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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

10 JUNE, 2013

Conjuring Cohesion and Purpose: How Ursula Nordstrom Cultivated Maurice Sendak’s Genius

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“That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist — wanting to make order out of chaos.”

The great Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928 — May 8, 2012) endures as one of the most beloved authors of literature for children the world has ever known, and yet without the care and support of legendary mid-century children’s book editor and reconstructionist Ursula Nordstrom, who brought to life such timeless classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952), and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964), he may have always remained the insecure young artist he once was. From Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — the same wonderful tome that gave us Nordstrom’s witty, wise, and prescient 1953 letter on the state of publishing — comes this remarkably heart-warming letter Nordstrom sent young Sendak, who had written her full of self-doubt as he was setting out to illustrate a children’s adaptation of Nikolenka’s Childhood by Tolstoy. Amidst the toxic mythology of the self-publishing era, the missive illustrates the life-changing role of an extraordinary editor who transcends her professional role to be part friend, part psychotherapist, part sage, and wholly the kind of extraordinary celebrator amplifying the author’s talent and lifting his spirit that made Nordstrom who she was and who any great editor ought to be.

She begins by reminding young Sendak that there are many kinds of genius and an artist could benefit from a more dimensional definition:

August 21, 1961

Dear Maurice,

[…]

Your cabin by the lake, and your own boat, sound fine. Please remember that the moon will be full on Friday, the 25th, and take a look at it. It should be beautiful over Lake Champlain.

I loved your long letter and hope it clarified some things for you to write it. Sure, Tolstoy and Melville have a lot of furniture in their books and they also know a lot of facts (“where the mouth of a river is”) but that isn’t the only sort of genius, you know that. You are more of a poet in your writing, at least right now. Yes, Tolstoy is wonderful (his publisher asked me for a quote) but you can express as much emotion and “cohesion and purpose” in some of your drawings as there is in War and Peace. I mean that. You write and draw from the inside out — which is why I said poet.

Nikolenka's Childhood by Leo Tolstoy, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1963)

In assuaging Sendak’s anxiety about self-absorption, Nordstrom adds to history’s most memorable meditations on art in a sentiment philosopher Martha Nussbaum would come to echo in her admonition against despising one’s inner world, and offers an amusingly accurate micro-critique of Moby-Dick:

I was absorbed when I read you had “the sense of having lived one’s life so narrowly — with eyes and senses turned inward. An actual sense of the breadth of life does not exist in me. I am narrowly concerned with me… All I will ever express will be the little I have gleaned of life for my own purposes.” But isn’t that what every fine artist-writer ever expressed? If your expression is now more an impressionist one that doesn’t make it any less important, or profound. That whole passage in your letter was intensely interesting to me. Yes, you did live “with eyes and senses turned inward” but you had to. Socrates said “Know thyself.” And now you do know yourself better than you did, and your work is getting richer and deeper, and it has such an exciting, emotional quality. I know you don’t need and didn’t ask for compliments from me. These remarks are not compliments — just facts.

The great Russians and Melville and Balzac etc. wrote in another time, in leisure, to be read in leisure. I know what you mean about those long detailed rich novels — my god the authors knew all about war, and agriculture, and politics. But that is one type of writing, for a more leisurely time than ours. You have your own note to sound, and you are sounding it with greater power and beauty all the time. Yes, Moby Dick is great, but honestly don’t you see great gobs of it that could come out? Does that offend you, coming from a presumptuous editor? I remember lines of the most piercing beauty (after he made a friend there was something beautiful about “no more would my splintered hand and shattered heart be turned against the wolfish world.”) But there are many passages which could have been cut. But I wander…

In a beautiful passage that eloquently captures what we already know about genius — that without discipline and work ethic, creativity is a hapless muse, but also that emotional excess is critical for creativity — Nordstrom assures Sendak that the best cure for his creative block is simply showing up, again and again:

You wrote “my world is furniture-less. It is all feeling.” Well feeling (emotion) combined with an artist’s discipline is the rarest thing in the world. You love and admire the work of some other contemporary artists and writers today but really, think how few of them have any vigorous emotional vitality? What you have is RARE. You also wrote “Knowledge is the driving force that puts creative passion to work” — a true statement, and also very well put. But it would include self knowledge for some as well as knowledge of facts for others. (Is this English I’m writing? I need an editor.)

