William Burroughs at Naropa 1982 (Q & A – part two)

in media res.. William Burroughs is talking about Joseph Conrad

WSB:  ….oh he’s a very great writer, my god!  He’s a great creator of character. You can see the characters – Elmer, Lingard… Not interesting people, for the most part, at all, but, like, neither is (are) (Jean) Genet‘s characters interesting in themselves but he manages a transmutation there that makes a really dull person like Willems in An Outcast of the Islands interesting -Lingard, they’re all dull people

Q: Do you see much of Genet at all?

WSB: No he’s very hard to find, he… I know a very good friend of his, Brion Gysin, who lives in Paris, he hasn’t seen him in years, but they spent a lot of time together in Tangiers at one point, yes.

Q: Have you any comment on the influence of Henry Miller‘s work on Kerouac (‘s and

WSB: Very little on mine. I think some on Kerouac’s, yes, sort of the outpour(ing), the immediate experience, emphasis on the immediate experience, yes.

Q: By the early ’70s, you were writing columns for Crawdaddy magazines – “Time of the Assassins“, the Jimmy Page interview. What of this experience did you enjoy, did you like that association….?

WSB: Well, no, I don’t do much going out, socializing and that sort of thing, very little indeed, so it shouldn’t be assumed that it’s at all typical for me to…

Q: Well what was it like to have a monthly installment, monthly place, where you can place whatever you want…

WSB: Well, it gets to be hard work, you see. You got to do it every month. So you don’t.. maybe you don’t get an idea every month, but you’ve got to make an idea. I.. Doing a regular column. I don’t know how anybody could do a daily column, that would really be murder, but even a.. say you’ve got a weekly column, you’ve only finished one, you have to start thinking about the next one (unless you got something all blocked out).

Q: (But you get paid to be a writer, so you shouldn’t mind)

WSB: Well, that’s what my whole book is about so I would almost say the same thing, that I don’t have time to explain. It’s like – I gave the comparison of creatures that live in water,and they can look up out of the water and see land, but they can’t really imagine what it would be like, I mean really realize, what it would be like, to live there. There are new fears up there. You see, the fear of falling means nothing to a fish, but it’ll mean something as soon as he gets a form where he can get up out onto land. But, actually, the air-breathing potential has to be there first before the water-creature can come up onto land. There were lung fish and various fish that developed rudimentary lungs (that) came up onto the land, but there was no way that one fish could have told another what it’s going to be like when he gets out of the water. Nor can I say what it will be like when we get out of time (and) into space, except to say that, obviously, our link with space is dreams. We now know that dreaming is a biological necessity and that if people don’t dream (or) are prevented from dreaming, they will die eventually, (just as they would die from loss of sleep). So it serves, obviously, a very deep and very necessary biologic function. And my interpretation is that  dreams are our link with space, with our biological and spiritual destiny in space, which we may or may not realize. Yes?

[Audience-member, indecipherable, gives a rambling observation – WSB: I can’t understand you! – she continues – WSB: Well, we take one at a time. WSB continues – on seriality..]

WSB: Well, there’s something called The Serial Universe by (J.W.) Dunne, you see, where he has.. every..every universe, every person is observed by an observer who’s observed by an observer, and so on (into) infinity. Yes, yes, I know something about what he’s talking about.

Q (I like crawdads, the more I’m hearing)

WSB: Like what?

Q (The crawdads)

WSB: Man, I was brought up with crawdads,  came from St Louis, and they’re no novelty, man, they’re.. I think they have a terrific range. I’ve hardly been any place where there were no crawdads – Yep..

Q: What did you think of.. [audio, regrettably inaudible here]

WSB: Well, I thought.. I did some editing on it. I thought it was, yes, a reasonable piece of work, yes, I enjoyed it.

Q: Yeah, I had a dream on meeting you and I wrote a short piece and I was wondering if I might share that..

WSB: What’s the dream?

Q: [Audience-member reads out a short prose piece – On meeting you – “…I read you loud and clear. You are medicine and exactly right…” “Daydream on Meeting William Seward Burroughs”]

WSB: You mean that I said all that in a dream? – huh?

Q: No!

WSB: That would have been something!  I always found dreams, on occasion, tend to be brief and cryptic. Oh..well.. no, that’s something, but what was the dream? you said something about a dream?

