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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Twain’

08 OCTOBER, 2013

Mark Twain on Religion and Our Human Egotism

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“The human race … sits up nine nights in the week to admire its own originality.”

A large part of what made Mark Twain the greatest American satirist was his capacity for cultural nitpicking, from his irreverent advice to little girls to his critique of the press to his snarky commentary on the outrageous requests he received. But one subject to which Twain applied his exquisite satire with absolute seriousness was religion. In Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2: The Complete and Authoritative Edition (public library) — the highly anticipated sequel to the excellent first installment — Twain’s grievances with “God” come fully ablaze.

In April of 1906, Twain — who famously believed that any claim of originality was merely misguided narcissism — offers this humorous lament on religion as a manifestation of human egotism:

The human race … sits up nine nights in the week to admire its own originality. The race has always been able to think well of itself, and it doesn’t like people who throw bricks at its naïve self-appreciation. It is sensitive upon this point. The other day I furnished a sentiment in response to a man’s request — to wit:

“The noblest work of God?” Man.

“Who found it out?” Man.

I thought it was very good, and smart, but the other person didn’t.

‘If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.’

Twain treated all forms of dogmatic authority, from religious to parental, with equal irreverence. Spread from his ‘Advice to Little Girls’ illustrated by Vladimir Rudinsky. Click image for more.

In another meditation, dictated in 1906 and posthumously published in 1963 in the Hudson Review under the title “Reflections on Religion,” then eventually included in the altogether excellent The Bible According to Mark Twain: Irreverent Writings on Eden, Heaven, and the Flood by America’s Master Satirist, Twain revisits the subject of evidence-free idolatry of deistic character:

We deal in a curious and laughable confusion of notions concerning God. We divide Him in two, bring half of Him down to an obscure and infinitesimal corner of the world to confer salvation upon a little colony of Jews — and only Jews, no one else — and leave the other half of Him throned in heaven and looking down and eagerly and anxiously watching for results. We reverently study the history of the earthly half, and deduce from it the conviction that the earthly half has reformed, is equipped with morals and virtues, and in no way resembles the abandoned, malignant half that abides upon the throne. We conceive that the earthly half is just, merciful, charitable, benevolent, forgiving, and full of sympathy for the sufferings of mankind and anxious to remove them.

Apparently we deduce this character not by examining facts, but by diligently declining to search them, measure them, and weigh them. The earthly half requires us to be merciful, and sets us an example by inventing a lake of fire and brimstone in which all of us who fail to recognize and worship Him as God are to be burned through all eternity. And not only we, who are offered these terms, are to be thus burned if we neglect them, but also the earlier billions of human beings are to suffer this awful fate, although they all lived and died without ever having heard of Him or the terms at all. This exhibition of mercifulness may be called gorgeous. We have nothing approaching it among human savages, nor among the wild beasts of the jungle.

‘All gods are better than their reputation,’ inscription dated December 23, 1902 from a first edition of ‘A Double-Barrelled Detective Story’ (Kevin MacDonnell Collection)

An early proponent of the conviction that evidence should outweigh mythology, he continues:

There is no evidence that there is to be a Heaven hereafter. … Heaven exists solely upon hearsay evidence — evidence furnished by unknown persons; persons who did not prove that they had ever been there.

[…]

According to the hearsay evidence the character of every conspicuous god is made up of love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, sorrow for all suffering and desire to extinguish it. Opposed to this beautiful character — built wholly upon valueless hearsay evidence – it is the absolute authentic evidence furnished us every day in the year, and verifiable by our eyes and our other senses, that the real character of these gods is destitute of love, mercy, compassion, justice and other gentle and excellent qualities, and is made up of all imaginable cruelties, persecutions and injustices. The hearsay character rests upon evidence only — exceedingly doubtful evidence. The real character rests upon proof — proof unassailable.

