When I was young, I asked more of people than they could give: everlasting friendship, endless feeling. Now I know to ask less of them than they can give: a straightforward companionship. And their feelings, their friendship, their generous actions seem in my eyes to be wholly miraculous: a consequence of grace alone. -Albert Camus
When Albert Camus died in an automobile accident on January 4, 1960, on the Nationale 5 road, he left an unfinished novel, The First Man (Le Premier Homme). The novel is an autobiographical work. The circumstances surrounding his accidental death at the age of forty-six can be viewed as the closing of what Camus referred to as an absurd existence. Even though unfinished, The First Man offers an invaluable indication of what the major philosophical themes of this work were to be.
Notes and Sketches for The First Man
Camus compiled a series of notes and sketches that served him as a working outline for the novel. Included in the notes were entire lines of dialogue, some substantially long enough to give us a clear understanding of the time, characters, and literary voice in this work.
The First Man was eventually published in 1992, under the supervision of Camus’ two adult children. As his daughter describes in the editor’s note that appears at the beginning of the book, Camus would have never agreed to publish an unfinished novel. However, the novel was developed far along enough to merit a qualified publication. The reception of this conditional publication by a major twentieth century thinker would undoubtedly depend on the good will of the critics. The publication of The First Man offered an opportunity for his virulent critics to redeem themselves, given that Camus was seriously hampered by the caustic will of Marxist nay-sayers.
Because The First Man is autobiographical, and Camus’ thought revolves around the autonomy of the individual in what he deems an objectifying cosmos, the notes to The First Man serve an important and poignant role in Camus’ exploration of individuality. A philosophical perspective that frames and differentiates the existence of his characters informs Camus’ literary creation. For this reason, The First Man leaves the reader, if not the Camus scholar, in a rare and unique position. The novel, which from all indications was to be a longer work than the published two hundred and eighty-one pages, is a literary autobiography.
Throughout the notes, the author offers a glimpse into the indignation he felt for people who are too quick to judge a work of art without regard for its author. The notes and sketches leave the reader with a clearer and more intimate picture of the private Camus. It is undeniably true, at least in Camus’ case, that artistic creation and the existential trajectory of thinkers cannot be easily separated.
Thinking and writing can be a tenuous business. Concern for human freedom, individuality, and existential autonomy inform Camus’ work. The publication of the novel served as a test of good will for people whose mode of making a living is to impart criticism. Regardless of technical conventions and literary merit, a vast portion of literary criticism displays an objectifying disregard for human autonomy.
The First Man and A Happy Death
There are striking philosophical similarities between The First Man and Camus’ first book, A Happy Death. In A Happy Death, which he completed in 1938 at the age of twenty-five, the author develops an interesting idea that has the thinker attempting to capture the essence and immediacy of death. In this work, young Camus is concerned with living a good life in order to have a “happy” death. In other words, Camus reminds us of Socrates’ idea that philosophy is a preparation for death by cultivating a good life.
A Happy Death is a meditation on a future-oriented existence that recognizes the future as embedded in the lived-immediacy. The passage of time is a central theme in these two works. In A Happy Death, Patrice Mersault, the autobiographical protagonist, comes to the realization that to possess time can be magnificent and dangerous; idleness is a fatal condition that breeds existential stagnation and mediocrity.
The First Man develops further the concerns that Camus explored as a younger man. The death of his father in The First Man signifies the horror that the passage of time can mean for a reflective soul. Mersault and Jacques desire transcendence, which makes life complete. The protagonists in both novels agree that happiness originates in a pure heart and the will to live.
Camus’ situation as a philosopher and writer is precarious. In a sense, he can be regarded a stoic. His notion of metaphysical rebellion showcases a courageous engagement with reality that leaves no room for external blame or sentimental rationalization. He does not allow metaphysical rebellion the indiscretion of becoming the basis and escape valve of ideology. While some stoics shun the world of men and retire to a private existence, Camus does not take this route, as is evident from his engagement in the French resistance and concern for the victims of Soviet-bloc atrocities.
There is a reserved side to Camus, the man, which he found to be at odds with Camus the public entity. He appears to have found an answer to this dilemma by demanding that the autonomy of the thinker, as one who tries to bring coherence to what Kant calls the chaos of sensations, be respected.
