His great-grandfather was burgomaster of a small town in Saxony; his grandfather was for twenty-four years burgomaster of Kamenz, and wrote a plea for religious toleration; his father was the head Lutheran pastor in Kamenz, and wrote a catechism which Lessing learned by heart. His mother was the daughter of the preacher to whose pastorate his father had succeeded. It was natural for her to intend him for the ministry, and for him, sated with piety, to rebel.

His early education, at home and in a grammar school at Meissen, was a mixture of German discipline and classic literature, of Lutheran theology and Latin comedy. “Theophrastus, Plautus, and Terence were my world, which I studied with delight.”62 At seventeen he was sent to Leipzig on a scholarship. He found the town more interesting than the university; he sowed some wild oats, fell in love with the theater and an actress, was allowed behind the scenes, learned the machinery of the stage. At nineteen he wrote a play, and managed to get it produced. Hearing of this sin, the mother wept, the father angrily summoned him home. He smiled them out of their grief, and talked them into paying his debts. His sister, coming upon his poems, found them wondrously improper, and burned them; he threw snow into her bosom to cool her zeal. He was sent back to Leipzig to study philosophy and become a professor; he found philosophy deadly, incurred incurable debts, and fled to Berlin (1748).

There he lived as a literary journeyman, writing reviews, making translations, and joining with Christlob Mylius in editing a short-lived magazine of the theater. By the age of nineteen he was an addict of free thought. He read Spinoza and found him, despite geometry, irresistible. He composed a drama (1749?), Der Freigeist (The Free Spirit); it contrasted Theophan, a kindly young clergyman, with Adrast, a harsh and raucous freethinker and something of a rogue; here Christianity had much the better of the argument. But about this time Lessing wrote to his father: “The Christian faith is not something which one should accept on trust from one’s parents.”63 Now he composed another play, Die Juden, discussing the intermarriage of Christian and Jew: a rich and honorable Hebrew, named simply “The Traveler,” saves the lives of a Christian noble and his daughter; the nobleman, as reward, offers him his daughter in marriage, but withdraws the offer when the Jew reveals his race; the Jew agrees that the marriage would be unhappy. It was not until five years later (1754) that Lessing, over a game of chess, made the acquaintance of Moses Mendelssohn, who seemed to him to embody the virtues that he had ascribed to “Der Reisende.”

Early in 1751 Voltaire, or his secretary, engaged Lessing to translate into German some material which the expatriate philosopher wished to use in a suit against Abraham Hirsch. The secretary allowed Lessing to borrow part of a manuscript of Voltaire’s Le Siècle de Louis XIV. Later in that year Lessing went to Wittenberg, and took the manuscript with him. Fearing that this uncorrected copy might be used for a pirated edition, Voltaire sent Lessing a politely urgent request for the return of the sheets. Lessing complied, but resented the urgent tone; and this may have colored his subsequent hostility to Voltaire’s works and character.

Lessing received the master’s degree at the University of Wittenberg in 1752. Back in Berlin, he contributed to various periodicals articles of such positive thought and pungent style that by 1753 he had won an audience large enough to pardon his publishing, at the age of twenty-four, a six-volume collected edition of his work. These included a new play, Miss Sara Sampson, which was a milestone in the history of the German stage. Till this time the German theater had presented native comedies, but rarely a native tragedy. Lessing urged his fellow playwrights to turn from French to English models, and to write their own tragic dramas. He praised Diderot for defending the comedy of sentiment and the middle-class tragedy, but it was from England—from George Lillo’sThe London Merchant (1731) and Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748)—that he took his inspiration for Miss Sara Sampson .

