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  • Writer's pictureWalter

The Symbolic Manifestations of Evil and Hope Within the Messianic-Expectation Paradigm

“Why are you yourself [doctor] so dedicated when you don’t believe in God?

Well, if I believed in an all-powerful God,

then I would stop healing people and leave it up to Him.” —Albert Camus, The Plague

Evil, represented in juxtaposition of Good, manifests itself beyond words and is hardly easy to be discussed in a succinct manner. However, it is depicted and sealed in the binary oppositions of Western metaphysics, an idealism that prevails in the canonical texts of Western religion and philosophy. This evil-good opposition we have inherited from the Greeks is exacerbated by the modern division of religion from philosophy, and Hegel, as we see, is a major figure for Western religion and philosophy; his dialectical philosophy builds on binary opposition. What interests me, following Jacques Derrida’s “deconstructing” reading of these binary oppositions, is to centre the attention on how the binary manifestation of evil versus good is sustained by the messianic message of hope. This notion of hope is embodied in the narrations of Elie Wiesel’s Night, Albert Camus’ The Plague, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. What’s more, we find the message of hope as a result of binary oppositions in the three books, presented as a political-theological duality. It is not my intention to dismantle binary oppositions per se, as this subject has been covered by an endless list of scholars, but to question something vital that holds this binary battle: the hope for that saviour-to-come, or the hope that provides redemption through a messianic expectation. Binary oppositions within words (i.e. the Kantian internal versus external; mind versus body) are, as proposed by Derrida, “inherited violent”[1] because there is no one way to identify such concepts. In order to understand the reality presented in Wiesel’s, Camus’s, and McCarthy’s chronicles, what I propose in this paper is first, to underline the different manifestations of the evil archetype in the three books, comparing and highlighting similarities between the stories; then, to seek deep symbolic metaphors behind stories under the messianic-expectation model and how they dueled with the experience with hope; lastly, I will attempt to deconstruct the concept of hope linked to the notion that the messianic expectation can only be validated as a concept-to-come, a messiah that is always presently implying future-meaning.

Evil is an exceptionally broad concept that is often used more narrowly to talk about profound wickedness. When we openly define someone’s action as evil, it seems to leave other factors than, in a general sense, the mere opposite or absence of good. However, I shall consider how the presence of evil can be recognized beyond words. One such example is in Wiesel’s Night; once the reader takes a closer look, symbolism surrounding evil becomes more predominant. Throughout his narrative, Elie's memories have embedded religious symbolisms that open the remaining scars of the atrocities a Jewish boy experienced by the Nazi regime, i.e. a boy and his love for the Zohar or the “Kabbalistic works and the secrets of Jewish mysticism.”[2] The deep metaphors the author brings into his memoirs stress events that connect directly with his Jewish culture such as the “eight” short words, “Men to the left; Women to the right!” symbolizing the Eight Days of Passover” also the ‘eight days’ they “spent before in Auschwitz after the roll call,”[3] as well as seeing people “passing between the rows,”[4] or the first night that turned into one long night “seven times sealed” signifying Hanukkah, plus the ashes in the sky epitomizing Elie’s faith consumed by the flames. The disturbing passage of the child’s murder seems to carry two crucial symbolic messages in the whole story. First, Elie’s faith reaches its low point by asking “where is God?” while the answer is “he is hanging here on these gallows,”[5] as if God was murdered in that child hanged by the Nazis in front of all the Jews. Furthermore, as if God must not exist in a world where an innocent child can be hanged with no mercy. Second, Elie’s innocence ceased after watching the death of the innocent child, as if, just like that, evil wins a battle against good. That camp suddenly alters a representation of the good inside the innocent being and transforms Elie into a desensitized human being. He becomes someone different from the child he was at the beginning of the Holocaust. Ironically, the same camp representing the sordid reality of evil, reveals the true equality amongst human beings by succumbing everyone to their nakedness, exposing the most intimate part of them fenced by the cold evil. The boy finds the same irony between the barbed wire with “the inscription: WARNING! DANGER OF DEATH. As if there was a single place where one was not in danger of death?”[6] Moreover, he mocks Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) by questioning “whether or not they should fast.”[7]