Camus in the Company of Writers and Thinkers
For Camus, the thinker is a creator of worlds. An indication of his respect for other thinkers and the creative process is apparent in the scant number of negative references he makes to the work of others. In “The Myth of Sisyphus” Camus writes about Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle, but he does so in a positive light. His references to Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Chestov are instances of praise. The rest of “The Myth of Sisyphus” is an exploration of the nature of life and death; the Socratic question of what constitutes a worthwhile life.
The Rebel stirs clear of offhanded criticism of the thought of others. In the first part of that work the focus is on man’s place, in what Camus considers an absurd universe. The first part of the The Rebel is reminiscent of the intellectual honesty of Marcus Aurelius, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. Part two offers criticism of the tyrannous consequences that Marxism wrought on Soviet-bloc nations. Camus offers an indictment of totalitarianism, and how it subsumes life to the state. This section of the work is comparable to Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind and Ortega’s The Revolt of the Masses. Camus points out how existential lack of contentment leads to tyranny. Time has vindicated the French philosopher.
In opposition to Sartre’s Marxist devotion to dialectical materialism, Camus demonstrates profound foresight and restraint in his understanding that it is the dialectic of the lived experience that is the foundation of history.
In autobiographical novels, writers possess a vision to their work that readers are not privy to. Camus’ work demonstrates a detailed acumen for existentially vital concerns that speak to the conscientious reader. In The First Man, Camus enables discerning readers the ability to investigate the formative stages of creative vision. Consider Nabakov’s notion that only fools or novices show their unfinished work to others.
The creative process involves an aesthetic and moral vision that revolves around the vital concerns of the thinker. The dichotomous nature of the will and a thinker’s vision cannot be reconciled by critics outside the terms that the thinker sets for himself. These concerns are discernable in Camus’ notes and sketches. The notes bring to mind Michelangelo’s unfinished “Captives,” where every chisel mark is a Neo-Platonist attempt to free the recalcitrant figures trapped in the marble.
Among the main themes of The First Man, three can be isolated: 1) What Camus calls a Robert Musil theme: the search for salvation of the soul in the modern world. 2) The isolation that writers and thinkers who embrace authenticity must bear, and 3) The search for individual autonomy.1
Camus cites Robert Musil, in what is likely the latter’s novel, The Man Without Qualities. Musil explores the possibility of meaning in the modern world. Nietzsche’s assertion that God is dead cannot be isolated from the question of meaning. If the notion that God is dead is taken to task, people become burdened with the responsibility of fashioning existence alone. In addition, the possibility of meaning is exacerbated by the dehumanizing force that is the modern state. The totalitarian state, especially the Soviet model, Camus viewed as rendering impossible any possibility for hope and genuine peace.
The Man Without Qualities forms part of a fertile period in European literature known as the inter-wars interregnum. Even though Musil’s extensive novel limits its plot to concentration on the anticipation of World War I, it addresses the isolation of the individual in modern society. The search for meaning and the salvation of the soul in the modern world are reoccurring themes throughout Camus’ work. In “Pessimism and Courage,” an essay that is contained in his book Resistance, Rebellion and Death, he takes up this point:
We want to think and live in our history. We believe that the truth of this age can be found only by living through the drama of it to the very end. If the epoch has suffered from nihilism, we cannot remain ignorant of nihilism and still achieve the moral code we need. No, everything is not summed up in negation and absurdity. We know this. But we must first posit negation and absurdity because they are what our generation has encountered and what we must take into account. 2
Camus’ idea of exile should not be confused with alienation in the sense that Sartre uses this word. For Camus, exile signifies separation from home. Camus is an example of the Mediterranean temperament. His novels display reverence for the sun and its effects on the Algerian people and their way of life. He embraced French culture. That is, the European manner of life, without abandoning love for his Algerian upbringing.
Time, Philosophy, and Temperament
The relationship of philosophy to temperament is aptly addressed by José Ortega y Gasset and Julian Marias. Camus brings up this point in Notebooks 1935-1942, where he writes that every philosophy bears the temperament of its creator. Camus suggests that man’s ontological condition necessitates the acceptance of singular existence; the unique and irreducible circumstances that each individual must bear. Camus’ work is an aesthetic of life. He reflects on the depravity and glory of life.
