Literature of the miraculous: Huysmans's Les Foules de Lourdes.
Annihilated by contempt, nature in A rebours had "had her day." Physical reality, deemed repulsive in the corpulent sprawl of Zola's prose, had disappeared, replaced by glistening effects of style as mirage. Using phrases abolishing the objects they ostensibly evoked, Huysmans had adopted a view of literature as an ascetic discipline, one that neared completion with the story of des Esseintes. Paring down language to an incantatory image, Huysmans had approached the idea of the work's suppression, leaving the artist communing face-to-face with readers in the absence of a text.
The wasting of the plot had brought a depletion in the repertory of Decadent characters, as a hyper-reflexive subject had gone to live in isolation, depopulating his world through inattention and indifference. With the elimination of events and the evacuation of other people, Huysmans's novel had reached an impasse, unable to move beyond its vacancy and stasis. That is why, in the opening of La-bas, Durtal considers mapping the supernatural, why Huysmans's post-conversion fiction abandons the stifling Thebaide in order to explore the mystery of God and his Creation.
In Huysmans's final novel, naturalism--as Zola's diagnostic methodology--is turned against itself in order to prove the operation of a supernatural agency. Huysmans draws on medicine, enlisting science to define the limits of empiricism, as naturalism marks the end point where it is succeeded by an art of the transcendental. Les Foules de Lottrdes marks a transition to the final stage of Huysmans's evolution as a writer, where what had been a literature of the body accommodates an aesthetic of the spirit.
As this essays argues, Huysmans's conception of "un naturalisme spiritualiste" would inevitably culminate in a literature of the miraculous, where bodily abjection elicits expressions of spiritual goodness and where a humiliated subject invites God to lift him up. In A rehours, the book's material had died and been resurrected as art. In Les Foules de Lourdes, art dies and is reborn as its subject.
After acceding to the invitation of long-time friends Leon and Marguerite Leclaire to visit them in Lourdes and compile material for a book, Huysmans had arrived on March 5, 1903, and had found himself impressed, not by manifestations of divine mercy, but by the otherworldly tastelessness of Lourdes' religious architecture. "Roused," as Robert Baldick says, "to a fury of invective and abuse remarkable even for such a past master in the art of vituperation" (319), Huysmans had raged against the hideousness of the Basilica, the Rosary, the Esplanade, perversions of art so hyperbolic they could have been inspired only by the Evil One.
Yet apart from giving vent to his indignation at contemporary religious art, Huysmans entertained a far more important purpose in the execution of his project. Having come to Lourdes to exalt the Creator and humble himself as his creature, Huysmans had at first adopted a naturalist practice in order to refute Zola's naturalist allegations--that the miraculous healings effected by the Virgin were produced by autosuggestion, by an abatement of nervous disorders, or by what Charcot had called lafoi qui guerit. As Huysmans reasons, diseased tissue cannot regenerate instantaneously. "La nature ne peut fermer une plaie dans une seconde, les chairs ne peuvent se restaurer en une minute. [...] Zola n'a pas voulu avouer cette spontaneite qu'il avait constate pourtant" (93).
Indeed, the mortification of Huysmans as artist begins with his following Zola's method. Like the naturalist, Huysmans observes and emulates the doctor--guided by science, chastened by skepticism, doubtful that the unexplainable and uncommunicable phenomena occurring in Lourdes were genuine. In his visits to the clinic of Doctor Boissarie, the physician entrusted with documenting the authenticity of cures, Huysmans adopts the physician's practice of endlessly invalidating his discipline, using medicine to identify the limitations of medicine, verifying in naturalist language supernatural events whose significance transcended language. Huysmans's theory of the miraculous is conveyed by his new conception of literature, as the magnitude, the sacredness, and the mystery of his subject are measured by the modesty and smallness of their expression.
As Decadent style had once conveyed the artist's individuality, Huysmans's immersion in the crowds of Lourdes marks the final stage of his surrender of authorial pride. No longer identifying with des Esseintes, immured in the gorgeous isolation of his library, Huysmans disintegrates into the anonymity of everyone, his voice lost in the prayerful polyglottism of invalids from all over the world.
When, in the beginning of the book, Huysmans expresses his ambivalence toward Lourdes, he links his reservations to a revulsion for the throngs his title mentions. "D'abord, je n'aime pas les foules qui processionnent, en bramant des cantiques" (28), writes an author insistent on respecting corporeal and linguistic boundaries.
