B U R E A U O F P U B L I C S E C R E T S
Culture Has Become Popular
The Subculture Facing Armageddon
The War on Poverty
Blitzkrieg Against the Environment
Societys Silver Cord
What is happening? Leisure, education, slowly spreading affluence. Society is changing profoundly. The old lures of acquisitiveness are passing.
Scouts for the big corporations complain that they find it very difficult indeed to recruit college students in the top grade and achievement levels.
An appreciable amount of time in our representative assemblies, from the Board of Supervisors to Sacramento to Washington, and an even greater proportion of editorial space in the newspapers, is taken up with cultural matters new national parks, recreational activities, education, theaters, museums, the struggle against billboards, ugly highways and freeways, destructive real estate development, preservation of architectural and historical monuments, replanning of urban centers, design of public buildings and facilities so it goes, on and on.
Things like this were simply not popular concerns a generation ago. Quite the opposite the WPA Arts Projects were favorite whipping boys of Roosevelts Congresses, not because they were subversive they were not, many more radical social protest plays were produced on Broadway or for that matter in Hollywood during the Thirties than were ever put on by the Federal Theater the read reason was that the small-time politicians and the small-time voter back home hated and feared art and artists, and kicking poets and painters and dramatists was good for votes.
It is, of course, true that the arts are subversive, not of capitalism or the Constitution, but of what used to be called the American Way of Life, the pursuit of the dollar, regardless.
Now there are so many dollars flying around we dont know what to do with them. Most social and political action is still motivated by assumptions inherited from a bygone society. Since World War II we have been going through a revolution as profound as any in history, but since it has not involved barricades and guillotines, at least here at home, most people are still hardly aware of it.
We have moved into a new historic epoch. Changes in our ways of living and working have taken place that demand a wholesale revision of the aims of society. What do we want out of life? What can we expect to get if we manage our affairs properly? What is life for?
Richer, deeper, more meaningful experience has been, hitherto, something that life could give to only a small percentage of every small ruling class.
What proportion of the inhabitants of the Vienna of his day ever heard, much less appreciated, the quartets of Beethoven? How many records of complete sets of those quartets have been sold in the past 20 years?
It is not just the arts that have been affected morality is a function of leisure, too. Aristotle confines his ethics to free citizens of Greek city states. He says the slave and the savage seldom get a chance to behave ethically. Certainly what is happening today is that more and more people have the time, the education, the security, to develop their moral sensibilities.
This is the real reason for aggiornamento, for the sudden discovery by Christians, some Christians anyway, of the significance of the words of the Gospels. Christianity, or for that matter Judaism, Mohammedanism, Buddhism, none of the great ethical world religions is compatible with the world as we have let it run itself these many thousand years.
Few people could afford to notice until now. Our technology has given us the alternative, be good to one another, or cease to be, but it has also given us the leisure to consider this alternative and the means to choose life, if only we will. Will we? 1966 may well answer that question once for all.
* * *
PERSONAL POSTSCRIPT: A heart-felt thank you to my own colleagues on the paper who paid me handsome compliments on my sixtieth birthday last week. It was a most moving experience to open the paper and come on sincere friendship, and that a complete surprise. Newspaper offices are supposed to be Coldville but it obviously aint true.
And more thank yous to Jack Shelley and Willie Brown and the Board of Supervisors and Congressman Brademas, whose greetings were equally a surprise. It just shows what is happening. Time was, if a politician went on record as wishing a poet well he would be sure to lose a bunch of votes. Can you imagine Big Bill Thompson of old-time Chicago wiring Happy Birthday, Carl Sandburg? Thank you, gentlemen, one and all.
[January 2, 1966]
All over the country these last three days, perhaps a million people have taken a New Years resolution to stop or at least cut down on cigarettes, or even give up smoking altogether. Very few indeed, if statistics are accurate, will be able to hold to such resolution. I have smoked all my life, but I seem to be one of the tiny minority who can take tobacco or leave it alone. When the bad news about cigarettes came out I switched to a couple of cigars after dinner only, without any noticeable distress.
Doctor friends of mine tell me that they find cigarette-addicted patients harder to cure than those addicted to alcohol or dope. In some cases even deep hypnosis doesnt have any effect.
