Scott Thompson on Thu, 28 Aug 1997 20:02:45 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Walter Benjamin Congress: Day 2

---------------------Day 2: Samuel Weber-----------------------------

The first full day of the Congress opened with a plenary session at 10:00
a.m. in the Concertzaal.  Samuel Weber's "Walter Benjamin and the
Citability of Gesture" and Gary Smith's "Benjamin, Scholem and Jonah:
Towards a Jewish Theory of Justice" were the featured papers.  Anselm
Haverkamp chaired the session.  In his introduction of the speakers,
Haverkamp credited Weber with having set the entire theoretical stage for
Benjamin's reception, situating WB within the discipline of "theory," in
contrast to "philosophy," where WB is usually situated in Germany.

Weber's paper focused on the two versions of Benjamin's essay "What is Epic
Theatre?"  whose pertinent passages on gesture and citability are worth
quoting here:
1.      Epic theatre is gestural. The extent to which it can also be
literary in the traditional sense is a separate issue.  The gesture is its
raw material and its task is the rational utilization of this material.
The gesture has two advantages over the highly deceptive statements and
assertions normally made by people and their many-layered and opaque
actions. First, the gesture is falsifiable only up to a point; in fact, the
more inconspicuous and habitual it is, the more difficult it is to falsify.
Second, unlike people's actions and endeavours, it has a definable
beginning and a definable end.  Indeed, this strict, frame-like, enclosed
nature of each moment of an attitude which, after all, is as a whole in a
state of living flux, is one of the basic dialectical characteristics of
the gesture.  This leads to an important conclusion: the more frequently we
interrupt someone engaged in an action, the more gestures we obtain.
Hence, the interrupting of action is one of the principal concerns of epic
theatre.  Therein lies the formal achievement of Brecht's songs with their
crude, heart-rending refrains.  Without anticipating the difficult study,
yet to be made, of the function of the text in epic theatre, we can at
least say that often its main function is not to illustrate or advance the
action but, on the contrary, to interrupt it: not only the action of
others, but also the action of one's own. It is the retarding quality of
these interruptions and the episodic quality of this framing of action
which allows gestural theatre to become epic theatre. [First version,
trans. A. Bostock]

2.      The Quotable Gesture: 'The effect of every sentence,' Brecht
asserts in a didactic dramatic poem, 'was expected and revealed. And was
awaited until the crowd had weighed every sentence.' In short, the play was
interrupted by the pauses of the actors.  One may reach out further here
and recall that interruption is one of the methods fundamental to all
shaping.  It extends far beyond the precincts of art. It lies, to select
only one example, at the basis of quotation. Quoting a text includes an
interruption of its context.  It is therefore clear that the epic theatre,
which is based on interruption, is in a specific sense quotable.  The
quotability of its text would be in no way peculiar. But with gestures,
which, in the course of the play are appropriate, it is quite different.
        'To make gestures quotable' is one of the essential tasks of the
epic theatre. The actor must be able to space out his gestures as a
compositor spaces out words.  This effect can be attained, for example, by
having the actor on the scene quote his own gesture. Thus we follow how, in
Happy End, the girl, Neher, playing the part of a Salvation Army sergeant
who, in order to make converts, has sung a song in the seamen's pub - a
song all too much in place in a pub - and then has to repeat this song and
the gestures that go with it before a Salvation Army council.  Thus, in
Massnahme, not only the report of the communists, but also, by their
acting, a series of gestures of the party-member against whom they
proceeded, is brought before the party-tribunal. What, in the epic drama,
is an artistic device of the subtlest kind, becomes, in the special case of
the didactic play (Lehrstueck), one of the most immediate ends in view. For
the rest, the epic theatre, by definition, is one of gestures. The more
frequently we interrupt an actor the more gestures we obtain. [Second
Version, trans. E. Landberg]

