Søren Kierkegaard spent much of the summer of 1855 staring out of the windows of his cramped second-floor apartment in the centre of old Copenhagen, across the road from the Church of Our Lady. He knew the building well, but the prospect did not please him. As a student, hapless and heavily in debt, he used to take communion there with his ancient and immovably melancholy father; but that was long ago, and he had been an erratic and inconsistent churchgoer since that time. He could, however, look back on a successful career as a writer, with a vast output of squibs and reviews, many-layered fables and novellas, dozens of quirky sermons, and an imposing series of nicely deranged treatises in praise of paradox, indirectness and irregularity. He had published some thirty books in all, earning considerable sums of money to supplement his very comfortable inheritance. But still he was dissatisfied. His earnings had never been enough to cover the expenses of his life as a fashionable bachelor, and his writings had not won him the readers he craved. ‘I am regarded as a kind of Englishman, a half-mad eccentric,’ he wrote. ‘My work as an author . . . is regarded as a sort of hobby, like fishing or that sort of thing.’
His contemporaries knew him as a loner and an intellectual dandy – a dialectical acrobat, a philosopher agile in logic and dry in wit, and a virtuoso of satire and comic exaggeration. He was famous for his wry scepticism, as in this so-called ‘ecstatic lecture’:
Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it. Marry or do not marry, you will regret it either way . . . Laugh at the stupidities of the world, and you will regret it; weep over them, and you will also regret it. Trust a girl or do not trust her, you will regret it either way. Hang yourself, and you will regret it. Do not hang yourself, and you will also regret it. Whether you hang yourself or not, you will regret it either way. That, gentlemen, is the essence of the wisdom of life.
He did philosophy in different voices, and most of his more substantial works had been issued under false names. But it was hard to mistake his taut, graceful prose, or the nimble way he jumped from one point of view to another, so practically everyone knew that Constantin Constantius, Johannes de Silentio, Hilarius Bookbinder and half a dozen others were really just alternative trademarks for Søren Kierkegaard. He must have spent most of his waking hours working – standing at his tall writing-desk, pacing round his furnished rooms, and checking the rhythm of his sentences by reading them out loud to imaginary audiences. But from time to time he would venture outside for a ‘people bath’, and his small, alert and slightly crooked figure was well known in the streets and theatres of Copenhagen. The philosopher of solitude and concealment had kept himself constantly before his public.
Five years earlier he had decided to give up writing for publication, but recently he had broken his resolution by issuing a series of pamphlets and newspaper articles denouncing the corruption of the Danish People’s Church. Their vehemence was destroying his cool reputation, and to make matters worse he was spiking his diatribes with personal insults against a much-loved primate, Jakob Peter Mynster, who had died the year before. Kierkegaard had, until then, always appeared to share in the general veneration for Bishop Mynster. But now that Mynster was dead, and magnificently buried following a ceremony across the road in the Church of Our Lady, Kierkegaard’s attitude had altered. He claimed he had always suspected Mynster of taking pleasure in ecclesiastical pomp and power while appeasing his soul with a ‘bargain version of Christianity’. The bishop had been content to live the life of ‘an honourable pagan’, freely confessing that he was ‘very far from having attained what is highest’ and imagining that this trite confession excused him. While he was alive there had still been hope that he would repent his worldly ways. ‘Now that he is dead,’ Kierkegaard said, ‘everything is changed; now all that remains is that his preaching has mired Christianity in an illusion.’
It was not just Mynster that Kierkegaard had it in for: as far as he was concerned, the entire church was ‘playing at Christianity’, like children dressing up as soldiers. With the encouragement of corrupt officials like the late bishop, people treated the rigour of belief ‘like a radical cure: one puts it off as long as possible.’ The church as a whole had become a living fraud, a conspiracy ‘to trick God out of Christianity’.
Kierkegaard’s readers were taken aback. One newspaper suggested he had shrunk from being original to being merely gal (Danish for ‘raving’). But he had not quite lost his capacity for irony: ‘How fortunate,’ as he put it in one pamphlet that summer, ‘that not all of us are pastors.’ In escaping that fate, however, we had run into another that was still worse: we had all become Christians. You might be poor in faith – you might even take pride in your atheism – but Denmark was a civilised country and no one would hold your opinions against you: you were a citizen of a modern state, ergo a true Christian at heart. Christianity had been absorbed into public life, and defiant professions of faith were no longer necessary; history had moved forward and we were all Christians now.
