Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. August 2006

1.2. Gesellschaftliche Reproduktion und kulturelle Innovation. Aus semiotischer Sicht
HerausgeberInnen| Editors | Éditeurs: Jeff Bernard with Renée Gadsden, Astrid Hönigsperger, Gloria Withalm (all: Vienna, Austria)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Intersemiotics as a Message of the 20th Century

(Literary Antiutopias)

Danuše Kšicová (Masaryk University, Brno)



In mapping the process leading from modernism to the avant-garde many problems were discovered which are still topical today. The whole system of signs in Russian and Czech literatures shows the growing conflicts in the social situation, in ethics and in style. In comparing V. Bryusov‘s catastrophic and political anti-utopias with Zamyatin and Orwell, one can see the growth of crisis in society with a tendency to increase further, which also signals a danger for the present times.

The development from the Čapek Brothers’ The Insect Play to the novels of the absurd, The Insect‘sLife by Victor Pelevin and An Immortal Story by Jiří Kratochvil, discovers a liberating effect of the grotesque perception of the world.

The analysis of the 19th and 20th century authors shows that not only the symbol, but also the myth is still alive, though its manifestation is often very abstract, corresponding to the contemporary system of thought. The provocative form of the art programme manifested by modernism and especially the avant-garde and their inner union is one of the fundamental laws of evolution in the same way as the semantic and structural connections between literature, art, music and the other forms of culture. The inner connection of modernism and the avant-garde reflected in postmodernism, which develops the opinion of both the phenomena, modifies them into new formations.


If we compare a factual description of the totalitarian system in the novella The Republic of the Southern Cross (Respublika Juzhnogo Kresta, 1905-07) by the prominent Russian symbolist Valery Bryusov (Valerij Brjusov, 1873-1924) with its practical application in the novel We (My, 1924) by Eugen Zamyatin (Jevgenij Ivanovich Zamjatin, 1884-1937)(1), we find remarkable parallels (2) between these two works, notwithstanding their different characters.

While Bryusov, owing to the chosen genre of report, does not leave the level of description of the political system and its gradual decomposition from the inside according to the time-tested scenario of totalitarian self-destruction, Zamyatin’s novel has its heroes and antiheroes, as well as a love affair, full of secrets and tension built on political taboos. This direction is, after all, consciously followed by George Orwell in his no less famous novel 1984 (1949). The axis of the novel, similar to Zamyatin’s We, is a love relation against the political background, where the lovers find their refuge in the old world. In Zamyatin the lovers meet in an ancient house with a mysterious lift leading behind the green townwall, and the meeting place in Orwell is a dirty room with rats and bedbugs over Mr. Charrington’s shop in the proletarian part of London. The old house in Zamyatin’s novel is guarded by an old woman who is tolerant of the extravagancies of the girl that meets her lover in the secret flat. Orwell’s lovers get to their rented room through Mr. Charrington’s shop. Unlike Zamyatin’s characters, Orwell’s still have their civil names. The main hero is the narrator Winston (whose name is, certainly not accidentally, identical with the first name of the then Prime Minister Churchill) and his counterpart is a Shakespearean Juliet. Zamyatin’s engineer, who is the main planner of the mysterious Integral, only bears the code D-503, and his active lover must do with the vowel I. Both the main heroes have the gift of speech. Winston is a typical intellectual, soberly commenting on the intolerable political situation. The autobiographical character of D-503 belongs, owing to his post as the Integral designer, to the official structures. He writes his records, on which the composition of the novel is built, on higher orders. His objective description of events and his own erotic life, including the gradually developing love relation to the oppositionally oriented I, in the course of time becomes, however, a gloomy evidence of the totalitarian system, the monstrosity of which the writer realizes more and more markedly. In comparison with the two novels, Bryusov’s novella is a concise abstract outlining the main problem of totality - complete dehumanization. Bryusov connects the first manifestations of people as personalities with the outbreak of the negation disease, which gradually leads to the absolute liquidation of the Star City and the whole Republic. The monstrosity of the account of the last phases of this horror surpasses the erotic scenes from Bryusov’s poems Underground Dwelling (Podzemnoye zhilishche) or The Women’s Town (Gorod zhenshchin) where the places of vice are at the same time places of death.(3) But Bryusov’s faith in the liberating power of destruction is not taken up by either Zamyatin or Orwell. Zamyatin’s novel ends by the disclosure of the plot and liquidation of its leaders: they are either dissolved electrically or drained of their souls in operations. Zamyatin’s D-503 is struck by such a fate, too, although before that happens, he is even granted an audience by the Benefactor himself. Similarly, Orwell’s Winston, after his last cruel interrogation at the Ministry of Love, understood for the first time what the love for Big Brother meant. This happened at the very moment when a projectile, expected for a long time, penetrated his brain. Modern experience with dictatorships led Bryusov’s followers to much more pessimistic conclusions.

