gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the tag “Jacques Barzun”

amor fati?

There is no place for fiction in the From Parnassus template for Jacques Barzun’s bibliography. Since there are only two examples I am sure of, I won’t add another Part for fiction yet. For the time being, undergraduate Jacques’ short story will remain an orphan, or rather Columbia’s foundling:

Fantastique: ‘Not Poppy nor Mandragora’ But the Hallucinations of La Grippe”, The Columbia Varsity, volume 7, number 2 (May 1926), pages 16–17, 31.

Because the page for this entry is not linked to another part (and this post will gradually sink to the bottom), please either click on the word “Fantastique” above or go to the bibliography’s main page SCANNED for future access.  The Search box will also retrieve Barzun’s short story if you use the short story’s title or keywords like “Chatterton”.

passing remarks

This post announces the addition of another item to this online Barzun bibliography and provides the means to categorize and tag the main page for

Obiter Dicta: A Less Tragic View of the Artistic Puddle and of Some Fish That Swim Therein”, The Columbia Varsity, volume 7, number 2 (May 1926), pages 11–12.

With renewed thanks to Ms. Jocelyn Wilk of the Columbia University Archives.


We have the good offices of Ms. Jocelyn Wilk of the Columbia University Archives to thank for a new – yet over 8 decades old – batch of Barzun.  She disproved (with alacrity) Barzun’s assertion that “Bookaneering” is among those essays “destined to irretrievable oblivion”.  Three cheers for Jocelyn and Columbia!

The first item is the oldest, a light essay from The Columbia Varsity:  “Bookaneering”

“The Advantages of Inconsistency”

Patient followers of this gentle rereader know that the selected bibliography prepared by Virginia Xanthos Faggi for From Parnassus: Essays in Honor of Jacques Barzun (1976) provides the framework for my updated database.  The festschrift given to Jacques Barzun upon his retirement from Columbia is not the only bibliographic resource available in print.  JB’s writings on Teaching & Learning, in particular, have a supplement in Appendix D of The American University:  “A Check List of Writings and Speeches by Jacques Barzun on Educational Subjects, 1926–1967”.

Some of those publications are not listed in From Parnassus.  One such is “The Advantages of Inconsistency”, a presentation Barzun gave to The Foundations Group on 28 September 1961.  Unfortunately, that intriguing title has left no trace at the Ford Foundation where librarians have found neither recording nor transcript.  In an amusing 2003 postscript to private correspondence Jacques said the speech was “utterly forgotten.  Sounds interesting— wish I knew what they were.”  I have yet to discover those advantages in the Barzun Papers at Columbia, but since I have need of them I will keep on looking.

Perhaps you’ve spotted inconsistencies already.  Take Barzun’s postscript just quoted as an example.  Is that an en-dash or an em-dash after the word “interesting”?  In either case the spacing must be a mistake, right?  I agree, but since that’s how it appears in Barzun’s letter, I’ve left it that way.  I prefer the en-dash with a space on either side, mainly because it’s less likely to result in end-of-the-line “wrapping” distractions or confusion with hyphens in later transcriptions.  Over the years Barzun’s printed words have contained both types of dashes.  Publishers’ house rules must have determined which kind would be used for certain articles.  In all cases, I will do my best to preserve Barzun’s text as it appears in the original, or provide notice of alterations.

The first page – though not the first post – made for a Barzun bibliography item on this website contains an example.  The original Columbia Varsity article’s capitalized title includes the word “TEXT-BOOKS” with a hyphen.  I removed the hyphen and all but the first capital to conform with the Barzun bibliographies mentioned above.  Since we all presumably smiled when Barzun promised at the outset of From Dawn to Decadence “only a touch of pedantry here and there to show that I understand modern tastes”, you must know that a niggling exactitude is not my aim.  I want to reassure the reader that what appear to American eyes as mistakes (or mere “typos” as we too easily excuse them) reflect guiding principles laid down by the gentle rereader’s editor – himself.

Some violations of his “rules” are no doubt unavoidable.  Those with photographic memories have noted already that the pedantry quotation ends with a period in the original.  Yet because I’ve wedged it into the middle of a sentence leaving the period in place would be confusing.  That also begins to explain, I hope, my hoary use of a comma outside the quotation marks when the passage quoted has none at that point.  The old American (and still current English) practice is more often clearer.  It will drive the “smart quotes” feature to distraction, no doubt, but I hope the gentle reader will forgive the code.

