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for the week of August 16, 2011


The adolescent Lenz learns about cruelty

His father grabbed him and took him to the room of one of the servant girls, the youngest and prettiest in the house.

“You’re doing her now, here, in front of me.”

The servant-girl was scared, of course, but what was strange was that she seemed to be scared of him, not of his father: it was the fact that Lenz was an adolescent that scared the little servant girl, not the violence with which the father treated his son, completely without modesty, without even taking the trouble to leave the room. His father wanted to see it.

“You’re doing her in front of me,” he repeated.

These words of his father’s would mark Lenz for years. ‘You’re doing her.’

The act of fornicating with the little servant girl was reduced to the simplest of verbs—doing. “You’re doing her,” that was the expression, as though the servant-girl was not yet fully done, as though she were matter still unshaped, awaiting his action, Lenz’s action, to complete her. This woman is not yet made till you’ve done her, thought Lenz the adolescent, clearly, and his next gestures were those of a worker, an employee following the instructions of another more experienced, in this case his father: you’re doing her.

“Take off your trousers.” That was the second thing his father said. “Take off your trousers.”

The adolescent Lenz took his trousers off. And all the orders that followed were directed exclusively at him—that is to say, his father did not address a single phrase to the servant girl—she knew what had to be done and she did what had to be done, a machine without any choice. Unlike the adolescent Lenz who, in spite of everything, was able to say to his father, “I don’t want to.”

“Take off your trousers,” his father commanded.

And then Lenz was led, almost pushed, by his father, over to the servant girl, lying there, waiting.

“Go ahead,” said his father, roughly.

And the adolescent Lenz, determined, went ahead, onto the servant girl.

The hunt

Lenz pulls on his boots and prepares for the hunt. First comes the ritual of taking control of the various small, immobile objects: the boots, the gun, the heavy waistcoat.

These were the best movements for contributing to the formation of a human being. And to how a good shot he was.

In turn, the more agile elements of nature insisted on a disobedience Lenz found it impossible to tolerate. He went hunting out of a particular political determination. A rabbit was a tiny adversary, but it obliged Lenz to occupy a particular position on the earth, within a combat zone. This meagre opponent—a rabbit—forced Lenz into tensing his muscles, into mobilizing his cunning: just aiming wasn’t enough, the weapon’s mechanical capabilities weren’t enough, an intellectual attention was needed too, an attention of the intelligence: only immobile things did without this attention of Lenz’s.

Between him—Lenz—and the still living quarry, there was a pre-established agreement: he refused to kill a single animal in the first few minutes of the hunt. This was a demand made by the force of habit, a sort of respect shown in relation to the space being invaded. It wasn’t Lenz’s home.

The twenty minutes when he didn’t fire a shot were his way of wiping his feet on the mat of the strange house he was entering. Strangeness existed in the forest, and since there was no front door and no doormat, Lenz spent twenty minutes going down the paths that nature—in its own very particular stupidity—left open, willingly, for men to make their way through.

There was another law in the forest. Morality in the forest was indelicate, crude; it was like going into the bedroom of the little servant girl when he was an adolescent; into that back room, filled with smells so different to those found in the main house, in his parents’ house. In the little servant girl’s room to be gentle was to be weak, and was such an absurd mistake that even the girl herself protested at any affectionate gesture made by the master’s son.

In the forest, virtue hadn’t been invaded by the smell of mold; there was another power suspended over him as Lenz walked between the trees, solid trees but twisted, trees which hid hundreds of animal existences within them—existences that were, after all, themselves hunted quarries, in what was also an extraordinarily good synthesis of human relations.

Lenz didn’t have any illusions: the only reason he didn’t walk the streets of the city with the same caution and with his weapon cocked to fire was because, in that space, there was something that inhibited his hatred: mutual economic advantage.

The apparent equilibrium between neighbors in the same building is something that even a man of high standing experiences right up until the moment when—helpless—he sets foot into the swamp. The expression “After you,” spoken by someone in a café to another customer entering at the same time, thus accepting that he will get his drink only after the other has been served—these are words of warfare, of pure warfare. Any words of sympathy can be seen—if looked at another way—as words of attack. By letting the other person go ahead of him, the first man wasn’t agreeing to take second place but instead preparing a map of the terrain, the better to keep visual control over his target, who for a few moments believed himself to have won an advantage. The benefit of someone being ahead of us, Lenz’s father had once said, is that he has his back to us. It doesn’t matter where we are, what matters is field of vision and relative position.