One of the most interesting antiutopias by Bryusov is the tragedy in five acts and seven scenes called topically TheDictator (Diktator, 1921;1984). The author returns in it to a vision from his childhood about the possible settlement of Venus. People have finished their expedition to Venus and have brought back with them some inhabitants of that planet, who resemble gorillas. They keep them in cages like animals and plan to send most of the population of the overcrowded Earth to Venus. This populist intention is part of the pre-election campaign of the Central Council Chairman Orm, who later becomes a dictator. But his dictatorship over the globe does not last long. People, tired of many years of expensive preparations for the interplanet expedition, rise up in rebellion. The revolution is gradually joined by more and more continents. The Dictator is saved in the end by a bullet from his sympathetic mistress. Bryusov’s The Dictator was written after the first experience of the October Revolution and the early years of the dictatorship. Čapek’s play The White Plague is a response to Nazism in Germany on the eve of World War II, the beginning of which the play anticipates. In spite of that, the culmination of dictatorship is expressed more explicitly in Bryusov’s text. In Čapek ’s play it remains vague but easily predictable in the world struck by leprosy.

Bryusov, a historian by profession, himself experienced three revolutions. While his drama The Earth (Zemlja, 1904; 1905) presents the Consul’s deposition as a result of one surge of people’s rebellion, quite similar to that in Blok’s The King in the Square (Korol’ na ploshchadi, 1906; 1907), The Dictator deals with a world revolution, rolling through continents like an avalanche. The philosopher of Russian communism Nikolay Berdyayev characterizes revolution as an irrational phenomenon reflecting the existence of irrational forces in the history of humankind. This fact does not in any way exclude the revolution planners’ rational intentions. Even Lenin, as an extreme rationalist, was, according to Berdyayev, struck by the irrationality of history. The Russian philosopher distinguishes three different views of revolution:

  1. revolutionary or counter-revolutionary view, held by people who themselves take part in the events,

  2. objective, scientific analysis by historians not participating in the revolution,

  3. a historio-sophistic, religious- apocalyptic view, held by people who experience the revolution agonizingly and are able to detach themselves from its everyday manifestations. Only these people can understand revolution as an inner apocalypse of history. This is because, according to Berdyayev, the apocalypse is not only a message about the end of the world and the Last Judgement, but also the knowledge of the permanent proximity of the end in the historical flow of time, the conviction that it is possible to judge history inside history itself, and the accusation of the failure of history. Berdyayev states, with a considerable amount of pessimism, that in our world full of sin and evil there is no possibility of continuous and gradual development. The recurring concentration of evil always initiates the process of decomposition. Since society often feels a lack of creative and revitalizing powers, the judgement on society is inevitable, time is broken and irrational forces push forward; if considered from above, not from below, they are the manifestation of sense winning against nonsense. Revolution has an ontological sense, pessimistic in its essence. The understanding of this sense turns against those who are persuaded that society can endlessly exist in harmony even at moments when it has accumulated a lot of evil, hidden under a seemingly quiet surface. Revolution is no worse than war, sometimes bringing even more evil and misery. All history is wicked and full of blood and terror.(4) This is also described in Bryusov’s antiutopias; they depict just that kind of accumulation of negative powers in society that result in the rise of such emotions. Such was the totalitarian political system in The Republic of the Southern Cross and Orm’s world dictatorship, such was the despair of the last inhabitants of The Earth. Bryusov’s pessimistic vision of the end of humankind is becoming a highly topical memento for today’s society.

