Schopenhauer, Pessimism & Black Metal

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If the immediate and direct purpose of our life is not suffering then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world: for it is absurd to suppose that the endless affliction of which the world is everywhere full, and which arises out of the need and distress pertaining essentially to life, should be purposeless and purely accidental. Each individual misfortune, to be sure, seems an exceptional occurrence; but misfortune in general is the rule

Despite Arthur Schopenhauer’s hefty influence on the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, who enjoys a comparatively elevated status in the ideological underpinnings of Black Metal, the cynic himself is rarely acknowledged. The man is viewed by many as a pessimist and not much else, despite laying the groundwork for the majority of Nietzsche’s musings.

The exchange between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche is in its sum the totality of the black metal experience. With Schopenhauer you have an absurd world and few chances to escape or transcend it. With Nietzsche you have the anger and struggle to overcome this absurdity. The core concepts of black metal – those of triumph, catharsis and power – are prevalent Nietzschean notions. This is, perhaps, the reason black metal works; it provides a semblance of strength and progress. Black metal is a coping mechanism for the world. A world, most followers of the genre would agree, that is fraught with privation, anguish, and frustration.

If Schopenhauer lays out the initial worldview, then Nietzsche provides the mental conditioning to handle it. If Nietzsche conquered the “how,” then Schopenhauer posed the “why?”. His key tropes are all readily apparent in the genre: the absurd character of life, withdrawal into misanthropy, asceticism as escape, and the power of the sublime. They are not as prominent and efficacious as Nietzsche’s ‘how?’, but they underpin the accepted worldview of black metal.

Schopenhauer’s magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation, is where the man’s metaphysics and aesthetics are fully explained. The books are rich with metaphor and, unlike so much abstruse philosophy, marked by genuine literary prowess. I will attempt to do them justice with two separate articles. This first piece will handle the basics of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, where he justifies his pessimism, and will show how this pessimism is implicit in the standard black metal worldview. The second piece will elaborate on his understanding of art and how it can help us ascend past the pessimism of his metaphysics. I will consider his treatment of music in particular and how this differs from Nietzsche’s answer to the Schopenhauerian “why?”.

For Schopenhauer the human condition is a state of eternal suffering; this renders existence absurd by definition. His grand metaphysics convinced him that the only true escape from absurdity was to denounce life and embrace the destruction of the will/body. He wrote highly of the path to asceticism, of denying human instinct and desire. He wrote contemptuously of Christianity and the naïve scare/warmongering tactics embedded within its doctrine. He held up Buddhist self-abnegation as a brilliant device for transcending metaphysical boundaries. This gave him a deep respect for the animal and natural worlds, which became central to his treatment of the arts and the sublime in particular.

Schopenhauer was preoccupied with the belief that our place in the world as subjective beings, located in time and space and held to the rule of causality, precludes the possibility of an objective reality. For him, the world as we experience it is that of representation. We can only ever view the world through our senses, never as it is “in itself”. This world he labels Will (responding to Kant’s transcendental idealism and his notion of the noumenal world). There is a disparity between the way the world appears to us and the way the world is in-itself. For example, this discontinuity is something physicists battle with on a daily basis as they employ theoretical mathematics to comprehend the world of the very small and the world of the very large. Humankind is tethered to its perceptual apparatus. We are limited to our senses. This inability to ever contemplate an objective reality forms the basis of Schopenhauer’s brutal nihilism – Truth evades us.

Despite the unknowability of the world as will in general, Schopenhauer argues that Will makes itself manifest to us indirectly, in its effects. Will is a kind of driving, all encompassing force that pushes relentlessly on. Everything around us is manifestation of this continual state of willing and blind striving. Gravity and electricity are ‘at the very lowest grade the will manifesting itself as a blind impulse, an obscure, dull urge, remote from all direct knowableness’ (Bk2,Sec27). Natural selection and the process of evolution are a step up, themselves unending and unforgiving – the byproducts of a perpetual will to live.

