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The twentieth anniversary revised edition of Infinite Jest (2016) garnered attention for everything "David Foster Wallace," but also noteworthy is the quarter-century mark of Wallace's debut collection of short stories. Girl With Curious Hair (1989). Amidst the quirks and oddities of that volume, "Lyndon" at first feels out of place and is largely ignored by critics. Yet, this critical disregard also offers a rare opportunity to freshly reassess the trajectory of Wallace's fictional oeuvre and to reconcile two opposing analyses of that trajectory--Marshall Boswell's "Two Phase" view and Clare Hayes-Brady's "Single Phase" view. Using touchstones of "self and "identity," I contend the target of Wallace's body of work is always already love, but the way in which he pursues and displays this target through self- and relational identity clarifies both the tightness of Boswell's and Hayes-Brady's contending claims and how each falls short.

Other than Jenifer Levin's early New York Times Book Review (1989) and, twenty-seven years later, some interspersed analysis by Clare Hayes-Brady pertaining to love, "Lyndon" either gets overlooked by critics and readers or garners a general perplexity. Seminal Wallace scholar Marshall Boswell argues of "Lyndon" that it is unique in "Wallace's growing oeuvre for its conventionality" and points to the source of the fatal conventionality as an anxiety of influence from its "direct debt to [his metafictional forebear Robert} Coover's Public Burning" (2003, 82). Kasia Boddy briefly mentions its "revisionist history" (Boswell and Burns 2013, 29) and treatment of love (39), but mischaracterizes the ending as "the death of an old man observed with detailed relish, by a young man" (25-26). Other critics relegate it to the status of a research participant in the medical lab of Wallace's 1990s manifesto "E Unibus Pluram"--that "New Sincerity" which Adam Kelly championed (Hering 2010,133).

Boswell declared in 2003 that Wallace's "secret target" in his early works was to enable through empathic reading a "reconnect with our hidden 'true selves'" (2003, 209). If so, Wallace's early works would enable a form of psychotherapy toward the reader's search for individual identity, the Delphic maxim to know thyself Boswell has claimed recently that Wallace's work changed tack--"more and more embedded with culture, politics, and history as Wallace's career as a novelist developed"--and that Wallace's focus became more explicitly outward--"addressing a single question... what has gone wrong with America?... what can we do to make it better?" (2014, 18). Boswell's categories of "culture, politics, and history" are not only a directional change, but already communal; in their best forms, they involve commonalities of interest and care. Boswell's assessment of Wallace's two phases looks something like this: i) early phase--diagnose and amass sample sets for the problems within the individual internal identity, and 2) late phase--diagnose and amass sample sets for the problems within the external communal identity, specifically the American national culture. Theoretically then, albeit aesthetic, Wallace's approach would be that of any research: the bigger the problem, the larger the sample set should be; the larger the sample set, the more likely a solution might be found.

Among recent Wallace scholars, Hayes-Brady has argued instead for a single research constant: "Failure, then, read as the absence of closure is the primary positivity" which "enacts the Rortian continuity of dialogue" (2016, 2). Hayes-Brady maintains that failure as opening to plurality is the primary and consistent animating feature of Wallace's work. As such, Hayes-Brady asserts that "the central concern of his work--communication"--targets "human connection" and, from the very earliest pieces not only (as Boswell claims) the self, but "the self among selves" (93). Here, too, there's much that's on target. Sustaining the prior analogy, though, Hayes-Brady's overarching theory (intentional failure manifest as repeated attempts at dialogue) begins to look like a research project run amok, the specimens chosen to intentionally subvert the bounds of the experiment, dooming its flawed methodology, but perversely testing it anyway.

It has been argued that Wallace's fictions are a laboratorial working-out of philosophical problems. While Wallace's engagement with philosopher Richard Rorty is explored by Hayes-Brady and others, and instantiated in the title of his story, "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature," it is Amelie Rorty's descriptions of love that are relevant to "Lyndon." In addition to exploring in The Identities of Persons (1976) and Mind In Action (1988) the kinds of concepts Wallace tackles in his fiction, Amelie Rorty, philosopher of mind, has written extensively on love. She characterizes love as part of a group of "psychological attitudes... which arise from, and are shaped by, dynamic interactions between a subject and an object" (Rorty 1993, 73). Within that critical dynamic (living and changing, but sustainable) characteristic, Amelie Rorty outlines two identity features of love: historicity--"the detail of the narrative of the interactions between the subject and the object" and relational--the individuation of the object and "the trajectory of the subject's life--the subject's further individuation--[as] affected by this relational attitude, this activity" (74). Thus, the historicity and relational identity of love encompass past, present, and future. Historicity consists of the shared stories ("narrative") of the relationship, which also include the individuals' prior histories as each subject relays this to the other. Just as in French histoire means both "history" as commonly used and "story" (such as the story of one's life), in a love relationship, past stories outside of the relationship and past stories shared within the relationship become integral to present dynamic interactions and patterns of future ones. Additionally, Amelie Rorty illustrates how the self-examinations undertaken to determine what we seek in wanting to be loved are "historically specific: they arise in particular social, political, and intellectual contexts" (74).

The above should already resonate with Boswell's categories of culture, history, and politics, the self-examination component of love (like Boswell's search for the true self), and the relational aspect of love (like Hayes-Brady's self among selves). Both critics capture much of importance in Wallace, but both are symptomatic of the disease of Wallace's ethical pursuit. I want to redescribe Wallace's as a single inquiry with different faces, necessarily plurally expressive and particular because love and identity are necessarily plurally expressive and particular. The multiple lab specimens provide no miracle cures or easy solutions, but Wallace continues to examine the possibilities. Not because he intends to fail, but because we as human beings often do. (1) His push against "horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism, and a peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without even once having loved something more than yourself (Wallace 2006, 54) brings his writing always already back to a human environment of individual and relational identity: how or whether community, communality, and communication are even possible. These aspects of identity encompass and exceed the inclusive or exclusive social membership groups of race, gender, sexual orientation, or other categories of difference. Wallace recurrently speaks of the author's relationship to his work and his readers in terms of love. (2) Through love, Wallace treats the largest social membership of the human environment: the species of human.

