnitude, the imitation should not be so long as to give difficulty in remembering or comprehending the action; but within this limitation, the longer it may be, the finer the creative production; and furthermore, it must be long enough to allow naturally a change from good to bad fortune, or bad to good; and the action must be both single and complete, such that to add or subtract an element of plot would disorganise or disrupt, rather than enhance, the action.

In such descriptions as these Aristotle recognised the dramatic unity of action which, along with the unities of time and place that he suggests were zealously observed in neoclassical times; and plot is the very soul of tragedy, being the arrangement of the incidents, it is what portrays the action: ‘For tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality’. Character determines men’s qualities, and these together with their thought determine their actions. Dramatic action, therefore, does not aim at the representation of character; for character is subsidiary to the action.

Charles Meynier, (1768–1832), ‘Ceyx and Alcyone’

Aristotle approves the origin of the plots of most Greek tragedies in Greek myth, for in telling the nature of tragedy, he asserts that a poet is unlike a historian, not writing about what has happened but rather about what may happen, and he thereby acknowledges the transformation of events by the poetic imagination. Probable impossibilities, that is to say, we return to them; Plato, (428/427 or 424/423–348/347 BC), was rather condemnatory towards poetic myth, those lacking sufficient education might after all take the stories of Gods and heroes quite literally, as if anyone would, certainly not in our more enlightened times, and yet mythic narratives are constantly called upon in his writings, as they are in psychology, philology, anthropology, for they resonate. The story of Alcyone, for instance, (not mentioned here by Aristotle, I invoke it myself, because it resonates with me), the daughter of Aeolus, the Greek god of the wind, devoted wife of Ceyx, King of Trachis, who lived in central Greece. Ceyx ruled his kingdom with justice and in peace, and Alcyone and Ceyx were admired by gods and mortals alike for their great physical beauty, as well as the profound love they had for each other; so happy were they indeed in their marriage that they used to often playfully call one another Zeus and Hera; and so of course the chief of the gods who, despite being overlord of the cosmos is riddled with insecurities and quick to take offence, was infuriated at such a display of audacity that he waited for the proper time to punish the arrogant (albeit happy) couple who dared to make themselves comparable to gods; and while Ceyx was at sea on the way to consult an oracle Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at his ship, and very soon after Morpheus the god of dreams disguised himself as Ceyx and appeared to Alcyone as an apparition to inform her of his fate; subsequent to which revelation she threw herself into the sea in her grief, and out of compassion, for why expect consistency to be an attribute of divine beings? … the gods transformed both of them into halcyon birds, named after her. Ah how we pine for days of happiness and tranquillity …

Assign’d am I to be the English scourge.

This night the siege assuredly I’ll raise:

Expect Saint Martin’s summer, halcyon days,

Since I have entered into these wars.

Glory is like a circle in the water,

Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself

Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought.

- Shakespeare, ‘Henry VI’, Act 1, Scene 2.

Plato, as is well known, barred poets from his republic, though I doubt many would have cared to live there, for, like many an ideal state dreamt up by a philosopher, it would have been an appalling place in which to live. The bar was not necessarily permanent, however. Poets may well be immoral falsifiers, but they had the chance to redeem themselves; they were only barred from the ideal republic until such time as they could write poetry convincingly arguing for their own reinstatement; which is to say, poetry needs must be didactic, and have a moral purpose; a very lowly estimate of poetry from which Aristotle endeavoured to rehabilitate it; and thereby demonstrated a function of poetry that Plato had completely overlooked, for if poetry imitates what ought to happen rather than what has happened, it then imitates the universal rather than the particular; and from this Aristotle can draw the conclusion that poetry is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history.

Aristotle recognises three parts of the plot of tragedy, designating plots complex when so divided, and simple when there are no divisions. One part is reversal of the situation, or peripeteia, such as when an act of the hero produces the opposite from the intended effect; another is recognition or discovery (anagnorisis), in which a character acquires knowledge of a fact, producing in him or her love or hatred toward another character; and when these two are simultaneous they are most effective in arousing pity or fear. The third part of the complex plot is the final suffering, which does not turn upon a surprise as do the others, but like them will be most effective as a probable or natural outcome of other events.

And then Aristotle’s discussion continues with addressing the question: What of the person chiefly concerned in these actions? What kind of person is a tragic hero? I will leave that until the next part; for now, some thoughts on katharsis, peripeteia, and anagnorisis.