Since a bibliographer earns trust by way of accuracy, I strive to get the details right.  I will be obliged, however, to any reader who points out what may well be a mistake.  Since I moderate the comments to this website, you can address them without worrying that you’ll look like a pedant yourself; just ask that your question or suggestion not be published and I’ll make the correction without any fuss.  You will have won my gratitude.

I know that when I publish a new post those who “follow” this website receive an email notification.  It may not work the same way with publishing pages, where the details of available bibliography items appear.  I hope so.  Since Barzun’s bibliography contains over 2,000 items it could be an inbox nuisance to receive an email every time I add another page.  I considered taking this website down until all the bibliography entries and pages were made, but decided to simply begin construction, post this warning, and let passersby watch as I build.  Our New Yorker’s skyscraper (pace Frenchmen and Texans) has a bedrock foundation.

Speaking plainly, the list of items for the various Parts can grow quite long, as is the case with Part VI C, articles in Cultural Criticism, with over 700 entries.  That’s a lot of scrolling.  To make matters somewhat easier, the list for each Part appears in reverse chronological order.  JB’s first writings form the foundation for each Part, with later publications stacked above.  That way anyone who wants to occasionally check progress will find the latest entries right on top and will have no need to scroll down through a long list of items already seen.

May I embrace one last inconsistency, at least for the time being?  The article linked below is not Jacques Barzun’s first article for Varsity.  As soon as I see copies of earlier and later articles – in any publication – I’ll slide more entries in where they belong chronologically.  Thank you again for your patience, and assistance as you see fit to offer it.

Without further ado, allow me to present the first page of Jacques Barzun’s updated and expanded bibliography:

“Textbooks and Tediousness”

painters praised

The jacket of Michael Murray’s biography of Jacques Barzun happily presents in color a Cleve Gray post-Cubist portrait from 1950.  The contents of the sitter’s clipboard appear on another plane –  inside the volume – pages 139 recto and 140 verso.  Barzun’s offhand notes start with his low mood at that moment, mention his trusty “large green pen,” and record how literary reflection restores his spirits and then serves his criticism.  (Having completed the monumental labor of Berlioz and the Romantic Century, JB may have been experiencing the letdown he elsewhere describes as common among authors following completion of a major work.)  Barzun’s praise of Gray had inspired his mother-in-law, Isabel Shaw Lowell, to commission the portrait.
Mrs. Lowell then loaned the Barzun portrait to the Jacques Seligmann Galleries for Cleve Gray’s “Youth and Age” exhibition (30 October–18 November 1950). Barzun no doubt visited the New York gallery and appears again in the catalogue. His “Purpose in Paint” first describes contemporary painting’s divided camp:
“The confused subject of modernism in art might perhaps shed a little of its confusion if it were once agreed that the painters of our century fall naturally into two classes—those whose work plays in our culture the role of satirist, sapper, destroyer; and those whose work reasserts the right to build among the ruins. The terms of this distinction should of course be taken in the broadest sense, and with no moral or artistic superiority attached to either category. Both types of artists necessarily ‘construct’ their works, or they would not be deemed artists; both have produced and will produce masterpieces. But one group seems bent on deriding and liquidating the present; the other group, on the contrary, tries to make us see the strength and solidity of things.
“This difference is not to be found purely or even mainly in subject matter. It comes from temperament and conception and it is visible in the plastic forms. The ‘liquidation’ I speak of appears as a direct sense impression from the liquefaction of the line, the disarticulation of the planes, the sought-after disharmony of colors. These manifestations are in fact not limited to painting nor to the graphic arts; they belong to the Spirit of the Age—or rather to his darker half.”
Next Barzun places Gray:
“Now Cleve Gray unmistakably belongs to the constructors, which is to say that he belongs to the lineage of the Cubists. One may verify this from external sources, but this corroboration is needless. All one has to do to see the Cubist inspiration—modified by the passage of time and divers artists’ sensibility, yet lively after forty years—is to look at Cleve Gray’s canvases. Whatever his subject matter, his work proceeds from an analysis of the solids which compose the subject to a reconstruction that proves them solid indeed—real, working, not disintegrating.”
Barzun then praises particulars in the paintings exhibited:
“[O]ne can see not only that the parts hang together, but that they would preserve their relations even if moved. The canvas is not merely decorated with harmonious patches of color but brought to life. … The colors, too, that Cleve Gray uses are evidently chosen in the belief that the world is young, bright, immediately beautiful. The resulting work of art is beautiful also, and for different reasons, but it resembles the world in not requiring us to grant it a technical victory, ‘on points,’ like a cautious boxer; nor—to vary the image—does it win us by appealing to sentimental associations…. [H]ere we have the delicacy of strength rather than of fashionable sensibility.”