Recently the other poet columnist, my southern California colleague Richard Armour, created a vast rumpus with a piece on smokers manners and the civil rights of the nonsmoker. I would like to pick up on his remarks. First, it has often been said by me that the English consider any invasion of privacy the unforgivable sin Americans, any objection to such invasion. If you object to blaring pocket radios or stinking pipes in public places you must be some kind of nut and at the very least a dirty Communist.
I object strongly to smokers manners, although I still smoke myself. I especially object to the ever-increasing number of women chain smokers who have become cigarette fiends without ever having learned to smoke and who presume on their feminine privileges.
Nothing is more obnoxious to a person who is not smoking than another who smokes during meals except one the person who leaves a cigarette smoldering in an ash tray during the meal, puffs on it between chews, and allows the stale smoke to destroy everybody elses appetite.
Dont believe the polite table companion who says Oh certainly not when you ask, Do you mind if I smoke? Not only do all nonsmokers object, but so do most people who are not habituated to puffing and feeding simultaneously. The time to smoke is after the meal is completely over.
Never under any circumstances leave a cigarette, much less a pipe or cigar, smoldering in an ash tray. Never under any circumstances put a cigarette out on your plate. You not only sicken your companion to the point of nausea, youre the one who makes it so hard to get dishwashers nowadays.
Never smoke in elevators or other enclosed places with others present, even if they give permission. Always ask permission to smoke on a plane, and then be sure your ventilating jet blows the smoke away from your neighbor. Never smoke in the office, home or car of a person who does not smoke unless you are invited to do so.
These are pointers for New Years resolutions regarding tobacco that you might just have the will power to keep. If you can, youll win all sorts of friends and influence people, and you can thank Richard Armour, from whose bit in the Orange Country Sun I have cribbed the substance, if not the wording, of this heartfelt advice.
[January 3, 1966]
People are always asking me to recommend restaurants. In the early days of this column I used to write quite a bit about dining out. Unfortunately I am not much of a gadabout, but more like the Frenchman who keeps his napkin ring with his name engraved on it in the rack at the restaurant where he eats nightly, always in the same seat.
Most of the restaurants I used to like have been overwhelmed by the noisy drunks who have invaded North Beach. I still eat mostly at Nam Yuen on Washington Street because I prefer Chinese food.
The other night I had an excellent dinner at LOrangerie, a comparatively new French restaurant on OFarrell Street. I think my favorite is now Orsis, on Bush Street. Orsi himself is a marvelous chef and a most hospitable host, and his hospitality is shared by the whole staff. The surroundings are quiet and uncrowded and somehow the customers seem better mannered even than at the best places in North Beach.
We had a big birthday dinner there last month which was a spectacular Beef Orsi, a sort of Italian soufflé of artichoke hearts, a wonderfully subtle salad, and for dessert a baked Alaska with candles like a birthday cake. What made it all taste extra good was the obviously genuine hospitality.
People are still hunting for the modern version of the North Beach family restaurant where, during the Depression at least, dinner was 50 cents with a bottle of wine on every table. This institution which made San Francisco great is, I am afraid, gone forever. The only place that resembles it is on the corner of Powell and Union, facing Washington Square. It has no name, no sign out, serves, I believe, only lunch. Naturally, it doesnt cost 50 cents.
In the Haight-Ashbury district where I live, the only place it ever occurs to me to eat at is Connies, with excellent Creole and West Indian food and, in Connie Williams, a very hospitable hostess.
* * *
To turn pretty sharply from the pleasures of life to its dilemmas living as I do in the Haight-Ashbury, which seems to have become the headquarters for the New Youth, the New Left, the New Student, the New Bohemia, the New Negro, and several other New Categories, I am constantly reminded of whats happening, and though Mr. Smith may not know what it is, I think I have a pretty fair idea.
The other evening I read with great interest a new book, All Things Common: The Hutterian Way of Life by Victor Peters, published by the University of Minnesota Press. The Hutterians are a German-speaking pietist, communal and pacifist sect whose origins date back to the very beginnings of the Reformation.
They are now mostly settled in Canada, but some of their colonies are again in the Dakotas and Montana. They fled the United States during the persecutions of War I. Today they are meeting a certain amount of persecution from other Canadians, not because of their communism or their pacifism, but because they are so much more successful farmers than most of their neighbors.
