Autobiography of a Misreading: Ibsen's The Wild Duck and Me

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The more I thought about the way I had used The Wild Duck to restructure my everyday life, the more I perceived a contradiction.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #11, January/February 1994

While I was home in Maryland this winter break pondering what I would write for Bad Subjects' issue on canonical texts, I spent a good deal of time rummaging through boxes of childhood memorabilia and came across a high-school paper I had forgotten about, 'The Value of Truth: Ibsen's Perspective', that I'd written for my 12th grade religion class (Ethics). When I first re-read the paper, I was suddenly reminded of what a deep impression Henrik Ibsen's plays had made on me in the summer between 11th and 12th grade, how they had inspired me to refashion myself for my senior year. I had not just read Ibsen's plays that summer, but had used them to restructure my everyday life with an intensity I have rarely experienced since (and certainly not as a graduate student). Since the Bad Subjects collective had decided to approach canonical texts that we found personally and political useful in everyday life, Ibsen seemed the perfect choice. Interestingly enough, in re-reading my twelfth-grade paper, I realized that it already anticipated many of the Bad Subjects collective's concerns. While my political commitments were not yet well-defined, I was at least advocating the sort of confessional mode — 'self-analysis' I called it — in which so many Bad Subjects pieces had been written, emphasizing its usefulness as a tool for teaching others: 'By presenting one's own struggles for truth, one's own conquering of illusions, one's own successes and failures, one can provide an example for one's neighbor, a model or illustration that can guide him in his struggle for personal truth.'

I decided to write about The Wild Duck, the Ibsen play that I had used most thoroughly in transforming myself. As I re-read it, however, I started to realize that the character I had identified with most strongly and whom I had actively modelled myself after did not exactly practice self-analysis. A plot-summary is in order. This character, Gregers Werle, is the catalyst for all that happens in the play. Gregers is an idealistic crusader for truth who returns from fifteen years of hermit-like exile to find that his boyhood friend Hjalmar Ekdal is 'living a lie' in a marriage built on illusions. Gregers learns that Hjalmar's wife Gina is the one-time maid and mistress of his own father (Werle) and, he believes, the woman who drove his beloved mother to an early grave and thus occasioned his flight into self-imposed exile. Piecing the story together, Gregers realizes that his father arranged Hjalmar and Gina's marriage both to make Gina's pregnancy respectable and to keep his own name out of local gossip. Hjalmar has no inkling of any of this and believes his daughter Hedvig to be his own offspring. Indeed, Hjalmar is grateful to Mr. Werle for 'setting him up' in the photo business and for providing paid busywork for his half-senile father (Ekda l), Werle's one-time business partner who lost everything in a criminal transaction Werle himself had apparently set up. Apalled by the extent to which his father and Gina's lies have taken over Hjalmar's life.

The action of the play consists of Gregers' relentless hammering away at the Ekdal family's facade of respectability and domestic contentment in an effort to 'free' Hjalmar from illusions. Eventually, Gregers manages to shatter Hjalmar's illusions, but succeeds only in driving the impressionable fourteen-year-old Hedvig to commit suicide. Throughout the play Gregers believes himself to be selflessly helping the Ekdals towards the 'ideal', as he calls it, of complete truth, without ever reflecting on his interest in doing so. Gregers considers neither the material consequences of his idealism, nor the possibility that there may be self-serving motives underlying it. The Wild Duck thus seems to be about the dangers of not using self-analysis. If the play is, as my twelfth-grade paper argued, the product of self-analysis on Ibsen's part, it would appear to be a historical self-analysis that looks back to a time of self-blindness, of the absence of self-analysis.

The more I thought about the way I had used The Wild Duck to restructure my everyday life, the more I perceived a contradiction between the ways I had put Ibsen into practice and the way I had theorized him in my paper. Indeed, I used The Wild Duck to make the very mistake Ibsen seemed to be warning the reader to avoid. Because my mistake resembles one that many other people make, I decided to try to get at the root of the problem. Doing this required writing a confessional piece that is both a description of the particular way I made use — or misuse — of Ibsen's play The Wild Duck as a high school student and a self-analysis in which I try to understand where I went wrong.

