Emerson’s Scholar Now

November 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Marilynne Robinson, novelist, essayist, and teacher at the University of Iowa, recently delivered the Presidential Address at Stanford’s Humanities Center. Her title and the topic for that address demonstrates her deep interest in Emerson: “The American Scholar Now.”

I haven’t read or seen the lecture; I don’t think a copy is available yet. But judging from the summary, I take it that Robinson means to forward Emerson’s example of critical engagement with education: Emerson not just as a scholar from an earlier period in America, but a scholar involved in the public and critical mission of higher education in America–alternately excited by its mission but concerned with its prospects. As we finish up our readings in Emerson with another address he makes at a college, the 1861 “Celebration of Intellect” (delivered at Tufts in 1861), we can think about how Emerson’s vision of the scholar translates into American culture twenty-five years later, at the beginnings of the Civil War. What’s different in his approach to intellect here? What sounds and seems familiar? Is there a critique in Emerson of the kind of utilitarianism in education that concerns Robinson?

And with our final projects, we can follow Robinson’s lead–which is also Emerson’s–and ask how and where Emerson translates into our thinking as scholars today, and what we as scholars in the college–standing by our order, as Emerson puts it in “Celebration of Intellect”–can put that translation to work, transform that genius into practical power.

Think of the final project, then, as “Emerson’s Scholar Now.” As you turn to working on the project proposal and your further reading for the annotated bibliography, continue to think about Lawrence Buell’s complex insight regarding the ways that readers have learned from Emerson. How do we read Emerson the way he wants books to be read? Or to expand slightly to the context Robinson and Emerson also have in mind, how do we learn from Emerson in the ways that are consistent with his vision of education?



Emerson’s Art and Criticism in the Twenty-First Century: Harold Bloom and TED

November 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

Harold Bloom, one of the more famous living literary critics and theorists, is also among the most well-known readers and critics to have been inspired by Emerson.  He refers to him as “the Mind of America” and “our father Emerson.” Bloom is, if nothing else, a student from Emerson’s school.

Among other things, Bloom developed a highly idiomatic theory of poetic criticism (known by one of the titles of his books, The Anxiety of Influence, with critical perspective analogized from the Kabbalah, a Hebrew mystical tradition and method of interpretation). For Bloom, every great poet is a critic of precursor poets (Stevens and Whitman must wrestle anxiously with Emerson, for example) and every great critic (Bloom, of course, most prominently seeks to make his or her criticism poetic. As Emerson puts it at the end of “Art and Criticism”: “Then the critic is poet.” This is something Bloom has in mind. For Bloom, a key rhetorical principle in the Emersonian toolkit of poetry becoming criticism and criticism becoming poetry is the figure Emerson names in “Art and Criticism” as the “principal power of rhetoric,” namely “metonymy.” [Bloom refers to Emerson and metonymy in his book The Breaking of the Vessels]

How does Emerson’s understanding of metonymy provide a foundation for critical perspective? If metonymy is the rhetorical figure that represents or relates by way of context and contiguity (parts that are touching or proximate), what kind of criticism results? How might such “metonymy” guide your own critical work in the final project?

All conversation, as all literature, appears to me the pleasure of rhetoric, or, I may say, of metonomy. “To make of motes mountains, and of mountains motes,” Isocrates said, “was the orator’s office.” Well, that is what poetry and thinking do. Whatever new object we see, we perceive to be only a new version of our familiar experience, and we set about translating it at once into our parallel facts. We have hereby our vocabulary. [“Art and Criticism”]

What new version and vocabulary of familiar experience might you translate in your project?

For some further reading into Bloom on Emerson, of a sort that might be useful for the final project, and for bibliographic exploration, consider this recorded interview with Bloom from 2003 (the year of the Emerson bicentennial). In the first tape early on, Bloom discusses contemporary Emersonians. This gives us some sense of what, at least according to Bloom, Emersonian means.