Q: Just a dream, a dream on meeting you.

WSB: Oh.

Q: I had this… picture of it (that)  I saw from your work.

WSB: Yeah, it was an association?

Q: Right.

WSB: I understand, yeah.  wait a minute..one over here..yes?

Q: I read somewhere recently that you had been somewhat influenced by Julian Jaynes’ ideas about the origins of consciousness

WSB: I thought he had a very interesting thesis, but the end of it, he just doesn’t do anything with it at all. He was talking to a.. telepathy.. Somebody talking in somebody else’s mind (that’s how he said speech got started –  by someone, someone’s voice.. someone else’s voice in someone else’s brain). Well, then he turns around and repudiatesthe whole idea of telepathy. So it sounded like he was sort of recanting to the establishment, the educational establishment, under pressure and sort of winding up by denying everything that he’d said, really. But the thesis itself was quite interesting – the idea that people.. (and I do get a feeling from reading the Odyssey and the Iliad and all that) that they didn’t have this “I’ that we have at all. It would never occur to them to wonder what they should do, or whether this was right or this was wrong, quite a different consciousness really. Yes?

Q: I don’t know if this is fact or fiction but I recall reading accounts that Jack (Kerouac)would write something, sort of wondering specifically what you would think of it, andwould..bring you something that he wrote and say,”Well, here, read this” and your only comment was “Ah, yes”, and that you didn’t comment, and I was wondering did you..

WSB: He didn’t.. No, he didn’t tend to bring very much to me. I was.. Sometimes I’d ask to see something . Like when he was in Mexico, he’d spent a lot of his time sitting around, just writing away in a notebook. He did a lot of oral.. I mean a lot of written..written,hand-written material, and he was also very.. very fast on the typewriter.. and then I’d ask him sometimes, well, what he was writing, and then he would show me.. He showed me some of the Mexico City stuff (Mexico City Blues) when he was there.  But it was nothing that happened every day. You see, we didn’t see that much of each other over a long.. there were long periods when we didn’t see each other at all, when I really moved out of the (United) States and he stayed where he was. He came over to visit in 1957 to Tangiers, rather briefly. So.. and after that, I didn’t see him.. I only saw him once between 1957 and his death in 1969.

Q: Did he offer you any suggestions while he was typing up the manuscript for Naked Lunch?

WSB: He didn’t do all that much typing on it. Allen.. yeah.. no, he did a fair amount, Allen and Jack both did a lot of typing, and Alan Ansen. No, he didn’t, he didn’t, he didn’t at all. He wasn’t.. he didn’t tend to give to people suggestions on writing.

Q: Ezra Pound suggested that the biological, the biochemical make-up of the brain is similar to the sperm. Would you have a comment on that?

WSB: I never thought of such a thing … I don’t know.. Maybe!.. (It’s just) I haven’t really considered  it. I don’t think scientifically it’s very similar. Is it? Not that I’m a biologist, god knows, but I.. I don’t see that there would be any immediate similarity, biologic(ally) or chemically. – Let’s see, yes?

Q: How would you rate your son’s book?

WSB: Which one?

Q: Well I read Speed and..

WSB: Well, yeah, Speed is certainly.. Lots of people come to me and say that it says more to them than anything I wrote, he seemed to catch a certain feelng in the ‘Sixties and transcribe it with great accuracy and sincerity. So, I think they’re very good books indeed, and I’m glad to say in no way influenced by me, they don’t sound like..like he even read what I wrote, which is good, very good.

Q: (Are the two of you still in contact?)

WSB: Pardon?

Q: (Are the two of you still in contact?)

WSB: He’s dead, my dear – didn’t you know that?  Yeah, he died about two years ago.[Editorial note – “Billy” Burroughs  (William Burroughs Jr.) died of liver failure, aged 33, on March 3, 1981]

Q: ..I remember the opening of the On The Road book..

WSB: Yes

Q:  .. and I was curious if you felt some sort of distinction between drinking and..

WSB: I think he’s.. No, I think he’s drawing an artificial line there, where none exists. There may be sort of a spectrum but I don’t think there’s any clear differential line to be drawn there  –  (I’ve) got to get somebody else (in) here, yes?

Q: The gentleman mentioned Ezra Pound before…

WSB: What?

