The Private Sea
12. The Jordan and the Ganges
Nature does not count, said Bergson. Neither does it measure.
The French philosopher, who died in 1941, has been harshly judged for his anti-intellectualism and for the essential role he assigned to intuition in man's perception of ultimate reality. But his views on the limitations of the intellect have acquired a new significance today in light of the contemporary developments we have discussed in this book, and they may help illuminate an important aspect of drug cultism and related movements. In Bergson, indeed, those movements may yet discover their metaphysician.
In criticizing intellect, and therefore science as well, Bergson asserted that intellect has its eyes turned always to the rear. By this he meant that the rational mind is concerned primarily with prediction based on past experience, or in other words with the anticipation that cause-and-effect events will repeat themselves in the future. And intellect favors this kind of perception because intellect is interested only in action, or in using things by acting upon them (I-It). Lecomte du Nouy made the same point, no doubt taking it from Bergson, when he commented, "The aim of science is to foresee, and not, as has often been said, to understand." Of course it does foresee. It is highly successful as far as its own limited goals are concerned, and the world's work could not be done without it. But it does not understand, and philosophers delude themselves, said Bergson, "when they import into the domain of speculation a method of thinking made for action." Cause-and-effect prediction is valid enough in one sense, but the intellect in another sense has actually created cause and effect. It has done so by artificially dividing and, as it were, freezing in time a reality which in fact consists of a dynamic and indivisible Whole. The intellect cannot comprehend movement, and it cannot comprehend the Whole. In short, it cannot comprehend life.
Dividing? Freezing? What did Bergson mean?
In the first instance, to borrow an example which Bergson used himself, suppose for a moment that reality consisted of a curved line. Science imagines it can grasp the ultimate truth about life by chopping the Whole into piecesby reducing reality to ever smaller units of matter and energy. Science therefore would divide the curved line into individual points or segments, and it would then try to explain the Whole in terms of its parts. But each of the individual segments would, in itself, be almost a straight lineand the smaller the segment, the greater the illusion of straightness. Thus, by restricting its vision, science quite likely would propose that reality consists of a straight line, or rather a series of straight lines. Following the same sort of logic, we can imagine science announcing the discovery that Wordsworth's ode is composed of twenty-six basic particles (the letters of the alphabet), and while this observation is perfectly correct, it hardly captures the meaning and significance of the poem as a Whole.
As for movement, Bergson likened the intellect to a motion picture camera. The intellect simulates movement by taking a series of snapshots, each one of which is frozen in time for purpose of analysis. Intellect studies these snapshots and thinks that in doing so it is studying true motion. But clearly it is not. This Bergson referred to as the cinematographical fallacy, which has its basis in "the absurd proposition that movement is made of immobilities." And thus Bergson explained the paradoxes of the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno, including the paradox of the arrow fired from a point A to a point B. According to Zeno, the flying arrow must successively occupy a series of lesser points between A and B. and it must obviously be at rest at each such point, at least for a moment; therefore it is motionless during the entire course of its passage. Or again, the arrow in its flight must first cover half the distance from A to B. But before it can do that, it must first cover half the distance from A to the midpoint. And half of that distance. And half of that distance. And so on, until at last we see that it is impossible for the arrow to get started at all. But we know that the arrow does travel from A to B. so there must be something wrong with Zeno's argument, and Bergson resolved the problem by suggesting that the flight is in fact "an indivisible movement." Once the flight is over, you can count as many imaginary points as you like along its trajectory. The fact remains that the flight itself was accomplished "in one stroke," from A to B. although a certain amount of time was required for this flight. Thus Bergson accused the intellect of neglecting time, or duration, as an actual factor in the mosaic of reality. Science deals with points of time, he said, but it does not deal with time itself or with motion as such.
On the other hand, said Bergson, instinct directly installs itself within movement and reality. It refuses to recognize those points of time and those snapshots of life which are nothing more than "arrests of our attention." Instinct thereby provides us with a form of knowledge which is "practically useless, except to increase pure understanding of reality."