The play was performed at Frankfurt-an-der-Oder in 1755, and was well received. It had all the elements of drama: it began with a seduction, ended with a suicide, and connected them with a river of tears. The villain Mellefont (Honeyface) is Richardson’s Lovelace; he is a hardened hand at defloration, but deprecates monogamy; he promises marriage to Sara, elopes with her, sleeps with her, then postpones marriage; a former mistress tries to win him back, fails, poisons Sara; Sara’s father arrives, ready to forgive everything and accept Mellefont as his son, only to find his daughter dying; Mellefont, quite out of character, kills himself, as if to exemplify Lessing’s quip that in tragic dramas the protagonists die of nothing but the fifth act.64

He thought that now he could butter his bread by writing for the stage; and as Berlin had no theater he moved to Leipzig (1755). Then the Seven Years’ War broke out, the theater was closed, the book trade languished, Lessing was penniless. He moved back to Berlin, and contributed to Nikolai’s Briefe die neueste Literatur betreffend articles that marked a new height in German literary criticism. “Rules,” said his Letter xix, “are what the masters of the art choose to observe.” In 1760 the Austro-Russian army invaded Berlin; Lessing fled to Breslau as secretary to a Prussian general. During his five years there he haunted taverns, gambled, studied Spinoza, the Christian Fathers, and Winckelmann, and wrote Laokoon. In 1765 he returned to Berlin, and in 1766 he sent his most famous book to the press.

Laokoon, oder Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie (Laocoon, or On the Boundaries between Painting and Poetry) derived its immediate stimulus from Winckelmann’s Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (1755). When Lessing had written half of his manuscript Winckelmann’s History of Ancient Art (1764) reached him; he interrupted his essay and wrote: “The History of Art by Herr Winckelmann has appeared. I will not venture a step further without having read this work.”65He took as his starting point Winckelmann’s conception of classic Greek art as characterized by serene dignity and grandeur, and he accepted Winckelmann’s claim that the Laocoon statuary group in the Vatican Gallery preserved these qualities despite mortal pain. (Laocoön, priest of Apollo at Troy, suspected that there were Greeks in the “Trojan horse,” and hurled a spear at it; the goddess Athena, favoring the Greeks, persuaded Poseidon to send up from the sea two huge serpents that twined themselves murderously around the priest and his two sons.) Winckelmann supposed that the Laocoön —now reckoned as a work of Rhodian sculptors in the last century before Christ—belonged to the classic age of Pheidias. Why Winckelmann, who had seen and studied the work, ascribed calm grandeur to the distorted features of the priest is a mystery; Lessing accepted the description because he had never seen the statue.66 He agreed that the sculptor had moderated the expression of pain; he proceeded to inquire into the reason for this artistic restraint; and he proposed to derive it from the inherent and proper limitations of plastic art.

He quoted the dictum of the Greek poet Simonides that “painting is silent poetry, and poetry is eloquent painting.”67 But, he added, the two must keep within their natural bounds: painting and sculpture should describe objects in space, and not try to tell a story; poetry should narrate events in time, and not try to describe objects in space. Detailed description should be left to the plastic arts; when it occurs in poetry, as in Thomson’s The Seasons or Haller’s Die Alpen, it interrupts the narrative and obscures the events. “To oppose this false taste, and to counteract these unfounded opinions, is the principal object of the following observations.”68 Lessing soon forgot this purpose, and lost himself in a detailed discussion of Winckelmann’s History. Here he was without experience or competence, and his exaltation of ideal beauty as the object of art had a sterilizing effect upon German painting. He confused painting with sculpture, applying to both of them the norms proper chiefly to sculpture, and so encouraging the cold formality of Anton Raphael Mengs. But his influence on German poetry was a blessing; he freed it from long descriptions, scholastic didacticism, and tedious detail, and guided it to action and feeling. Goethe gratefully acknowledged the liberating effect of the Laocoön .

Lessing found himself more at home when (April, 1767) he moved to Hamburg as playwright and dramatic critic at eight hundred thalers per year. There he produced his new play, Minna von Barnhelm. Its hero, Major Tellheim, returning with honors from the war to his estates, wins betrothal to the wealthy and lovely Minna. A turn of fortune and hostile intrigues reduce him to poverty; he withdraws from his engagement as being no longer a fit husband for the heiress to a great fortune. He disappears; she pursues him and begs him to marry her; he refuses. Perceiving his reason, she contrives a hoax whereby she becomes attractively penniless; now the major offers himself as a mate. Suddenly two messengers enter, one announcing that Minna, the other that Tellheim, has been restored to affluence. Everybody rejoices, and even the servants are precipitated into marriage. The dialogue is sprightly, the characters are improbable, the plot is absurd—but nearly all plots are absurd.