If, though, Wallace's ultimate concern is love, why are his stories rife with characters who fail to flourish on any level? David Rando misses the mark to read lovelessness, "the very failure of love to emerge," as the primary "affective drama of Wallace's work" (2013, 577), without seeing it as means, not end. Wallace's approach is a process of elimination of an ever-increasing sample set through an Aristotelean apophasis. Examining what we are as humans and how we might flourish in the world and in love (with the possible redemption implied in The Pale King and a few other gestures), from his very first works Wallace enacts Boswell's question--"What can we do to make it better?"--by showing "not it!" over and over again. As Hayes-Brady (2016) notes, this functions both as failure and as opening, not however arising from an intent to fail, but rather from a honed, empathetic picture of who we often are individually and how we often treat others relationally.

As egocentrically anchored as we are, (3) the self comes into view prosocially, relationally among other selves (see Rorty 1993, 80, as well as works by Nicholas Epley and Thomas Gilovich). So when relationships fail to flourish, the self and (necessarily) selves involved fail to flourish. If love in its various guises {eras, agape, philia, caritas, amor, sympathy, empathy, altruism, etc.) is the most fulfilling of relationships, then it follows that healthy love is the best way to be, know, and become your best self (Friedman 1993, 61; Solomon 1988, 155). When love fails, the self can fail. Yet, seemingly circular, a person without a preexisting autonomous identity is unable to love in a healthy way. Within the socio-political, historical setting of "Lyndon," Wallace is pursuing a picture of love simultaneously through individual and relational modes of identity, and analogously in the relational identities found and formed in Boswell's categories of culture, politics, and history. While I have set the argument up for a larger treatment, and while the magnitude of available comparisons will be obvious to scholars regarding Broom, Jest, Pale King, and a plethora of other Wallace works fiction and non-fiction, extending it across an oeuvre can't be tackled in the scope of this essay. Here, I keep the focus with "Lyndon" in detail, making a "long thing" out of an obscure short story.


History is the shared story of a particular culture--whether it be a couple, a family, a city, or a nation. To use Amelie Rorty's terms, the historicity of a love relationship should be "dynamically permeable" (1993,85), as a search for plurality has shown history to be dynamically permeable. A living changeability doesn't mean, though, unpredictably in flux or ephemeral. "Lyndon" offers a fertile setting in which to examine the interplay between history and story and the analogy between the identifying culture and politics of love in a community of two and a large community, such as a nation. The larger community which shares a history risks similar challenges as two lovers: by definition, a shared history must be mutually acknowledged, cannot be from a single point-of-view, cannot be relative, untrustworthy, or secret.

To illustrate the panoptic view requisite to the political scene, Wallace begins with an epigraph by Lyndon Johnson campaigning for the Senate from a helicopter. "Hello down there," he calls, beaming overhead like an indulgent patriarch. He continues, "This is your candidate, Lyndon Johnson" (Wallace 1989, 77, emphasis added). In spite of the literal and metaphorical distance between their positions, Johnson acknowledges his political indebtedness to the people below, and their agency in his commission. Wallace already gestures to the power problems inherent in politics writ large and relationships writ small: it must contain balance--not a score-keeping checks-and-balance--and not be all about one (group or person). Love dictates that the lover desires the best for the beloved, but acting on behalf of some adjudged "best" risks limiting the autonomy of the other, an appropriative overshadowing of the beloved's own identity. This directly relates to the problems of solipsistic identity, relational identification, and the inversion of proper hierarchy that Wallace explores in "E Unibus Pluram."

If politics is the negotiation of resources and power sharing within an affiliated community, the best praxis of politics should include love for the constituents of that community. Politicians should act in a disinterested agape to promote the health and well-being of those they represent. This requires that politicians have some fundamental understanding of what human thriving entails, but also a functioning ethical ideology of how best to accomplish that. It also entails that politicians understand the diversity of their constituents and their particular needs. In the best world, these aspects too would be historical, relational, and dynamically permeable.

To gain a plurality unavailable to a single narrator, not only a bird's-eye view, but a flock of birds'-eye views, Wallace moves tangentially within the narrative, interrupting it with quotes from aides, rivals, friends, journalists, biographers--citations offset in a different, smaller font offering a corollary to the privileged (in size, voice, and proximity) primary narrative perspective of David Boyd, LBJ's most trusted personal aide. These shifting sources of information function as rumor does--allowing the reader the sense of insider information into the political machine and the man who drives it. In conjunction with the familiarity of the title and the reasoned, eloquent tones of David Boyd in the intimate "I," the story implies a historical fiction exposing a personal, comprehensive view of a larger-than-life persona from recent US history, a dramatized behind-the-scene biopic of political favors and machinations--what Boswell reads as conventional. However, Wallace presses this setting beyond conventionality. The fiction works within the expectation of Rorty's relational historicity; getting someone's prior story is a way to get to know her better, to expose one's vulnerabilities, to establish trust and shared history. In this way, people in a new relationship explore--as Wallace writes in "Octet," a later story--"whether to trust even your most fundamental intuitions about urgency and sameness and whether other people deep inside experience things in anything like the way you do" (2000,160).

Post-political-epigraph, Wallace turns to personal identities and relationships. The opening scene is David Boyd's 1954 hiring interview, and the stage is set by LBJ's initial address (intoned with a broad Texas drawl):
"My name is Lyndon Baines Johnson. I own the fucking floor you stand
on, boy." ..."My name is Lyndon Bzines Johnson, son. I am the Senator
to the United States Senate from the state of Texas, U.S.A. I am the
twenty-seventh richest personal man in the nation. I got the biggest
wazoo in Washington and the wife with the prettiest name. So I don't
care who your wife's Daddy knows--don't you slouch at this Senator,
boy" (Wallace 1989, 78)

The interview's repartee portrays the commanding and rough-around-the-edges personality Johnson is historically known for. After Johnson establishes a professional hierarchy, he tries to discover a relational commonality. Boyd is a Northerner, thus an outsider, but marriage to the socialite daughter of a Houston bigwig secures his Texas connections. Johnson presumes certain initially unnamed "indiscretions" (for which Boyd has been dismissed from Yale post-graduate business studies) resulted in a shotgun marriage--of which Johnson notes, "Admirable. Similar." Boyd steadfastly corrects this impression, reiterating that the indiscretions (later revealed as homosexuality) for which he was expelled are, in fact, unrelated to his marriage (81).