Twain then traces the evolution — or, as it were, devolution — of religion over the course of human history, considering Christianity’s odds for survival:

Do I think the Christian religion is here to stay? Why should I think so? There had been a thousand religions before it was born. They are all dead. There had been millions of gods before ours was invented. Swarms of them are dead and forgotten long ago. Our is by long odds the worst God that the ingenuity of man has begotten from his insane imagination — and shall He and his Christianity be immortal against the great array of probabilities furnished by the theological history of the past? No. I think that Christianity and its God must follow the rule. They must pass on in their turn and make room for another God and a stupider religion. Or perhaps a better [one] than this? No. That is not likely. History shows that in the matter of religions we progress backward and not the other way.

(More than a century later, legendary atheist Richard Dawkins would come to echo this sentiment in his newly published biography, writing: “I learned from my mother that Christianity was one of many religions and they contradicted each other. They couldn’t all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up?”)

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2 is an indispensable trove of insight into one of modern history’s greatest minds. Complement it with the story of how Twain masterminded the middlebrow magazine, his little-known poetry, and the heart-warming fan mail he received over the course of his colorful career.

Thanks, Andrew

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17 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Famous Writers on New York: Timeless Private Reflections from Diaries, Letters & Personal Essays

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Mark Twain, Susan Sontag, Simone de Beauvoir, E. B. White, Washington Irving, Anaïs Nin, Italo Calvino, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.

New York City has been the subject of poetic love letters, essayistic homages, emotional cartographies, and artistic tributes. But hardly anything captures the gritty, unfiltered magic of the world’s greatest city than the private recollections of beloved authors, recorded in their journals and correspondence, untainted by the prospect of an evaluating audience. Collected here are some of my favorite such impressions, culled from years of my personal marginalia in famous diaries, letters, and the occasional personal essay.

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street. Photograph by Berenice Abbott from 'Changing New York.' Click image for details.

Mark Twain — in between dispensing advice to little girls and criticizing the popular press — makes a laconic note of New York’s unmanageable scale in an 1867 reflection included in the vintage anthology Mirror For Gotham: New York as Seen by Contemporaries from Dutch Days to the Present (public library):

The only trouble about this town is, that it is too large. You cannot accomplish anything in the way of business, you cannot even pay a friendly call, without devoting a whole day to it — that is, what people call a whole day who do not get up early. Many business men only give audience from eleven to one; therefore, if you miss those hours your affair must go over till next day. Now if you make the time at one place, even though you stay only ten or fifteen minutes, you can hardly get to your next point, because so many things and people will attract your attention and your conversation and curiosity, that the other three quarters of that hour will be frittered away. You have but one hour left, and my experience is that a man cannot go anywhere in New York in an hour. The distances are too great — you must have another day to it. If you have got six things to do, you have got to take six days to do them in.

In the recently released Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985 (public library) — which also gave us the author’s wisdom on writing, America, and the meaning of lifeItalo Calvino writes to his friend Paolo Spriano on Christmas Eve 1959, shortly after receiving a grant from the Ford Foundation to travel around America for six months alongside six other young writers:

New York has swallowed me up like a carnivorous plant swallowing a fly, I have been living a breathless life for fifty days now, here life consists of a series of appointments made a week or a fortnight in advance: lunch, cocktail party, dinner, evening party, these make up the various stages of the day which allow you constantly to meet new people, to make arrangements for other lunches, other dinners, other parties and so on ad infinitum. America (or rather New York, which is something quite separate) is not the land of the unforeseen, but it is the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day, the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little, the country where solitude is impossible (I must have spent maybe just one evening on my own out of the fifty I have spent here, and that was because my date with the girl that I had arranged for that evening fell through: here you have to order everything in advance, they are buying theater tickets for March now, and a girl, even if she happens to be your girl at present, has to know a week in advance the evenings she is going out with you otherwise she goes out with someone else).

