Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 17, No. 5, 2018
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Robert J. Lewis
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

part II

interviewed by


COWEN: You can consume, absorb, experience a remarkable number, amount, and diversity of culture products, music, art, architecture, interior design, fashion, whatever, right?


COWEN: Just a very prosaic question, in terms of your own time management, how is it that you do what you do? What is your method, so to speak? What is your diet?

PAGLIA: It’s a lifestyle of observation. I feel that the basis of my work is not only the care I take with writing, with my quality controls, my prose, but also my observation. It’s 24/7. I’m always observing. I don’t sit in a university. I never go to conferences. That is a terrible mistake. A conference is like overlaying the same insular ideology on top of it. I am always listening to conversations at the shopping mall.

COWEN: Radio.

PAGLIA: I adore radio. The radio is fantastic, any show on radio, the talk shows, political talk shows, but also the sports shows. The sports shows are the only place that you can hear on radio actual working class voices calling in. “I want to talk about what happened in the game on Monday,” and what they would do if they had $2 million, and who they would hire.
It’s fantastic. My writer’s voice is actually very -- rather than these novelists with their recherché lingo and so on, my actual writing voice is very influenced by the way English is spoken today by people and often men on radio. You get this high impact sound, you see. On lamb vindaloo, LSD, and other mental stimulants

COWEN: You once wrote, I quote, “My substitute for LSD was Indian food,” and by that, you meant lamb vindaloo.


COWEN: You stand by this.

PAGLIA: Yes, I’ve been in a rut on lamb vindaloo. Every time I go to an Indian restaurant, I say “Now, I’m going to try something new.” But, no, I must go back to the lamb vindaloo. All I know is it’s like an ecstasy for me, the lamb vindaloo.

COWEN: How would you describe your views on astrology? A reader wrote to me, asked me to ask you.

PAGLIA: Wait! Wait! You mentioned LSD, can I say something else about that?

COWEN: Sure, LSD, please.

PAGLIA: Now, LSD, I never took it, thank God. I never took drugs. I didn’t believe it. I thought “What is this untested thing?” I thought, “A little wine, beer, all these things have like thousands of years behind them.”

COWEN: Lamb vindaloo.

PAGLIA: Right. And so LSD, I’m so glad I never took it. Everyone around me was taking LSD. People who did take LSD and survived will still say things like, “Well, I’m really glad I did because I.” Everyone who says that, I feel, actually never attained the level of accomplishment that they should have in terms of whatever their vision had been. I think LSD gave vision. It gave vision, but then it deprived people of the ability to translate that vision into material form for the present and for posterity. But I still remain very oriented toward the LSD vision. I feel I took LSD because I have the music. With “Bathing at Baxter’s,” Jefferson Airplane, the first people to be using [makes sound] like this. Distortions of The Byrds, “Eight Miles High,” I adore that song.

I feel I’m in that psychedelic world. I’ve sometimes said that what I do is psychedelic criticism. Because it is metaphysical, it is visionary. I have a vision. I have a vision that’s bigger than society. That’s the problem with the Marxist approach. I believe the Marxist approach is useful. Arnold Hauser’s The Social History of Art is one of the most influential things on me. It’s a Marxist perspective.

Indeed, my work is always very attentive to the social context of anything. But what Marxism lacks is that larger vision of the universe. There are all kinds of questions and issues about human life that Marxism has no answers for. It doesn’t see nature. What kind of a vision doesn’t see nature, could only see society? This is what’s happening. We have all these graduates of the elite schools, whereas my generation was all into cosmic consciousness, Hinduism, Buddhism.

I feel that is the true multiculturalism. I’ve been arguing for that for 25 years. I’ve been saying that if you want true multiculturalism, you have to present world cultures, including religion. Religion is extremely important. The most complex systems human beings have ever devised were the great religions of the world.

COWEN: Past Arnold Hauser, past Norman Brown, who are the contemporary writers and thinkers who influence you now who are writing serious books on either the world cultures or anything else?

PAGLIA: Is there anyone left writing serious books?

I’m trying to think who has written a serious book I’m interested in right now. Listen, there’s no one I would say, “Oh, so-and-so’s book is coming.” What? They’re dead. The people who I admire are long dead.

