Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Faulkner’s Language of Loss in Absalom, Absalom!

Faulkner’s Language of Loss in Absalom, Absalom!
Absalom, Absalom! is a work that, in many ways, defies all conventional wisdom. The syntax is torturous; the narrative is disorienting and narrators utterly obtuse, and the story at the heart of the novel is rather simplistic. However, many critics wholeheartedly endorse William Faulkner’s 1936 novel as the greatest of his works, the greatest work of twentieth-century American Modernism, or even the “great American novel.” Any reader who takes the time and makes the, at times immense, effort to decipher the language and the narrative undoubtedly will find him or herself if not agreeing at least sympathetic to those now not-so-hyperbolic claims. Absalom, Absalom! is a novel that speaks to the heart of the reader. The unreliable narrators merely mirror the manner in which personal involvement, or lack thereof, shades recollection. The simplistic narrative only heightens the awareness that people are people and the common experience of fallible and often depraved humanity is simply that—common. Faulkner’s enigmatic syntax and non-standard diction (undiction, even) obscure the meaning of the text, but it does so in a manner that drives the reader below the surface and, in doing so, actually illuminates the real meaning of his work. In particular, Faulkner utilizes specific, language-based techniques to help the reader sympathize for and empathize with his characters and the narrative as a whole. By recognizing the role of language in communicating not only information but also experience, Faulker chooses to use unconventional linguistic choices to express the tangible, potential, and perpetual loss felt by the characters of Absalom, Absalom!, the Civil War South, and the South of Faulkner’s own time.
The acceptance of language as a means of communicating information and ideas is virtually universal. Apart from an occasional encounter with a deconstructionist or a particularly cantankerous skeptic, language as a tool of communication is not a topic that receives much debate. However, many scholars for many years have argued that while language does serve the role of communication agent, there is a causative/creative aspect to the spoken and written word as well. From traditional speech-act theorists (Searle) to twentieth-century vital materialists (Bennett, Gries, Mitchell), considerable attention has been and continually is being devoted to the idea that language impacts as much, or more, as it communicates. One discipline that has advanced this understanding of language is psychoanalysis.
Freud’s position on psychoanalysis was that of “nothing but the conversation between the doctor and his patient” (Gammelgaard 86). This position was because, while the “scientific ideal…, of unambiguous significations often make[s] us forget that language live(sic) its own life,” language “became a device for penetrating the deeper levels of the psychic apparatus (Gammelgaard 87). Freud argued that language dealt with more than the surface, and a discussion between doctor and patient could often reveal as well as heal. This phenomenon led many to refer to psychoanalysis as the “talking cure” (Gammelgaard  86).
Freud viewed language as having a “central function” (Gammelgaard 86) to psychoanalysis because it offered a “special language of the unconscious” (Gammelgaard 86). Freud noted that “the dream speaks in tropes and figures” (Gammelgaard 88) and that the method of psychoanalysis is “better captured through the rhetoric and aesthetic function of language than its conceptual and referential function” (Gammelgaard 88). The overwhelming impact of language upon the conscious and subconscious experience cannot be limited to an exchange of concepts or ideas. This fact is seen clearly, in the negative sense, when a patient engages in a psychoanalytic session. When a patient is sharing his or her experience, telling a story, there exists an “internal tension between the system of the language and the discourse of the speaking subject. In other words, when the patient tells his story in accordance with the general rules of language, another story is revealed – not necessarily in the content of the story but in its flaws” (Gammelgaard 89).
While psychoanalysis is interesting, the question of how this relates to Faulkner’s use of language is begging to be answered. Freudian psychoanalysis exerted a tremendous amount of influence around the turn of the 20th century. One somewhat surprising place that psychoanalysis was especially prominent was in the literary arts. While the Freudian impact upon twentieth-century literature is significant, the impact of Freud, and psychoanalysis in general, upon the authors attached to the Modernist movement is difficult to overestimate. One relevant example of this Freudian influence is in the works of James Joyce. While Joyce ultimately “rejected psychoanalysis[, his use of] monologue intérieur (or ‘stream-of-consciousness’) … coincided with the growing interest in Freud’s explorations of the human unconscious” (Bowker 10). Joyce was “like Freud,…an interpreter of dreams and fascinated by apparently incoherent utterances” (Bowker 278), and his innovative novels and short stories make this readily apparent.