When Jacques Cormery, the autobiographical forty-year-old protagonist of The First Man, goes in search of his father’s gravesite, Camus depicts a stoic attitude toward life. In stunningly reflective passages, Camus’ narrator reflects on the passage of time and what this means to subjectivity. Upon realizing that his father, who died in World War I, was only twenty-nine years of age, Jacques says the following about his encounter with time:
The course of time itself was shattering around him while he remained motionless among those tombs he now no longer saw, and the years no longer kept to their places in the great river that flows to its end. 3
As an adult, Jacques mourns the death of his father at an early age. He confronts his own history and how the years have robbed him of half his life. Jacques’s exile from “the deadly order of the world”4 pins him against reason, which offers no respite from his desire to understand. Philosophically speaking, this is what Karl Jaspers means that existence is not an object for us, rather a reality that must be lived from within.
Camus realized that existential categories could not be intellectualized without robbing them of their immediate reality. Jacques’s understanding that life is transparent to itself makes him appreciate the vital categories of existence. His grappling with time and how this fluid reality frames human existence informs The Happy Death. This is the same indignation felt by Gilgamesh on the death of his best friend Enkidu.
After Jacques’s realization that he has outlived his father by eleven years, it dawns on him that time is a mystery that ossifies all human existence into non-being. The narrator explains:
But, in the strange dizziness of that moment, the statue every man eventually erects and that hardens in the fire of the years, into which he then creeps and there awaits its final crumbling — that statue was rapidly cracking, it was already collapsing.5
Some critics have condemned Camus’ thought to exist solely on a literary plain. This manner of demoting his contribution to thought by attributing to it only literary value misses the point of Camus – the existentialist. Camus’ philosophy, like that of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Unamuno, and Kafka, for instance, addresses the encounter of the individual with the cosmos.6
Camus’ respect for individuality came at a time in history when individuality was being attacked from many quarters. In European philosophy at that time, the dominant voice was the fervor that philosophical materialism, especially positivism and analytic philosophy, had fomented. In America, pragmatism was all the rage. Camus’ writing is a reaction to these objectifying forces.
Camus’ main objective was to communicate with readers what it meant for him to be alive. Some critics operate under the assumption that philosophy per se can only be expressed through the genre of the philosophical treatise. Camus argues against the notion that philosophical problems must be addressed in any fixed philosophical forum. He suggests that thinkers should not limit themselves to the explication of formal problems.
Camus’ philosophical and literary output is a vital overflow of his life and circumstances. This is not mere historicism, rather the understanding that existential thought is biographical in nature. Camus’ conception of philosophical reflection is akin to a pair of crutches or a compass: philosophy is conceived as an aide who helps man navigate through existence.
The First Man is a unique example of the artistic process in full blossom and the natural dialectic that informs reflection. The notes and sketches of The First Man should not be confused with his two Notebooks, dated 1935-1942 and 1942-1951, respectively. These two works contain notes, ideas, and short essays.
Camus, Persona Non Grata
Camus was concerned with loneliness from a young age. In Notebooks: 1935-1942, he contrasts the loneliness encountered in city life with that of the desert. He refers to the city, Paris specifically, as the last desert.
In the eyes of his leftist critics, Camus’ crime was twofold: He renounced his membership in the communist party at a time when this action could do the most damage to that propaganda machine. In addition, he made known his abhorrence of the Soviet Gulag. It would appear to humanists that Camus’ criticism of the soviet gulag sprang from commitment to the truth. Instead, for communist ideologues the reality of this second offense meant the weakening of Marxist theory.
The latter is at the center of Camus’ falling out with Sartre. After Sartre finally admitted to Soviet atrocities, he refused to grant that these came about from fallacious logic that fermented mass murder. For these two acts of valor, Camus was never forgiven. He was isolated as a writer and thinker, a persona non grata. He became ostracized as a pariah. An indication of this sentiment can be seen in what the narrator of The First Man says of Jacques’s friend Malan:
Yet, he was immensely cultivated and J.C. admired him unreservedly, for Malan, in a day when outstanding men are so banal, was the one person who had his own way of thinking, to the extent that that is possible. At any rate, under his deceptively accommodating exterior, he was free and uncompromisingly original in his opinions.7
Camus’ moral courage is commendable, given the poverty from which he arose in his native Algeria, and from which he eventually lifted himself. That leftist intellectuals, most of them bourgeois, should downplay Camus’ upbringing demonstrates the daunting extent to which radical ideology will go to negate the autonomy of the individual.