From the fantastic New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (public library) — one of the best history books of 2012, which you can sample here — comes this 1947 celebration of New York’s defiant diversity by Simone de Beauvoir:

I’m utterly taken with New York. It’s true that both camps tell me, “New York is not America.” V. irritates me when he declares, “If you like New York, it’s because it’s a European city that’s strayed to the edge of this continent.” It is all too clear that New York is not Europe. But I’m even more distrustful of P., another pro-American Pétain supporter, when he contrasts New York — a city of foreigners and Jews — to the idyllic villages of New England, where the inhabitants are 100 percent American and endowed with patriarchal virtues. We have often heard “the real France” praised this way in contrast to the corruption of Paris.

In another reflection from the same volume, de Beauvoir further marvels at New York’s singular character and medley of complementary contradictions:

In Paris, in Rome, history has permeated the bowels of the ground itself; Paris reaches down into the center of the earth. In New York, even the Battery doesn’t have such deep roots. Beneath the subways, sewers, and heating pipes, the rock is virgin and inhuman. Between this rock and the open sky, Wall Street and Broadway bathe in the shadows of the giant buildings; this morning they belong to nature. The little black church with its cemetery of flat paving stones is as unexpected and touching in the middle of Broadway as a crucifix on a wild ocean beach.

Illustration from 'Paris vs. New York' by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

In a 1934 letter to her lifelong friend and then-lover Henry Miller, found in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, 1932–1953 (public library), Anaïs Nin echoes de Beauvoir’s affection for the city:

I’m in love with N.Y. It matches my mood. I’m not overwhelmed. It is the suitable scene for my ever ever heightened life. I love the proportions, the amplitude, the brilliance, the polish, the solidity. I look up at Radio City insolently and love it. It is all great, and Babylonian. Broadway at night. Cellophane. The newness. The vitality. True, it is only physical. But it’s inspiring. Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power. I’m not moved, not speechless. I stand straight, tough, and I meet the impact. I feel the glow and the dancing in everything. The radio music in the taxis, scientific magic, which can all be used lyrically. That’s my last word. Give New York to a poet. He can use it. It can be poetized. Or maybe that’s a mania of mine, to poetize. I live lightly, smoothly, actively, ears and eyes wide open, alert, oiled! I feel a kind of exhilaration and the tempo is like that of my blood. I’m at once beyond, over and in New York, tasting it fully.

But five years later, Nin grows diametrically disillusioned and writes in her diary — which also gave us her timeless wisdom on anxiety and love, how emotional excess fuels creativity, and embracing the unfamiliar — she contrasts New York to her native Paris:

In Paris, when entering a room, everyone pays attention, seeks to make you feel welcome, to enter into conversation, is curious, responsive. Here it seems everyone is pretending not to see, hear, or look too intently. The faces reveal no interest, no responsiveness.

Overtones are missing. Relationships seem impersonal and everyone conceals his secret life, whereas in Paris it was the exciting substance of our talks, intimate revelations and sharing of experience.

In another diary entry a year later, she revisits the contrast with growing fervor:

New York is the very opposite of Paris. People’s last concern is with intimacy. No attention is given to friendship and its development. Nothing is done to soften the harshness of life itself. There is much talk about the ‘world,’ about millions, groups, but no warmth between human beings. They persecute subjectivity, which is a sense of inner life; an individual’s concern with growth and self-development is frowned upon.

Subjectivity seems to be in itself a defect. No praise or compliments are given, because praise is politeness and all politeness is hypocrisy. Americans are proud of telling you only the bad. The ‘never-talk-about-yourself’ taboo is linked with the most candid, unabashed self-seeking, and selfishness.

New Yorker cover by Mark Ulriksen from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for details.

In a September 22, 1917, letter to her mother and sister — found in the same superb out-of-print anthology that gave us the poet’s reflections on the love of music, her playfully lewd self-portrait, and the story of how she was almost banned from her own graduation — 18-year-old Edna St. Vincent Millay grumbles with her signature wry wit:

There is no air on 5th Avenue, there is nothing but oil & old gasoline & new gasoline — there is never one breath of pure air — nothing but gas, gas, gas — but people who live in New York walk there to get air. Probably they do get it — all of it — & that’s why it blows to me so scummily.