In Huysmans's opening chapter, he highlights the opposition between his text's purpose as documentation and its value as an artwork. If, on the level of content, Les Foules de Lourdes addresses the authenticity of miracles, on the level of personal expression, it conveys the quiet spiritual development of the author. On virtually every page, Huysmans explores the phenomenon of immersion and dissolution; dirty baths in which suppurating invalids and menstruating women plunge their bodies, small candles lit by the poor that melt into a towering, amorphous wax offering illumined by many. The loss of self in the multitudes, the drowning of Huysmans's distinctive voice in the plurivocality of the chanting masses is transposed as the breaching of epidermal walls, the constant evocation of bodies that leak and ooze in images of hemorrhage, seepage, abscess, and gangrene. Unlike art that exalts difference, liturgy requires standardization. The prideful author who had spoken in words unmistakably his own joins with pilgrims directing their supplications to the Virgin in ceremonies conducted collectively.
Believing the more discrete his authorial utterance, the more indisputable God's response, Huysmans mingles with the crowd, agreeing to pray as they do. Huysmans's willingness to coalesce with others marks a drastic alteration of long-held views on style and self, a violation of the boundaries of his identity and his books
Formerly, as Jean Borie has written, the Huysmansian body had not been "un lieu de communion et d'echange avec l'exterieur," but "une citadelle" where the hero had barricaded himself, "comme quelqu'un qui, enterme dans une cabane, dirigerait tous ses sens vers l'exterieur dans une apprehension terrifiee d'une invasion possible, d'un contact redoute--alors que tout en lui supplie: ne me touchez pas" (78).
Describing a night spent in a sleeping car on a train from Paris to Cologne ("Le Sleeping-car" De Tout, 1902) Huysmans had expressed a horror of the discomfort, promiscuity, and exposure that are the least of the concerns of train travelers to Lourdes. Private space as impregnable enclosure, the stylistically inaccessible book, the art-upholstered ThebaYde: these had once been topological expressions of walls that regulated intercourse with a reading public. But during peak season, when Lourdes is overrun with dazed pilgrims quartered in hangars, sleeping on straw mats, housed under eaves, and garrisoned in dormitories, Huysmans endures the penance of contact with raw humanity's physical presence.
Returning from style to substance, from art to its material, Huysmans submits to un bain de multitude--not Baudelaire's transient occupation of a passerby glimpsed on the sidewalk--but a liquefaction of identity in the clamorous turbus whose numbers overwhelm their differences in language, dress, and custom. Huysmans often notes that the visitors who most willingly accept a disaffiliation from nation, class, and language are those most likely to benefit from the miracle of grace as cure. They are unlike the Belgians who refuse to join in communal prayer, establish separate outposts of comfort, and who, "apres avoir obtenu, au temps des premiers pelerinages, de nombreux et de retentissants miracles, [...] en obtiennent beaucoup moins mainten-ant" (76). It is the self-sacrificing who willingly abandon the precincts of convenience that are the most blessed, those who do not turn Christ away but vacate the self in order to accommodate the divine. Huysmans realizes that extraordinary things happen when habits are relinquished and that miracles occur in places that are emptied of routine.
A countervailing tendency evident in the production of Huysmans's work is his corroborating the exceptional by testing it against the ordinary. In the account of his conversion, Huysmans consistently downplayed the momentousness of God's intervention. Related in En Route as "quelque chose d'analogue a la digestion d'un estomac qui tra-vaille" (32), the tale of Huysmans's encounter with the supernatural is further evidence of his equating faith with an ascese litteraire. Always fastidious in the maintenance of his person, jealous of the hidden recesses of his private subjectivity, Huysmans finally mixes with the crowds, agreeing to his incorporation in Lourdes's belly, where his spiritual growth depends on a digestion assimilating him to everyone.
