In comparing James Joyce’s Ulysses with Eliot’s “Waste Land,” the critic Thomas Lorch describes Dublin as victim of the “depersonalizing forces of the urban metropolis.” (Lorch) These forces include the ideologies of the institutions of church and state (specifically, Father Conmee and the Lord Lieutenant Governor) which frame the episode. Constructed by these ideologies, the waste land urban environment of Dublin is an inescapable labyrinth because characters imaginations cannot fly the imposed nets within their own minds. Their imaginations have been “denatured” by ideology. Yet if the metropolis is a trap, what is the alternative? If characters could escape, what would that world, of unrepressed passion and freedom of the individual, look like? This essay will explore whether Joyce gives hints at such a potential environmental alternative, even if Church ideology has restricted Dubliners from consciously thinking it.
Joyce’s fiction resists traditional conceptions of ecocriticism at every turn. Ulysses, even including the dreams, fantasies, and delusions of its characters, is largely constricted to the urban. An ecocritical reading of “Wandering Rocks” is not necessarily construing Joyce as an advocate of environmental policies, but rather as someone concerned with the way Dubliners are forced to live, and their compromised relationship with nature. Margot Norris posits that it is the indefinability of nature, and the inability of traditional modes of representation to capture it, that explains the lack of environmental images and natural scenes in Joyce’s fiction. Similarly, Fiona Becket writes that modernism’s techniques of representation (in Joyce, perhaps including the lack of environmental imagery) are required to iterate the “global ecological and technical system” of climate change. Ideology, however, offers an alternative to this understanding of art as being incapable of conveying nature, placing the responsibility on the co-opted imagination of the individual. According to Frederick Engels, “Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker. Consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling (the subject) remain unknown to him…” Trevor Williams introduces this idea within the context of the “Wandering Rocks” chapter of Ulysses, particularly in the form of religious ideology influencing the actions and the thoughts of Father Conmee. “Engel’s achievement…is to penetrate the contradictions which ideology, the acceptance of reality as natural or given, usually conceals. ‘Wandering Rocks’ is similar.” (Williams 269) That the Dubliners in ‘Wandering Rocks’ accept their existence as “natural” could be the crux of the issue: their inability to see their natural environment, or to understand the economic repercussions of the resulting fracture of their relationship to nature.
This essay will examine three key characters in the text of Ulysses that illustrate the moments where ideology prevents an understanding of the reality of environmental destruction as a contributing factor in the poverty and suffering of the Dubliners in “Wandering Rocks.” Ideology distracts Dubliners from seeing the trash on the River Liffey – and, by implication, the sewage – in the form of excessive parading and fanfare surrounding the viceregal cavalcade. It is not merely a cavalcade; the action is an expression of how falsely important it looms in the minds and attentions of Dubliners. For this reason it is conveyed in the form of an “intrusion” that is unattached to any character, and can only be perceived as Joyce’s authorial, veil-deconstructing voice. In the first intrusion, the Dedalus sisters can’t see the anti-environmental mechanisms which created the degradation that contributes to their poverty. In ISA fashion they reproduce the conditions of production. In the second, the cavalcade serves to distract and corrupt Mr. Kernan’s thoughts, and he fails to appreciate the natural, human reality of the Slocum disaster as a consequence. The third point focuses on romantic pastoralist Father Conmee. His idealized and ideologized vision of an environmentally-based world is so thoroughly rooted outside of reality that it prevents him from understanding the truth of environmental degradation. He is blinded from it just as the citizens are blinded from the trash on the Liffey. As the institutional voice his power frames, through Conmeeism, what the citizens can achieve. As ecocritic William Cronon argues, the idea of wilderness that ignores humans and human society – here, Dublin – is a nonexistent human construction.