It wasn’t long, however, before Lenz understood that some kind of support was necessary, something the body could lean on without fear of being betrayed; a wall, essentially, that ran no risk of collapsing. The family would be his wall, the place where he could rest the back of his neck (for even during a violent attack the attacker himself still has a neck—it’s important never to forget this fragility).

Lenz readied his weapon, rested the steel of the butt on his chest—a chest that was pounding hard—and, thinking about the little servant girl whom, more than ten years earlier, under his father’s encouragements, he had done for the first time, Lenz took aim and fired.

Then there was a squeal, which in another situation he would have sworn had come from the wheels of a car, and after a moment of being inexplicably stunned, he began to run toward it. Soon the blood had become conspicuous in that part of the forest, yet Lenz still couldn’t catch the animal.

He had managed to wound the enemy, but not to eliminate it. He still couldn’t eat it.

A Completely Inappropriate Song

Let’s see what Lenz is up to

Breaking completely with his habits, Lenz decided that night to allow a beggar in.

Lenz was laughing.

“I’ll give you your bread.”

At Lenz’s request his wife brought the day’s paper. As she handed it to him, she said, “Please, give him what he wants then send him away.”

Lenz gently stroked his wife’s backside and laughed at the tramp. He asked her to leave. “Man talk,” he said, and he smiled again.

“Have you seen the news?” Lenz asked the tramp, holding out the newspaper face up.

“I’m hungry,” said the man.

Lenz didn’t reply. He was still holding the newspaper.

“Look at this: the president says that at last the populace is getting a bit of peace and quiet. See? What kind of peace and quiet is this? What do you think?”

“Please . . .” repeated the man.

Lenz continued reading the headlines on the front page: “There’s a new class on the rise: businessmen with their money are now taking up political positions and starting to worry about the state of the country rather than worrying exclusively about the state of their factories. Did you hear?” asked Lenz.

“Don’t humiliate me,” said the man.

Lenz told him not to be ridiculous.

“You should have some respect for the country. You know the anthem? I’m going to give you food. Want some? And money?”

The tramp shifted slightly. He was standing: Lenz still hadn’t allowed him to sit down on the small stool that was empty beside him.

“But sing the anthem first,” asked Lenz. “At every opportunity . . . Never losing sight of the meaning of existence, you see? Each man’s duties, having been born into a certain country; you understand? Do you know the anthem? Might I ask you to sing it? We still have time. The food is on its way. Please go ahead, please, do start.”

Contracts and sums

After some discussion Lenz tore up the contract when he was exactly half way through his signature. Half of my name, but it’ll never reach the end, thought Lenz. My name interrupted, and the deal interrupted. “There’s not enough in it for me,” said Lenz.

The tension in the room changed as he approached—with the hand that was holding the pen—a mere contract for the purchase of the living-room furniture. Signing his name was a great responsibility. And it wasn’t just a question of law, it was more than that.

Lenz’s wife was not a woman who gave any thought to what to do beyond the following day. She was a strange woman, who seemed to accept everything with a passivity mingled with a certain perverseness that sometimes ended up annoying even Lenz. She added everything up, one occurrence followed another, and she accepted everything—there was no reflection.

Lenz, on the other hand, didn’t consider life simply a sum of actions and occurrences, life also presupposed operations whose power was closer to that of subtraction, multiplication, or division. All the primary algebraic operations existed in daily life, in the private life of each human being.

“Not always a matter of adding up, not always a matter of adding up,” Lenz would say, in a tone of utter revulsion, on the day they buried his father, Frederich Buchmann.

Death, for example. Not always a matter of adding up.

The brain

A man—Lenz—can size up the decisive points of his body, with his body being the map of a State and the identifying of these points of greatest power the beginnings of a plan of attack.