Q: Ezra Pound

WSB: Yeah

Q: What do you think of him? Have you read him at all? What do you think of the Cantos? Do you think he’s a major influence on the writing of modern poetry?

WSB: Err..well, I’m not really competent to say. I have not read The Cantos. I found them rather hard going. I found his… the fact that..  (some of the) theories (that) were expressed there..were deplorable.. all this ..”technocracy”, it was called, I believe (which was, to mymind, a lot of nonsense). And he was a cranky person. But I couldn’t really assess him as a poet at all..but..well, yes, there are some good phrases in there…I remember Alan Ansen used to read sections, like one called “Pull down thy vanity” [from “Canto LXXI”, -“Pull down thy vanity, it is not man/ Made courage, or made order, or made grace,/ Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down”] which was sort of first-rate, but..I don’t read a great deal of modern poetry, I just never really read Pound, the Cantos.

WSB: Who?

Q: Bukowski. Charles Bukowski

WSB: I don’t… he’s good. I don’t know it very well. I really..I really would be.. I couldn’tpass an opinion at all.

Q: Does (the Marquis) De Sade have much influence on you?

WSB: No. Not at all, I have.. I don’t find it so interesting really. I can see that it’s more interesting as a sociological document or at least to me it’s more interesting as a sociological document than it is something that I actually enjoy reading, or find fulfilling.

Q: Have you ever read The Sound and the Fury  by William Faulkner?

WSB: Yes

Q: What did you think of it?

WSB: It’s been a year since I read it. It seemed to me a very..very good book and the experimentation there was sort of… consciousness excerpts I thought were very well done. It was good. I don’t know if it would re-read well.

Q: At one point in time Korzybski and Spengler definitely had a lot of influence on you, Kerouac and Ginsberg. Do you think these people are still very relevant…to the young people

WSB: Which was the first one?

Q: Korzybski?

WSB: I don’t know, I don’t know..oh Korzybski! –  Korzybski is very important to anyone of any age because that’s the whole meaning of meaning  – the meaninglessness of abstract words – the either/or propositions, that are nothing but either true or false, which he saysis one of the great errors of Western thought, which I fully agree with, “It’s either hereditary or… – both – and – “either this (or that) – It’s not the way the nervous system works, it’s not the way the physical universe works, and abstract words like “Justice”,”Communism”,”Democracy”, you see, you have as many meanings for these words as people that use them – they all mean different things, you can never arrive at an agreement because they’re not talking about the same thing. He is very important. I think Spengler is much less important. Spengler is interesting because, since he has a theory, he collects a lot of disparate historical facts that you wouldn’t find anywhere else and brings them in to his cyclical theory of history, and I think you’d learn, I think a young person would learn, quite a lot by reading Spengler, whether he subscribes to his – ( I don’t particularly, I don’t think it’s a very valid concept) – to his cyclical view of history, (but the book would still have value). But Korzybski, yeah, I think everyone should be taught him at high-school, becauseall these purely verbal arguments, that are quite unnecessary and time-wasting..

Q: What’s the name of one of Korzybski  books?

WSB: Well, he wrote a great (deal). He wrote a book called Science and Sanity. Well, he was a mathematician among other things and it’s very very long, there’s a long mathematical section in it – and I think the non-Aristotelian society which he founded is located somewhere in Connecticut [The Institute of General Semantics at one time based in Lakeville, Connecticut, is now based in Forest Hills, New York]  – (they have the details over at the bookstore because I ordered this condensation of Science and Sanity for one of my classes and they sort of cooked the thing down into a reasonable book..but it can be obtained, and it’s very much worth reading just for the simple.. He used to start his talk by rapping something. He’d say, “Whatever this may be, it’s not a table – it’s not the word, “table”, it’s not the label.  Yes?

Q: Has Brion Gysin written anything (in recent times)?

WSB: Yes, let’s see, he’s written… he wrote an article on Jones, on, wait a minute, Brian Jones. He’s written various articles on Jojouka. He is currently working on a book called The Bardo Hotel. I think he’s written various articles for photography and painting magazines, I don’t have the full list, but, yes, he’s been quite active in writing since then.

Q:  Also there’s The Third Mind

WSB:  Yes, that one particularly. And now, let’s see, I think his first one, which was To Master, a Long Goodnight, about slavery in Canada, was..is out of print. Any more questions here?