            Freud’s influence on Joyce was great, and so was Joyce’s influence on William Faulkner. Kenneth Holdich recounts the tale of Faulkner, along with Sherwood Anderson, and others gathered together at Harold Levy’s apartment to “read aloud from a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses that had been smuggled into the United States” (35). In the same breath that critics laud Joyce as “unquestionably the single most influential world writer in modern fiction” (Inge and Inge 176), they argue that the “name of Faulkner would inevitably occur next as Joyce’s most obvious aesthetic heir and a source of even richer comparative possibilities” (176). Whether Faulkner’s work actually supersedes Joyce’s is not the argument being presented here, but the acknowledgment of Faulkner as an heir to Joyce is not a strange occurrence.
While Joyce would later repudiate psychoanalysis as such, his indebtedness to Freudian thought is as apparent as is his influence over writers that followed him—even some who would not or could not acknowledge Freud as authority. As far as the influence of psychoanalysis goes, William Faulkner received it coming and going. His allegiance to Freudian thought is clear, though his loyalty to Freud is suspect. One of the Freudian influences on Faulkner was Joyce himself. Faulkner was a devotee of Joyce who, as noted earlier, was himself an adherent to the tenets of Freudian psychoanalysis. John Sykes, among others, has pointed out that “there can be little doubt that Joyce was Faulkner's principal teacher of how Freud's ideas could give rise to new fictional techniques of characterization and emplotment” (513). Sykes even goes to the extent of saying that, given Faulkner’s evident indebtedness to Joyce that, “One could go so far as to say that Joyce opened the way for Faulkner's artistic appropriation of Freud” (513). 
The influence of Freudian psychoanalysis upon Faulkner’s thought is explicit from very early on in Faulkner’s life and career. An early unpublished, unfinished manuscript is “considered noteworthy because of its extensive reliance on Freudian insights” (Singal 74). Elmer is so steeped in Freudian thought that it is “as if he had kept a textbook of psychoanalysis at his elbow”(Singal 74) while composing the work. Though Faulkner would “later insist that he had not read Freud,…his writings referred to him and showed that, at the very least, he had heard a lot of talk about Freudian psychology” (Blotner 147). For the record, Faulkner also claimed to have “never read Ulysses” (Meriwether and Millgate 30) and credited the seeming influence of Joyce to a “pollen of ideas” (Meriwether and Millgate 31) floating about at the time (for direct textual contradiction of this claim, see Honnighausen, William Faulkner: The Art of Stylization in His Early Graphic and Literary Work). Whether Faulkner had studied Freud and Joyce (likely) or simply acquired Freudian insights and Joycean techniques by cultural pollination (less likely), Absalom, Absalom! bears the marks of a man greatly influenced by a literary appropriation of psychoanalysis in a number of ways. The area that stands out the greatest is that of language. The Freudian insight on the impactfulness of language both at the conscious and unconscious level is seen in a number of ways through the narrative of the rise and fall of Sutpen’s Hundred and the experience of individual characters and events.
Faulkner uses three distinct language tools to convey a sense of loss but even more than that a sense of the loss of opportunity, a perpetual loss. He uses negative qualifiers, dichotomic language, and false meanings. He employs these tools to allow the reader to not only know but to feel what the character is experiencing. The manner in which Faulkner’s diction compels the reader to inhabit Yoknapatawpha County, specifically through the minds of Absalom, Absalom!’s narrators, will be explored below.
            Faulkner uses a series of negative qualifiers in his writing. Negative qualifier, for the sake of this paper, could be defined as the addition of a negative prefix or suffix to a positive word in order to negate the meaning in a unique and dynamic manner. It is undifficult to find numerous examples of this technique littering the pages of Absalom, Absalom!. When Faulkner has his narrator in the opening pages describe Rosa’s actions as welling up from “some bitter and implacable reserve of undefeat”(8), he is utilizing this technique. Faulkner easily could have written about the same characteristic with more standard terminology. Faulkner could have described Rosa as irrepressible or spoke of her reservoir of resilience, but he chose to use “undefeat.” Pages could be devoted to merely examining the “un” words that Faulkner either invents or rescues from obscurity, but for every “unregret” (11), “unvolition” (87), and “uncomprehension” (103) Faulkner utilizes, he employs other turns of phrase as well. He introduces a "nothusband”(5) and “notpeople” (6). Faulkner’s own “notlanguage” (6) is that which lies beneath the surface of all these words. Acknowledging, again, the influence of psychoanalysis on modernist thinking about speech, Faulkner is saying as much with what he does not say as what he does and pointing to truths that rest below the conscious surface of everyday speech.