Consciousness is the highest manifestation of the underlying Will. Here man is filled with endless desires and an unshakable will-to-live. All the greed, materialism and egoistic desire that characterize human behavior are just the shadows of Will. When one desire is fulfilled, it is quickly replaced by another. It presents man with an inherently absurd dilemma: ‘If man were asked why he wills generally or why in general he wills to exist, he would have no answer. Indeed, the question would seem to him absurd’. This Will is the basis of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics. It is without end, or goal, or direction, and that is what makes life devoid of meaning – there is no ultimate purpose for which we strive, no goal to be fulfilled, and therefore no cosmic justification for all the suffering brought on by the Will.

‘The life of every individual, viewed as a whole and in general, and when only its most significant features are emphasized, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy. For the doings and worries of the day, the restless mockeries of the moment, the desires and fears of the week, the mishaps of every hour, are all brought about by chance that is always bent on some mischievous trick; they are nothing but scenes from a comedy. The never-fulfilled wishes, the frustrated efforts, the hopes mercilessly blighted by fate, the unfortunate mistakes of the whole life, with increasing suffering and death at the end, always gives us a tragedy. Thus, as if fate wished to add mockery to the misery of our existence, our life must contain all the woes of tragedy, and yet we cannot even assert the dignity of tragic characters, but, in the broad detail of life, are inevitably the foolish characters of a comedy.’

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Every man does will, desire, want, need and further himself along the road of life – but in the last instance, he does so pointlessly. One satisfied desire only quells the appetite of the will for a small period of time before some new longing takes hold; ‘all willing springs from lack, from deficiency, and thus from suffering. Fulfillment brings this to an end; yet for one wish that is fulfilled there remain at least ten that are denied… fulfillment is short and meted out sparingly’.

Schopenhauer’s insight reveals a fundamental pessimism about human psychology. Suffering, and not pleasure, is the starting point for man; ‘a quick test of the assertion that enjoyment outweighs pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating with those of the animal being eaten’. Suffering is prior to happiness in existence.

The pervasiveness of suffering isn’t just a matter of the exchange rate between pain and pleasure, though. The world itself is a fragmented, warring, insufferable and tormented place. Every aspect of the will seeks to exercise its desires and needs over the needs of others. Moreover, since each organism and object represents an individuation of the universal Will, existence itself is a state of loss, lack, and longing. In the mutual antagonism and underlying unity of all will, Schopenhauer sees a grotesque contradiction; ‘thus the will-to-live generally feasts on itself, and is in different forms its own nourishment, till finally the human race, because it subdues all the others, regards nature as manufactured for its own use’.

Struggle, hate and destruction are the intrinsic characteristics of conscious man’s life. The Western capitalist model is built on the idea of endless striving, of greed and egoistic drive. The scale of the success of this model is testament to how well it fits our innate disposition. We waste no time supporting companies that enslave and exploit their workers, so long as our desires for the latest trinkets are met. This underlying chaos amongst people, and the lack of any common good, is proof that the will is essentially fighting against itself, a tragedy at the level of representation turned absurdly comic at the level of the Will.

The vanity of existence is revealed in the whole form existence assumes: in the contingency and relativity of things; in continual becoming without being; in continual desire without satisfaction; in the continual frustration of striving which life consists’.

Schopenhauer looks to life itself and asks “Why?”. This unflinching interrogation is very much in line with the disgust, self-deprecation and negative world view that lies at the heart of metal. The genre’s disgust at modern values and mainstream consciousness can be expressed in terms of this metaphysics of the Will with startling faithfulness. Black metal’s dedication to misanthropy, preoccupation with nature and espousal of anti-human values are all a result of the insurmountable problems faced in society and existence on a daily basis. The deeply engrained belief that the creation of black metal should not be swayed by the desires of fans or for financial gain strongly parallels the ideas of Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer was against religion, for the most part, arguing that it preferred to hide behind veils and never really addressed what it promised to address: the problems of metaphysics. ‘The bad thing about all religions is that, instead of being able to confess their allegorical nature, they have to conceal it… we must recognize the fact that mankind cannot get on without a certain amount of absurdity, that absurdity is an element in its existence, and illusion indispensable; as indeed other aspects of life testify.