The Dedalus Sisters and the First Appearance of the Floating Throwaway
Throughout “Wandering Rocks” there are displaced sentences, called “intrusions” by Gifford (260), which act as flashbacks and flash-forwards to other scenes simultaneously occurring in the episode. One intrusion that is repeatedly referenced is the throwaway floating down the river, noted at three points: section 4 (line 294), section 12 (753), and section 16 (1096). Each of these intrusions comes from a third person narrator that appears unattached to any character. This particular narrative voice, distinct from any of the characters, is not subverted by any ideology of church or state, and is the mouthpiece for Joyce to illuminate the hidden reality of ecological degradation. Williams writes that this is the function of Ulysses in representing the world of “Wandering Rocks.” “Joyce…penetrates the contradictions which ideology, the acceptance of reality as natural or given, usually conceals.” (Williams 269) It is this narrative voice, unattached to characters, which helps the reader “think” the ideology that the characters cannot see.
The reality that is being exposed, and that Joyce focuses on without any other clear purpose despite the obvious focus of the characters’ thoughts and imaginations on the cavalcade, is the movement of the throwaway down the River Liffey. It is easy to forget that Elijah, the crumpled throwaway, really is a piece of trash, a form of pollution that’s been littered into the environment and is now making its way down the waterway. The throwaway appears first at the conclusion of section 4 (line 295) of the episode, as the Dedalus sisters discuss their hunger. The separation of the sisters from nature is illustrated through allusions to the famine. Historian Tim Wenzell notes of the famine: “As a result of this utter failure, the Irish farmer’s very relationship with the earth was compromised. Those who had subsisted on this dependency were left in desolation, abandoned by both man and nature.” (Wenzell 39) Norris writes that in “Lestrygonians,” “Bloom deduces quickly that (Stephen’s sister) suffers from malnutrition,” (118) citing his thoughts: “Good lord, that poor child’s dress is in flitters. Underfed she looks too. Potatoes and marge, marge and potatoes. It’s after they feel it. Proof of the pudding. Undermines the constitution.” (8.41-43) Norris argues that the imagery of potatoes glosses the famine. This essentially indicts ecological destruction as a key contributing cause of the hunger, poverty, and ill-state of the Dedalus children.
They are largely prevented from seeing the source of this hunger, however, because their focus is entirely on the immediate conditions at hand. Economic realities lead the Dedalus sisters to blame Mrs. M’Guiness’ hardheartedness and refusal to buy their pawned books for their poverty. “Bad cess to her big face!” (269) Boody cries out, when she learns that her sister has been unsuccessful. But Mrs. M’Guiness is hardly the true source of their suffering, which Althusser demonstrates can be traced back in an endless chain:
A moment’s reflection is enough to be convinced of this: Mr X, a capitalist who produces woolen yarn in his spinning-mill, has to ‘reproduce’ his raw material, his machines, etc. But he does not produce them for his own production – other capitalists do: an Australian sheepfarmer, Mr Y, a heavy engineer producing machine-tools, Mr Z, etc…And Mr Y and Mr Z, in order to produce those products which are the condition of the reproduction of Mr X’s conditions of production, also have to reproduce the conditions of their own production, and so on to infinity… (Althusser 129)
The responsibility, therefore, is institutional, traced to a far larger sequence of relationships and events than the individual Mrs. M’Guiness, who is but one linchpin in an elaborate structure of systemized repression. Each person is reliant on countless others, who are in turn reliant on countless others “to infinity.” Mrs. M’Guiness, to maintain her business, must frequently say no.
Boody’s fruitless and misplaced anger at Mrs. M’Guiness is a necessary condition – a “reproduction of the conditions of production” which creates yet another force that distracts the sisters from understanding their larger reality. As the target of their animosity and frustration expands from Mrs. M’Guiness, they begin bickering inwards, amongst themselves, culminating with the blame expanding to their father, “who art not in heaven,” as Boody mimics the Our Father. As Althusser states, it is not possible to ask or answer certain questions except from the point of view of production. (131)
Such an interpretation forces a reconsideration of the final lines of the section in which the throwaway first appears. As the fury over their situation reaches a crescendo, a comparatively serene image of the floating throwaway approaches.
-Our father who art not in heaven.
Maggy, pouring yellow soup in Katey’s bowl, exclaimed:
-Boody! For shame!