Proclaiming that he put himself through college with a string of menial-labor jobs, Johnson stands in hardscrabble contrast to Boyd's squandering of opportunity from a position of elite privilege. The two men are still strangers to each other; they do not yet share a history. Johnson's and Boyd's seemingly exclusionary backgrounds are juxtaposed again in personality traits: Johnson is "wary," "cautious [and] canny," a "perfectionist" who has never done "anything impulsive in his life" (Wallace 1989, 80-81); Boyd dozes in a corner after waiting hours to hear whether he has gotten the job. They don't seem initially to have much of that human "sameness" that Wallace's "Octet" suggests we feel compelled to discover in each other.

As rumor disrupts known facts, this personality disjunction is compounded by the narrative's quoted reminiscences interspersed seemingly randomly and arrhythmically. These interrupt the daily scenes relayed by David Boyd. As the narrative progresses, some dispersed quotes don't sound quite right, and some incidences don't seem to match the facts; disorientation sets in and the reader may start to question her grasp of history. Wallace's opening epigraph, "Hello down there" from the 1954 helicopter campaign (Wallace 1989, 77), was from Johnson's 1941 and 1946 campaigns ("Texas" 1948). Four pages in, the second quote to the National Press Club, April 17, 1959, has instead been made to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 17,1964. Subsequent quotes which can't be traced are attributed to a "staff member" or "old associate"--unidentified sources that imply political intrigue much like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's Deep Throat. What occurs in a political community parallels a personal community: whether a budding or established relationship, a sense of insecurity in the lover's stories or history can fray the trust in the current and future relational identity. Yet this relationship of trust is analogized not only between Boyd and Johnson, and within the story between the reader and the facts of the fiction (Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief"), but also in the relationship between reader and author that Wallace characterizes as constituting love.

This "revisionist history" has more effects than Boddy discerns. In the fine print on the flyleaf of Girl with Curious Hair, Wallace divulges:
These stories are 100 percent fiction. Some of them project the names
of "real" public figures onto made-up characters in made-up
circumstances.... [these names] do not denote, or pretend to private
information about, actual 3-D persons, living, dead, or otherwise.
(Wallace 1989)

This claim is deliberately disingenuous on Wallace's part. "Lyndon" in particular does lull the reader by those things which are specifically not "100 percent fiction." In a taxidermied blend of historical reality and extra-historical relational surreality, Wallace stitches facts from LBJ's terms of public office into the fiction of an aide's first-person narrative and, in doing so, shows us a new creature: a jackalope, a historiographical fiction with the appearance of truth that serves the needs of Wallace's artistic practice and philosophic pursuits. This hybrid jackalope also pictures the interweaving of two distinct identities and identity aspects found in a successful love relationship, except that here, it only has the appearance of something living.

Amelie Rorty says that love is like this: neither one thing nor the other. Yet, this stitching together can be healthy or toxic. In its best iteration, love is experienced as dynamic permeability; "rationality, appropriateness, and thriving are interwoven" (1993, 87) in what the lovers experience as the "continuous, delicate, and delicious balancing acts of their lives" (87-88). In its worst iteration, love is folie a deux. But why use characters and plot whose names and details invoke actual persons and events if we aren't meant to identify them, and identify with them? For Wallace, this disruption of the balancing act is precisely the point. He knows how we read, identify the history and identify with the history, and experience the discontinuities of misseeing. Maybe these historical persons can't be known because we can't be sure of knowing anyone, not those with whom we are in a relationship, not even ourselves.


Being unable to fully rely on knowledge about Lyndon Johnson the person in relation to Lyndon Johnson the character unsettles the reader. Amelie Rorty argues that, for lovers, "if their interactions are to be beneficial [conducive to thriving], they had better perceive one another accurately" (1993, 87). Feeling suddenly as though you don't know the person you are in a relationship with, or that she is looking at you as though you are a stranger, is unsettling. Wallace uses this strangering technique periodically, including a character named David Foster Wallace in works such as "Good Old Neon" and The Pale King. This is different from using the names of famous personages. While this technique evokes some familiar identity, readers may feel they know the character simply because he is the author, which is familiarity with a role, rather than the actual person of Wallace about whom they might know nothing, or things that equate to gossip. Wallace appropriates his own identity through his characters who take his name, as he does the names of other historical persons.

We can find ourselves in a relationship with a person about whom we know little to nothing, even though we believe we do know something. Literary philosopher Brett Bourbon has a thought-experiment examining the connection between names and persons. Bourbon imagines an exchange of letters in which the recipient finds out he's been corresponding--not with his friend of a certain name, but with a total stranger with that same name. There is certainly a sense of strangeness (What?! This person is a stranger?!). There's a sense of losing the world (I don't even know him, so I've been mistaken about anything we've discussed), or even of indignation or trickery (Has he been fraudulently eliciting private information for nefarious personal or financial gain?). Bourbon writes:
I understood the letter, but I was wrong to understand it in the way I
did. The pronouns and names, let alone the sentences themselves. did
not mean fully in the way that I initially took them. I mistook the way
the letter fit into my sense of the world. I could still understand the
English sentences to mean whatever they did, but my frame of reference
was wrong. (Bourbon 2004, 176)

We take names to be markers of the persons. We allow them to evoke those persons, in fact, and even in fiction--contrary to Wallace's disclaimer. When we find that names have misidentified the individual we thought, we can become confused or worse. In the way they lose the real world, the faux-correspondence and the faux-identity of the writer in Bourbon's thought-experiment become like nonsense, or... like Wallace's fiction.

Yet, in a relationship, we might feel like the other person is faking, deceiving, performing, or simply impersonating someone else. We may sense that we cannot get them right, that we don't know who they are. "Lyndon"--explicitly fiction--enables a similar loss of the world from inside the fiction by enacting identification with the political culture, with historical events and actual persons, then disrupting that identification in the fictionalized inclusion of faux quotes and details. This is Rorty's communal historicity and relational identity problematized from two persons to two hundred million, while Wallace additionally reflects unhealthy identification in the story's love duos.

