Portrait of a Friendship
by Wolfgang Somary
|Wolfgang Somary, a Swiss banker and poet, was a close friend of Ivan Illich. This article paints a poetic picture of their relationship and fills in some of the background to Illich's intellectual life.|
Invited by an old rabbi in the summer of 1973 to hear wise men from many climes and cultures conceptualize in their respective vernaculars, I took a holiday from work. In a large villa and garden on the outskirts of Zurich professional thinkers were celebrating life during a three weeks' symposium, joining efforts to discover some fundamentals of knowledge and trying to initiate a movement away from the Euro-centricity of scientific thinking. All major disciplines, religions and ethnicities were represented; no one was sent by a government but each professor, priest, scientist, medical practitioner, shaman or poet was delegated by his local peers.
One afternoon those participants who came to discuss criteria for education and formation according to different cultures congregated in the library, where a man who resembled an eagle hovering in flight over a valley gave a talk, the gist of which was that everyone has an educational or formative requirement of his own, according to his native disposition and that the concept of normality was unknown four generations ago when it was first introduced by the French. The voice, the aspect and the body language of the speaker corresponded in my mind to the name Ivan Illich, which I saw on the list of members. It also tallied with my image of one who, as I incidentally read a short time before, had publicly exposed the inquisitorial pratices of the Holy Office in Rome. I wanted to meet this speaker, who thought outloud so intensely that it made you hold your breath. Every word was carefully chosen and with every sentence he hammered a nail into an edifice.
During dinner, a philosopher from Jaipur in Rajasthan asked me to explain the idea of intercultural cooperation. As a private banker, I had been asked by the sponsors of this symposium to help create a foundation for the promotion of interdisciplinary research among the cultures, at a time when the concept was new and Eurocentric thinking taken for granted. So I gave my enthusiastic little commentary. A couple of seals away, The Eagle from Cuernavaca named Ivan Illich, picked up my sound waves and, improving the substance, transmitted my thoughts in perfect French to his African neighbour. Here was a man who, allergic to the much abused word communication, as I later found out, could listen at long range, upgrade, simultaneously translate and pass on to others whatever his fine antenna picked up and his mind found worthwhile. He reminded me of torch bearers in former Olympic races and I felt that a man who was so perceptive must have a big heart and soul. This was the beginning of our friendship.
According to the run of the world, it used to take years of friendship before you could ask very direct questions. We did not have time. The day after the symposium on education, lvan Illich had to return to Mexico and asked me to drive him to the airport. Yes, he had told me about The Limits of Education and Deschooling Society; but what I really wanted to know was his purpose in life. With a radiant smile he replied: "I don't want to have to come again". I understood. Ever since, the bodhisattva nature of man came to preoccupy me more than manifestations of the scientific mind. What bodes intelligence if not in the service of compassion?
We met a year later in Kyoto. Kapamba Muponga of Zaire gave a brief and rhethorically brilliant interpretation of "Nature in African cultures", which Ivan Illich, who presided, translated to everyone's delight. Once more he showed how to pass on the torch while increasing its flame. When the discussion became animated, our host announced that lunch was served. Ivan Illich replied that we would come presently. Presently was not good enough; it had to be immediately. The host would not be contradicted; it was his country and he had a face to save in front of his colleagues. Then Ivan's face transformed to that of Don Quichotte, hidalgo de la Mancha. "You have your Japanese pride and I have my Spanish pride", he replied, as we felt pins in the stomach; and a pallatable compromise was reached. I had the opportunity to learn in later years that people who suppress their own aggression get No for an answer; hidden aggressions will boomerang as they are lived out vicariously by an opponent.
It was around the full moon festival in September and the leaves in the monastic gardens of Kyoto were turning colour. One afternoon four levites sat face to face in four corners of a pavillion in the Daitoku-Ji garden: Ivan Illich, Raimon Pannikar, and the Domicans Stanislas Breton and Dubarle. The word flew like volley-ball from one to the next; with neither hiatus nor interruption. I do not recall the substance of the mental fireworks; but I do recollect the attentive quality of listening and the totally focused manner of debating. It was perhaps a last echo from the halls of medieval universities, where rhetorics served not the quest for solutions but the quest for truth according to established criteria. During conversation an old woman brought us tea in Delft blue china cups. She refused payment: the tea came "from the Gods". As we stood by a fence, silently watching a beautiful sunset while hearing the wind rustle through bamboo reeds, stout Stanislas Breton trembled like a fragile maple leaf from the autumn chill. Ivan wrapped his poncho around Breton's shoulders, a gesture that went deeper with me than the previous superb pingpong of wit. In the midst of our silence someone asked: What should be foremost in our minds? To which Ivan replied: Cheerful renunciation. These were the two most important words I have heard him speak. As darkness set in, Breton took my arm and said: "We have lost our luminosity in order to gain clarity". Catching my question on how to regain it, he pensively added: "You can never return into your mother's womb".