Bergson did not advocate that we rely solely on instinct. Nor did he deny the necessary function of the intellect. But he did reject an utter reliance on intellect alone or instinct alone. The one is necessary for survival, the other for understanding. "There are things that intelligence alone is able to seek, but which, by itself, it will never find. These things instinct alone could find; but it will never seek them." But intuition can both seek and find them. Intuition for Bergson was a combination of instinct and intelligenceit was instinct guided by intelligenceand the same happy marriage has been proposed by many others, including Gibran. Thus instinct is the wind which fills the sails of our little ship, as it skims over the waves of this earthly existence. And intellect is the rudder with which we steer the ship. Similarly, life is complicated only when we consider its parts rather than the Whole, and its apparent complexity increases in proportion with the number of parts which we synthetically ascribe to that Whole. And this perhaps is the basis of the Hindu teaching: "He who knows OM knows all." (He who knows the monistic One knows all.) If the consciousness that slumbers in instinct should awake, said Bergson, "it would give up to us the most intimate secrets of life." It would do so by revealing to us the Whole, philosophy being nothing less than man's attempt to dissolve once more into that Whole from which he has estranged himselfthat Whole where there are no measurements and no laws (only science has laws, not nature), where "there is nothing left but the reality that flows, together with the knowledge ever renewed that it impresses on us of its present state."
That, in brief, was Bergson's case against a slavish reliance on the rational intellect, and it would seem that his point of view today is reflected to a considerable extent in the assertions of radical theology, psychology, and pharmacology. Maslow, for example, has expressed his criticism of "the need-motivated kind of perception, which shapes things . . . in the manner of a butcher chopping apart a carcass." We must give up, he said, "our 3,000-year-old habit of dichotomizing, splitting and separating in the style of Aristotelian logic.... Difficult though it may be, we must learn to think holistically rather than atomistically." In the same sense, in the context of Zen, Suzuki stated that the central fact of life "cannot be brought to the dissecting table of the intellect," and he said further: "To stop the flow of life and to look into it is not the business of Zen." Taking a metaphor from chess, Dr. Sidney Cohen described LSD perception as a kind of knight's-move thinking which leaps over logical premises and formal syllogisms. Huxley called for a recognition of the non-verbal humanities, or "the arts of being directly aware of the given facts of our existence." There is New Theology's emphasis upon "presentness" and here-now, derived especially from Bonhoeffer, Bultmann, and Buber. We could give many more examples, but perhaps we have made our pointthat the psychic pendulum may be swinging again from the rational and the conscious to the intuitive and the unconscious, for better or for worse, resulting in a phenomenon which Maslow has termed "the current call back to raw experience as prior to any concepts or abstractions."
Our acceptance of the intellect's perceptions has always been tempered, to some degree at least, with doubt and uncertainty. Consider a nightmare. What does it represent, if not a temporary suspension of the natural order we normally perceive? And what does it express, if not a concealed fear that cause and effect are not wholly to be trusted or depended uponthat they may break down at any moment in waking life, leaving us naked and defenseless? We sense perhaps that the ordered universe with its immutable laws is not real at all but our own invention, and there is no guarantee that those laws tomorrow may not be rescinded. In the nightmare they are rescinded, revealing to us our subliminal anxiety.
But anxiety can turn to joyand does so in the mystical, peak, and psychedelic experiences. We are suggesting, then, that there is a common factor in all of these meta-experiences. The common factor is an apparent suspension of cause and effectand this in turn is the result of a temporary paralysis of the intellect, as Bergson defined the intellect. Simply that and nothing moreor that and nothing less. We are suggesting also, as indicated earlier, that the intellect is the basis for the myth of the Demiurge, that imperfect deity who is the cause of the fall from pure Being, the creation of matter, our phenomenal existence, and the Net of Illusion. And such an interpretation might well enable us to accommodate within the radical Western framework many fundamental doctrines of Eastern metaphysics. After all, it is possible to demythologize the East as well as the West, and such an effort now could lead at last to that reconciliation which has long been predicted.
In the East, as also in Plato's philosophy, the Net of Illusion has commonly been blamed on the body, or more specifically the senses, with the assertion that the world perceived by the senses is not real. The Eastern viewpoint has therefore appeared to be world-denying, and as such it has found small favor in the West, where men for the most part have obeyed an impulse to affirm the world, sorry as it may seem. But there is an alternative theory, and the contemporary meta-experience might seem to confirm it. It is not the body which is at fault, but only a part of the body: namely, the noetic brain, or that prefrontal bulge, pronounced in man, which accounts for the rational process and the rational way of viewing the world.