Yet Schopenhauer’s asceticism lends itself to the oft-stereotyped satanic asceticism modeled by bands like Deathspell Omega and Funeral Mist. Their espousal of self-flagellation to deter bodily cravings is, according to Schopenhauer, the only permanent way to break the endless cycle of willing, to escape servitude to Will.

Yes, burn the self to kill the human within, and fetter now these lustful limbs, fetter the flesh, choke the sin’ – Funeral Mist, Holy Poison

The idea of Salvation comes, I believe, from the one whom suffering breaks apart. He who masters it, on the contrary, needs to be broken, to proceed on the path towards the rupture.’ – Deathspell Omega, The Repellent Scars of Abandon and Election

DESTROY. YOUR LIFE. FOR SATAN.’ – Mütiilation, Destroy your Life for Satan

Schopenhauer believed that animals, plants and the fundamental forces of nature stem from the same underlying Will that dominates our existence, and that we must respect them as we respect ourselves. This is a feeling not unlike being in the kernel of nature and realizing you are a part of the earth, birthed of the same cosmic dust as the trees and mountains. This kind of self-reflection has been the subject matter of mystical music, not just black metal, for decades.

I encourage you to go home, dig out some Paysage d’hiver and muse with Schopenhauer on the meaning of the sublime, because the parallels between this kind of music and his philosophy are manifold. The riff repetition goes hand in hand with the basic, endless striving of nature. It is unceasing and uncaring and therefore reveals a feeling of the sublime, similar in part to the famous ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ painting. Furthermore it holds sacred the isolation and purity of nature. I will come back to this in part two, where I deal with Schopenhauer’s aesthetics.

‘What gives all that is tragic, whatever its form, the characteristic of the sublime, is the first inkling of the knowledge that the world and life can give no satisfaction, and are not worth our investment in them. The tragic spirit consists in this. Accordingly it leads to resignation.’

‘The view opened up to me the clarity, simplicity and yet infinite complexity of being’Paysage d’hiver, Das Tor

Schopenhauer believed that the will to live could be broken through a heady ascent on the path of asceticism and self denial, i.e. self destruction. Through this kind of action the true nature of the world becomes clear: ‘To those in whom the will has turned and denied itself, this very real world of ours with all its suns and galaxies – is nothing’. This kind of will-denial, devoid of satanic undertones, is well documented by depressive black metal. Destruction of the self is a central theme of the band Make a Change… Kill Yourself, whose extended compositions and elongated riff-work bring to mind the different shadings of the will.

‘This tormenting reality makes you dream of things you can never have, or will ever live to see. Solutions are rare and the answer lies in death.’Make a Change… Kill Yourself, Fooling the Weak

Furthermore, this ‘heady ascent on the path of religious asceticism’ can be seen in some of the more occult and mystical strains of black metal. The idea of a discrete world in-and-of-itself, beyond immediate access to our intellects, is echoed in the sentiments of the Lovecraftian under-studies and any other band attempting to ‘peel back the veil’.

It is not that Schopenhauer has created a fantastical metaphysics that diverges from modern life; rather, his metaphysics is a complex system of interwoven observations that all find their base in the concept of the Will. Pessimism and absurdity are intricately interwoven into Schopenhauer’s philosophy. It is this worldview that is concurrent with that of black metal. ‘The astonishment that urges us to philosophize obviously springs from the sight of the evil and wickedness in the world. If our life were without end and free from pain, it would possibly not occur to anyone to ask why the world exists.’ In such insights, it becomes clear that, while Nietzsche’s philosophy might explain the rebellious spirit of black metal, Schopenhauer’s thought process goes a long way to explaining why we have this worldview, why this worldview needed to come into existence through Nietzche and the artists who followed in his wake.

The World as Will and Representation is intoxicating reading, and if you can stomach a bit of metaphysics and logic, you will be rewarded with a wellspring of ideas on suffering, pessimism and absurdity that are sure to influence your outlook on life. In part two, I will discuss the man’s aesthetic philosophy. For Schopenhauer, music was the highest art – and aesthetic contemplation was one of the most important aspects of our futile existence.

‘The composer reveals the innermost nature of the world, and expresses the profoundest wisdom in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand.’

You'll find me in the vast wilderness of British Columbia, talking metal at LURKER, or working in publishing and front-end web/eBook development.

