Commentary Magazine

The Apocalyptic Temper

We must get it out of our head that this is a doomed time, that we are waiting for the end, and the rest of it. . . . Things are grim enough without these shivery games. . . . We love apocalypses too much.

—Saul Bellow, Herzog

As a rule, defining literary works in terms of timeless archetypes and looming cultural traditions turns out to be a pretty arid business. All it takes, after all, is a little learning, a little ingenuity, and the solemn determination to make a “discovery.” Since our universities are increasingly filled with people who possess all these attributes, the hunt-and-peck system of archetyping has become, in the literal as well as the proverbial sense, mainly an academic exercise. But there are plainly times when the act of aligning a contemporary work with some broad configuration of the literary past can produce a clearer perspective in which to see the imaginative outlines of the work under consideration, the past explicating the present as the present adds its gloss on the past. For, despite the notion now so much in vogue of a dramatic break between our age and preceding ones, we bear with us, in ways we don't always realize, the spiritual freight of the past, sometimes staggering under that burden down blind alleys we might otherwise have avoided.

This kind of relevance of cultural past to cultural present was brought home to me with particular force by R. W. B. Lewis's recent essay on an apocalyptic mode of American fiction, “Days of Wrath and Laughter.”1 Although Lewis's purpose is to offer a careful description of a literary phenomenon, not really to evaluate it, his account of the apocalyptic strain in American writing had the effect for me of throwing into focus a vague sense I have had of an underlying inadequacy in much of our fiction and thinking over the last few years. Now, “apocalypse” is one of those words that has seemed so strikingly appropriate for the major literature—and, of course, the history—of the past fifty years that it is more often sonorously invoked than simply used. Lewis reminds us that it is also the name of a book in the New Testament and argues that if the apocalyptic vision of our writers is partly inspired by the nightmare of modern history, it is as well a very particular kind of dark dream passed down from the ancient world by religious and literary tradition. What he tries to do in “Days of Wrath and Laughter,” for the most part quite persuasively, is to make “apocalyptic” work as a useful term of literary classification by showing how the specific content associated with that word by Christian tradition has been utilized, reworked, transformed, to constitute a distinctive sub-genre of American fiction.

American culture, Lewis points out, has had a powerful apocalyptic tendency from the days of its Puritan founders. In the earliest stage, the apocalypse was more typically imagined as millennial than cataclysmic; though this is hardly the way the word is now used, Christianity does give warrant for brighter views of the promised end—the Book of Revelations, we recall, includes a vision of the Millennium and the New Jerusalem to follow as well as the Seven Trumpets of Woe and the Beast from the Abyss. By the middle of the 19th century, the millennial gleam had altogether faded in the minds of many serious American writers, leaving only a brooding sense of the terrible imminence of the End. It is at this point that Melville, in The Confidence-Man, creates a distinctive American version of the apocalyptic myth: the imagined end of all things is in this elaborately ironic presentation ludicrous as well as disturbing; the novelist alludes to it as he brings all the people of his world into a state in which their pathetic absurdities are utterly exposed. The Confidence-Man thus initiates in American fiction a tradition of what Lewis calls “savagely comical apocalypse”: a line runs from Melville's steamboat of damned fools through Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger to Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, finally splaying out in a variety of novels of the 50's and 60's—Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Thomas Pynchon's V.

One might characterize the mode of fiction common to these novels—though this is not a term Lewis uses—as a picaresque version of the apocalypse. Our civilization is seen by these writers as such a “colossal humbug,” in Mark Twain's words, that it deserves to go to pieces, but not in the dignity of a grand smash: as the protagonist of The Mysterious Stranger goes on to say, “Only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast.” Most of these novels work out some central action which is an updated variation on the scene from Revelations of the last loosing of Satan. Appropriately enough for a world that is no more than a stupendous fraud, the Prince of Lies appears as a picaresque role-player, a free-wheeling artist of disguise and deception whose intelligence, agility, and freedom from self-delusion may frequently elicit downright sympathy for his role as catalyst in the dissolution of a rotten existence. Melville's Confidence-Man, with his constantly changing masks, reappears in a variety of bizarrely protean figures in recent novels: Ellison's Rinehart, the Harlem preacher and pitchman of many faces; Barth's ubiquitous guide, Burlingame, expert of worldly knowledge and carnal corruption; Pynchon's mysterious lady of shifting identities, V., who is associated by Lewis with “the dark lady of the apocalypse, the Whore of Babylon.” (Though Pynchoa could hardly have been familiar with it, an equally apposite apocalyptic motif for V .'s world of people usurped by things is found in the legend of Armilus, the “Antichrist” of medieval Jewish apocalypse, who is the stonyhearted spawn of intercourse between Satan and the Roman statue of a beautiful woman.)