As the summer of 1855 wore on, Kierkegaard got more and more cranky. His apartment was too small, he was no longer earning anything from writing, and his savings were running low. But he remained oddly cheerful. When he suffered a fit of paralysis at a friend’s house in the middle of September, he winked complicitously as he slid from the sofa to the floor: ‘Oh, leave it,’ he whispered, ‘let the maid sweep it up in the morning.’ Soon he recovered enough to resume his daily walks, but a couple of weeks later he collapsed in the street, and calmly decided to move into the Royal Frederik’s Hospital as a residential patient. On 11 November, he died the death of a serene old man. He was 42 years old.
The funeral was held in the Church of Our Lady, and a few days later Peter Kierkegaard – the only survivor out of seven siblings – went back to his brother’s apartment to sort out his affairs. He found everything neatly arranged, but was surprised to come upon a vast collection of papers, including 26 notebooks in various formats and 36 quarto volumes of journals, all of which would need to be looked after, and eventually edited and prepared for publication. Peter also found the manuscript of a short book, called The Point of View for My Work as an Author. It was evidently his brother’s hermeneutic last will and testament, aimed at forestalling posthumous speculation as to the real meaning of his work. Readers were enjoined to treat all his writings, even the pseudonymous ones, as variations on a single theme. ‘The whole of my work as an author pertains to Christianity,’ he wrote, ‘to the question of “becoming a Christian”, with a direct or indirect polemic against the monstrous illusion we call Christendom, or against the illusion that in such a land as ours all are Christians of a sort.’
This is probably one of those injunctions that are best ignored. It is hard to believe that the incorrigible enigmatist was seriously trying to have the last word about a body of work that he had stuffed with deliberate discrepancies. On the other hand, he may have been aiming to have the last laugh. ‘People understand me so little,’ he said in one of the notebooks, ‘that they fail even to understand my complaints that they do not understand me’. In another note Kierkegaard explained that ‘after my death no one will find among my papers a single explanation as to what really filled my life (that is my consolation).’ That, he reflected, would provide ‘something for the professors’.
Professors did not on the whole command Kierkegaard’s respect. They were always trying to wrap things up in some ‘system’ or other, which they would then condescend to ‘summarise’ or ‘explain’ for the benefit of the bemused while protesting that ‘everything will become clear in the end.’ The truths that interested Kierkegaard were not like that at all: they were shy, delicate creatures that would shrivel up under the glare of professorial scrutiny. They would not tolerate being herded together in anonymous general propositions. The only way such truths would make themselves known was through what Kierkegaard called ‘indirect communication’: the kind of oblique, improvised remarks by which one person may on occasion bring light into the life of another, provided they are ready to receive it. These truths could not be passed from generation to generation or even from intellect to intellect, but only from one ‘single individual’ to another. ‘Even if the system politely assigned me a guest-room in the attic,’ he wrote, ‘I still prefer to be a thinker who lives like a bird on a twig.’
Systematic, professorial philosophy was more interested in the quantity of what we know than the quality of our knowing. Many of the ideas that people found irresistibly attractive – that God trained as a carpenter in Palestine, for instance, or that Abraham is admirable because he was willing to murder his son – were blatantly illogical; but the professors were wrong to dismiss them out of hand, and equally wrong to doll them up to look like common sense or even science. A properly philosophical teacher would try to trace the twisted paths of their ridiculous contradictions, and understand the significance they have had for the individuals who have cherished them. Philosophy was an ethical activity as well as an intellectual one, and the art of thinking was about appreciating intellectual difficulties rather than dismissing or defeating them. Just as it was the duty of forgiveness to forgive the unforgivable, so it was the duty of thinking to think the unthinkable.