A skiff, a crumpled throwaway, Elijah is coming, rode lightly down the Liffey, under Loopline bridge, shooting the rapids where water chafed around the bridge piers, sailing eastward past hulls and anchorchains, between the Customhouse old dock and George’s quay. (10.291-297)
Unseen and gliding, invested with the name of a Biblical prophet, without a clear destination and without clear significance otherwise, the movement of the trash seems filled with portent, a picture of slowly approaching doom. What kind of doom could a piece of litter floating serenely down the waterway of an urban, polluted city, against the backdrop of an immutable and invisible mechanism of poverty and repression, symbolize? Ecological destruction and the fractured relationship of mankind to nature are ghosts haunting the entire section. As the sisters bicker and point fingers, enfeebled by ideology, the reason for their repression floats by, emblematic of a rift dating back to the famine that was never healed. As an intrusion, it comes from no narrator-character, and thus is not imbued with ideology. It’s Joyce’s way of illuminating the truth.
The Second Intrusion of the Throwaway and the Viceregal Cavalcade
The movement of the viceregal cavalcade, and the attenuating fanfare and ceremony, serves as a distraction to the underlying environmental reality throughout the chapter. “The progress of each (Conmee and the cavalcade) diverts attention from the underlying causes of…oppression.” (Williams 268) Even where disparaged or ignored, the cavalcade is still never seen as the “symbol of a complex and disadvantageous economic relationship.” (269) As a mechanism of distraction, the viceregal cavalcade under the Lord Lieutenant in 1904, the 2nd Earl of Dudley, was distinctly fit for the task. Double-titled, triple-named, William Humble Ward presided over a rule which has historically been characterized in few terms other than “extravagant” to the point of being “controversial.” (Shaw 1) The cavalcade was obviously just one more incarnation of this extravagance, and there is no reason to assume its overindulgence did not match the guest of honor’s reputation. Indeed, in Irish history, the viceregal office was traditionally attended by similarly poorly timed, attention-diverting luxuries:
The most important social period was the six festive weeks of the Castle’s balls, levees and lavish dinners, which came to a climax on Saint Patrick’s Day. The Castle was highly decorated for the duration. All staff were attired in state livery and all guests dressed in richly ornamented clothes and splendid uniforms. Unfortunately, this Viceregal entertainment continued undiminished throughout the Great Famine of 1845-1849 and the lavish life style of the privileged was unaffected by the destitution of two million people outside the gates. (Dublin Castle History 15)
Imbued with the pervasive legacy of the famine, and the injustice and the persecution closely knit with the viceregal office, the cavalcade is the embodiment of the State Apparatus. The consistent display of power existing alongside subjugated individuals without their understanding echoes the misunderstanding evident in the misplaced anger of the Dedalus sisters.
The cavalcade serves as a diversion which, in remaining “unthinkable,” is reproducing the conditions of its production. In addition to attracting attention to itself, it permeates the thoughts and imaginations of characters in the novel, further restricting their ability to see reality.
This is especially true in section 12, the second section where the “intrusion” of the throwaway appears. The narrator-character of focus is a very self-absorbed and self-congratulatory Tom Kernan, who has just made a business deal with a tea merchant. He is one of several characters in “Wandering Rocks” to recall the General Slocum disaster. The language he uses to think about the event demonstrates his failure to perceive it compassionately, as a natural, human occurrence.
Terrible affair that General Slocum explosion. Terrible, terrible! A thousand casualties. And heartrending scenes. Men trampling down women and children. Most brutal thing. What do they say was the cause? Spontaneous combustion. Most scandalous revelation… (10.725-729)
To begin with, the context of this meditation on the Slocum disaster is important: it comes in the midst of the casual, self-congratulatory thoughts of a businessman who has just closed a deal. Kernan is a capitalist who has just enacted a transaction that is key to reproducing the economic system critiqued in the episode.
Although Kernan recreates for Crimmins a much more dramatic and vivid scene of chaos and suffering than Conmee, his conversational context of wanting to make engaging small-talk with a prospective client robs his account of much of its empathy. (Norris 117)
He is of a type that is ripe to be parodied. The semantics of his thoughts reflect the circumspect, blasé attitude of a man that is completely divorced from the realities of his environment. “Terrible” is repeated three times, which makes his lamentation somewhat buffoonish. The exact same word can only be exclaimed so many times in one line without betraying its insincerity. Furthermore, “most brutal thing” is similar in tone to Haines’ “it seems history is to blame.” (1.649) Like Haines, Kernan cannot understand the disaster and cannot empathize with it. Despite his pretensions, he is relegated to an alien’s understanding of the event. The fact that he understands tragedy in the framework of his social role as a businessman is indicative of the degree to which ideology has “denatured” and subsumed his thoughts and imagination. The presence of the cavalcade weighs on him.