Q: I’ve been reading Desolation Angels. (Jack) Kerouac was talking about when he wastyping up that whole bunch of nightmares, and I noticed, in reading a couple of your books, (I started reading very heavily).. and I’d spoken to another writer who told me he gets stuck reading your works because he was having so many nightmares, and I was just wondering..

WSB: What was the content of his nightmares, do you remember?

Q: No, he didn’t tell me, but..

WSB: I see, yes

Q: But I was just wondering, if you had..if you’d spoken to people who have felt (that)… your work communicates on an unconscious level…

WSB: Well, no, that’s rather, a very, interesting idea, because I’ve never found any direct thing which you’d consider a nightmare. There’s always the influence. I can go to a movie like Blade Runner and I know that there are scenes in there that will probably appear in my dreams (and it has happened), or books, but, you know, something that, I should say, specifically, would produce a nightmare?  (because, while I’m subject to them, I have them periodically, there doesn’t seem to be any definite thing that would.. that would trigger it off at all). So, well, I’m very suprised to hear that. He felt that there was a direct connection?

Q: Well, I just…

WSB: …and that when he stopped reading my books the nightmares disappeared?

Q: I don’t know about that. I just know my experience was not nightmares, and read(ing) about different people that read your books, and then read(ing) Kerouac, and you talking about the guy, it just seemed like that was a similar experience, maybe the power of the imagery or something communicated on that deep a level.

WSB: Well, I think that anything that makes an impression on you certainly becomes material for dreams. No question of that. Since he may have had an effect on millions of people I’m sure there are millions of dreams based on On The Road.  Yes?

Q: Do you think the human species will evolve (in a) non-differentiation (direction)?

WSB: Well I don’t think that’s the crucial point, really, the differentiation. It’s to what…moving from time into space is going to be very difficult to foresee, what the alterationswould be. I have a few ideas, but..I’m not sure.

Q: When you make this step into space, could you elaborate a little bit on what function that dreams are going to serve (then)?

WSB: Well, dreams are simply.. I regard them as preparation for space conditions. Now, dreams, actually serve the function of preparation. There’s a whole theory of dreams that the species that does a lot of dreaming inside the womb are.. is.. preparing it for certain movements they will have to make later. I think they’ve done a lot of experiments..(there’s a book by, I mean an article by, (Michel) Jouvet on dreaming), and that, it does serve thispreparatory function. In this case, for future bodily movements, etcetera – and I just postulate that it has the same function with us. We know that it has some very powerfulbiologic function.

Q: (Is it) sort of teaching us things that we’re going to be doing there?

WSB: That’s right. Exactly.

Q: Rather than giving us glimpses of perhaps future worlds and environments?

WSB: Well, there’s no difference. You’ve got a different environment and you’re different. You have to be different. The different.. it’s like the fish looking up there, he’s going to getup there  – he’s got to change. He can’t be the same or he will die in the altered condition

Q: So dreams are going to be a source of strength…?

WSB: No, preparation, preparation. Yes Michael (Brownstein) ?

Q (MB): Where’s an artist like Genet.. Can you…

WSB: (By) Genet?

Q (MB): Is that what you just said?

WSB: Oh no no , no no no no no! – Jouvet is a.. a scientist. I’m sorry, I don’t have.. I used to have.. I do have at home a copy of the article, and he turned up the very interesting fact that cold-blooded animals don’t dream… that cold-blooded animals do not dream, and this may be due to the fact that their neural tissue is renewable (altho’, no one knows really, not any more) – yes?

Q: (In your analogy of land and water, what equals water?)

WSB: Well, you mean what corresponds to water? Well, I would say time.

Q: (And) What corresponds to land?

WSB: What corresponds to land? Dream. That’s as close as we get to it.Not just dream but the moments in which you feel that you glimpse something beyond time. This may be apoem, a sunset, maybe any number of things, but we’re all acquainted with the feeling when you feel for a moment that time is not relevant, and that medium is space.

Q:  Since you talking about Blade Runner, I wonder if you’re familiar with the book upon which that was based, and the book’s title is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

WSB: Oh yes, oh yes, that’s how I got the idea in the first place. I read the book.

Q: So you admire (Philip K) Dick‘s books?