Symbolic metaphors that feed Wiesel’s story also bring the subject of “silence” into the good versus evil dualistic battle. Elie questions God’s silence as an absence of response from Him. It is remarkable how he reacts to this lack of a sign by alluding to key events in the Hebrew Bible where, for example, God responds by punishing sinners with “The Flood” or casting away “Adam and Eve for betrayal.”[8] As no signs can be found in that camp, teleological concerns arise and questions such as “why we should sanctify His name when the Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent?”[9] reflect that deprivation. His exhaustion makes self-proclaiming himself as “the accuser,”[10] which is also a similar account found six times in the Book of Job.[11] The absence of signs and the terrifying silence from God to his demands and facing the deprivation of such message, Elie’s words clearly depicts the concept of theodicy:

"NEVER SHALL I FORGET that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams into ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never."[12]

In other words, he casts doubt on this uncertainty and questions why a good God allows this evil, or better yet, why He is not interfering. Moreso, he “ceases to pray, though I [he] was not denying His existence, but doubted His absolute justice.”[13] The silence infuriates Elie, every fibre in him rebels as he does not find a logical reason to bless God when “He caused thousands of children to burn in mass graves.”[14] Nevertheless, the role of Elie’s father brings a balance into the boy’s agony. While the book exposes an intimate and profound duel between Elie and God, the struggle finds juxtapositions with his relationship with his own father. To a certain extent, Elie is replacing his connection with God, that fades away during the Holocaust, with that of his father; he needs a reason to fight, or a purpose. If one digs just below the surface, by trying to keep his father alive, Elie is not letting his tie with God fade away either because that nexus means hope after all. He gives the impression that the presence of God can be kept alive by also keeping his father alive: “What would he [He] do without me?”[15]

Evil also manifests itself in the camp beyond simple observation. It is felt in the cold-dark oppression that contrasts the warm-sunny liberation, torture against kindness, horrid smells and tastes contrasting cleanliness. In Night, the sense of taste is used to embody Elie’s anger against God’s silence in the tasteless and poor ration of soup, which he “swallowed in a symbolic act of rebellion, of protest against Him;”[16] “that night, the soup tasted of corpses.”[17] The smoke, and the sense of inevitability embedded with it, is showcased across the story as terrifying, inexplicable, a procession, the “smell of the Angel of Death,”[18] and as a remaining of “the soul being consumed by a black flame.”[19] The cold-dark barrack that felt after all, a convalescent home,”[20] in the night growing longer with a never-ending feeling. Last but not least, the quintessential validation of evil in Wiesel’s story.

The presence of fire not as a destructive force that causes death, but as a source that infuses the illusion or the impression of being confronted with revelations that are loaded with apocalyptic purposes. Just as we find in Primo Levi’s book Survivor in Auschwitz, we observe that fire takes part of the core meaning of the tangible manifestation of evil: “look! Look at this fire! This terrible fire! Have mercy on me!”[21] The presence of fire is also disclosed and assumed as revelation: “Jews, listen to me, she cried. I see flames, huge flames!” ... “It was as though she were possessed by some evil spirit.”[22] The fire in Levi’s memoir reaches a similar analogy in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where the presence of fire embodies a powerful sign of purity and hope.

“We’re going to be okay, aren’t we Papa? Yes, we are.

And Nothing bad is going to happen to us because we are carrying the fire. Yes, because we’re carrying the fire”

— Cormac McCarthy, The Road.

A child and his father walking down a post-apocalyptic road, where the boy has complete hope that his father will not succumb to death. The permanence in this long road seems to remind the man the feeling of eternity: “look around you, ever is a long time.”[23] There is a world around them with “bad guys” organized in a brutal society where humans are either captured to be murdered for food or used as a sex slave. The boy’s father appears to be aware of this and detaches from them as “all the trees in the world are going to fall soon or later, but not on us,”[24] clearly setting the binary difference between them and us. Yet, he is willing to make the ultimate act of paternal love by killing his son to save him from the others who do not carry their hope and their fire.