            Faulkner’s negative qualifiers accomplish much on their own, but they are especially effective as he piles up other, similar language devices. The dichotomic language of Absalom, Absalom! is another example of Faulkner’s beyond-the-surface interaction with words.  When he speaks of the unique relationship between Judith and Charles, Faulkner refers to it as the “engagement which did not engage, that troth which failed to plight” (10). He speaks of Sutpen’s mentaility as that of “invincible fatality” (30) and Goodhue’s permanent trip to his attic as a “voluntary incarceration”(68).
            Some instances of Faulkner’s dichotomic language are magnified by the immediate context or the greater narrative of Absalom, Absalom! as a whole. When Faulkner writes an aside for Quentin as he receives a break from Rosa’s narration, the dichotomic language is buried at the end of a substantial build-up, causing the reading to rethink the entirety of what has been read based on the contrast found at the end:
It [the events not narrated by Rosa to Quentin] was a part of his twenty years' heritage of breathing the same air and hearing his father talk about the man Sutpen; a part of the town's—Jefferson's—eighty years' heritage of the same air which the man himself had breathed between this September afternoon in 1909 and that Sunday morning in June in 1833 when he first rode into town out of no discernible past and acquired his land no one knew how and built his house, his mansion, apparently out of nothing and married Ellen Coldfield and begot his two children—the son who widowed the daughter who had not yet been a bride—and so accomplished his allotted course to its violent (Miss Coldfield at least would have said, just) end.
Quentin had grown up with that; the mere names were interchangeable and almost myriad. His childhood was full of them; his very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was not a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth.
He was a barracks filled with stubborn backlooking ghosts still recovering, even forty-three years afterward, from the fever which had cured the disease, waking from the fever without even knowing that it had been the fever itself which they had fought against and not the sickness, looking with stubborn recalcitrance backward beyond the fever and into the disease with actual regret, weak from the fever yet free of the disease and not even aware that the freedom was that of impotence. (emphasis added 9)
These instances are only a few cases of Faulkner’s dichotomic language in Absalom, Absalom!, and this language is not the only linguistic tool of subversion Faulkner utilizes. While specific examples will be examined with individual characters below, Faulkner also employs various levels of false, or at least subversive, meanings to words such as respectability, shrewdness, innocence, and others.
Faulkner’s use of language accomplishes many important tasks in Absalom, Absalom!. His (at-times) torturous syntax creates a sense of disorientation that fits perfectly in the telling of the rise and fall of a Sutpen character in the midst of a South reeling from the immediate effects of the Civil War and the lasting effects of slavery and pervasive classism, sexism, and racism. Faulkner’s use of language further obfuscates a narrative already hidden behind narrators of varying degrees of unreliability. Essentially, Faulkner takes this gem of a story and buries it deep below the surface in order to force the reader to dig deep and, after exerting the effort, truly appreciate what is found.
These effects of his use of language are important, but what truly stands out is the emotional reaction that his use of negative qualifiers, dichotomic language, and false meanings evoke. Faulkner could have used simple, straightforward, unnuanced language to evoke mere pity. To make the reader feel the tangible loss of Sutpen’s rise and fall, as well as the fall of the South, Faulkner would not have had to try very hard. However, by using these somewhat counterintuitive and wholly unconventional means, Faulkner was able to convey not only the sense of actual loss but the sense of loss in perpetuity—a hopeless grief that sees no silver linings, bright spots, or rainbows. Faulkner’s language is on the surface about loss, but below the surface about a greater loss—the loss of possibility in the present, past, and future.