Citing these two passages, Weber proceeded to explain the citability of
gesture and the importance of interrupting action.  The German word
'Zustand'  [usually translated as 'condition' or 'state'] was broken down
into its components 'Stand' [position, standing, rank] and the preposition
'zu' [to, towards].  The 'conditions' which it is epic theatre's job to
represent, rather than developing actions, would best be defined, according
to Weber, as 'stances'.  The translation of 'Zustand' here as 'stance'
elucidates the importance of the mode of representation, the gesture.
        Epic theatre is a non-aristotelian theatre.  'Einfuehlen' (empathy,
sympathetic understanding) and catharsis are dispensed with.  Brecht denied
the actual ability to 'identify with' the 'other' because this other did
not occupy a stable position with fixed contours.  While Aristotle
considered poetic representation a correlative to mythical representation,
Brechtian theatre seeks to interrupt the myth.  The gesture interrupts the
action, frames it, and serves to comment upon the preceding action.  It is
a negation.  Interruption as the 'Mother of dialectics'.  Gesture suspends
the animation, and its shock-effect retards thought in the sense of the
word 'Nachdenken' ('thinking back on,' 'provoking thought').  The
disjunctive nature of the gesture opens up interstices for the formation of
public will and decision-making.  Epic theatre fills in the orchestra pit,
the originally sacred abyss of tragedy separating actor and audience which
has lost its original meaning.  The stage has become a podium.

While Weber's paper deftly elucidated the foregoing points, this
participant was struck by its failure to develop Benjamin's ideas.  Weber's
admirable explanation of the importance of gesture, interruption,
citability and so on was really a rehash of an article which has been
available in English for fifty years.  The relationship of Brecht's epic
theatre to current trends in theatre was never discussed.  The importance
of WB to developments in the media (e.g. internet) was only briefly
mentioned. Missing also was any mention of a relationship between gesture,
the concept of the 'dialectical image' and the messianic cessation of
        Just as the gesture interrupts theatrical action, framing and
commenting upon it, the dialectical image interrupts perception.  In his
essay "On Fascination: Walter Benjamin's Images" Ackbar Abbas describes the
interrupting function of the dialectical image:

We can relate Benjamin's Medusan view of history to his interest in
photography and in the poetics of quotation.  The fascination that
photographic images exert can be profoundly unnerving: it was so for
Baudelaire. This is largely because photographic images 'paralyze the
associative mechanism in the beholder' (One-Way Street, 256). The spark of
contingency provides the point of fissure of the image: it prevents it from
closing up, from hiding behind the appearance of historical continuity or
organic interrelatedness.  The fissure of the image ruptures myth: it
provides evidence against it. When Atget photographed the scenes of Paris,
he photographed them, Benjamin points out, like 'scenes of crime'
(Illuminations, 228).

In the 'Medusan view of history' modern experience is viewed as a series of
shocks.  Our experience of 'current events' is an endless series of
catastrophes sold as 'news'.  But just as the gesture and the dialectical
image create ruptures and fissures, 'the messianic cessation of history'
interrupts the false historical continuum wielded by the authorities.  In
Lowenthal's essay "The Integrity of the Intellectual," Burkhardt Lindner is
quoted with regard to Benjamin's idea of justice as an interruption of the
so-called positive law which merely rationalizes dominance and violence:

Justice is the messianic emergence or the purifying, profane power of
revolutions. Correspondingly, Benjamin also rejects the notion of world
history as world court. Only the revolutionary interruption of history or
the messianic cessation of history can disrupt the repressive continuum and
pass judgment over what has been.

---------------------Day 2: Gary Smith------------------------------------

The idea of a Jewish concept of justice was the focus of Gary Smith's
paper, "Benjamin, Scholem and Jonah: Towards a Jewish Theory of Justice."

In his biography of Benjamin, Gershom Scholem discusses the relationship
between WB's concept of justice and the world of myth:
Benjamin's decided turn to the philosophic penetration of myth, which
occupied him for so many years, beginning with his study of Hoelderlin and
probably for the rest of his life, was manifested here for the first time
and left its mark on many of our conversations.  In this connection, at
this early date Benjamin spoke of the difference between law and justice,
calling law an order that could be established only in the world of myth.
=46our years later he elaborated on this idea in his essay "Zur Kritik der
Gewalt" ['Critique of Violence,' in Reflections, pp. 277-300]. Benjamin
must have been familiar around this time with the writings of Johann Jakob
Bachofen and also must have read the works of the ethnologist Karl Theodor
Preuss on animism and preanimism; he repeatedly referred to the latter's
statements on preanimism.