She later adds:

There is a beautiful anonymity about life in New York.

Three years later, in another letter to her mother, Millay grows exasperated with the city:

New York life is getting too congested for me — too many people; I get no time to work.

Washington Irving shares Millay’s frustration with the city’s density. How endearing and comic to consider that, in this 1847 letter to his sister who hadn’t seen her native city in over forty years, he compares New York (current population: 8.3 million) to Frankfurt (current population: 691,000) in an effort to capture its bustling expansiveness:

I often think what a strange world you would find yourself in, if you could revisit your native place, and mingle among your relatives. New York, as you knew it, was a mere corner of the present huge city ; and that corner is all changed, pulled to pieces, burnt down and rebuilt — all but our little native nest in William street, which still retains some of its old features, though those are daily altering. I can hardly realize that, within my term of life, this great crowded metropolis, so full of life, bustle, noise, show, and splendor, was a quiet little city of some fifty or sixty thousand inhabitants. It is really now one of the most racketing cities in the world, and reminds me of one of the great European cities (Frankfort, for instance) in the time of an annual fair. Here it is a fair almost all the year round. For my part, I dread the noise and turmoil of it, and visit it but now and then, preferring the quiet of my country retreat; which shows that the bustling time of life is over with me, and that I am settling down into a sober, quiet, good-for-nothing old gentleman.

Unlike Irving, E. B. White found in the city’s exuberant turmoil cause for awe rather than distress. In Here Is New York (public library), one of the best books about Gotham, he captures the city’s vibrant whimsy in his breathlessly beautiful prose:

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

Malcolm Gladwell's hand-drawn personal memory map of Manhattan. Click image for details.

26-year-old Susan Sontag writes in an 1959 diary entry, found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library), which also gave us her meditations on art, marriage, life, and the four people any great writer must be:

The ugliness of New York. But I do like it here … In NY sensuality completely turns into sexuality — no objects for the senses to respond to, no beautiful river, houses, people. Awful smells of the street, and dirt … Nothing except eating, if that, and the frenzy of the bed.

Adjusting to the city vs. making the city answer better to the self.

Also in New York Diaries, Randy Cohen notes Gotham’s curious customs, which take on a wholly different context than their practice anywhere else:

New York is not Mexico City, but twice a year, we parents at the 96th Street school-bus stop collect money for Mr. R., the driver. “You have to give, or he’ll drop your kid in Times Square alone,” someone jokes. And it is a joke. New York is not Lagos, Mr. R. is a responsible man, and the money is a gift.

The Chrysler Building by James Gulliver Hancock from 'All the Buildings in New York.' Click image for details.

But perhaps most poignant and timeless of all is this meta-meditation on writing about New York from The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates (public library). In a diary entry dated April 3, 1976, the celebrated author and literary sage reflects:

The impulse of every writer is to create a fictional world that represents the “real” world in abbreviated, heightened, poetic fashion. … Philip Roth’s New York is his own no less than Beckett’s interior landscapes are his own. Otherwise there would be little pleasure in art: it would be a mere attempt at reportage.

New York, to Oates, is the realest and most pleasurable of worlds. In another diary entry several weeks later, she rejoices in the city’s imminent promise:

Leaving tomorrow for my parents’, then to NYC… Poetry reading Monday evening. Then: freedom to explore New York. Our favorite city. The only city.

After the “totally enjoyable, many-faceted visit,” Oates captures New York’s polarizing mesmerism:

The undeniable attraction of that city: its pulse, atmosphere, people. (NYC is much maligned by the rest of the country out of resentment, one suspects. There is only one city in the United States and the others are envious.)

For more on the private joys and tribulations this “only city” has afforded some of literary history’s greatest icons, revisit the wonderful New York Diaries, then celebrate its dimensional magic with these 10 favorite books on Gotham’s glory.