Unlike Lourdes, indiscriminately invaded by diffident invalids and pious exhibitionists, Huysmans's books had not always been characterized as points of confluence for all comers. Formerly troubled by his writing's accessibility "aux salissantes curiosites des foules" (La-has II, 209), Huysmans had guarded the privacy of his consciousness as unpublished text, defining it as a meeting place for the man who prays and the God he prays to. Distinguishing autobiography from personal disclosure, he had forbidden entry to those desiring details of his stay at Notrc-Dame-de-PAtre. Unlike the novel, an agora where readers come together, Huysmans's pauvre etre is declared off limits, his private thoughts no one's business. Thus, Huysmans declines to speak to the "simples curieux [qui] pretendent s'immiscer dans mon interieur, se promener comme en un lieu public dans mon ame" (Preface, En Route, x).
Pari of the miracle of Huysmans's acquiescence to literary humility is a democratized style that offers hospitality to everyone. Textual pilgrims welcomed in Les Foules de Lourdes include the faithful, the skeptics who still remain open-minded, historians interested in the account of Bernadette's vision, archeologists and scholars of comparative religion who learn of the Satanic ceremonies once conducted on the site, the raising of dolmens, the performance of blood sacrifices as part of the cult of Venus Astarte. Along with researchers and believers, Huysmans's book is open to teratology dilettantes, practitioners of the kind of pathology tourism that draws curiosity seekers looking for freakish entertainment.
In Les Louies de Lourdes, Huysmans's prose grows plainer as the phantasmagoria of disease becomes more cacaphonous and nightmarish. Different from A rebours, which compensated for a spare plot with a lushly overdeveloped style, Les Foules de Lourdes replaces monstrous language with an experience of monsters, as life supersedes art and exceptional events plead for ordinary description.
At the end of his story, Huysmans succumbs to deformity fatigue while still declaring his predilection for "les cas extraordinaires, les figures de cauchemar," eyes attached to heads with tentacles and faces ravaged by leprosy. All that is left, as he complains, "sont des malades sans luxe d'horreur particuliere" (290).
Yet what is conveyed in Huysmans's prose is a recognition that the purpose of a miracle as theatrical extravaganza is a restoration of the banality of health. Disgust, pathos, outrage, and shock are cured and returned to a state of oblivious indifference. With their ostentatious effects, miracles nullify their causes, unwriting narrative tragedy, reinstating the platitude of healed organs, mended limbs, unscarred skin, and regular features.
In the same way that naturalism had adopted the methodology of Claude Bernard, the miraculous in Lourdes acts as supernatural medicine, aiming at the elimination of the pretext for its occurrence. Naturalist fiction, as Pierre Citti observes, pits "un milieu tyrannique" against an "individualite morbide" (31). As God in his mysterious workings inflicts an ailment on his creature then inexplicably alleviates it, the naturalist author invests his hero with a rare trait or exceptional feature, then cures him of his singularity by assimilating him into society.
Huysmans rightly intuits art's homology with disease and difference, suffering and guilt, all straining for their cancellation and remission, all seeking a return to the inexpressiveness of health. Contrasting the discreetness of his conversion experience at La Salette with the clamorousness of the miracles he witnesses in Lourdes, Huysmans longs for absolution from the sin of creation. As Ld-haut had conclud-ed with a theophany unrelated in the narrative, Huysmans equates the expression of God's grace with a discontinuation of his writing. When God speaks, the writer should fall silent.
As a stage set, La Salette had impressed the author as barren and denuded, empty of the landscape drama and theatrical appurtenances of Lourdes: "un endroit sans arbres, sans oiseaux, sans fleurs" (Les Foules de Lourdes 184). Conversely, Lourdes' topography is as colorful as its miracles, with its funicular traversing vertiginous mountain chasms over "un gai paysage d'opera comique" (184). Gaudily dressed crowds from exotic locales, conflagrations of wax and fire, fantasy terrain, supernatural phenomena, and grotesqueries on parade: Lourdes as setting and narrative premise is as rich as its description is poor.
Characterized by absence and anticipation, La Salette had been an uncluttered version of the Huysmansian sanctuary. There, Huysmans writes, "[o]n vit replie sur soi-meme" (185). In Lourdes, however, the miracle Huysmans undergoes is to be cured of reflexivity: "l'on vit deplie a Lourdes" (185). When Huysmans writes "le Beau infini [...] est identique a Dieu meme" (109), he equates holiness-as-art, not with the gorgeous phraseology he confccts, but with the beauty of the selfless acts that his fellow man performs. As both the principle of Dolorist reparation and an expression of Huysmans's masochist aesthetic, his initial belief was that visitors to Lourdes could help God in his work by consenting to their trials, thereby imitating Christ's Passion: "on devrait, devant la grotte, reclamer non la guerison de ses maux, mais leur accroissement; on devrait s'y offrir en expiation des peches du monde, en holocauste" (154).