As a teenager it never occurred to me that my family's domestic life could be built on lies. I was actually not that interested in home life. So what excited me so much about a play like The Wild Duck? I was captivated more by the nature of the relationship between Gregers and the Ekdals than I was with its domestic setting. In my life, the sorts of conflict that relationships bring about were more the stuff of my school-life than my home-life. Both personally and politically, my recent experience of school had seemed to consist of relationships between outnumbered or overpowered 'crusaders for truth' and dominant or dominating illusions. I'll begin with the personal. I spent all of junior-high and high school at Queen Anne School, a very small Episcopalian school where it was very hard to escape the gaze of the crowd if you were unpopular. I was. Highly. The initial shock of becoming one of the few outcasts of the school worn off, I spent most of eighth, ninth, and tenth grade trying to disap pear. While the taunts and teasing never really wore off — the school bus remained a nightmare — I did manage to lessen the pain of the gaze to a certain extent. When I began the eleventh grade, I was turning over a new leaf. I had a car of my own to drive, I involved myself for the first time in extra-curricular activities like Yearbook, the student magazine, Model U.N., and basketball. My schoolmates made less and less frequent reference to my status as outcast. Although I still had no social life outside of school — no parties, no dates — I finally had reason to hope that I would soon lead the well-rounded life of a 'normal' high school student. However, this alone was not enough to drain the great reservoir of resentment I'd been filling sin ce the seventh grade in response to becoming an outcast. Sometimes, particularly when I overheard schoolmates recounting the pleasures of being 'normal', I would fantasize about opening the floodgates to let my ill-feeling wash away their bliss. I would imagine making them feel that their happiness was made possible only by denying me mine, that their sense of comradely community depended on excluding outcasts like myself.

Politically — or what passes for 'politically' in high school! — the eleventh grade was a time of great upheaval at our school. The headmaster fired the extremely popular Humanities, Drama, and Journalism instructor, Mr. Weller, whose new role in my school-life I had taken as a sign of good things to come. He had angered the higher-ups in the school administration by distributing a handbook to members of the school magazine's staff in which free speech was lauded and the student editors' right to have final say over the paper's contents was implicitly asserted. The administration claimed he disobeyed orders in distributing it before it could be approved. Students wore black in protest when they learned of the firing. Various assemblies were held in which the headmaster and his assistants 'explained' their action: they cared so much that he had disobeyed orders they didn't feel high-school students were ready either to run a free press or cope with the sort of painful truths it might print. Some o f the more 'radical' students held a candlelight vigil outside a Board of Overseers meeting to try to convince them to rescind the decision. All in all, it was the usual post-sixties American protest routine in microcosm. Personally, I courted expulsion both by divulging the contents of a private chit-chat I'd had with the headmaster and by challenging his version of events at a meeting he held with my eleventh grade class. I began to assume a very visible role as one of the leaders of the protest and, paradoxically, found that the depressing turn of events was actually working to my own personal advantage by making me more acceptable company.

Once the initial uproar had died down, I and some other staff members of the student magazine and yearbook persisted in attacking the administration. Since the new Journalism teacher was hired with the express understanding that she censor those painful truths we high-school students weren't mature enough to print or read, however, and the yearbook adviser had similar instructions, these attacks couldn't be made directly. Instead, they had to take the form of clever satires and other not-libellous 'fictions'. In our last issue of the eleventh grade I wrote a satiric parable making fun of our school chaplain's call for 'courtesy' in relations between students and their elders. In it, a wise man explains to his eager pupil how the administration was 'courteous' in protecting students from the painful truths of the real world. My political life was thus anticipating the concerns of The Wild Duck, particularly its preoccupation with an idealism that believes truth in the abstract is always a good thing, however painful.

When I read The Wild Duck in the summer before twelfth grade, I clearly realized on an intellectual level that the play was a cautionary tale in which Greger's idealism leads to tragedy. In my twelfth-grade paper I wrote that The Wild Duck ponders 'whether it is always desirable to know the truth,' adding that the Ekdals are 'made happy by the very illusions Gregers seeks to destroy. They live in a dreamworld, but then again, what is wrong with dreams if they bring happiness?' Curiously, however, my reading of the play did not ultimately make me second-guess my desire to be a ruthless shatterer of illusions. Even though I understood that Gregers brings pain to the Ekdal family, he was still my favorite character. His idealism ended up inspiring me , despite its material effects.