Decades later, as he approached age 90, Barzun still had the strength to praise delicacy.  Raymond Han’s “Still Lifes” exhibition at the Hackett-Freedman Gallery in San Francisco (June 1997) included JB’s appreciation in the catalogue:
“The work of Raymond Han attracts by its delicacy.  It enchants by its serenity.  This quality resides in the twilight tones and the placid objects which, although natively disparate, develop a subtle kinship on being brought together.  The variety that Mr. Han achieves by adopting this program shows that a painter’s imagination can manifest itself otherwise than by setting the environment on fire.
“But isn’t it the duty of the artist to ‘reflect his times,’ to ‘criticize society,’ at whatever cost to his feelings and those of his viewer?  Well, to be calm and contemplative these days is criticism itself.  Indeed, it has always been so.  Still-life and genre painting, the scenes of Vermeer and Chardin, the flowers of Fantin-Latour and the apples of Cézanne make up a tradition that runs steadily through troubled times and dispute their primacy by showing the girl sewing, the student reading, while the flowers and fruit also ignore the daily news.  The life of the still life is still Life.”
The painter’s style, selection of objects, and silence regarding theory win Barzun’s praise for the next three paragraphs as he challenges “accepted ideas” of the modern artist’s role.  He then concludes:
“Only when a technique is extraordinary, not to be expected, may the critic draw attention to it at the expense of the whole.  In the duly spacious and beautifully linear works of Raymond Han one might venture to remark on the magic by which his objects are at once transparent and solid.  And one should add: This is the source of our conviction that his delicacy is strong and his serenity anchored deep.”

Barzun on Whitehead

Jacques Barzun refers to conversations he had with the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in A Stroll with William James (1983).  Ten years after that masterpiece was published I finally found the courage to send a letter to the great man.  I was amazed that Barzun replied, and even answered several questions.  He described his first encounters with works by William James, and then added something unexpected:  “At the same time I ran into Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World by doing some hackwork for Keller’s Digest of Books.  The two great men together effected my immunization against the chief errors of our time.”

The single paragraph format of The Reader’s Digest of Books allows precious little room for more than a synopsis, but Barzun stretches his paragraph on Whitehead’s 1927 work to a page-and-a-half.  Whitehead and James had launched Barzun’s lifelong campaign against mechanistic materialism.  His knowledge of Whitehead’s work must have brightened the conversation when they met less than a decade later in the home of Isabel Shaw Lowell, the widowed mother of Jacques’ wife Mariana.

Fortunately, we need not rely on Keller’s Digest for Barzun’s view of Whitehead.  The University of Chicago Press published a small booklet in 1980 “as a keepsake for friends of the Press” that begins with Barzun’s foreword, “Whitehead on ‘Life’,” and reprints Whitehead’s 1934 essay “Nature and Life.”  Barzun’s familiarity with the man as well as his philosophy allowed a recollection from their talks in the Lowell family’s Nine Acre Corner home in Concord:  “As Whitehead once remarked in my presence, the spectacle of scientists going every morning to their laboratories for the purpose of demonstrating the purposelessness of the universe is a piece of high comedy.”

Barzun sets the stage for Whitehead’s philosophical entrance by briskly marking the outlines of science and philosophy’s progress up to Science and the Modern World.  Barzun describes the philosopher’s concept of “mutual immanence” and then takes stock again:  “How does Whitehead’s act of fusion between Life and Nature leave science?  Just as powerful and admirable as before, but possibly less imperialistic.”  Barzun notes the influence that James had on Whitehead and provides an example of their way of thinking:  “Consciousness is not a thing like a photographic plate; it is a function like walking, in which the muscles, the ground, friction, fatigue, gravity, forward motion (and much else) form one whole.”

