Part 2: Parsifal & Wagner's other operas

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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Part 2: Parsifal & Wagner's other operas

Post by alberich00 » Mon Jun 18, 2018 12:11 pm

There's a specific passage in one of Feuerbach's books (I haven't the energy to try to look it up but you'll find it Appendix II of which is a sort of prose poem in praise of the pain and anguish of life in the real world of time and space, which Feuerbach says we mortal humans would long for if we could really become immortal in heaven and realize how unbearable this is, which is self-evidently the direct source of Tannhaeuser's complaint to Venus.

In Wagner's Feuerbach-tinged reading of the Grail Realm Titurel's incapacity to die, his living long after being virtually in the grave, kept alive only by the sight of the Grail, becomes Wagner's metaphor for the fact that those under religion's illusory promise of immortality and redemption from the real world in paradise are unable to accept the fact of death. This also explains why Amfortas can't die but wishes to. This is precisely the same argument Tannhaeuser made to Venus when explaining why he must leave her and only extol her, his muse, in his art, rather than reaching for actual sorrowless youth eternal, or immortality. Klingsor's self-castration in a futile quest to renounce nature and yet live is another metaphor for the incapacity of religious man to accept mortality and his true place in Nature.

Kundry's curse, to be reborn again and again in two antithetical yet co-dependent incarnations, first as the seducer, and second as the Grail servant who lives to atone for the injury her seduction has caused the knights (in another life she seems to forget upon waking from it, just as Tannhaeuser always forgets, upon waking from his unconscious artistic inspiration by Venus, that he had been sojourning with her to obtain the inspiration for his art), is Wagner's metaphor for the endless cycle, which in the end he comes to regret, of unconscious artistic inspiration. RW expressed this regret dramatically in the self-torture Tristan performs in his self-analysis in Act Three (think here of Elliott Zuckerman's - former Tutor at St. John's College in Annapolis, MD - book The First Hundred Years of Tristan), culminating in his deliberately committing suicide before his muse Isolde can heal him again and plunge him back into the endless cycle of unconscious artistic inspiration, followed by the creation and production for an audience of a work of art. Wagner in the end complains that this endless cycle of suffering of "Noth" (the artist-hero's unconscious confrontation with knowledge which would be unbearable if conscious, as in Wotan's confession to Bruennhilde of what he dare not say aloud), followed always by his creation of the redemptive Wahn of artistic self-deception (of which Loge is the incarnation) has hidden from him the true, earnest nature of the real world, which he must ultimately face without consolation. Wagner of course conflates Kundry's endless cycles of death and rebirth, his metaphor for his own endlessly repeated cycles of unconscious artistic inspiration and creation/production for an audience of his new work of art, with Buddhist reincarnation, and her redemption from re-living this endless cycle with the Buddhist desire for ultimate escape from rebirth, which of course also entered into the so-called Schopenhauerian ending for the Ring, as spoken by Bruennhilde. This explains why Siegfried, just prior to kissing his muse of Bruennhilde awake, says he must kiss Bruennhilde awake even if he must die doing so. Each cycle of unconscious artistic inspiration (confrontation with what he most fears and can't bear to contemplate consciously) followed by waking creation and production of a new work of art, an allegorical representation of what he knows in his unconscious mind as a nightmare, is a figurative death and rebirth.

Way back in my college years in an anthropology course, in the 70's, I wrote a paper on the phenomenon of shamanism among certain stone age hunting bands in Siberia, Canada, Africa, Australia, etc. A regularly recurring trope, or archetype, was the testimony of shamans that in order to obtain the favor of their helping spirit to predict the movement of herds or cure sickness or find something missing, etc., they had to allow themselves to be dismembered by their helping spirit and reconstituted, so they could be reborn. Wagner is tapping into very deep roots indeed! I also posited in this paper a notion I described as "scapegoating" (not in the same sense you have used the term, referencing Girard), in which Shamans could rationalize the introduction of new, novel things into their otherwise strictly traditional cultures by scapegoating (or dumping guilt for these innovations onto) their helping spirits, i.e., attributing these novelties to a sort of divine revelation, which gave them an authority otherwise lacking. The main point about the Shamans as religious practitioners is that they are inspired artists, performers, dramatists, song-writers, etc.