Indeed, I wanted to cause pain. After all, both my personal and political life at Queen Anne had largely consisted of pain being inflicted on me and the groups I was associated with: the pain of walking across our cavernous lunchroom trying to escape the gaze of the dozens of students who seemed to think it their personal duty to make my life miserable; the pain of being recognized, not for academic proficiency, but for being a troublemaker in the classroom — one who was, nevertheless, too uncool to ever be accepted by the 'real' troublemakers; the pain of losing the one teacher with whom I had actually tried to establish a positive relationship; the pain of finally finding a group to belong to — the protesters — only to watch it lose its struggle and rapidly disintegrate; and the pain of realizing how oblivious even the most insignificant ruler can be to the concerns of his 'subjects'. By becoming an illusion-shatterer like Gregers, I obviously imagined that I could redirect some of the pain I'd experienced over the years: like a solar panel I would convert the negative energy I'd absorbed into a charge big enough to shock my school.

Aside from his ability to inflict pain, what intrigued me most about Gregers was his penchant for speaking obliquely. Again and again throughout the play, he refers to his purpose or mission in cryptic language of which literal-minded people like his father or Hjalmar can't make sense. At the beginning of the play, Gregers' father speaks desparagingly of Hjalmar's father, calling him 'a broken man,' adding that 'there are people in this world who plunge to the bottom when they've been winged, and they never come up again.' When Gregers comes to live at the Ekdals', he finds that his father has given them a wild duck he shot while hunting, retrieved only slightly harmed from the lake bottom by his 'remarkably clever' hunting dog. This wild duck is daughter Hedvig's pride and joy and the centerpiece of a special 'wilderness' loft the Ekdals have made up for Hjalmar's father where he can hunt indoors for rabbits with a pistol.

Gregers appears to think that this fantasy space, this place of illusions, represents the reality of the Ekdal family's life of lies far better than the ordinary domestic space where they eat, sleep, and converse. Lamenting the 'curse' of his family name , Gregers suddenly states that, rather than be a Werle, he'd like to be 'a really fantastic, clever dog, the kind that goes to the bottom after wild ducks when they dive under and bite fast into the weeds down in the mire.' Hjalmar replies: 'You know, Gregers — I can't follow a word you're saying.' As the play progresses, Gregers repeatedly invokes this image of the wounded wild duck, who has gone down to the murky, weedy bottom of the lake to die. He links it to Hjalmar: 'You're wandering in a poisonous swamp, Hjalmar. You've got an insidious disease in your system, and so you've gone to the bottom to die in the dark.' Later, he disrupts a lunch given for him and the Ekdals' other two tenants, Dr. Relling and Molvik, by stating that he can't full y enjoy himself breathing 'marsh gas,' then refers to the 'stench' in the air. The Ekdals take it literally, as indicated by Gina's reply: 'I'll tell you this, Mr. Werle — that you, who made all that mess with your stove, have no right to come to me talking about smells.' Basically, Gregers manages to avoid speaking literally for almost the entire play.

Over the summer before twelfth grade I began a plot to refashion myself. I came back from my art school pre-college at R.I.S.D. having both lost a lot of weight and acquired some understanding of the alternative music played on college radio. By the time school started I was losing even more weight, popping six to eight NO-DOZ, jogging, and playing lots of solo basketball every day. I began buying 'alternative' albums none of my classmates had heard of, which was a reasonably radical move at a school where the only three 'alternative' music fans had consisted of A) a girl expelled in the 10th grade for 'inappropriate' hair and other code violations, B) a somewhat marginal girl in my year who had been — unjustly — labelled a 'slut', and C) a misanthropic outcast much like myself who worked nights at WHFS — the 'alternative' station — and left after the 10th grade to attend community college. I also started doing odd things to attract attention to myself, like stacking all of the desks in the library media room in a ten-foot mountain. The particular form my self-refashioning took is, however, best illustrated by something I did at our school-wide assemblies. These assemblies, which occurred at least once a month, took place in our gym. For some reason, during my miserable junior-high days, I had always seemed to have gym class right before assembly, which meant that I got out of the locker-room late and had to walk across the gym floor, scanning for a seat, with the entire student body's eyes and words upon me. Assemblies were thus one of the most painful of my school experiences. In twelfth grade, however, I began wearing only one sleeve of the jacket we boys never seemed to take off, letting the other dangle as if I were an amputee. The effect at assembly was especially pronounced and I didn't mind arriving late anymore. I remember getting my PSAT award, in particular, for I had to walk up to the podium, all eyes upon me, to pick it up.