‘William Shakespeare’, c. 1800, William Blake

Catharsis is of course a metaphor, but it is not at all clear how to interpret it; the purification or purgation of the emotions, especially pity and fear, derived from a medical term catharsis, ‘purgation’ or ‘purification’. What does the purification or the purgation of the emotions even mean? According to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, (1729–81), catharsis converts excess emotions into virtuous dispositions; which makes the notion no clearer, and I cannot, as many commentators and critics do, regard tragedy as delivering some kind of moral lesson, whereby this moral lesson in which the fear and pity excited by the fate of the tragic hero serves as a warning to the spectator not to similarly tempt providence. What can possibly be meant by tempting providence? And what, for instance, is the moral lesson we are supposed to draw upon seeing the tragedy of ‘Macbeth’? Kill a king and this is what will happen to you? On another more generally accepted interpretation of catharsis, through the vicarious experience of fear within a controlled situation, the spectator’s own anxieties are thereby directed outwards, and subsequently, through sympathetic identification with the tragic protagonist, both the insight and the outlook of the spectator are enlarged; and tragedy in this manner has a healthy and humanizing effect upon him or her; but this is a way of looking at tragedy or indeed any art that I just cannot agree with at all, even if it could be demonstrated that such happy outcomes are indeed effected through the experience of the art of tragedy.

I do not find Aristotle’s analysis of tragedy particularly helpful; but I will endeavour to apply what I have so far discussed of his account to the greatest play in the English language, ‘Hamlet’.

katharsis: ‘Hamlet is a tragedy without catharsis’, said Northop Frye, (1912–1991), ‘a tragedy in which everything noble and heroic is smothered under ferocious revenge codes, treachery, spying and the consequences of weak actions by broken wills’. But then, whatever else it may mean, the word has something to do purification, the vagaries of which notion allow for ‘Hamlet’ to be as easily interpreted as a play with catharsis. Hamlet declares:

The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!

And put it right he does. All the principal characters die.

peripeteia: the turning point in the story; peripety, a sudden turn of events or an unexpected reversal, a sudden and dramatic change in circumstances; in ‘Hamlet’ this turning point may well be literally dramatic, if we were to pinpoint it as occurring during the performance of ‘The Mousetrap; the play within the play.

…….. The play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

And Claudius does incriminate himself with his reaction to the play, confronted with a re-enactment of his guilty deed; and now Claudius is assured that Hamlet knows what he has done to become King; and upon such assurance the villain that he is will now endeavour to dispose of Hamlet, setting off the chain of events that lead towards the tragic denouement.

‘Hamlet and the Ghost’, 1901, Frederick James Shields

anagnorisis: the moment when a character discovers an important piece of information, makes a critical discovery; when the tragic hero uncovers some truth concerning his or her identity, or some truth about another character. It would seem obvious enough that such a moment occurs in ‘Hamlet’ upon Hamlet learning from the ghost of his father that he, the old King, had been murdered by Claudius; a terrible discovery upon Hamlet’s part, coupled with a revelation concerning the real character of Claudius; and thus Hamlet embarks upon his journey to avenge his father’s murder. Or rather he doesn’t. But what is he supposed to do? Kill the king and be executed for treason? Inform the court of what Claudius has done and upon being asked how he knows respond that a ghost told him so? Not that they are the concerns he is preoccupied with upon coming across Claudius at prayer; the opportunity to kill him presents itself; for to kill the King at his prayers would do him the favour of sending him to Heaven, his soul purged, a purification that is as much a mystery to me as to what that means as to say that one’s emotions are purified through the witnessing of a tragic drama:

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;

And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;

And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:

A villain kills my father; and for that,

I, his sole son, do this same villain send

To heaven.

O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.

He took my father grossly, full of bread;

With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;

And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?

But in our circumstance and course of thought,

’Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,

To take him in the purging of his soul,

When he is fit and season’d for his passage?


Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:

When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,

Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;

At gaming, swearing, or about some act

That has no relish of salvation in’t;

Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,

And that his soul may be as damn’d and black

As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:

This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

Eugène Delacroix, ‘Hamlet tente de tuer le roi’, 1843

But suppose we may identify the parts of a tragedy that Aristotle asserts need to be there, what do we learn by it? What does it inform us with regard to the essence of tragedy? Time for some dialectics methinks, for I know I am postponing discussion of the tragic hero until the next part, but something has to be said about a view of Hamlet put forward by Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (1770–1831); for it is so astute and serves to illustrate why the Aristotelian approach to understanding tragedy is somewhat empty and unsatisfying. Hegel’s theory of tragedy differs markedly from the Aristotelian notions of the tragic hero and his or her hamartia, a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine that I shall discuss in the next part. The essence of tragedy is tragic collision; ethical forces collide, but whereas in Greek tragedy this was represented by characters, in Shakespearean tragedy the conflict is rendered as one of subject and object, of individual personality which must manifest self-destructive passions because only such passions are strong enough to defend the individual from a hostile and capricious external world. The Hegelian take on catharsis is of a feeling of reconciliation; the emphasis is upon the correction of moral imbalances; for tragic fate is rational; and reason does not allow individuals to hold on to one-sided positions; and given that each position is constituted through its relation to the other, the elimination of one position leads to the destruction of the other; the result is death, but the absolute end is the reestablishment of ethical substance; for this unity is the catharsis of tragedy; it occurs within the mind of the spectator, who thereby recognises the supremacy of the whole of ethical life; and witnesses the purging of ethical life of its one-sidedness. It is the tragedy of a tragic hero that they adhere to a one-sided position, they deny the validity of its complementary and contrasting other, they eventually succumb to the greater process in which it is submergedl the tragic adherence to a partial position is stripped away and yields to the larger rational process of historical development; and so it is that Tragedy contains within itself a concealed moment of resolution and of reconciliation.