Unfortunately, it’s a terrible destruction. My work looks very strange and idiosyncratic because I’m alone. I’m alone and all the people who should have been writing interesting, quirky books, as I do, are dead or their brains were destroyed by LSD.

It’s one or the other. I knew so many, to me, brilliant minds in graduate school and early in my teaching career at Bennington College, really brilliant minds. I had great hopes for them and for what they would do. Then they couldn’t get anything done. For whatever reason, they couldn’t. They didn’t have the resilience to continue against obstacles.

When their work would get rejected, they would become discouraged and would stop. Rejection simply infuriates me. I’ll say, “Well, I’ll have my revenge on you in the afterlife.” I’ll be around, and you’ll be dead. I don’t know, it’s an Italian thing. What can I say?

COWEN: This is Sexual Personae, your best known book, which I recommend to everyone, if you haven’t already read it.

PAGLIA: It took 20 years.

COWEN: Read all of it. My favourite chapter is the Edmund Spenser chapter, by the way.

PAGLIA: Really? Why? How strange.

COWEN: That brought Spenser to life for me.

PAGLIA: Oh, my goodness.

COWEN: I realized it was a wonderful book.

PAGLIA: Oh, my God.

COWEN: I had no idea. I thought of it as old and fusty and stuffy.

PAGLIA: Oh, yes.

COWEN: And 100 percent because of you.

PAGLIA: We should tell them that The Faerie Queene is quite forgotten now, but it had enormous impact, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, on Shakespeare, and on the Romantic poets, and so on, and so forth. The Faerie Queene had been taught in this very moralistic way. But in my chapter, I showed that it was entirely a work of pornography, equal to the Marquis de Sade.

COWEN: The cover image is Queen Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin. Recently in the news, we’ve seen that someone has scanned the bust.

PAGLIA: Oh, that’s awesome.

COWEN: And it will soon be possible using 3-D printers to print out your own ‘copy’ of Nefertiti. How do you feel about this?

PAGLIA: To me, archaeology is one of my master tropes. What can I say? “The Bust of Nefertiti,” discovered in 1912, and it’s amazing. We’ve known it for like a century. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it, how it’s become such a symbol of art.

I should say that the push of countries like Greece and Egypt to recover their masterpieces from where they were taken and scattered around the world, I think with what’s been happening with ISIS, and the demolition of Palmyra and all kinds of things that have happened, my attitude now is keep Nefertiti in Berlin, please. Don’t send it back to Cairo.

COWEN: Of all the aesthetic judgments in your writings, and you’ve covered a lot of ground, but are there any where you really fundamentally regret an earlier judgment and have revised it? Not in a marginal way, which happens all the time, but really just thought, “Well, I was wrong about that?”

PAGLIA: Interesting. My early work, I’d worked on for so long that it was like I had plenty of time for second thoughts and third thoughts, and hundredth thoughts, so no. I can’t think of anything offhand. Can I get back to you about that?

COWEN: Sure. If you could travel to one place you haven’t been, where would it be and why?

PAGLIA: I’m like Huysmans’s aesthete, des Esseintes. I am not a great fan of traveling. I just feel like it’s become too onerous. No, I’m a mind traveler.

COWEN: What is your unrealized dream in life?

PAGLIA: My unrealized dream, to meet Catherine Deneuve. But I met her once. I ran into her, smack ran into her once on 5th Avenue in front of Saks. I know this is kind of bizarre.

COWEN: It’s a realized dream?

PAGLIA: Yes, but it was odd. I pursued her into the glove department and forced her to sign my ticket envelope for the Fillmore East, where I was seeing Jefferson Airplane. To have a conversation with Catherine Deneuve, shall we say. A civilized conversation.

COWEN: On that topic, one of your books, The Birds, about the Alfred Hitchcock movie – a great book, one of my favourite movies. Going back to that time, if you had the opportunity to date either Suzanne Pleshette or Tippi Hedren -- .

PAGLIA: I don’t date. I’m just a mad nun.

COWEN: Hypothetically.

PAGLIA: Dating is so banal.

COWEN: Tea with Suzanne Pleshette or Tippi Hedren.