Bloom is something of a public intellectual. Though an academic and theorist, longtime professor at Yale, who is also known for publishing books intended for a wider audience, including Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and an entire series of introductory guides to literature designed for high school students. Another place–is it the only place?–we might locate an Emersonian criticism, an intellect speaking to a public audience beyond the academy, is TED. This is something I’d like to explore further. This discussion of TED talks begins with reference to Emerson and the importance of lecturing for his writing. This public forum of intellect from the 19th century, the Lyceum which shaped Emerson’s work and writing, has seemingly moved to a digital forum. This TED talk on the power of aphorism and metaphorically speaking refers briefly to Emerson. With an understanding of Emerson’s theory, not just practice, of creative reading and metonymic thinking–where criticism reveals new versions of familiar experience–we might recognize Emerson’s larger influence in this new media forum of conversation and intelligence. We might even think of the 18 minute limit of TED talks in terms of Emerson’s principle of “compression,” the value of omitting. And we might wonder, yet again, about the problem of getting transcendent ideas and genius into some sort of readable or translatable form. Consider this problem Nathan Heller raises in his essay about TED, “Listen and Learn”:

Should we be grateful to TED for providing this form of transcendence—and on the Internet, of all places? Or should we feel manipulated by one more product attempting to play on our emotions? It’s tricky, because the ideas undergirding a TED talk are both the point and, for viewers seeking a genericTED-type thrill, essentially beside it: the appeal of TED comes as much from its presentation as from its substance.

I am curious to explore this potential parallelism further. I do so with questions and concerns motivating my curiosity. Is there the potential here for conformity. Is TED just the newest kind of house that inevitably comes to confine the spirit? Or a spirit for possibly better understand the houses we live in?

Emerson reading Whitman reading Emerson

October 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

Whitman, frontispiece portrait 1855 Leaves of Grass

Emerson writes of “creative reading” in “American Scholar”; he calls the scholar or poet (his Man Thinking) to engage with books, with nature, with the world, creatively: the book becoming luminous with manifold allusion. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of someone reading Emerson creatively comes from Whitman.

In July of 1855, Whitman publishes his first edition of Leaves of Grass; he sends Emerson a copy. Emerson writes enthusiastically in response. Whitman then responds to that response quite creatively in the second edition of Leaves in 1856. For some of the imagery of this creative reading, see this slide show I created; for digital scans of the book, what Emerson would have been holding in his hand, visit the Whitman Archive.  As we begin Whitman, begin his incomparable and strange book, some questions we should consider, imagine: What does Emerson see in this book in July 1855? What do we see in our initial reading? In other words, what’s our sense (or Emerson’s sense) of the project that Whitman has undertaken? Opening this book, where do we find ourseleves?

DEAR SIR–I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “LEAVES OF GRASS.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our western wits fat and mean.

I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire.
I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.

I did not know until I last night saw the book advertised in newspaper that I could trust the name as real and available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respects.


Concord, Massachusetts, 21 July, 1855

Whitman’s creative reading of American poetry in Leaves of Grass begins, I would argue, before you get to the famous opening lines: I celebrate myself. It begins with the cover, and then with the first text within, the frontispiece image of Whitman.

For more on the history of revision and “recomposition” (Emerson’s word recall from “Quotation and Originality”) that Whitman weaves into Leaves of Grass, including the second edition (1856) that we are reading, I highly recommend Ed Folsom’s “Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman.”


Emersonian Poetics

October 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

In his chapter on “Emersonian Poetics,” Buell advances a fascinating claim: that Emerson’s poetry, which has long been viewed as weaker than his essays, which have long been viewed as the place where Emerson’s poetic sensibility shines–that the poems in some way are meant to fail. Buell argues from an understanding of what he calls an “aesthetics of unfinished business” and an “aesthetics of incompletion” that is part of a “Romantic Fragment Aesthetics” (109).

Does this make sense: given Emerson’s philosophy (as we have seen it in his essays, such as “Experience” and “Circles”)? given Emerson’s aesthetic philosophy proposed in “The Poet”? given his actual poetry? What of the implication, therefore, that Emerson has to fail as a poet in order to be a good Emersonian poet?