The decisive points in one’s anatomy? In the first place, the head, or more properly the skull, that group of bones that protects the instrument used for perceiving the world. It isn’t intelligence, however, nor the extraordinary capacity for abstraction, but the rough and ancient capability to resist the outside world, the material and animal resistance that remain in that intelligence, which it is important to protect. A man who is illiterate, or unable to add three to three, can still consider his head a decisive point as long as he knows how to pick up a weapon and differentiate the blade end from the handle, the barrel from the trigger. The head teems with surprising detours and capabilities—the map of a city where the little alleyways ramify out to infinity—but the most important of all is the main thoroughfare: the brain is there in order to keep us from letting ourselves get killed. It demands that our enemies be extremely skillful. “Let’s not complicate things,” Lenz thought to himself. “The brain, when seen up close, and understood thoroughly, has the form and function of a weapon, no more than that.”

Asking for more bread

“She’s a fine woman—you see?”

At last the man is sitting on a stool in the kitchen, he’s already eating something and now he’s sipping at some soup, noisily.

Lenz lifts his wife’s skirt, turns her rump toward the tramp, pushes her against the sink, drops his trousers, pulls down her panties (she helps), pulls out his penis, and quickly penetrates her.

The couple is three meters from the tramp, who barely raises his eyes toward them, afraid to look. Lenz fornicates furiously with his wife, and she allows herself to be taken completely, she accepts everything; the tramp is facing Lenz’s naked, heaving buttocks.

The man seems to say something, to himself, addressing no one else; he murmurs something, something imperceptible.

There is some food over to his right, but the man doesn’t get up; he decides to wait till the couple stops. Without any haste, without looking up from the table, in an orderly manner; he had time, he thought.

The Doctor in the Age of Technique

The hand that holds the scalpel

Dr. Lenz is received by two helpful nurses at the entrance to the operating theater. The doctor in Age of Technique is looked upon as though he was a skillful driver. The car waits serenely for the arrival of its owner—just like a pet dog, except that machines don’t entertain themselves or sink into existential crises when their boss isn’t around. Nothing of the sort, not at either extreme: machinery understands neither the playful nor the tragic, it understands direction, a certain force, a certain movement. A movement that is, as it were, intellectual, and deliberate—there is nothing in a machine that is as stupid as a dog who, with no sense of timing, salivates when there’s no food anywhere in sight, just because it’s ill, or as an animal who limps and even having only three available legs tries to attack or run away. Machines are far more sensible.

Lenz is a surgeon, Dr. Lenz B., his skill contained, concentrated in his right hand which, well supported by a left hand that plays the role of specialist observer, didn’t take many years to earn its reputation. His right hand has an aura, an unscientific glimmer about it: an extra finger, as it were, an invisible finger whose touch—that final touch—can, in extreme cases, save. Dr. Lenz B. has already saved many men and many women.

In his right hand the scalpel gleams; there is a certain something extra about the combination of this medical instrument with Lenz’s hand that provokes those in attendance at any operation to keep their eyes fixed only on the area immediately surrounding them. In a situation of extreme cold, that hand, holding the scalpel, would be fire.

Some have even likened the spectacle to sessions of hypnosis: the absolute, convincing slowness of Lenz’s right hand transformed into a fairground hypnotist: all the attendant nurses and the younger doctors focus their worthier instincts of observation and hold their breaths, as though watching the climax of a film. Lenz’s wrist holds steady as though supported by a length of metal rather than an arm. All that moves are the fingers; the scalpel an instrument able to affect us far more deeply than a musical instrument: whatever feelings of tragedy or celebration are born from this instrument are acute in the extreme. Precise and profound, this right hand, with its scalpel, expressed the various degrees of intensity one could have, in the world: here, music really could kill or save. The scalpel came into contact with the body and went right into it, it didn’t circle it, or edge around it.

“We’re not dealing with feelings here,” Lenz said once, “we’re dealing with veins and arteries, with vessels that have broken and which we must repair, with swellings that release substances that seem—though they have come from within—that seem nonetheless to be alien to the body.”

Inside a body the scalpel sought to reinstate lost order. It brought back laws: knowing the cause, the effects could be guessed at; it was a matter—and Lenz would sometimes say this—of installing a new monarchy; the scalpel proclaimed a new Kingdom: it restored the organism’s roads, straightened up whatever ruins needed straightening up, or, on the contrary, knocked down once and for all anything that was still standing but that had lost its foundations, and through this knocking down constructed a new horizontal plane; if everything had been knocked down and nothing could be raised up again, then we would come to accept this new state of being: “We would lie down, and observe,” said Lenz.