Barzun accomplishes much in less than eight pages, and his deft touches along the way are a pity to overlook.  The concluding paragraph, however, may entice others to seek out his witty supporting arguments before the pages fade to illegibility (like the Cheshire Cat “Publisher’s Note” vanishing in my copy):

“Actually, Whitehead’s metaphysics is no farther from the experience we all live out than science is from common sense.  For when we scan that experience rigorously we see how far common sense departs from it.  Once again, go back to James’s Psychology and discover the ways in which our familiar ideas distort sensation and go beyond the data—for good reasons, like those of science.  All thought is purposive in that same way and is justified so long as we do not confuse different purposes or mistake as if for as is.  When we do, it is the duty of philosophy, incarnated in James, in Whitehead, to make us face again the living experience we deny at our peril.”

paradoxes, questions & answers

Publication by giving speeches is another way that Jacques Barzun’s influence spread.  There were many occasions when what began as a lecture soon found it’s way into print.  A dinner at the Institute for the Humanities at Salado (Texas) in the fall of 1988 supplies an example.  Barzun’s address, “The Paradoxes of Creativity,” went from spoken words to printed with the American Scholar‘s Summer 1989 issue (pp. 337–351).  Some of the original atmosphere is recovered when audience questions and Barzun’s answers follow his talk as published in Creativity: Paradoxes & Reflections (Chiron, 1991).

The Institute’s dinner/lecture series had a more inviting title: “Creativity, Alive and Well.”  Barzun’s challenge to complacency is reflected by some responses from the audience during the Q&A session: “Must one be a genius in order to create?”; “I was concerned about your comment that this was an end of an era of creators.”; and “Is it not true that the pedestrian and prosaic individuals end up historically defining who is a genius and who is not?”  Barzun’s replies make this publication of the “The Paradoxes of Creativity” preferable to those versions where the text stands alone, though Jacques has better company in Best American Essays 1990.

The examples given to amplify or clarify his points after the talk, like much of Barzun’s thought, can jar listeners or readers into reconsidering reputations and “accepted ideas”:  “I read Shelley, but I haven’t a single friend who thinks that Shelley was a good poet.  The whole Academy of Arts and Letters would sign a document saying he was not a good poet.  My good friend W. H. Auden abominated him.  He said there was no poet he detested more than Shelley, unless it was Racine.  Those are the real opinions, but, of course, in the schools and textbooks and conventional talk, Racine and Shelley are great names.  Somehow that doesn’t seem to me good enough.  I think the only real admiration consists of direct enjoyment.  Look at the way Mahler has come out of the ground after an unconscionable time.  I continue to dislike Mahler, but I am glad that he is out in the open to be shot at, as well as enjoyed.”  Dashing expectations in this way may be an impediment to Barzun’s popularity.  Critical conclusions aside, his ability to articulate his views provides me with direct enjoyment.  

Anyone who ponders “The Paradoxes of Creativity” (in any version) will find Barzun’s familiar – but still wondrous – gift for divining intended meanings.  He reviews the history of “creation” and discerns four layers of value in contemporary usage of “creativity.”  An amateur botanist’s hobby and the shortstop play of Ozzie Smith provide illustrations of attitudes that prompt the broader usage.  The consequences of loosely applying the word are significant:  “It has not only diluted the meaning of creative, but it has also glutted the market with innumerable objects and performances arbitrarily called art, thereby making it even more arduous for true creation to find a public.  Still, more generally, creative foolery has been distorting, denaturing, destroying the fund of culture amassed since the Renaissance.”  

Barzun had already come to the conclusion that he would pronounce a dozen years later in From Dawn to Decadence:

The impulse and the clever deeds [putting a mustache on Mona Lisa] are part of an irresistible historical sweep.  Some of us might prefer to live in a time of construction, which has a different kind of excitement.  Let no one repine, however.  Rebuilding is bound to come, because true creative power is a phoenix, and the forces of destruction are clearing the space for its new flight, none can tell when or where.  Meantime, if we are to recognize the bird when it appears, let us not forget that creation means making something new and making it out of little or nothing.

a musical season

Jacques Barzun’s love of variety guides these posts.  There may be occasion for marching through some titles in chronological order within one category, following and expanding upon Virginia Xanthos’s selected bibliography in From Parnassus (Harper & Row, 1976).  However, a forced march through over 200 education articles, for instance, might lead to desertions.  Besides, variety motivates me, too.  Readers who marvel at a first Barzun book may grow dizzy when looking into his bibliography.  Take heart, Michael Murray’s editorial talents produced a fine sampler with  A Jacques Barzun Reader (HarperCollins, 2002).