A certain messianic power is discovered because European antiutopias base their poetics on a grotesque vision of the world. They proceed from the philosophy of pragmatism, as can be seen in the Čapek Brothers’ The Insect Play (1921) and in two postmodern novels that appeared at almost the same time. One of them, The Insect’s Life (1999), was written by a young Russian author Viktor Pelevin and the other, An Immortal Story or Sonia Trocka-Sammlerova’s Life (1997), by a Czech author of the middle generation, Jiří Kratochvil.

Čapek’s conception of pragmatism is obvious from his monograph dealing with that school of thought; its reflection in the author’s juvenalia has been subjected to aesthetic analysis.(5) One of the most important ethical categories considered in W. James’s

Pragmatism(6) is the pragmatic theory of truth. Čapek ’s formulation of the relation between pragmatism and practice explains to a large extent his relativism. Čapek emphasizes that "pragmatism accepts as truth whatever better than other things fulfils the task to lead us in our lives and what adapts itself to all the requirements of our experience..." (7) His explanation of the misunderstanding accompanying the pragmatist conception is quite lapidary: "The pragmatic theory of truth concerns the recognition of truth, not its discovering."(21) This is the source of Čapek’s humbleness before the reality of this world, which to a high degree influenced his style, his way of perceiving reality and his professional interest in anecdotes, folk humor, proverbs and nursery rhymes, as well as his critical analysis of pornography or proletarian art, in the kitschy form of which he saw "a slice of bread spread with a thick layer of ideology." It is characteristic that the volume of these essays from the years 1919-1931 ends with A Praise of the Czech Language.(8) Čapek’s masterly handling of language is testified by his translations of French poetry from as early as 1920, which are evaluated today as the most experimental part of his work. In the end of Apollinaire’s La Zone, for example, Čapek finds adequate means for translating the remarkable union of careless children’s play with the motif of violent death:


Adieu Adieu

Soleil con coupé.

Sbohem, sbohem jsi ospalý

Slunce uťatá hlava

Se kuku kutálí.(9)

This is a specific prelude to the future drama of the absurd. The social theme of people from the bottom of society, discussed by M. Gorky and also Apollinaire, is also represented in the Čapek Brothers’ The Insect Play ( Ze života hmyzu, 1921).The only real man appearing in the play is the Rousseau-style Tramp. He in fact plays the role of the ancient chorus in the drama, since he remarks on all the ongoing events. The insects, shown in an anthropomorphical way, make an allegory of human vices. The poetics are based on the play on words, later on used by Čapek brilliantly in his fairy tales, and are successfully applied in the first scene, depicting the love play of butterflies, flying from one flower to another. The climax of love is connected with the motif of fall, accompanying the opposite pole of love, which is death. And death is the dark background against which the obviously symbolic play develops. The dung beetle rolling a ball of manure parodies a greedy lust for wealth, and the war between the yellow and the black ants over a bit of the path between two blades of grass shows the pointlessness of wars of aggression. The basic existential feelings - the expectation of something extraordinary in connection with the birth of a new individual - are expressed in a masterly way by the exclamations of the pupa announcing its birth. The preceding long time, full of expectations, gives place to the trauma of reality, symbolized by the one-day existence of the mayfly. However, even a being capable of higher knowledge - the Tramp, perceived as a deity against the background of the miniature insect - is confronted with what sets Man apart from divine substance, namely his or her own death.