WSB: It wasn’t (Philip) Dick’s book at all. It was someone named (Alan) Nourse.

Q: No, I mean the movie, tho’..

WSB:  Oh well, no, I haven’t read the book. I haven’t read that book. I read the original Bladerunner – but I didn’t read Dickey’s book. [Editorial note – Burroughs is possibly confusing Philip K Dick and James Dickey here] – I don’t like..I’m not very fond of his >work, frankly (not that I know it very well).

Q: (When you read of yourself in fiction, is that in some way “you” or is that something that the person… where is the connection? – because I feel there is a connection, but I’m not sure….)

WSB: Well, there’s no way of  knowing, There’s all kinds of variations. So when I.. Your conception, for example..  Jack had his conception of Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady). Andhis Dean Moriarty was very different from my conception of Neal. Neal and I have ridden..for five hours in a car and never exchanged a word, and Kerouac has him compulsively talking. Your conception of someone has got very little to do with the person.

Neal Cassady & Jack Kerouac ..

Q: (But perhaps an actual situation where you’re visited in the room by another person…)

WSB: Exactly, yes, but the same thing, in a sense, applies. Sometimes a person may be aware of it but sometimes not at all, not at all aware…and then he just…. usually, it’s difficult to cross-check.

Q: Do you think people will start having  relationships like that more?

WSB: Well, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s an area where practice makes perfect at all. I wonder if practice makes perfect at all in those… in that whole area. It’s not a matter of practice, really, although observation, yes. Well, yes.

Q: You said earlier that you thought that the development of the main character is one of the most elusive elements in writing a story. Do you feel that Jack used people like Neal Cassady and Gary Snyder as a way of circumventing that problem?

WSB: No, I’m talking about the main character, I’m talking about the “I’. If somebody says “I”, everybody assumes that he’s talking about.. that he is the “I” represented. There is a unique situation in Jack (Kerouac), if you come to think of it. These people that he was writing about in some detail were actually (are actually), were actually alive, and, I don’t know, I think that Neal was rather upset – that he felt that this part was sort of being forced on him, so that is rather.. it’s rather unusual for a writer to do that. Usually the characters he writes about are fanciful, or dead, or disguised in some way.

Q:  (Can you describe briefly Neal Cassady…in contrast to how Kerouac describes)?

WSB: No, I was just pointing out that his, his conception of Neal Cassady is very different from mine (without going into mine, which isn’t particularly interesting). I liked Neal very much but Kerouac just saw an entirely different side to him, that’s all. I think this is very common, that one person’s concept of someone is quite different from anothers (both of whom knew the person very well).

Q:  (Do you smoke cigarettes?)

WSB: (Yes) .. Maybe I’ll quit again, it’s a bad habit. There’s no question of it.  Yes.

Q: I just have a two-pronged question. First off, do you think the social and political climate that we live in now is an improvement upon the one, say, in the “Forties and ‘Fifties and could you, if you do think it’s better or worse, (to stop what’s happening, take a chain-saw…)

WSB: No, I wouldn’t go as far as that. Besides, as I said in.. the other night, I think we are living in a much freer America, I know goddam well that we’re living in a much freer America than say, certainly, than forty years ago, when the four-letter word couldn’t appear on a public page, when the rights of minorites were just simply ridiculous, not to be considered – “A nigger was a nigger, a Mexican was a Mexican, and a homosexual was a fuckin’ queer – and that’s it!” (this is back in the ‘Twenties and ‘Thirties). Now, there’s been a great change, since then,  and I think for the better, and we are living in a much freer America, and part of this is due to the whole Beat movement, in all its ramifications, its connections with jazz, and rock n’ roll, and the political activists as well  – that’s all, yes?

Q: (Regarding the evolution of time into space…)

WSB: What? what? what? I can’t hear you!

Q: (You were saying that people are evolving from the framework of time into space and I was asking…)

WSB: Well obviously they’re going to change, just as the fish changed when it came out of the water, right?, if you have to have lungs. We’re not quite sure what we have to have anddon’t have to have, but it, of course, involves biologic alterations. That’s the point, not just the psychic but biological. Otherwise, you’re just going in an aqualung. It’s like you take an aquarium with the fish in it and you put it up onto land, that doesn’t give them any conception of what it means to live on land and all we’ve done is send some people to the moon in an aqualung (useful, I think, very useful, but there’s another step to go). Yes?