But then he comes to see that the practice of mystic substitution is just another way to position a noisy self on center stage. Not an act of self-omission, it was a petition for attention, casting a uniquely tormented subject as the leading character in his drama. In subordinating his narrative to its content--in becoming only one of nameless thousands, Huysmans is healed by what Zola called "le souffle guerisseur des foules" (320). Where once the writer had been crucified by the ugliness of the world, posing as the he.o in the story of its embellishment, he is now eclipsed by people who create beauty through their altruism--the caretakers, stretcher-bearers, nurses, and attendants who, through forgetfulness of self, invite the Virgin's intercession.
To Huysmans, it is this compassionate activity that best bears witness to God's presence, since the miracles seen in Lourdes are often sporadic and unjustified. Indeed, proof of the miraculous, as Huysmans comes to realize, is not always found in the spectacular suddenness of cures. Sometimes the most deserving are sent home still unhealed. Sometimes a child, blessed with a disappearance of paralysis, mysteriously relapses and his suffering resumes.
Huysmans's sense of justice is offended by these occurrences, and he argues that, if the divinity is equivalent to beauty made infinite, God should not seek his reflection in his creatures' disfigurement. Having been cast in the Creator's likeness, the monster is an outrage and a sacrilege, an insult to God's majesty as reflected in the mirror of human faces. Thus, the plea for compassion that Huysmans addresses to the Lord is an appeal that He protect the integrity of his image: "Rappelez-vous l'image de votre Sainte Face; elle etait douleureuse, elle etait sanglante, mais elle ne repugnait pas. Sauvez la dignite de votre image, par un miracle, nettoyez cette face immonde" (73).
As such, Lourdes' miracles are not a disruption of the natural order but a reestablishment of the harmony between the celestial and human orders, restoration of the harmony between God's goodness and its expression. Twisted limbs and leprous figures are Decadent texts enshrining aberrancy, which God, as the first author, can ex-punge and wipe away. The written record of a miracle is evidence of its effacement: dried sores, faint scars, "une peau rose et mince, toute neuve" (167). Like sojourners in a naturalist novel, the lucky visitors to Lourdes receive God's grace and then depart, once healed of the affliction of their difference.
It is by being inscribed in the realm of interpersonal relations that miracles recover their dramatic power, in the community where diverse classes and different countries coalesce. In Lourdes, the supernatural manifests itself by eliminating separateness, as the blessed are those who work together and desire to resemble everyone. Not celebrated by a prelate stressing his sacerdotal privilege, Lourdes' Masses are performed collectively by priests from Portugal and Macao: "'Nous allons donner la sainte communion,'" as one of them proclaims, to which Huysmans adds his comment: "ce Nam est un monde" (143).
Huysmans's Dolorist belief in the redemptive benefit of pain is confirmed by Lourdes' turning into an ideal Christian microcosm. Unlike a decadent work, distinguished by an author's precious idiolect, Lourdes is a living work of art told in a lingua franca: "C'est la profession de foi de la terre enfin sortie de la confusion des langues pour s'exprimer dans l'idiome liturgique; c'est la concentration des prieres individuelles du jour, reunies en la gerbe de la priere commune" (198).
Overshadowing the aesthetic blight on Lourdes caused by the Basilica and Rosary, exorbitancies that outrage public taste with their immodesty, is the humble work that people do to bring relief to others. While deploring the commercial exploitation of visitors by Lourdes' businesses--profiteering by trinket-merchants and hawkers of religious paraphernalia--Huysmans sees the city as an ideal society founded on the principle of charity.
Shaken out of their cocoon of habit by the ubiquity of suffering, Lourdes' helpers are moved by the sight of monsters to view complacency as monstrous. As Pierre Jourde writes, the presence of these specimens challenges the stability of the viewer's autonomy: "Que se passe-t-il dans un corps impuissant? Dans une chair aveugle? Au fond de F extreme douleur? I1 semble que tout y soil different, inouI. Bien plus, le corps demembre, infirme, du monstre nous remet en cause. C'est un monde inimaginable a Finterieur duquel nous sommes inclus aussi, puisque nous pouvons partager le meme espace, le toucher" (248).
