Brazil Questions: Thoreau



I am heading to Brazil to talk about Thoreau at a bi-centennial conference. I was sent a set of questions to answer for a pre-conference publication.*  Here are the answers. I haven’t included the questions, but they are easy enough to reverse engineer.


Question 1: Wittgenstein and Thoreau.

I have long been most fascinated, most challenged and changed, by philosophers who combine analytical rigor with existential pathos. I strategize that bringing Wittgenstein and Thoreau together makes more visible the existential pathos of the one, Wittgenstein, and the analytical rigor of the other, Thoreau. So you could say that my strategy is to use each to insist on the completeness of the other, and so to offset the tendency to find only analytical rigor in Wittgenstein (if even that) or existential pathos in Thoreau (if even that).

Each writes in a way that creates a desire to refuse him: Wittgenstein constantly targets what Dewey once called the “occupational psychoses” of philosophers (meaning, by ‘psychoses’, not so much psychological disturbances as a pronounced characters of the mind). By doing so, Wittgenstein courts philosophers’ ire–self-knowledge is almost always unflattering, and philosophers (and I include myself) all too often placidly think that their character of mind only promotes the search for truth and does not, could not, hinder it. Philosophers yield that placidity grudgingly. Even worse, Wittgenstein often targets the occupational psychoses by satirizing them, sometimes harshly. And he problematizes the lexicon of philosophy, he takes favorite words and checkers them, creates pangs of worried conscience where before there had apparently been only clear consciousness–’theory’, ‘essence’, definition’. Thoreau constantly targets our existential psychoses, numbers them among our failures of economy. He too courts ire–the citizens of Concord (and they of course stand in for all of us, myself included) are in no hurry to surrender their complacency. They are living good lives, drawing close to the good life itself, and to be told that they are rather living in despair–even a quiet despair–is a dysangel, bad news. The citizens find such news unwelcome, and they surrender their complacency grumbling and grousing. Even worse, he satirizes their lives, makes fun of their clothes, their houses, their very civilization, and his satire is often harsh. He steals off with their favorite words, ‘economy’, ‘law’, ‘neighbor’, ‘living’, and he drags them into the woods and re-natures them, so that they become unfamiliar, unwieldy, partly wild. –Given all this, bringing the two together also helps to highlight the purpose of each, helps to show what each is about, that each is writing “to the glory of God and that his neighbor might be benefitted thereby”. But each reckons that his chosen audience is illusioned, and each knows that the illusions present themselves as rational, prudent, proper. To argue with the illusions, or only to argue with the illusions, drives their anchors deeper, since argument seems to sanction their claimed status as rational, prudent, proper–at least in a generic way. So each man attacks the illusions in other ways, with redescriptions, jokes, satires, rotations of the axes of investigation, shifts of aspect, –across many varieties of lusty crowing, hoping to wake their neighbors up, to disillusion them.

Thoreau emphasizes the necessaries of life, and he rolls them together into “retaining the vital heat”. I have always found that a happy way of presenting what is required for human life, and it seems to me to center Walden well. The question Thoreau asks his reader is nothing more than–and nothing less than–”How do you keep warm, stay vital?” That question has a way of getting at you, since it will not allow you to escape into luxuries of self-justification. However high-mindedly we may spend our days, we are still attempting to do what those who spend their days less high-mindedly are doing: we are keeping warm, we are all keeping warm. Thoreau will not let us forget that. We are all always answering his question, even if we do not want to and even if we tell ourselves we somehow are not. If we do not answer in words, we answer in deeds. Of course, we are most of us doing more than just keeping warm, but that does not mean that we ever stop keeping warm. It is easy to think we do when we do not build our houses, raise our own food, sew our own clothes. We lose track of the necessaries of life, and thus lose track of who and what we ultimately are, believing we can substitute second nature for first nature, to choose or create our own very standing in the world. Forcing us to acknowledge our need to keep warm, the inescapability of that task and the way it equalizes us all, brings our contingency and vulnerability into view, keeps it always before us. I take Thoreau to believe that we live in a motivated forgetfulness of our nature, and that our tendencies to focus on what is unnecessary are both result and cause of that forgetfulness. By going to the woods, Thoreau becomes a living reminder of what we forget. He becomes an externalized conscience–to put it paradoxically–calling each of us back to what we (all) are.