If this seemed like a paradox then so much the better. It was paradox that gave thinking its zest: ‘Take away the paradox from a thinker and you have a professor.’ Kierkegaard knew there was nothing he could do to stop the professors making a niche for him in their systems, together with all his blatant contradictions. ‘These wretched rascals . . . will lecture away, perhaps with the additional remark that the peculiarity of this man is that he cannot be lectured about!’ One thing that has kept the rascals busy is the impossibility of summarising Kierkegaard’s thought in a single signature-concept. He offered his readers no equivalent of Plato’s Forms, Descartes’s Doubt or Hegel’s Spirit. Dozens of themes recur in his writings – ‘attunement’, ‘the leap’, ‘the moment’, ‘seduction’ – but none of them could be regarded as the foundation of all the rest, though a few self-confounding notions such as ambiguity, irony and the ideal of speaking ‘without authority’ are intrinsic to his work. It is also difficult to decide on an internal ranking among Kierkegaard’s works; you could choose any one of his writings and make it the key to all the rest. A case could be made for granting priority to the posthumous publications: either the Point of View, because of the authority it lays claim to, or the Papers and Journals, which promise access to Kierkegaard’s guarded private life. Alternatively there are the ten pseudonymous works, ranging from Either/Or (‘edited by Victor Eremita’, 1843) through Concluding Unscientific Postscript (‘by Johannes Climacus’, 1846) to Practice in Christianity (‘by Anti-Climacus’, 1850). Then again you might go for the works published under his own name, like the distinguished doctoral thesis, On The Concept of Irony (1841), or Works of Love (1847), or the miniature ‘Edifying Discourses’ that he kept publishing throughout his career. Kierkegaard produced a different version of himself for every occasion, if not for every possible taste.
Most of Kierkegaard’s admirers have been unable to read him in the original. And translations have been slow to come, partly because translators from Danish are always hard to find, but also because Kierkegaard’s sentences, with their internal reflections and tonal gradations, present extraordinary challenges. The first translations to appear were German, starting in the 1870s and building into a 12-volume edition that appeared at the turn of the 20th century. It was read by the young Karl Jaspers during the First World War, and made him into Kierkegaard’s first philosophical disciple. Jaspers coined the notion of Existenzphilosophie, meaning a systematic philosophy of ‘choice’ and ‘authenticity’, of which Kierkegaard was supposed to be the founding father, and the notion of ‘existentialism’ has stuck to Kierkegaard ever since. It was as a ‘Christian existentialist’ that he was introduced into the French language in the 1930s, initially as the author of the pseudonymous philosophical novellas Repetition and Fear and Trembling, then of the Papers and Journals. In English, the first ‘existentialist’ work was a chapter of Either/Or torn from its context, and published as ‘The Diary of a Seducer’ in 1935. The following year there was a lovely translation of Philosophical Fragments by a Swedish American who had spent almost forty years on the job, but its immediate impact was small. When Kierkegaard’s work began to be widely read in English, it was through the posthumous writings: very nice editions of the Point of View and Papers and Journals appeared in 1939, offering a pathetic portrait of the author as a martyr to the philistinism of 19th-century Copenhagen. Since then there has been a steady flow of English translations, culminating in 2000 with the Princeton edition of Kierkegaard’s Writings in 26 pious and professorial volumes.
Faced with all the difficulties of the works, it is tempting to concentrate instead on the life; indeed, those who regard Kierkegaard as the progenitor of ‘existentialism’ may well consider it obligatory to dwell less on his writings than on the ‘choices’ he made in the conduct of his life. He is not a natural subject for biography, however. He spent much of his life shut up in a succession of rented apartments, writing from early morning till late at night, and it is hard to spin much yarn out of that. The fact that he assigned most of his published writing to pseudonyms, who often disagreed with each other and sometimes quarrelled explicitly, makes it implausible to treat his works as representations of settled opinions, still less as expressions of some single unified personality. The journals and papers are not much help either, partly because there are so many of them, but also because they are almost as experimental as his most exuberant fictions. It is hard to discern any core of authentic selfhood in Kierkegaard or any narrative strand that ties his different masks together.
Kierkegaard could be suspected of trying to live his life with a view to obstructing all efforts to understand him. Indeed, he maintained that the biographer’s dream of understanding a life in time was unrealisable, since there was no ‘necessary resting place’ from which it could be surveyed. ‘It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards,’ Kierkegaard wrote, ‘but they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.’ Yet he seems to have done his best to make himself an exception to this rule as to all others. He contrived to end his literary life where most would begin – as a self-righteous zealot with a programme for transforming the world by chastising it – but he began, in his dissertation on irony and in Either/Or, in a state of autumnal mellowness, chuckling at his own absurdities and other people’s.