The next day I was in a supermarket buying New Years dinner. Ahead of me was a young couple, more or less typical of Haight-Ashbury. I suddenly realized that the girl had on a characteristic Hutterian jumper or overall apron. The only difference was the length of the skirt. Then it dawned on me that there was no essential difference at all the husband was not in a Beat uniform, but dressed plain in work clothes, with a beard and long hair. The girl wore no makeup and her hair was unaltered.
They were very young, yet obviously, from the pile of groceries, they had several children. They were extraordinarily polite to others and to one another. Their voices were low and gentle. They were discussing with great interest serious general ideas. It might have been a supermarket in an Alberta market town.
Think of the little girls that show up at your door on Sunday morning with a record player and ask, Are you ready for Armageddon? Armageddons coming. Are they wrong? Are you ready? Always before it has been necessary to have strong supernatural sanctions to sustain a subculture which chose to cut loose from the dominant society, to opt out of the immorality of Things As They Are.
Today thousands and thousands are doing so on a largely secular and uninstitutionalized basis. In the words of Dostoevsky, they are respectfully handing back their tickets. As they strive for a new community, honest morality, sane goals in life, and their passing fads and follies drop away, the youth who are seceding from our crazy, lethal social order are converging with those predecessors Mennonites, Brethren, Amish, Hutterites, Quakers who withdrew from the madness and horror of the Wars of Religion and the collapse of the society of the Middle Ages.
The record of 400 years of persecution suffered by these pious, inoffensive groups passes belief pogroms, burnings alive, looting, rape, total destruction of most of the communities, wanderings over the face of the earth.
I wonder if that is what the future has in store for their modern successors? It is a needless worry. This time there wont be a future. Are you ready for Armageddon? Meanwhile, can you recommend a good restaurant?
[January 9, 1966]
NOTE: Rexroth later wrote a whole book on the history of the Hutterites and other communalist and utopian movements: Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century.
All this rowing about War on Poverty jobs has given [illegible line] chestnut: What are these pie-card artists doing with the tax payers money?
What they are doing is escalating it. Our entire affluent society is on an escalator.
Trouble is, nobody knows whether its going up or down. It is pretty ridiculous to watch hundreds of sociology Phi Beta Kappas and ilk in well-shined shoes quarrel all over the country about divvying up chunks of loot on the order of $18,000 and $12,000 a year while the underprivileged and culturally deprived wait patiently for handouts and for something called Opportunity.
If they had the opportunity to divide up $18,000 amongst 18 of themselves, it would make a noticeable difference in their privileges and their culture.
Robert Theobald is sure right, righter than he knew when he wrote his books, The Challenge of Affluence and The Rich and the Poor, both now in paperback editions. You should go back and read them, if you didnt when I first wrote about them. It would be so much simpler and so much cheaper to simply give everybody in the country a living wage.
True, it would result in an outbreak of widespread immorality, but that would just be a difference of tone or emphasis. Its hard to see how we could get any more immoraler than we are at present.
Thats the point. Outside of the very religious, the very rich, and the very radical, we have lost all sense of vocation to self-sacrificing service to others.
We assume that the way to get good orderlies in a psychiatric ward or good servants of the poor or good bedside nurses of the incurably ill, dying with loathsome or highly infectious diseases, all we have to do is pay them more money.
Even organizers for the Communist Party, who once got a maximum of $60 a month, now get good wages.
I am all for high wages, short hours and salubrious conditions for the working class. But maybe we would be living in a better society if we took it for granted that the best way to get the best people to serve in the War on Poverty would be to pay them nothing at all, or at most, bare subsistence.
Of course, if we lived in a society with that kind of ethic, we might not have any War on Poverty to fight in the first place.
Where have we got with all this affluence?
The WPA was supposed to be a gravy train for loafers and leaf rakers run by greedy bureaucrats. Wander around San Francisco and look at the carefully hidden bronze plaques on our plant, our capital structure. The maligned WPA built a lot of it. And the local functionaries responsible for discovering, planning and developing these projects earned $100 to, for a very few top people, $400 a month.