You reminded me that you are 33. I always think 29, but OK. Anyhow, aren’t the thirties wonderful? And 33 is still young for an artist with your potentialities. I mean, you may not do your deepest, fullest, richest work until you are in your forties. You are growing and getting better all the time. I hope it was good for you to write me the thoughts that came to you. It was very good for me to read what you wrote, and to think about your letter. I’m sorry you have writers cramp as you put it but glad that you’re putting down “pure Sendakian vaguery” (I think you invented that good word). The more you put down the better and I’ll be glad to see anything you want to show me. You referred to your “atoms worth of talent.” You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either. You have a vast and beautiful genius.

Like beloved novelist Isabel Allende, who famously asserted that what moves her to write is the desire to bring a sense of order to the chaos of life, Nordstrom reminds Sendak that this longing is the greatest blessing — even when it feels like a curse — of the creative artist:

You wrote “It would be wonderful to want to believe in God. The aimlessness of living is too insane.” That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist — wanting to make order out of chaos. The rest of us plain people just accept disorder (if we even recognize it) and get a bang out of our five beautiful senses, if we’re lucky. Well, not making any sense but will send this anyhow.

After wishing young Maurice a wonderful vacation and signing, Nordstrom ends the letter with an infinitely heartening postscript:

You know one of these days you’ll go back to Old Potato*, or a version of that situation, and it will have “cohesion and purpose” and will have so many universal emotions within its relatively simple framework. Love, fear, acceptance, rejection, re-assurance, and growth. No more for now.

Two years later, Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, for which he remains best-known and which Nordstrom edited, was published.

Dear Genius, which brims with Nordstrom’s legendary heart and wit, features much more of her correspondence with Sendak — who, fittingly, drew Nordstrom’s portrait on the cover of the book. Complement it with Sendak’s posthumous love letter to the world, his unreleased drawings and intaglio prints, this illustrated adaptation of Terry Gross’s moving conversation with the author, and the very last interview with him — by Colbert, no less.

* Sendak’s uncompleted manuscript for a novel set in Brooklyn about the friendship between a little boy nicknamed “Old Potato” and a gentle solitary man who lived in the neighborhood.

Painting by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project

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07 JUNE, 2013

How We Spend Our Days Is How We Spend Our Lives: Annie Dillard on Presence Over Productivity

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“The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less.”

The meaning of life has been pondered by such literary icons as Leo Tolstoy (1904), Henry Miller (1918), Anaïs Nin (1946), Viktor Frankl (1946), Italo Calvino (1975), and David Foster Wallace (2005). And though some have argued that today’s age is one where “the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning,” there’s an unshakable and discomfiting sense that, in our obsession with optimizing our creative routines and maximizing our productivity, we’ve forgotten how to be truly present in the gladdening mystery of life.

From The Writing Life (public library) by Annie Dillard — a wonderful addition to the collected wisdom of beloved writers — comes this beautiful and poignant meditation on the life well lived, reminding us of the tradeoffs between presence and productivity that we’re constantly choosing to make, or not:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

She goes on to illustrate this existential tension between presence and productivity with a fine addition to history’s great daily routines and daily rituals:

The most appealing daily schedule I know is that of a turn-of-the-century Danish aristocrat. He got up at four and set out on foot to hunt black grouse, wood grouse, woodcock, and snipe. At eleven he met his friends, who had also been out hunting alone all morning. They converged “at one of these babbling brooks,” he wrote. He outlined the rest of his schedule. “Take a quick dip, relax with a schnapps and a sandwich, stretch out, have a smoke, take a nap or just rest, and then sit around and chat until three. Then I hunt some more until sundown, bathe again, put on white tie and tails to keep up appearances, eat a huge dinner, smoke a cigar and sleep like a log until the sun comes up again to redden the eastern sky. This is living…. Could it be more perfect?”