Virtually all the books that fit this pattern have, I would say, a special kind of coldly glittering appeal to the imagination. Their sharp-edged laughter gives the appearance of cutting to the core of our culture's moral abscesses and so communicates a sense of pain inflicted to work a cure. At the same time, the picaresque exuberance of the comedy offers a welcome release for our deepest feelings of anxiety about the mad state of things in which we live: the play of inventive energy of many of these novels imparts a kind of desperate exhilaration, an excited feeling that this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a caper. (My generalizations, of course, will not fit all the books in Lewis's grouping equally well. Invisible Man, despite major points of intersection with the comic-apocalyptic group, is in some ways a different kind of novel, finally more serious, I think, than the others mentioned.) All the writers, in sum, who account for the modern world through a harshly comic eschatology—and that description readily applies not only to novelists but to many contemporary poets and critics as well—would seem to fulfill ideally the characteristically modern notion of the function of art, to tell the terrible truth boldly, with intellectual verve.

What I would like to suggest is that, quite to the contrary, much recent American literature has told considerably less than the truth precisely because of the apocalyptic postures it has assumed. The excitement of apocalypses is seductive and may easily give the impression of profundity and imaginative daring where neither is present. No one can be altogether impervious to the jeweled flashes and lurid flames that illuminate those doomed landscapes of the Book of Revelations, but there is no other document in either the Old or New Testament so inhuman, so spiritually irresponsible, and the same negative attributes adhere to the modes of imagination that ultimately derive from Revelations.

It is a historical commonplace that Christianity was born out of the apocalyptic side of Judaism, but I think it is important to add that apocalypse is itself a decadent form of Judaism. Lewis, in the course of his argument, refers several times to an essay by Buber, “Prophecy, Apocalyptic, and the Historical Hour,”2 but he does not make plain the fact that Buber's essay is a powerful exposure of the spiritual and moral weaknesses inherent in the apocalyptic imagination. The fundamental difference between prophecy and apocalypse, as Buber describes it, is between courageous engagement in even the most threatening history, on the one hand, and a total withdrawal, on the other hand, from a history that has become unbearable. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Buber reminds us, were not oracles; they evoked the future as vividly as possible because they believed that human actions could determine what the future would be, and they wanted desperately to affect their auditors' actions.

The task of the genuine prophet was not to predict but to confront man with the alternatives of decision. . . . The prophetic faith involves the faith in the factual character of human existence, as existence that factually meets transcendance. Prophecy has in its way declared that the unique being, man, is created to be a center of surprise in creation.

By contrast, apocalyptic writers, ancient and modern, are not really interested in the facts of history or human nature because they scarcely believe any more in either—or, to put it another way, because what they assume to be the essential facts of human existence are wholly known, and can be summed up in a brief sentence like “We are all marked with the sign of the Beast, and the End is near.” Apocalypse, which means “uncovering” in Greek, is a perfectly appropriate name for this kind of literature because there are no genuine, human surprises in it, only a breaking open of seals, tearing away of masks, lifting of veils—nothing but “revelations” of what is already known. As Buber aptly puts it, “Everything here is predetermined, all human decisions are only sham struggles. The future does not come to pass; the future is already present. . . . Therefore it can be ‘disclosed.’” Such disclosures may be impressive, but what we can learn from them about the complicated facts of our lives is at best limited.