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22 JULY, 2013

The Lincoln of Literature: Mark Twain, The Atlantic, and the Making of the Middlebrow Magazine

By:

How Twain entered the literary elite and purged literature of elitism.

“Maybe … Mark Twain was a devious fraud with no morals at all who used journalism for his own foul ends,” Hunter S. Thompson grumbled in his meditation on journalism, politics, and the subjective, intimating that Twain was a media-opportunist who masterfully manipulated his public editorial output to serve his personal agendas. The “devious fraud” label has, of course, been slapped at one point or another onto just about every public persona who dared to reach critical success. But whether or not Thompson’s assessment was fair, Twain — who was himself curmudgeonly critical of the popular press, human nature, and even his fans, and from an early age dispensed delightfully irreverent advice — was a man who knew how to get what he wanted. And what he wanted, perhaps ironically, was very often public approval — not just the mere troves of fan mail he received from the common people, but the literary world’s highest seal of approval.

That’s precisely what he saw in the opportunity to write for The Atlantic Monthly, so he pursued it with unequaled relentlessness. In the process of this professional push, however, he made a lifelong personal friend. In the introduction to The Mark Twain Collection — a short but endlessly enjoyable compendium of the beloved author’s critical essays, short stories, and recollections published in The Atlantic during his stint there between 1874 and 1880 — Ben Tarnoff, author of the forthcoming The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature, traces the genesis of that relationship, both professional and personal:

He might’ve been a beggar, or a drunk. He swayed when he walked, and spoke slowly. His clothes were careless, his hair an ungovernable knot of curls. In the winter of 1869, he entered the bookshop at 124 Tremont Street in Boston and took the stairs to the second floor. There he knocked on the door of America’s most prestigious periodical, and swaggered in to introduce himself.

This was how Mark Twain’s relationship with The Atlantic Monthly began. From its founding in 1857, the magazine served as the nerve center of the New England intellectual establishment. Its contributors included the biggest names in American letters — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe* — and its taste set the standard for the rest of the country. Moral seriousness, moderate liberalism, and a respect for the classical tradition pervaded its pages. Its judgments reigned supreme: no one wielded more power over that still-forming idea called American literature than the editors of The Atlantic.

Twain’s march into the magazine’s office was precipitated by a review of his book The Innocents Aboard, the humorous autobiographical travelogue that catapulted him into literary celebrity, had received from an Atlantic writer named William Dean Howells, the magazine’s assistant editor. “There is an amount of pure human nature in the book that rarely gets into literature,” he had written. “Even in its impudence it is charming.” Tarnoff surmises:

Naturally, Twain wanted to meet the author of that review. … Twain must’ve been curious: the book’s irony, irreverence, and freewheeling flow made it an unlikely focus for The Atlantic’s praise. Worse, Twain wrote for a popular audience, not a literary one. The Innocents Aboard wasn’t sold in bookshops but by traveling salesmen who hawked it door to door alongside cookbooks and the Bible. Its readers belonged to the rising bourgeoisie of a rapidly industrializing nation — the Great American Middlebrow, hungry for fun and distraction.

William Dean Howells with Mark Twain

And so a relationship of mutual gratification commenced:

The wild-haired stranger who swept into 124 Tremont Street in the winter of 1869 desperately wanted approval from the world that The Atlantic represented. He craved the respect of America’s cultural elites, despite his tendency to provoke and bewilder them. In Howells, he found a perfect partner in crime: someone who spoke with highbrow authority, yet also understood the genius of Twain’s popular art.

[…]

They had differences to overcome. Twain was intense and impatient; Howells was mild and genial. Howells dressed conservatively; Twain dressed outrageously, with a “keen feeling for costume” that only grew more extravagant as he got older. Yet they also had much in common. Despite Howells’s lofty position in New England’s literary firmament, he came from modest, Midwestern origins. Born in backwoods Ohio, he had started out as a typesetter like Twain. He had grown up listening to the shrill whistles of steamboats, like Twain, and to the drawling, hollering sounds of Western speech. Both men had hustled their way up with hard work and, despite their success, always felt like outsiders in the East.

