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Thread: One man's strange view of Jane Austen

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    One man's strange view of Jane Austen

    I've convinced my father to read Emma, and he's enjoying it. However, he believes it is not great art, because (and I quote) 'it doesn't imitate reality'. He thinks that because the characters are small-minded and don't do do anything 'useful' with their lives, that the book is not of the highest quality. In other words, he feels the book is weakened because it does not include an expansive worldview, one that involves great affairs of state.

    Now, I think that represents a fairly superficial understanding of both art and life; it seems what he's saying is not far off from saying that art should always serve to inspire us by portraying heroic deeds and great valor. But as absurd as I think his point is, I'm not sure exactly how to refute it. Do you guys have any ideas? Thanks in advance.
    Last edited by Lykren; 11-20-2013 at 12:28 PM.

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    The most popular English novelist ever (as measured by the percentage of novels sold) was Jane Austen’s contemporary, Sir Walter Scott. Here’s what he wrote about Jane Austen:

    "Read again, for the third time at least, Miss Austen's finely written novel of 'Pride And Prejudice'. That young Lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!"
    Your father seems to admire the “big Bow-Wow” strain, filled with heroic deeds and inspiring speeches. I admire it too – and although Scott has lost canonical cachet, I like his novels. Nonetheless, the novel as an art form did not develop in his direction; it developed in Austen’s.

    Also, Austen’s subtlety has several levels. In “Emma”, Miss Bates is portrayed as a silly old lady, and the reader, like Emma herself, is led to dismiss her as a silly blabber-mouth. If you actually read her silly monologues, though, you can see that she is the only character in Emma who sees things clearly, freed from prejudices and delusions. As with Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Emma’s quickness of wit and intelligence leads her (and other characters) into delusion. It is because they admire their own perspicacity that they cannot see the truth.

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    Does he think a still life can be great art? Perhaps he is limiting his definition of great art to literature. What are his views on movies? I would say Midnight Cowboy was great art (if movies can be art) but its characters never achieve much in their lives. In fact both the main characters are losers.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
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    Ecurb, I had forgotten about that excellent quote of Scott's endorsing Austen. I'll be certain to bring that up in our discussions. It seems to me that Austen in fact very often writes about such 'deep' topics as the nature of truth, our ability to deceive ourselves, and also the pursuit of meaning in one's life. She just does it in very subtle, unexpected ways, and all through the lens of that brilliant style, of course.

    Kev67: great point about still-lifes! And of course movies can be art. We both enjoyed Fanny and Alexander very much.

    Still, I need to find a way to address his belief that the characters' lives are somehow trivial. I can't get him to see that their concerns are simply the most basic and fundamental concerns any human can have; the desire to conquer loneliness, and to find meaning here on earth while we can. What could be less trivial?

    EDIT: just thought of something. I read a review of Blue is the Warmest Color which criticized the movie for having characters who were flawed people. Now, I haven't seen the movie yet, but on the face of it, that's a ridiculous criticism. It reminded me of what my dad said about Austen, though. People usually ARE flawed and trivial; it's Austen's compassionate yet devastating insight that makes those qualities touching and sad and funny and relatable, no?
    Last edited by Lykren; 11-20-2013 at 02:20 PM.

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    Frank O'Connor (the Irish short story writer) picks out a couple of masterpieces of Austen technique in his book "Mirror in the Roadway". Here’s one from Emma:

    " 'Insufferable woman!' was her immediate exclamation. 'Worse than I had supposed. Absolutely insufferable! Knightley! - I could not have believed it. Knightley! - never seen him in her life before, and call him Knightley! - and discover that he is a gentleman! A little upstart, vulgar being, with her Mr. E., and her caro sposo, and her resources, and all her airs of pert pretension and underbred finery. Actually to discover that Mr. Knightley is a gentleman! I doubt whether he will return the compliment, and discover her to be a lady. I could not have believed it! And to propose that she and I should unite to form a musical club! One would fancy we were bosom friends! And Mrs. Weston! - Astonished that the person who had brought me up should be a gentlewoman! Worse and worse. I never met with her equal. Much beyond my hopes. Harriet is disgraced by any comparison. Oh! what would Frank Churchill say to her, if he were here? How angry and how diverted he would be! Ah! there I am! - thinking of him directly. Always the first person to be thought of! How I catch myself out! Frank Churchill comes as regularly into my mind!' * "

    Here’s O’Connor’s analysis: "The effect of this extraordinary technique is to make a passage like this almost identical with similar passages in James Joyce, where the fact that the author is trying to express something that has not yet reached the conscious mind compells him to express it symbolically. The principle passions of Emma’s life are set out as they present themselves to the author’s mind: they are Mr. Knightley, Mrs. Weston, and the fancied attachment to Frank Churchill. The last and least important Emma exaggerates into a principal one. She may imagine that she really catches herself out, but her self-knowledge is of much the same kind as Stendahl’s."