One of the benefits of a minimum national income would be that all sorts of people could then afford to devote themselves to disagreeable or dangerous public service. After all, the Catholic Church, even in this naughty time, manages to find an abundance of just such people, people who, before they start out to serve the poor, take themselves an absolute vow of poverty.
[January 17, 1966]
If you havent seen the Actors Workshop Don Juan you should certainly try to make it this final weekend that is coming up.
It is not the masterpiece of production that Edward II was, but it is a most enjoyable night in the theater. At last we are getting, in this generation, translations of the classic French theater that are at least bearable. Actors can say the lines and audiences can listen to them without being nauseated, which was never true before.
We have a long way to go. Even Richard Wilburs translations fall far short of the grandeur of the originals. Robert Goldsbys translation of Don Juan is sometimes pretty remote from human speech, but it isnt the pompous trash that passed for Englished Molière only a few years ago. It is this new crop of actable translations that accounts for the sudden popularity of the classic French theater.
There is a heartbreaking and true sentimentality about Racine and a heroic elegance about Corneille that no translator has yet caught. So with Molière. There is a kind of fierce grandeur to his humor, a noble and savage irony, embedded in the shape of his language that no translator may ever be able to convey.
It is this of course that makes him great, almost as great as Shakespeare at his best, and more profound than even Racine except when that master tearjerker pulls all the heart-strings and rings every bell with a desolated phrase.
Overall, in real substance, Molière is surely more profound than Racine, one of the massive minds of the arts, like Tintoretto or Shakespeare or Beethoven.
There is nothing of this is Goldsbys translation, nothing of it in Tom Grunewalds direction, nothing in Anthony Smiths interpretation of the title role. Don Juan is damned, really damned, in the eyes of the worldly and probably agnostic Molière, as well as by the teaching of the Church. Sganarelle is worldly virtue, that affirmation of the flesh which is incurably morally sound, as contrasted to the world, the flesh, and the Devil. He is Harlequin playing Sancho Panza to a Don Quixote of unbridled evil.
It is not the slapstick of Grunewalds direction that dissipates Molières profound insights. Every play of Molières is in literal fact slapstick at its most extreme. They are all only slight modifications of the most ancient commedia dell arte scenarios and the cast are always the standard commedia characters, the old masks hiding new, deep and strange realities, the more bawdy and rumpus the better.
There is no question but what this production is superficial in comparison with Molières intention.
What is wrong?
I think the direction lacks style. It is theatricalist, like Hancocks Edward, but the theatricalism is applied from outside, it has not been developed from within, from the heart of the meaning of the play. It lacks rhythm. Molières plays are divided into well-defined moments. Each has a characteristic rhythmic pattern and there is an overall rhythm which ties them all together.
It lacks inventive business, the use of slapstick or other mime and improvisation to give poignancy to the speech and basic action. Properly organized, these too of course give rhythmic shape to the passage of time.
As it is performed, the play drags, as it certainly does not even in the highly formalized style of the Comédie Française. The actors seem to be directing themselves and there is nothing in the theater more sure to diffuse the audiences attention, unless you are dealing with Chaplin or Buster Keaton.
Style is a resonance of personal and social moral tone. Maybe we no longer have the grasp of moral reality sufficiently strong to enable us to handle Molière.
This is shown by the ruckus over Ronnie Daviss Minstrel Show. They havent invented the four-letter words for procreation, recreation and elimination that can shock me. My objection to Ronnies recent activities is their moral frivolity.
He feels strongly about civil rights and human rights, about war and peace, about Vietnam and Harlem. So do I. He would like to live in a juster and more honest social order. So would I. He would like to change the world. Nobody is going to inhibit him if he uses the theater to oppose war or propose miscegenation. Why throw away all his opportunities for the sake of a few infantile sniggers?
This is not the way to change society. If Lenin, when he landed at the Finland Station and was hoisted up on the shoulders of the workers, had yelled out, Kerensky is a . . . .” (Lenny Bruces favorite word) or The Mensheviks are . . . . (LeRoy Joness favorite word) if thats what hed done, I can assure you, history would have taken a different course.
Maybe, too, Molière is too much for us, because we can no longer tell means from ends, nor our right hands from our left.