Let me illustrate the applicability of Buber's analysis of the classic apocalyptic vision to the secular literature of our own century. Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (for the title, see Revelations 9.1-11) offers a memorable image of the dehumanized Average Man of modern society in the grotesque Iowan hotel clerk, Homer Simpson, a character at first merely pathetic but in the end suddenly destructive. In E. M. Forster's distinctly unapocalyptic Howards End, we have a roughly analogous representation of the new common man, hopelessly warped by modern culture, in the self-educated insurance clerk, Leonard Bast, “one of the thousands who have lost the life of the body and failed to reach the life of the spirit.” What Homer Simpson makes us repeatedly aware of is his symbolic freakishness, the ineradicable mark of the Beast upon him. What Leonard Bast makes us aware of is the complex, knowing intelligence with which he is conceived and continually re-examined, re-presented. West isn't really interested in the facts about Homer because they are so simple and so known—Homer is merely the perfect product and paradigm of American society's insidious sterility, a man totally alienated from his own intelligence, his body, from the very experiences he undergoes. For Forster, on the other hand, all the facts about Leonard Bast are terribly important: we learn the particular ways in which society forms him and in which he misguidedly forms himself, and by observing this pitiful yet somehow likable creature we discover the ambiguities and self-deceptions in our own aspirations for “culture,” our own liberal-intellectual attitudes toward the deprived classes. The Day of the Locust is a brilliant book, but its achievement is of a lesser order-finally, I think, because of the schematic imagination which its apocalyptic assumptions impose.


There is no room for real people in apocalypses, for when a writer chooses to see men as huddled masses waiting to be thrown into sulphurous pits, he hardly needs to look at individual faces; and so it is not surprising that recent comic-apocalyptic novelists should fill their worlds with the rattling skeletons of satiric hypotheses in place of fully fleshed characters. The impersonality, however, of apocalyptic writing is merely a symptom of its fundamental deficiency, and I think Buber is right in placing central emphasis on a failure of nerve, a determination to opt out of the challenges, complexities, and threats of history: “Wherever man shudders before the menace of his own work and longs to flee from the radically demanding historical hour, there he finds himself near to the apocalyptic vision of a process that cannot be arrested.” If this weakness, which Buber claims to be the core of apocalypse, would seem in some way contradicted by the uncompromising strength of apocalyptic indictments, both in the old visions and in the new savage comedy, it is well to keep in mind an intuition of D. H. Lawrence's about the spiritual tenor of the Book of Revelations: “The Apocalypse . . . is repellent because it resounds with the dangerous snarl of the frustrated, suppressed collective self, the frustrated power-spirit in man, vengeful.” Lawrence, as usual, states the case at once profoundly and with polemic provocation. The vehemence bespoken by his italic emphasis is directed not only against the chapel-going folk of his Christian boyhood, but also against an impulse in his own residually Christian religious imagination which he struggled to overcome, and it is perhaps the presence of apocalyptic rage within himself that explains the sureness of his insight.

The instance of Lawrence suggests why this whole question has particular relevance to our own time and place. American culture may be in many ways secular and humanist—or perhaps post-humanist, as that most apocalyptic of critics, Leslie Fiedler, has recently argued—but it is decisively post-Christian in some of its important aspects. Whether a writer's ancestry is Christian or Jewish makes little difference, as the presence of West and Heller among our neo-apocalyptists should indicate: the imaginative modes which the American writer often, perhaps even typically, draws upon are deeply embedded in a Christian world-view, a Christian ethics and politics.

Apocalypse was of course a Jewish invention, but I suspect that even in its first great period of flourishing it was championed for the most part by Jews like John the Baptist who went out into the desert to eat locusts. Yet even if it may have commanded wide enthusiasm in that age of profound spiritual unrest, the fact is that the historical consensus of Judaism largely rejected it in favor of competing “translations” of the vision of man and history articulated by the prophets. Christianity, on the other hand, has never been able to free itself wholly or comfortably from the basically apocalyptic nature of its beginnings. As far as one can safely infer historical fact from the record in the Gospels, Jesus appears to have conceived himself as a kind of prophet but more essentially as an “apocalyptic messiah,” in the pointed phrase of the late Yehezkel Kaufmann. A new kind of claimant to the throne of David, he brings, like the prophets, an ethical message, but, at least as prominently, he brings dire predictions of an imminent end of time, when, just as in Revelations, the chosen will shine like the sun while the mass of offenders, as Jesus repeatedly warns, “will be thrown into the blazing furnace, the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth.” This is quite different from both the prophetic threats of national disaster and the prophetic “days to come” (aharit hayamim, usually translated with a most misleading eschatological implication as “the end of days”) because man has no control over what will happen. He can only prepare himself—individually, not as part of a society made up of mutually responsible members—for the impending moment. In the prophets, God works through man in history, with the promise of bringing history to a fulfillment; in Jesus's teaching, God stands poised to lop off history, suddenly, in the night.