In June of 1975 I visited Ivan in Cuernavaca, where he gradually phased our CIDOC, an educational project that prevented a new colonialism of Latin America from the north. A young teacher was busy giving a crash course in Spanish. I remarked that I would gladly have taken any course whatever with such a charismatic teacher who is able to give so fully of himself. "Be careful", cautioned Ivan: "there are some teachers who have much to say and are unable to put it across and others who can speak magnificently about nothing". I had many occasions to remember that remark. Some years later I heard him say to a friend: "Try to understand what I am saying but do not understand too quickly". A Dominican priest, whom I once heard give a speech on the social responsibility of economic action, failed to catch the attention of his audience. I asked him for his text and read it five times before I finally understood what he had tried to convey. It was like a gem that had to be freed from dross and held up to the light; but this light can be kindled only where there is unity between the speaker and his listener.
Bishop Serge Matteo Arceo mounted the steps of the old convent, whose cells served as beehives for crash courses in Latin American languages and cultures. As those two men embraced like Polar Bear and Marabou, sharing their inner light, I thought of the chance encounter between Francis of Assisi and Dominic eighthundred years ago on a street corner in Perugia—what a radiant encounter of brothers in Christ, now just as then! The bishop looked like a trooper of Michael the Archangel, strong enough to wield a battleax, Ivan like a knight from the Middle Ages who's armed with a typewriter.
Ivan was busy putting the final touches on his Medical Nemesis and invited me to translate a few chapters from the French into English, which helped me to absorb the message. Sitting in the woods of Oxotepec within the magical compound of five small wooden houses that Valentina Borreman erected as a haven, all houses being completely open to the center, the rain came crashing from vats and tubs on the dot of midday. That seems to be nature's liturgy in June. Ivan, Valentina and I sat at table, shielded by a sloping roof. We ate wild rice and mushrooms in harmonious silence. After twenty minutes the sky was clear, the sun shone and the parakeets sang as if nothing happened. Only the young avocado trees were still dripping crystal globules. An Aztec clambered up from nowhere; he held little terracotta figurines in both hands, bringing these antique excavations as an offering to Valentina. Ivan placed one of those solar faces in my palm and challenged me to see the difference between this piece of folk art fashioned by a true believer of old and the cheesecake artificats of present-day devotees.
The man who rose from the earth was called Bonifazio and this was his view of Christianity four and a half centuries after the Spanish conquest of Mexico: "Catholics say God is up there; Protestants say God is Jesus Christ; and we Aztecs believe God is in this stone. What matters who is right? If I believe in you, I also believe in God, because he is my friend, as you are my friend. However, he plagues me at times, which a friend would not; so He is not as good a friend as you are". After he left, Ivan gave me one of his quizzical looks that said: This fellow's not a bad philosopher.
We drove out one day to a village called Xioxiocotla. I never saw so much human beauty in such miserable surroundings. "Have no illusions", warned Ivan; and I realized that he felt very close to these villagers, who wade in the mud between dogshit when filling their jugs at the two village pumps, pick up intestinal diseases while bathing in the pond and thatch their roofs with palm leaves that break in a downpour. He took me to the local 35 year-old curate, whom he ordinated into the priesthood. Ivan translated for me: "I hope to be the last pastor that lives in this parish. Whoever comes after me will want to change everything. They have already stolen enough from our people. There's no end to the Spanish colonial power. They took away our language, which we can hardly speak today. In school they tell our children that our tongue comes from a subculture that has no human dignity. The Spaniards have placed sufficient burdens on us; and now comes the Church on top of it. They want to forbid the people to show devotion to gods of stone and wood; they change the liturgy and pray only in the vernacular. Does the Church really think that by changing the language it will bring the Gospel closer to the people? My people will listen to me as long as l celebrate the liturgy in the manner they wish. Why should that be changed?"