What we see in the three books is not only a pseudo-battle toward an uncertain evil that threatens the future, but a break of an established order, or whatever it should be considered as such in a devastating world. In McCarthy’s story, that order is embodied in the boy’s father and this is the only reference of stability the boy has; his trust in his father keeps him alive and provides that sense of security. They both sustain each other’s faith: “we are still the good guys, we always will be,”[25] because “nothing is going to happen to us because we’re carrying the fire.”[26] The image of that fire both wish to keep alive represents their faith that never extinguishes despite their misery, a fight for survival against death and evil where “the good guys never give up.”[27] The man is not just trying to survive at any cost, but also trying to preserve his son’s purity and innocence, plus to give him some semblance of a childhood, except now he fears that that has been lost. The man only seems to make short-term goals such as traveling to the coast, as his only “long term goal” is to keep on surviving and going down the road – hoping for something better without imagining what it might be. The man indulges the boy’s compassion, recognizing that this is part of the fire he is fighting so hard to carry on.

In addition to the fire linked to the good-guys symbolism, one cannot resist the direct allusion to the expected saviour these stories carry. Though the messianic-expectation paradigm is addressed later on in my proposal, McCarthy has brought countless debates to whether or not the character of The Boy is the expected saviour. If I may add my two cents, there is a logical sequence to draw in The Road: the fire, the hope, the saviour. In McCarthy’s story, we see a world of anguish and despair where humanity needs hope and a saviour. The hope is always represented as a fire within the good guys; expecting to find the light at the end of the tunnel that will bring them triumphant because “it’s inside you” ... “it was always there.”[28] In addition, this message comes with mystical traces; at times the Boy is portrayed as a divine figure, or a “golden chalice, good to house a God”[29] ... “he watched him come through the grass and there was light all about him.”[30] Moreso, the Boy’s ability to continue with this quest despite the great loss of his father seems to claim that there must be a sacrifice in order to succeed for the good for humanity, to keep that fire alive in the future. The fire now symbolizes a kind of basic human decency and adherence to the most essential rules of civilization, which most of the remaining survivors have discarded. The boy again seems like an “other,” some heavenly being.

Ely (the old man) and Papa share an interesting conversation where, on the one hand, there is a conviction that finding the light and what it represents is possible but, on the other hand, an outsider suffering despair conveys scepticism even through desolating times:

Ely: “When I saw that boy, I thought that I had died.”

Papa: “You thought he was an angel?”

Ely: “I didn’t know what he was.”

Papa: “What if I said that he’s a god?”

Ely: “Where men can’t live gods fare no better.”[31]

Ely’s observation is not presented as the archetypical and cynical-hopeless atheist that grows from this apocalyptic world. Instead, his hopelessness is so severe that, although he doesn’t seem to deny the existence of a deity, he sees divine grace as a gift that has been completely eradicated from his reality. One could highlight many encounters with people in times of despair where the existence of God is questioned. However, it would be unfair to say that the Boy is the only source for hope in this toxic-pervasive-apocalyptic world because his father has sustained his world up to his last breath. One can certainly affirm that his nearly-defeated father has influenced his expectations. What I find fascinating about the character of Ely, the only proper name McCarthy gives, is that it is not the old man’s real name. But beyond this detail, Ely not only embraces the inevitability and chooses to accept death’s dominion instead of clinging to hope, but also voices his ideas about the boy’s “alien” holiness. Ely also offers another view on religious faith – he rejects any kind of God that would allow such a hellish world, a similar sympathetic-teleological position found in Dr. Rieux (The Plague),[32] Elie’s demands to God (Night),[33] and my family doctor.