The contrast between what Judaism and Christtianity did with the prophetic impulse is strikingly illustrated in the different meanings attached to the term “kingdom of heaven” by Jesus and the early rabbis. In Jesus's mouth, of course, the kingdom is eschatological, something that will come upon man. In rabbinic literature the phrase appears as part of the idiom ‘ol malkhut shamayim, literally, “the yoke of the kingdom [or kingship] of heaven.” When a man accepts the obligations of the Law, both written and oral, he is said to take upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. Law is thus grasped as the means to implement those grand prophetic visions of God's reigning in splendor on earth. The quality of the most ordinary man's life, then, the small and large acts that constitute his daily relationship with other men and with what is beyond men, have the power to make manifest God's sovereignty in this world. Nothing expresses more clearly Judaism's concern with “the factual character of human existence, as existence that factually meets transcendance” than the Jewish preoccupation with law. Although the analysis and expounding of the Law often became an intellectual game in its own right, losing touch with the initial religious impulse of the activity, its primary motive is nevertheless an urgent need to discover what the particular and varied meanings of revelation are as it impinges upon the realm of everyday experience. Perhaps this is one reason why Jewish law, despite extended contacts with the Greco-Roman world in its formative period, never developed an extensive vocabulary of abstractions. The language of the Talmud is remarkably concrete—I am tempted to say, almost novelistic in its focus on familiar particulars. There is no “party of the first part” and “party of the second part” but “Simon” and “Reuben”; one does not speak of “incurring liability for indemnification” or even of “creating a public hazard,” but of the man who piles up his barrels so as to block a thoroughfare, or who leaves his pottery to dry on the roof in a place where prevailing winds blow.


This centrality of law, with its intricate involvement in the here-and-now, placed visions of the hereafter in a secondary role; this is one of the meanings of the traditional primacy of Halakhah over Aggadah, law over lore. Christianity, by contrast, having discarded the very principle of Halakhah, was left in the uneasy position of making Aggadah absolutely essential to its world-view and therefore dogmatically binding—as it was never to be in Judaism—upon its adherents. There is, moreover, a clear connection between Christianity's rejection of law and its expectations of an imminent apocalypse. When Paul, in one of his demonstrations of the dispensability of the old Law, says (Romans 13), “Love cannot wrong a neighbor; therefore the whole law is summed up in love,” he immediately adds that the entire earthly life we have known will soon be over: “In all this remember how critical the moment is. It is time for you to wake out of sleep, for deliverance is nearer to us now than when first we believed. It is far on in the night; day is near.” The famous rabbinic precedent for Paul's statement-Paul, of course, had been a student of Rabban Gamaliel and may even have had this earlier formulation in mind—is Hillel the Elder's answer to the gentile who challenged him to sum up the whole law while his questioner stood on one foot: “Whatever is repugnant to you, do not do to your fellow man.” Hillel's restatement of the Deuteronomic injunction to love one's neighbor is, I would say, more realistic than Paul's, but the more important difference between them is in the three words Hillel adds to his maxim—v'idakh zil gmar, “go learn the rest.” Basic principles are certainly worth stating, but if history is more than a dark night about to be broken by an apocalyptic dawn, one must face up to the endlessly complicated, humanly inevitable business of details; one must learn.

To move from the realm of Halakhah to that of Aggadah, we might note that Judaism's characteristic development of the prophetic vision was messianism, not apocalypse, for the difference between the two is instructive. This is not to say that messianism and apocalypse have no significant connection; as a matter of fact, a whole cycle of post-talmudic messianic legends is suffused with apocalyptic motifs that ultimately derive from the same late biblical and Hellenistic Hebrew sources as the Book of Revelations. Nevertheless, the two modes of vision are different in kind because of the attitudes they take toward history and man's role in it. “Messiah” was originally a political term, and however heavily it was later overlaid with eschatological splendors by Jewish tradition, it was never wholly cut off from its connections with a Davidic dynasty destined to be flesh-and-blood rulers over the land of Israel. According to one often-cited talmudic view, “The only difference between this world and the Messianic Era is our present subjugation to foreign powers” (Berakhot, 34b). A century after Jesus's appearance as an “apocalyptic messiah,” Rabbi Akiba supported the messiahship of Bar Kokhba, whose claim to that title was asserted through political activism, open rebellion against Rome.