Apropos of Parsifal's failure to ask Amfortas (who stands in for the Fisher King) what ails him, note that Bruennhilde does ask her father, Wotan, what ails him, but Wotan, in answering her through his confession, insists that she keep his secret, which he says will remain unspoken in words, but spoken only to himself, since Bruennhilde is his self, his Will (the religious mystery unspoken in words, but not unspoken in music). It's also noteworthy that, according to RW (in A Communication to My Friends, and elsewhere), the decisive step in RW's life which led him to transform himself from an author/composer of conventional romantic operas, in which music still had, according to him, only a mechanical relationship with the drama, with words, to a revolutionary creator of music-dramas in which music and drama are organically one, was Elsa's asking Lohengrin the question he forbade. Lohengrin's forbidding that question is Wagner's symbol for religious faith's fear of knowledge, fear of freedom of inquiry (remember Feuerbach's admiration for Eve's transgression, as ushering in the modern skeptical, self-critical mind). This same fear is represented in the Ring by Fafner's guarding Alberich's Ring, Tarnhelm, and Nibelung Hoard so no one can access or use its power. And of course Alberich's Nibelung Hoard, forcibly removed from the earth (Erda), is allegorically identical with the knowledge which Wotan (collective, historical man during the mytho-poetic phase of human history) gains through his wanderings (i.e., man's historical experience) on the surface of the earth, Mother Nature (Erda), in his role as the Wanderer.

So, in RW's allegorical conception, religious faith must be breached in order that the revolutionary, secular Wagnerian music-drama can fall heir to dying religious faith's longing for transcendent value, in the face of modern skepticism (represented in a sense by Elsa's insistence on breaching Lohengrin's demand for unquestioning faith). In any case, forbidding asking a question is the opposite of a requirement to ask, unbidden. And of course, in Lohengrin, Lohengrin is Parsifal's son (in spite of the fact, as Nietzsche joked, that Parsifal was sworn to celibacy). In my interpretation, the solution to the question, what ails Amfortas, what causes his unhealing wound, is mankind's age-old, futile religious longing for redemption from the real world, longing for transcendent value. Wotan's answer to Bruennhilde's question to her father, what ails him, is that, thanks to fatal knowledge obtained from her mother Erda, Mother Nature, the gods are predestined to destruction, are predestined to succumb to Alberich's Ring Curse. And in fact they're predestined to bring this about themselves, through their very effort to avoid it, as in Sophocles's Oedipus drama. Alberich's Ring Curse is the Ring's variant of the unhealing wound in Tristan and Parsifal. Let me add that in all of Wagner's canonical operas and music-dramas, from Dutchman to Parsifal, there is a reference in the libretto to this wound, in one form or another.

Nietzsche seems to have entirely missed the point of Parsifal, that in it Wagner is saying goodbye to man's religious bid for transcendence. Nietzsche accused RW of bowing before the cross in a romantic retrograde impulse in Parsifal, but Nietzsche strangely didn't register the fact (or at least pretended not to) that Parsifal is the culmination of RW's Feuerbach-influenced critique of religion.

RW's Lohengrin intervenes in Elsa's behalf allegedly because the Grail called on him to protect the innocent. Elsa has been accused by Frederick of fratricide, since her brother Godfrey went missing when she was exploring the forest with him. But Wagner modeled his Elsa on Eve, who breached God's demand for unquestioning faith, his demand that man not obtain forbidden knowledge. An aspect of RW's take on the Lohengrin tale is that perhaps Elsa is guilty in a figurative or allegorical sense. If she is Eve, then her brother Godfrey can be taken for Adam. Note that RW said that Kundry can be taken for Eve, and Amfortas for Adam, and Parsifal as Christ (though Wagner hedged on this last equation). Neither Eve nor Adam literally died after eating the forbidden fruit, but instead they became subject to death, which Wagner reinterprets to mean that thanks to the acquisition of human consciousness, the animal man was able, unlike other animals, to foresee his inevitable death. This of course is the muse for the creation of religious belief and philosophy. So in this sense Frederick and Ortrud are correct in charging Elsa with fratricide, in spite of the fact that Godfrey still lives.