24 Comments

  • Reply January 22, 2011

    A. B.

    To draw parallels between philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Black Metal is absurd (although rather common, I admit). As much as most Black Metal bands wish to have a deeper meaning, the brutal fact is that most Black Metal musicians have struggled to finish high school, let alone understand the works of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. Sorry if that is disillusioning to you. Also, his name is Arthur Schopenhauer, not Alfred.

  • Reply January 22, 2011

    black son

    why is it absurd? true, a lot of BM bands and fans probably not didfinish high school. True, Parallels aren’t as obvious as Nietzshe – but I enjoyed the read, thanks. I think it’s hard to summarise Schop!

    Who cares if most bands don’t take this into consideration? Relating a philosophy to musical movement is interesting in it’s own right. If this article makes just one person give WWR the time it deserves, great success I say.

  • Reply January 22, 2011

    Alex

    Hardly absurd.

    I explain the ideas Schopenhauer held as paramount and note that a lot of these ideas fall deeply in line with the personalities of individuals and aspects of black metal.

    People don’t have to have ‘finished school’ to appreciate that their world view has been appropriated by influential philosophers. Assuming people are required to understand Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to make the music and inject it with a deeper meaning completely misses the point. The music was obviously NOT created with this in mind. That in no way implies that the two world views differ though. There are striking similarities that represent a great way to breach into the works of numerous philosophers and thinkers over the course of history.

    All I am showing is that both ‘world views’ have fundamental similarities and I am attempting to open people up to a great writer that had some incredibly relevant views when it came to understanding existence.

    Thank you for pointing out the error in his first name though, I have no idea where Alfred came from. I am just sorry your chosen direction in music can never amount to much more than regressive barbarity by naive individuals.

    • Reply December 30, 2013

      Gerardo

      “their world view has been appropiated by influential philosophers”

      Thats impossible because Shopenhauer was long dead before Black Metal appeared, and Blac Metal cant be an appropiation of a philosopher ideas if his books were not read among the fathers of the movement. And to say DESTROY YOUR LIFE FOR SATAN if a phrase inspired be Shopenhauer is joke, a very funny joke, but a joke non less

  • Reply January 26, 2011

    dschalek

    Great article, Alex; much appreciated. As a physicist, I invite you to investigate further the idea of the Anthropic Principle, both weak and strong, which, in my opinion, is a means for some fearful physicists to “cheat” their way out of a universe, and existence, with no purpose.

  • Reply January 26, 2011

    Alex

    Thanks for the comment. Care to elaborate how the weak and strong Anthropic principles allow physicists to ‘cheat’ their way out of nihil? If anything I’d say it furthers the idea of a meaningless existence!

  • Reply January 26, 2011

    Alex

    @DSCHALEK, I also recommend the work of Eduard von Hartmann if you enjoy a more justifiable kind of logic, who developed what he called a ‘scientific pessimism’ and is based on real world examples as opposed to lofty reasoning.

  • Reply January 27, 2011

    dschalek

    @Alex- Forgive me if I state what you already know; I don’t know your prior knowledge of the subject, and I don’t mean to patronize.

    The Weak Anthropic Principle notes that the Universe’s physical constants appear to be “just right” for life to exist. For example, a slightly greater value of the Universal Gravitational Constant would cause stars to burn through their nuclear fuel in a very short time, thereby, presumably, inhibiting the evolution of life. Therefore, life exists in the universe because the physical constants fall within a narrow range of values that allow for the conditions for life. The WAP smacks of violating the Copernican Principle; that is, our place in the Universe is not one of being “special” in any way. The usual argument against the WAP is its circular reasoning; that is, we exist in the Universe, so it must be possible to exist. Therefore, we exist to state the Principle, etc., ad nauseum.

    The Strong Anthropic Principle takes this a giant leap forward by assuming that the physical constants have particular values in order to ensure that we exist. Besides obviously violating the Copernican Principle, as you might guess, religiously inclined scientists, ID adherents, and religious crazies of all stripes have latched onto this concept as an admission by science that god exists.