My metamorphosis thus consisted primarily of changing myself from the unwilling outcast, praying he can escape the gaze of the hostile crowd, into the self-made, willing outcast, who invites the gaze that marks him as different from the crowd. I accompanied my transformation, which my classmates and teachers were quick to remark, with a style of speaking patterned after Gregers'. I would make deliberately obscure comments and try to intone them with portents of doom. I spoke sometimes of my 'hit list' and the revenge I planned to exact on those who had wronged me, never making it clear whether I was speaking of the political wrongs inflicted by our school administration or the personal ones inflicted by my schoolmates. This move to cryptic discourse was epitomized by pieces I wrote for our yearbook and student newsmagazine in which I appeared to praise our school with the overzealousness of a bad p.r. man, but was 'really' making fun of it. One piece on student athletics likened our school to classical Athens, but noted that, while 'Athens succumbed, due, in part, to the internal conflicts which wracked the city's government,' Queen Anne, 'has had no such problems. It keeps on turning out peace-loving scholar-athletes with nary a sign of unrest.' Another, which I gave the clever by-line 'Hjalmar Ekdal', likened our headmaster to Abraham Lincoln for his ability to steer our school through a civil war with flying colors. Of course, many of my readers — modern-day Hjalmar Ekdals, as I condes cendingly envisioned them — probably took such pieces literally: the copy in yearbooks and student newspapers is usually laudatory and overblown and how were they to know mine was actually meant to be a coded critique? At the time, however, because I was trying to be like Gregers, I was completely taken with the idea of being deliberately, even perversely obscure in my meaning.

What I did not — and perhaps could not — realize when I first read The Wild Duck is that much of the play is about the attraction Gregers' use of language has for a teenager. Unlike her parents, Gregers' father, and the other adults in the play, Hedvig does not just write off Gregers' statements as the product of an over-intellectual, over-cloistered, or even demented mind. She is, rather, intrigued by them. After Gregers has said that he would like to be 'a clever dog,' Gina wants Hedvig to confirm that Gregers is a little strange: 'Wasn't that a queer business, his wanting to be a dog?' Hedvig has a different opinion. Whereas the adults are unable, or at least unwilling, to acknowledge that Gregers is speaking in code, Hedvig states her belief that 'it was just as if he meant something else from what he said, all the time.' She intuits that the surface of his language, its literal meaning, differs radically from its depths. Later in the play, referring to the Ekdal's wild duck, Gregers obliquely states that 'she's been in the depths of the sea.' Hedvig is struck, first by the fact that Gregers uses the poetic-sounding word for 'depths' instead of the word for 'bottom,' then reveals that she herself has often thought that the fantasy 'wilderness' of the loft where the wild duck lives is called 'the depths of the sea,' though she can't understand why, since it's only an attic. Gregers, however, encourages her to imagine the world metaphorically, going so far as to ask her whether she knows for certain that the loft is, in fact, 'only an attic.' Towards the end of the play, when Hjalmar has learned that Hedvig is not his own progeny and most cruelly rejects her daughterly advances, Gregers consoles Hedvig with hard-to-fathom advice on how to win back her father's love by making a 'sacrifice': the wild duck. Unfortunately, Hedvig seems to have learned the art of metaphorical interpretation a little too well. Although Gregers has referred to the 'wild duck' in Hjalmar, Hedvig decides that she is the wild duck and ends up shooting herself instead of the bird. Like the boy who cried wolf, Gregers is misinterpreted when he actually means what he says.

Gregers plays the part of Hedvig's seducer. Unlike most seducers, however, Gregers does not use his rhetorical skills to get her in bed, but to win her mind: he seduces her with figurative language, not to attain some physical end, but for figurative language's own sake. And she ends up commiting suicide, just as surely as if, in some more traditional plot, her honor had been ruined. Now obviously I'm still here to write this and was not led to physically commit suicide in being seduced by Greger's use of figurative language. In a way, though, the 'plot' I tried to follow in the twelfth grade, inspired by The Wild Duck, amounted to a form of symbolic suicide. Although my recent experiences, and especially — or so it seems — the aura of transformation surrounding my newly thin body and tautly misanthropic form, were conspiring to make me an acceptable person to invite to nights-out and parties, I refused all implorings to hang out and have fun, because I knew it would compromise the dramatic end to my plot. I even tried, unsuccessfully, to have my page removed from the senior pictures in the yearbook.