I read both Wittgenstein and Thoreau as first philosophical anthropologists, whatever else they may be, and I take each to be deeply concerned to elucidate the original living context of human life, and to work to rebuild our confidence in everyday human experience, to get us to see that the various uncertainties that attend to everyday human experience are no reason for a blanket mistrust of it. It is what we have: we must make as much of it as possible. Each man wrote a book that endeavors to bring its reader to independence of thought and independence of vision–an independence secured by trusting in everyday human experience and by making as much of it as possible. Properly husbanded, the grey rags and dust of everyday experience contain surprises, and may be shown to hide what, once seen, is most striking and powerful.

Question: Emerson and Thoreau and Eastern Religions

There is more to say about Emerson and Thoreau’s bows to the East than I can say here. But let me at least address what I take to be a framing consideration. As is well known, both men wanted America to realize itself–and to do so in a significant independence from Europe. Both feared that the Old World would have the last word for the New World. Now, I do not think either was naive enough to believe that the Old World would not get the first word in the New World. Their worry was about the hegemony of that Old World’s first word. Both knew that much of what the Old World offered had denatured into empty forms (I think here of Emerson’s sermon on the Eucharist, for example). But neither thought that what the Old World offered was fated to be mere dead forms: it might be possible to reanimate it. But that reanimation was not any simple process. And here the East became important. Think about a famous passage of Wittgenstein’s, the one about The Fall of philosophers (Philosophical Investigations 131):

For we can avoid ineptness or emptiness in our assertions only by presenting the model as what it is, as an object of comparison–as, so to speak, a measuring-rod; not as a preconceived idea to which reality must correspond. (The dogmatism into which we fall so easily in doing philosophy.)

For Emerson and Thoreau, what the Old World was offering had become, in its way, inept, empty. It was presented, or it presented itself, as that to which reality must correspond. It had become merely dogma. If it was to undergo a second birth, it had to re-presented, it had to become an object of comparison, a model, so that life could re-inhabit it.

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. I do not mean to say that either man wanted the Old World’s first word to end up, reborn, as the New World’s last word–that this was a strategy to reinvigorate Christianity–but I do think they wanted to challenge the dogmatism of dead forms, and to see what might be brought to live again. In a way, their goal was something like Kierkegaard’s–we cannot see Christianity for what it is unless we can see alternatives, other models, other objects of comparison. When Christianity becomes thoroughly acculturated, it no longer knows itself. (Christianity–indeed, religion–is always grammatically a way of seeing the world. When it becomes the way of seeing the world, it can no longer be distinguished from the world, and so is no longer Christianity–no longer religion.) But unlike Kierkegaard, neither Emerson nor Thoreau was hoping to re-make people Christian–but neither was hoping to make people followers of some Eastern religion. No, what both wanted was for people to see past the forms of religion, Western or Eastern, and to see the teeming life of the New World to which those forms often blinded them–to see the New World as New full stop (and not as New York or New England), to see one another as new men and women, to see the new trees and the flowers. In short, to allow the New World to feed their imaginations instead of allowing the Old World to imagine the New. (America is not the new Israel, a land of 2% milk and organic honey, and imagining it to be so is part of what makes it, keeps it, unapproachable.) When I consider Emerson and Thoreau’s use of Eastern religion, a passage of John Wisdom comes to mind (a final paragraph of one of the essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis):

As we all know but won’t remember, any classificatory system is a net spread on the blessed manifold of the individual and blinding us not to all but to many of its varieties and continuities. A new system will do the same but not in just the same ways. So that in accepting all the systems their blinding power is broken, their revealing power becomes acceptable; the individual is restored to us, not isolated as before we used language, not in a box as when language mastered us, but in ‘creation’s chorus’.

I find it hard to think of a more Emersonian or Thoreauvian passage than that, allowing for the differences of philosophical styles. Emerson and Thoreau wanted to hear creation’s chorus in the New World, not just some echo of a bare, ruined choirs of Europe. The East was to help us remember what we all know but won’t remember. The East was to remind us that the West is just the West.