It might be instructive to tell the story of Kierkegaard’s life backwards, starting with his death and showing him slowly maturing as he grows younger, but as far as I know that has never been tried. From the beginning – that is, from Georg Brandes’s Søren Kierkegaard: En kritisk Fremstilling i Grundrids, published in Danish in 1877 and in German two years later – readers have been served with the same sad old story, time and time again. Brandes begins by reminding us that Kierkegaard was physically handicapped, recalling his own childhood in Copenhagen in the 1840s, when his nursemaid would call him ‘Søren Kierkegaard’ because he had a lop-sided way of walking, with his trousers rucked up over his boots. He continues with the oppressive presence of Kierkegaard’s father, who never forgot that before becoming a successful merchant in Copenhagen he had spent his childhood herding sheep on the blasted Jutland heath; then with Kierkegaard’s incurable heartbreak over Regine Olsen, a pretty young girl whom he loved and planned to marry, but broke with because he thought he could not make her happy; and then with the humiliation of the ‘Corsair affair’, when Kierkegaard was taunted by children in the streets after the Copenhagen newspapers printed a story about his tailor making him trousers with one leg longer than the other. And to cap it all there was the fury of his polemical swansong against Mynster and the Danish Church.
The elements of Brandes’s ‘literary character-sketch’ have been handed down from biographer to biographer ever since. (In English, for example, they provided the framework for an essay by Alexander Dru in the 1930s; they were augmented in Walter Lowrie’s two classic biographies, and they are still going strong in Alastair Hannay’s solid and commendable Kierkegaard: A Biography, which appeared in 2001.) It has become next to impossible to approach Kierkegaard’s writings without first being softened up by stories about their author as an unlucky man at odds with all his circumstances – with his body, with his father, with women and sexual love, and with the public world of journalism, politics and the church.
These stories are certainly not arbitrary fabrications, and many of them are borne out by the journals, especially those from the last years of Kierkegaard’s life. But as anyone who keeps an intimate diary will know, such testimony is suspect. A journal is not a slice of life, but a place apart, and a pretty gloomy one as a rule: miseries are relived at length, and the pages for happy days are usually left blank. If you were a writer and your work was going well, you would not be spending much time on your diaries; and if you were lucky enough to be composing fresh and witty books at the rate of three a year, as Kierkegaard was in the 1840s, you could not be entirely miserable, whatever you might choose to tell your diary once your labours were over. Biographer beware.
The Danish press made a big fuss over Joakim Garff’s SAK: En biografi when it appeared in 2000. The English version has been keenly awaited, and could not have been entrusted to a better translator: Bruce Kirmmse is the self-effacing editor of a wonderful collection of documents called Encounters with Kierkegaard, which despite its inevitable gappiness gives as fitting an account of Kierkegaard’s life as one could hope for. And Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography is certainly built to impress. The chapter titles are austere: we begin with ‘1813-34’, then ‘1835’ and so on year by year till, after nearly half a million words, we reach ‘1855’. Along the way there is much interesting information. Garff calculates, for instance, that Kierkegaard earned about 300 rixdollars a year from his writings, at a time when an artisan might be earning only 200, but that this went the same way as the nest egg he inherited from his father: he spent some 2600 rixdollars a year on wine, cigars, shoes and hats, carriages and every other necessity of his outwardly suave existence.
Garff documents Kierkegaard’s extraordinary tact and intelligence when dealing with friends in need. (One of them remembered that ‘he gave consolation not by covering up sorrow, but by first making one genuinely aware of it, by bringing it to complete clarity.’) He gives a full account of some of Kierkegaard’s literary friends and enemies, does his best to make something of Kierkegaard’s sex life, which was evidently a solitary business, and speculates about his ailments, suggesting that he suffered from a form of epilepsy whose symptoms include ‘graphomania’ or ‘hypergraphia’, which in Garff’s opinion may explain why Kierkegaard spent most of his life writing.