PAGLIA: Tippi Hedren invited me to lunch on Rodeo Drive after that. I was, I don’t know, giving some speech on Shakespeare at the Los Angeles Public Library. She invited to thank me for writing this and I met her. She had a stack of 12 of these books, and I signed them for her. She was the most elegant and wonderful, warm woman.

I didn’t have much time. She invited me to go to the ranch and see all the animals and the lions that she collected and so on.

Suzanne Pleshette, I think, was absolutely underutilized by Hollywood. What an intelligent, knife-sharp character, she was. In fact, I recently, in one of my Salon columns, compared her to Lena Dunham. Lena Dunham is the product of exactly the same world. If you want to see the difference between Suzanne Pleshette, the sophisticated Suzanne Pleshette, and Lena Dunham. You want to see the decline that we’re in the middle of right now, there it is.
I wrote this. The British Film Institute asked me to write on a film and I said, “How about The Birds?” and I did. I wrote this book, and it was universally panned by the film journals, which said about it, “This book does nothing. This book does nothing.” By which they meant that it wasn’t poststructuralist, it wasn’t postmodernist.

There wasn’t a lot of theory. I wasn’t citing, you know, the male gaze, and et cetera, et cetera. All this book does is go through the film The Birds from beginning to end, scene by scene by scene, and pays attention to the film itself.

Slowly it’s made its way. Now here it is. It was 1998 when that came out, and it’s starting to happen now. Routledge is a publisher that’s done nothing but this theory stuff. They’re starting to go, “Hmm. Maybe there was something in her -- I’m hoping.”

I’m just trying to inspire graduate students to rebel against this horrible fascism that forces theory onto them before they expose themselves to everything that’s wonderful and imaginative in the history of literature and art. I believe that paying minute attention to the actual work itself is the mission of criticism. I am hopelessly old-fashioned. Because that’s not what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to mention Foucault 59 times in one paragraph. What a windbag that guy is, I’m telling you. Foucault is nothing. He’s nothing. He pretends to be such a mastermind, but in fact he’s just a collection of influences and one of the biggest influences on him was Erving Goffman, of Philadelphia, who was the great sociologist -- originally Canadian -- who wrote The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. All the things that were an influence on me influenced Foucault.

You have all these people thinking Foucault was some sort of innovative figure in the history of modern sociology or intellect, and he wasn’t. It is a disease in these people. Everywhere, every single university in the United States, every single gender studies department, they’re impregnated with Foucault. That’s why we have graduates who know nothing.

COWEN: Do you like Marnie, the Hitchcock movie?

PAGLIA: Do I like Marnie? Certainly, there are parts I like.

COWEN: But it goes askew in a way The Birds doesn’t.

PAGLIA: Yes. There are problems with it. So much was toxic going on on the set between Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren at that point, and so on. But there are wonderful things in Marnie. On the simple life

COWEN: If you were to take someone who had read all or almost all of your work, and they had a sense of you and read a lot of your columns, watched some of your talks online, whatever, and they get a picture of you, but you wanted to tell them one thing about you that maybe they wouldn’t get from any of that about what motivates you, what drives you, what your life is actually like, what is -- ?

PAGLIA: My life is completely mundane. I’m a schoolmarm. That’s all I am. I had the wisdom, having been raised Catholic, that once I finally became known, at age 43, I didn’t change one thing about my life. Not one thing. I didn’t move to New York. I didn’t go chasing around. I didn’t get a speakers’ bureau. All that stuff. I have a cousin who’s a nun, and I have all these bishops and priests and sextons and so on in the family.

I just try to keep to reality. Because I know that the basis of my work is the closeness with which I live to ordinary life. I hate the elites. I hate parties. I don’t have any book parties or anything like that.

PAGLIA: I think that people, they want success and they want material advantages and so on. Being a writer is just scut work. Being a teacher, that’s what Susan Sontag also did wrong. Susan Sontag began in graduate school. “Oh, it’s so boring.” She did a little teaching and then went off and became a luminary. She was a big luminary, a big giant dirigible luminary her whole life.
Nothing that she said made any sense actually over time, eventually. She loved to hold court at parties. It’s notorious. People who remember her, “She was so brilliant. I saw her at this dinner party. Everyone was in awe.”