For some further thinking on this interesting problem/potential of Emerson’s poetics, we can turn to Joel Porte’s argument from “The Problem of Emerson” (included in our Norton edition). Porte contends that Emerson doesn’t fail as a writer, but that he has never, until more recently, been fully and appropriately read by critics as a writer, in terms of his writing.

The Emerson we now see, I am convinced, has always existed; indeed it is the same Emerson whom William James was moved to praise as an artist. This Emerson’s interest and appeal reside in the imaginative materials and structures of his writing–in his tropes and topoi, his metaphor and verbal wit, in the remarkable consistencies of his conceiving mind and executing hand. [684]

Here is an insight from Dan Chiasson’s recent New Yorker essay on Emerson’s poetics, and the difference between the essays and the poems:

Emerson’s essays are like wonder handbooks: they tell you where to find it, how to use it, what to do when it fails you. “Nature,” “The Poet,” “Self-Reliance,” “Circles,” “Experience”: you can use these essays to become enchanted; many dejected secular people have gone to them regularly to see the world in renewed and refreshed terms of beauty. They outfit you for a walk in the woods or an ordinary morning. They are modular: you can remember bits of one, bits of another, mess up the order, mix and match. Their authority comes not from the Church or the ministry but from the power of their prose. Emerson must have realized that half of the people in church were there to hear language electrified by the preacher; his essays are, as Harold Bloom put it, “interior oratory,” free-range sermons that make their own occasions.

Chiasson argues a thesis that compares to what Buell will pose in his chapter “Emersonian Poetics”: the argument of poems overwhelms the form. This makes the poetry fail to some extent in the poem, but succeed to a related extent in the failure–given the poetic theory of forms Emerson proposes. But Chiasson takes the argument a step further in suggesting the ways that Emerson’s poetics matter for his two most important, though different, “disciples” (Whitman and Dickinson). Here is his provocative conclusion: “If Emerson’s poems had been just a little better than they were, we might not have American literature as we know it. Our greatest writers, seeing their own visions usurped, might have been content to remain his readers.”

Talk about complication and conflict–very useful as the basis for our next writing project. Would you argue at this point, therefore, that Mary Oliver’s “Snow Geese” is a better or more faithful Emersonian poem than the poetry Emerson produced? Or A.R. Ammons? You can see from this description from the Poetry Foundation that he is viewed as Emerson’s “progeny.” Here is an example, his poem “Poetics”:

I look for the way
things will turn
out spiralling from a center,
the shape
things will take to come forth in

so that the birch tree white
touched black at branches
will stand out
totally its apparent self:

I look for the forms
things want to come as

from what black wells of possibility,
how a thing will

not the shape on paper — though
that, too — but the
uninterfering means on paper:

not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours.

Is it too much to see this problem reiterated in the contemporary poetics of conceptual poetry, in the work of someone like Kenneth Goldsmith? I note, at least, the echoes back to “Quotation and Originality.”

Emerson’s Poet: The Convertible

October 4, 2015 § 3 Comments

No, Emerson’s convertible is not a car–though given Emerson’s interest in “the highway” (a phrase he will use in “Experience”) and in the ways the Emersonian spirit is taken up by artists of the road (Whitman, Kerouac, Springsteen), it is not too much of a stretch. Emerson’s “convertible” has come up often in his writing; this key word appears in “Poetry and Imagination,” for example:

Your condition, your employment, is the fable of you. The world is thoroughly anthropomorphized, as if it had passed through the body and mind of man…. We are advertised that there is nothing to which man is not related; that every thing is convertible into every other. [Norton edition, 302]

Emerson goes on to refer to this convertibility as “this metonymy.” I thus identify in Emerson’s interest in the convertibility and conditions of life that poetry highlights, or should, four related characteristics or (to use his term) “conditions” of Emerson’s poetics.