It might be argued, then, that Eastern wisdom conceals an esoteric teaching along the lines of this same proposition. The East, it may be, has also meant "as if." The Net of Illusion does not refer to the world at all; it refers to our perception of the world. By the same token, OM is not an immaterial abstraction which transcends the world of matter and earthly existence; it is the world we live in but do not see: it is here-now, I-Thou, and "the reality that flows." Nirvana therefore does not imply a release from the body which leaves the world behind; it implies a mental or spiritual awakening which allows us to look at the world as it actually is. It does not deny the world. It affirms the world but rejects all partial views of it. It rejects the intellect, and it rejects the supposed order which intellect imagines it perceives in cause-and-effect relationships. As Spinoza suggested, this order perhaps is self-realizing. It is what we look for, what we are used to, and what we expect. If the world tomorrow should fall into disorder, we should soon perceive this too as perfect order.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the East itself has appeared to move toward a similar interpretationfrom a denial of the world to a more perfect affirmation of the worldand this movement, as we have seen, comes to full expression in the teachings of Japanese Zen Buddhism. The goal of Zen is satori. And satori is not a denial of the world, nor is it a form of release from the world. It is, said Suzuki, the acquiring of a new viewpoint. It is a new way of looking at things, and it is designed specifically to overcome the intellect's way of looking at things. It is designed to destroy the intellect. As Suzuki put it: "Satori may be defined as intuitive looking-into, in contradiction to intellectual and logical understanding." It is not interested in concepts, abstractions, and a limited perception; "it does not care so much for the elaboration of particulars as for a comprehensive grasp of the whole, and this intuitively." It is interested in the here and now, and it accepts the world. "What was up in the heavens, Zen has brought down to earth." It too proclaims the reality that flows. Thus the Zen master denies that reality is this, that, or the other thing; and when he is asked what is left, he slaps his pupil and declares, "You fool, what is this?" Satori, then, is a new kind of perception; but it is nevertheless a perception of this world. "It is not that something different is seen, but that one sees differently."
All this would seem to indicate that the radical West and the demythologized East are not so far apart concerning the Net of Illusion, and the worldly Westerner need not hesitate for this reason to join that so-called leap to the East. From Dietrich Bonhoeffer to James Bond, the contemporary emphasis upon this world and this time is wholly compatible with the esoteric interpretation of Eastern thought. In so far as they confirm the reality of this world, the new insights into the nature of meta-experiences challenge the orthodox Hindu as much as they do the orthodox Baptist, and we may be experiencing today not so much a leap to the East as the emergence at last of a possible East-West synthesis: a historic blending, as it were, of the waters of the Jordan and the Ganges.
If the East and West should agree that the world is real, however, where would this leave the question of immortality? And what of reincarnation?
Reincarnation has been represented as a cycle of death and rebirth, while nirvana has been represented as a release from this cycleand a release thereby from the world. After a final death, according to the popular Western view, one merges with the Absolute and thus achieves immortality in a state of pure Being somewhere beyond the pitiful world of appearances and phenomena. We have said, however, that the world beyond the world of appearances is this world seen in a different way. We have said that nirvana is realized in this world by living men, not in some other world by dead men. Nirvana is the pure experience of the present moment in this world here and now. That at least was the esoteric interpretation, and we might very well ask, then, what this interpretation has to say on the question of death and immortality. Does it not in fact neglect the question altogether, leaving unanswered the fate of man when life is ended and death occurs?
The esoteric reply might be that life never ends and that death is just one more delusion of the intellect. Immortal life is not experienced in some ethereal realm beyond this world; it is experienced in this world, here, and that was the deeper meaning of the statement that nirvana is realized in this world by living men. To see the world as it really is means to understand that life is immortal. And thus the myth of the terrible wheel of death and rebirth. The wheel is caused by the intellect, and it is nothing more than the rational way of looking at things. The wheel is the I-It mind. It does not mean that we are cursed to return again and again to this world, for there is no other place we could possibly go. There is only this world. There is nothing else. The myth means that we are compelled by the intellect to go on and on imagining there is something else, and also to go on and on imagining the world exists as the intellect portrays it. To escape from the wheel means simply to become aware that the world it portrays is not the real world at all, or not the whole world. To escape from the wheel means to understand that death is false and that life is immortal. You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free, from death as well as mechanism. If the intellect by nature cannot understand life, it follows that the intellect by nature cannot understand death. Its view of death results from the fact that it looks only at the parts, not at the Whole. If it would once look at the Whole, it would see immediately that life is immortal.