Q: Some people seem to subscribe to the pendulum idea of society that there was a lot of liberties to choose in the ‘Sixties (and people in the Reagan administration [sic – this was 1982] think, perhaps, too many). Do you sense that there has been some repression in the last few years or are you basically optimistic about the outcome?

WSB: Well, it isn’t a question of being optimistic or pessimistic. These are meaningless words. I mean, the captain says the ship is sinking, he’s a pessimist? As to ultimately, there are a series of impasses that don’t look very good for long-time solution. Inflation is seemingly going to get worse and worse, all these insoluable problems – over-population (which is, of course, one of the causes of inflation), over-population, depletion of resources. There certainly is not a good prognosis over a period of time, unless some very drastic changes are made (and no politician could suggest the changes – like cutting their population in two)

Q: You’ve spoken before of the need to break down the distinctions between art and science and we see this occuring now. What do you think of the results?

WSB: Well I think that it’s very desirable, I’d say that scientists are more artistic and artists more scientific, and I think it happens – but there are these… these divisions are quite arbitrary. They have no existence outside of arbitrary opinion. Yes?

Q: Do you share (Timothy) Leary and (Abbie) Hoffman‘s opinion with respect to the bomb and the question of nuclear holocaust..

WSB: I.. I would just say I don’t know. I wouldn’t…I wouldn’t express an opinion there.You’re talking about (a) nuclear holocaust now? – I just don’t know. We hope not, that’s all.

Q: You have a good understanding of rock and roll music. Obviously you’ve been an influence on a lot of what is happening. I wonder what your involvement was, and if you listened to it, and if music has anything to do with your (life)? – all these people that, i mean, coming out now, they cite you as their influence..

WSB: I really am not knowledgeable about music at all – I should say that immediately – and particularly modern music. I don’t.. I don’t listen to it as a rule. I like Morroccan music, I like some classical music, and sort of old-time jazz, but I’m not ..just not reallyheavily into music  at any point really.

Q: Kafka had the same thing about music…wouldn’t listen to it at all. It disturbed his writing

WSB: Who said so?

Q: (Franz) Kafka

WSB: I don’t feel that. I don’t feel anything, It’s just (that) it doesn’t interest me terribly (altho’…

Q: What do you think of Ishmael Reed‘s work  (he’s a great admirer of your work (even though) you’re white..

WSB: Well that’s a great compliment, I must say. I am.. I’m not as familiar with it as I could be. I…what I’ve seen I did like, yes. I really can’t be very knowledgeable  Yes?

Q: Do you still take drugs…?

WSB: Oh really, my dear. That’s not a proper question. Everybody, everybody smokes pot – and I take a drink now and then, and I smoke cigarettes – Basta!

Q: Can you just repeat the name of the author of Science and Sanity

WSB: Alfred Korzybski

Q: Korzybski

WSB:  Polish, obviously

Q: Spelt with a K ?

WSB: Yeah – His name was.. he was Count Alfed Korzybski. He was a Count of some sort.

Q: (Can  I ask you about what else he wrote? I thought you mentioned he wrote a book about…)

WSB: Oh no, not at all. He wrote a book called Science and Sanity and he gave some lectures once at the University of Chicago, but aside from that, nothing. Yes?

Q: You said about the artist (that he’s) telling us about what we know and don’t know that we know.What do you think they say about the transition from time to space?

WSB: Well, I think that all artists are talking about space, that art is another link to space, another preparation you might say.

Well, I think if.. time’s almost up, maybe we take one more question.. alright..

Q: You’ve been described as somewhat of a misogynist and.. do you see any influence on you of women writers?

WSB: Oh yes, Carson McCullers, very definitely, Jane Bowles – well, those are the two main ones – there are some, oh yes, there are some from,.. wait a minute, I forget her name, the one who kept pigs in Georgia? – Flannery.. Flannery O’Connor,  Djuna Barnes Nightwood  She was such a strong and distinctive stylist, I think she influenced every writer to some extent. Yes, decidedly there are influences.

Well, I think that we will close now.

The previous two segments of William Burroughs at The Jack Kerouac Conference at Naropa, 1982 can be accessed here and here

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