Unlike the structural ugliness of buildings immuring Huysmans in disgust, the hideousness of the deformed invites attempts to heal and mitigate. Walls of skin, of national provenance, of class affiliation are broken down, enabling people to come together: "C'est ici que l'utopie commence" (Les Foules de Lourdes 197).
In Huysmans's book, health, like indifference, is an expression of narcissism enclosing a subject in sell-sufficiency and well-being. Motivated to try to case a victim's discomfort, helpers also violate their self-interested independence, making both pain and care monstruous and miraculous. Operating in the same way as medicine, naturalist texts like Zola's work to demystify the wonders of Lourdes, intending a transformation of incredible events into the nothingness of their explanation. Neutralizing Decadence, disproving miracles, diagnosing the pathology of generosity, Zola's version of naturalism seeks to cure difference and controvert the sacred inspiration of concern for one's brother. But like Doctor Boissarie in his clinic in Lourdes, patiently investigating the authenticity of miracles, Huysmans remains skeptical in order to believe and be believable.
Huysmans acknowledges the heterology of God's plan and man's books, realizing that while a writer creates a conflict that his denouement resolves, the miracles seen in Lourdes correspond to no plot necessity, occur in response to no character development. As a narrative, Lourdes' miracles are illogical and unsatisfying, and in Huysmans's story, God remains an enigmatic hero.
In the opening chapter of La-bas, Huysmans's protagonist, Durtal, had argued for the need to free naturalism from its rut, propelling it out of its fixation on adultery and madness. Rather than dealing with bodies racked by lust and disease, the novel had to complement its physiology-based themes with a parallel study of the state of man's spirit: "il faudrait aussi se faire puisatier d'ame, et ne pas vouloir expliquer le mystere par les maladies des sens" (I, II).
The model for what Durtal had called spiritual naturalism is Matthias Grunewald's Crucifixion canvas, where the painter had captured the ignoble flesh of the man and the supernatural charity of the incarnated God. According to Durtal, Griinewald had effected a synthesis of body and soul and permitted a refinement of naturalism into spiritual beauty. Going at once "aux deux extremes [...] il avait, d'une triomphale ordure, extrait les menthes les plus fines des dilections, les essences les plus acerees des pleurs" (II, 19).
Moving from painting to social action, spiritual naturalism is evident in the selfless communalism of Lourdes. Emerging from the open wounds, the pain-furrowed feces, and the contorted limbs of the pilgrims to Lourdes is miraculous evidence of spiritual life, a soul appearing in the caregiver's attentions. As the Virgin had wept beside the crucified Christ, she is present at the spectacle of suffering's redemption of indifference.
After citing Griinewald's realization of the ideal of spiritual naturalism, Huysmans modifies his definition of this new form of art. Rather than tracing the development of man's spiritual being along "un chemin parallele" above his bodily existence, he describes a moment when tormented flesh turns into compassionate spirit.
In Sainte Lydwine de Schiedam (1902), Huysmans calls pain the Philosopher's Stone, an alchemical agent transmuting suffering into love. "Le recepte de cette divine alchimie qu'est la Douleur," Huysmans writes, "c'est I'abnegation et le sacrifice. Apres la periode d'incubation necessaire, le grand oeuvre s'accomplit; il sort du brasier, de l'athanor de I'ame, I'or, c'est-a-dire I'Amour qui consume les abattements et les larmes" (Sainte Lydwine de Schiedam II, 126).
Spiritual naturalism identifies a point of convergence where this transmutation takes place: cancer and charity, deformity and altruism, when bodily sickness becomes an impulse to alleviate it. This is the direction toward which Huysmans's later novels move, as he carries "le naturalisme mystique decouvert chez Grunewald a son point extreme en placant l'experience esthetique de la representation du corps defigure dans la perspective d'un avenement de la manifestation de I'esprit"(Peylet 139).
As Huysmans had interpreted the candle as a symbol--the wax as the white flesh of Jesus, the wick as his immaculate soul, the flame as "Pembleme de sa divinite" (Les Foules de Lourdes 42)--one might say that a body supported by love is consumed by pain's fire and then sent skyward as spirit. On the level of literature, a reverse alchemy occurs, as the vieil homme--Huysmans, the self-centered stylist--sacrifices the treasure of language so that his work might be reborn as testimony to God's majesty.