In turn, illness was clearly a form of cellular anarchy, a disorder, an internal disrespect for the rules that some people even call divine, as they preceded any human arrangement. A body is not a city. There may have been a pre-existing map, but humans were not given the privilege of examining it and suggesting amendments.

Of course, a new world was beginning now. A more powerful action would bring the Gods down; the gleam of things was already the only gleam in things, a bonfire cast light thanks to its concrete matter alone, the divine was no longer an element that illuminates even further, it was simply another thing, beyond the opposition between dark and light. Electricity, Lenz used to say, had made certain assumptions about the divine ridiculous. It is impossible to feel fear and respect toward something that could be mistaken for nothing more than a powerful electrical discharge.

Explosion and precision

The most amazing thing about Lenz’s operations was that at a certain moment the scalpel, and even his right hand, seemed to dissolve into the body of the patient being operated on. The scalpel entered the body like a dagger, and seemed to be seeking something far more amazing than just a particular artery; the scalpel marked the first point of attack; an attack that, in this case, aimed to save the one being attacked.

Lenz occasionally had a feeling that was almost magical, soberly irrational—he saw his scalpel as searching not for some poorly functioning artery or vessel but for something less material, more (the word does apply) spiritual. As though his scalpel could even detect the patient’s individual guilt, a guilt that wasn’t necessarily moral but which was certainly organic. A sick organism seemed to Lenz materially guilty; he had constructed, in his mind, a morality of tissues, a morality composed of black cells or white cells, burned cells or intact ones, and in this context immorality was simply a failure to function.

In not many years’ practice Lenz had learned that, in medicine, two opposing, equally astonishing technical forces were opposed and struggling for dominance: explosion and precision. The two extremes were each other’s adversaries. His scalpel, it was quite clear, was the messenger of precision and rightness. The sick organism, or a part of it, had blundered down a cul-de-sac, and with its strength the scalpel would provide material aid in reminding it which was the correct track, which the main road.

Which was why Lenz always found it strange when surgical interventions were the result of an explosion—as had happened in a factory some months earlier. A machine whose insides were in a state of disorder had exploded and this had provoked a similar state of disorder on the insides of an individual. Lenz had managed to save the man’s life, and during the operation had felt with unusual intensity the struggle between the two extremes of medical technique: his scalpel embodying precision, morality, the legality that this facet of technique both establishes and requires, and, on the other hand, on the sick man’s side, there were the clear results of an explosion likewise provoked by technique; the explosion that instantly establishes disorder—whether on a large scale (a battlefield of soldiers) or a personal one—and cellular panic, which is simply the temporary establishment of a marked immorality: there isn’t a single straight line left in a body that has just experienced the effects of an explosion. A bomb, deep down, from a schematic point of view—just like a photocopier is a machine designed to produce photocopies—is simply a machine designed to explode.

Lenz’s scalpel was therefore the material voice of human ethics, and a bomb the material voice of perversion and the deregulation of habits. However, the two opposing sides were made of exactly the same substance. They were sons, not of the same God, but of the same man, which Lenz found fascinating.

And just as he found these two worlds fascinating, Lenz never forgot, when he was operating on someone, that the slightest diversion of his scalpel, through accident or error, could lead to the death of the organism being operated upon.

When his right hand—exact and magical—was acting, the decision to go left or to go right was not simply a question of traffic, it didn’t mean progressing via a shorter or longer route. It was, rather, a matter of living or not living, of remaining alive or not. It wasn’t the length of the journey, the time that this or that path took. A wrong decision on the scalpel’s part—turning left when you ought to have turned right—wasn’t equivalent to some minor annoyance provoked by a delay due to a poor choice while navigating the space of the city. No, a diversion of a few millimeters on the part of his right hand could take a body to one of two opposing worlds: the world of a living body—albeit a sick one, or one with its capabilities diminished—or the world of a corpse, which is something else entirely.

As he steered his scalpel, Lenz saw the operation as he might see a stereo—something that could be turned off or kept on, depending on his decision. To the right—always to the right, a straight line, the side where the Lord (Lenz joked) had placed moral men—moving to the right kept the human system switched on, while turning left—the side of the devil or of the movements that we do not understand—turned off the system, cut off the electricity. And it was Lenz who was in charge of the crucial switch.