Kernan then remembers the part of the conversation when they assigned blame for the incident: “You know why? Palm oil? Is that a fact? Without a doubt. Well now, look at that.” The fact that Kernan points out that corruption is probably the cause of the disaster only reinforces the strength of this interpretation. Althusser writes that society ingrains “…rules of respect for the socio-technical division of labour and ultimately the rules of the order established by class domination.” (132) Kernan, established as a proud capitalist nurtured on such imposed mores, very well might take offense to the Slocum officers cheating the system that has been kind to him. His focus on the question of responsibility takes up as many lines as his imagination of the suffering aboard the boat, which aside from its insincere tone and its business-like context, is also lacking in any pointed, sustained focus. There is no hint of a sentiment that elaborated on what he found to be a “most brutal thing,” and he does not make an attempt to imagine himself in the position of the individuals aboard.
Although environmental degradation is not causing suffering as directly as it is in section 4 with the Dedalus sisters, there are ecological factors that blind Kernan. His divorce from nature, caused by the ideology embodied in the distraction of the viceregal cavalcade, is what prevents him from empathizing with his fellow human beings. Another ideological influence is exerted on Kernan after he encounters Father Cowley. First he is “preening” (10.742) himself in the mirror, concerned with how he might appear before powerful and important people — the ruling class. “John Mulligan, the manager of the Hibernian bank, gave me a very sharp eye yesterday on Carlisle bridge…Must dress the character for these fellows.” (10.746-748) The masks of fashion Kernan dons are akin to the role of the businessman which prevented him from seeing the reality of the Slocum. That Kernan feels pressure to “dress the character” when he encounters a man of the church is indicative of the ideological pressures that he does not recognize and does not resist as they take over his thoughts. And it is in the wake of this moment that second intrusion of the throwaway occurs: “North wall and sir John Rogerson’s quay, with hulls and anchorchains, sailing westward, sailed by a skiff, a crumpled throwaway, rocked on the ferrywash, Elijah is coming.” (10.751-754) Symbolic of the unseen pollution all around Dublin and the severed connection between man and nature, the throwaway continues on its fateful journey. The fact that the litterer is the hero Bloom reinforces the truth of lethargy and ignorance as agents of destruction. Bloom is not a crusading oil-man out to pillage the natural world. He is the everyman, and he pollutes just as the average person pollutes, without even realizing it. And just as Bloom doesn’t realize he pollutes, nor do the Dubliners recognize the pollution itself, its sources, or its consequences.
Conmee’s imagined affinity for nature which undermines its protection
Despite Conmee’s ecological bent toward nostalgic pastoralism, he is prevented from developing an ethic of stewardship or focusing any serious attention on the relationship between mankind and nature. Conmee is important because he has not been “denatured” in the sense that Williams and Norris describe, rather he has been rendered incapable of seeing the divorce of man from environment, seeing idyllic scenes where he should see pollution and degradation that are leading to poverty. This is reflected in his superficial vision of the environment, a nostalgic pastoralism that Norris says ironically “subverts attention” from nature. Conmee, author of a book praising pastoral life called Old Times in the Barony, then has an affinity for nature which ultimately undermines the protection of nature and any move in a direction toward a social response to environmental degradation. The source of his affinity is a form of Engelsian false consciousness and can be sourced to the ideological state apparatus described by Althusser: as a “condition of production” that needs to reproduced in order to maintain repressive structures.