Dillard juxtaposes the Danish aristocrat’s revelry in everyday life with the grueling routine of a couple of literary history’s most notorious self-disciplinarians:

Wallace Stevens in his forties, living in Hartford, Connecticut, hewed to a productive routine. He rose at six, read for two hours, and walked another hour—three miles—to work. He dictated poems to his secretary. He ate no lunch; at noon he walked for another hour, often to an art gallery. He walked home from work—another hour. After dinner he retired to his study; he went to bed at nine. On Sundays, he walked in the park. I don’t know what he did on Saturdays. Perhaps he exchanged a few words with his wife, who posed for the Liberty dime. (One would rather read these people, or lead their lives, than be their wives. When the Danish aristocrat Wilhelm Dinesen shot birds all day, drank schnapps, napped, and dressed for dinner, he and his wife had three children under three. The middle one was Karen.)

[…]

Jack London claimed to write twenty hours a day. Before he undertook to write, he obtained the University of California course list and all the syllabi; he spent a year reading the textbooks in philosophy and literature. In subsequent years, once he had a book of his own under way, he set his alarm to wake him after four hours’ sleep. Often he slept through the alarm, so, by his own account, he rigged it to drop a weight on his head. I cannot say I believe this, though a novel like The Sea-Wolf is strong evidence that some sort of weight fell on his head with some sort of frequency — but you wouldn’t think a man would claim credit for it. London maintained that every writer needed a technique, experience, and a philosophical position.

At the heart of these anecdotes of living is a dynamic contemplation of life itself:

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life. A day that closely resembles every other day of the past ten or twenty years does not suggest itself as a good one. But who would not call Pasteur’s life a good one, or Thomas Mann’s?

The Writing Life is sublime in its entirety, the kind of book that stays with you for lifetimes.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

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05 JUNE, 2013

Cupid’s Conflicted Arrow: Henri-Frédéric Amiel on Love and Its Demons

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“Do not amend by reasoning, but by example; approach feeling by feeling; do not hope to excite love except by love.”

“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer,” Anaïs Nin admonished.“It creates the failures. It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic.” And yet the tension between this anxiety and the longing for love that underpins it, for “the great intangible,” is one of the most pervasive and enduring inner contradictions we struggle to reconcile, the inevitable discomfort of allowing “the boundaries between you and not-you … relax and become more permeable” as union submerges isolation, the proud surrender that true love necessitates.

Swiss philosopher, poet, and critic Henri-Frédéric Amiel (1821–1881) — a man of brilliant mind and tormented soul — is one of those peculiar figures who, not unlike Anaïs Nin herself, attained only marginal acclaim for their formal body of work, but whose posthumously published private journals have gone on to become timeless masterpieces of philosophy and literary thought. The Journal Intime of Henri-Frédéric Amiel, originally published in 1882 and now known simply as Amiel’s Journal (public library; public domain) is a true masterpiece of philosophy and perennial wisdom — a confession, a lament, a record of the unabated struggle to reconcile his inner life with the practical demands of the outer world, at once a resignation to Amiel’s own weakness and a refusal to give up on the ideals of his highest self, a work of remarkable psychological impact that endures as the “indestructible sympathy of man with man, that eternal answering of feeling to feeling, which is one of the great principles, perhaps the greatest principle, at the root of literature.”

In the original introduction, French critic M. Edmond Scherer, who edited the volume, exposes the bittersweetness at the heart of Amiel’s journal:

The man who, during his lifetime, was incapable of giving us any deliberate or conscious work worthy of his powers, has now left us, after his death, a book which will not die. For the secret of Amiel’s malady is sublime, and the expression of it wonderful.