Brought up by his mother after his father was killed in World War I, Camus achieved a degree of dignity that refused poverty as a permanent condition. He can be viewed as a working-class hero.
His experience with poverty developed his need to honor the people who helped him. Camus’ sense of loyalty is a central aspect of his writing. This is in keeping with his stoic dignity. William Barrett writes in Time of Need:
From the experimentation in form and language that has been one of the hallmarks of modern literature, Camus remained aloof, deliberately pursuing a kind of classicism that takes us back, beyond the realistic novel of the nineteenth, to the recit, the short moralizing tale, of the eighteenth century.8
Respect for honor is displayed throughout The First Man. When Jacques Cormery is talking to his friend Malan, he thanks him for helping him rise above his poverty. Jacques says:
When I was very young, very foolish, and very much alone –- you remember, in Algiers? -– You paid attention to me and, without seeming to, you opened for me the door to everything I love in the world.9
When Malan responds by saying that Cormery was gifted, Jacques immediately makes him understand that natural talent is often not enough for success. This is in keeping with Camus’ equation of freedom with limitation. Jacques tells Malan:
Of course. But even the most gifted person needs someone to initiate him. The one that life puts in your path one day, that person must be loved and respected forever, even if he’s not responsible. That is my faith.10
Loyalty is a reaction to the adversity that Camus endured, which he refused to turn into radical ideology. Camus was marred by the loneliness of metaphysical exile. Included in The First Man, are two letters that Camus wrote to Monsieur German, his Algerian grade school teacher. One letter is dated November 19, 1957. The letter offers a heartfelt appreciation for his old teacher:
Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching, and your example, none of all this would have happened.11
In the letter, Camus mentions that after receiving the news he won the Noble Prize, he first thought of his mother and then Monsieur Germain. This undying loyalty to individual autonomy is not embraced by ideologues, given the privileged role they attribute to politics. Camus felt allegiance for concrete individuals. Barrett writes:
But the trouble is that the professional revolutionary is apt to become the servitor of his ideas rather than their master and consequently he is led to set his abstractions above the processes of life itself, and in their name to murder, if need be, millions of people.12
For Camus, loyalty does not end with people. He felt a keen desire to keep the memory of the ancient Greeks alive. His devotion to universal beauty serves as a repudiation of what he considered the tortured and aimless art of modern man. Barrett correctly sums up Camus’ moral and artistic orientation toward modernity. He writes of Camus’ essay, “Helen’s Exile”:
Helen is the ancient symbol of human beauty, and modern artists, in Camus’ view, have exiled her from our midst to pursue an art of tortured expressionism.13
Cultural and artistic alienation is another form of exile for Camus. He testifies to this in his notes:
What has helped me bear an adverse fate will perhaps help me accept an overly favorable outcome –- and what has most sustained me was the great vision, the very great vision I have of art.14
Part of this vision was the realization that human life is an aesthetic lived-experience. The joie de vivre that his work exudes is a negation of the rampant nihilism that he witnessed in a vast portion of contemporary philosophy and literature. He alludes to this:
One cannot live with truth -– “knowingly” –, he who does so sets himself apart from other men, he can no longer in any way share their illusion. He is an alien -– and that is what I am.15
Camus’ idea of man in revolt, much like Ortega’s “I and my circumstances,” is a confrontation between man and the cosmos. Camus had great reverence for Ortega, once referring to him as one of the greatest European thinkers after Nietzsche. Camus and Ortega refused to allow their thought to become consumed by ideology. In The Revolt of the Masses, Ortega argues that politics is a lowly preoccupation. Ortega suggests that most political problems are metaphysical/moral problems that bubble up to the surface in a manner that some people misinterpret as political.