"Identification" is a Freudian term, and it has been claimed that culture is now inextricably imbued with psychoanalytic conceits: "psychoanalytic claims and insights are now part of what modernity and postmodernity mean" (Pellegrini 1996, 3). In theory, psychoanalysis works therapeutically to restore a normative self-identity. By enacting the pop-culture of psychoanalysis in "Lyndon"--and others such as Brief Interview's titular stories and "The Depressed Person," Oblivion's "The Soul is not a Smithy" and "Good Old Neon," the backdrop of Leonard Stecyk's tale in The Pale King, etc.--Wallace's mode of identification can resemble a mental contagion, rather than a diagnosis. Readers identify with Wallace's characters, not merely as types, but as representations of living (or once-living) persons. This identification is transitive (to identify the other) and reflexive (to identify oneself with the other), because the characters as persons are both fictive and faux. And we don't take Wallace's faux-characterizing as we might take gossip or slander, as viciously motivated.

The disorienting effects of characters who are/are not recognizable, and situations and events which are/are not historical, are not the only enactments of identification. Early in "Lyndon," Wallace establishes that Lyndon Johnson needs someone to be with him, in presence and in principle, confirmed in this set-piece of faux-quotations:
"I never saw a man with a deeper need to be loved than LBJ."--Former
aide, 1973

"He hated to be alone. I mean he really hated it. Fd come into his
office when he was sitting alone at his desk and even though you could
tell it wasn't me he wanted to see, his eyes would get this relieved
light.... Johnson was just a man who needed a lot. For all he gave out,
he needed things back for himself And he knew it."--Former research
aide Chip Piesker (April 1978) (Wallace 1989, 90)

Why does Wallace represent this confidant's evaluation of Johnson's need as that of being loved? Amelie Rorty posits that "we seem to know more about loving than we do about many other psychological attitudes, not because we are more adept at loving than we are at being joyful or indignant, but because, wanting to be loved, we have given thought to what we want, in wanting to be loved" (1993, 74). Johnson's need to be loved, his desire not to be alone, his want of reciprocity, conatively requires an other. That Johnson recognizes this state of affairs is a form of self-knowing--Boswell's reconnect to the hidden true self Psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden summarizes one motivation for "the human desire for companionship, for friendship and for love" as "the desire to perceive our self as an entity in reality, to experience the perspective of objectivity though and by means of the reactions and response [sic] of other human beings" (1993, 71, emphasis original). Since the self comes into vision through knowing others, desiring a relationship with others is a self-validation and a precursor to engaging love amidst an interaction conducive to thriving-if it doesn't reflexively submerge or appropriate the other through egocentrism.

A ponderous sense of the responsibility of the government (and thus, himself) to provide for the people's flourishing emanates from Johnson. He maintains a "Same Day Directive," requiring immediate response to all incoming mail. Having been a teacher himself, he speaks at elementary and secondary schools, which many busy politicians avoid as no direct pay-off with voters. This positions him alongside Hayes-Brady's formulation of the self among selves, opening into communication and empathy. Yet, while Johnson craves love, he feels lonely, distanced from those for whom he feels love, known as a role, rather than seen and admired for himself (The seeing and knowing as a role is how Wallace counts on the reader to treat Johnson, as well.) Boyd envisions children and candy stores when the President wistfully presses his nose against the glass as he looks down at Vietnam protesters beneath his oval office window (Wallace 1989, 107). Like the opening epigraph in the helicopter, Johnson is again positioned at a distance, above his constituents. That Johnson desires the reciprocal love and affection of his constituents much as a child desires candy may imply an irretrievable edenic innocence, but it also shows a desire for satiation of attention that does not fill or fulfill, one-sided and not reciprocal.

While Johnson wants love, he also wants his constituents' good; a holder of political office has this responsibility. Johnson tells Boyd that the Vietnam protestors below his window "got no notion of right and wrong" because they've never had responsibility for others. From their unencumbered positions, these young people believe that "right" and "wrong" are words, whereas Johnson believes they are "gut feelings," which he compares to proximity--internal organs and "folks you personally love" (Wallace 1989,107). Johnson's formulation makes responsibility directly relational, but this looks more like sympathy than empathy. The President says to Boyd, "Let them go be responsible for some folks and then come back and tell their President, me, LBJ, about right and wrong and so forth" (107). While this directive purportedly offers to close the communication gap between himself and the protestors, the conditional, and subsequent communication, is unlikely to occur. If responsibility is meta-, then the love you feel for other people also springs from your responsibility to them: your ability to discern what would injure someone else, a sort of Golden Rule. This condition would indicate that the greatest love LBJ feels is for his constituency, the people to whom he has for twenty-five-plus years devoted his life and felt responsibility toward. Additionally, under this sort of concept, serving in political office (taking responsibility for others) might also be one of the highest forms of love, agape, since the officeholder takes responsibility for, thus shows love for, a larger number of people than possible with "those folks you personally love" to whom you have a natural relation of love. This would also extrapolate into the holder of the highest office (President) showing the most love. Extending the logical proposition, if knowing others allows one to know oneself, and loving others allows one to love oneself, knowing and loving a greater number of others through political responsibility would seem to contribute to a greater self-knowledge and a greater self-love. This meta-love, that is, Johnson's deeply ingrained sense of empathic or altruistic responsibility, mandates the political construct of his life. Still, loving others doesn't mean that love is reciprocated--and even if reciprocal, there's no guarantee of like in kind, or in quantity or quality. The problem remains twofold: Johnson's need for something "back for himself remains unsatisfied, and Johnson believes himself uniquely qualified to determine and enact universal good which can become a source of appropriative, corruptive power and a picture of elitism or exceptionalism. These causal relationships of self-knowing and self-loving don't hold up for President Johnson, at least initially, and a failure of these can lead to an elevation of other "self" values, including vanity and abuse of power.

Johnson expresses self-doubt about social programs, the core of the Democratic agenda. He worries about the ethical character of younger generations who haven't endured the hardships which strengthened their elders: "I think 'I'm gettin' to be a believer in folks' maybe needing to suffer some. You see the implications in that belief? It implies our whole agenda of domestic programs is maybe possibly bad" (Wallace 1989,106). President Johnson--via Wallace's ventriloquism--realizes he is ethically implicated in the very programs that have alleviated suffering nationally, such that young, idealistic protesters do not understand the scale of human suffering on a global level, nor the complexity of global politics in solutions to moral dilemmas. Also implied is--not that Johnson will now effect suffering for Americans, but--that he may no longer alleviate suffering, even when it is in his power to do so. Parents, friends, and romantic partners realize that respecting the autonomy of the other means letting him make mistakes that may harm him, if the harm is not irrevocable. Looking back on his life's works, Johnson is no longer convinced that people's thinking and feeling good is the real "good." He remains convicted that he is responsible for facilitating whatever that public good is. This is a picture of love; the problem is, under the same auspices, it could be a picture of colonization or appropriative, abusive control.