The story Garff tells has the same architecture as every other life of Kierkegaard, built around his illness, his father, Regine Olsen, the Corsair affair, and the final diatribes against the Danish Church. One might have expected that the visits to Berlin – his only trips outside Denmark – would receive more thorough examination in a book of this length. Garff dutifully mentions Kierkegaard’s disappointment with Friedrich Schelling’s lectures in 1841, but does not go into detail beyond recycling the story that Marx was in the audience as well. (Engels was certainly there, but Marx, as it happens, was not.) Nor does he make anything of Kierkegaard’s fascination with the theatrical life of the city, his claims (perhaps mendacious) to have fallen for a soprano from Vienna, and his incontestable devotion to the comedians of the plebeian farces at the Königstädtertheater, which must surely have some connection with the experiments in multiple pseudonymity that he was beginning to conduct at that time.
Garff does not dwell on Kierkegaard’s works beyond the point at which they yield evidence about his pitiful state of mind, and he accelerates through the period of his greatest fertility, offering no analysis at all of his principal exercises in philosophical comedy: the Philosophical Fragments of 1844 and the Concluding Unscientific Postscript: A Mimical-Pathetical-Dialectical Compilation, which came out two years later. Both books were designed to bring out the inherent difficulty of philosophical teaching: how can a thinker’s hard-won insights be passed on to someone else without losing the quality of anguished difficulty that is essential to them? Eulogies to two great teachers – Socrates and Jesus – are seasoned with sarcasms about contemporary professors who imagine they have ‘got beyond’ their primitive predecessors. But the title pages of Fragments and Postscript state that they were written by ‘Johannes Climacus’ and ‘edited by S. Kierkegaard’: Kierkegaard’s own doctrines are left in the shadows, and Johannes feels obliged to apologise for the difficulties that such indirectness creates for the reader. ‘But what, you ask, is my own opinion?’ he says.
Pray do not inquire after that. What my opinions may be is of almost as little interest to others as whether I have any opinions at all. Having an opinion is both too much and too little for me: it presupposes a sense of well-being and security in existence, like having a wife and children in this terrestrial world – something which is not granted to those who have to keep going day and night and still lack a steady income. This is my own condition in the world of spirit, for I have always been trying to teach myself to dance lightly in the service of thought, to the glory of God as far as possible and also for my own enjoyment, renouncing domestic bliss and civic prestige, the communion of the good and harmony of gladness that goes with having an opinion.
For Climacus, there was nothing more serious than dancing in the service of thought; and for Kierkegaard too. But by now he was getting impatient with his pseudonyms, and in his journals he contemplated giving some public lectures to explain them. The lectures would be exceedingly boring, he said, ‘but if I am successfully understood, my listener will have acquired the benefit that his life will have been made significantly more difficult for him than ever before.’
Garff may not have much of an ear for Kierkegaard’s comedy, but he is very enlightening about his politics. Hitherto it has always been assumed that he was simply a tetchy provincial reactionary. When he involved himself in a debate about the merits of ‘the present age’ compared with half a century before, there could be no doubt which side he would be on. The past was enlivened with passion and meaning, he claimed, whereas the present was dominated by journalists, who ‘rent out opinions’ at so much a line, encouraging the public ‘to swoon before what is vile and then to imagine that it is superior’. It seems he would have agreed with Marx about the spectre haunting Europe, except that he regarded Communism not as a negation of age-old injustices but as their apotheosis. Communism was replacing the specific and manageable tyrannies of the past with the all-encompassing tyranny of ‘the people’ or ‘the public’. As he put it in his diary in 1848, ‘the question of equality has become an object of debate in Europe. Consequently all older forms of tyranny (emperor, king, aristocracy, clergy, even the tyranny of money) will now be powerless. But there is a form of tyranny that corresponds to equality: the fear of man.’
‘No, politics is not for me,’ Kierkegaard wrote; but Garff suggests that what he objected to was not political thinking in general, but the romantic nationalism which was then pressing its claim to be identified with politics as such. In March 1848 he observed the insurrectionary crowds from his windows, but was not impressed when the government fell and was replaced by a new regime committed to linking Schleswig to Denmark under a new democratic constitution. ‘A mediocre ruler is a much better constitution than this abstraction, 100,000 rumbling non-humans,’ he wrote. ‘The unfortunate thing right now is that the new ministry needs a war in order to stay in power, it needs all possible agitation of national sentiments.’ Appalled by the turbulence in the streets, he stayed indoors and wrote in his journal.