    This may not answer your father's questions exactly, but I looked it up before I read your last post.
    Last edited by Ecurb; 11-20-2013 at 02:20 PM.

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    That's a great quote, as well as a great piece of analysis, Ecurb. Makes me want to read all of Austen over again, too! I also think the comparison to Joyce is apt and well-put.
    Last edited by Lykren; 11-20-2013 at 02:59 PM.

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    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    Also, Austen’s subtlety has several levels. In “Emma”, Miss Bates is portrayed as a silly old lady, and the reader, like Emma herself, is led to dismiss her as a silly blabber-mouth. If you actually read her silly monologues, though, you can see that she is the only character in Emma who sees things clearly, freed from prejudices and delusions. As with Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Emma’s quickness of wit and intelligence leads her (and other characters) into delusion. It is because they admire their own perspicacity that they cannot see the truth.
    Indeed, Miss Bates is much older and has had all those delusions. The fact that she's continuously wittering against a deaf old bat (sorry, that just came to mind in a kind Emma Woodhouse way ) is also maybe symbolic: no-one listens to her and they just nod... She fades into the background like the deaf woman probably hears her from afar, but is not really listening to what she says. The quick wit and intelligence of everyone in the village also totally assumes that Frank Churchill will naturally fall in love with Emma Woodhouse. Not that has fiancé is already in town and the obvious signs of that. Particularly when they are almost caught at some point. Going to London for a haircut, indeed... They don't see it because they don't want to see it, and Emma is distraught about that later.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    Here’s O’Connor’s analysis: "The effect of this extraordinary technique is to make a passage like this almost identical with similar passages in James Joyce, where the fact that the author is trying to express something that has not yet reached the conscious mind compells him to express it symbolically. The principle passions of Emma’s life are set out as they present themselves to the author’s mind: they are Mr. Knightley, Mrs. Weston, and the fancied attachment to Frank Churchill. The last and least important Emma exaggerates into a principal one. She may imagine that she really catches herself out, but her self-knowledge is of much the same kind as Stendahl’s."
    The fact that Emma's so upset about Knightley and Mrs Elton's comments betrays that she secretly likes him. The same as when Knightley is so angry and famously says her comments were 'badly done'. Although it confounds him and he goes to London to think why he is so angry and disappointed. Emma just goes on merrily deceiving herself. However, I think that's inherent to human beings and we haven't changed at all (even Austen knew that we inadvertently think about the people we care about), it's nothing new.

    Scott was right when he said Austen could make the least interesting and commonplace things interesting, because, really, nothing happens in the novels. It's the same old boring story: two people fall in love, don't know it from each other and then marry after a few setbacks. And the setbacks are minor. But she was such a good observer that really, it's quite amazing how we can recognise these characters anywhere we are today.

    It's not because what characters do is not relevant today that we have to dismiss it. Paintings have scenes on them that are not relevant (men on horseback, men pulling boats), but it doesn't mean it doesn't convey feeling, emotion (or beauty). If he doesn't like it, that's fine, but not because of that, surely.

    This may not answer your father's questions exactly, but I looked it up before I read your last post.[/QUOTE]
    One has to laugh before being happy, because otherwise one risks to die before having laughed.

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    If he doesn't like it, that's fine, but not because of that, surely.

    He actually does like it, he just thinks it's not truly great because of the supposed triviality of the characters' concerns.

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    Registered User mona amon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lykren View Post
    I've convinced my father to read Emma, and he's enjoying it. However, he believes it is not great art, because (and I quote) 'it doesn't imitate reality'. He thinks that because the characters are small-minded and don't do do anything 'useful' with their lives, that the book is not of the highest quality. In other words, he feels the book is weakened because it does not include an expansive worldview, one that involves great affairs of state.