Competence is not determined by the heart

Up to that point he had always gone the right way, but each time he took up his scalpel for another operation Dr. Lenz Buchmann couldn’t stop himself thinking about that other possibility, which yet again he had available to him: he could turn the switch in the wrong direction, deliberately switching the mechanism off. And however much it shocked him—as his profession was the one moral stronghold he still maintained in a life he knew to be utterly disordered—in spite of this, Lenz always felt attracted to the second possibility, to the negative path he would never choose to take.

Yes, his profession would always be protected from his unvarying refusal to have any truck with virtue: he was alive, he was strong and rich; he only toyed with virtue out of playfulness, for pleasure, never out of necessity. When he operated, however, he was transformed into a respecter of the laws of the city and of all generally-held convictions about good and evil. He accepted them just like a soldier, an animal that had learned its lesson well. And that was why he saved the sick men he operated on: his scalpel fought against the forces of explosion and re-established precision and order. He felt worthy because his right hand was “in combat” (when he operated), and his hand was worthy too. But with each day that passed, the praise and the admiration of technique that his patients, his medical colleagues, and the hospital staff directed at him became intolerable. He didn’t mind being considered competent, but that this competence should be confused with a sort of goodness—a sentiment he utterly despised—was unacceptable. And their confusion—unable to see the difference between goodness and technical competence—began to erode the barrier Lenz had built between his profession and his private life, in which the total dissolution of moral values was absolutely obvious. The pleasure he took in humiliating prostitutes, weak women, adolescents, beggars who knocked on his door, even his own wife, couldn’t stand in starker contrast to the holy aura with which some of the relatives of the sick people he’d operated on had surrounded him.

This was why, on that afternoon, when that ingenuous woman, thanking him for having operated successfully on her mother, said to him,

“You’re a good man!”

he felt the need (right there in front of the hospital staff) to reply, roughly,

“Sorry, I’m nothing of the sort. I’m a doctor.”

An Explosion

The intoxication of survivors

The intoxication prompted by an explosion is of such an intensity that it makes all other forms of intoxication, from all other sources, seem trifles. First of all, when a bomb goes off, the delusion, the abrupt diversion of rationality to a state of emergency requiring a different sort of rationality, is collective and not individual. At the same time, the inexplicable feeling that links all the people in the vicinity of an explosion, after a bomb blows up . . . fear and the practical need for certain actions are not enough to explain it.

There is actually the sense that—from one moment to the next—the bystanders have indeed ingested some toxic substance, a substance perhaps created by the shock and the surprise of the explosion, but which remains in the seconds that follow. Therefore, its effects are not reducible to a single moment. This substance that intoxicates and obliges people to act like some other kind of animal, it seems uncontrollable, and no specialist—no psychologist specializing in behavior at times of crisis—could ever predict the doses in which it comes to be distributed in different organisms.

Movement and immobility. Attack and defense.

Within that landscape—previously calm, rational, and ordered—the bomb exploded amid a number of soldiers who were carrying out subsidiary tasks. It was as if the devil himself had dropped into that landscape—or a plane, out of control—and, in falling, at the moment of impact, this everyday devil haphazardly scattered red sparks across the ground.

Countless soldiers had been hit. It was an assassination attempt on an important officer, but it was still that officer who, following the explosion, continued to be the one to give the orders.

This officer still had a core of the old authority in him, of the law that preceded the catastrophe, which allowed the others to feel just a tiny bit of security. They could believe that there wasn’t any more danger only because the tide of blood hadn’t risen to the point where it interrupted the voice of command. A boat sinking under the certain, incontestable orders of its captain is a boat that—in spite of everything—is going down in an organized and human fashion; just like a man who, before committing suicide, leaves his home clean and tidy, puts on his best suit, and carefully cleans the rust off the gun, to be sure that nothing will go wrong.

There was, however, general turmoil in the city. Ambulances circulated at triumphant speeds—and this statement of their usefulness elevated all the unmade bodies and the repeating calls for help onto another plane.