One of the last signs of hope embodied in fire takes place when The Man and The Boy made it to the coast, where still their lives have not improved from the hardships of the road. Much of the story continues to involve the constant struggle to survive against the unfriendly elements. As The Man realizes that his last fate is near, he tells his son about his finds: “the flare pistol.”[34] Of all the times McCarthy inserts fire and light into his story as a hint for hope (almost in every page), the flare pistol becomes a symbol of the man and boy’s existential abandonment and desperate situation on earth. A flare shot into the dark sky, “the boy lifted the gun,”[35] is the final signal that nobody witnesses but for his father “could be like a celebration”[36] or symbolic defeat of the evil in darkness. Furthermore, this scene appears as the definite representation of the man and boy’s existential loneliness, seeing the fire of the flare over the ocean without any hope of it being seen by any remaining eyes, a sort of abandonment by God to let evil take over in silence. This experience from forsaken human beings where God seems to become a silent observer is echoed in The Plague, where the presence of a silent evil grows from fear.

In Albert Camus’ The Plague story, a virus outbreak strikes Oran and becomes, to a certain extent, a symbol of evil. Once we see the rise of this plague, uncertainty, fear, and doubts manifest within the teleological paradigm questioning why this happening to us and what we have done to deserve it. However, the ultimate enquiry has a divine inference: why does God let bad things happen to good people? The symbolic presence of evil in Camus’ tale emerges from the fear of a silent plague, a bacterium, a virus, invisible and frightening to human logic, and beyond that logic is the human sense of safety and stability. In The Plague, the depiction of evil embedded in Camus’s writing offers a clear link to the era in which he wrote the book. It sits after the Nazi occupation of France (during World War II, Camus left his home, the French-colonized Algeria, to Paris to join the anti-Nazi resistance movement) and one can draw a parallel between the unknown and unpredicted plague ‘invading’ the lives of a town. The list of analogies stemming from evil-Nazi symbolism seems remarkable. Also, the uncertainty of not knowing about this new invader, how dangerous is going to be, why it is destroying livelihoods, or when will it stop. In comparison to Wiesel’s or McCarthy’s stories, Camus’ good-versus-evil dualism is a political-theological one, though resemblances related to fear find similar analogies; people accept their “status as prisoner; we were reduced to our [their] past alone and even if a few people were tempted to live in the future, they quickly gave it up.”[37] Camus’s words give the impression that this plague emerges from evil as evil emerges from fascism, yet adding the sense of a filthy smell to make it more repellent, a plague meant to represent the evil, cruelty, and suffering that the Nazi occupation of France brought on its people.

Death, the separation from one’s love, despair filled with the unknown, “the suspicious look in everyone’s face,”[38] the isolation in fear with an outsider forcing humans “to long periods of separation suffering from the sum of collective misfortune,”[39] the personal denials, the solitude, and the hopelessness, while the need for “salvation, a word too big for Rieux,”[40] (the narrator) is not ignored. The search for freedom represented in those who engaged in any possible way to get out of Oran, is blocked by unilateral decisions from those in power, stressing the fight against the fascist, but apparently necessary, rules. However, citizens rise above themselves by joining the anti-plague effort, and give meaning to their lives by choosing to rebel against that foreign evil while resisting abandonment. In short, Camus constantly uses the theological side of this evil presence to give it political meaning.

In The Plague, Camus is not acting with moral indifference, just like he did in his predecessor The Stranger. A similar assessment can be found in Levi’s Survivor in Auschwitz and in Wiesel’s Night, where Elie’s feelings of fear and uncertainty, prior to his experiences in the death camp, were equally threatening: “we were pulling into a station. Someone near a window read to us: Auschwitz. Nobody had ever heard that name.”[41] The uncertainty of an evil presence appears to strike all human beings alike when facing terrorizing events, and as such, it seems like the actual unknown and intimidating ghost is what makes it evil. The labelling of what constitutes as evil here goes beyond the witnessing of an action that fosters the moral judgement as evil. The invisible threat, a virus, is used to bring about moral judgments: “that angel of the plague as fair as Lucifer and shining like evil itself;”[42] “if the epidemic extends, so will the bounds of morality.”[43] Nevertheless, the hardship of the inevitable acceptance of life-changing experiences brings up a crucial subject closely associated with teleological demands; here, I am referring to the overall sense of abandonment. Again, Camus stresses this subject as a theological-political argument where the loneliness caused by neglect and silence from God is directly extrapolated to the absenteeism the town sees from those in charge of their safety. Each one of them faces the unavoidable lack of freedom and “has to accept living from day to day, alone in the sight of heaven where this abandonment began by making life futile.”[44] I find the central idea of Camus’s treatment of “freedom” intriguing. I ponder the implication of a post-apocalyptic situation where freedom returns, and we must “start to live again from zero and wiping out its past;”[45] any similarities with our current world-pandemic situation is mere coincidence... or is it? In fact, would I find the concept of freedom to be re-defined? How different would the eschatological principle be?

