On the Perils of Adolescence

December 5, 2006 at 12:09 pm (Theosophical Museum)

By Professor Rachael Worthington

I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the Women’s Lodge of the Theosophical Society this morning. I especially appreciate the Apple Strudel that Melinda brought. You really have to give us that recipe. I do not believe it is an Austrian state secret! Today’s talk is on the perils of adolescence. I am sure any of you who have raised adolescents will resonate with some of my observations on this topic.

I have found that children are wonderfully fresh and natural until they reach adolescence. At the onset of puberty however, there is a long period of pseudo-personality acquisition in which they are merely fresh. This period has steadily increased over the last several decades. No doubt this is a global phenomena linked to climate change, rising carbon dioxide levels and various unexplained interstellar phenomena. All of this leads to various chemical and hormonal imbalances. During this period, individuals are generally unstable and prone to moodiness, fits and excitability.

Once individuals regain their balance again, they become useful. This generally occurs sometime in their 20s. If this doesn’t happen by their 30s then they risk ending up as an item in the local section of the newspaper – under some title such as “Women Caught in Convenience Store Robbery with Frozen Penquin.” But most do adapt, and the 30s becomes the great altruistic decade where one can work tirelessly, with steadily increasing responsibility. With confidence and insight gained from this service, they can then assume a position of philosophic leadership during their 40s, and retire in their 50s into the gentle twilight of benign sagehood.

Sagehood is the season of the old dog, the culmination of a long lifetime of faithful service. Content, restful, observant, an old dog gives a home a warm sense of serenity. This is especially true if one owns three or four of them. I used to keep about a dozen venerable basset hounds myself, but the porch began to sag so much that my husband made me get rid of them. There was the matter of the fleas too. He was just jealous though – he wanted the porch himself.

Not everyone follows this path of course. That is because during adolescence they become weakened by fox-spirits. Not a lot has been written in our human development texts about fox-spirits, but those who have studied ancient works such as Tales of a Chinese Studio know that the interaction of the human and the daimonic is quite acute during the late years of adolescence. One can become intimate with someone then suddenly realize the other person isn’t human at all. Although some fox-spirits are quite bewitching, many are harmful, weakening ones’ nervous energies, often to the point of exhaustion.

There are ways of course to avoid fox-spirits. Fox-spirits, not being truly human, but only pretending to be human, tend to be especially prone to pseudo-personalities – all their personality is unreal in fact as being foxes they have no natural human personality at all. But if one is careful to choose one’s friends from among those who are unaffected one is safe. There are also fox powders, such as Fox-Pox, that can be purchased that provide protection.

There are other perils to be sure. ‘Flexing the Lifeline’ is an addiction some adolescents acquire which involves repeated testing how many bad decisions it takes to put oneself in serious difficulty. There is ‘Beheading the Statue’ where lopping off the heads of authority figures becomes so habitual that one is unable to secure any sage advice because no one is left to speak. Then there is the danger of ignoring danger altogether and walking straight over the cliff like the laughing Fool in the tarot deck.

And of course there are the problems of delayed adolescence, second adolescence, continual adolescence, and sudden adolescence syndrome. Adolescents are also prone to a number of special medical conditions such as hardening of the pseudo-personality, rapid linguistic de-evolution, toxic stylistic predispositions, and such.

I have found the best way to avoid these perils is to send the child off to a monastery or convent at the onset of adolescence, and have them raised there under strict religious supervision until which time a suitable arranged marriage can be made. But of course, suitable facilities which will take on this task are increasingly harder to find – one needs something very remote. I do have some addresses for places in Inner Mongolia which have worked for our family which I will be happy to share if anyone is in need.

One could say more, but hopefully these brief remarks will help you understand some of what your adolescent is going through, and inspire thoughts of your own on how to work with children of this age. If so, I am very grateful to have been of service.