Naturally, Dr. Lenz was called to the hospital. The hammer had struck a blow, and men were needed who knew how to reverse the effects of the metal already dissolving into some of the victims’ bodies. The bombs had left pieces of itself in nearby organisms, turning the doctors into hurried fishermen, retrieving the bits of refuse that someone had deliberately introduced into a system which was so tranquil that it might otherwise have allowed itself to slip into tedium. Lenz, however, stuck to his theory, a theory that he was always trying to corroborate: an inactive man, struck by a bullet traveling at the same speed and in the same conditions as another man who was, by contrast, in combat, alert, with his energies focused, would die much more quickly. The bored man would die in an instant; the man on the move and alert might yet survive. More than this, Lenz distinguished between two kinds of motion: attack and defense. An attack makes the organism perpetrating it not immortal but at least closer to being so. And in that sense, there was, for Lenz, a hierarchy, not only of strength but of resistance to bullets: the strongest and, so to speak, most immortal were those moving, attacking, followed by those moving defensively, and then, last, the most fragile, the most mortal—in short, the sickest: those who do not move, those who are bored.

But Dr. Lenz had to suspend his daydreaming: there were already some men arriving whom this swift and malevolent technique had struck down as they advanced. So they deserved to be saved.

Please withdraw, this room is not for you

The art of finding metal shards in the middle of a body—his right hand wandered through that space, albeit in a particular direction, a destination in sight.

The only reason Lenz didn’t burst out laughing was because he wasn’t alone; his movements—which seemed hidden now inside a second glove, the body of the injured soldier—were mockeries of themselves. Lenz felt as though he was engaged in a kind of manual labor that for him, deep down, was like manipulating shapes in clay or working a piece of wood. Any feelings of empathy were dissolved in professional expertise and in the recognition of his triumph in relation to the body lying on the stretcher. Lenz was alive, on his feet, with his reason intact, and still in control of the use of language: in that room he was the person who determined every Yes and every No—and he had long known that controlling such extreme words was a source of undisputable power.

A startled nurse was asking Dr. Lenz whether he wanted her to pass him another scalpel, one with a fine point, and Lenz replied: “No. No, no. Yes, yes, yes.”

Let us say that “organic craftsmanship,” the most basic craftsmanship, often filled him with enthusiasm. Lenz knew that bullets or bomb shrapnel—in short, all the pieces of metal that find their way into our bodies—were only looking for what any living creature looks for: a shelter, a final home, a home where they can be left alone, where they feel secure. And what might seem like a search for shelter to one individual might also seem, to outside observers, like flight: something or someone trying to hide. Lenz knew it was essential to root out such pieces of metal before each bit found its final home, because then, however great his ability, it would be very difficult to extract—not the piece of metal itself, but its effects on the structure of the nearby organs and cells Lenz was so familiar with. Ultimately, though, it was true: metal, however small a piece it might be, has just the same instinct as a hare, or any other animal in the forest trying to escape the eyes of the hunter and find some indestructible shelter. And what was at stake in the speed of his scalpel was the conflict between this shelter, the comfort and security the metal might find, and the life of the man who had been hit. The danger to the man’s vitality was the sheltering—the bourgeoisification, Lenz would have said—of the metal, and its effects on that final hiding place, that final cubic millimeter of the body.

The commotion, meanwhile, grew and diminished, the hospital wards seeming to obey the same laws as the tides. Meanwhile, the concentration of rationality there decreased in inverse proportion to the arrival of more bloodied bodies; the sight of the bodies’ sudden incoherence, while only physical, seemed to affect every unit of the great weapon of collective humanity: the calculated and developed way decisions are made. Some of the nurses bumped into one another, two doctors gave contradictory instructions for handling the same injury; in short, there was in some people there an evident illiteracy when it came to discussing what had happened, which was not far short of a catastrophe. Many of the people in the hospital were barely ready to deal with normality—and normality now seemed to be just another name for eternity: a repetition to infinity of a given sequence of events.

Now he was shouting at a nurse who was shaking as though each of the injured men was her lover, her father or son. She was seized by such an attack of nerves that it made her forget everything she’d learned; she mixed up all her intended movements.

So after one more clumsy motion, Lenz shouted at the nurse: “No!” and with a rough gesture pointed her out of the room.

“If you don’t know how to pick up a scalpel or to handle the machines properly,” he said, “get out of this room. Get out!” he actually shouted.

He had no need for her, for her irrationality.

Let her go pray outside. Not here, here was something else.

And the nurse had to leave the room.

A sample from Gonçalo M. Tavares's
Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique

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