They also charge Lohengrin with using magic to trick Ortrud and her enabler Frederick (Wagner's incipient metaphor for the modern, sceptical, scientific spirit which explodes our consoling religious illusions, a model for Hagen and Melot) out of their rightful inheritance (think of Alberich's fury at Wotan here). Note also that Ortrud is identified with the pagan gods (whom Wagner identifies with nature gods), just as Venus is (she's linked not only with Eve but also Freia). What Wagner means is that what we call religious faith is actually a euphemism for the magic of art. Ortrud in Lohengrin performs the role that Erda did in the Ring (while Lohengrin fills a role approximately like that of Wotan): Ortrud possesses knowledge that Lohengrin is actually a natural being who uses the magic of art to delude the public into granting him power. The public assume he's divinely inspired and comes to them from God. The secret knowledge of Lohengrin's origin and identity is the same knowledge Wotan confessed to Bruennhilde, that the so-called gods aren't gods but are illusions predestined to destruction once mankind loses belief/faith.

It's for this reason that Elsa instinctively understands that she must help Lohengrin keep the secret of his true identity, that if this knowledge is made public (i.e., conscious), Lohengrin will be in great danger ("Noth"). This great danger is identical with Wotan's divine "Noth" which he confessed to Bruennhilde. Wagner's great revolution was this: instead of Elsa merely offering to help Lohengrin keep the dangerous secret of his true identity in silence, Bruennhilde will instead hold this knowledge for Wotan, keep this secret even from him, so he can be reborn as Siegfried, the artist-hero who doesn't know who he is. Lohengrin had to part forever from Elsa after she compelled him to answer the forbidden question (which in fact he didn't do, since his allegation that he's a Grail knight masks the true reason he has to leave the world, which is that Elsa has breached faith because she instinctively knows Lohengrin is posing as someone inspired by God, by the Grail), just as Wotan has to part forever from Bruennhilde after she openly acts on the secret knowledge Wotan imparted to her. In Lohengrin, it's her brother Godfrey (Adam), who is the embryo for the artist-hero Siegfried. In Lohengrin's absence from the world, Godfrey becomes his heir, and falls heir to Lohengrin's sword, horn, and ring (which develops into Alberich's Ring), just as Siegfried falls heir to Siegmund's sword (ultimately, Wotan's great idea), a horn, and Alberich's Ring.

The Grail represents man's futile bid for transcendent value, for redemption from the real world in a supernatural paradise of the imagination. Wagner was critical of man's wish to escape the worldly order, and stated that it was in fact Lohengrin who sought redemption from the sterile Grail realm by possessing the love of a real, physical woman. This illustrates Feuerbach's thesis that the religious imagination seeks unconsciously to smuggle into the paradise of redemption from the real world the very substance of the real world which was renounced in order to be worthy of redemption. According to Feuerbach the religious imagination tries to perform an impossible, artificial operation, to salvage from reality only what is blissful, and to discard the pain and fear inherent to life which are necessary ingredients in all that gives us pleasure and bliss. That Bruennhilde had to give up her divinity and divine chastity in order to become the muse for Wotan's (religion's) heir, the mortal, secular artist-hero Siegfried, illustrates this Feuerbachian principle in the sense that for Wagner inspired art doesn't promise actual redemption from the real world but only to make us feel, within the real world, as if we've transcended it. The experience remains earthbound. This is what's behind Wagner's critique of Lohengrin and his celebration of the breacher of faith, Elsa.

If you can find the time/opportunity to read over both my shorter, published essay on Lohengrin, How Elsa Showed Wagner the Way to Siegfried, and its longer iteration which discusses Feuerbach's influence on RW's Lohengrin (using material from Feuerbach's four books which influenced RW, but to which I had no access when I wrote the published article in 1995), you will find in these essays a very great deal not previously discussed anywhere (to my knowledge) that is of great relevance to grasping Parsifal and the Ring. I reproduce below just a few key insights from my two essays on Lohengrin which I think you'll find valuable.