    Now, I think that represents a fairly superficial understanding of both art and life; it seems what he's saying is not far off from saying that art should always serve to inspire us by portraying heroic deeds and great valor. But as absurd as I think his point is, I'm not sure exactly how to refute it. Do you guys have any ideas? Thanks in advance.
    Lykren, did your dad appreciate the comedy, because that's a large part of Emma, and those who don't think of it as a comedy usually don't like it (EDIT - I see in the above post that he did like the book, so he must have liked the comedy?). Anyway, he is not the first one to find something lacking. Lots of people don't get Jane Austen. Scott was perceptive enough to realize that the nuanced, subtle psychological novel could be just as interesting as 'the big Bow-Wow strain', but Charlotte Bronte deplored the absence of passion -

    I have likewise read one of Miss Austen's works Emma...[cut]...She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well. There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy, in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood ... What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death--this Miss Austen ignores....(Charlotte Bronte in a letter to W.S. Williams , April 12, 1850)
    Another Walter Scott quote to show your dad, from a review of Emma -
    The author's knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader....

    Her merits consist much in the force of a narrative conducted with much neatness and point, and a quiet yet comic dialogue, in which the characters of the speakers evolve themselves with dramatic effect. The faults arise from the minute detail which the author's plan comprehends. Characters of folly or simplicity, such as those of old Woodhouse and Miss Bates, are ridiculous when first presented, but if too often brought forward or too long dwelt upon, their prosing is apt to become as tiresome in fiction as in real society.
    Last edited by mona amon; 11-21-2013 at 05:58 AM.
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    Although I would call Austen's novels "great art", I think your father's main point is a good one, perhaps they are not the "greatest art". If you read Harold Bloom, & other defenders of the canon, the works that usually gain top honours go wider & deeper. The greatest works surely have to consider "great affairs of state", heroic actions, and deep philosophy. I think your father's second point, 'it doesn't imitate reality', is totally wrong. Austen is usually praised for capturing that small-minded, middle class, provincial, very English world better than anyone else. That is, she imitates reality better than almost anyone else, it's just a small reality, reflecting the severe limitations placed on her life. Dickens had London, and as a parliamentary reporter, given access to the centres of power, and as a child encountered the worst aspects of factory life & prison. Shakespeare had similar freedom and privilege. Tolstoy was a Count, a landowner, and a military adventurer, who had access and ability to encounter all aspects of Russian society, high and low. The greatest novelists that England has produced, according to most canonical commentators, are George Eliot and Charles Dickens. Their greatest novels certainly have features that would place them in a higher category than Austen's novels, according to your father. For instance:

    Middlemarch by George Eliot - this vast novel show similar qualities to Austen's novels in analysing the lives of middle class provincial characters, but goes much deeper & wider by also analysing the worlds of scholarship, science, romantic poetry, "the aristocracy", national politics, journalism, ...

    Bleak House by Charles Dickens - as usual, Dickens explores the life, and supports the cause, of the poverty stricken in the world's greatest metropolis. But, in this novel, he also goes deep into legal, business, and political issues.

    Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Homer also explore far grander themes than Austen. Walter Scott, although also a great artist, doesn't usually get placed in the top bracket. For me, he does "valour" very well, and is very exciting to read. But he doesn't dig as deep as the other authors I've mentioned.

    A still life can be a great work of art, but it's not the Sistine Chapel.

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    confidentially pleased cacian's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lykren View Post
    I've convinced my father to read Emma, and he's enjoying it. However, he believes it is not great art, because (and I quote) 'it doesn't imitate reality'. He thinks that because the characters are small-minded and don't do do anything 'useful' with their lives, that the book is not of the highest quality. In other words, he feels the book is weakened because it does not include an expansive worldview, one that involves great affairs of state.
    I agree with your dad. since when a novel reflected reality? especially Jane Austen. it is anything but reality. it is a stage performance nothing more nothing less.