Six months after the publication of the first volume, the prominent 19th-century English author Mark Pattison sent Scherer a letter, encapsulating the universal significance of why unearthing such obscure gems and bringing them to light, again and again, matters:

As I cannot suppose that so peculiar a psychological revelation will enjoy a wide popularity, I think it a duty to the editor to assure him that there are persons in the world whose souls respond, in the depths of their inmost nature, to the cry of anguish which makes itself heard in the pages of these remarkable confessions.

Among Amiel’s greatest, most abiding insights are his conflicted thoughts on love. He longs for it, almost painfully:

I cannot escape from the ideal of it. A companion, of my life, of my work, of my thoughts, of my hopes; within a common worship — toward the world outside kindness and beneficence; education to undertake; the thousand and one moral relations which develop round the first — all these ideas intoxicate me sometimes.

But he finds himself consistently unable to stay present with the very capacity for happiness that inviting love necessitates:

Reality, the present, the irreparable, the necessary, repel and even terrify me. I have too much imagination, conscience, and penetration and not enough character. The life of thought alone seems to me to have enough elasticity and immensity, to be free enough from the irreparable; practical life makes me afraid. I am distrustful of myself and of happiness because I know myself. The ideal poisons for me all imperfect possession. And I abhor useless regrets and repentance.

On May 17, 1849, he writes, once again conflicted:

To be misunderstood even by those whom one loves is the cross and bitterness of life. It is the secret of that sad and melancholy smile on the lips of great men which so few understand; it is the cruelest trial reserved for self-devotion. . . . Alas! alas! never to tire, never to grow cold; to be patient, sympathetic, tender; to look for the budding flower and the opening heart; to hope always, like God; to love always — this is duty.

On April 6, 1851, considering the meaning of life, he returns to the same anxious paradox:

Life, is it essentially the education of the mind and intelligence, or that of the will? And does will show itself in strength or in resignation? If the aim of life is to teach us renunciation, then welcome sickness, hindrances, sufferings of every kind! But if its aim is to produce the perfect man, then one must watch over one’s integrity of mind and body. To court trial is to tempt God. At bottom, the God of justice veils from me the God of love. I tremble instead of trusting.

Whenever conscience speaks with a divided, uncertain, and disputed voice, it is not yet the voice of God. Descend still deeper into yourself, until you hear nothing but a clear and undivided voice, a voice which does away with doubt and brings with it persuasion, light and serenity. … This inner identity, this unity of conviction, is all the more difficult the more the mind analyzes, discriminates, and foresees. It is difficult, indeed, for liberty to return to the frank unity of instinct.

Alas! we must then re-climb a thousand times the peaks already scaled, and reconquer the points of view already won, we must fight the fight! The human heart, like kings, signs mere truces under a pretense of perpetual peace. The eternal life is eternally to be re-won. Alas, yes! peace itself is a struggle, or rather it is struggle and activity which are the law. We only find rest in effort, as the flame only finds existence in combustion. O Heraclitus! the symbol of happiness is after all the same as that of grief; anxiety and hope, hell and heaven, are equally restless. The altar of Vesta and the sacrifice of Beelzebub burn with the same fire. Ah, yes, there you have life — life double-faced and double-edged. The fire which enlightens is also the fire which consumes; the element of the gods may become that of the accursed.

On April 7, 1851, he adds at once to history’s greatest definitions of science and history’s greatest definitions of love:

If science does not produce love it is insufficient. … Moral love places the center of the individual in the center of being. It has at least salvation in principle, the germ of eternal life. To love is virtually to know; to know is not virtually to love; there you have the relation of these two modes of man. The redemption wrought by science or by intellectual love is then inferior to the redemption wrought by will or by moral love. The first may free a man from himself, it may enfranchise him from egotism. The second drives the ego out of itself, makes it active and fruitful. The one is critical, purifying, negative; the other is vivifying, fertilizing, positive. Science, however spiritual and substantial it may be in itself, is still formal relatively to love. Moral force is then the vital point. And this force is only produced by moral force. Like alone acts upon like. Therefore do not amend by reasoning, but by example; approach feeling by feeling; do not hope to excite love except by love. Be what you wish others to become. Let yourself and not your words preach for you.