In the notes to The First Man Camus earmarks this theme by writing: “Finally he takes Empedocles as his model. The philosopher who lives alone.”16 Stoic resignation, far from being construed as defeatist, becomes for Camus the rallying cry to embrace life. Camus’ zest for life is founded on the principle that life is irreducible to any abstraction.
Camus’ thought can be divided into two periods: 1) That which pertains to the “Myth of Sisyphus,” and 2) The Rebel. His idea of revolt and exile was exacerbated by the injustice he received at the hands of Marxist critics. This is readily ascertained in The First Man.
Camus and the Critics
In a poignant note of indignation and resignation to his fate, Jacques says:
I’ve lived too long, and acted and felt, to say this one is right and the one wrong. I’ve had enough of living according to the image others show me of myself. I’m resolved on autonomy, I demand independence in interdependence.17
A lucid example of the excessive criticism and personal attacks that Camus underwent is the way he was portrayed by Patrick McCarthy in his 1982 book Camus. Unlike the truth-seeking works on Camus by William Barrett; the insightful Albert Camus of Europe and Africa (1970) by Conor Cruise O’Brien, and the two excellent works by Germaine Bree, Camus (1959) and Camus and Sartre: Crisis and Commitment (1972), McCarthy’s Camus makes an ideological mockery of Camus thought.
McCarthy says the following about Camus’ cosmic indignity and revolt:
Man is still balanced on a tightrope between his sense of the sacred and his awareness that he must die, and revolt is still a demand for unity, which the world cannot answer. It is a negative trait, a creature of division and stoical contemplation. It cannot construct values, which would dissolve the skepticism that is one of its components. Its chief characteristic is that it refuses the leap of faith which revolution represents.18
McCarthy’s criticism oozes with injustice, given that Camus’ main point in The Rebel is to demonstrate that man’s existential problems – as a cosmic being – cannot be assuaged through political means.
McCarthy’s criticism is ideological. It presupposes that thought should be steered toward a social/political dimension. At end of the second part of The Rebel Camus offers an analysis of how, after one hundred and fifty years of nihilism, metaphysical revolt has given way to state-sponsored terror. Furthermore, to call Camus a “creature of stoical contemplation” distorts the independent nature of what it means to be a stoic and philosopher. McCarthy’s ideological position turns reason and thought into leftist praxis.
Contrary to what McCarthy writes about Camus, Camus’ vision as a thinker begins with his concrete experience as an autonomous being. If “commitment” is what Marxist critics demanded of Camus, all they had to do was read his essays in Combat. McCarthy wrote the following in 1982:
While spending hundreds of pages attacking Marxism Camus offers few alternative forms of protest. This robs his book of diversity and turns it into even more of a lament.19
This is intellectual dishonesty. Camus, as so many other Western intellectuals, knew in the 1930s, and certainly in the 1940s, that the Soviet machinery had an array of fellow travelers, allies, and mouthpieces in the West that were quick to voice their propagandistic concerns on demand. McCarthy’s charge that Camus offers “few alternative forms of protest” is disingenuous. McCarthy’s logic suggests that Soviet totalitarianism was the solution to the world’s problems.
In contrast to McCarthy’s caustic invective, Lev Braun’s poignant analysis in Witness of Decline, Albert Camus: Moralist of the Absurd accurately depicts Camus’ historical understanding of the totalitarian state. Braun cites Camus’ insightful essay on the terrors of Hungarian socialist totalitarianism:
For it is indeed a counter-revolutionary state. What else can we call a regime that forces the father to inform on his son, the son to demand the supreme punishment for his father, the wife to bear witness against her husband -– that has raised denunciation to the level of a virtue? Foreign tanks, police, twenty-year old girls hanged, committees of workers decapitated and gagged, scaffolds, writers departed and inspired, the lying press, camps, censorship, judges arrested, criminals legislating, and the scaffold again –- is this socialism, the great celebration of liberty and justice?