On the same day (April 22, 1767) that saw the opening of the National Theater at Hamburg Lessing issued the prospectus of his Hamburgische Dramaturgie. Periodically, in the next two years, these essays commented on the plays produced in Germany, and on the theory of drama in the philosophers. He agreed with Aristotle in judging drama to be the highest species of poetry, and he accepted with reckless inconsistency the rules laid down in the Poetics: “I do not hesitate to confess … that I deem it as infallible as theElements of Euclid”69 (who has ceased to be infallible). Yet he implored his countrymen to abandon their subserviency to Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire, and to study the art of drama as revealed in Shakespeare (who ignored Aristotle’s rules). He felt that the French drama was too formal to effect that catharsis of the emotions which Aristotle had found in the Greek drama; Shakespeare, he thought, had accomplished this purge better in Lear, Othello, and Hamlet by the intensity of the action and the force and beauty of his language. Forgetting Desdemona’s handkerchief, Lessing stressed the need of probability: the good dramatist will avoid dependence upon coincidences and trivialities, and he will so build up each character that the events will follow inevitably from the nature of the persons involved. The dramatists of the Sturm-und-Drang period agreed to take Shakespeare as a model, and gladly liberated the German drama from the French. The nationalist spirit, rising with the victories of Frederick and the defeat of France, inspired and seconded Lessing’s appeal, and Shakespeare dominated the German stage for almost a century.

The Hamburg experiment collapsed because the actors quarreled among themselves and concurred only in resenting Lessing’s critiques. Friedrich Schroder complained: “Lessing was never able to devote his attention to an entire performance; he would go away and come back, talk with acquaintances, or give himself up to thought; and from traits which excited his passing pleasure he would form a picture that belonged rather to his own mind than to the reality.”70 This perceptive judgment well described Lessing’s wayward life and mind.

Shall we stop him here in mid-career and look at him? He was of medium height, proudly erect, strong and supple through regular exercise; with fine features, dark-blue eyes, and light-brown hair that kept its color till his death. He was warm in his friendships, hot in his enmities. He was never so happy as in controversy, and then he dealt wounds with a sharp pen. “Let a critic,” he wrote, “. . . first seek out someone with whom he can quarrel. Thus he will gradually get into a subject, and the rest will follow as a matter of course. I frankly admit that I have selected primarily the French authors for this purpose, and among them particularly M. de Voltaire”71—which was brave enough. He was a brilliant but reckless talker, quick in repartee. He had ideas about everything, and they were too many and forceful to let him give them order, consistency, or full effect. He enjoyed the pursuit of truth more than the dangerous delusion of having found it. Hence his most renowned remark:

Not the truth of which a man is—or believes himself to be—possessed, but the sincere effort he has made to reach it, makes the worth of a man. For not through the possession, but through the investigation, of truth does he develop those energies in which alone consists his ever-growing perfection. Possession makes the mind stagnant, indolent, proud. If God held enclosed in His right hand all truth, and in His left hand simply the ever-moving impulse toward truth, although with the condition that I should eternally err, and said to me, “Choose!,” I should humbly bow before His left hand, and say, “Father, give! Pure truth is for Thee alone.”72

Two precious friendships remained from the Hamburg fiasco. One was with Elise Reimarus, daughter of Hermann Reimarus, who was professor of Oriental languages in the Hamburg Academy. She made her home a center for the most cultivated society in the city; Lessing joined her circle, and Mendelssohn and Jacobi came when they were in town; we shall see the vital part that this association played in Lessing’s history. Still more intimate was his attachment with Eva König. Wife of a silk merchant, mother of four children, she was, Lessing tells us, “bright and animated, gifted with womanly tact and graciousness,” and “still had some of the freshness and charm of youth.”73 She too gathered about her a salon of cultured friends, of whom Lessing was facile princeps. When her husband left for Venice in 1769 he said to Lessing, “I commend my family to you.” It was hardly a provident arrangement, for the dramatist had no asset but genius, and owed a thousand thalers. And in October of that year he accepted an invitation from Prince Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand of Brunswick to take charge of the ducal library at Wolfenbüttel. This town had declined to some six thousand souls since the removal (1753) of the reigning Duke’s residence to Brunswick, seven miles away, but Casanova reckoned the collection of books and manuscripts to be “the third greatest library in the world.”74 Lessing was to receive six hundred thalers a year, with two assistants and a servant, and free residence in the old ducal palace. In May, 1770, he settled in his new home.