Towards the end of the year, my resolve to carry out my plan was slackening. However, when a political satire I had written for the last issue of the student newsmagazine was censored and I needed something to fill my allotted pages, I finally did decide to run the story I'd written at the beginning of the year as the last part of my plot. Every year the student newsmagazine devoted much of its last issue to 'senior wills,' in which twelfth-graders willed things to themselves and underclassmen. These wills were usually a combination of good-humor and sincere-sounding declarations of friendship. My story, on the other hand, though written like a senior will, was a straightforward declaration of my unwillingness to forgive and forget the pain my classmates had caused me. In it I catalogued the many John Hughes teenpic-like pleasures my status as outcast had prevented me from enjoying, then concluded with a statement that I would not be attending any of the events surrounding the end of high school: not the schoolwide awards ceremony, not the senior trip to Ocean City, not graduation itself. My story was intended to be the last time any of my classmates would 'see' me, really seeing me as they would, I believed, for the very first time.

My story came out the last day of school. I stayed home most of the day, but had to come to school in the afternoon to turn in my A.P. English term paper. As I walked towards the main building, some of my classmates walked past me on the way to their cars, giving me weird looks. A couple of them asked me where I got off saying such fucked-up shit. Thinking back on the surreal slow-motion in which I seemed to be encountering them, I picture them like the lumbering corpses in Night of the Living Dead . Though I hadn't mentally prepared myself for such a strong reaction, I remember being at least partially pleased with myself — as I usually was when something I'd written was suddenly made public — at having had an 'effect' on people. Ironically, one of my classmates on the staff of the newspaper had willed me a 'hammer' with which to shatter illusions! Later than afternoon, however, my plan derailed when my mother — puritanically sparse with emotional display — started crying because I wasn't going to the awards ceremony. So I ended up going after all. Afterwards, one of the nicest girls in our class, and one of the few I could not recall being wronged by walked up to me in tears as I was getting in the car, saying she and my other classmates were sorry and would I consider coming on the senior trip anyway. Still marvelling at the extent of my 'effect' — like Gregers when he learns that Hedvig has sacrificed herself — but also strangely moved, the rest of my resolve melted away. I made the trip and attended graduation, making my story into a fiction whose 'I' was not me: my symbolic suicide had a strangely 'normal' postscript. But I had caused a lot of pain.

At one point in the play, Relling, who has known Gregers during his time 'in exile', asks him whether he still carries around with him the text of a 'Summons to the Ideal' with which he used to proselytize. Gregers replies: 'I've got it written on my heart.' In the twelfth grade I had the text of The Wild Duck written on my heart. And I certainly made more intense and idiosyncratic use of it than a well-mannered sampler of canonical texts should. But what did I use it for? I used it to get revenge. I used it to hurt people. I used it to deny myself the very 'normal' high-school experiences I had longed for in the first place. I had even used it against itself, ignoring the lesson of the plot's tragic unfolding in order to model myself after an idealist oblivious to the pains of the real world. In other words, this autobiographical narrative I've been spinning is itself, like The Wild Duck, a cautionary tale. When I began the eleventh grade by involving myself in extracurricular activities, I had a definite goal. I wanted to feel less isolated, to come out of the protective shell I'd been hardening since the seventh grade, to get to know schoolmates I had been afraid to talk to. By the end of the twelfth grade, however, I was using my extra-curricular activities to re-isolate myself, to sever ties with the very people I had reached out to the previous year. What happened? Why did I choose to reassume my outcast status?