William Faulkner, like Mark Twain before him, filled the role of the “southern author as at once a participant in and ironic witness to a drama of memory and history that centered essentially in the never-ending remembrance of the great American civil conflict of 1861-1865” (Simpson 304). History’s lasting influence on the present is simply one of the reasons society needs those who can and will remind all of what has come before. Faulkner’s witness, “not to the actual historical event, but to the remembrance of it” (Simpson 305) is illustrated most clearly through his use of language that imparts a sense of loss upon loss. This hopeless language can be seen through many of the characters, even if the specific techniques mentioned before are not utilized explicitly in regards to them. While this despair is seen in the characters and felt by the reader, the sense of boundless loss Faulkner conjures is emblematic of the time he is portraying, the Civil War South, and even the time in which he is writing, the Pre-Civil Rights South.
When determining which character of Absalom, Absalom! best illustrated the sense of loss that defines the novel and Faulkner’s use of language there within, it is difficult to know which one to examine first. Perhaps it shoud be the fatherless young man shot dead by his brother for presuming to seduce their sister with African-American blood coursing through his veins, or the brother who felt the need to pull the trigger, or the sister who was destined to be “widowed before she had been a bride”(170).  Maybe it should be the man whose “voluntary incarceration” in opposition to a war between brothers led to his starvation, or his daughter, the “child who had never been young”(17)? Perhaps it would be ideal to look at the innocent, shrewd, respectable man with an “invincible fatality”(30) that began the entire tragedy that befell Sutpen’s Hundred made One (141). Or maybe Wash Jones is the proper character with which to start.
Wash Jones was Sutpen’s hired hand or, more precisely, his lackey. Wash would do errands and odd jobs for Sutpen and enjoy the benefits of being around him. Wash does not appear on many pages of the novel, but his presence is felt at critical junctures, and he undoubtedly represents the loss that the narrative illustrates. Wash is the very definition of undefeat. Persistently extolling Sutpen and others with the dichotomic mantra of “They mought have killed us but they aint whupped us yit” (153), Wash is used to announce the central event of the novel and then to both commit and suffer the most grievous and viscerally repelling act of the entire Sutpen story.  By both destroying Sutpen’s design to ever produce a viable heir within the novel and extending beyond his fictional representation to reveal “the delusions and helplessness of the ‘poor white trash’ in the Civil War South” (Rodden 23), Wash Jones assumes a significance that his limited presence on the pages of Absalom, Absalom! could easily conceal.
A character that certainly did not suffer from a lack of presence in the story is Rosa Coldfield. Rosa is derisively referred to as “the town's and the county's poetess laureate” (8). She is mocked with the rhyme: “Rosie Coldfield, lose him, weep him; caught a beau but couldn’t keep him” (141). Rosa is a character who grows from functioning out of a “young and indomitable unregret” (11) to an attitude based “out of some bitter and implacable reserve of undefeat” (8). Quentin treats her as an old woman not worthy of being listened to (143). Sutpen treats her as a factory to produce him a male heir (102) and Rosa herself recognizes that she is a “child who had never been young” (17) or learned “how to play” (22). Rosa was a woman who was “born too late” (17) and never knew love. Rosa’s relationship to the events of the story often mirror her father’s “voluntary incarceration” (68); she refuses to engage in any manner she does see as appropriate and ends up withering away to an emotional nothingness and a perpetual outsider. Rosa, “who in actual fact was [Judith’s] aunt and who by actual years should have been her sister and who in actual hope and experience and opportunity should have been the niece” (58). This Rosa who is “neither aunt, cousin, nor uncle, Rosa” (144). She is simply “Miss Rosa Coldfield” (144), nothing more until she is nothing more. Rosa is the only narrator who has actually met Thomas Sutpen. Rosa is the “only one who lived with him and his family, the one who wore her own dead sister's wedding ring during her short-lived betrothal to him” (Lazure 480); Rosa is the “central catalyst” (Lazure 480) of Absalom, Absalom! for “it is she who sparks Quentin's fascination with the Sutpens and she who takes him to Sutpen's Hundred and forces him to become not only a listener but also a physical player—and the unwitting bearer of her legacy—in this story” (Lazure 480). If any of Faulkner’s characters illustrate the significant loss of actuality and loss of potentiality, it is Rosa Coldfield.
Rosa Coldfield’s situation and suffering make it rather easy to see the loss she endured. The opposite is true for Thomas Sutpen, but Sutpen is a character of loss as well. Faulkner uses three distinct terms in a manner that diverges from or contradicts their ordinary meanings. In doing so, Faulkner shows the lack that Sutpen both endures and creates, as well as the perpetual ramifications of his actions and, as a typified version of the Civil War South, the perpetual ramifications of the War and Southern ideology.