A title almost identical with that used by the Čapek Brothers appears nearly eighty years later: it is The Insect’s Life (Zhizn nasekomych, 1999) by a young Russian postmodernist Viktor Pelevin. It is hard to say how much Pelevin may have been interested in the Czech authors’ play and whether he knew it at all, but there are undeniable correlations between the two works. What connects them is not only the same allegorical character, but also a similar ironic and satirical distance. Nevertheless, the times when they originated are completely different, which brings with it a number of different connotations. The war theme, so distinctive in the drama by the Čapek Brothers, who still vividly remembered the horrors of World War I, gives place in Pelevin to the stereotype of everyday life, emphasized by permanent blending of the post-Soviet reality and its problems - especially alcoholism and drug abuse. The language level reflects the problems by using argot and specific Russian invectives and curses. All this is transferred into the absurd world of insects, permanently mingling with the world of people; unexpected metamorphoses enable the transformations. The two main protagonists - the inseparable young friends Mitya and Dima - throughout the novel hold a repeatedly resumed existential discussion, in the course of which they alternately become people or mosquitoes. Many scenes, including the erotic ones, thus gain a burlesque character. Pelevin uses a favourite means of postmodern authors, a number of quotations from various texts. The principle itself of inserting heterogenous materials into new connections is not at all a new feature. The changes rather concern new ways of quotation and their functions in new artistic texts. Velemin Chlebnikov, for example, uses configured quotations from Pushkin’s works as one of the means of reaching specificity.(10) In Pelevin we can meet several types of text, from propaganda slogans and advertisements via presentations of verses, which is a popular method of European romanticism, to pseudoscientific papers from the journal Magadan Antheap. Karel Čapek works with similar materials in his anti-utopian novel War with the Newts ( Válka s mloky, 1936). The way of their use is, though, different in these two authors. Čapek intersperses the main stream of narration with passages from sketches, reports, letters, telegrams, resolutions and professional papers, accompanied by references to literature - and all that in a graphically arranged form - to strengthen the authenticity of the text as much as possible. The absurdity of the current reality witnessed by Pelevin is projected into the manner of his quotations. The longest passage is a newspaper article read monotonously by the mother of a girl, who secretly for the first time has brought home her lover. The dull words from the press presented by the mother, who suffers from insomnia, thus makes the background to the daughter’s first love experience.

No less absurd situations can be found in Jiří Kratochvil’s novel-carnival An Immortal Story or Sonia Trocka-Sammlerova’s Life (Nesmrtelný příběh aneb Život Soni Trocké-Sammlerové, 1997). Zoomorphous allegory here, however, is used in a wider sense of the word than in Pelevin. Every chapter is marked by the name of an animal, from the chimpanzee, via the stag, wolf and elephant up to the panther, built into the text as titles of abstract pictures. Kratochvil’s story of an immortal heroine is conceived as a testimony of the 20th century. Sonia is born in the carnival night of New Year’s Eve in 1900 and wakes up after a period of pupation during the ringing of the keys at the close of 1989, completely changed and ready to start a new life. Pelevin develops the existence of species ad infinitum. The author suggests that by the mutual interconnection between Marina’s and her mother’s fates and by the picturesque peripetias of their partners. The time extent of Pelevin’s book is much more concise than is the case in Kratochvil’s novel. His heroine lives through a short summer of love to end painfully on a flypaper. Both the authors inform the reader of the exact scene of the action: in Pelevin it is a Crimean resort in different seasons of the year, in Kratochvil his native town of Brno. Both of them use their cultural knowledge for romantic titles of the chapters and subsections of their novels (The Russian Forest, Life under the Tsar, The Third Rome in Pelevin,(11) A May Fairy Tale, A Bloody Wedding, The Limping Devil, Lazarus’ Resurrection and others in Kratochvil(12)). Various types of allusions are characteristic of postmodernist texts. Each of the two authors refers to topical political problems, even if they do so on different scales. Owing to the fact that Kratochvil’s novel maps the whole 20th century, it suggests its most important moments in a hint or poetical nutshell, often appearing in a fantastic form. His heroine Sonia - a light-hearted narrator resembling Bohumil Hrabal’s heroes - has a varied erotic life, since her eternal lover Bruno, who died tragically on the same night as she was born, meets her in metamorphoses, always in a different animal form. Scenes known from the frescos at Pompeii thus come to life in the form of travestied Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Pelevin’s novel, on the other hand, is mostly set in the 1990s. Instead of Russian and German background and reminiscences used by Kratochvil due to the international origins of Sonia’s parents, Pelevin incorporates the English language and schematic features of American culture into his novel. One of his heroes, who appears as a cockroach or a cicada, finishes a long subterranean journey to come to the surface of the earth at the very place where he once fell from a tree on which his pupa hung. The same motif was used by Kratochvil in the finale of his novel, where during the real socialism Sonia becomes politically unacceptable and therefore forlorn. Consequently she climbs up to the cupola of her native house and pupates there for a few years. Foregrounded is thus the hidden subtext of her name (cf. the meaning of the Russian words "sonia, sonny" - "sleepyhead, sleepy"). She does not wake up until the winter of 1989, when people welcomed the fall of socialism by ringing their keys. She comes to life never to be old, like the heroines of Roman novels.