Gary Smith's presentation focused on the Benjamin/Scholem dialogue
concerning law and justice,  its relationship to their discussions of the
Book of Jonah, and the peculiar Jewish concept of justice found in that
prophetic book.  This discussion was to have played a role in forming the
background to the discussions of 'mythic violence' in Benjamin's essay
'Critique of Violence,' a work which shows the influence of both Hermann
Cohen and George Sorel.  The recalcitrant Jonah's reluctance to prophesy by
fleeing the presence of the  Lord to Tarshish was rather painfully narrated
along with the story of the great fish, the redemption of Nineveh and God's
repentence.  Though Smith had chosen an engaging topic to discuss, his
delivery was simply not up to the task.  Obviously unrehearsed, he betrayed
a distracting nervousness and lack of confidence, which contrasted markedly
with the all-pervasive position he has occupied in the world of Benjamin
scholarship.  Moreover, his attempts to spontaneously edit his unwieldy
work faltered on numerous occasions, resulting in a most choppy and
confusing performance.  It was clear from scanning the Concertzaal that
many faces registered disappointment and boredom.  Nor would one be
contradicted in saying that Smith's was certainly the weakest effort at the
Congress.  It is to be hoped that the published paper will find more a
favorable reception.  Applause was polite, but Anselm Haverkamp's attempt
to console Smith with a remark to the effect of "Well, you got through it"
registered a blush of humiliation on Smith's face, which this participant
could not help but notice.

--------------------Day 2: Workshops. First Session------------------------

Nine workshops were held simultaneously between 11.45 and 13.15.  Attending
Session III-1 in the Shaffyzaal afforded an opportunity to hear G.T.M.
Visser (Univ. of Leiden), Geret Luhr (Univ. of Bamberg) and Willem van
Reijen (Univ. of Utrecht) briefly read their respective papers:
"Erlebnis und Machenschaft" ['Lived Experience and Machination'], "Die
Erfahrung von Magie in der Literatur der moderne. Walter Benjamins
Auseinandersetzungen mit dem Werk Stefan Georges" ['The Experience of Magic
in the Literature of the Modern. Walter Benjamin's Dealings with the Work
of Stefan George'] and "Der Schwarzwald und Paris. Metaphorik und mehr in
den Philosophien Heideggers und Benjamin." ['The Black Forest and Paris.
Metaphor and more in the Philosophies of Heidegger and Benjamin'].  Last
minute cancellations and alterations of the program aside, it should be
emphasized that once one made a choice to attend a particular workshop, one
inevitably missed the other 30 papers being presented simultaneously in the
other workshops.

G.T.M. Visser's paper focused on the concept of Erlebnis ('lived
experience' or 'episode') found in the works of Heidegger, Dilthey, Martin
Buber and Benjamin.  The concept of 'shock' found in WB's 'Work of Art in
the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' was briefly discussed, as was
Baudelaire's influence.  Heidegger's reading of Buber on 'Erlebnis' was
also mentioned.  Geret Luhr's presentation on WB's difficult rapport with
Stefan George and the George circle continued the discussion of 'Erlebnis'
and shock.  The centrality of 'experience' in WB's early essay 'On the
Program of the Coming Philosophy' was traced back to the influence of Felix
Noeggerath, who appears as 'the genius' in WB's correspondence.  Noeggerath
had also been marginally connected to the George circle.  According to
Luhr, the traces of George's influence throughout Benjamin's writings
(whether directly from George or indirectly through Hugo von Hofmannsthal,
Rudolf Borchardt, Friedrich Gundolf, Norbert von Hellingrath, Ludwig Klages
or Karl Wolfskehl) have not been adequately pursued by Benjamin scholars.
Luhr's short paper was an attempt to redress this oversight.  In addition
to the central concept of 'experience,' the importance of 'aura' was also
traced back to the George circle.

Willem van Reijen's presentation on the metaphors of country and city found
in Benjamin and Heidegger was rather pedestrian and uninspired.  Nietzsche
was cited as a predecessor of 'Stadthass' (hatred of cities), and
Heidegger's conception of philosophy and its relation to landscape was
illustrated with anecdotes about the extremely laconic nature of the
'typical' Black Forest peasant.  Such laconic nature was contrasted with
the 'empty' loquaciousness of urban dwellers.