Wagner in a A Communication to My Friends described Elsa as Lohengrin's unconscious mind, the involuntary part of him, the other half of him, to which he turns for redemption. Recall that Bruennhilde describes herself as Wotan's Will and as his other half, the ageless part of him. Lohengrin seeks marriage with her, according to Wagner, to redeem himself from the sterile loneliness of the Grail Realm. In my interpretation Elsa, a metaphor for Eve, also needs redemption for her crime of fratricide, but not in the sense that this is normally understood. Godfrey is her brother and a figure for Adam. Elsa is accused by Frederick, thanks to Ortrud's testimony, of having murdered her brother Godfrey. In RW's allegorical thinking we can construe this as the crime Eve committed of tempting Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, the divine knowledge which God forbade the twin pair to possess. Sharing this forbidden knowledge with Adam was fatal in the sense that thanks to mankind's acquisition of reflective consciousness, man could foresee his inevitable death. The price paid here is similar to that paid by those who possess Alberich's Ring, not that they will die immediately, but they become conscious that they will die inevitably. They must fearfully foresee the end all their days, and this of course is the muse that gave birth to both religion and philosophy. Thus Alberich's Ring is the curse of consciousness, of being human, the price of the Fall. God expelled Adam and Eve from paradise for this infraction (they would now experience both death and shame), but according to RW the primary characteristic of man since the Fall (i.e., since he evolved from animal to man) is his longing to restore lost paradise, lost innocence. Christ allegedly is God who came to earth and took on mortal form in order to offer fallen man reprieve from his original sin in a restoration of lost paradise, and Lohengrin to an extent, in coming to redeem Elsa from what he describes as a false accusation of fratricide (RW's metaphor for the Fall Eve caused), resembles Christ the savior in this.

But it turns out that what Lohengrin is really doing is asking Elsa for a favor. He can grant her a condition in which she will be blameless for her fratricide (being guilty of the Fall), a gift of grace, a condition of marriage in which he protects her good name, if she can keep the faith by never asking him to reveal his true identity. Ortrud, an incipient version of Erda, Mother Nature, knows what no one else knows, that Lohengrin didn't come from God (which is what everyone assumes thanks to Lohengrin's impressive, magical, artistically persuasive entrance and his winning the fight with Frederick), but is actually a natural, mortal human being who is using magic to persuade the masses (she means art instead of the true promises of religion: she says the God of Christian faith is bogus, and wishes man to restore her lost power by restoring belief in the pagan Norse gods, which Wagner in Lohengrin presents as nature gods). But Elsa offers Lohengrin in return an ability to redeem himself from the abstract, illusory paradise of the Grail realm in the loving arms of a real, physical woman.

What RW's getting at here is that eventually religious faith, represented by the Grail, will die and art, which doesn't seek to transcend the world but within the world grant us the feeling we've risen above it, will replace it. Ortrud's persuading Elsa that Lohengrin would be in danger if his true identity became known (something which wouldn't be the case if he is really a Grail knight and immortal), is RW's incipient version of Erda, Bruennhilde's mother, who imparts to Wotan the knowledge that he and the gods are predestined to destruction by Alberich's curse on his Ring (consciousness, and its ability to accumulate a hoard of knowledge of the real, objective world, which will overthrow religious faith in time). Erda imparts this knowledge to Wotan who imparts it in turn to his own unconscious mind, and their daughter, Bruennhilde, knowledge which he must repress there because, as he says, it is too unbearable to say aloud.

Elsa, believing Ortrud's assertion that Lohengrin would be endangered and suffer "Noth" if the secret of his identity and origin (Alberich's Ring musically gives birth to Valhalla) is known, but also believing Ortrud's assertion that Lohengrin will remain true to her if she persuades him to share his forbidden self-knowledge with her, offers to help protect Lohengrin from this eventuality if he will share his forbidden knowledge with her (as Bruennhilde asks Wotan to share his divine "Noth," the reason for what troubles him to the point that he despairs of being able to live, with her). But having asked the forbidden question, Elsa has forced Lohengrin to reveal his ostensible origin and identity (ostensible because it turns out not to be true), which forces him to leave her forever. But he doesn't leave her without consolation, because Godfrey, disguised as the swan allegedly by the Grail in order to protect him while he was lost, will return to life and be Lohengrin's heir, by which Wagner meant Godfrey is an incipient artist-hero Siegfried who falls heir to Wotan and the gods after Wotan has to leave Bruennhilde forever, just as Wagner said that when God had to leave us he left us, in remembrance of him, music. Lohengrin leaves Godfrey his sword (this becomes the sword Wotan leaves for his mortal descendents, Siegmund and ultimately Siegfried), his horn (Siegfried uses a horn to seek good companions, particularly Bruennhilde), and ring (by virtue of which Lohengrin tells the grieving and bereft Elsa Godfrey will remember how Lohengrin once protected Elsa from "Noth").