As we visited the church, where some pious women prayed not in front of the tabernacle but in front of statues in lateral niches, the pastor continued: "The Spaniards want me to remove those statues: they are reputed to be pagan and do not correspond to current requirements. I refuse to remove those few treasures our people have left. If their statues are gods, they will help; if they are not, they will tumble of their own accord. However, the two cows that stood around the crib of Jesus, next to St. Joseph, had to be removed: that was the only concession I made. They objected to the faithful feeding them. You see that table on which we have to celebrate the Mass? What's the meaning of a table for people who have never eaten at a table? My people expect Mass to be celebrated at an altar and the Holy Eucharist to be eaten at the foot of the altar.
As we stood in the courtyard of the church, the priest continued: "Those two stones on the wall are pre-Columbian fertility gods. I have also been instructed to remove them, because they are revered as phallic symbols. But I shall leave them. The stone dog on the wall is also going to stay; there's a celebration in his honour once a year. People bring him food offerings, as they bring offerings to a priest, in order to thank him for his loyalty to the Church. During the feast the old women forecast the weather for the coming year and foretell which of the girls will get married".
We passed the town hall and he continued: "Recently a politician paid a visit. He wanted to ingratiate himself, so he held a speech in our language. But his efforts proved futile. The people noticed that he had memorized his speech. If you cannot speak our tongue. do not use it to show off. He achieved just the opposite of what he wanted. Incidentally, why should anyone want to give a speech in this place? A couple of years ago the health department sent around a medical doctor to shut up our herbalist women and give our midwives lessons in hygiene. A couple of weeks later, he got kicked out of his job. The Spaniards wanted to give us cement to build houses in which we can freeze in winter and broil in summer. Our people have known since centuries how to build houses around here and surely do not need that type of assistance. Huffed by our rejection, they remarked: In that case we don't want to waste any more time with them."
"The river down there used to be our only source of pure water. It was better than the village pumps. Ever since they built up the area along the highway and opened a chemical factory, our river has become a sewer."
"Before we parted, he added: " A couple of weeks ago they showed us a film that was supposed to teach our people about birth control. During the presentation, an old man in the audience groaned: They want to forbid even that!"
Never have I heard a more devastating indictment of so-called development work. public education and of the Vatican Council's aggiornamento. Considering that the priest was young, it made a special impact. Who were those Spaniards who were the cause of so much discontent? Ivan explained that this expression implied Government of Mexico as well as Roman Catholic officials. For this pastor and his flock, these officials were foreign enemies of the people, who were devout Christians and traditional heathelis. Spanis-speaking and native pre-Colombians. Ivan did not comment. Our visit was followed by a long silence and by a deep sadness on his pensive face. That priest was his spiritual son, who felt his people had been betrayed.
Somewhere in the wilds—I forgot the name—was a ziggurat on which an Aztec champion of hip soccer got sacrificed to the gods, as the priests ripped out his heart. Ivan explained the sport, the aspiration of the winner, the gruesome ritual. When I asked how could people be so crazy in those days, he just looked at me quietly and whispered: "One never understands the spirit of times in which one did not live". We sat there and mused, grateful for the gift of togetherness and burdened with the echo of sacrificial slaughter on those very temple steps. For a brief moment, Ivan's soul looked very- old: he carried the knowledge of much human suffering in his head and may have felt he was born to help stop the buck from moving further.
On Sunday he took me to the Cathedral for High Mass. Bishop Arceo intoned lustily in Spanish, the congregation sang without our northern inhibitions, musicians played trumpets and violins, banjos, guitars and clarinets as they walked down the aisle before the Elevation. Following Mass, we bailed out of the nave and flowed into the market, where the Sabbath was celebrated in real catholic fashion. An old woman whose legs had been amputated, cheerily presided from her wheelchair at the entrance, sure not to miss the explosion of colours, the melodious animation of voices, the fresh smells of good vegetables. The mother of Ivan's accountant Miguel sat on the ground, selling lettuce and radishes. Her son told her she need not trouble herself to come any longer because he now makes enough money to take good care of her. "I don't come to sell radishes", she replied; "I come to see the people". In the company of Ivan I understood that a market was a microcosm, where exchanges take place on all human levels, whereas a supermarket w as a locality where merchandise is bought and sold without the utterance of a superfluous word and without an exchange of looks. Hags, straight from Macbeth, with eyes in the wrong place such as Picasso might have painted, were selling roots and barks, snake powder and bats' wings as cures from disease. They also had packages of St. Ildefontso's Powder for people who lost favour with their lovers. Ivan laughed at my revulsion: "No less trustworthy than what Swiss pharmaceutical companies sell you", said he, as a woman with strength enough to lift me in one hand filled me a large plastic bag with some of those goodies.