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Mystical Atheism and the Absence of God in the Poetry of Ralph David Emerson

December 1, 2006 at 5:09 pm (Blue Kansas, Theosophical Museum)

We are fortunate to be able to share with you a copy of the talk given last night at the Theosophical Museum. -Lynn

Ralph David Emerson mixing the Pina Coladas in Biochem 301

By Reverend Katherine Talisman

I was very sorry to hear of Mr. Emerson’s disappearance, however, as you know, here in Stranger Creek, there is a lot of that kind of coming and going, so I am not especially apprehensive. His absence in fact gives his work a somewhat posthumous aura that I treasure. I do not think many of the local residents realize that there is more to this youthful poetry than is first apparent. I for one find a curious undercurrent of theological suggestion, and a subtle subtext of strange self-effacement, which I will try to convey in my short talk tonight.

As his definitive poem, The New Testament, reveals, Mr. Emerson wants to see “the foundation of the house”. What house could this be, but the House of God? Yet he is not allowed – “That wouldn’t be of any use to you,” the minister tells him. Neither the old nor the new know why they are there, why this opposition must occur. The minister knows there is in fact no foundation to the house. He holds up the weapon of the Church – but he cannot deny the truth of the Spirit, and so must step aside.

“The New Testament, ” I said handing it to him, “You can read it while we look.”
And with that we slid past him and opened the door. He offered no resistance.

What exactly is the New Testament that Mr. Emerson wants to share with us? I do not think it is the one we are familiar with. It is not a form of religious Christianity, rather something akin to mystical atheism. Some of the older residents will remember the few turbulent years when Death of God theology commanded attention. While I do not imagine Mr. Emerson has much knowledge of ancient theology, and in fact appears to be more inclined to a sort of dynamic tribalism, there are undeniable signs in his work, that existentially he has reached the same space.

The ‘Death of God’ theology was many things, but almost always a forceful and sustained attack upon the conceits of religious Christianity – it was a radical Protestantism in every sense. As Thomas Altizer, one of its foremost proponents wrote, in his 1966 work, The Gospel of Christian Atheism, “From the point of radical Christianity, the original heresy was the identification of the Church as the body of Christ.”

In this line of thinking the creation of a universal Church, of any universal Church sets Christ in opposition to humanity, and its spiritual immediacy, and reverses the true freedom Christ offered and revealed in his life. For Emerson the ‘old way’ is symbolized by the minister with the blood-stained and rusted scythe for whom there are no denominations, only the monolithic Christian Church. But the Christian Church, consumed by its will to power, its imperialistic desire to rule the embodied world, binds the spirit, and silences the incarnate Word – a Word that to be true, must be allowed to manifest in all situations, not merely those that are institutionally proscribed.

The old order, crossed and partialized by its fixations, is irrevocably linked with violence and futility:

As we cross the border
Driving north towards the snow
We pass fields of debris
Jetliners torn in pieces
Houses and stores smoldering
Crumbled power lines
Dangling in the trees
Overhead, torn flags
Flutter uselessly
The republic is dead

Progressive spirituality cannot abide in a specific, fixed form. There is a continual descent of the Word into flesh which is a continual breaking of form. The living Christ does not permit solidification. He cannot be fixed into a presumptive role as ‘judge of the living and the dead’. The immediacy and presence of Spirit requires a continual forward movement into fuller and more complete deconstruction of all forms of conceptualized Spirit. The presence of God is only fully realized in the absence of God.

Soon you realize
That there are no roads
No towns no cities no lakes no rivers
Nothing with a name

We continually try to create a home in the homeless. Spirit animates appearances but cannot abide in appearance without denying its freedom, its being as Spirit. There is a suggestion in these poems of a radical ‘priesthood of all believers’, a challenge to become a direct conduit, to become ourselves spirit made flesh. Faith is not dogma, but inner transformation. All externalities have meaning only as symbols of this transformation.

There is no point in driving any further
Everything can be seen from here

But what is seen? Nothing at all. That is the cleansing presence of pure Spirit. It is the imageless that has given the image its face. This has radical implications for our theology. Rather than continually seeking a ‘re-imaging of Christ’ we should perhaps look to the ‘de-imaging of Christ’ as the authentic response to the challenge of the incarnate logos. The radical call is to dismiss all false imaginings in favor a mystical atheism, a theology of absence which contrary to all positivist claims witnesses the profound self-effacement of divine impotence, divine nonintervention and divine indifference.