This elevation of harmony in tragedy may seem odd and it has certainly been criticized, particularly in modern times in which seldom is there so much as a glimmer of reconciliation or rational order to be read into a tragedy; but the essence of tragedy is resolution, for the tragic hero overcomes a one-sidedness not through death but in their mind and action; and yet whereas the heroes of Greek tragedy encountered situations in which, were they steadfastly to opt for one ethical force that accomodates their settled character, necessarily they come into conflict with an equally justified ethical power that confronts them, the Shakespearean tragic hero finds themself amidst an abundance of more merely accidental circumstances, within which they may act one way, or another, and thereby though the conflict may well be occasioned by external preconditions it remains essentially grounded in the character themself. They obey their own natures, they are what they are; and while Greek tragic heroes may act in accordance with individuality it is necessarily a self-contained ethical quality to evoke pity in us, whereas in a tragedy like ‘Hamlet’ the tragic hero in his peculiarity makes his decisions, (for Hamlet is decisive enough when need be, think of his efficiency in despatching of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), in accordance with his subjective desires, and the essence of the tragic aesthetic is no longer constituted by the agreement or appropriateness of character with outward ethical intention.

With this in mind, a particular remark of Hegel’s concerning ‘Hamlet’, and that other great tragedy, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, may be seen as getting to the heart of the matter concerning tragedy:

‘Looked at from the outside, Hamlet’s death seems to be brought about accidentally owing to the fight with Laertes and the exchange of rapiers. But death lay from the beginning in the background of Hamlet’s mind. The sands of time do not content him. In his melancholy and weakness, his worry, his disgust at all the affairs of life, we sense from the start that in all his terrible surroundings he is a lost man, almost consumed already by inner disgust before death comes to him from outside. The same is the case in Romeo and Juliet. The soil on which these tender blooms were planted is foreign to them, and we are left with nothing but to bewail the tragic transience of so beautiful a love which is shattered by the crazy calculations of a noble and well-meaning cleverness, just as a tender rose in the vale of this transitory world is withered by rude storms and tempests. But the woe that we feel is only a grievous reconciliation, an unhappy bliss in misfortune’.

Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie on ’t, ah fie! ’Tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely.

- ‘Hamlet’, Act 1, Scene 2

Salvador Dali, ‘Hamlet’, 1973


‘Her untitled mamafesta memorialising the Mosthighest has gone by many names at disjointed times’.

‘His jymes is out of job, would sit and write’.

‘The time is out of joint’ ………..


‘Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousaendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given!’

‘But soft! methinks I scent the morning air’ ……….

To be continued …..

Notes to ‘Finnegans Wake’ quotation:

1, poetic (plural), poetic composition; the writing of poems; and Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’.

2. pilgarlic = ‘poor creature’; used by the speaker of himself as a quasi-proper name; commonly poor Pilgarlic = poor I, poor me; and pilgerlich (German), like a pilgrim; and Kate’s poetry.

3. fresh = a squall, a gust of wind.

4. Saunderson = a name of the Man Servant.

5. P.L.M. = Paris-Lyons-Mediterranean (Railway); poor late Mrs.

6. Mevrouw (Dutch) = Mrs.

7. anders (Dutch) = different, otherwise ; Mary Anderson, actress, close friend of John McCormack.

8. muttonbroth = a broth made from mutton.

9. stakker = stacker, to totter, reel in one’s gait, to stagger; and steaks; and stakkers (Norwegian), poor, wretched; and stakkers (Dutch); poor wretches, beggars.

10. ‘Sir Thomas asked Crawford to join the early breakfast party’; and big first.

11. litter = odds and ends, fragments and leavings lying about, rubbish; and letters; and Exodus 20:12: ‘Honour thy father and thy mother’.

12. dears

13. intestacy = the condition or fact of dying intestate or without having made a will.

14. Stratford; and street for it.

15. associations; and sauciatio (Latin), wounding.

16. tuffet = a clump or tuft of grass; a low seat, such as a stool; and Little Miss Muffet (nursery rhyme): ‘squat on a tuffet’; and Swift: ‘On the Death of Mrs Johnson’: ‘the truest, most virtuous and reliable friend that I, or perhaps any other person, ever was blessed with’.

17. sixteens; and sophy, a wise or learned man, a sage; a ruler; a great person; and Kussen (German) = kussen (Dutch), kisses; and Sofakissen (German), sofa cushion; and kussens (Dutch), cushions.

18. real presence = physical presence of Christ’s body in the Eucharist.

19. devout = devote (obsolete)

20. Grundy, Mrs = muse of disapproval; and grumpy, perversely irritable.

‘There is No Finished World’, 1942, Andre Masson




David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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