When I asked Ivan's collaborator Jean Robert one day to sum up in a nutshell what he knew of the Mexican economy, he replied: "The government has been trying to enforce by legislation the use of a new hybrid of corn. This hybrid has the advantage of improving yields but is less resistant to climatic changes, unsuited for many kinds of soil, prone to disease, tastes insipid, cannot be stored and costs a lot more. The government buys this new yellow corn at a premium. The traditional types, which the farmers prefer, are bought in at far lower prices and then mixed with the government sponsored corn. Whoever goes to a mill to grind other types is considered a saboteur. You find as a result a considerable rise in the cost of eating tortillas, which is the Mexican's basic dish, and a compulsory switching over from multiple-breed corn raising to mass produced expensive and tasteless tortillas." On my outgoing flight to Los Angeles, I sat next to a director of Grupo Industrial Alfa, at that time the largest industrial conglomerate in Mexico. He asked what were my impressions of his country and what kind of people I met. When I mentioned the name of Ivan Illich, he raised his eyebrows and said: "When you come to visit us, I will show you an entirely different side of Mexico", by which he implied progress and successful development. I found no opportunity to visit, because Grupo Industrial Alfa fell on bad times when the price of oil collapsed.
Medical Nemesis was launched in Zurich, my home town. Facing two hundred medical doctors, Ivan survived the ordeal better than he expected. "You have no idea how hard I worked on this project", he said later as we drank coffee near Place St. Germain in Paris. "It was the most gruelling work I have ever done. In order to write this book I had to swot up a lot of medical knowledge and it was amazing from how many corners of the world people sent me interesting articles. Even King Baudouin of Belgium went to the trouble of sending me some useful items.... You see that postman across the street? His function will soon be obsolete; the post office is a thing of the past." "Is that the subject of your next book?". "Certainly not; others can write that book now that I have shown the way. For the first time in my life I honestly feel I deserve a rest".
But the rest was not long; there were other torches to kindle and to pass on, such as providing an answer to the energy crisis ("Oil is to us what relics of saints were to people in the Middle Ages"), defending the right to useful unemployment, explaining the difference between water and H20 and exposing the disabling professions of experts. I often wondered where he found the strength to keep on battling, when he must have felt that people were not listening. Was it the Bagavadghita's admonition: "Ours the effort but not the result"? Was it a fascination with the scurrility of what he saw and the relish of giving an unsparing description? Or was it the vocation of the prophet Jona who was sent out to warn Niniveh? Some critics say he never made allowance for those five percent of cases that worked out exceedingly well. But how can you effect a conversion of the heart and mind of man unless you risk an occasional rebuke for exaggeration? But does he exaggerate to make his point or does he often formulate his arguments too mildly, in order not to shock the reader? Twenty-five years after having started his work on Medical Nemesis, he remarked: "Through its present ability to create patients, the art of medicine as we knew it then has vanished. Death is no longer one's passage across a threshold but the phasing out of life, a finishing off. A human being is not a life but has life. Dying is the art of suffering, in the sense of patiencia." These are not the words of one who makes his points too strongly for the sake of better reception but of one who, having contemplated death through his studies of ars moriendi, has acquired an immense capacity to enjoy true friendship and all those exquisite tastes and odours, resonances and luminosities which the genius of nature and of man provides to the quick.
I recently came across the following profound observation in his Medical Nemesis: "Conceptualizing the vitalizing application and submission to pain, turning it into a
pathology that requires treatment, has the culturally health-denying effect of destroying the potential of people to deal with their human weakness, vulnerability and uniqueness in a personal and autonomous way". This is a stern admonition from someone born with an unusual sense of autonomy and simultaneously a helpful pointer to a possibility. Today there is a gradual awakening to the art of autonomous healing and it cannot be denied that its practice requires a good degree of self-knowledge, intuition and awareness, which some are prepared to acquire.