[January 23, 1966]
The Sierra Club Bulletin came and, reading it over, I was moved to go back and skim through last years files of the magazine. The same day the paper had a long story about the struggle to keep the Highway Commission from further polluting the Citys water supply. The clear outlines of a picture began to form in my mind.
I suddenly understood whats been happening. There has been a change of phase in the operations of the forces of anti-conservation. Theyve been reading Liddell Hart.
With ever-increasing frequency, for the past ten years, in San Francisco, in the Bay Area, in California, and all over the country, the small and embattled forces trying to stave off the destruction of a decently habitable environment have been faced with the technique of the massive, irreversibly accomplished fact, with blitzkrieg, schrecklichkeit and efficient and plausible third column takeover.
Ecology, the relations of living species to one another and their environment, is precisely the field that lends itself best to irreversible processes except maybe chemistry. The redwood forests of coast and sierra can no more be restored, for instance, than can the firecrackers of Chinatowns New Year celebration be uncracked.
The rapidity with which we are creating an environment in which the human species as we know it can no longer thrive is astonishing. The resilience of the environment is exhausted, it can no longer recuperate from large-scale destruction in less than many centuries.
The forces that stand to profit from destruction now know this and they have learned to move quickly, on the largest possible scale, and if it can be managed, with an elaborate public relations camouflage which disguises them as conservationists.
Once the forest cover of northern California streams is destroyed, flood, fire and erosion quickly create an irreversible situation. The top soil is out in the Pacific Ocean or clogging the larger streams and we are not all that technologically advanced that we can put it back.
The Walt Disney development of Mineral King far in excess of the Forest Service specifications will be like a nuclear explosion in the heart of the finest mountain wilderness in California. Disney anticipates two and a half million visitors by 1976.
It was possible to put Nagasaki and Hiroshima back together again give or take a few dead humans. Once gone, the wilderness is gone forever. Once polluted by the Highway Commission, San Franciscos water supply, once famous for its purity, will stay polluted.
For years now I have advocated an act of the Legislature or an initiative measure to abolish the Highway Commission and constitute a new authority governed by human considerations and not by parabolas, gradients and slide rules.
Since the present fellows have become such experts at modern strategy and tactics against a diffused body of opponents, I suggest they be retired to the General Staff in Vietnam, where their expertise should perk things up considerably.
[January 24, 1966]
I dont want to argue with George Dusheck. I just want to pick up on his remarks last Sunday about Kahlil Gibran.
It is not incomprehensible that this metaphysical Metrecal should be consumed in great gulps in the rose-covered slums of Babylon under Smog. What is amazing is that it is extremely popular amongst people with sixteen years of schooling at the expense of their parents and the taxpayers.
Not only that, but The Prophet, The Prophet and Jane, Prophet, Son of Prophet, Prophet and the Jewels of Ophir are all read avidly amongst the intellectual avant-garde, especially amongst highbrow actors, with whom they are a long-enduring fad.
Amongst the Far Far Outs its the custom to curl up with The Prophet and an acidulous sugar cube and take a trip to the absolute Absolute.
Such folks, in the days when the century was young and the books were coming out and Kahlil Gibran lived in Greenwich Village, would have burst out laughing if anybody admitted to being able to read five pages of them. I think this is an excellent example of the heightening decay of the quality of life, of thought, of the arts, in our time.
Anyone who has lived through the whole show, from Cubism to Ken Kesey, and watched the century pass from its prodigious optimistic childhood to its frightened and hobbling early senility, cannot fail to be a little scared for the future of the species.
Whats happening? Each generation is a step down in quality. The first jump of all is the biggest.
Does anybody believe that the surrealists are even remotely as good as Picasso, Stravinsky, Juan Gris, Apollinaire, Reverdy? A gulf of quality opened up.
What happened first in France and Germany was paralleled a generation later in America. The generation of 1910 attacked and overthrew the standards and ultimately the values of the Academy, the Establishment, the squares. They put in their place the classic values of all the great art of the past.
Unfortunately they stated values in terms largely incomprehensible to the layman. The next generation of artists, some consciously, some in ignorance, liquidated these values in turn.
Today the average well-known artist in any medium is so conditioned as to be incapable of comprehending what he is doing and is devoid of sufficient technical ability to even be successfully nonsensical.