This interpretation would seem to justify immortality on a strictly monistic basis, by sacrificing pluralism; it preserves the One only by denying the reality of the individual selves. And what of the Western emphasis on personal survival of the individual self or soul? The esoteric doctrine would be that it is precisely our insistence on personal immortality which makes us blind to our actual immortality. The individual ego or personality has no real significance, and therefore the death of this personality has no real significance and should not be regretted. It is only because we insist on the significance of the one that the fact of the other seems so terribly important to us. And anyway, what do we really mean by personal? The truth is, the Western emphasis on this element has lately become at least somewhat less emphatic. In rejecting what he called the religious interpretation of Christianity, Bonhoeffer wrote from his prison in Berlin:
In my view, that means to speak on the one hand metaphysically and on the other hand individualistically. Neither of these is relevant to the Bible message or to the man of today. Is it not true to say that individualistic concern for personal salvation has almost completely left us all? Are we not really under the impression that there are more important things than bothering about such a matter? (Perhaps not more important than the matter itself, but more than bothering about it.) I know it sounds pretty monstrous to say that. But is it not, at bottom, even biblical? Is there any concern in the Old Testament about saving one's soul at all? Is not righteousness and the Kingdom of God on earth the focus of everything, and is not Romans 3.14 ff., too, the culmination of the view that in God alone is righteousness, and not in an individualistic doctrine of salvation? It is not with the next world that we are concerned, but with this world . . .
Even if the so-called arguments for the "immortality of the soul" had argumentative power (which they do not have) they would not convince existentially. For existentially everybody is aware of the complete loss of self which biological extinction implies. The unsophisticated mind knows instinctively what sophisticated ontology formulates: that reality has the basic structure of self-world correlation and that with the disappearance of the one side, the world, the other side, the self, also disappears, and what remains is their common ground but not their structural correlation.
Again, what do we mean by personaland by personal survival? The meta-experience suggests that we are all expressions or aspects of a primary state of Being. And this is immortal. Therefore, we too are immortalfor we are it. In each of us the primary state comes briefly to a sharp focus: we suddenly appear, like the dew that condenses from the still morning air, or a wave that lifts from the surface of the sea. The dew burns away, the wave drops, and we die. But there is no real death. There is something elemental which survives and re-expresses itself. Thus a great actor might look back on the roles he has created and might also forget some of his lesser performances; but he does not imagine that he himself died with the closing of a play: he goes on, growing in talent, and even his failures may serve to instruct him. Similarly, what dies when a man dies is simply a role. What dies is merely a point of focus where Being had concentrated itself. What dies, in the last analysis, are only the particular memories which Being had accumulated at this point or that point, in this role or the other. And even the better of these are preserved by speech and by pen. What dies are only particular points of view. And the better of these are also preserved, for so long as they seem valid: until still better replace them.
All this is what the meta-experience seems to tell us, and no doubt it does not look very convincing or comforting on the printed page. Perhaps it appears to say only that life goes onmeaning that life goes on but you do not. But descriptions of the meta-experience are not the same as the experience, and the experience would seem to mean something more than life goes on: it would seem to mean that you go on tooalthough not in the traditional sense of reappearing somewhere after death with all of your thoughts, memories, and personal cachets intact. However desirable this latter kind of survival might normally appear to us, the fact remains that the meta-experiencer finds it neither desirable nor in any sense important. In a state of unsanity, it just doesn't matter.