In Les Foules de Lourdes, Huysmans illustrates the transformation of monsters into miracles, showing literature's transition from postnaturalist exhaustion to a revitalized art that manifests the divine. As Sylvie Duran comments, Huysmans's fascination with the monstrous conveys an attraction to the extraordinary, phenomena unshackling literature from its enslavement to empiricism, showing that there exists beyond the quotidian world actual evidence of the marvelous. Thus, Huysmans's "appetence constant[c] du monstrueux" reveals "un besoin de prodiges" (Duran 238).
In Lourdes, the monsters Huysmans encounters are not those featured in Vladimir Jankelevitch's nosology of Decadent anomalies: the "monstres narcissiens" engrossed in abyssal self-study, oblivious to the world and the people inhabiting it, incapable of arresting "la conscience sur la pente de Pautoscopie et l'autognose" (37). Previously, the Decadent character had taken himself as his object, impoverishing reality, abolishing alterity, becoming a hypertrophic intelligence imprisoned in morbid self-scrutiny. Huysmans's pre-conversion fiction had foregrounded this involuted character, whose self had expanded to fill up the text, crowding out the possibility of plot and event. Inflation of the Decadent narcissist had brought an emptying of the fictional world, congealing intrigue in stagnation, expelling others judged unknowable: "conscience confinee, fascinee par son nombril, aussi soucieuse que vaporeuse, elle creve de subtilite, d'introspection et de tautologie; elle est pensee volatile, soupcon de pensee, odeur de soupcon; elle n'est plus rien" (Jankelevitch 37-8).
For the monstrous Decadent subject, the other is the chimerical monster: boring, unfathomable, irrelevant, unreal. In the case of des Esseintes, hyper-reflexivity had converted matter into analysis, the flesh of other people into food for further thought. But in Les Foules de Lourdes, in the aftermath of Huysmans's meditation on spiritual naturalism, the reality of the body of a suffering brother is revalidated. Hyper-acuity of subjective consciousness is no longer the pathology. Instead, the subject becomes aware of others' actual afflictions. By repositioning teratology outside the voracious Decadent subject, Huysmans restores the possibility of dynamic interaction: between God and his creature, between sufferer and nurse, between an unhappy world and those who strive to improve it. The lupus-ravaged face, the muscle twitching from chorea are the interface where spiritualism and naturalism come together. In Lourdes, the monster's body is where God is revealed as miracles and where miracles appear as the charity Christ prescribes.
First, naturalism cured the individual by making him indistinguishable from everyone; then Decadence neutralized the threat of others by protecting a quarantined self. After that, Huysmans introduces a literature of the miraculous that changes one into many, takes the privileged hero and merges him with the crowd, restoring the possibility of action, exchanging hopelessness for salvation. On the Cross, flesh dies before the spirit is reborn. In Lourdes, there arises from "une triomphale ordure" "les essences les plus acerees des pleurs."
Les Foules de Lourdes marks Huysmans's abandonment of traditional forms of naturalism, a normalizing ideology ratifying the tyranny of the crowd. Yet it also signals a repudiation of Decadence, enthroning the subject in his fortress of aloofness. Redefining the relation between man and God, and between a human and his neighbor, the novel shows that the mystery of man's spiritual being is solved by returning to "les maladies des sens."
No longer transfixed by self-reflection, Huysmans's narrator turns outward, in a movement etymologically suggested by the link beabnormal specimen a slave of fascinated introspection. Rather than constituting reality by training his gaze inward, he reveals the truth to others: "il la monstre si Ton peut dire" (Jourde 249).
The freak--no longer recognizable by his tentacle-like eye, by the world-destroying absorption of his consciousness in itself--becomes the monstrous site where suffering is turned into solicitude. He is the place where one sees enacted the Christian principle of agape, the requirement thai one's brother be loved as oneself. The monster is the point where Decadent plot stasis ends and where literature becomes an instrument of social reparation. Toward the body of the sick, Huysmans redirects his look: toward the point where art and human kindness manifest God's love as beauty.
Montana Tech (University of Montana)
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|Title Annotation:||Joris-Karl Huysmans|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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