Sutpen is a character of “invincible fatality” who exhibits a shrewdness, respectability, and innocence that are all far from how people generally use these terms.
The one of these three terms that Sutpen most resembles in its everyday sense is shrewdness. An ambitious reader would not have to venture too far to find the necessary evidence to produce a quality argument for Thomas Sutpen as a shrewd man. However, anyone offering a counterargument would find significantly more evidence to rebut. Sutpen’s shrewdness is surface only, as his actions are often less manipulatively wise as they are instinctual and counterproductive. Sutpen “believed that all that was necessary was courage and shrewdness and the one he knew he had and the other he believed he could learn if it were to be taught”(206). Sutpen knew he had couragage; he believed he could be taught shrewdness. However, Mr. Compson clarifies that Sutpen did not even know what shrewdness was, “he did not mean shrewdness, Grandfather said. What he meant was unscrupulousness”(207). Here is where the evidence for Sutpen’s shrewdness can be found. If the reader takes Sutpen’s understanding of shrewd, as a synonym for unscrupulous based on the fact that the term unscrupulous had not made it yet into the lexicon of Henry Sutpen because “it would not have been in the book from which the school teacher read” (207), then Sutpen certainly could be considered a shrewd man. However, this convoluted understanding of shrewd is the one which most people have. Faulkner uses this contradictory understanding to disorient the reader and create a sense of unease about Sutpen and the entire situation with the realization that Sutpen, in a sense, was still innocent of terms like unscrupulous and would have viewed his actions as shrewd or even courageous:
(he did not mean shrewdness, Grandfather said. What he meant was unscrupulousness only he didn't know that word because it would not have been in the book from which the school teacher read. Or maybe that was what he meant by courage, Grandfather said). (207)
Rosa notes how Sutpen “concealed himself behind respectability” (12), but this respectability is not that which people normally think of. Sutpen “scuttle[ed] into respectability like a jackal into a rockpile” (148). Sutpen needed respectability, and he had none of his own. He did not have the history or the name, but he knew needed it. Sutpen desired “the shield of a virtuous woman” in order to “to make his position impregnable even against the men who had given him protection on that inevitable day and hour when even they must rise against him in scorn and horror and outrage” (11). Sutpen was not in and of himself a person to be respected. His actions did not warrant respect, neither did his attitudes. The respectability he received was only symbolic. He married into a respected family, but Sutpen did not have any actual respectability in the eyes of the people. Rather, he brought the family in which he entered down to the depths of the irrespectability he initially brought with him to Jefferson.
The term used for Sutpen that is most counterintuitive is innocent. Mr. Compson reminds Quentin that “Sutpen's trouble was innocence” (182). After being exposed to rejection and the idea of socio-economic exclusion, Sutpen “discovered, not what he wanted to do but what he just had to do, had to do it whether he wanted to or not, because if he did not do it he knew that he could never live with himself for the rest of his life” (187). After discovering the world and discovering his own “innocence,” Sutpen realized what he needed to do. The problem rested in his inability of doing it “because he not only had not known that he would have to do this, he did not even know that it existed to be wanted, to need to be done, until he was almost fourteen years old” (183). Owen Robinson notes that, “[d]espite the extreme poverty and simplicity of his family’s circumstances, there is an air of prelapsarian innocence” (107) about Sutpen and his plans. Fourteen-year-old Sutpen is even “innocent even of his innocence, rendering its perfection all the more dangerous in its collapse” (Robinson 107). Sutpen’s interaction with the black butler barring his entrance to the white man’s home set his life “on its idiosyncratic course” (Robinson 107) where his “innocence” remained, at least to some degree and in its purely ignorant form. His original innocence “left him vulnerable – a vulnerability that fuels his determination to rid himself of it” (Robinson 107). This is why Sutpen could truthfully tell Mr. Compson that his actions were not driven by anger. Sutpen was not mad:
He insisted on that to Grandfather. He was just thinking, because he knew that something would have to be done about [the rejection]; he would have to do something about it in order to live with himself for the rest of his life and he could not decide what it was because of that innocence which he had just discovered he had, which (the innocence, not the man, the tradition) he would have to compete with. He had nothing to compare and gauge it by but the rifle analogy, and it would not make sense by that. He was quite calm about it, he said, sitting there with his arms around his knees in his little den beside the game trail where more than once when the wind was right he had seen deer pass within ten feet of him, arguing with himself quietly and calmly while both debaters agreed that if there were only someone else, some older and smarter person to ask. But there was not, there was only himself, the two of them inside that one body, arguing quiet and calm: But I can shoot him. (182)
So, even when Sutpen acted in a manner utterly reprehensible, his “innocence” held on because his actions were simply fulfilling the plans he made in his state of innocence, plans not made out of sinful hatefulness but pre-fall practicality and post-fall necessity. However, this is another instance where Faulkner’s use of the term is subversive and says more than it says. Before Sutpen’s “innocence” is introduced, the reading has had a heavy dose of Rosa’s perspective about the “ogre” (17), the “demon” (6), and after the explanation of Sutpen’s innocence, the reader has chapters left to see time and again how truly uninnocent Sutpen actually is, even if he did suffer significant loss.