Trying to decipher his own role, Boyd asks Johnson for clarification on this picture of love as responsibility, querying poignantly what responsibility feels like. This moment is strangely ironic after a recent exchange by Boyd and his male lover, the Haitian Duverger. Accusatory, Duverger expresses vehemently that Boyd may feel need for, and responsibility toward, him, but Boyd's love is reserved for the President. Boyd tells his lover that "in this nation," need and responsibility are the picture of, are "part of love" (Wallace 1989, 99). This is an exclusionary moment, neither communication nor communion. Boyd implies that love is defined culturally, nationally, maybe even politically, and that Duverger doesn't have the cultural capital to recognize Boyd's love. Boyd's answer fails to meet Duverger in the place from whence his question comes: "What does love look like? Does it look like us?" This makes Boyd's question to Johnson (What does responsibility, that is, love, look like?) the more surprising. Maybe Boyd is simply wondering what it feels like or looks like to love, as Johnson seems to love, such a vast number of people. Yet, maybe what Boyd is querying is what it would mean to take responsibility for the person who has the most responsibility for others, about the picture of meta-love that is shown through taking care of the caretaker--as Boyd does for Johnson. In responsibility, duty, doing things for another, theoretically, we make love less abstract. We make concrete that our love is for the other, but we also make concrete that there is an other. If, however, we know our selves in knowing that there are other selves besides us, in the doing in love for someone else, rather than the more abstract being in love, we make us manifest to ourselves. We manifest the self of us that loves the beloved other and desires her best. Maybe this is Boyd's self-assessment, hoping that their communication will reveal his hidden true self to himself and to his friend.

In answer, Johnson claims that the responsibility of public office is some hyper-or meta-agape love, distant and transcendent as the sky above is transcendent. Johnson notes a quirky similarity between his aide and his wife: that Boyd and Lady Bird always ask the same questions.
I done told Bird just last week how responsibility, why it is not even
like a feeling at all.... I told Bird it's like the sky, boy.... The
sky ain't a feeling.... but it's there, friend. The sky is there. It's
there, over your ass, every fucking day. Matter where you go, boy, look
on up, and on top of every goddamned thing else she's there. And the
day there ain't no sky. (Wallace 1989, 108)

The sky is something vast, capable of covering a vast number of people. The sky is also a concrete fact, something that bears down on you, "on top of." Like Johnson with his constituents, calling down paternalistically from the helicopter or looking down wistfully from his high-rise Oval Office. Yet, Johnson also described the sky, also known as "responsibility," as people you personally love and the internal organs of right and wrong. The latter are omnipresent and necessary, but you have an insensible relationship to their functioning. You don't pay attention until something goes wrong.

In Johnson's analogy, love would be like this: a thing that involves responsibility but which, with a modicum of care, you needn't take notice of This seems more akin to how we treat our cars--implied and express responsibility, minimum maintenance, and we take for granted they will start each morning, until they don't and screw up our lives. Unfortunately, sometimes people treat those they're closest to in a similar fashion.


Boyd and Johnson are close in intimate proximity, but not in reciprocity. Johnson sits in the center of the office, living his life's story, but also sometimes dictating his life verbatim in some quote or aphorism he wants captured by his amanuensis. Boyd sits quietly observant in the corner, listening to Johnson's life story, and inscribing it in a series of notebooks. Boyd supports Johnson's work and mission as Senator, paying attention to his needs. Johnson's original exclamation to Boyd in the hiring interview--"you there in my corner" (emphasis original)--becomes both literal and metaphorical. When Johnson becomes President, the Oval Office has no physically constructed corners, so corners become orientation and focal--Boyd remains in the corner relative to the President's central position. With Lyndon as subject sharing his past and himself, and Boyd as object offering what Amelie Rorty terms the beloved's sensitivities and focus or magnetizing of attention (1993, 75, 78), this setting resembles the shared historicity of love. Yet, Boyd and Johnson's relationship also symptomizes the infection of an inappropriate identification. In healthy relationships, those involved remain autonomous; love is not subjectivity or submersion of personalities.

In the quotidian routine, Johnson is explicitly enacting a strangely mediated reflexive (to identify with the other) identification in his stories. Equivocally, LBJ dictates to David Boyd for inclusion in the notebooks the memorabilia of his life story, the particulars for which he desires to be remembered; he also dictates his story to control the spin of what will be said of him posthumously. Johnson crafts and perpetuates his persona as an other through Boyd's third-person inscriptions. Boyd, though, as first-person narrator, transitively (to identify the other as other) inscribes (and describes) for the reader both Johnson's life and his own. The problem is that Boyd does not share himself with Johnson, and--believing his personal life of homosexuality hidden from LBJ--he does not see himself as someone known by Johnson as an other. Boyd's hidden true self isolates rather than connects him. This is surely a failure of communication, and a failure to become community. The relationship is one-way, and thus an appropriative identification, rather than a healthy philia. When love fails to be mutual, intimate, and present, when we don't pay attention to what purportedly matters and who, then love can become insubstantial, or we can.

Insubstantial is a description of David Boyd within the rumor-like insertions of "LBJ's Inner Circle." Visually, the reduced-size font of these asides function like insidiously whispered gossip: "A lot of times Dave could be in a room with you and you'd never even notice him" (Wallace 1989, 93). Boyd certainly begins the story peripheral, distant, and disengaged. The day of his hiring interview, "I was drowsing. I heard a sudden: 'You there in my comer.' 'Don't just sit there with your mind in neutral, boy'" (82). This foreshadows Chris Fogle's (from The Pale King) conversion--from disengaged "wastoid" (Wallace 2012, 156, for example) to fervent acolyte. From this point, David Boyd's mind is never in neutral (Amelie Rorty's picture of love as a magnetizing of attention). He immediately clicks with the duty of responsiveness that motivates Johnson's "Same Day Directive," and he creates ways to streamline Johnson's systems and procedures. He is tirelessly devoted to Johnson's mission and to the man himself, working long hours after everyone but Johnson has gone home. His coworkers quietly appreciate his dedication; Johnson doesn't notice for four months. Then he is astonished: "What on God's green earth you doing, boy?.... This isn't your job, boy.... Do we pay you to do this?" (Wallace 1989, 89). At this moment, the vocabulary--both the deprecation ("boy") and the commodifying terms of financial exchange ("job" and "pay")--indicate that for Johnson their relationship has not advanced beyond the initial office power hierarchy into a personal relationship.