It took five years for them to feel comfortable enough with each other. Twain published his first piece in The Atlantic in 1874 and the two became fast friends, smoking cigars, sipping Scotch, and laughing well into the night. In fact, Howells became for Twain what Ursula Nordstrom was for Maurice Sendak — his fierce editor and greatest public champion, his relentless private confidant, his unflinching friend:

He didn’t simply make Twain a better writer; he also explained Twain’s significance to the wider world. He elevated the author of The Innocents Aboard from a popular entertainer to a transformative literary figure — into the “Lincoln of our literature,” as Howells called him.

When Twain submitted his first story to The Atlantic in 1874, titled “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It,” he cautioned Howells, who had by that point become editor in chief of the magazine, that the sketch “has no humor in it” and hardly warrants any pay. Instead, Howells fell in love with it and persuaded the publisher to pay Twain the highest rate in the magazine’s history — a feat particularly heartening in light of Twain’s famous advice to aspiring writers: “Write without pay until somebody offers pay; if nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.” Tarnoff writes:

Howells wanted more. Soon, Twain had another idea: he would resurrect the “glory & grandeur” of his years as a Mississippi steamboat pilot in a series of reminiscences for The Atlantic. Twain suggested doing one every other month, but Howells insisted on one every month. Twain agreed. The Atlantic didn’t pay as much as other magazines, but, as Twain told a friend, its “awful respectability” made up for it. Also the chance to work with Howells, in whom Twain had total faith.

Howells was also an indispensable purveyor of timeless wisdom on writing, and once gave Twain an essential piece of advice that Joyce Carol Oates would come to echo more than a century later:

Don’t write at any supposed Atlantic audience, but yarn it off as if into my sympathetic ear.

To be sure, however, the relationship was one of mutual benefit — while Howells helped Twain hone his craft and bask in the literary glory of writing for The Atlantic, Twain helped the magazine become a more marketable commodity for a popular audience:

Although he remained respectful of The Atlantic’s origins, the editor recognized the need to push the magazine into new territory. The Civil War and its aftermath had transformed America. The rules of warfare, politics, and business were being rewritten; conventional wisdom of all kinds was crumbling. The modernizing nation demanded new literary forms, and Howells found them in the faithful representation of everyday life — realism, he called it, although he awarded the term to any author he admired, from European novelists like Zola and Tolstoy to Americans like Henry James and Twain. What these writers had in common was their lifelike use of detail, Howells believed. Their work struck a refreshing contrast to the “intense ethicism that pervaded the New England mind” — the preacherly tendency to make literature serve up a moral. In the pages of The Atlantic, Howells crusaded against this cultural residue of Calvinism, forging his realist revolution from inside the heart of the establishment.

Twain gave Howells a soldier in this revolt: an artist with a gift for what Howells called the “simple, dramatic report of reality.” He also served a more practical function: he was popular, and Howells needed to sell** magazines. Despite The Atlantic’s prestige, its circulation fell sharply in the 1870s, against competition from more-middlebrow magazines like Harper’s and Scribner’s. So Howells leaned on Twain for marketable stories to prop up The Atlantic’s flagging finances.

[…]

These masterpieces helped purge American literature of its genteel moralism. They challenged the elitism that had excluded large swaths of ordinary life from literature. They fulfilled Howells’s demand for greater realism, and secured Twain’s permanent place in the culture.

The Mark Twain Collection presents ten of the masterpieces born out of the Twain-Howells collaboration, from the maddening stickiness of jingles (“A Literary Nightmare,” February 1876) to a timeless, timely rant on the dehumanizing effect of modern technology (“A Telephonic Conversation,” June 1880). Complement it with Twain’s critique of the press, issued mere months before he began writing for The Atlantic.

* Missing from the roster of notable contributors: The Church of Scientology

** Still the case. ibid.

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