As political alternatives came to seem less feasible, human participation in the great movement of redemption shifted more typically to the moral and spiritual life of the individual. This notion is perhaps most strikingly expressed at a later juncture in history in the kabbalistic doctrine that man hastens the redemption by gathering up in his acts and meditations the divine sparks scattered through our broken world. It is also a point stressed in many rabbinic legends, like the well-known tale of Rabbi Joshua Ben-Levi, who is sent by Elijah to the gates of Rome to speak to the Messiah. Ben-Levi finds the Messiah sitting among the poor of the city, binding and unbinding his wounds; he exchanges polite greetings with the tarrying deliverer, and then, in answer to his question, “When are you coming?” he hears a single word—“today.” Puzzled, Ben-Levi returns to Elijah with the complaint that the Messiah has lied to him. “What he really said to you,” Elijah explains, quoting a verse from Psalms to complete the enigmatic answer, “is, ‘Today—if ye give heed to His voice’” (Sanhedrin, 98a).

The recurrent image of the afflicted Messiah sitting among the poor suggests something of the human warmth with which the Jewish folk imagination typically infused the messianic idea. Eschatology had a personal focus, not only in the figure of the Messiah, but also in his forerunner, Elijah, who was transformed in popular legend from the biblical man of righteous wrath to a beloved emissary of divine compassion. One awaits the apocalypse with an electric tremor of fear tinged with delight in destruction—the comic apocalyptists, of course, simply reverse these proportions. One awaits the Messiah with the joyful eagerness appropriate to the anticipation of a dear, human guest. Stories are told of pious Jews who would buy a new suit of clothes and lay it aside, never to wear, in order to have their holiday best ready to put on when the redeemer came. S. Y. Agnon, in a memorable account of his childhood in Galicia of the 1890's, recreates the way in which the figure of his absent father and the awaited redeemer fused in his mind, so that when he went to sleep in his father's big bed, he would try to keep one ear pricked, to be ready to leap up if the ram's horn of the Messiah should sound during the night Though the idea of redemption does imply setting things right on a cosmic scale, it was generally imagined by Jewish folklore in vividly personal terms, and this saved it from the irresponsibility of apocalypses, in which the imagination tends to go skittering off into the upper reaches of the cosmos, there to view humanity abstractly, as swarms of odious insects, beetles, or locusts.


Now, the impress of such classic Jewish traditions on the modern Jewish literary imagination is, admittedly, for the most part negligible, especially in the case of writers not working in Yiddish or Hebrew. Where there is ignorance one can hardly expect influence, and even for many Israeli writers who have been exposed to the Hebrew source materials and some American writers who have culled them in translation from paperback anthologies, the classic Jewish views rarely rise from the paper-and-ink plane of book-learning to become a vital mode of imagining man and history and their interrelation. From time to time, though, one does run across a significant exception, and, as in other matters, the exceptions are more instructive than the rule, since they show how a past different from the accepted one of Western culture can be immensely relevant to the needs of the present. For one of the chief advantages of the anomalous presence of the Jews, deeply implicated yet sharply apart, in two millennia of Christian civilization, is that they could sustain a culture whose development was roughly parallel to the majority culture, yet dramatically different, thus tracing against the curve of Christian history a series of lived-out alternatives to it. I scarcely need to add that the cultural life of our own time, with its peculiar habit of digging itself into circular ruts of constantly narrowing radius, could often benefit from alternatives.