In Conmee’s first vision of nature in the chapter, he sees the leaves of a tree as “sunnywinking” (10.16). As boughs bob in the breeze it is possible that they could appear to wink. However, it seems an overly optimistic gloss deliberately placed on the environment by a man whose consciousness of reality in informed by Althusser’s ideological state apparatus. Moreover, “sunnywinking” carries the same properties of fraudulence and deception as Conmee’s very own name. Conmee is conning himself just as the idyllic image of treeshade is “sunnywinking,” a wink implying that the reality is something less picturesque than what his subverted mind registers. The result of this distorted vision is an inability to see, or to address, the grievous split between man and nature, and the waste land of degradation crippling Dublin. Instead, as a disempowered figure, Conmee is also institutional agent of a necessary ignorance. This is Althusser’s “reproduction of the conditions of production” (127) that maintain the structures of capitalist society. Ignorance of the failure of the Catholic Church and the state to provide for the well-being of the citizens is a condition of capitalist production and repression in Dublin that must be reproduced.
Another example of this affinity comes when Conmee reflects with relish on the nostalgic vision of an impoverished day-laborer who is literally working in the mud. His idealistic glossing of a scene that is probably reflective of the man’s poor condition shows the active delusion which religious figureheads engaged in, functioning almost as a justifying or protective screen over the unjust reality which they have helped to create.
As Engels noted, writing about the city of Manchester, it is possible for the “money aristocracy” of the city to travel “through the middle of all the labouring districts to their places of business without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left. (Williams 269)
Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that Conmee does physically see it, he just can’t comprehend it. He is not insulated from reality, he is just blinded to it:
Moored under the trees of Charleville Mall Father Conmee saw a turfbarge, a towhorse with pendent head, a bargeman with a hat of dirty straw seated amidships, smoking and staring at a branch of polar above him. It was idyllic: and Father Conmee reflected on the providence of the Creator who had made turf to be in bogs whence men might dig it out and bring it to town and hamlet to make fires in the houses of poor people. (10.101-106)
When he sees poverty and injustice he translates it into a quaint and rustic scene that has been ordained by God himself. He convinces himself that it’s the very will of God to intentionally make turf be in bogs, so that, “idyllically,” the pastoral work of digging it out would have to be done so that it can be delivered to town and brought into homes of the people. Beyond a mere mistake, Conmee’s pastoral delusion again distracts attention from nature itself, precisely when nature, and man’s relationship with the environment, is in most dire need of attention. The bargeman is likely severely impoverished, his smoking is polluting the air, and his job is probably demeaning. Moreover, the cyclical system he describes is one which will reproduce the wasteland conditions of Dublin and which is inherently unsustainable. A true ecological concern, independent of pastoralism, would attempt to reconcile human development with the needs of the environment. It would also attempt to reorder a relationship to the system that is repressive to the bargeman.
Conmee cannot even live out his own delusion. Despite the hints at his pastoralism, he displays a marked repugnance to living in nature himself. He is loathe to even immerse himself in, and traverse, the actual environment he waxes poetic over. “At Newcomen bridge Father Conmee stepped into an outward bound tram for he disliked to traverse on foot the dingy way past Mud Island.” There are reasons enough for a person to take the train instead of walking — to save time, to avoid exercise, to keep warm or cool — yet Joyce very specifically cites the “dingy” environment as the reason for Conmee taking the train. A man that waxes nostalgic and relishes the thought of someone mucking up turf for a living should probably share the values he purports to envision for that person. His physical experiences of nature continue to be nagging and unpleasant when the grass scratches him through his “thinsocked ankles.” Ideology largely prevents any direct confrontation with these realities. The division between what Conmee thinks he wants and what he really does want mirrors the split between himself his environment. He is embodying an unrealistic relationship between nature and society, similar to what William Cronon described in “The Trouble with Wilderness.”
It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization. Instead, it is a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made. Wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural. As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires. For this reason, we mistake ourselves when we suppose that wilderness can be the solution to our culture’s problematic relationships with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself no small part of the problem. (69-70)
Conmee’s fascination with nature is exactly that: an “unexamined longing and desire.”
Prevented from entering and immersing himself in nature, Conmee is therefore prevented from developing any kind of response to it, or from actuating anything in his pastoral imagination. In a similar vein, Cronon writes “…to the extent that we live in an urban-industrial civilization but at the same time pretend to ourselves that our real home is in the wilderness, to just that extent we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead.” (81) Conmee’s ideas remain only ideas, serving to impede his ability to understand or change his reality. As representative of the institution of the Church, the same religious forces that divorce him from nature are exerted on the rest of Dublin as well.