Art is the path of the creator to his work. The paths, or methods, are ideal and enternal, though few men ever see them, not the artist himself for years, or for a lifetime, unless he come into the conditions. [“The Poet,” 196]

I would argue that these four conditions of Emerson’s vision of writing and the writer are crucial to American literature but also in need of remembering. We don’t think of these much when we think of the words: poet, poetry, writer, literature. Convertibility means that poetry (like the Poet) is…

  1. democratic: the focus is on the “daily” (and its transubstantiation) and the social, the common and even the low; sounds most like Whitman in these references. He views Shakespeare’s genius along these lines as well.
  2. pragmatic: the focus is on “use” and the uses of poetry and nature; think William Carlos Williams (no ideas but in things); think William James; think of the end of “Experience”: the transformation of genius into practical power.
  3. metonymic: the focus is on relation and contiguity (the proximities) as well as contingency (accident, surprise); what lies near; the near explains the far–and the fact that language is the means or medium of this convertibility, as well as one of its best examples. I referred to metonymy initially in our reading of Emerson’s Nature (his understanding of relation, of parts related to an unseen whole. For further thinking on the poetics of metonymy and its difference from metaphor, read this post from my blog on The Essay.
  4. organic: the focus is on living forms. “Rightly, poetry is organic. We cannot know things by words and writing, but only by taking a central position in the universe and living it its forms. We sink to rise” [309]

Think how this last point and principle–sinking to rise–reiterates the previous three. Convertibility thus relates the local to the global, the near to the far. And it unsettles (to use the word from “Circles) or de-centers the individual at the very same time that it relates her or him to something larger–but something other. Think of this line from “The Transcendentalist” where Emerson has in mind the “manifold” symbolic nature of the world–and think of the poetic implications for this concept, the sort of writing that such a vision of relational thought would create.

His thought,–that is the Universe. His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence, relative to that aforesaid Unknown Centre of him. [95]

As a way to grasp the poetics (the writing) of this passage, not just its concept, is it too much to see and hear in Emerson’s first sentence, the transition marked by the dash, Whitman’s ellipses or Dickinson’s dashes? We will have to wait and see. This is suggests that as we turn a corner in the course to focus on Emersonian Poetics, on his interest in the Poet, and his influence in American poetry, particularly by way of poets such as Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Frost, are into new territory? Or are we continuing to think about Emerson’s philosophy of intellect, of the scholar, of experience?

Here is a recent reading of Emerson’s essay “The Poet” by the contemporary essayist Sven Birkerts. This suggests that there is a familiar problem that we encounter in Emerson’s conception of poetry and the poet’s stance, or argument. One word for that familiar problem: soul.

[The image is from Robert Frank’s The Americans, the book by the photographer I would offer as an Emersonian artist/poet; I think of photography in metonymic terms–the way it represents the “conditions” of its subject]

Emerson’s Philosophical “Experience”

September 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

The best Emersonian readers I have studied and learned from all suggest that Emerson’s philosophy of experience is not merely discussed or developed in the essay of that name, but communicated through it. In a real sense, these readers argue, the experience of reading the essay “Experience” is a key part of its philosophy.

David Robinson, to take one example, provides an insightful critical reading of the ways Emerson’s essays work–which is also to say, the way Emerson works the reader through the essays. This can help us grasp Emerson’s philosophy of the essay, and the ways his essays do philosophy. In the next section of the course, we can pursue this further as a matter of his poetics (Buell, for example, will discuss “Experience” in the chapter on Emersonian poetics) and eventually his rhetoric.

Here is what Robinson writes about Emerson’s “Experience” in his book Emerson and The Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work.

The pattern of continual doubling back, in which every new idea or perspective develops its opposite, recurs even here, when it seems as if the problem of alienation had been settled by dismissing it as frivolous. Each step toward resolution in “Experience” generates a further complication. The hidden negation revealed by each successive affirmation forces the essay into successive turns of direction. The structure of the essay’s argument thus reflects the structure of the essay’s subject. The structure of “Experience” is the structure of experience.  [63-64]

Robinson’s point is that Emerson’s apparent contradictions in the midst of his essays–this is something he is known for, and often blamed for, the lack of consistency–entail a philosophical purpose. They are rather complications: ways that he pursues the complexity of the experience, and the thinking, that he is after. Here, then, is how Robinson characterizes the nature of an Emerson essay as a version of thought in the dynamic action of complication, which is to say, thinking.