Question: Thoreau’s Education

One of the underappreciated themes of Walden is its sense of the power of remembered or acknowledged ignorance. Call it Walden’s Socratic theme. Early in the book, Thoreau asks (of himself and his neighbors): “How can he remember well his ignorance–which his growth requires–who has so often to use his knowledge?” It is easy to miss or to elide that little parenthetical–”which his growth requires”. Remembered ignorance is the fertile soil of personal growth. Socrates knew this, and it is a shame, I think, that we manage so often to miss it when we talk of Socratic ignorance. For Socrates, remembered or acknowledged ignorance is a source of power, not of weakness. So too for Thoreau. Remembering or acknowledging our ignorance marks out our limits, opens us to our finitude. Realizing that we don’t have the answer allows us to experience the question, to be put in question, and the question, thus experienced, spurs growth. We can’t outgrow our finitude, of course, but we can enlarge ourselves, reckon with our finitude, be more its master and less its thrall–and, at any rate, there is a difference in kind between submitting to our finitude and living in subjection to it.

I mention this theme, and Thoreau’s line about ignorance, because they tell us a great deal about Thoreau’s relationship to his education. We cannot ignore his education for a moment; I do not think that he did. But it is true that his relationship to his education was complicated. Perhaps the most important part of that complicated relationship was Thoreau’s abhorrence for an education as ornament, as something possessed but external, like a watch or a waistcoat. The only education he took to be worth having was one so deeply assimilated that it became indistinguishable from the expression of the educated person’s inner life. By that standard, much that we are taught is not worth having, not worth having learnt. Here, Thoreau’s thinking crosses paths with Gabriel Marcel’s, and in particular with Marcel’s distinction between being and having. Much of Walden is engaged with that distinction, albeit in Thoreau’s own terms. Thoreau is always asking what we can shed, part with, surrender: the things we have and that we could live without. The question about our education is whether it can become part of what we are, digested into our very being, or whether it is to remain something we have, indigestible. Odd as it may sound, I believe that Thoreau rates an education that is assimilated, digested, that becomes part of what we are, as itself something that helps to maintains our vital heat–it is a necessary of life. If we reflect carefully on Thoreau’s life at the cabin, we will see that it was a life of reading and writing and that its being so was internal to the deliberate life he went there to live.

Question: Cavell

This is a hard question to answer. Cavell’s work has certainly brought people to Thoreau, and gotten them to take Thoreau seriously as a philosopher–but I do not know that Cavell’s work has established Thoreau in analytic philosophy. I think most academic philosophers regard interest in Thoreau as, at best, a ‘soft’ interest, comparable to interest in applied ethics or the history of philosophy. Maybe they would think it ‘Continental’ if it weren’t for the embarrassing wrong continent thing. Anyway, as wonderful as Cavell’s work is–and it has been of the first importance to me–his own bona fides as a philosopher are often challenged in academic philosophy, if not dismissed. All hands concede his brilliance–but many have little patience for his work. So, Cavell’s own position in academic philosophy is not such as to garner Thoreau a reception; Cavell himself has never wholly been received into academic philosophy.

I guess that means that there is more work to do where Thoreau is concerned. But I am lukewarm about the prospect of that work. I do not know if it matters very much whether Thoreau is received into academic philosophy. He was clearly less than sanguine about professors of philosophy. “Honorable to profess because it was once honorable to live…”–that is not a compliment, unless you count left-handed compliments as actual compliments. It is really a rather severe asteism. I don’t think Thoreau himself would have been too worried about where the readers of Walden are housed, in the academy or out of it. He would have cared how they were housed–and why they were so housed.

I used to worry about this sort of thing, and used to worry about why so many of the philosophers I care about are so deliberately and purposefully shunted aside by academic philosophy. The answer is complicated–but one part of it is what academic philosophers know how to teach and what they don’t. They do not know how to teach Thoreau. You simply cannot teach a page of Thoreau in the same way that you can a page of Frege or a page of David Lewis. Teaching it requires a set of habits most philosophers do not cultivate–particular habits of reading and novel habits of tracking conceptual accuracy (especially when that accuracy is achieved by means other than formalizable argumentation). Should philosophers cultivate those habits? Well, some do and that is good; I hope that continues, and I try to teach students to cultivate them. But no one can cultivate every habit that might be useful in teaching a page of a worthwhile text. I hope Walden continues to find readers and I trust that it will. I trust some of them will be somewhere in the academy, sometimes even in philosophy, and that now and then the book will find its way onto a syllabus or at least that now and then copies will get pressed into the eager hands of poor students.