Did Joyce imagine an alternative?
With the role of ideology in subjugating man from nature established, it is clear that Joyce saw Dublin’s relationship’s with the environment as fractured. But not only does he stray away from a pastoral alternative, he refrains even from WB Yeats very clearly articulated vision. In Brandon Kershner’s “Joyce Beyond the Pale,” he discusses how Yeats views nature as a place opposing urban society, a “world of potential unlimited self-development, self-expression, freedom from worldly responsibility and the passage of time.” (125) For Yeats, such freedom, self-determination and love were only possible in this alternative, other, “natural” world. Joyce’s resistance to Yeats’ pastoral vision is analogous to Cronon’s resistance to “pure” conceptions of wilderness which do not consider man as part of nature. The relationship between man and nature is far more important to Joyce than the existence of, or the nature of, nature itself. Cronon’s ultimate attempt at a reconciliation of nature and humanity, devoid of the problematic “wilderness” archetype, might provide insight into Joyce’s implied alternative: a middle-ground between Yeats’ pastoralism and the divorce from the environment that was a major cause of poverty in Dublin:
Most of our most serious environmental problems start right here, at home, and if we are to solve those problems, we need an environmental ethic that will tell us as much about using nature as about not using it… My own belief is that only by exploring this middle ground will we learn ways of imagining a better world for all of us: humans and nonhumans, rich people and poor, women and men, First Worlders and Third Worlders, white folks and people of color, consumers and producers – a world better for humanity in all of its diversity and for all the rest of nature too. The middle ground is where we actually live (and) make our homes. (85-86)
Indeed, for Joyce, “dear, dirty Dublin” was home, and any conjecture on his environmental imagination must begin from that premise. But beyond that, Joyce was also a champion of the everyman (Bloom) and the average citizens of Dublin. This was the especial focus of “Wandering Rocks,” the only episode of Ulysses that gives narrative perspective and voice to over a dozen different characters. Cronon’s democratic vision of a “middle ground” where everyone, from every racial, economic and religious background, is empowered to have an equal opportunity and connection to the environment, would seem to echo the theme of “Wandering Rocks.” In further establishing the criteria for this middle ground environmental ethic, Cronon goes on to state:
…one of my own most important environmental ethics is that people should always to be conscious that they are part of the natural world, inextricably tied to the ecological systems that sustain their lives. Any way of looking at nature that encourages us to believe we are separate from nature…is likely to reinforce environmentally irresponsible behavior. (87)
For Joyce, the trouble with “wilderness,” or in his terms, a Yeatsian pastoralism, was its failure to reinforce the proper relationship of man to nature. Indeed, Joyce’s characters in “Wandering Rocks” are not aware of the nature they are a part of, nor are they aware of the pollution and the systems of environmental degradation enacted before their eyes. In different ways, the Dedalus sisters, Mr. Kernan, and Father Conmee existed outside of the natural world, and they suffered for it.
Penetrating the repressive ideology which obfuscated reality is clearly an important first step in realizing this middle-ground world that Joyce was implying in his critique of Dublin and its citizens. But no ready tonic seems to be available to any of the characters. Conmee, Kernan, and the Dedalus girls have no escape from their labyrinth immediately available. Scenes of pollution and environmental degradation in ‘Wandering Rocks’ do not come to the reader from the perspective of any of these individual Dubliners, their ecological vision incapacitated as it is. Instead they come from broad sweeps of the city from the eye of the unnamed narrator. “From its sluice in Wood quay wall under Tom Devan’s office Poddle River hung out in fealty a tongue of liquid sewage.” (10.1196-1197). This is the key role of the intrusions of the throwaways: to show the power of literature to deconstruct ideology. Along with the throwaway, Joyce’s narrator-less moments of truth-telling, veil-removing, penetrating power of the novel, are a way of shouting out, in the midst of the ideologized action: there’s truth, there’s reality! In an episode full of ideologized thoughts and actions, the Elijah intrusions are a representation of raw reality, and Joyce’s way of penetrating the illusions of ideology. Freeing repressed individuals, making them see the precise mechanics of the ideology which severed their connection to the environment and to one another, is the highest function of literature.
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