He was not a successful librarian; still he pleased his employer by discovering, amid the manuscripts, a famous but lost treatise by Berengar of Tours (998-1088), questioning transubstantiation. In his now sedentary life he missed the strife and stimulus of Hamburg and Berlin; poring over bad print in poor light weakened his eyes and brought on headaches; his health began to fail. He consoled himself by writing another drama, Emilia Galotti, which expressed his resentment of aristocratic privileges and morals. Emilia is the daughter of an ardent republican; their sovereign, the Prince of Guastalla, desires her, has her fiancé murdered, and abducts her to his palace; the father finds her, and, at her insistence, stabs her to death; then he surrenders himself to the Prince’s court and is condemned to die, while the Prince continues his career only momentarily disturbed. The passion and eloquence of the play redeemed its finale; it became a favorite tragedy on the German stage; Goethe dated from its première (1772) the resurrection of German literature. Some critics hailed Lessing as a German Shakespeare.

In April, 1775, Lessing went to Italy as cicerone to Prince Leopold of Brunswick. For eight months he enjoyed Milan, Venice, Bologna, Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Pavia, Turin, Corsica, Rome; there he was presented to Pope Pius VI, and may have seen, belatedly, the Laocoön. By February, 1776, he was again at Wolfenbüttel. He thought of resigning, but was persuaded to stay by an increase of two hundred thalers in his salary, and by receiving a hundred louis d’or per year as adviser to the Mannheim theater. Now, aged forty-seven, he proposed to the widowed Eva König that she become his wife and bring her children with her. She came, and they were married (October 8, 1776). For a year they experienced a quiet happiness. On Christmas Eve, 1777, she gave birth to a child, who died the next day. Sixteen days later the mother died, too. Lessing lost his savor for life.

Controversy sustained him. On March 1, 1768, Hermann Reimarus passed away, leaving his wife a voluminous manuscript which he had never dared to print. We have said a word elsewhere75 about this “Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes” (Apology for the Rational Worshipers of God). Lessing had seen some of this remarkable work; he asked Frau Reimarus to let him publish parts of it; she agreed. As librarian he had authority to publish any manuscript in the collection. He deposited the “Schutzschrift” in the library, and then published a part of it in 1774 as The Toleration of Deists, … by an Anonymous Writer. It made no stir. But the supernatural experts were aroused by the second portion of Reimarus’ manuscript, which Lessing issued in 1777 asSomething More from the Papers of the Anonymous Writer, concerning Revelation. It argued that no revelation addressed to a single people could win universal acceptance in a world of so many diverse races and faiths; only a minority of humanity had yet, after seventeen hundred years, heard of the Judaeo-Christian Bible; consequently it could not be accepted as God’s revelation to mankind. A final fragment, The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples (1778), presented Jesus not as the Son of God but as a fervent mystic who shared the view of some Jews that the world as then known would soon end, and be followed by the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth; the Apostles (said Reimarus) so understood him, for they hoped to be appointed to thrones in this coming kingdom. When the dream collapsed with Jesus’ despairing cry on the Cross—“My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”—the Apostles (Reimarus supposed) invented the fable of his resurrection to conceal his defeat, and pictured him as the rewarding and avenging judge of the world.

The shocked theologians attacked these “Wolfenbüttel Fragments” in over thirty articles in the German press. Johann Melchior Goeze, chief Hamburg pastor, charged Lessing with secretly agreeing with the “Anonymous Writer”; this hypocrite, he urged, should be punished by both Church and state. Milder opponents reproved Lessing for publishing in intelligible German doubts that should have been expressed, if at all, in Latin to an esoteric few. Lessing replied in eleven pamphlets (1778) that rivaled Pascal’s Lettres provinciales in gay sarcasm and deadly wit. “No head was safe from him,” said Heine; “many a skull he struck off from pure wantonness, and then he was mischievous enough to hold it up to the public to show that it was empty.”76 Lessing reminded his assailants that freedom of judgment and discussion was a vital element in the program of the Reformation; moreover, the people had a right to all available knowledge; otherwise one Roman pope would be preferable to a hundred Protestant prophets. After all (he argued), the worth of Christianity will remain even if the Bible be a human document and its miracles mere pious fables or natural events.—The ducal government confiscated the Wolfenbüttel Fragments and the Reimarus manuscript, and ordered Lessing to publish nothing further without the approval of the Brunswick censor.