    Now, I think that represents a fairly superficial understanding of both art and life;
    that is not fair to call it id superficial. a point of view is a point of view and it must not be discarded because it does not fit our understanding of it. art is an artistic performance on life. and life is an immediate perception of reality. art should complement life not exaggerate it.
    art I think is to perform a vision from life and it is meant to extend it to a better understanding.
    it seems what he's saying is not far off from saying that art should always serve to inspire us by portraying heroic deeds and great valor. But as absurd as I think his point is, I'm not sure exactly how to refute it. Do you guys have any ideas? Thanks in advance.
    i think what your dad is saying is there is nothing in this book for me. there is nothing I identify with. to refute it is to ignore a valid point.
    it may never try
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    The greatest works surely have to consider "great affairs of state", heroic actions, and deep philosophy.
    Here's exactly what I disagree with. To me, subject matter does not define the thematic scope of a work. Rather, the ability of an author's style to probe eternal truths about the human condition does. I think there is as much dignity and grandeur, folly and wisdom, and beauty and sadness in the life of a farmer or ordinary member of the middle class than in the decisions of a great general, or the ruminations of a renowned philosopher.

    Think of van Gogh's portraits: they depict ordinary people in extraordinary ways. Yes, as I see it, they are of greater depth than the Sistine Chapel. (Gets ready to be called out for that!)

    Anyway I just told my dad about it and he says that what he finds lacking in the novel, that Anna Karenina (which he just read) has, is the description of meaningful work in the lives of its characters. What do you make of that?

    I personally am still not convinced, because I still believe in the universality of the feelings and ideas Austen expresses, as well as (and this is what he takes issue with) the essential meaningfulness of the characters' lives. Your take?
    Last edited by Lykren; 11-21-2013 at 11:38 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Lykren View Post
    ... I think there is as much dignity and grandeur, folly and wisdom, and beauty and sadness in the life of a farmer or ordinary member of the middle class than in the decisions of a great general, or the ruminations of a renowned philosopher.
    I think that's wrong. Take a current example, from the the UK. Paul Flowers, the CEO of the leading "ethical" bank in the country, the co-operative bank, who happens also to be a Methodist minister, has been caught buying cocaine and downloading gay porn from the internet. This is far more damaging than the teenager next door doing something similar. The former is national front page news, the latter is unlikely to make the local paper. The former has put the survival of a major bank in doubt and inconvenienced millions of people, as well as adding to the general doubt about bankers (and church leaders!) in general. Why? Because the CEO is a far grander figure than the teenager, he has tried to cut a dignified figure that the teenager would never aspire to, so his fall from dignity is infinitely greater than any fall the teenager could suffer. His folly is by far the greater, we expect Flowers to be wise, and when he is unwise expect the full approbation of society to fall upon him; we expect folly from a teenager, and expect the teenager to be treated with a slap on the wrist. We expect that Flowers, and those close to him, will be plunged into the depths of despair, but the teenager to get over it soon, without feeling too sad.

    Anyway I just told my dad about it and he says that what he finds lacking in the novel, that Anna Karenina (which he just read) has, is the description of meaningful work in the lives of its characters. What do you make of that?
    I agree with that, the attempts by Levin to find meaningful work, by working alongside the serfs on his massive estate, and thereby trying to generate a fully meaningful life, are intensely moving, and beyond the imagination & experience of Austen. To match Tolstoy in this she would have to send her heroine on board ship to a slave plantation, where she would pick cotton with the slaves that provide the money to keep her upper middle class life on track, and she would have to try and free the slaves, while maintaining them and herself in useful work, all the while keeping meaningful relations going on with the highest in society.

    Tolstoy also gives a portrait of the useless bureaucrats that do meaningless work, something else that Austen never attempts. The world of the work of middle class men is also nothing she knows anything about. The social world she is left with is interesting, and is enough to generate great humour and great art, but Tolstoy does this is as well - it's just that he does so much more.

    I personally am still not convinced, because I still believe in the universality of the feelings and ideas Austen expresses, as well as (and this is what he takes issue with) the essential meaningfulness of the characters' lives. Your take?
    I agree, but it's meaningful within a very narrow context, a very small world. Tolstoy, Dickens, and George Eliot inhabit a much larger world, indeed get close to occupying the whole world.

    I think you can compare Van Gogh's works, in totality, with the Sistine Chapel, but he's not a simple, still life painter. His works are incredibly varied, and even his still life paintings are revolutionary. Austen isn't a revolutionary, and her "still lives" are all the same kind of middle-class goings on. (She did die young, of course, who knows what she might have done if she had lived longer.)

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    Mal4mac: Ironically, my father is a bureaucrat, and so disliked the picture of 'meaningless work in a bureaucracy' in Anna K. That was the only part he had a problem with.

    About that banker, though: funny, I expect none of the things you said we expect of bankers. I even think your anecdote proves my point, that there are no 'great' people, that underneath we are struggling the same struggle.