Kratochvil presents more authentic characters and absurd humour in his novel than Pelevin, who feels a closer connection with existential and Eastern philosophy. Kratochvil uses allusions to a number of writers and dissidents, like Jiří Mahen, Vaculík and Havel. Pelevin innovates the popular Russian theme of doubles in the absurd depiction of the pre-death fight with one’s own trunk. Both novels have a ring composition. The immortal Sonia, when a hundred years old, becomes the governess of a child still unborn. Pelevin’s American mosquito Sam, who had a romance with the beautiful little fly Natasha, witnesses her death on a flypaper. Only few securities remain in life: a big ball of manure, also depicted by Čapek in a masterly fashion, cold wind blowing from the sea, and a fragment of an optimistic song which vividly resembles the final scene of Artsibashev’s novel Sanin.

Nevertheless, the sunny symbol of optimism, which in the early 20 th century brought a cleansing wave of vitalism, gets quite a different meaning at the end of the 20 th century, marked with Derrida’s deconstruction. The billboard slogans and optimistic songs that accompanied whole generations of working people on their way to a better future have brought about quite different readings of the semantics of such texts. The verses from the end of Pelevin’s novel thus become its own ironic unravelling. The principle of freedom (analysed by the existentialist V áclav Černý on the basis of Dostoyevsky’s novels) is often expressed by the symbol of flight in belles lettres, which was so out of reach of primitive people that it became the source of many myths. In interpreting flight and symbols connected with it, Mircea Eliade says that their aim is freedom reached with the help of transcendence. He connects the thirst for reaching the absolute freedom with the inner psyche of Man, especially with his desire for something inaccessible. The effort of getting rid of one’s own insufficiency, connected with the image of fall, and the endeavour to get back the lost naturalness and freedom, rank among the most significant signs of the human psyche. Transcendence, accompanying the rituals performed by shamans, yogis, alchemists or Buddhist Arhats, is connected with the feeling of flight. One of the symbols of the Arhat learning is the ability to break through the roof of one’s own house, which is the world, and thus find oneself in the universe.(13) This is the source of the popular allegory of a bird or winged insect which becomes a messenger or observer of what is happening deep below. A characteristic feature of the early avant-gardists, such as Apollinaire, was their enthusiasm for the current technology, the airplane above all. But only three years after the origin of Apollinaire’s Zone the same motif changed from the symbol of free flight into a depressive shadow of death. Therefore the angels from one of Natalia Goncharova’s engravings from the cycle Mystical Images of the War (Mysticheskiye obrazy voyni, 1914) try to stop, with their bare hands and spread out wings, the lethal flight of airplanes.(14) The return to the Rousseauistic ideal of pure Nature, symbolized by the Tramp in the Čapek Brothers’ play, changes unexpectedly into satire. From the pupa, transformed into a mayfly, the young beauty is born only to die immediately after the birth. The inevitable connection of love and death, quite natural for the "primitive" man, gains quite a new, and often catastrophic, content in historical man’s conception. This is shown by anti-utopias, so popular in the 20 th century, as well as by the theatre of the absurd and other postmodernist works close to that theatre. Pelevin’s The Insect’s Life begins with the flight of three spy mosquitoes. The novel connects flight with love and death in the same way as the Čapek Brothers´ play does, the stylistic level is different, though. The butterfly lightness of the Čapeks, with which the Dadaistically playful amorous couples fly from one flower to another, is in Pelevin replaced by a very realistic description of the behaviour of present day youth. The scene of the action is depicted exactly, including naturalistic details. In Kratochvil´s novel, the myth of flight is captured in the original mythical form as a ship with a mysterious mission, or by a levitation scene during the funeral of a girl who died tragically: the priest unexpectedly soars up to the vault of the cathedral, as if he performed one of the rituals described by Eliade. The reincarnation of a girl into her suffering mother, who herself gradually becomes a child, is another expression of transcendence. Kratochvil uses one more myth described by Eliade - people´s ability to talk with animals.(15) Kratochvil´s heroine Sonia has this shaman talent as well; she is supposed to give her mission over to people of the third millennium. All these complicated crossroads, where reality meets the world of absurd transformations, bears testimony to the fact that the present people appreciate even a myth in the form of caricature, since it enables the authors to delve into hidden layers of reality. Another solution is offered by liberating humour and laughter.