Possibly the West could assimilate this interpretation of immortality, if it had to, since nobody really believes in personal survival anyway. We might be able to accept a monistic structure after death. What is far more difficult to accept is the thought that life has this character here upon the earth. The idea that other people do not really exist as separate entities can be a terrifying ideapure hell, in factfor it leaves you more alone even than Sartre would leave you. Not we are alone, with no excuses, but I am alone. There is an appalling difference between those two statements, and it is really the fundamental difference between the Western view and the Eastern. If life after death can be purchased only by paying the price of earthly pluralism, there are many perhaps who would not care to pay that pricewho would give up the former, if they could, to retain the latter. And obviously you cannot have both a monistic immortality and a pluralistic mortality, since monistic survival is predicated on the assumption that life itself is monistic. There may therefore be a deep and basic wisdom reflected in the West's instinctive rejection of this horror. On the other hand, however, it could be a matter not of wisdom but of courage, or the lack of it: to say that the idea is terrifying is not to say that it is not true. In any case, it is a question to be facedposed again now by the meta-experience. And it is hard. Very hard. This is why we said earlier that the Eastern challenge to pluralism is more critical even than the challenge to transcendence.
Meta-experience does not really deny the possibility of some unseen dimension which transcends the experience; it simply fails to provide us with any evidence to support the possibilityand, further, it does not suggest any need for this hypothesis. If there is a transcendent power, well and good. If not, that is all right too. The reality suggested by the experience is reality enough, if that is all there is, and the experience therefore has nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of a separate God. The experience tells us only that our normal perception of the world is limited and limiting: that we are deceived in our perception by a mental process, the seat of which can be anatomically localized in the human brainwhich can even in fact be excised by surgery. The experience tells us to stop living only in the past and the future, or in a present moment which is perceived always in terms of the past and the future. It tells us that we need no longer be estranged from reality and from ourselves. The Eden story can now come to its inevitable and happy conclusion; the flaming sword has been extinguished, and we are free at last to re-enter the garden. It tells us this, and it does not tell us there is no transcendent God. After all, how could it? Negatives are hard to prove in any instance, and I cannot, for example, conclusively demonstrate that there is not at this moment a pink owl perched in a lime tree on the fifth moon of Jupiter. Nor do I especially care whether there is or isn't. But only a fool would insist that his vision necessarily takes in the whole of reality, and one wonders if God himself could ever be sure there was not somewhere some other God who transcends him. Thus the meta-experience tells us only what it sees; it speaks to us of this worldand it may be that this esoteric interpretation at least partially answers the objection of Tillich and Buber that mysticism is world-denying and therefore an inadequate response to existential anxiety.
The meta-experience, then, is not directly concerned with the question of God; but it is not for this reason any the less fundamental in its assertions. As William James put it to us, quoting Leuba: "Does God really exist? How does he exist? What is he? are so many irrelevant questions. Not God, but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion. The love of life, at any and every level of development, is the religious impulse."
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the meta-experience offers an accurate perception of ultimate reality. We still must ask whether it is wise or prudent to seek that experience and achieve that perception.
For one thing, the experience suggests that symbols serve only to distort our view of the actual world. But I can never forget Helen Keller's story of that day at the well house, at the age of seven, when she first learned the meaning of language. Before that, she said, she had been only a wild little animal lost in the dark, unable to give love or receive it. "Before that supreme event there was nothing in me except the instinct to eat and drink and sleep. My days were a blank, without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without interest or joy." Then Anne Sullivan held one of her hands under the running pump, and into the other she spelled out "w-a-t-e-r." The meta-experiencer would say of course that "w-a-t-e-r" and water are two different things; but Miss Keller has given us her own reaction. "I knew then that 'w-a-t-e-r' meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!" Or again: "All at once there was a strange stir within me a misty consciousness, a sense of something remembered.... Nothingness was blotted out.... That word 'water' dropped into my mind like the sun in a frozen winter world." And we might do well to remember this before we decide to blow out that sun.
An obvious objection to the meta-experience is that it denies or ignores the existence of evilwhich it considers simply a dualistic deception. And this was the main objection James had to the optimistic mysticism of Whitman. You cannot ignore evil, said James, for "the skull will grin in at the banquet." "Here on our very hearths and in our gardens," he said, "the infernal cat plays with the panting mouse, or holds the hot bird fluttering in her jaws. Crocodiles and rattlesnakes and pythons are at this moment vessels of life as real as we are; their loathsome existence fills every minute of every day that drags its length along." For his part, James preferred an optimism which first acknowledged evil and yet saw hope. Only this could we really trust.