Lohengrin is very much a Feuerbachian work, as is Tannhaeuser, though of course RW entirely transforms his Feuerbachian elements into something quite fresh and new which Feuerbach hadn't anticipated explicitly, but which was implicit in a few of Feuerbach's observations. Wotan, by the way, has to leave Bruennhilde because she broke his demand for faith in a somewhat different way: she openly acted on the knowledge of Wotan's futile longing for redemption which Wotan had imparted to her in his confession and intended she would keep secret and not openly act on, when what Wotan really needed was a covert redemption, which is what Bruennhilde finally offers in being able to hold, for Siegfried, the knowledge of his true origin and identity, and keep its secret (even from Siegfried) so Siegfried can be protected from consciousness of that knowledge, Wotan's divine "Noth," yet safely obtain inspiration from this forbidden and unconscious knowledge. Bruennhilde therefore carried the redemption from "Noth" which Elsa had offered to Lohengrin one step further.

As Wagner said in several ways, Elsa's breach of Lohengrin's demand for unquestioning faith was Wagner's inspiration for moving from the romantic opera composer of Lohengrin, in which, according to RW, his music still had only a mechanical relationship with the drama, its words, to the author of the revolutionary music-drama, in which music and drama become organically one, in the perfect loving relationship. Where Lohengrin refused to share with Elsa in loving union (the womb of night, of unconscious artistic inspiration) his forbidden knowledge, Wotan by contrast shares with Bruennhilde the unspoken secret of his divine "Noth" which he dare not say aloud, i.e., consciously. Wagner not only stated that Elsa made him a revolutionary but he also said that Elsa taught him to unearth his Siegfried. Siegfried doesn't know who he is, and is protected from Wotan's divine "Noth" and the "Noth" that Lohengrin was at risk of suffering if his secret was revealed, because Bruennhilde knows this for Siegfried, as she says herself in S.3.3. When Wotan imparted to Bruennhilde the fatal, secret knowledge that Mother Earth knew that the gods were predestined by Alberich's Ring Curse of consciousness to destruction, but also his futile longing for a hero from whom all that Wotan loathes in his own nature would be purged, Wotan was virtually asking his "Will" Bruennhilde, the womb of his wishes, to give Wotan rebirth as the hero who doesn't know who he is, who is purged of all that Wotan loathed in his own egoistic, fearful nature (represented in the Ring by Mime).

So Wotan is reborn in Siegfried, minus consciousness of his true identity, and Bruennhilde holds this secret for Siegfried and through her magic protects him, at the front (not his back, where repressed memory of what's behind him can be re-awoken and strike), from Wotan's foresight of the inevitable doom of the gods. And of course, as Feuerbach said, inspired art is safe from religious faith's doom because, unlike religious belief, it doesn't make a bid for power, the power of truth, by proclaiming its fiction to be true, since the artist offers his art openly as a fiction, a game of play, or in music feeling without thinking. And Feuerbach also said that when God could no longer sustain himself in the world, thanks to mankind's breach of religious faith, he retreated to the safety of feeling, which elsewhere Feuerbach identified with music. This is what Bruennhilde means when she tells Siegfried something he doesn't understand, that what Wotan thought (his confession), she felt, and what she felt was just her love for Siegfried (which RW associates, by the way, with the so-called World-Inheritance Motif, Dunning's #134, and my H143, the motif associated in S.3.1 with Wotan's making Siegfried and Bruennhilde his heirs and willingly consigning the gods to oblivion). I can't place too much emphasis on my insight into how Elsa taught Wagner how to create Siegfried, and therefore how to advance from romantic opera to revolutionary music-drama, especially in light of the fact that Parsifal doesn't know who he is but Kundry knows this for Parsifal. This opens a numinous portal into the most secret recesses of Wagner's own unconscious artistic inspiration.

There is vastly more to say but this is enough to grant you some sense of how my allegorical reading links Lohengrin with the Ring, and therefore also with Parsifal (Lohengrin and Parsifal being RW's two Grail dramas). It's important to keep in mind that RW in The Wibelungs stated that the Nibelung Hoard (i.e., Alberich's Ring) was sublimated into the Holy Grail (just as Alberich's Ring Motif is transformed musically into the first two segments of Wotan's Valhalla Motif).