Boyd pointedly clarifies that these are not the appropriate terms of motivation, that his sense of duty is in response to a vocation, and thus a relation, not a job. Boyd makes a profession of faith, and a confession of a certain attention of love when he replies: "Someone needs to do it, sir. And I admire the Same Day Directive... I think your concern with the mail is admirable, sir" (Wallace 1989, 89). This type of civic responsibility as quiet heroism displacing a prior attitude of selfish isolated indulgence prefigures The Pale King's, Fogle, but also the conclusions that Boswell draws about Glendenning specifically and the novel's concerns more broadly in "TrickleDown Citizenship" (2012, 471-72, 476). However, the reiterated words, "admire" and "admirable," show in their Latin root one of Rorty's pictures of love: ad and mirer--to really pay attention such that you see the worthiness of something or someone. Boyd doesn't initially, or in any ongoing scenes, express political fervor or belief His identification is with Johnson the man, and only by extension, Johnson the public servant. Boyd's love is not merely civic; he tries to allow Johnson to see something of himself.

Johnson gestures again to the duty of a day job. It's not his intention to keep "some sorry red-eyed boy up licking [stamps and envelopes] all night without renumeration" (Wallace 1989, 89). Setting aside the sly implications of "licking all night" with no direct object or referential provided in the text, Johnson's response of "renumeration" can be taken simply as the sort of malapropism for which George W. Bush will become infamous more than a decade after "Lyndon." Wallace, however, is meticulous with words, leveraging the misprision's catachrestic effect as he does elsewhere, such as Jest's Hal professing to be an infantophile (1987, 16). What Wallace gains from this slippage is the reciprocity of gaze, and--in Johnson's tacit acknowledgment that Boyd's commitment is not to monetary reward--an opening of communication and a beginning of shared historicity. To "renumerate" would be to list quantities or attributes, and to do so more than once (to enumerate in repetition = renumerate). Johnson vouchsafes Boyd's commitment as worthy of ongoing notice, even if that notice remains unspoken.

The exchange that follows reinforces this complicity, as Boyd repeats, "Someone needs to do it." Some body must pitch in to complete the task, and in Wallace's Wittgensteinian language game/name play, Boyd becomes the anagram of his name. He is a body working on behalf of LBJ, an extension of Johnson, not an ostension of himself as a self Johnson acknowledges that Boyd is now sharing a mission that he, Johnson, has carried alone: "Words to live my life by, son" (Wallace 1989, 89). He companionably joins Boyd in perusing his own correspondence. Boyd is the quiet acolyte who can anticipate and fulfill Johnson's need for companionship, he is the disciple in the Garden of Gethsemane who manages to stay awake; he is Johnson's corner, but problematically, he also is Johnson's corner.

Attention to another's needs might be a sign of love; in "Lyndon," it's Wallace's enactment of "not." Johnson doesn't say "Words that I have lived my life by, son" but rather as injunction, "Words to live my life by, son" (emphasis added). Johnson isn't suddenly going to start living this way; he already has been. The phrase includes David Boyd as someone whose existence is insubstantial enough that he can live Johnson's life with him. Boyd has stood in as Johnson in written correspondence with constituents; Johnson now issues this invitation for Boyd to not only be with him, but to somehow become a part of him. The perfidious whispers of "LBJ's Inner Circle" opine: "Johnson needed an audience, and Boyd was an audience that Johnson knew was just barely there? That he didn't ever even have to acknowledge or feel any responsibility to?" (Wallace 1989, 94). If no attention and no responsibility entails no love, this picture of companionship looks like a dissolution of identity.

Hayes-Brady marks several instances in Wallace's writing of what she terms the "dangers of overidentification, as well as the peril of totalizing self-projection," each of which she deems "a point on the spectrum of absent to rigid identity.... the loss of self by the over-acceptance or even the psychic absorption of the other, the rejection of the boundary between one mind and another" (2016,112). For David Boyd, whose identity is dissolved into Johnson's, the eff"ect is the same: what looks like outward attention directed toward Johnson is still--from Boyd's own self-emptiness--a picture of solipsism's suilove. Whether he has been appropriated into Johnson's identity, or he himself appropriates it, Boyd's self-lessness precludes any attention to the other as other.


Yet the romantic relationships in "Lyndon" hardly fare better. The public "fact" of the storied love affair between the rough LBJ and the refined Lady Bird becomes another nexus where Wallace unsettles expectations of a shared American history. In the first personal scene between LBJ and Boyd, Johnson tellingly thumps his left pec and says:
"I carry my Miss Claudia 'Lady Bird' Johnson in here, boy," he said,
tapping at his chest, the spot over the scar from his recent bypass....
"Just like my Bird carries me in her own personal heart. You give your
life to other folks, you give your bodily health and your mind in your
head and your intellectual concepts to serving the people, you and your
wife got to carry each other inside, 'matter how far away, or distant,
or alone." (Wallace 1989, 89)

If your body and mind (who you are in space) and your spirit and life (who you are in time) are solely dedicated to others, that doesn't leave anything of you to share with a lover. Zadie Smith's protagonist in On Beauty fumes, "He just didn't believe, as bis father did, that time is how you spend your love" (2005, 302), but failing to spend body, mind, spirit, life doesn't show a focus of attention to, or a sincere desire to share with, the beloved. Somehow Johnson and Lady Bird's love seems also to have been bypassed in his public service career. LBJ has an enjoined picture of love: he carries Lady Bird "inside" him, and she carries him "in her own personal heart." While this may sound romantic, this is a perversion of autonomy.

A relationship without boundaries where the two persons are completely absorbed in each other becomes in effect a self-love; there is no other (Barry Dingle's homunculus in "Order and Flux in Northampton"). In the ending scene. Lady Bird acknowledges this lack of autonomy, telling Boyd: "Love is simply a word. It joins separate things. Lyndon and I, though you would disagree, agree that we do not properly love each other anymore. Because we ceased long ago to be enough apart for a 'love' to span any distance" (Wallace 1989,115, emphasis original). The First Couple concur that this term is inadequate: "Lyndon cannot, he insists, for the life of him understand why new generations such as your own see everything of importance in terms of love, David. As if it explained feelings lasting years, that word" (115). Neither a total unity nor feelings unremittent are captured within the standard definition of love. This expression is not about semantics or even a particular denotation; this seems about making distinctions. They have a relationship that works, but it is not love (another Wallacean illustration of "not").