Question: Nietzsche and Thoreau, Conceptually Relevant Parallels

Both Thoreau and Nietzsche are philosophers of the morning. Both want their readers to awaken. Both take their readers to be worse off than their readers know. For each, an inflection of the concept of ‘repetition’ is central. But they part company, it seems to me, in a way that can be captured by reference to a passage from Emerson, that passage about “sitting at the feet of the familiar, the low”. Emerson is willing to surrender the past and future worlds for the tutelage of the commonplace, to surrender the great, the remote, the romantic. There are of course moments like this in Nietzsche, but I do not think that he is willing as Emerson is willing–certainly he is not as willing as Emerson is willing–to accept the tutelage of the familiar and the low. Thoreau is. In fact, Thoreau is willing to submit himself to that tutelage to a degree that even Emerson did not equal. This difference makes itself felt in the specific way that Thoreau and Nietzsche are philosophers of the morning. Thoreau is always thinking about tomorrow, the next day of the week, a Monday or a Tuesday or…. Nietzsche is always thinking about the end of an age, the end of some abstract noun with a majuscule first letter, Morality, Christianity, Philosophy, Truth. Thoreau worries about the workaday, about our work week. Nietzsche worries about the Eternal. Nietzsche strides abroad in seven-league boots. Thoreau saunters in cowhide boots, boots that cost him a dollar and a half a pair. This may make it sound that I think less of Nietzsche than I do of Thoreau, and that is true. But I think very highly indeed of Nietzsche, so it tells you more, perhaps, about how I rank Thoreau.

There are many passages in Nietzsche I can imagine Thoreau enjoying, but I cannot imagine him writing them. Take, for example, “How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable”. I can easily imagine Thoreau chuckling over that, and finding justice in it. But wouldn’t he also have found it a bit much? Overheated? Thoreau may intend to, and may succeed at, crowing as lustily as Chanticleer, but Thoreau’s crowing has no ambition to be “the cockcrow of positivism”. Incipit Monday, not Zarathustra.

Take none of this to suggest that I think that studying Thoreau in conjunction with Nietzsche a bad idea (or vice versa). They are both Emersonian–but in different ways, taking different things from him, both acting in his spirit while acting differently. (Some proof, I suppose, that Emerson was no slave to a foolish consistency.) Nietzsche occasionally sneaks a look down, at the commonplace, just as Thoreau does a look up, at the Eternal, but their orientations in thought remain quite different.

Thoreau writes to an audience of poor students, not collectively, but rather distributively, in a way that individualizes them, that speaks to their individual, shaky hearts and consciences. Even Thoreau’s crowing carries a sense of privacy, as if he crowed just for me or just for you. Nietzsche writes to everyone and no one, massively, in a language of plate tectonics, of ponderous, vast, lithospherical movements, spoken by mysterious subterranean forces, spoken to the blue sky above.

Question: Walden in Trump’s America

There’s an idea of which I have long been convinced, namely that the more conscience we have, the more consciousness we have. Walden is written to the individual conscience (there is no non-individual conscience, conscience always has one individual owner). President Trump, so far as I can tell, does not just lack a conscience, conscience itself is his aversion. (Who is Trump to tell Trump what he may and may not do?) And an important reason for that is that he does not himself seem to want to be more conscious, and he certainly does not want others to be more conscious. He would entrap us all in a dubious twilight–a twilight in which we reconcile ourselves to our limitations of conscience and consciousness by dallying with stuff: cell phones, flat screen televisions, clothes and cars. Satiety replaces clarity. Orange is the new stupid.

Thoreau would force us from that dubious twilight, into the white light of the sun. He would turn us from our relationships toward stuff and to our relationship toward ourselves. I don’t know that Thoreau would think the most crucial lines of resistance to Trump are to be drawn between groups on the streets of Washington or of…Anywhere, USA. I don’t know that he would think the most crucial lines of resistance are to be drawn between any us and them. The most crucial line of resistance must divide my own heart: I must set my face against the Trump in myself, against the glacial, self-diddling sloth that threatens eventually to consume me. If I pretend that I have no Trump in myself, I strengthen both that Trump and the one in the White House. My guess at Thoreau’s advice to us in Trump’s America (even, dare I say it, in Trump’s world)? —Disobey yourself! Not in the sense, of course, of slighting conscience, but in the sense of acquiring an effectual self-command, enough of fortitude and temperance to actually do what prudence and justice reveal to be right. If we can’t say No to ourselves how can we say No to Trump?