No, we have known, we still know this kind of thing; these are the bloody and monstrous rites of the totalitarian religion! Hungarian socialism is in prison or in exile today. In the palaces of the state, armed to the teeth, slink the belly tyrants of absolutism.20
Camus felt a genuine desire to improve or at worst keep man’s existential condition from worsening. Braun explains that Camus “resigned his post in UNESCO in 1952 to protests Franco’s Spain’s admission.”21
Camus offered an alternative to Marxism by turning against terror; he embraced liberty. In “Socialism of the Gallows” Camus makes it clear in no uncertain terms that true heroism today demands a desire for freedom from all quarters. He challenges intellectuals to accept that ideas can have dire consequences:
But first our leftist intellectuals, who have swallowed so many insults and may well have to begin doing so again, would have to undertake a critique of the reasoning and ideologies to which they have hitherto subscribed, which have wreaked the havoc they have seen in our most recent history. That will be the hardest thing. We admit that today conformity in on the left. To be sure, the right is not brilliant, but the left is in complete decadence, a prisoner of words, caught in its own vocabulary, capable merely of stereotyped replies, constantly at a loss when faced with the truth, from which it nevertheless claimed to derive its laws. The left is schizophrenic and needs doctoring through pitiless self-criticism, exercise of the heart, close reasoning, and a little modesty.22
This passage demonstrates that Camus was a humanistic thinker. Constructive reflection clears the way for peace by voicing sincere, apolitical opposition to all forms of totalitarianism and dictatorship.
Camus’ trajectory as a man and thinker was that of one who dedicated himself to the search for truth. His individualism, dignity, and personal autonomy brought him great strife and antagonism from people who gained infamy from denying him these basic human qualities. The antagonism that Camus underwent was partly due to the mechanism, and – if we are to call things by their proper name – technique of terror that Marxist ideologues had perfected by the start of the twentieth century.
Camus and other writers who value integrity – Stanislaw Witkiewicz, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nadezhda Mandelstam, and Boris Pasternak – to name a few, were victims of a ruthless worldview that denies inherent value to the individual.23
Like Heidegger, who thought that only a God could save modern man, Camus, if we are to judge by The First Man, grew less optimistic when he realized that the absurd had become institutionalized in the form of the totalitarian state. Camus concerned himself with the plight of what Unamuno called the individual man of flesh and bones in the latter’s book The Tragic Sense of Life. The individual, Camus argued, must take center stage in genuine humanism, not theoretical and ideological renditions of man.24
The First Manis an autobiographical novel. The main character in this work is Jacques Cormery, a young boy. Through Jacques, Camus reflects on his childhood in Algeria, his love for his mother, and Camus’ love of sunlight. See: Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities. Translated by Sophie Wilkins, New York: Vintage International, 1996. Musil’s novel deals with two years (1913-1914) in the life of the main character, Ulrich. The novel is a study of the days leading up to WWI, as Ulrich turns his back on morality and all conventions. The novel is in effect a close look at the rising tide of nihilism in the west.
The First Man, 59.
Czeslaw Milosz has written in To Begin Where I Am: Collected Essays that Albert Camuswas a modern-day Cathar, in that if he denied the existence of God, it was perhaps because of his love for God, and his inability to justify such a being. This is a considerable argument, especially when we take a close look at the overall tone of The First Man. Milosz, as well as others critics, have speculated that perhaps Camus was beginning to soften up his views on God and the absurd at the time of his death. Milosz writes: “The first work by Camus was his university dissertation on Saint Augustine. Camus, in my opinion, was also a Cathar, a pure one, and if he rejected God it was out of love for God because he was not able to justify him. The last novel written by Camus, The Fall, is nothing else but a treatise on grace -– absent grace — though it is also a satire: the talkative hero, Jean Baptiste Clamence, who reverses the words of Jesus and instead of “Judge not and ye shall not be judged” gives the advice “Judge, and ye shall not be judged,” could be, I have reasons to suspect, Jean-Paul Sartre.” Another reason why Milosz holds this view is because what he considers Camus’ view that history is a battleground for good and evil. 253.
William Barrett, Time of Need: Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1972, 28.
The First Man, 33.
Time of Need, 48.
The First Man, 320.
Patrick McCarthy, Camus. New York: Random House, 1982, 251.
Lev Braun, Witness to Decline, Albert Camus: Moralist of the Absurd. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1974, 241.
Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961, 171.
See the works of Witkiewicz, Solzhenitsyn, and Mandelstam.
Miguel de Unamuno, Del Sentimiento Tragico de la Vida. Madrid: Editorial Plenitud, 1966, 7.
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