People who go to dinner parties to impress other people, it is such BS. Susan Sontag over time, her work got less and less meaningful, even though people worship at the shrine of Sontag. You try to quote her on anything. What can you quote her on? There’s nothing important.

COWEN: Camp? Photography?

PAGLIA: Quote a sentence from Susan Sontag, a great sentence. You can’t. The only sentence was the one she regretted, “The white race is the cancer of history.” That’s the one she retracted finally when she got cancer. Remember? She realized how horrible that was. That’s the only thing that you can quote her on. She’s not quotable, because there’s all this sleight of hand that she’s doing. She’s taking material that she borrows from others, or places that she’s been personally at a time when downtown New York was very exciting, so basically it was a kind of transcription of her everyday life.

I think the best thing she did probably was for me, she wrote a very witty thing, “The Imagination of Disaster.” I like that essay a lot, which is all about the horror films of the 1950s. I thought if she only had stayed like that, unpretentious and really engaging with actual materials. But Susan Sontag, basically her life became going from lecture to lecture, being hailed as the Great One, and being so detached from ordinary life. Whereas, when you’re a teacher, like a classroom teacher, as I’ve been for 40 years, the kids have no idea that I write books. Now and then, someone’s father will say, “She writes books,” and they’ll come and say, “My father is a fan of yours.” “Oh, really? That’s so nice,” I’ll say.

Anyway, the point is all these professors at Harvard and Princeton and Yale, they have the graduate students are paying court to them, because they need letters of recommendations. Hello, they want something from you. They’re so used to “They’re so grand” and so on.

I go in, and it’s like, “We need more chairs.” “What’s wrong?” “The curtain is wrong.” I’m always in touch with the janitors, infrastructure, condition of the buildings. I deal with everyday life. I’m not treated like a queen. I’m just like an ordinary schoolmarm working like a horse, pulling the plow. I think that’s a really good idea for writers is to have a job where you’re dealing with constant frustrations, and problems, and so on. I think that’s really good for you.

COWEN: Like Herman Melville, right?

PAGLIA: Yes, yes.

COWEN: Hunting whales is not easy.

PAGLIA: Or Wallace Stevens. He kept going to the office, the insurance company, every day.

COWEN: My last question before they get to ask you, but I know there are many people in this audience, or at least some, who are considering some kind of life or career in the world of ideas. If you were to offer them a piece of advice based on your years struggling with the infrastructure, and the number of chairs, and whatever else, what would that be?

PAGLIA: Get a job. Have a job. Again, that’s the real job. Every time you have frustrations with the real job, you say, “This is good.” This is good, because this is reality. This is reality as everybody lives it. This thing of withdrawing from the world to be a writer, I think, is a terrible mistake.

Number one thing is constantly observing. My whole life, I’m constantly jotting things down. Constantly. Just jot, jot, jot, jot. I’ll have an idea. I’m cooking, and I have an idea, “Whoa, whoa.” I have a lot of pieces of paper with tomato sauce on them or whatever. I transfer these to cards or I transfer them to notes.

I’m just constantly open. Everything’s on all the time. I never say, “This is important. This is not important.” That’s why I got into popular culture at a time when popular culture was out.

In fact, there’s absolutely no doubt that at Yale Graduate School, I lost huge credibility with the professors because of my endorsement of not only film but Hollywood. When Hollywood was considered crass entertainment and so on. Now, the media studies came in very strongly after that, although highly theoretical. Not the way I teach media studies.

I also believe in following your own instincts and intuition, like there’s something meaningful here. You don’t know what it is, but you just keep it on the back burner. That’s basically how I work is this, the constant observation. Also, I try to tell my students, they never get the message really, but what I try to say to them is nothing is boring. Nothing is boring. If you’re bored, you’re boring.
Wherever you are, it’s exhausting. It’s frustrating. I don’t know what. The plane has been cancelled and whatever. After you get over your fury, you realize what opportunity is there here to absorb something more from this experience, from observing other people or whatever it is.

I think there’s really no experience that you can have that there’s not something in there that eventually you can’t use as a part of your developing system.