There are the clear and present dangers which threaten the individual who is in the grips of a meta-experience: running in front of cars, leaping from windows with the expectation of flying, a generalized indifference to injury and death. But there is also a less clear and even more present danger which threatens the vitality and welfare of society itself, and this is the danger of a quietistic indifference to social goals and social rewards. Until very recently there was little cause for concern about this, and Maslow provides us with an excellent example. While he conceded there was a possible quietistic danger inherent in the peak experience, he added that the experience came rarely even to self-actualizing people, and as late as 1962 he wrote: "Therefore the problem posed here is more an ultimate than an immediate one, more a theoretical problem than a practical one." Now LSD has made the problem both immediate and practical, and the issue must be dealt with.
Prohibitive laws are one answer, and certainly there is little to be said for the so-called Gumball Machine theory that psychedelics should be freely dispensed to the general population, with no restrictions. We do after all have gun laws (though not very good ones); we have laws regarding the purchase and consumption of liquor; and there are regulations and licensing procedures for people who want to drive autos or fly airplanes. In view of the potential dangers of an immediate nature, it might seem fair to put psychedelics in the same category as alcohol, guns, planes, and cars. But in fact the governmental response has been to outlaw them almost altogether. This apparently has succeeded only in frustrating some very important research by scientists, and it is doubtful in any case whether legal measures can resolve the more basic questions that are raised by the drug movement.
There is the other side of the Delphic coin. Know Thyself, yes. But also Nothing in Excess. As Suzuki put it: "There is also such a thing as too much attachment to the experience of satori, which is to be detested." This appears to be a very neat answer, but it is much too easy telling people to behave themselves, and urging moderation in this thing of all things is no solution. LSD may not be addictive, but truth is.
This brings us to the test James suggested for the revelations of drunkenness. "If merely 'feeling good' could decide," said James, "drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience." The question isdoes the experience work out when it is inserted into the environment? This is another way of asking whether the individual continues to function and survive, and whether or not the world's work still gets done.
But the psychedelic quietist would reply that none of these things matters. It is the environment that is out of joint, and the world's work is ridiculous. As for survival, life is eternal especially so for a psychic mutant. And just by the way, there is nothing evil about pythons and rattlesnakes.
This is not to say that all drug cultists are quietists. In fact, there is a fundamental dichotomy within the drug movement, and this is reflected in the programs and philosophies of the two major psychedelic churchesthe Church of the Awakening and the Neo-American Churchthat existed before Timothy Leary's League for Spiritual Discovery was founded in 1966.
The Church of the Awakening, mentioned earlier, might be described as the middle-class right wing of the movement. Many of its members are businessmen or professional people, and the church insists that even psychedelic religion has both an internal and an external functionthe latter to be expressed in terms of "love," "service," and "growth." In its statement of purpose, the church adds:
It is important to recognize and to understand the existence of these two functions, internal and external; to recognize that we have a basic need and urge to learn, and an equally basic one to serve, to share. Next, of course, there must be an aspiration of the achievement of these objectives within the heart of each of us. And then, this knowledge and aspiration must be channeled into action. We must do something about it!
The Neo-American Church, on the other hand, represents more or less the bohemian left wing of the drug movement. It would seem to be dedicated only to "the appreciation of Transcendental Reality," and, although the church officially advocates a kind of revolutionary nihilism, the membership in general appears to be more interested in withdrawal than revolt. The inclination is to "turn on and drop out." There are individual exceptions, of course, but this is the overall impression one gets.
The Neo-American Church to date has received far more publicity than the Church of the Awakening has, and it has been more aggressive in recruiting new membersparticularly among the young. While a cleavage does exist, then, it would seem nevertheless that there are now many more quietists than activists within the drug movement as a whole, and the problem grows more pressing with every day that passes.
The psychedelic quietist of course does not consider his attitude a problemhe considers-it a solutionand in fact he might argue that there is precedent for his decision to withdraw from the mainstream, renouncing the goals and rewards of society. Would not identical consequences follow if Christians started to take the New Testament literally?
The quietist asserts that there is no destination ahead of us; we are already there. He announces, in effect, that he is getting off the bus.
It may be, then, that the question comes down to this: Is the cosmic bus going anywhere?
Contents Page | Chapter 13
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