Question: Thoreau’s Poetry

My impression is that Thoreau’s poetry is not much read. If that is right, it is too bad; the poetry is quite good. But it is true that Thoreau’s best poetry is in Walden itself, in those passages in the book that–looked at from the right angle–clearly anticipate some of the best poetry of Francis Ponge (consider, for example, Ponge’s “The Frog”). It is those passages, somewhat more than the acknowledged, less prosing poetry, that have influenced my own poetry most–along with Thoreau’s various observations on writing, most importantly his observations on writing and seeing, on seeing as a writer and writing as a seer.

I shrink from comparing my poetry to Thoreau’s, but I will briefly compare it with his. Like Thoreau, I am concerned with place, with the sense of place. I am happy to write poetry that concerns itself with the abstract. And, more importantly, I am endlessly fascinated by paths, trails, creeks, rivers, ponds, trees and barns. I believe they have meaning in themselves and that they can withstand the gaze sub specie aeterni–because that gaze, rightly practiced, does not see through things but sees them, in all their imponderable hic-et-nunc-ness. That great reader of Thoreau, Henry Bugbee (Inward Morning) writes:

Only as things are dense and opaque do they stand forth in the light of eternity, and take the light. To take that which exists as existing, and not as a symbol for something else; to find something to which one gives full heed, and not merely to push right through it in search of a beyond, or to have from it only a message at once directing the mind away from it and onto other things; such is the experience of things as eternal, in the making. To experience things in their density is to experience containment in reality. But the agile mind and the distraught soul militate against true perception; for true perception requires stillness in the presence of things, the active, open reception of the limitless gift of things.

To experience things in their density as they take the light of eternity: there’s an aim for a Thoreauvian poet. And like all expressions of high-mindedness, it is profoundly humbling–for I have never gotten close to doing it, despite bending myself and my words that way again and again.

Question: Snowden

I often think about that passage in “Economy” in which Thoreau talks of the slave trade. That passage can be read as if Thoreau fails to condemn slavery as he ought. But that is not the right way to read it. His point is that slavery exists in many forms, Southern, surely–a form he terms ‘gross but somewhat foreign’–but also Northern, less gross but more native. And, worst of all, that form of enslavement to self that is the lot of most of us, self-enslavement. Thoreau is not trying to rank these slaveries as social ills, in terms of their consequences, but rather as moral evils, in terms of their structures. The southern form, which, remember, we know Thoreau detested, is in this context treated as less worse than the other two only because there is no blameworthiness as such that falls on the slaves themselves. Each of the other two requires, to differing degrees and in different ways, that the slave be blameworthy for his status as slave. He could make other choices. He could live in other ways. And he I would, he might also help to end the enforced slavery of those in the South, to which his voluntary slavery contributes. Thoreau writes in his essay on John Brown that

Our foes are in our midst and all about us. There is hardly a house but is divided against itself, for our foe is the all but universal woodenness of both head and heart, the want of vitality in man, which is the effect of our vice; and hence are begotten fear, superstition, bigotry, persecution, and slavery of all kinds. We are mere figure-heads upon a hulk, with livers in the place of hearts. The curse is the worship of idols, which at length changes the worshipper into a stone image himself…

When I think about people like Edward Snowden–who I do not know and of whose character I am uninformed–I wonder about our reaction to them. Is Snowden a hero of civil disobedience? I see no reason to deny it. Snowden, hurrah! –But what do we learn from him? Does he increase our desire to root the foes out of our own breasts–the woodenness of our hearts, our lack of vital heat. Or do we want to turn on others, as if their breasts were wooden but our fleshly? Do we ask what it is about ourselves that has made us willing to live in the Five Eyes Panopticon? Why tolerate constant surveillance? What are we getting in trade? Can we live the lives we currently want without making ourselves liable to global surveillance? I find it hard to believe we are not more worried about these questions. But we are not, are we?