It seems to me, for instance, that there is an essential connection between the fact that Herzog is Saul Bellow's most Jewish novel, in language, allusion, narrative materials, and that it is his great dissent from the intellectual vogue of “wasteland ideologies” and apocalypses. (Quite to the point is the fact that The Waste Land itself, the paradigmatic modern poem, is pervasively Christian, not merely in the motifs it employs, but in the nature of its basic assumptions about the life of the spirit. To cite a central example—the symbolic use of death, the whole myth of death and rebirth, presupposes a radical disjuncture between a sinful nature in man and his capacity for redemption which is profoundly alien to Judaism.) Herzog is Bellow's most autobiographical novel and that is both a strength and a weakness. But what is more to our purpose is that it is his most personal novel as well, in the sense I have used the word to distinguish messianism from apocalypse. Herzog continually attempts to counterpose against the great, killing abstractions of modern intellectual life the concrete particulars—poignant, saddening, ludicrous, sordid—that constitute the individuality, the vividly recollected specialness, of one man's life. His expressed hope for human value in an infinite and indifferent universe reflects the common-sense commitment to the world of familiar experience that has informed both Jewish law and Jewish messianism:

And the peculiar idea entered my (Jewish) mind that we'd see about this! My life would prove a different point altogether. Very tired of the modern form of historicism which sees in this civilization the defeat of the best hopes of Western religion and thought. . . . The question of ordinary human experience is the principal question of these modern centuries . . . the strength of a man's virtue or spiritual capacity measured by his ordinary life.

What Bellow has absorbed from the Montreal ghetto-milieu of his boyhood is a certain feel for experience, an imaginative tone, style, and viewpoint, but it is clear that he has not been touched by the impelling central myths of Jewish tradition, which more often than not had already dwindled into superstition and pious reflex in the immigrant generation from which he sprang. By contrast, Elie Wiesel, the remarkable writer who casts his novels in French, and his journalism in Yiddish and Hebrew, was brought up in a little town in Transylvania where, in the years before the war, a child could still be steeped in the lore of a reverent Judaism, fired by the passionate aspirations of Jewish mysticism; and his work testifies to the impressive sustaining power of the messianic vision. No one has more right to the apocalyptic viewpoint than someone who has gone through what Wiesel has. Auschwitz, after all, was and is a kind of end of the world for all of us—anyone who has read Wiesel's account of it in Night is likely to have the doomsday glare of its unspeakable ovens flickering somewhere in the back of his head for a lifetime. One of the extraordinary aspects of Wiesel's vision is that, even after directly experiencing this terrible turn of history, he refuses to look at the world in an apocalyptic light. Instead, each of his novels asks with agonized urgency how the Messiah could have so utterly failed his people, while at the end of the most recent book,3 the protagonist comes through painful quest to an affirmation—marvelously resonant against the novel's accumulated experience—of a transformed messianism, one in which man will have to dare to assume the whole burden of redemption:

Whether or not the Messiah comes doesn't matter; we'll manage without him. It is because it is too late that we are commanded to hope. We shall be honest and humble and strong, and then he will come, he will come every day, thousands of times every day. He will have no face, because he will have a thousand faces. The Messiah isn't one man . . . he's all men. As long as there are men there will be a Messiah. One day you'll sing, and he will sing in you.

The obvious difference between this messianic reconstruction of life after the war and the kind of savagely comical apocalypse in vogue in American fiction is that Wiesel's vision is founded on an act of faith and that of the comic-apocalyptic writers, on a complete failure of faith. It is commonly assumed that to avow a lack of faith is a sign of honesty, and this is obviously often the case. But to absolutize a lack of faith in man and history and project it into literature is, for an artist, an easy way out, an escape from the difficult responsibilities of his calling. Through a habit of nervous laughter over the world's going to pieces, we titillate ourselves and at the same time imperceptibly inure ourselves to the prospect, so that it may become just a little more likely. Conversely, by carefully attending to the bewildering human particularities of our world, with the assumption that they must and can be coped with, we may make it somewhat more likely that we can grab hold of history before it goes skidding off to that awaited End. We may all sometimes wonder whether the communicated word really has the power to help us change ourselves and our history. That it possesses such power has, in any case, always been Judaism's first implicit principle of faith after the belief in God, and it seems now as much as ever to be a principle of faith that is literally indispensable.


1 The concluding essay in Lewis's new volume, Trials of the Word, Yale University Press, 239 pp., $6.50.

2 Available in English in the paperback selection, Pointing the Way, edited and translated by Maurice Friedman, Harper Torchbooks.

3 The Gates of the Forest, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 226 pp., $4.95.

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