The attempt made by a number of participants to liken Heidegger and
Benjamin resulted in a lively question and answer period, however, which
was the highlight of this workshop.  It now strikes this participant as odd
that Cornelia Vismann, who chaired the session, did not contribute to the
lively interchange on WB and Heidegger, for the ideas she expressed in her
article "Landscape in the First World War: On Benjamin's Critique of Ernst
Juenger" [New Comparison, No. 18, Autumn 1994] would have been most
pertinent. Evidently, one of the twenty-odd participants there had been the
journalist Christian Schulte, for he has also mentioned the heated exchange
concerning this issue in his short article on the Congress which appeared
in the Frankfurter Rundschau (July 31,1997).    A clear division existed
between the philosophy professors, who had located numerous parallel
passages and ideas in Benjamin and Heidegger, and those for whom the
political differences between the two men obviated any serious
consideration of substantial similarity between their respective
philosophies.  The discussion which grew more and more heated did not abate
at 13.15 and continued into the lunch hour.

Julian Roberts has called attention to the influence of Ludwig Klages on
both Benjamin's and Heidegger's ideas of history, as Richard Sieburth has
reiterated in his introduction to the English translation of Folio "'N' [Re
The Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress]" from the Passagen-Werk
(Arcades Project).  In addition to Klages, both Benjamin and Heidegger were
decisively influenced by Hoelderlin's reverence for the 'holiness of the
minute particular'.  Furthermore, their understanding of Hoelderlin had
been deeply influenced by George and Norbert von Hellingrath. Nonetheless,
there are some serious obstacles which will have to be persuasively
explained away before many participants of the Congress are convinced that
this dialogue between WB and Heidegger is based on any kind of substantial
common ground.  Moreover, a number of professors who made such assertions
were somewhat remiss in their ability to recall pertinent evidence for
their positions.  In a conversation with the convivial Prof. G.T.M. Visser,
this participant questioned this 'common ground' on the basis of numerous
barbs aimed at Heidegger in Benjamin's correspondence.  When WB's
criticisms of Heidegger's dissertation on Duns Scotus were cited as a case
in point, Dr. Visser denied that WB had made such an assertion.  In fact,
Dr. Visser denied that Benjamin had ever read this work.  Instead, Visser
corrected, it was Heidegger's 'Das Problem der historischen Zeit' which was
at issue, and indeed that work had been mentioned by WB as an example of
how not to treat the subject.  Now, in all fairness to Dr. Visser it should
be noted that Benjamin's letter to Scholem on November 11, 1916 did concern
'Das Problem der historischen Zeit'.  But in all fairness to the
questioning participant, Benjamin did in fact read Heidegger's book on Duns
Scotus.  In his letter to Scholem on December 1, 1920, Benjamin wrote the

I have read Heidegger's book on Duns Scotus.  It is incredible that anyone
could qualify for a university position on the basis of such a study. Its
execution requires nothing more than great diligence and a command of
scholastic Latin, and, in spite of all of its philosophical packaging, it
is basically only a piece of good translating work.  The author's
contemptible groveling at Rickert's and Husserl's feet does not make
reading it more pleasant.  The book does not deal with Duns Scotus's
linguistic philosophy in philosophical terms, and thus what it leaves
undone is no small task.

Then there is Benjamin's assertion in a letter to Scholem that he and
Brecht "were planning to annihilate Heidegger"   Writing to Gretel Adorno
on July 20, 1938, Benjamin expressed amusement and dismay that he had
figured as a follower of Heidegger in an issue of the German-language
journal Internationale Literatur, which was published in Moscow and "hews
to the party line." Benjamin considered the journal "quite wretched."  As
for the supposed similarity in their philosophies of history, Benjamin's
own self-understanding of their respective positions indicates the
contrary.  Writing to Scholem on January 20, 1930 about the
epistemological-historical introduction to his Paris Arcades project (Folio
'N'), Benjamin added,

This is where I will find Heidegger, and I expect sparks will fly from the
shock of the confrontation between our two very different ways of looking
at history.

Within Folio 'N' can also be found the statement that "Heidegger seeks in
vain to rescue history for phenomenology abstractly, through
'historicity'".   As these few quotes should indicate, any attempt made to
coopt Benjamin by assimilating him into the Heideggerian camp will have to
effectively counter and nullify Benjamin's own self-understanding of his
project vis-a-vis National Socialism and its "runic humbug," which
Heidegger once called "the inner truth and greatness of this movement."