Another thing I have to say, anyone interested in ideas, do not read any of the current books like Pierre Bourdieu and all that stuff. Oh my God, it’s so incomplete. It’s really boring. I believe in the library. The library is my shrine. It was my shrine when I was researching Amelia Earhart. When I got to Yale, Sterling Library was my shrine. I ransacked that building, oh my God.

That’s the thing, is that I’ve learned more from the old commentators. James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, which was considered completely gone but had a huge impact on “The Waste Land” and other works of modernism. I’ve learned a great deal from the commentators of the past, the historians of the past.

Now, when I did Glittering Images, the actual nullity of current scholarship became very exposed to me. Of course, I already knew about it, but I really got objective proof of it. There’s 29 chapters in it. Each artwork that I chose, I did a full research of what had been said about that particular artwork, so I began chronologically.

I would work, if it was an older work from the late 19th century, moving through the decades to the present. There, oh my God, could you see it, could you see the fall in the quality of scholarship in our time from the 1980s on. I would move from these incredibly erudite and wonderful sentences, beautiful stylus about art, late 19th century moving into the 20th century.

Still solid into about the ’60s. And then the ’70s is kind of holding there. All of a sudden comes the ’80s, ’90s, 2000s. All these people are pygmies. Pygmies, the people at the elite schools. Let me say, the big art survey courses are being dismantled. Hello? It used to be you had a two-semester course. It would begin with cave art and move, in two semesters, down to modernism.

Magnificent structure, now abandoned wholesale except when students have protested, like at Smith. My sister is a graduate of Smith, and was part of the protest that got the survey restored.

Graduate students in art history and art historians no longer have the ability to teach the big picture, because all narratives are regarded as fictional now, imperialistic fictions. The entire story of art is not possible, and therefore, people know nothing.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, thanks for coming. You mentioned your incident with Catherine Deneuve, and you also talked about that in 1995 and Playboy following her, and also having 599 pictures of Elizabeth Taylor. You also mentioned how David Bowie had reached out to you and wanted to meet you, you talked about how you weren’t sure you would have wanted to, because you have to keep a respectful distance from an artist of that towering stature.

You also mentioned in that interview that obsession and genius are pretty much the same thing, so where would you draw the line between – let’s say you have an opportunity to meet someone who’s very important to you, or contrive a meeting, or just seek them out. Where do you draw the line between the obsession, and I mean the Paglia kind of obsession, not the John Hinckley kind?

PAGLIA: I personally have never had this great desire, necessarily, to meet the figures that I most admire in the arts, because I understand that what they represent onscreen is something that is an artificial construction. It’s not the reality.

I’ve been working in art schools also my entire career, so I know. I have dancers in my class. I have actors in my class, and I completely understand the difference between the fallible real self, the mundane real self, and the artistic self suddenly emerges within what I call the temenos, which is the sacred precinct that I regard as art.

Therefore, when I encountered Catherine Deneuve by accident that day, and I was at the peak of my obsession with her, it really almost ruined my interest in her, because it’s like, “Oh, my God.” It’s not the real Catherine Deneuve that I was so intent on. It was this magical creation that is a result of her talent, but also of the director’s own magical skills, and so on.

Oh, yes, Elizabeth Taylor, I have 599 pictures, yes. People often say what’s odd about that is not the number, but that I had counted them. She represented to me everything -- the pure sexuality that had been repressed during the Doris Day 1950s and early ’60s. Butterfield 8 still remains for me a great pagan exhibition. Here is Elizabeth Taylor as a high class call girl. Oh, my God, and I had Jeanne Moreau and Monica Vitti and Anouk Aimée and Melina Mercouri.

There were so many phenomenal images that I was inundated with when I was in high school and college, and what do these kids have today? Taylor Swift? Oh, my God. She is such a fake. She poses in things that she imagines are sexy and sultry, and it’s so fake. Awful. At least Rihanna, who’s on dope most of the time, and that’s why she looks so sultry. Rihanna’s Instagrams are, to me, like a work of art. That’s the only thing I’m following right now, I have to say, that’s of equal importance, is Rihanna floating from one nightclub to another, and yet some other fashionable thing, but back to your question.