Silenced in his pulpit, Lessing turned to the stage, and wrote his finest play. Made insolvent again by the expenses involved in the sickness and death of his wife, he borrowed three hundred thalers from a Hamburg Jew to provide the leisure to finish Nathan der Weise. He placed the action in Jerusalem during the Fourth Crusade. Nathan is a pious Jewish merchant whose wife and seven sons are slaughtered by Christians demoralized through years of war. Three days later a friar brings him a Christian infant whose mother has just died, and whose father, recently slain in battle, has on several occasions saved Nathan from death. Nathan names the child Recha, brings her up as his daughter, and teaches her only those religious doctrines on which Jews, Christians, and Moslems are agreed.

Eighteen years later, while Nathan is away on business, his house burns down; Recha is rescued by a young Knight Templar who disappears without identifying himself; Recha thinks him a miraculous angel. Nathan, returning, searches for the rescuer to reward him, is insulted by him as a Jew, but persuades him to come and receive Recha’s gratitude. He comes, falls in love with her and she with him; but when he learns that she was of Christian birth and is not being reared as a Christian, he wonders is he not bound by his knightly oath to report the matter to the Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem. He describes his problem to the Patriarch without naming individuals; the Patriarch guesses they are Nathan and Recha, and vows to have Nathan put to death. He sends a friar to spy on the Jew. But this is the same friar who brought Recha to Nathan eighteen years before; he has observed, through these years, the kindly wisdom of the merchant; he tells him of his danger, and deplores the religious animosity that has made men so murderous.

Saladin, now governor of Jerusalem, is in financial straits. He sends for Nathan, hoping to arrange a loan. Nathan comes, senses Saladin’s need, and offers the loan before being asked. The Sultan, knowing Nathan’s reputation for wisdom, inquires which of the three religions he considers best. Nathan answers with a judicious variation of the story that Boccaccio had ascribed to the Alexandrian Jew Melchizedek: A precious ring is passed down from generation to generation to designate the legitimate heir of a rich estate. But in one of these generations the father loves his three sons with such equal fervor that he has three similar rings made, and privately gives one to each son. After his death the sons dispute as to which ring is the original and only true one; they bring the matter to court—where it is still undecided. The loving father was God; the three rings are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; history has not yet decided which creed is the true law of God. Nathan gives a new turn to the tale: the original ring was supposed to make its wearer virtuous; but as none of the three sons is more virtuous than other men, it is likely that the original ring was lost; each ring—each faith—is true only insofar as it makes its wearer virtuous. Saladin so admires Nathan’s answer that he rises and embraces him.—Shortly after this philosophical parley an Arabic manuscript turns up which shows that the Templar and Recha are children of the same father. They mourn that they cannot marry, but rejoice that they may now love each other as brother and sister, blessed by Nathan the Jew and Saladin the Mohammedan.

Was Nathan modeled on Moses Mendelssohn? There are resemblances between the two, as we shall see in a later chapter; and, despite many differences, it is probable that Lessing found in his friend much to inspire his idealization of the merchant of Jerusalem. Perhaps Lessing, in his eagerness to preach toleration, painted the Jew and the Moslem with more sympathy than the Christian; the Templar is, in his first meeting with Nathan, fanatically harsh, and the Patriarch (Lessing’s memory of Goeze?) hardly does justice to the kindly and enlightened bishops who were then governing Trier, Mainz, and Cologne. The Christian public of Germany repudiated the play as unfair when it was published in 1779; several of Lessing’s friends joined in the criticism. Nathan the Wise did not reach the stage till 1783, and on the third night the house was empty. In 1801 a version prepared by Schiller and Goethe was well received at Weimar, and thereafter the play remained for a century a favorite in German theaters.