--------------------Day 2: Sigrid Weigel-------------------------------

The afternoon sessions began at 14.45 in the Concertzaal.  Sigrid Weigel
began the plenary session with her paper "Lost in Translation. Vom Verlust
des Bilddenkens in UEbersetzungen Benjaminscher Schriften" (Concerning the
Loss of Pictorial Thinking in Translations of Benjamin's Writings).  She
was followed by Irving Wohlfarth, whose paper "Walter Benjamin and the Idea
of a Technological Eros" presented a detailed discussion of Benjamin's
prose poem "To the Planetarium" from One-Way Street.  Since Ms. Weigel's
soft voice made note-taking for this participant rather difficult, the
following remarks will be focused predominantly on Irving Wohlfarth's

Because the integrity and uniqueness of the image in Benjamin's German was
the central idea of Sigrid Weigel's paper, it was presented in German. The
translator's translator, whose essay "Die Aufgabe des UEbersetzers" (The
Task of the Translator) belongs among the most celebrated essays on
translation ever written in German, was discussed within the context of a
persisting Unuebersetzbarkeit [untranslatability] of the images of his
language.  Examples of the untranslatable nature of certain passages from
Japanese were given. The 'Leib- und Bildraum' [Body & Field of Vision] of
Benjamin's language, translation vs. transliteration, the dialectical image
as a caesura, the threshold between languages, and translation as a kind of
probe were discussed.  The presentation developed certain themes which can
be found in Weigel's recently published work, Entstellte Aehnlichkeit:
Walter Benjamin's theoretische Schreibweise [Distorted Similarities: Walter
Benjamin's Theoretical Mode of Writing] (Fischer, 1997).

--------------------Day 2: Irving Wohlfarth------------------------

Those for whom the discussion of Heidegger and Benjamin was a subject of
heated interchange were all the more stimulated by Irving Wohlfarth's
penetrating discussion of WB's "To the Planetarium."  Though Wohlfarth's
presentation was in English, he followed Weigel's lead in quoting the
passage in the original after Edmund Jephcott's English translation had
been given to the participants.

Concluding Einbahnstrasse [One-Way Street], "To the Planetarium" could be
seen as a precis of Benjamin's philosophy, which George Steiner claimed
could be summarized in the  concept of Tikkun Olam. from Lurianic kabbalah.
Wohlfarth, however, chose the Greek concept of apocatastasis, the final
restitution of all things at the coming of the Messiah.
It is precisely this sense of cosmic experience, cosmic rausch , which
separates the ancient world from the modern, postulates Benjamin. The loss
and repression of a communal cosmogonic Eros, however, must inevitably lead
to Thanatos, the destructive revenge of the repressed.
For it is in this experience [Rausch] alone that we gain certain knowledge
of what is nearest to us and what is remotest from us, and never of one
without the other.  This means, however, that man can be in ecstatic
contact with the cosmos only communally.  It is the dangerous error of
modern man to regard this experience as unimportant and avoidable, and to
consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights. It is
not; its hour strikes again and again, and then neither nations nor
generations can escape it....

  World War I was just such an eruption on a cosmic scale never before
experienced.  The technological powers unleashed took human beings to the
depths of the sea and the altitudes of the clouds.  The lack of communal
sense demonstrated by  capitalist greed, however, turned the cosmic "bridal
bed into a bloodbath." Mastery of nature is not and should not become the
purpose of the "commingling" of human and cosmic forces, for as Benjamin
asks, "who would trust a cane wielder who proclaimed the mastery of
children by adults to be the purpose of education?"  As he would reiterate
in his later essay on "Surrealism," the ever greater frenzies of
destruction looming up ahead will be inevitable until the proletariat is
seized by this cosmogonic Eros and can conquer destruction in the 'ecstasy
of procreation.'