Outside everything is in motion. The issue of nationality reverberates through everything. Everyone speaks of sacrificing life and blood, and maybe they are even willing to do so, but with the support of all-powerful public opinion. And so I sit here in a quiet room. Most likely I will soon be denounced for indifference towards the national cause. I know of only one danger, that of the religious. But no one concerns himself with that.
Kierkegaard’s appeal to ‘the religious’ was not a matter of telling the poor to bide their time and await their reward in heaven. For him, the Christian idea of eternity applied to every moment of human existence, and implied that everyone’s life is essentially different, and that there is far more to it than participation in the collective movement of an age or a people. Being ‘called to Jesus’ meant escaping the embrace of the crowd: ‘The decisive factor,’ he wrote, ‘is that Christianity is a heterogeneity, an incommensurability with the world, that it is irrational with respect to the world and being a human being in the straightforward sense.’ The ‘catastrophe’ of 1848 reached far deeper than debates about forms of government or the appointment of new ministers; it was about the danger of dissolving individual human lives into a homogeneous nation-state. And as far as he was concerned, modern politics was a ‘religious, a Christian problem’ because ‘if eternity can be recovered for us . . . if eternity can be recovered for every individual person, then there will be no need of bloodshed.’
If the Communists were simply ‘fighting for human rights’, then Christians had no dispute with them, since ‘what Communism makes such a fuss about is what Christianity assumes to be self-evident, that all people are equal before God.’ But that, he added, was precisely why he was not a Communist: ‘This is exactly why I am fighting with all my strength against the tyranny of the fear of man.’ Garff may be overplaying his hand when he describes him as a Christian socialist, but Kierkegaard’s anti-Communist Communism, like his anti-Christian Christianity, may still have a message for the kind of progressive common sense that likes to congratulate itself on having grown out of religion.
There are some who don’t need to read a philosopher’s works in order to make up their minds about him, and the robust secularists who dominated 20th-century philosophy never let Kierkegaard give them much trouble. Bertrand Russell, having given up religion at the age of 18, had felt ‘quite glad to be done with the whole subject’, and was appalled, many years later, when he learned that his pupil Wittgenstein was reading Kierkegaard.
I . . . was astonished when I found he had become a complete mystic . . . He reads people like Kierkegaard and Angelus Silesius, and he seriously contemplates becoming a monk . . . . He has penetrated deep into mystical ways of thought and feeling, but I think (though he wouldn’t agree) that what he likes best in mysticism is its power to make him stop thinking.
It is clear that Russell knew next to nothing about Kierkegaard (when he came to write his History of Western Philosophy he did not even mention his name). But the fact that Kierkegaard was a religious thinker, renowned for leading a sad and lonely life, was sufficient to convince a healthy modern secularist that he was of no interest except to those who wanted to ‘stop thinking’.
Russell considered himself an expert on the topic of love, though the sorry amatory career described in his Autobiography should perhaps have given him pause. ‘Love can only flourish as long as it is free and spontaneous,’ he wrote in Marriage and Morals, and ‘it tends to be killed by the thought that it is a duty.’ Nothing would ever have induced him to read a book like Kierkegaard’s Works of Love; yet this sequence of ‘Christian deliberations’ on the injunction to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ could almost have been written with Russell in mind. They are directed against the ‘conceited sagacity, proud of not being deceived’ which forgets that there is nothing more deceptive than ‘the flattering conceit that considers itself absolutely secure against being deceived’. Such sagacity cannot begin to understand the meaning of love. Terrified of the paths of paradox, it dismisses the old-fashioned idea that love can be a matter of conscience, insisting that it is nothing more than a healthy natural impulse to approve what gives us pleasure. It reduces Christ’s saying about loving others as ourselves to a bone-headed banality, to the effect that we start by loving ourselves and then move on to those who can assist us in our project; it has no inkling that it cuts the other way as well, suggesting that we must also love ourselves as others.
The trouble with conceited sagacity, according to Kierkegaard, is that it is bewitched by the idea that ‘everyone is closest to himself.’ It cannot comprehend that when love is at issue then selfhood is too, so it is unable to understand the lesson in forgiveness that Christ was trying to teach when he sought to ‘wrest self-love away from us’. The centre of our lives does not lie in ourselves: that was a truth that Christians find as hard to learn as atheists; and, for that matter, biographers as well.
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