Honoring that organ virtuoso who became Barzun’s biographer, I turn to a musical item excluded from the 1976 bibliography.  “Hector Berlioz: The Vocal Style” appears in Music and Recordings, 1955, (Frederic V. Grunfeld, ed., Oxford University Press, 1955).  Barzun’s landmark life-and-times of the misrepresented composer, Berlioz and the Romantic Century, had been stimulating a reconsideration of his works during the previous five years.  One of the busiest periods of Barzun’s career, the bestselling success of God’s Country and Mine prompted a request for a similar appraisal that became Music in American Life (Audiocom, 1955; Harper & Row, 1956; reprinted 1965).  By the following year, Barzun sounded ready to move on to other subjects, as implied by the title of his Energies of Art essay, “Whirligig: Last Words on Berlioz.”

“Hector Berlioz: The Vocal Style” considers the merits and shortcomings of 1955’s recordings of pruned symphonies and miscellaneous collections.  Five new records are evaluated; conductors, musicians, and technology, too, he judges by their fidelity to Berlioz’s intentions.  Barzun seldom misses an opportunity to compare topical matters to lasting qualities, as he does to conclude his assessment of Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Damnation of Faust (RCA Victor LM 6114):

A good test of any conductor of Berlioz is the familiar Rákóczy March: if from the start it sounds like a winded warhorse on the run, the conductor has missed his chance: it should begin in calmness and distinction and develop without a break, as it does thematically, into the ordered cataclysm of the close.  So played, it is a tone poem which belongs to the score, instead of a time-out debauch for baton and orchestra.

I didn’t know what I was missing when first hearing Berlioz in that very recording.  Though my “breadth requirement” had been satisfied with a Renaissance Art History class, I followed JB’s lead into the Music Library, sat in a soundproof booth, put on headphones, and experienced the power and expressiveness of dramatic music.  And it could have been even better.  I wish there had been time to take a course like Music Humanities at Columbia, where students that relish the art’s development through the ages have Jacques Barzun to thank.

desktop restored

desktop restored

Hoping the snow remains on the other side of the window.

Valdez has had a bit of snow this winter, as you can see out my window. Believe it or not, I’ve shoveled three feet or more off the top. I hope that what remains on the roof now has room to land without invading the study and burying computers.

Living in Alaska is a lot safer than driving freeways, turnpikes and city streets, but certain dangers are more spectacular. Hiking in bear country, kayaking in chilly waters, and, most recently, driving roads also used by moose are all worth the risk, but also remind me of the Barzun projects that I don’t want to leave unfinished.

There’s nothing especially noteworthy about today’s post; it is simply the first that records a Barzun item scanned: “The Colossus Laid Out” (American Scholar, vol. 53, no. 4, Autumn 1984, pages 546, 548–549).  It’s fitting for me to begin here, however, as Barzun’s review is of Dan H. Laurence’s monumental two-volume bibliography of Bernard Shaw’s works.

I hope that the tags I’ve attached to posts like this one will help Internet search engine users to find subjects that interest them, whether Barzun, Shaw, Dan Laurence, or Marie Belloc Lowndes.  (Finding lasting value in the work of Hillaire Belloc’s sister, Barzun differs with the editor he praises in just about every other way.)  I’ve also added “Translation” to this site’s Categories to distinguish those instances when Barzun offers translation criticism – as he does in “Colossus” – rather than being the translator himself.  When a passage pops out at me, like the one that follows, I’ll quote it:

The fresh details in the Bibliography and the reminder of old ones demonstrate again that the best way to be truly civilized and full of caritas as Shaw was is to have a fair and calm opinion of oneself and to vent one’s disapprovals fiercely, but in the tone and manner of candid conversation.  [p. 458]