As Wohlfarth correctly noted, Benjamin's "To the Planetarium" betrays the
influence of Ludwig Klages's Vom Kosmogonischen Eros.  The anti-militarist
Klages, whose writings on "Dream-Consciousness" and graphology deeply
influenced WB, had also left Germany for Switzerland during WWI.  Regarding
'mind' and 'spirit' [Geist] as the rationalist enemies behind militarism,
Klages advocated a return to 'soul' through the rebirth of matriarchal
mystery religions like the Eleusinian mysteries.  His anti-semitism, which
became progressively more pronounced, ultimately found in WB a hostile
critic, and in his correspondence with Adorno and Horkheimer Benjamin
mentions his plan of an attack on both Klages and C.G. Jung.
For Wohlfarth, however, "To the Planetarium" reads like 'left-wing Klages'.
The forces of the irrational contained in Klages's 'hair-brained
metaphysical dualism' (WB) cannot simply be ignored, and are to be
appropriated by the left.  But rather than reinstitute the mysteries and
some neofascist "ancestor worship" (Ahnenerbe), the pagan powers of rausch
are to be won for German Jewishness and Jewish messianism.  Here Wohlfarth
has noticed the possible influence of Sabbatianism, the heretical kabbalist
messianism which Gershom Scholem was investigating.  Wohlfarth also noted
the importance of this prose poem for WB's essay "Theories of German
Fascism" (1930), which reviewed a collection of war recollections edited by
Ernst Juenger.

--------------------Day 2: Workshops. Second Session------------------------

Eight parallel workshops were held between 16.30 and 18.00.  Session III-6
in the Bungehuis featured Gale R. Mauk (Emory University, Atlanta), Scott
Thompson (Independent, San Francisco), Sytze Steenstra (Univ. of
Maastricht) and Warren S. Goldstein (New School of Social Research) reading
their respective papers: "Reciprocal Gaze and the Mute Language of Things:
Walter Benjamin's Aesthetics of Communion"; "From Rausch to Rebellion:
Walter Benjamin's Writings on Hashish"; "God and the Subject Playing
Peek-a-Boo in Benjamin's Philosophy"; and "Walter Benjamin's Montage of
Messianism and Marxism." Mauk's paper focused on the concept of aura and
the ability of things to return the subject's gaze, and the loss of
eye-contact in modern society.  Benjamin's writings on Baudelaire and the
experience of crowds were contrasted with Jean-Paul Sartre's critique of
Baudelaire.  Thompson's paper can be read on the Walter Benjamin Research
Syndicate website and will not be discussed here.  Suffice it to say that
it was well-received by an audience of approximately thirty people.
Steenstra's paper focused on the alternating dimensions of the political
and the messianic in WB's writings, particularly his writings on German
Romanticism.  The idea that WB rejected his earlier and more mystical
writings when he became immersed in Marxism was rejected.  Warren Goldstein
continued the theme by discussing the relationship of Marxism to
messianism.  Marxism as a secularization of the messianic was explored
along with comparisons between Benjamin and Ernst Bloch.  WB's
"Theological-Political Fragment" and his essay "Karl Kraus" were briefly

-----Day 2: Panel--------------------------------------
Gary Smith, Martin Jay in conversation with Mona Jean Benjamin, Kim Yvon
Benjamin, and Michael Benjamin------------------------------------

Between 20.30 and 21.30 Martin Jay and Gary Smith unwittingly supplied
comic relief in their panel conversations with Mona Jean and Kim Yvon
Benjamin (WB's granddaughters) and Michael Benjamin (WB's nephew).  For
those who anxiously awaited the divulging of Benjamin family secrets, this
was surely a disappointment.  The life of Benjamin's son, Stefan, was
briefly described.  His anxiety in being asked to return Klee's painting
Angelus Novus to Scholem was recounted, and it came as no real surprise
that, according to the granddaughters, Dora Benjamin had despised both
Scholem and Adorno.  Dora's own difficult life in England raising Stefan
was mentioned, as was her remark to Stefan that she had always wanted a
girl instead.  Most notable in this session were the revelations about the
total absence of Judaism in the upbringing of Stefan and his daughters.
Stefan married a Chinese Buddhist, and neither granddaughter has ever set
foot in a synagogue.  Michael Benjamin described life in East Germany after
the war, the similar absence of a judaic upbringing, and the reception of
WB there before his reception in West Germany.  All in all, it was a
chatty, pleasant, and pedestrian session.  The granddaughters were amused
by the questions and the interest in the 'grampa' they had never met, both
of them having been born in the 1970s, and on more than one occasion they
burst out laughing: a welcome relief from all the day's pomp and

---------------------------------------------End Day 2

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