There are several ethical issues in these failed pictures of love. If the other is seen as an extension of yourself (as Johnson sees Boyd), or indistinguishably part of you (as Lady Bird and Lyndon see each other, and Solomon and Sophie in "Solomon Silverfish" decidedly don't), there is no conception of separation or otherness. The purported outward attention is effectively directed inwardly back toward yourself. This relation of self-love, or maybe self-preservation, is a picture of isolation in community, not a mutual care or human flourishing.

David Boyd's romantic relationship exists in a different kind of communal isolation. At the beginning of "Lyndon," Boyd is an active homosexual in a sham marriage with Margaret Childs, which quickly falls apart. Margaret has known David is gay, but pursues him and claims to love him. In a drunken scene as she's leaving him, Margaret accuses him of being in love, not with his sexual liaisons, but with LBJ. Boyd settles into a domestic relationship with Monsieur Rene Duverger, a relative of the Haitian ambassador. Believing he keeps his homosexual relationship hidden from Johnson's disapproval, David comes home to the erotic domestic housewife naked but for apron and heels, except in this case, a househusband. One of the injected commentaries claims of Boyd that "being homosexual is kind of abstract" (Wallace 1989, 94). While this comment is supposedly spoken by Johnson's fellow liberal democrats, "being homosexual" is only abstract when one fails to think of the persons involved in the relationship as actual persons. Wallace does not allow homosexuality to be abstracted by the reader, as he describes in concrete detail domestic scenes and a violent anal penetration.

Yet, "not abstract" seemingly does not equal "not distanced." Within his relationship, Boyd is shown as emotionally detached. The reader knows little about Duverger, either because Boyd knows little, or because the focus of his attention is elsewhere. The two lovers share sex, but their communication is truncated, a "pidgin" mix of Creole and English (Wallace 1989, 99). During a graphic description of David Boyd's lover violently sodomizing him, Boyd almost politely "wince[s] into the pattern of the bed's headboard" (99). In a scene eerily repeated with Johnson at the end, Duverger curls into a fetal position, repeating various proclamations of "lonely," and later--one hand over his face as it will similarly be over Lyndon Johnson's face--Duverger performs the consummate solipsistic act of masturbation. In a converse picture of isolation in community, the abstraction and distance in Boyd's relationship with Duverger shows the other to be so distinct and different as to be unknowable. When something is not merely unknown but unknowable, there is little incentive to focus attention: the thing seems abstract, and our attitude toward it abstracted. It is a moral failure to treat another person as this kind of thing. Boyd's and Duverger's relationship has a historicity, but not an emotionally intimate relational identity. Duverger's disconsolate repetition of "lonely" underscores the isolation of each, l(one)ly in what should be a mutuality of two.


If there is an opening into a dynamically permeable love in "Lyndon," it must be the ending relationship between Boyd and LBJ. When Boyd returns from a business trip to find the incapacitated Duverger missing with the black notebooks in which Boyd has recorded Johnson's transcripted history, Boyd confesses his primary concern is not for Duverger, but for the embarrassment (or blackmail) of LBJ: for Johnson's "career" (Wallace 1989,109). This is equivocation. Boyd's concern is primarily for the man, but Boyd knows that Johnson's career is inextricable to Johnson's well-being. Boyd receives a summons from Lady Bird, and he discovers that Duverger is in fact with the President. Lady Bird recounts to Boyd that President Johnson has just concluded an intimate conversation with Boyd's lover: "They have discussed such issues close to Lyndon's heart as suffering, and struggles between sides, and Negroness" (114). Differently than the Vietnam protestor scene where Johnson ponders the possibility of allowing people to suffer, this conversation acknowledges that people do suffer, even in America.

Johnson's empathy implies a type of agape love; the president understands that he represents a plurality of voices. He concerns himself with marginalized persons, whether due to economic disadvantage, sexual orientation/familial status (homosexual in a homosexual marriage), race/color (black), national origin (immigrant, political refugee), or disability (Duverger is terminally ill with the as-yet-undiscovered AIDS virus, and unable to care for himself). (4) It also implies that Johnson has been able to bridge a communication gap that Boyd himself has not. Boyd discovers that his care has been seen by Johnson. Johnson has known that Boyd is in a homosexual relationship, and not judged or rejected him. Johnson has declined to intrude into what Boyd has withheld, but he also has taken care to take care of what he believes Boyd cares for--Duverger. Johnson has, in effect, seen into Boyd's intimate spaces. Boyd knows that he is seen as his hidden true self, and this acknowledgement opens an expression of philia that has been silenced between them.

Boyd thinks, though, that even Lady Bird considers him a rival for Johnson's affections, as Lady Bird already sees Boyd as distinct and other. When Boyd balks at Lady Bird's description of his and Johnson's relationship, she elaborates that even what Boyd and the President share may not be love, but something greater: "You stand in relations, my husband says. You contain one another. He says he owns the floor you stand on. He says you are the sky whose presence and meaning have become everyday.... Surely love means less?" (Wallace 1989, 116). In saying "contain," Lady Bird may be assuming too much on her similarities to Boyd, judging his and Lyndon's identities to be similarly boundary-less (contained within). However, "contain" also denotes a contradiction--to set a boundary from without (contain from), as a dam contains the water. She, the other LBJ, may imply that, earth and sky, the men do provide each other definition, thus establishing the proper conditions for the highest form of love.

In the bizarre ending scene, Boyd rushes upstairs to find Duverger and LBJ in the President's bed in a homoerotic, primarily consolatory or empathic embrace. (Though not explicitly sexual, Duverger curled naked on top of the sheet, LBJ beside him under the sheet, the position reminiscent of Duverger's body and one hand over Johnson's face as it was over his own, suggests the sexual self-solace in which the prior scene culminated. (5)) Boyd goes immediately, not to the side of his likely-dead lover, but to the President. In an intriguing negative of the opening "Hello down there" boomed by Johnson to his constituents, Johnson whispers to Boyd, "Hello up there." This beginning/ending envelope evokes the relational analogies of earth and sky, but also shows a shift in position. Not an inversion, but the mutual interplay of power demonstrated through shifting sexual positions; each can allow the other to sometimes be on top.