Wagner's 4-5 or so variations on this theme in his writings and recorded remarks stem from his reading in Feuerbach's Lectures on the Essence of Religion that religious belief is really just poetry which insists on belief. Feuerbach notes that once we rid ourselves of belief in godhead, we realize that religion, which insisted we believe its dogmas and miracles are true, is simply poetry. Once we recognize religious myth is fiction it still has value as art, with the advantage that it can't, unlike religious beliefs, be contradicted by facts, since the fiction is admitted. Feuerbach also noted music's advantage, that in it God finds a safe place of refuge, since music is pure feeling, and not a conceptual declaration of fact which could be contradicted and undermined by objective knowledge. As Wagner said in Mein Leben, Feuerbach taught him that what we have called spirit is really our aesthetic response to the tangible world.

Kundry is in a sense linked to the earth, the link of mankind's age-old longing for redemption from the real world in a realm of the spirit, to man's animal impulses. Thus she represents in a sense a permanent but hidden shame, that we can never, no matter how sublime our feelings or aspirations, transcend our true nature, transcend Mother Nature. It is from this that Amfortas suffers, the fact that he can never escape his bodily nature and its limitations, yet is drawn to devote himself to the futile effort to transcend his natural limits by serving the Grail. Thus Elsa collaborates with the alleged villains Ortrud and Frederick. Ortrud is a figure for mother earth (Erda) in a sense; in Lohengrin her authentic power has been co-opted by the Christian faith, just as Venus's true power has been forced underground but still influences all that goes on above ground. Think here of the Furies sublimated into the Eumenides thanks to Athena, one of RW's sources of inspiration for Bruennhilde. Frederick is to help Ortrud (Mother Nature) restore her lost power, and in this he is an incipient Hagen or Melot. Note that not only Elsa collaborates with the alleged villains Ortrud and Frederick to force Lohengrin (Christian faith) to leave the world, but Bruennhilde, Isolde, and Kundry collaborate with villains to undermine the man whom they would otherwise inspire as their muse, men who each in their way are responsible for their mother's death, just as Eve collaborates with the Serpent. Isolde's mother, like Bruennhilde's, is described as having the power of nature itself, and Herzeleide, Parsifal's mother who died because he neglected her, is for Wagner a figure for Mother Nature who religious man renounced. Parsifal's ultimate mission is to atone for the guilt in religious man's renunciation of the world, renunciation of Mother Nature, by restoring her to power and renouncing instead the temporary redemption mankind found in inspired secular art, by repudiating any further sexual relations with his muse of inspiration in his past lives, Kundry. Only in this way does Nature regain its innocence in the Good Friday Spell, and Amfortas's unhealing wound (mankind's futile striving against nature, like the Dutchman's oath he'd never give up trying to round the cape against all odds) can at last be healed. Only in this way can Wotan (mankind's striving to renounce nature in favor of immortal life, redemption, in a supernatural paradise alleged to be autonmous from nature) rest from his world-wanderings in a futile quest for redemption.

I might add that the Dutchman, like Wotan, was cursed to travel the world as a wanderer in a futile quest for redemption which, instead, resulted only in his collecting, against his will, a hoard of treasure, which in the opera is described as being guarded in silence as by a dragon. The Dutchman was cursed by the devil (an incipient synthesis of Alberich and Loge) because he'd sworn an oath never to give up striving to round a cape against the wind. This is for RW an incipient version of religious man's sin of striving to renounce nature and to seek redemption in another realm of the spirit. In this the Dutchman suffers a curse like Alberich's curse on Wotan for co-opting his Ring power, a curse Alberich invokes in order to punish Wotan for his (religious man's) sin against all that was, is, or will be, i.e., Mother Nature (Erda) and her knowledge of all that was, is, and will be. Like Wotan, the Dutchman seeks a woman who will be true unto him (i.e., take on the burden of knowing who he really is, and sharing his fate) and redeem him from this burden. Bruennhilde as Wotan's repository for his confession of his inability to redeem himself from Alberich's Ring Curse stands to Wotan as Senta stands to the Dutchman.
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