    That is why I disagree with your statement that her works are 'meaningful within a small context'. The point I am trying to make is that her themes and ideas are applicable to all people, all over the world, regardless of station. I think art has the power to do this.

    I even think that Tolstoy's focus on inherently hyper-dramatic subject matter was a weakness, in that his grasp of the fundamentals of human psychology was weaker, less profound than Austen's: despite his attempts to overthrow Napoleon's status as a 'great man', his depiction of Kitty, for example, though certainly thoroughly pleasing to read about, is very idealized. We learn more about ourselves through Austen's depictions of imperfection.

    As for her not being a revolutionary in terms of style... See the above comparison to James Joyce (though I seem to recall you're not fond of him). For me, it's revolutionary enough to be able to make critical new observations, or to deepen old investigations, into human nature.

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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    There are some artists that need a grand, worldly, if not cosmic, landscape in order to portray themes that deal with grand, worldly, if not cosmic things... then there are those, like William Blake, who can: "...see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour." The greatness of Austen was for her to find all of the grand, worldly, and cosmic within the condensed space of her extremely limited and limiting social milieu and her characters' perceptions of it. While Austen is praised for her "realism," to me, her greatest triumph is in depicting, with tremendous irony, humor, subtlety, and artistry, how the human mind and its biases distort reality, imposing meaning and structure on perception, and how those structures and meanings are formed by society (Pride & Prejudice), parental/class background (Mansfield Park), fanciful wit, intelligence, and imagination (Emma), art (Northanger Abbey), or by human desire (Persuasion).

    Sense & Sensibility, while probably Austen's weakest novel, is also the most overt in laying out the themes that would concern her through all her novels. There, you have two characters, Marianne and her mother, who make terrible decisions based on their romantic distortions of reality, and Elinor, the "sensible" daughter, who has to clean up the messes they make. One of the faults of S&S, though, is that Austen too clearly delineates THE truth, THE reality, that Elinor sees with the falsities and fantasies that Marianne and her mother create through their romanticism. The evolution of Austen as an author and artist can be seen in the way that she progressively makes the perspectives of her other "Mariannes" our own as readers; where, instead of us being "outside" the subjective delusions and observing how characters make bad decisions based on their fantasies, we are placed inside the heads of characters whom are themselves distorting reality through whatever means.

    In P&P it's our slow realization, along with Elizabeth, that perhaps Darcy isn't really what she's continually seen him as, that it's actually her (and us, as readers seeing from her perspective) suffering from "pride & prejudice." Mansfield Park returns to the greater objectivity of S&S, but unlike S&S it leaves subtle and hidden the reasons for the very different perceptions of reality and its "rules" of Fanny VS the Bertram children. I tend to think that Mansfield Park is Austen's underrated masterpiece of overtly contrasting the perspective of those whom are on the outside, the minorities, those made insecure by their being made to define themselves via their difference from those in power, the "norm."

    If Emma is Austen's supreme masterpiece it is so because we, as readers, are almost completely lost within Emma's mind and perspective. In all her previous novels, Austen had provided overt "clues" as to what the "truth" was, and in how her characters' subjectivities were distorting that truth. While P&P was much more subtle in this depiction than S&S, even in P&P there is that "aha!" moment of "here's what the truth/reality is that Elizabeth has been missing." In Emma, we're never given such a moment. Rather, it's a slow accumulation of details that leads us to recognize that Emma is not the most accurately perceptive person in the world. Yet, even when we come to realize that, it's often unclear as to exactly what the truth is, what reality is. While we can make some clear distinctions between what Emma sees and between what's really going on, were are usually limited to some extent. Reality is nowhere more subtly elusive in any Austen novel. In that respect, Emma is quite similar to a cinematic masterpiece of manipulative perspective in Mulholland Drive by David Lynch. That film also puts the audience squarely in the mind of its very disturbed protagonist; inside her wish-fulfillment dreams, her waking memories, and while we're able to put together some parts of the reality puzzle, we're ultimately left never being entirely sure what is reality and what is merely a fantasy or distorted memory of the protagonist.

    So, for anyone who thinks that the subject of reality/truth VS perception/imagination is a subject worthy of the greatest art, then Austen is indubitably a great artist, as would be Wallace Stevens and David Lynch.
    Last edited by MorpheusSandman; 11-21-2013 at 01:33 PM.
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