The shopkeeper is impassive
Seated in the cobra chair
With a bell and rattle in his lap
He could be a thousand years old

Freedom in Christ lifts us up from the bondage of the Law. Not just Hebraic Law but all Law – all fixation, permanency and certainty, all conformity including religious conformity. Christ did not free us from one law to bind us to another, but to ‘judge not’, to put an end to all moral judgment, to suspend belief before the sovereignty of God’s absence. As the prophet Isaiah is told, “Behold I create new heavens and a new earth; and former things should not be remembered or come into mind.”

If we do not understand the freedom that is being offered to us, then all is lost:

When the images erupt
And the numbers reveal themselves
You will want to know
Which road leads where

For those who journey into the nothingness of God, direct experience is the crucial authority, the deciding value, with primacy over both religious myth and religious tradition. The sovereignty of God as a whole cannot permit any partiality, even the partiality of religious affirmation. As the French philosopher Georges Bataille said, “I live by tangible experience, not by logical explanation.”

We walk…
But never arrive
The horizon receding
Further and further away
With each step we take

This path is not a path that yields anything approaching an answer. As the Swiss evangelical Karl Barth said, “Religion is an abyss. It is terror. There demons appear…Religion compels us to the perception that God is not found in religion.” When God commands Adam and Eve not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil it is a command to not make a religion out of Spirit. The religious impulse itself is what has caused us to fall out of paradise.

Rather than forge a religious identity, entering into the nothingness of God requires us to abjure from any identity. As the German theologian Paul Tillich cautions in his 1963 work, The Eternal Now, “You cannot reach God by the work of right thinking, or by a sacrifice of intellect, or by a submission to strange authorities, such as the doctrines of the Church and the Bible. You cannot, and you are not even asked to try it.”

Entering the nothingness of God, one affirms the reality of spiritual presence, but does not claim to know what this presence is. There is nothing to believe nor disbelieve. There is nothing to accept nor reject. We do not need to bind ourselves to any dogmatic formulation, any conceptual idolization at all. Man’s free choice is to dwell in his thoughts or in God, in his preoccupation with religious and spiritual identities or in his empty being, void of all identity. As Bataille says, “I cry out to the sky ‘I know nothing’ and I repeat ‘absolutely nothing’.” Yet:

I know you are real
As real as the voices
That drift across the great sandbanks of dreams
Stretching out endlessly in front of me
As real as the white gulls
Flying overhead
Like angelic birds of prey
Your coy, terrible, and swift

Mystical atheism denies any affirmation of name and quality to God; it doesn’t try to explain away the mystery of our being by resorting to appeals to scriptural authority or churchly tradition. We are given nothing but the immediacy of experience, the Dionysian ecstasy of stillness in which to hear the voiceless voice.

Until you start falling
Into the weightlessness
That is like a dream or like
Any of a thousand other things
Suddenly present
You won’t even have a clue

In his 1943 work, La Somme Athelogique, Bataille posits that inner experience is opposed to action, to project, and to the intricate blend of action, project and discursiveness that animates our lives. In this regard, salvation is just another project, and until we divest ourselves of the idea that we are by virtue of belief, or faith, or religious identity privy to some privileged spiritual access we simply deceive ourselves. In fact, it is because Christianity has turned the living word into a project of scriptural exegesis, real compassion into a project of compassion, and natural grace into a project of salvation it has itself become a non-mystical atheism, by killing the living God it seeks.

As Bataille writes, “Further on, always further on… further on there is sacrifice, madness, the renunciation of all knowledge, the fall into the void, and nothing, neither in the fall not in the void is revealed, for the revelation of the void is but a means of falling further into absence…and above all: no more object.” Or as we read in Emerson:

The images will start to swirl together into a great blur
Of sound and color
And then a warm tunnel of light will open
And you will start to fall and fall and fall and fall
Any direction you take
Will lead to the same destination
No place at all

And yet there is a suggestion, that although inner experience has neither goal nor authority to justify it, that once the discursive is relegated to its proper place, as servant of experience, not its master, that this very ‘not-knowing’ is itself a form of ecstasy. “Inner experience is a conquest for others,” Bataille writes. Or as Emerson says:

Don’t worry
If you exist or not
Or whether
You know anything
Special or useful
Simply float and see
The unimaginable beauty of it all

To experience God as God, we must let God be as she is, in the immaculate sovereignty of her absolute nothingness. We must realize that experience has no categories – it has only immediacy, only Spirit. In this way we do not create a project to escape projects, we do not subscribe to projects at all, but in non-action recover the pure being and unbound freedom that is ours. That journey, the journey into the absence of God is one we must make alone – with nothing but God to guide us.