            Rosa and Sutpen were not the only characters who experienced loss and a continued loss in Absalom, Absalom!. Virtually all of the characters suffered immense tragedy and significant loss. Charles Bon grew up without a father, finds his father, seduces his sister, and is killed by his brother. Bon lost everything, gained it, and lost it again. Henry lost (forsook) his birthright, his brother, and his life. Judith was the notwife of a “nothusband” (5) who moved from a “young girl’s vague and pointless and dreamy unvolition” (87) to a “widow without ever having been a bride” (12) who became a “widow sure enough without having been anything at all” (12). Her engagement with Charles Bon was one “which did not engage, (a) troth which failed to plight” (10).
While all of the instances of Faulkner’s unique use of language are worth noting, most turns-of-a-phrase are single occurrences. However, there is one unique “un” usage that occurs repeatedly in the book and from the lips of multiple narrators. Undefeat shows up five times in Absalom, Absalom!,and it is used in reference to Rosa, Henry, and Thomas Sutpen. The universal nature of this word in regards to the novel seems too conspicuous to not be purposeful. Faulkner repeatedly uses “undefeat” to define characters and events of the Sutpen family and the Civil War South. The Sutpen clan did not enjoy victory. Neither did the South in the Civil War or the South of Faulkner’s own time. The fact that these characters experience undefeat at first glance indicates a persistence and a victory-in-the-face-of-defeat mindset. However, it is more of a bleak picture than that. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! does not provide silver linings. The thing with defeat is that it offers a new start to the one who accepts it. The person who refuses to accept defeat, however, suffers the same loss over and over again. “Impotent yet indomitable” (5) Sutpen suffered this. Rosa suffered this. Henry in his refusal to crush the “eggshell shibboleth” (115) of race suffered this. Wash suffered this in his vengeful and fearful slaughtering of Sutpen and his own family. Goodhue suffered this in marrying off his daughter to an ogre and then jailing himself in an attic. The post-Civil War South, in all of its “The South Will Rise Again” glory, suffered this, as did the volatile South of Faulkner’s own era.
Faulkner’s genius may be accurately found in his willingness to let his characters speak. In an exchange with Malcom Cowley, Faulkner credited his literary success to his willingness to listen to “the voices.” “I listen to the voices and when I put down what the voices say, it’s right,” Faulkner wrote. He added that at times, “I don’t like what they say, but I don’t change it” (Cowley 114). This is true throughout Faulkner’s writing and especially in Absalom, Absalom!. Beyond letting the characters speak for themselves, Faulkner’s psychoanalytical-influenced view of language even allows the internal voices of the characters speak for themselves and communicate, almost directly, from the character’s own emotional center to the emotional center of the reader. Realizing that “in some respects, we are never the complete masters of our words” because “[w]e speak…out of our cultural and ideological contexts, often not realizing that, like the novelist, we are ‘listening’ and faithfully speaking or writing down what they say” (Kartiganer 30) forces everyone to recognize the impact and influence of language upon the thoughts, emotions, and actions of people. Faulkner let the characters of Absalom, Absalom! speak for themselves and, in doing so, allowed them to speak directly to the reader.

Works Cited
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