[…]

Science is the power of man, and love his strength; man becomes man only by the intelligence, but he is man only by the heart. Knowledge, love, power — there is the complete life.

And yet, despite the reflections of Amiel the detached philosopher, Amiel the fallible man remains incapable of fully inhabiting his own capacity for love. On November 6, 1852, he writes:

I am capable of all the passions, for I bear them all within me. Like a tamer of wild beasts, I keep them caged and lassoed, but I sometimes hear them growling. I have stifled more than one nascent love. Why? Because with that prophetic certainty which belongs to moral intuition, I felt it lacking in true life, and less durable than myself. I choked it down in the name of the supreme affection to come. The loves of sense, of imagination, of sentiment, I have seen through and rejected them all; I sought the love which springs from the central profundities of being. And I still believe in it. I will have none of those passions of straw which dazzle, burn up, and wither; I invoke, I await, and I hope for the love which is great, pure and earnest, which lives and works in all the fibers and through all the powers of the soul. And even if I go lonely to the end, I would rather my hope and my dream died with me, than that my soul should content itself with any meaner union.

Touching on our frequent and profoundly disquieting failure to believe the love of others, he admonishes in an entry from December 17, 1854:

It costs us a great deal of trouble not to be of the same opinion as our self-love, and not to be ready to believe in the good taste of those who believe in our merits.

On May 23, 1855, he returns to the self-destructiveness that plagues many of our attempts at love:

Every hurtful passion draws us to it, as an abyss does, by a kind of vertigo. Feebleness of will brings about weakness of head, and the abyss in spite of its horror, comes to fascinate us, as though it were a place of refuge. Terrible danger! For this abyss is within us; this gulf, open like the vast jaws of an infernal serpent bent on devouring us, is in the depth of our own being, and our liberty floats over this void, which is always seeking to swallow it up. Our only talisman lies in that concentration of moral force which we call conscience, that small inextinguishable flame of which the light is duty and the warmth love.

On October 22, 1856, he articulates the notion that “real, honest, complete love requires letting go” and writes:

We must learn to look upon life as an apprenticeship to a progressive renunciation, a perpetual diminution in our pretensions, our hopes, our powers, and our liberty. … It is in this nothingness that we recover something of life — the divine spark is there at the bottom of it. Resignation comes to us, and, in believing love, we reconquer the true greatness.

On November 16, 1864, beholding the mortality paradox, Amiel comes full circle to the very melancholy that both propels his longing for love and prevents its actualization:

Melancholy is at the bottom of everything, just as at the end of all rivers is the sea. Can it be otherwise in a world where nothing lasts, where all that we have loved or shall love must die? Is death, then, the secret of life? The gloom of an eternal mourning enwraps, more or less closely, every serious and thoughtful soul, as night enwraps the universe.

On March 17, 1868, he reflects on women’s experience of love, echoing Stedhal’s concept of crystallization with a sentiment Anaïs Nin would come to second (“Where the myth fails, human love begins. Then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws.”) — but, of course, at the heart of Amiel’s description is the universal vanity of the human experience of love:

Women wish to be loved without a why or a wherefore; not because they are pretty, or good, or well bred, or graceful, or intelligent, but because they are themselves. All analysis seems to them to imply a loss of consideration, a subordination of their personality to something which dominates and measures it. They will have none of it; and their instinct is just. As soon as we can give a reason for a feeling we are no longer under the spell of it; we appreciate, we weigh, we are free, at least in principle. Love must always remain a fascination, a witchery, if the empire of woman is to endure. Once the mystery gone, the power goes with it. Love must always seem to us indivisible, insoluble, superior to all analysis, if it is to preserve that appearance of infinity, of something supernatural and miraculous, which makes its chief beauty. The majority of beings despise what they understand, and bow only before the inexplicable. The feminine triumph par excellence is to convict of obscurity that virile intelligence which makes so much pretense to enlightenment. And when a woman inspires love, it is then especially that she enjoys this proud triumph. I admit that her exultation has its grounds. Still, it seems to me that love — true and profound love — should be a source of light and calm, a religion and a revelation, in which there is no place left for the lower victories of vanity. Great souls care only for what is great, and to the spirit which hovers in the sight of the Infinite, any sort of artifice seems a disgraceful puerility.

He adds to that more than three years later:

If we begin by overrating the being we love, we shall end by treating it with wholesale injustice.

He returns to the subject another nine years later with definitive clarity:

True love is that which ennobles the personality, fortifies the heart, and sanctifies the existence. And the being we love must not be mysterious and sphinx-like, but clear and limpid as a diamond; so that admiration and attachment may grow with knowledge.

On December 26, 1868, he peers once again at the universal with a bittersweet directive:

Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind!

On August 14, 1869, he returns to the core ambivalent impossibility of his longing for love:

My longing, my search is for love, for peace, for something to fill my heart; an idea to defend; a work to which I might devote the rest of my strength; an affection which might quench this inner thirst; a cause for which I might die with joy. But shall I ever find them? I long for all that is impossible and inaccessible: for true religion, serious sympathy, the ideal life; for paradise, immortality, holiness, faith, inspiration, and I know not what besides! What I really want is to die and to be born again, transformed myself, and in a different world. And I can neither stifle these aspirations nor deceive myself as to the possibility of satisfying them. I seem condemned to roll forever the rock of Sisyphus, and to feel that slow wearing away of the mind which befalls the man whose vocation and destiny are in perpetual conflict. “A Christian heart and a pagan head,” like Jacobi; tenderness and pride; width of mind and feebleness of will; the two men of St. Paul; a seething chaos of contrasts, antinomies, and contradictions; humility and pride; childish simplicity and boundless mistrust; analysis and intuition; patience and irritability; kindness and dryness of heart; carelessness and anxiety; enthusiasm and languor; indifference and passion; altogether a being incomprehensible and intolerable to myself and to others!

On December 28, 1880, shortly before his death, he points to one of love’s greatest demons:

Jealousy is a terrible thing. It resembles love, only it is precisely love’s contrary. Instead of wishing for the welfare of the object loved, it desires the dependence of that object upon itself, and its own triumph. Love is the forgetfulness of self; jealousy is the most passionate form of egotism, the glorification of a despotic, exacting, and vain ego, which can neither forget nor subordinate itself. The contrast is perfect.

But perhaps most poignant of all is Amiel’s timelessly eloquent reflection on that eternal tug-of-war between mind and heart, on the perils of rationalization, of love’s capacity to save us from our selves, from our own plummet towards nonexistence:

Thought is a kind of opium; it can intoxicate us, while still broad awake; it can make transparent the mountains and everything that exists. It is by love only that one keeps hold upon reality, that one recovers one’s proper self, that one becomes again will, force, and individuality. Love could do everything with me; by myself and for myself I prefer to be nothing.

On November 7, 1862, he examines how this tendency — particularly the toxic despotism of the will — plays out in intimate relationships:

You must love with the same love, think with the same thought as some one else, if you are to escape solitude.

Mutual respect implies discretion and reserve even in love itself; it means preserving as much liberty as possible to those whose life we share. We must distrust our instinct of intervention, for the desire to make one’s own will prevail is often disguised under the mask of solicitude.

Amiel’s Journal is absolutely remarkable in its entirety, the kind of book that, upon reading and rereading, exposes just about every trembling, beautifully conflicted facet of what it means to be human. Pair it with Susan Sontag’s illustrated insights on love, culled from her own posthumously published journals.

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