In the center the virgin smiles
From a faded unframed print
It is not clear what currency
You must use
To make a purchase here
Nor why you would want to go
To this land where the moon rises
From the ground
And the sun disappears
Into red oceans
Something in her eyes perhaps
A thin thread
From before the war, before the peace
Before everything
A thread left dangling
In some impossible wind

I think the closeness of Emerson’s dialectic and that of mystical atheism occurs because mystical atheism is very much a Protestant form of cemetery magic, a reformed cemetery magic. The icons are taken away and just the bare space remains. The parishioner is surrounded by this space, floats in this space, is dissolved in this space. Yet space is also infused with light – the radiant light that lies just off the spectrum of the visible. Everything is alive yet never is the silence broken. The true logos is never spoken at all. It is truly an impossible wind.


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The Isles of the Blest

October 11, 2006 at 7:05 pm (Theosophical Museum)

We are fortunate to have a transcript of Helena Petrona’s lecture given this week at the Museum.

For a place that is essentially timeless, heaven has a long and colorful history. It is perhaps our most distant and yet most strangely familiar dream. No less sought after by poets and lovers, then by saints and philosophers, it is perennially evasive. Attempts to enclose it within dogma render it as lifeless as the vague accounts of psychics, mediums, and those who don’t quite cross over. Indelibly imprinted in the deepest longings of our hearts, heaven is so faint and wavering an image as to be almost invisible, and yet our nostalgia for it is at times so strong that it almost single-handedly carries us to the transcendent.

The ancients knew heaven by many names. It was sometimes called Elysium, other times the Elysian Fields, and to those who participated in the mysteries, it had yet another name – The Isles of the Blest. It was first envisioned as a meadow in the underworld where the great heroes were carried body and soul and made immortal. There they were free to pursue their favorite activities, and worries and illness were unknown. Soon, it became the abode of all the blessed dead, at the farthest and westernmost edge of the world, where souls of heroes, poets, priests and the virtuous lived in perfect happiness surrounded by grass, trees, and gentle west winds and enveloped in a rose-tinted, perpetual light.

In the fifth century B.C.E., Pindar described the Isles of the Blessed, governed by Cronus, as swept by ocean breezes, filled with beautiful trees and golden flowers, fields of grain, and meadows studded with roses and shaded by trees exuding fragrant balsam. There is no work and the fortunate inhabitants, garlanded with flowers, spend their time playing strenuous games, riding, playing draughts or making music on the lyre, while a sweet smell wafts over from the incense burned on the altars of the gods. Entry to it is reserved for those who have led three successive lives of purity on earth.

In The Dictionary of Imaginary Places we read of Lucian’s account which appeared in his True History written in the 2nd century:

“The Isles of the Blessed are some five hundred miles long, in the Atlantic Ocean, the home of a people who dress in beautiful purple spider webs. In spite of being bodiless, they can move and talk as mortal beings. They resemble naked spirits, each covered with a web that gives it the shape of a body.

The island is long and flat, ruled by Radamantus. The capital of the island, also called Blessed, is built of gold with walls of emerald. It has seven doors made from a single piece of cinnamon, and the roads that cross the city are of ivory. There are temples to all the gods, built of beryl and containing tall altars made of amethysts used for human sacrifices. Around the city runs a river of exquisite perfume, fifty feet deep and easily navigable, seven rivers of milk, and eight of wine, and fountains spouting water, honey and perfume. The city baths are large crystal buildings, heated with cinnamon, the tubs contain both water and hot dew.

“Travelers will not find on the Island of the Blessed the darkness of night or the light of day to which they are accustomed. The island is constantly bathed in a twilight, as if the sun had not yet risen. Nobody grows older on the island, it is always springtime and only one wind, the zephyr, blows here. In the middle of a wood is the meadow of the Elysian Fields, where there is a delightful permanent party in progress. The guests drink from two springs, one of laughter and one of pleasure. Then they lie on beds of flowers, while nightingales rain petals down on them, scent falls from the sky like dew, and the surrounding trees magically supply glasses of wine. The country is rich in every species of flower and every kind of plant; the vines give grapes twelve times a year; apple trees, pomegranate trees and others, give fruit thirteen times a year, because in the month of Minossa they give fruit twice. As well as ready-made sheaves, the wheat produces beautifully baked loaves, growing from its tips like mushrooms.”