    Therefore, the Anthropic Principle, either weak or strong, implies a “purpose” of some sort to our existence, or, at least, to the Universe itself (I won’t digress into the idea of the Multiverse). For myself, I ignore the Principle simply because we cannot obtain data to either support or refute it. To me, it’s a nonsensical argument exploited by the religious.

    I will explore your suggestions as my own background, beyond the survey course level, of the German philosophers is lacking.

  • Reply February 1, 2011

    Billy

    Great article; even if a large number of metal musicians aren’t particularly intelligent, or enlightened, the music they play can still echo the philosophical ideals that Schopenhauer espouses, in response to AB.

    Also, Alex, I disagree with your reading of the final line of the book thus: “Schopenhauer believed that the will to live could be broken through a heady ascent on the path of asceticism and self denial, yet even this can offer no solace: ‘To those in whom the will has turned and denied itself, this very real world of ours with all its suns and galaxies – is nothing’.”

    For me this does offer solace; the truly enlightened ones escape the world through transcendentalism, the truly mystic experience. I think the metaphysics of this are really tricky though, for a number of reasons. It’s possible that S suggests that the world exists as representation, underpinned by the basic fundamental nature of will, but that will is the thing-it-itself made manifest in the world of representation. There is something that is beyond that, i.e. the true nature of the thing in itself. However, as physical and representational beings, we would seem to be yoked to the world of will, and be unable to pass beyond that, without S committing himself to some kind of dualism, to which he doesn’t seem exactly partial.

    Hope that wasn’t too rambling; after a good few years of studying the book I’m no closer to being able to synthesize all his ideas, but it still never fails to inspire and enthuse me.

  • Reply February 1, 2011

    Alex

    @Billy – I agree that forming a cohesive understanding of Schopenhauer’s philosophy in general is a tough, tough problem. I do agree with your interpretation better than my own, I’m thinking thats just a lazy mistake on my part. I also agree with the dualism problem, if anything from some hefty lectures with Joss where he basically barked and shouted at us for suggesting this. Resulting in my main problem writing this whole thing, I wanted to give an accurate presentation of his base points without overdeveloping the philosophical end to make all my musings sound and clear.

    @DSCHALEK – thanks for clarifying the Anthropic principle in all its forms for me. I was always under the impression both the WAP and SAP underlined the general theory of insignificance in the universe?

    So, our universe is fine tuned to allow our existence. So, our planet has just the right conditions to allow life. Surely the scientist should be completely unsurprised by this? If that was not the case, we wouldn’t be here discussing this. Leave them to their Gods and grand designs. Does this not give more premise to the idea of insignificance? Infinite other universes exist where there is no life. The idea that we are but one universe fine tuned in a vast, swirling, impenetrable abyss, makes us nothing more than a product of luck.

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  • Reply February 15, 2011

    Thomas Rickarby

    Schopenhauer, the black cloud, was a dick. And a pretty fucking smart one at that.

  • Reply March 1, 2011

    stu

    ‘all life is suffering’ – Gautama Buddha

  • […] a blog titled Lurker, mostly covering black metal, published an article last Tuesday titled “Schopenhauer’s Pessimism: Black Metal.” Looking at Schopenhauer, the 19th century German philosopher and author of The World As Will […]

  • Reply March 24, 2011

    Em

    I find all of this “BM musicians are stupid” chatter quite stultifying narrow minded. Some people read books AND play music, you trumped up undergrad know-it-alls!

    • Reply March 24, 2011

      Em

      stultifyingly, yeah.

    • Reply March 20, 2012

      Taylor

      I feel like the reason many “intellectuals” (pseudo) dislike the notion of people whom play/listen to black metal and really extreme metal as whole are unintelligent because they really dissociate from their personal view of progressive intelligence. People who are into this music are less concerned above using big words, impressing their friends, and knowing the latest college ideas than they are about figuring themselves out and the “situation”. You don’t have to go to school to be smart. The only reason why I am in college is to make more money and be secure. I figured out along time ago that schools, what ever level, wont teach me the important stuff. If its outside their cube, it seems to just be ignored. That’s why I spend my free time learning what matters to me. It doesn’t all come from a book, it comes from everything. Every week I go for several long hikes either by myself to think or with my girlfriend to bounce ideas. I don’t care about being smart, I care about learning, becoming what I want to be, and enjoying myself. That’s it.