A year before his death Lessing issued his final appeal for understanding. He couched it in religious terms, as if to mollify resistance and provide a bridge from old ideas to new. In some aspects the essay The Education of the Human Race (Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlects, 1780) justifies the old ideas; then we perceive that the apology is a plea for the Enlightenment. All history may be viewed as a divine revelation, as a gradual education of mankind. Every great religion was a stage in that step-by-step illumination; it was not, as some Frenchmen had supposed, a trick imposed upon credulous people by self-seeking priests; it was a world theory intended to civilize humanity, to inculcate virtue, decency, and social unity. In one stage (the Old Testament) religion sought to make men virtuous by promising them worldly goods in a long life; in another stage (the New Testament) it sought to overcome the discouraging discrepancy between virtue and earthly success by promising rewards after death; in both cases the appeal was adjusted to the limited understanding of the people at the time. Each religion contained a precious kernel of truth, which may have owed its acceptance to the coating of error that sweetened it. If, around the basic beliefs, theologians developed dogmas hard to understand, like original sin and the Trinity, these doctrines too were symbols of truth and instruments of education: God may be conceived as one power with many aspects and meanings; and sin is original in the sense that we are all born with a tendency to resist moral and social laws.77 But supernatural Christianity is only a step in the evolution of the human mind; a higher stage comes when the race learns to reason, and when men grow strong and clear enough to do the right because it is seen to be right and reasonable, rather than for material or heavenly rewards. That stage has been reached by some individuals; it has not yet come to the race, but “it will come! It will assuredly come, … the time of a new, eternal Gospel!”78 Just as the average individual recapitulates in his growth the intellectual and moral development of the race, so the race slowly passes through the intellectual and moral development of the superior individual. To put it Pythagoreanly, each of us is reborn and reborn until his education—his adjustment to reason—is complete.

What were Lessing’s final views on religion? He accepted it as an immense aid to morality, but he resented it as a system of dogmas demanding acceptance on pain of sin, punishment, and social obloquy. He thought of God as the inner spirit of reality, causing development and itself developing; he thought of Christ as the most ideal of men, but only metaphorically an incarnation of this God; and he hoped for a time when all theology would have disappeared from Christianity, and only the sublime ethic of patient kindness and universal orotherhood would remain. In the draft of a letter to Mendelssohn he declared his adherence to Spinoza’s view that body and mind are the outside and inside of one reality, two attributes of one substance identical with God. “The orthodox conceptions of deity,” he told Jacobi, “no longer exist for me; I cannot endure them. Hen kai pan—One and All! I know of nothing else.”79 In 1780 Jacobi, visiting him at Wolfenbüttel, asked him for help in refuting Spinoza, and was shocked by Lessing’s reply: “There is no other philosophy but Spinoza’s.... If I were to call myself after someone, I know of no other name.”80

Lessing’s heresies, and his occasional truculence in controversy, left him lonely in his final years. He had a few friends in Brunswick, with whom, now and then, he came to chat and play chess. His wife’s children lived with him in Wolfenbüttel; he devoted entirely to them the little legacy she had left. But his adversaries denounced him throughout Germany as a monstrous atheist. He defied them, and dared to oppose the man who paid his salary: when Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, now (1780) duke of Brunswick, threw into prison a young Jew who had incurred his displeasure, Lessing visited the youth in jail, and later took him into his house to win back health.

His own health was gone. His eyesight was now so dim that he could hardly read. He suffered from asthma, weakening of the lungs, hardening of the arteries. On February 3, 1781, on a visit to Brunswick, he experienced a severe asthmatic attack, and vomited blood. He instructed his friends: “When you see me about to die, call a notary; I will declare before him that I die in none of the prevailing religions.”81 On February 15, as he lay in bed, some friends gathered in the next room. Suddenly the door of his room opened; Lessing appeared, bent and weak, and raised his cap in greeting; then he sank to the floor in an apoplectic stroke. A theological journal announced that at his death Satan bore him away to hell as another Faust who had sold his soul.82 He left so little money that the Duke had to pay for his funeral.

He was the herald of Germany’s greatest literary age. In the year of his passing Kant published the epochal Critique of Pure Reason, and Schiller published his first play. Goethe looked up to Lessing as the great liberator, the father of the German Enlightenment. “In life,” said Goethe to Lessing’s shade, “we honored you as one of the gods; now that you are dead your spirit reigns over all souls.”

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