The Elsysian fields or Isles of the Blessed were sometimes located on the earth’s surface, sometimes in the sky and sometimes underground as a separate division of the land of the dead in the underworld. The appearance on some Roman sarcophagi of dolphins, sea-monsters, sea-nymphs and Tritons, and of curving lines possibly representing waves, suggest a belief in the journey to an afterworld across the sea.

In the Neoplatonic tradition there are seven Isles of the Blessed, each ruled by one of the seven planetary deities. Each Isle is an outflowing of the One, that which transcends even the farthest stars and yet is closer to us than our breath. These seven islands all exist in the same timeless space that we do in our essential nature, yet are hidden to us as we traverse the intricate weavings of our varied destinies.

Yet even as we glimpse the outermost isles, it is rare upon dying for anyone to go past the Isle of the Moon where our souls are once again reunited with bodies and returned to Earth, each having drunken deeply of the River of Forgetfulness.

Cicero himself notes in The Dream of Scipio that,

“Below the moon all is mortal and transitory, with the exception of the souls bestowed upon the human race by the benevolence of the gods. Above the moon all things are eternal.”

Yet some do rise higher, to the sphere of the sun, and some higher still to the sphere of the stars, where they live with the gods.

Virgil’s account of Elysium, set traditionally in the underworld, analogous to the lunar Isle, also emphasizes the importance of this River.

“Thus with their liturgy to the goddess ended, they came to the place of joy, the pleasant lawns, the groves of the lucky, and the blessed homes. These lands are clothed in larger air and light the color of life; they see their sun, their stars. Here figures were training on the grassy grounds, some playing games, some wrestling in the ring, and some were treading the dance and singing songs. There stood in his poet’s gown, Orpheus, playing his instrument of seven strings…”

“Aeneas saw others about him on the grass, feasting and singing cheerful songs of praise. Above them hung sweet bays, and from a hill Eridanus tumbled his waters through the grove. Here were the band who for their country bled, here priests who in the world led saintly lives, prophets of truth, who spoke as a God would speak, those whose discoveries made a better world, those who by doing good earned men’s remembrance. Each one wore snow-white bands about his head…

[His father then explains] “None has a place assigned. We live in groves; our beds are the riverbanks and fields made fresh by springs…

“Just then, far down a slope, Aeneas saw a grove apart, with foliage thick and rustling: this was the haven of peace, where Lethe flowed: about it flitted the nations of mankind like bees in a meadow on a summer’s day….His father said, ‘Those are the souls whose fate binds them to flesh once more. At Lethe’s wave they drink and forget past years of care and fear…

“It is like this: the heavens, the earth, the watery wastes, the luminous globe of moon, the sun, the stars, exist through inward spirit. Their total mass by mind is permeated: hence their motion. From mind and spirit comes life—of man, of beast, of bird, of monsters under the foam-flecked seas. Life is from heaven—a seed of fire that glows bright, so far as flesh cannot repress it, or earthly, death bound bodies dull its glow. From flesh come fear, desire, pain and joy: its pitch-dark prison blinds us to the light. And even on that last day when life departs, not all our evil, all the body’s foul corruption leaves us: deep ingrained, in ways past comprehension, much has hardenened fast. Our souls, then suffer pain, and pay the price for wrongs done years before: some , like a cloak laid off, hang to the winds; some lose their stains by flood and swirl, or cautery of fire. We suffer, each, our ghostly selves, then pass—some few—to gain Elysium’s fields of joy. The years go by; Time makes his cycle just, our hardened filth is sloughed; intelligence pure, as of heaven, is left, and breath, and fire. After a thousand circling years, God calls these souls to Lethe in a long parade to gain forgetfulness, then view the sky once more, and wish to put on flesh again.”

Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VI, Copley Translation

Other accounts of heaven offer different imaginings. In a fresco from a fourth century catacomb in Rome, an angelic figure introduces Vivia, an elderly lady, to a banquet where she is reunited once again with her loved ones. Philosophers also imagined heaven as an endless banquet while there were no doubt others who perhaps thought of it as the late Argentine writer Borjes did, as an infinite library, not unlike the fabled library of Alexandria where the wisdom of the ages waited for us, who now with ample time at hand, could read it without interruption.

Cavendish in his Visions of Heaven and Hell notes that the ancients had many different ideas about how the dead reached the sky. They might fly up as birds or be carried up by birds or winged spirits, or they might climb a ladder or float up like specks of dust in the rays of the sun. Some thought that the souls of the pious rose up into the air where they were purified by wind, water and fire, and this was the real crossing of the Styx.

The Neoplatonists believed that the souls of the virtuous became stars and multitudes of them could be seen in the Milky Way. There they would live forever with the gods, having returned in remembrance from what we once forget as our true home. It is at the intersection of the zodiac and the Milky Way where both ascent and descent occur. Leaving the perfect sphere of the heavens we descend as a cone, moving into the realm of multiplicity drawn by the thinnest and most deadly of weights, our thoughts. As the Latin Neoplatonist Macrobius wrote in the 5th century,

“The soul from its lofty pinnacle of perpetual radiance disdains to grasp after a body and this thing that we on earth call life, but yet allows a secret yearning for it to creep into its thoughts, gradually slips down to the lower realms because of the very weight of its earthly thoughts. It does not suddenly assume a defiled body out of a state of complete incorporeality, but gradually sustaining imperceptible losses and departing further from its simple and absolutely pure state, it swells out with certain increases of a planetary body: in each of the spheres that lie below heaven, it puts on another ethereal envelopment, so that by these steps it is gradually prepared for assuming this earthly dress. Thus by as many deaths as it passes through spheres, it reaches the stage which on earth is called life…but to the soul is death.”

But as he further assures us…

“Be not disturbed that in reference to the soul, which we say is immortal, we so often use the term “death”. In truth, the soul is not destroyed by its death but is overwhelmed for a time; not does it surrender the privilege of immortality because of its lowly sojourn, for when it has rid itself completely of all taint of evil and has deserved to be sublimated, it again leaves the body and, fully recovering its former state, returns to the splendor of everlasting life.”

With these words Macrobius gives full expression to the recurring theme of all ancient visions of heaven— the immortality of the soul. Whether represented by Bacchus rescuing Ariadne, Attis rising to be with Cybele, Selene waking the sleeping Endymion from the sleep of death, angels guiding the soul to the heavenly banquet, or a hundred other themes from myth, there was always a firm belief that we were not abandoned at death. Christianity, the great survivor of the classical world, would only give new vision to a resurrection that was already well known.

The belief in a pure abode beyond this world would continue to thrive not only in the West but in the East as well. When Greek thought traversed the silk route to Gandhara and gave Buddhism its first images of the Buddhas, with their distinct resemblance to Apollo, a new idea arose in Buddhism about an island paradise presided over by a Buddha of boundless light. This paradise was named Sukhavati, the blessed or pure land curiously enough envisioned as lying in the West.

According to the Pure Land scriptures this blessed island is fertile, prosperous and crowded with gods and men. It has flowers, fruits, fragrant scents and flocks of birds with sweet voices. There are no mountains there but a great plain, through which streams and rivers run, some as much as fifty miles wide, flowing over golden sands and emitting delicious odors and beautiful music. The temperature of the water in the rivers varies to suit each inhabitant’s preference at any particular moment. There, banks are lined with scented jewels and trees in hundreds of thousands of shades of color, made of gold, silver, beryl, crystal, coral, red pearls and emeralds.

And everywhere there are beautiful lotus flowers made of precious jewels, jewels such as have never been seen on Earth, but which we know have a long history in the realm of visionary experience.

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Theosophical Museum

October 11, 2006 at 6:45 pm (Theosophical Museum)

The Stranger Creek Theosophical Museum is renown for its lovely grounds. On the estate of the Arthur Olcott are many small chapels and temples that are open to members for prayer and meditation.

Entrance to the Gardens

Small Gnostic Chapel

Temple to Amen-Ra

Shrine To Hermes

Temple to the Moon Goddess

Temple to the Teutonic Gods

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