Barzun, as usual, has more and better things to say in this review-essay.  It is not the source, however, of the fitting quotation I had in mind when deciding to begin with “Colossus”: “Bibliographers are the unsung heroes of the intellectual life.”  That opening line from Barzun’s preface to A Dictionary of Parisian Music Publishers, 1700–1950 by Cecil Hopkinson (Da Capo Press, 1979) has reinvigorated me when this labor has been most tedious.   I began making a Barzun bibliography because of memory lapses like that one of attribution.  Rereading Barzun is refreshing in many ways.

father and son

Last year an unsuspected bit of Barzuniana flickered into view.  Fairly often in the past it has taken the self-interest of used booksellers to reveal that a piece by Jacques Barzun has been anthologized.  Their willingness to list the contents of a book improves their prospects for a sale, and affords me an opportunity to discover an editor’s reasons for choosing a particular Barzun work.  One of the most satisfying examples came from the introduction to Barzun’s “The Romantic Ethos” (a 30-page slice from Berlioz and the Romantic Century) given by editors Norman F. Cantor and Michael S. Werthman in The Making of the Modern World, 1815–1914.

The latest find came under similar circumstances.  Another used bookseller advertised a title from the Orpheus series of Henri Martin Barzun that listed an essay by his son Jacques.  Since there was no mention of the piece in Virginia Xanthos Faggi’s selected bibliography (From Parnassus, 1976), I asked the seller for confirmation.  The affirmative reply included the title and a promising length of 10 pages.  The contents proved to be even more substantial, with 11 double column pages needed for a three part critical survey of modern poetics.

Henri Barzun’s 34th volume of Orpheus is dedicated “To ANNA ROSA and JACQUES” – his wife and son.  Choric Education: A Record of Labors and Achievements, 1920–1945, was published the same year as his son’s first bestseller, Teacher in America (Little, Brown, 1945).  Jacques Barzun was vested as a full professor that year, too, so omission of his “Transition or Creation? An Essay on Modern Esthetics” from the 1976 bibliography presented a puzzle.  The title alone sounds significant.

The contents reflect Jacques’ panoramic vision and familiar concern with synthesis.  Part I describes “Contemporary Chaos,” finding parallels in other periods of turmoil and launches the question, “Is there, at the present moment, a constructive force strong enough to create order out of chaos?”  Dissatisfied with the scouting of other critics, Jacques searches for visionaries among young English and American poets and closes with expatriate Ezra Pound’s disclosure of a French innovation.

Part II, “Problem and Solution,” resumes with quotations from Pound’s 1913 announcement in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse of a new form which he thinks may be “the true medium for democratic expression, the fitting method of synthesis.”  The innovator Pound spoke of was Henri Martin Barzun, whose creation of “simultaneity” (also called orchestral or polyphonic poetry) would be curtailed by the Great War’s cataclysm.

Part III, “Men and Works,” sees Jacques reviewing early performances of simultanist poetry by French pioneers and American practitioners without losing his critical balance, or opening himself to accusations of gratuitous nepotism.  Reversing the usual order, Jacques concludes his essay with “the founder,” his father.  That arrangement of parts falls beautifully into place – with the puzzle of bibliographic omission solved – by the attribution that follows:

Reprinted from The Columbia Varsity
Part I—February, 1927
Part II—April, 1927
Part III—June, 1927


Henri Martin Barzun sketched in the Columbia Varsity

Henri Martin Barzun sketched in the Columbia Varsity

Nineteen-year-old Jacques Barzun, Varsity editor, had honored his father as Columbia University’s June 1st commencement arrived.  Henri Barzun honored his son eighteen years later by seeking permission to reprint the undergraduate essay that elucidates his creation.  Full professor Jacques acquiesced in 1945.  Three decades later he chose not to include it with the only two Varsity essays in his selected bibliography:  “Textbooks and Tediousness” and “Irrelevant Maturity.”

Henri Martin Barzun, 1942

Henri Martin Barzun profile sketch by Clayton Spicer appears in Orpheus XXXIV, Choric Education: A Record of Labors and Achievements, 1920–1945, New Rochelle, NY: French Forum Publications, 1945.

Jacques Barzun drawn by Polly Thayer 1945

Jacques Barzun, drawing by Polly Thayer from dust jacket of Teacher in America, 1945

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