Oh, David Bowie. I wrote this essay called “Theater of Gender: David Bowie at the Climax of the Sexual Revolution.” I wrote it for the Victoria and Albert exhibition catalog for the costume show that they did that is now touring the world, and I consider it one of my most important pieces, but it’s in the catalog.

I want to get into my next essay collection, but with Bowie, see, Bowie is different than Deneuve. Bowie is truly like a creative artist, whereas Deneuve and Taylor are performers in other people’s fictions. But Bowie was truly a master creator of a level that just is staggering.

When I did the research for that essay, I knocked out all over again at the enormity of what he achieved, and also at how little has been acknowledged, his deep knowledge of the visual arts, and how he had been influenced by that. I found all kinds of little details that showed his deep knowledge, his erudition about that.

It appears to be that he did tell the V&A to invite me. That time, people don’t know. What you’re talking about is where -- it was earlier in the 1990s, and a message came to my publisher saying -- and it was conveyed to me by the publicist and my publisher -- saying, “David Bowie wants your phone number,” and I burst out laughing. I said, “That’s ridiculous. Oh, boy. It’s just some fan trying to get it.” They said, “David Bowie they claimed really wants your phone number.” I said, “Is that the way David Bowie gets in touch with you when he wants your phone number?” I laughed, and I didn’t believe it. It was all so shadowy.

Only now, only after I did the research for this Victoria and Albert thing, did I realize that the reason it was so strange was that he had fired his entire staff. He had fired his management. He had fired his company, and dealing with the record companies and so on after Berlin, and he only dealt with the world via friends. That’s what was so strange about it. It was strange. I made a mistake.

What he wanted was he wanted to use an excerpt from Sexual Personae on a record album in one of his lyrics. I’m like, “Oh, my God.” It’s very embarrassing that that happened, but that’s OK. I think there should be a distance, or a sense of respect and reserve, with great artists.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: My question is do you ever have any concern that modern literature and eventually all the classics will have to be rewritten so that in order to be understood, every fifth word will have to be the word “like”?

PAGLIA: Unfortunately, the sense of language in general, or just a respect for language or interest in language is degenerating. I’m someone who used to write down, always, I’d write down any word I don’t know in what I’m reading. I would make lists, and I would study the dictionary and etymologies, and now, young people have no concern for language, per se.

The way they communicate with each other and the email format now in text is very truncated, and it’s why the writing on the web has also degenerated horribly.
It used to be with newspapers and magazines, there was a space limit, and that imposed a real kind of format. It forced you to condense, and it gave a crispness to language. We’re in a period now, I’m afraid that the ear for language is degenerating.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: In my view, feminists have made a lot of progress in the Western world in the last century, and I’m curious to know if you think we’re close to basically achieving the goals that were set out, or if the feminists will ever feel like the fact that more women go to college these days, for example, is a symbol of progress, or that they’ll never feel like the job has been done?

PAGLIA: Oh, no. I’m an equal opportunity feminist, by which I believe that all obstacles to women’s advancement in the political and professional realms should be removed.

What I’m also saying is that there are huge areas of human life that are not political that have to do with our private spiritual nature, and that is a place where legislation will always be helpless and hopeless and indeed, intrusive, so I think that feminism has made enormous gains in terms of -- there was a time that women were totally dependent on father, on husband, on brother, for their survival.

Now, women can be self-supporting, can live totally on their own. It’s part of this whole Western world powered by capitalism that our university curricula are now habitually always demeaning. Capitalism made women’s emancipation possible.

I think that the problem right now is that young women have been taught that to somehow identify their own sense of personal unhappiness with men, and men are responsible for our unhappiness, when in fact, part of the issue is that we have lived as a species for tens of thousands of year, where mating occurred early, where you left your parents’ house, and had your own household, and your own children.

Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet, is 13 going on 14, and already, she’s ready for marriage. In this life, we have a very long, an unnaturally long period here, before women can attain some sense of who they are as women.

It’s not men. It’s not the patriarchy, and it’s ultimately not a feminist issue. It has something to do with this very mechanical system of the modern technological, professional world that has emerged to replace the agrarian period, when there were multiple generations living with each other, and women had a natural sense of solidarity, being all together.

There was the world of women, and the world of men, once. They didn’t have that much to do with each other once. All the problems have happened since we started having to deal with each other.

Part I



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