Kurt Schwitters was a mascot of the Dadaists, a naïve and slightly deranged artist of rubbish, inferior to the architect of the towers of Watts. Today he is held in awe as the old master of collage, junk art and rightly so. As a pack rat of artistic accidents he is vastly superior technically to his imitators in the old age of the century.
It is not that the contributors to Ed Sanderss unmailable and unmentionable magazine [Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts] are obscene or crazy, its that they are so inefficient about it. As Katherine Mansfield said when she read James Joyces Ulysses, This is the future, and Im glad Ive got tuberculosis.
Nowhere is this loss of quality more apparent than in the cheap mysticism that is sweeping over the Western World. Parvenus of the spirit can be found in every bar in San Francisco. Zen is already dated amongst the Jet Set in the Captains Room. Acid or crystal is cleverly concealed in the canapés at the smartest cocktail parties.
Ecstasies and visions haunt the decaying pads where the slowly accumulating decor is based unaware on the principles of Herr Schwitters.
Nobody arises to say that spiritual enlightenment is the end product of habitude of quality of life. Nirvana does not come from Yogi gymnastics or mushroom poisoning, it is the crown of life devoted to the practice of the ethical injunctions of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Just as a life of covetousness, lust and hate is the first impediment to be got out of the way of spiritual progress, the worldly compromised life the second, so visions and ecstasies are the last barriers to vision and enlightenment, and they are the worst
Colored lights, ringing bells, levitation and hallucination are the dross of the mystical experience. They burn spectacularly because they are the last slags of delusion to be smelted away.
True illumination occurs only as the normal and abiding condition of a fulfilled life. The actually illuminated are most often unaware that the light that lightens the world has changed it seems always to have been that way, as in fact it has.
[January 30, 1966]
Old Macdonald of San Francisco had a culture farm, with a here culture, there culture, everywhere culture culture. What kind of animal is this here culture anyhow?
The dictionary says: 1. action of cultivating the soil, tillage. 2. raising of plants or animals, esp. with view to their improvement. 3. the resulting product or growth. 4. development or improvement by education or training. 5. the resulting enlightenment or refinement. 6. a particular stage, period or state of a civilization. 7. the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings. 8. the cultivation of tissues or micro-organisms in an artificial medium.
Not a word about the Actors Workshop or the Opera House or even the Mime Troupe. The refined are worried about the idle rogues who loiter in front of pool halls and shoeshine parlors and make lewd remarks.
The law in its majesty is having almost as much trouble with Brenda as it had with the sit-ins. Teen roll and bump dances are discouraged when they cant be shut down. Jazz rooms that encourage social miscegenation are harassed. LSD is now, it seems, pushed in gallon lots.
This all isnt culture as seen from the lofty vantage points of the Chamber Music Society or the Opera Banquet in the Museum but culture it surely is.
There is a thread that runs from Brenda to the Madrigal Singers and ties the whole shooting match together. And that thread is as strong as its weakest strand. But all the straws are as weak as possible and many have long since disintegrated.
Catholic theologians, Bolshevik theorists, and plain old village atheists like Bertie Russell have all been telling us for at least 50 years that our culture was falling apart.
Today we do not have a disintegrating culture, we have a culture of disintegration. Once the artist was alienated from middle-class civilization. Today the middle class is alienated from what civilization we have left. The artist has gone over to the offensive.
The redundant music, painting, poetry, drama, of the avant-garde is merging with the redundant population of housing projects and welfare.
What separates the music played by John Handy or Ornette Coleman or Terry Riley or Jean Barraque from the music played by Maestro Krips? Vietnam. Savage indignation. Scorn for the hypocritically held systerm of values that perpetuates the other end of the culture, the dirty end which is all the majority know about anything, the debauchery of television poured into every living room every night, the rowdies in front of the pool hall, the child prostitutes.
Toynbee called it schism in the soul. The thread is about to snap. Or has it snapped already?
Only when all the strands are strong can the society be held together. And just how are we going to spin that strong cord against the accelerating corrosion of our affluent society? Or ever the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is broken at the fountain, or the wheel at the cistern. . . .
[January 31, 1966]
“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.
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