The tensions in Emerson’s thought are apparent when one attempts to specify his intellectual position in a given essay, but to write such an essay off as contradictory misses a larger value, its ability to take the reader into an exemplary act of thinking…. They emphasize the living out of ideas. [12-13]

There is proximity in the critical insight that Lawrence Buell provides in his discussion of the “self-reliant thinking” that his essays provoked and performed: “His compressed, metaphorical prose was intended both to perform self-reliant thinking and provoke it” (68).

We see this performance at work in “Quotation and Originality,” where Emerson pursues a deliberate contradiction of his earlier and more famous essay on originality, “Self-Reliance.” Or rather, pursues a seeming contradiction. Or rather, shows thought and ideas to emerge out of differences that somehow relate. Emerson enacts a counterargument–a deliberate contradiction that serves a rhetorical purpose–and does so in an argument for the necessity of ideas always to be countered. Or, to use one of the keywords of that essay: recomposed.

Given the tradition of Emersonian originality, what should we make of the claim in”Quotation and Originality” that “all minds quote”? Is this view of writing and reading and, more broadly, thinking, as some form of quotation a contradiction of his earlier views of self-reliance and “creative reading?” Does this break from the earlier essays, or somehow extend the vision?

Emerson, mid-way through the essay, seems to admit his own contradiction when he begins to voice a challenge to what he has been saying of quotation. That voice sounds much like the Emerson from “Self-Reliance”: “Quotation confesses inferiority.” Is this just a case of Emerson contradicting himself, being willfully or whimsically inconsistent? (In “Self-Reliance he claims famously: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”)

Emerson, however, has always had a more complicated vision of originality–much as the notion of originality in writing and thinking is more complicated than conventionally presented in schools. Emerson’s vision of original quotation speaks to the essay tradition and its philosophy of relating the personal and ordinary in the world of the writer to the public world of the reader. A good essayist needs to work through quotation, and consider the relation between the quotation and originality of thinking. A better context for understanding the tension between originality and quotation, I suggest, is a rhetorical and logical tradition Emerson was familiar with. This philosophical context for the essay, for any essay Emerson might have in mind, opens up contradiction as a strong potential for an essay, when handled honestly. Contradiction becomes counterargument, a rhetorical strategy; the logic in the essay moves (is not fixed), is dialectical or dynamic.  Think, as Emerson liked to think, of the natural analogy of polarity. And so thought, and thinking in writing, when it accurately reflects its contexts as a natural process, moves between positive and negative poles. All things, as Emerson says, are in flux. The same should be the case, he suggests, for the ideas and arguments in writing. [For more on the rhetorical strategy of counterargument, with an eye toward bringing it into your own writing more effectively, consult this brief discussion of Counterargument from Harvard’s Writing Center.]

Composition and decomposition are the natural poles. Recomposition is the form of writing that generates from this. Reading such writing, as we also see by the end of the essay, participates in the recomposition by being inventive. Invention is a concept of classical rhetoric that speaks to the paradoxical but necessary tension between the originality of our ideas and argument and the given, quoted, borrowed structures and contexts that those ideas must live in, relate and respond to.  This is something you will be working through in your writing projects: taking an accepted or conventional or given understanding, raising questions or observing problems or confusion regarding that conventional view, and seeking in your response an answer that recomposes our understanding.

What place of recomposition–or, as it were, re-composure–does Emerson find and offer us, by the end of “Experience”? Where do we find ourselves?


Some further reading and thinking on the rhythm of Emerson’s thinking (and sentences).

I have lately been hearing a certain rhythm and tone of Emerson’s philosophical sentences, and in particular the devastating sentence from “Experience” that follows the revelation of the death of his son, in the rhythm of the Bon Iver song “Holocene.” We will be exploring later in the course the poetics of voice and style in essay writing. This is toward some initial grasp of that, how with Emerson and what he described as the “infinitely repellent particles” of his sentences we need to grasp not just what they say but how they sound. For Emerson, the philosophy (the idea, the sentiment, the argument, the “intellect”) is conveyed not just through the sentences, but in them. The sentences in “Experience,” it seems to me, offer syntactical and poetic renditions of: surprise, provocation, temperament, balance, mediation. They move us through the series of the essay, much as he argues we move with these ideas through the series and surfaces of life.