Instead we cluck-cluck at Five Eyes and wish away the Panopticon, all the while living the life of Panopticism. We want instant access to everything, without remembering that we number among the everything. (What we really want is to see everything without being seen, like the eye that limits the visual field in the Tractatus.) We worship idols that petrify us. We want our vices for free. We will to live lives of what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called “muzzled freedom” just so that we can have the stuff we want. Snowden should remind us of that fact. And then, after we have come to some just settlement with ourselves, perhaps we can seek a just settlement with Five Eyes without docilely handing over the very thing that we keep loudly protesting that we will never yield.

Question: Work on Thoreau

I do not keep up with scholarly work on Thoreau in any disciplined way. Ed Mooney’s recent work means a lot to me. But the work that matters most is work that is older, and not, as such, Thoreau scholarship: Henry Bugbee’s Inward Morning and his essays, John M. Anderson’s The Individual and the New World and David Norton’s Personal Destinies. What matters most about Walden is where you go from it. Thoreau himself did not stay.

*The interview was conducted by Eduardo Vincentini de Medeiros.  My thanks to him.


Reading Annie Dillard on a picnic table.  Tiny ants trudge around in myopic busyness.  One ambitious climber clambers up and onto the open pages of the book.  I fail to observe him and so crush him with my hand.  He dies slowly over minutes, seconds, aeons.  I watch him die:  it is the only gift I can give him.  His filament legs stop moving and he goes still.  Goes. Gone.  A universe of death packed into his inarticulate articulated body.  Goes.  Gone.  I look up at the patchy blue sky.  It seems to ripple above the water of the lake.  It envies the lake’s shores, the lake’s shapeliness.  A form of meaning.  The horizon is an obstruction, not a limit.  Gone.  I begin again to read, now careful where I put my hands.

Letter to a Philosophical Inquirer

As I suppose most philosophers do, I get fairly common requests from folks who are fascinated by philosophy asking for reading lists and advice. I thought I would share my latest response to such a request.

Dear (Inquirer),


   Reading serious philosophers is demanding, but it is ultimately worth it.  But you have to read with a notebook and a pencil, working to write out what you take passages to mean, providing illustrations (literally, pictures), asking yourself questions, making notes of connections with other texts–whether that philosopher’s or other philosophers’.  You cannot read passively.  You have to push back against the text as hard as you can.  It will whip you soundly, but if you are game, and keep coming back, the volleys will last longer and you will begin to understand more and more.

   Suggestions:  Plato’s Socratic dialogues, particularly the Euthyphro, the Euthydemus, the Ion, the Charmides, the Apology.  Read Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.  Read St. Thomas (Aquinas Ethicus is free online and a great place to start.)  Read Descartes’ Meditations.  Read Rousseau’s Social Contract and Emile.  Read Kant’s Prolegomena.  Read Kierkegaard’s The Present Age.  Read F H Bradley’s Ethical Studies.  Read Russell’s Problems of Philosophy.  Read Wittgenstein’s Blue Book.   These are all wonderfully written, central works, that are written for an educated reader, but not necessarily someone with much formal training in philosophy.  If you can find someone to read with, that is a huge help.  Best if it is someone you can talk to face-to-face, but online is better than nothing.

Expect to be baffled.  Expect to be confused.  As I tell my students, philosophy requires a high confusion threshold.  To read philosophy, you have to be willing to be confused, know you are confused, but nonetheless to read on.  Much of what is necessary in philosophy is the right intellectual habituation, and you can only get that by frequent active reading and frequent conversation.





Seeing, Reading, Saying, Being: A Note from Josh Blog

Some days, between trying to get it right, trying too hard to make it come out right, and not being able to wait for it to strike me in the right way, interpretation wearies me, even sickens me, and I feel as if all real interpretation is just seeing and saying, and what I occupy myself with daily is instead nothing but saying I see, seeing if I can say, reading without seeing, seeing more than I can say, saying what should just be seen, reading instead of saying, saying instead of being. —Little knots of thinking and willing and wishing.

Infested by Sphinxes–Collingwood

From Collingwood’s consistently delightful The New Leviathan (2.54):

Man’s world is infested by Sphinxes, demonic beings of mixed and monstrous nature which ask him riddles and eat him if he cannot answer them, compelling him to play a game of wits where the stake is his life and his only weapon is his tongue.

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