  • Reply May 18, 2011

    JS

    Wow, this is a fantastic find. I’m currently a philosophy major in undergraduate school but I want to go on to graduate school and study Schopenhauer, who’s my favorite philosopher. What’s more, I’m both a fan and a musician of black metal. Since discovering Schopenhauer, I’ve found an enormous amount of philosophic and aesthetic parallels between the two. Most “intelligent” black metal bands, when citing their influences, more often that not cite Nietzsche. But as you have pointed out, Schopenhauer has far more in common with the philosophical and aesthetic spirit of black metal than does Nietzsche.

    I really thought that this was one of those minute correlations only someone with such unpopular and eclectic tastes as mine would notice, but apparently I’m not the only one! And neither am I the only one who thinks that black metal doesn’t have to be a genre of music suited for immature, angst-ridden teenagers. There is most definitely a contemplative current underwriting many a good black metal band!

  • […] take their name from a Kantian notion of thing in itself, free from human perception. It is a way to express what is out of reach of the senses and […]

  • Reply July 4, 2013

    big_red01027

    I look forward to the second part; reading this was a pleasure.

  • Reply August 11, 2013

    OG

    An interesting read, a good journalistic piece for those uninitiated to Schopenhauer and a some interesting things to think about for the more thoughtful amongst your readership.

    (I stress- it’s a good journalistic piece, but don’t hand it in as your university coursework, there are a lot of non-sequiturs in here. “Musings” is probably the right word for it.)

    I had one issue though, which was that I wasn’t sure about the emphasis of the piece. Is this meant to be an introduction to philosophers for BM fans, or is it a kind of manifesto? For example, you write that “The exchange between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche is in its sum the totality of the black metal experience”- I hardly think Gylve Nagell or someone like that sat there reading WWR or Beyond Good and Evil and then thought “Yeah, I’ll write a song about that”. On the other hand I can see how (more thoughtful) BM fanatics might find their thoughts on a similar trajectory to someone like Schopenhauer. In other words, this article swayed a little too far towards the “black metal philosophy” direction, when it seemed more like you were trying to write a “philosophers that black metal fans might be interested in” kind of an article. The emphasis could have been clearer.

    Despite this, I like your piece, and I’m heartened to see that not all metalheads are as… mentally inert? as they often seem. I can’t imagine the Cannibal Corpse-obsessed meathead who lives next door to me is reading Schopenhauer in his spare time.

    If you can get hold of them, you might also like to read Wittgenstein’s less technical stuff (collected and edited into books like “Culture and Value” after his death)

  • Reply December 30, 2013

    Gerard

    You can make anything fit a determined philosophy, thats interpretation, but that is just a product of our minds, solipsism. Or you can work while assuming metaphysics are objective and global, like gravity, and no one can escape from them.

    Once our teacher told us about a woman (her age, dress, etc.) and how she winked at him at a party, he asked us why the woman winked at him. The answers went from simple jokes to semiotics, out teacher told us that she just had something in her eye. That is a common mistake among psychologists, theory explains everything so well than we assume Its true every time and we no longer care about really knowing about people. Psychologist go around thinking they can analize anyone from what they say or do but not from what they mean to say or mean to do.

    Anyway, that Black Metal has coincidences with Shopenhauer’s ideas does not prove them absolutly right nor does It mean they are related. I find more usefull to see differences than to search for similarities, because Its wiser to see Theory as different representations of things that things as different representations of theory

  • Reply December 30, 2013

    gerardo

    German philosophers are a pleasure to read, my favourite is Heidegger who (for me) ended philosophy all together. But the popularity of Nietszche among the founders of Black Metal is well known and Schopenhauer might been able to get to them by his student. Then, Its more interesting to see the unique caracteristics of Black Metal rather than the similarities with older ideas, which could be done by analizing not the manifestation but searching the origins of said manifestation. That goes from asking “why they were reading Nietzsche?” to “where they bought the books they were reading?” (materialism is a usefull tool to escape pure mentalism).

    Just to say I do not think we should dismiss an intelectual approach to Black Metal

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