Here is the sentence, rendered with breaks to notice the rhythm and repetition we can hear:

So is it with this calamity:

it does not touch me:

some thing which I fancied was a part of me,

which could not be torn away without tearing me,

nor enlarged without enriching me,

falls off from me,

and leaves no scar


Emerson and the American Ego

September 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

We enter this week headlong into the territory most familiar to people who might have read a bit of Emerson: Emerson’s SELF, lead by the essay “Self-Reliance.” It has become, ironically, perhaps the most conventional of his essays–the one always referred to as evidence of what a literary critic called “The Imperial Self.” A more recent version of this convention, this critique of Emersonian egotism came in 2003, in the celebrations around his 200th birthday. An editorial in the New York Times blamed Emerson for the American tradition of self-absorption, the excessive egotism that leads to greed on Wall Street and go-it-alone foreign policy. Another version of this critique, less aggressive but still distrustful of Emerson, came from John Updike in the New Yorker. A more recent and more positive view of the Emersonian self and its lessons for us today can be found in this Op-Ed by the literary critic Harold Bloom “Out of Panic, Self-Reliance.” And this piece in the Chronicle, “Giving Emerson the Boot,” I think is especially flagrant in its understanding of the egoistic Emerson. And one more from 2011: “The Foul Reign of Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’.”  No subtlety here.

I said irony regarding these conventional views of the Emersonian self: the irony, of course, given that Emerson writes (in these very essays, certainly in “Self-Reliance”) about resisting convention and conformity of thinking. So what do you think? If the convention is Emersonian imperial ego, is this all that we find in this essay–or is there a resisting vision, a contrast, if not a contradiction, that we can read?

One way into this, I will suggest, is to consider more directly what Emerson himself writes and thinks regarding contradiction (and also convention). I think there is more to say than what, traditionally, people have said for Emerson. Emerson, as we have begun to discuss, is interested in a more complex understanding of our language, of or our nature, of our self and its relations. Emerson, I propose, seeks to complicate the conventions that would include the very readings, and what he will call in the essay, the “misunderstanding,” of the essay, and its key term.

Here is an entire issue of the journal In Character devoted to the idea and the word “self-reliance.” On the side of complication, one could also note the way “Self-Reliance” figured into President Obama’s 2009 Inaugural.

And to thicken the irony: here is a commercial I recall from my senior year of high school. Believe it or not, Emerson is quoted from numerous lines in “Self-Reliance” to help sell Reebok shoes. Reebok’s let you be you. Be yourself; look like everyone else.  At first view, yes, this seems to get Emerson terribly wrong. But is some of this irony in the essay itself, in Emerson’s own thinking? Perhaps, since as we learn if we read the essay carefully, the self-reliant self is never an individual, is always reliant on something else.

What’s next: using Whitman to sell Levi’s jeans?

Keywords (and contradictions)

Some of the familiar keywords of “Self-Reliance” and its concerns with the influence of society:original, individual, conformity, consistency, imitation. But our further reading this week (into “History” and “Quotation and Originality”) can help complicate and counter that familiar reading. Other terms we see emphasize not an “individual” exclusively, the self-absorbed ego that is the concern of the various op-eds disparaging Emerson, but a self that is part and particle of something larger. A self who is, by definition, not just himself or herself. These terms include “correlative” (and “correspondency”) in “History” [119], variations on the Emersonian philosophy of relation. And in “Quotation and Originality,” there is the final term of the essay: “recomposition.” There is, we learn, no original composition, no original self, since nature is the correlative of Mind. And perhaps we should already know this from “Self-Reliance,” since the essay argues for self that relies on something greater, called in one phrasing, “immense intelligence.”

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