The learning process took place less during seminars than during moments when we shared artistic pleasures and gastronomic delights. Ivan described his ascetic nature as an hedonistically chosen renunciation. But as some of the highlights of our friendship were celebrated over Sachertorte (the Viennese queen of chocolate cakes) and over a glass of cognac from Napoleon's time, I learned what Ivan described as "moving out of culture to Philia, that is the joy of seeing each other become more beautiful by virtue of our togetherness". It also meant moving away from the attempt to conceptualize about life in the abstract and we spoke of poetry, which speaks in parables and images. Ivan remarked that the price of poetry is uncertitude, to which I replied: "The poet cannot reduce his language to the lowest common denominator. His language is not standardized and he has no code. The quality of reading or of listening must be brought in tune with the quality of the expression, as happens during concerts in India. When dealing with science, this point is immaterial".
Listening for two full days to an academic discussion on the meaning of space, all my viscerals rebelled against this dialectical exercise with its total void of sensual experience. No verbal wrestling match can master an abstraction that is not breathed into life. You might as well discuss the nature of musical symphony without producing a sound. The room felt narrow and so did my shoulders and chest. Then I daydreamed Abraham's quest for space, when he left the Chaldean city of Ur for the open unknown. Did he not seek space for his spirit to fill? As the dialectical quest continued unabated and somebody stomped on the floor to point out that space was under her feet, I recalled Ivan's remarks that we fail to understand what we are talking about unless we show an image and that there are no abstract images; furthermore the dynamics of imaginal presentations takes a direction where you can no longer speak of humanity round the roundabout. The question that arises here, according to Ivan, is not how you can use an imaginal insert but why it elicits a response. "The image for which I longed was produced", I once heard him say. At another seminar he observed that storytelling was a form of institutional critique; if we did not have it, we would get caught up in arguments over systems. And an age of systems gives no room for non-scientific research. But how could that inanimate object Space be breathed into life, so that we might feel its benefit? How does it touch the heart? With my listening intensity at low ebb, I scribbled:
Sitting on ancestral land,
drink ye deep from Jacob's well—
shepherdesses guard your flocks
silently on weathered rocks,
spiralling like carved cones
over buried roots and bones.
Ancient land of amber dust,
carpet woven by the wind—
dents of geographic feet
in converging angles meet,
storytelling eyes glow bright
from the coals that warm the night.
Breeze and solitary star,
camel chewing up the dawn—
tune my viol, pluck its strings,
paint in gold Aurora's wings:
breath of Allah, blow on sands,
fill with music tongue and hands.
Rise and go! An eagle soars,
bolting into blue of hlues,
call of wild and lure of West—
gird your loins and break your rest.
Turning heel on tented space,
feel your ribs as breath and space.
Space is something you can be, not only something you have. The same applies to time.Though this statement may defy logic, it can be experienced as a mental exercise. Perhaps it tallies with Ivan's observation that by blurring an image slightly, you make it more accessible. In the sense of sacrificing semantic clarity for a moment of illumination.Wondering how lvan, who avidly read Savarin's La Physiologie du Gout, felt about the course of the symposium, I came to realize that he saw in most of these gatherings a means of gestating a spiritual family. There are many ways to make poetry in order to crystallise the one line that counts. Here was Bob Duggan, Ivan's acupuncturist, whose profession is an art, not a science. Seeing life as movement, he tries to create movement, not to concentrate on blockages; to look for the channels, not for the walls. Using a picture that sticks to the mind, Bob mentioned that the Chinese ideogram for life is a pot of rice on the boil, with the lid rising and falling.
At a symposium in Wolpswoede on contemporary mythologies, I wondered what was the connection between the speakers, Jugendstil artists such as Rohlf and his hosts, and the poet Rilke, who sat in this room. Observing Ivan's face, I thought of Antigone, the king's banished conscience, who in the night of her soul murmurs: Not for hatred but for love was I born. Her task was to do the work of compassion, even when it was forbidden under the law. His task was analogical. At the dawn of Globalization, newspeak for what we used to call Raiding for Gold, Spices and Slaves, he stood there with his friends, kindling conviviality despite the contrary push of lobbies under the law.