While the particulars of my story may be unique, its basic plot should be a familiar one to anybody who has read accounts of the development of American progressive politics since the early sixties. Here's how the story is most commonly told. At first, people traditionally excluded from mainstream society begin struggling to be integrated into it. They are then surprised to find people dissatisfied with mainstream society reaching out to them. For a while, coalitions unite around broadly defined goals : ending racial segregation, stopping the Vietnam war, achieving equality for women in the workplace. Unfortunately, a series of political setbacks in the late sixties and early seventies drives many people out of the 'Movement'. Disagreements break out among the people who remain over differences of race, class, and gender. By the time the eighties roll around, progressive politics consists of thousands of tiny groups with their own special causes, few of whom seem either capable or willing of sustaining long-term cooperation with other, supposedly like-minded groups. Increasingly, people not only stick to their own political causes, but to people of their own kind. Female leftists belong to different groups than male leftists, white leftists belong to different groups than black leftists, meat-eating leftists to different groups than vegetarian leftists — and so on.

My story duplicates this progression in microcosm. I do not mean, of course, that my temporary experience of marginal status was anywhere near as painful as the permanent one suffered by people of color, women in the workforce, and homosexuals. What I do believe, however, is that the symptoms in my case are remarkably similar in kind, if not in scope, to the ones experienced by many people, especially intellectuals, in these marginal groups. Like them, I had begun to come out of my shell when a politic al setback discouraged me. Like them, I found it difficult to control the resentment I'd built up over the years, particularly when the people around me started acting like things were 'back to normal' before I'd gotten rid of my status as an outcast. Like them, I found myself losing sight of my original goals in order to lash out at whoever was in striking distance, deciding that it was better to hurt someone, exacting however small a measure of revenge, than it was to wait for an opportunity to properly channel my rage that might never come. Why did I stop trying to build bridges in order to make myself a self-made outcast? In our Bad Subjects manifesto (Issue #7, September 1993) we offered a critique of a kind of multiculturalism that 'encourages people to embrace and celebrate the very identities which they have received from their historical and present oppression,' doing 'little more than allow people to see negative stereotypes in a positive light.' In my own way, I was mimicking this kind of multiculturalism in microcosm. Rather than have other people in my community decide what was 'different' or unacceptable about me, I took control of the process myself, wearing my symbolic castration on my empty sleeve. Rather than feel the pain of being rejected by my schoolmates, I rejected them.

I had, it seems, actually become attached to my marginal status. I spent so much time getting in shape, not in order to make my integration into the 'normal' community easier, but to give me more opportunities to refuse its advances. I had come to like not having a social life, because I was spared the responsibilities that come with it. I didn't have to consider the feelings of others. I didn't have to worry about anyone but myself. Even better, by remaining an outcast I remained 'special'. Because I couldn't consider myself one of the 'normal' people, it was easier for me to believe that I was superior to them. They were a herd of pathetic Hjalmar Ekdals, soiled by the compromises that come with impure relationships; I was the uncomprised, solitary intellectual like Gregers Werle, able to see through their pettiness and self-deception at a glance.

By coming to actively enjoy being an outcast, I was actually making myself into the kind of intellectual who uses her or his learning to feel superior to less-educated people. I was, in fact, a defender-in-training of the canon, for the canon has traditionally been used as a 'means of division', a tool for separating the worthy Few from the hopeless Many. And many of its best defenders have not been Machiavellian cynics consciously seeking to keep the masses at bay, but rather selfless crusaders for truth like Gregers trying to get the sordid everyday world to match the purity of their noble Ideal. Gregers thinks he's going to demystify the Ekdals, yet, though he is under no threat of censorship, he repeatedly mystifies them with his figurative language. Gregers imagines himself as a 'clever dog' who will rescue the 'wild ducks' of the world, yet never stops to consider that the sort of dog that fetches wild ducks from lake bottoms must really be working for the hunter who shoots the bird in the first place. Gregers' Ideal is really the ideology of the canon. If The Wild Duck seems to me to be a little more useful than most canonical texts would be in the sort of 'political education for everyday life' Bad Subjects aspires to, it's because it allows us to see this, to realize that Gregers is even more blind to himself than Hjalmar, to question ourselves whenever we believe we can see through other people's life-lies without reflecting on our own. Of course, the text only allows us to reach these conclusions; it's up to us to make sure we get there.

Charlie Bertsch is a graduate student in English at UC-Berkeley, who plans to write his dissertation on the relationship between modernist aesthetics and popular culture. He is also a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. He can be reached at the following Internet address:

Copyright © 1994 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.

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