© Danuše Kšicová (Masaryk University, Brno)


(1) The novel We was not allowed to be published in the Soviet Union, but appeared abroad (in Czech, English etc.), which brought about the author’s persecution in his own country. After his personal letter to Stalin he was permitted to leave his homeland. He died in Paris. This paper was written with the support of the Academy of Sciences Grant Nr. ICE901640602.

(2) The volume of Bryusov’s stories The Earth‘ Axis (Zemnaja os‘, 1908), where the novella appeared after its publication in Bryusov’s magazine Vesy, seems not to have escaped Zamyatin’s attention.

(3) D. Kšicová, Poéma za romantismu a novoromantismu. Rusko-české paralely. (The Longer Lyric Narrative Poem in Romanticism and Neoromanticism. Russian-Czech Parallels.) Brno, UJEP 1983, 125-144.

(4) N. A. Berdjajev, Istoki i smysl russkogo kommunizma. Moskva., Nauka 1990, 106-108. Reprintnoje vosproizvedenije izd. Pariž, Imca-Press 1955.

(5) Karel Čapek, Pragmatismus čili filosofie praktického života. Praha, F. Topič 1918, 2nd enlarged ed. 1925. Milan Suchomel, Začátky Čapkovy prózy a pragmatismus. F. Wollmanovi k sedmdesátinám. Praha, SPN 1958, 359-369.

(6) William James, Pragmatism. A New Name for Some Old Wals iof Thinking. 1907.

(7) Karel Čapek, Pragmatismus čili Filosofie praktického života, o. c. 18.

(8) Karel Čapek, Marsyas, čili na okraj literatury. Praha, Aventinum, Fr. Borový 1931.

(9) G. Apollinaire, La Zone. (Alcools). Oeuvres poètiques. Paris, Gallimard 1956. In: - G. Apollinaire, Pásmo. In: Karel Čapek, Francouzská poezie nové doby. Praha, Československý spisovatel 1968, 135.

(10) D. Kšicová, Puškinskije tradicii i antitradicii v poemach Velemira Chlebnikova. Zagadnienia Rodzajów literackich, Wrocłav 1983. t. XXV, z. 1/48, s. 43-57. Detto in: D. Kšicová, Poéma za romantismu a novoromantismu. Rusko-české paralely. Brno, Univerzita J. E. Purkyně, sv. 249, 1983, 153-166.

(11)The Russian Forest is the name of Leonov’s novel and also a new drug. Zhizn za tsarya was the title under which Glinka’s opera Ivan Susanin was played at the tsar’s request in the 19th century. In the novel it is an anticipating motif - an omen of the tragical death of Marina’s husband. The Third Rome comes from the figurative phrase Moscow - the third Rome, which after the fall of the Byzantine Empire was to help to unite Russia, with the centre in Moscow. In the novel it serves as a pretext for Marina’s meeting her partner.

(12) They are allusions to the works by V. Mrštík, G. Lorca, A.R. Lesage, to a New Testament parable or a cycle of folk tales from the surroundings of Brno.

(13) Mircea Eliade (Mythes, rêves et mystères, 1957), Mýty, sny a mystéria. Praha, Oikoymenh 93-94.

(14) N.S. Goncharova, Mysticheskiye obrazy voyni. Moskva, Izd. V.N. Kashina 1914. The engraving War Memorial (Bratskaya mogila) shows an angel with his arms crossed and his big Greek eyes full of reproach, staring at the bodies of the dead. A black angel on a white horse walks over the corpses and sculls with black holes instead of eyes and lips.

(15) Eliade takes the ability of shamans to make contacts with animals as an expression of the desire for the lost paradise. Baptism also helps to gain back the primary purity. We can become close to animals if we give them names. Cf. M. Eliade, op. cit. 58-59. The friendship with animals is one of the main lines in Nietzsche´s Zarathustra.

1.2. Gesellschaftliche Reproduktion und kulturelle Innovation. Aus semiotischer Sicht

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For quotation purposes:
Danuše Kšicová (Masaryk University, Brno): Intersemiotics as a Message of the 20th Century. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005.

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