I would not have you stand like Antigone
in fields so far from Elysium,
bearing rocks in a rucksack
nor, perched like a monk at his lectern,
recording defeats and pyrrhic victories
as invaders advance.
When you crossed the Rubicund Sea,
God spoke: "Sit on my hand and surrender
as I guide you through moving shadows,
camel-humping on question-marks,
sifting you with the sand".
You drank from a bitter well
and He shaped you into a winestock,
wound you in Prague like a clock,
where time reads backwards—
Hebrew from right to left,
made you into a bell of bronze
to ring in Pentecost.
You pole-vault with hour-hands
while castles, laws and pulpits break.
The net is torn: minnows and tuna flee,
chasing their tails for fear of liberty.
The day is fogged, false prophets rise;
let's jilt them as we light a match.
No promised land but beauty be our task:
each soul a moon under another's sun.
In-contrast to Antigone, Ivan rejected the tragic role for that of the court jester. The kings for whom he jests are experts who are at the end of their tether. Some are members of pressure groups who, in their off-hours, dream of a better world. Some are teachers who want to learn something they will not find in books. Some are students with questions no one tries to answer; and then there are those who, like the friends of Father Dara Malloy of Aranmor, off the western coast of Ireland, have opted for a more evangelical form of life and wish to demonstrate how cheerfully it can be done, even when you have ten children like the Duffy Family of Umberstown Great in County Meath. To understand him, one often had to read or hear between the lines. When some three hundred university students and lecturers attended his nine Bremen talks on the sensual love of God in the sermons and writings of St. Bonaventura, he was not busy hyping that here was a sample of joyful contemplation of God which pastors could not even think of offering. Nor was he offering easy fare: it took four hours of full attention to relish the testimony of one paragraph. And most listeners were pronounced left-wingers with no use for church jargon.
After the marathon in the university aula, the celebration of life continued, as a small crowd flocked to Barbara Duden's home to enjoy her warm hospitality and Ivan's laughter. There the art of listening obliquely was practised without being named. The conversation might revolve around questions such as: What is the nature of Middle C in music? Which novelists analyzed history far better than academics? What has happened to the relationship between value and utility in the last 25-30 years? Why do you have to be old before you can describe what takes place in your body during acupuncture? What is the difference between possessing a Stradivarius violin and owning a stock option? Why were people formerly buried under the hearth or beneath the place where people slept? What was the significance of conspiration among the late Romans and early Christians?
Ivan always had interesting questions. Except once. My phone in Zurich rang early one morning and I heard a weak voice saying: "This is a pilgrim from Benares, who sits in front of your office. Could you give him shelter?" It was not a joke. Ivan had spent several months in India, where he tried so hard to understand the geni loci, learning some Hindi and Sanskrit as he watched pilgrims bathe, pray, chant, paint their bodies. tell stories, water their buffaloes, feed or chase away monkeys, honk their horns and cremate the dead on the ghats of the Ganga, that his body rebelled. I found him sitting on the ground, too exhausted to stand up, all his strength having gone into a smile. He settled in with Gabriele and me and for a couple of weeks and became as one of our children. Even during his weakest moment, his curiosity would not abandon him. "You have guests from Wall Street for lunch? Could I join you just to listen how people from Wall Street talk about the economy and the world of money? This would fascinate me." So he dragged himself to the table, could not face apple sauce, and for the first time in my career I was ashamed of my professional colleagues, whose subject of conversation too often consists of borrowed opinions that are reported as news. Perhaps it was this aspect of the human comedy that intrigued Ivan, coming as he did from another world.
Ever since that visit of my pilgrim from Benares, I noticed that Ivan likes to sit on the floor; it is closer to the centre of gravity, more convivial, egalitarian but dignified and stems from an age when chairs were more costly than houses. A female student in Bremen once asked: "Why do you sit on the floor instead of making yourself comfortable in a chair?" To which Ivan replied: "I have been waiting impatiently for a chance to sit on the floor in order to reflect that light which your eyes send out so lovingly towards me". Alone to have witnessed this poem within the poem of life was worth the trip.
Click here to read "Death Wine", a poem in memory of Ivan Illich, by Mario Petrucci.
|Author: Wolgang Somary is a Swiss banker and published poet.|
|Source: This article was sent to us by the author.|
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