"Lyndon" closes with its titular word, Boyd leaning in to intimately query, "Lyndon?" (Wallace 1989, 118)--the first time that Boyd has called him by name. This change in ways of addressing the President as a person, not role, ratifies their relational status. As Johnson has entered Boyd's private space with Duverger, it also invokes the literal change of address that occurs as Boyd enters for the first time the President's physical intimate space (Lyndon's home, his bedroom), as well as the figurative change of address as Boyd enters the President's intimate relational space with Lady Bird (their conversations, and also again, the bedroom). Ultimately, the ending shift of appellative address manifests a rightful separation of identity and the possibility of love in the cognition of Lyndon as other.

As a question, the naming serves as an example of Ludwig Wittgenstein's tenet that many philosophical confusions are grammatical confusions. If the question of identity is the philosophical problem in this community of two, Boyd changes the question to gain clarity. "Lyndon's" disruption depicts love, a showing that is not merely a telling. And, it does so by invoking Isaiah 4j's picture of love: "I have called you by your name and you are mine... I give peoples in return for you, and nations in exchange for your life" (NABRE 2012, 899)--an interesting juxtaposition with Duverger's adjacent corpse.


For years, Boyd has focused an attention of care on Johnson, the man amidst the role, but he has thought himself indistinguishable in the President's eyes until Johnson's care lets him see himself as seen. Watching, Boyd has felt himself mostly unobserved, yet the concentrated attention (which Amelie Rorty claims of love) grows his esteem and care. However, with love, it is hard to untangle the feedback loop of cause and effect. That Boyd finds Johnson remarkable, admirable, contributes to his desire to pay attention; his attention contributes to his devoted admiration. Art such as Wallace's stories, like love, enables a distance from ourselves amidst the dailyness of living, and it allows us to see others as though we might be seen. The focused attention on a work of art or the face of him whom we love shows us something about love, ourselves, and the aboutness of our world. The revelation doesn't secure the terms and conditions necessary for finding love or accomplishing a good life, but we may uncover ourselves--and empathy toward other selves-in the process.

In "Lyndon," then, and elsewhere in the laboratory of Wallace's fiction, love is the jackalope that is neither the one thing nor the other, the mythical creature, the metanarrative where things fall apart, and we ask how we can make it [maybe America, maybe life itself and ourselves] better. Wallace's aesthetic practice reveals the self among selves through experimental elimination using what shapes our relational identities: among others, culture, politics, and history. His creative works enable a genuine engagement with interpersonal relationships and values such as love and empathy, which show solipsism as nonsense, the inextricability of the self among selves. Patrick Horn claims that Wallace enacts "a general notion of suffering, by haunting us with genuine empathy" (2014, 266). Like Johnson's tete-a-tete with Duverger, David Foster Wallace cannot eliminate suffering. Contrary to Hayes-Brady's claim of intentioned failure, Wallace also doesn't cause suffering any more than Johnson does to the Vietnam protestors, but Wallace too may not alleviate it. The empathy we feel for Wallace's characters makes us remember that their strengths and vulnerabilities, their failures of lives and loves, of community and communication, are ours scripted differently. Those "not us" are felt to be--albeit, sometimes shockingly or mysteriously--also us.


(1) Wallace states in 1993, "Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being"; otherwise, it "isn't good art" (McCaffery 2008, 26).

(2) Hayes-Brady (2016, 95-100) develops love as necessarily tandem to Wallace's drive to communication, and expressly tied to the artistic project--what she calls "an unselfish or sacrificial cultural transaction" (98). Wallace throughout the McCaffery interview equates the attitude with which artists approach their art as love ("the part of you that loves the thing, loves what you're working on. Maybe that just plain loves" [2008, 50]), and also designates the gift that artists give their receptive audience as relational, a kind of reciprocity of love (that "weird, delicate, I-trust-you-not-to-fuck-up[-]on-me relationship between the reader and writer, and both have to sustain it" {25]). While Wallace repeatedly uses a word of commodification, "transaction," he continually describes and inscribes love and art as gifts of interaction.

(3) Wallace has been persistently critiqued for his infantilized and infantilizing views of persons and relationships (a critique Wallace responds to of a sort in The Pale King, 132). See, for example, Rando (2013, 581) and Holland (2008, 225). Yet psychology and the social sciences show repeatedly that egocentrism cannot be considered merely the mode of young children.

(4) Wallace accurately portrays the early chronotopic trajectory of infection from Haiti to the United States. HIV--in the United States in the late 60s (see Robbins, 2003)--arrived in Haiti earlier through business and nationalist-related travel in the early 60s to Zaire, now The Congo (see Gilbert, 2007).

(5) It's possible to read Johnson's and Boyd's love as homoerotic--Johnson's introductory claim of "the biggest wazoo in Washington," the unspecified object of "licking," etc. Wallace doesn't foreclose this possibility, but I don't find eros the primary form of love expressed in "Lyndon."


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LEEANN DERDEYN, PhD, is a scholar of Comparative Literature whose research interests at the intersection of Ethics and twentieth-and twenty-first-century Transatlantic Literature (American, British, and Irish) examine the larger political, environmental, and social justice issues. She has published or has forthcoming works within a wide array of twentieth-century writers: Environmentalism in Ezra Pound's Cantos, Alienation and Affirmation in T. S. Eliot, Trauma and the Anthropocene in Helen Macdonald, Travel as Trouble in Leontia Flynn, Environment as Identity in Seamus Heaney, Affirmative Action and Representational Language in Zadie Smith, Love and Insecurity in Tracy K. Smith and Aracelis Girmay, among others. Dr. Derdeyn's works often address ways modern writers mine (or landmine) the culturally inherited world views of ancient and medieval philosophy and literature. She has presented at the Modern Language Association, the T. S. Eliot Society, the American Literature Association, the Seamus Heaney Memorial Conference (Queen's U, Belfast, Ireland), The Center for Irish Studies (Queen's U, Belfast, Ireland), Cosmopoetics (U Durham, England), the Congress on Medieval Studies, and the Jane Austen Society of North America Annual Conference. She currently teaches at Southern Methodist University.
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