The plague per se questions solidarity, “I’m telling you, the only way to bring people together is to send them the plague,”[46] while reshapes social interactions even for the introverted person: “the plague suits him [as] it has made an accomplice out of a solitary man who did not want to be solitary.”[47] The selfish thought that one’s pain manifests in a unique way is, in the end, superseded by the realization that a collective concern allows us to break the gap of alienation which has characterized this story. The interpersonal dialogues between Jean Tarrou and Dr. Rieux provide the perfect antagonistic balance of a believer driven by Christian moral principles who assumes social responsibility and a pragmatic unbeliever who justifies his position from empirical “evidences that emerge from suffering.”[48] Dialogues Camus showcases in The Plague provide clear examples where the individual perception of what counts as ethical obligation toward collective good, and response to higher moral values are intertwined:

Tarrou: “What did you think of Paneloux’s sermon, doctor?”

Dr. Rieux: “I’ve spent too much of my life in hospitals to like the idea of collective punishment. Christians sometimes talk that in that way, without really believing it.”

Tarrou: “Do you believe in God?”

Dr. Rieux: “No, but what does that mean? I am in darkness, trying to see the light. I stopped a long time ago thinking there was anything unusual in that. If I believed in an all-powerful God, then I would stop healing people and leave it up to Him.”[49]

I consider the passages where Tarrou and Dr. Rieux exchange their philosophical standings on the subject of morality and teleology one of the best highlights, and most interesting sections, in Camus’ masterpiece. What is stressed, in an oversimplified way, that the vulnerable human being fights against a hidden evil presence that moves around dominating their emotional stability; this presence manifests itself through a wide range of mind-sets that seeks for rationalization. The human turmoil that carries the silence, the alienation, the rupture of stability, or the sense of spiritual abandonment, pushes one to seek for the needed answers in a higher hope that will remove the evil: the coming saviour. Now, that saviour does not necessarily mean a metaphysical presence, but more of a symbolical one. The need for continuity, something that transcends, is evident in all three stories we reviewed; for example, McCarthy’s account shows a father that is eager to keep the light of the fire alive because his son will too, and that is the new future starting again, making life worth living as soon as that hope in the saviour is kept:

Papa: “You have to carry the fire.”

Boy: “I don’t know how to.”

Papa: “Yes, you do.”

Boy: “Is it real? The fire?”

Papa: “Yes, it is.”

Boy: “Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”

Papa: “It’s inside of you. It was always there. I can see it.”[50]

The saviour is implied as the one who leads the new future, or the new beginning, and must guard the fire of hope. In the story, this genesis is not only represented by hope, but also by the lack of naming. The reader never knows the names of either of them, as the genesis of everything; this seems to be affirmed by the ordinary lives brought by a father and his son.

What remains in the present is the ghostly presence of evil while hope, yet craved in the present, can only exist as in the future-to-come, like the saviour. This is a conception of an ever-present hope that prophesizes a salvation that is “yet to come.” For example, the representation of The Boy in McCarthy’s The Road described “as an angel” ... “or as if he’s God;”[51] The Red Army “racing toward Buna in a matter of hours”[52] to liberate those in the concentration camps. These experiences, certainly validated by the sense of hope, appear as “the future to come,” but only evilremains in the present experience. In other words, hope endures because the messianic expectation symbolizes hopeand that always remains in the future. As such, the messianic expectation can only be understood under the notion of hope.

In my view, the symbolic experiences with the evil, depicted in the apocalyptic narrations of Wiesel’s, Camus’s, and McCarthy’s accounts, seem to accentuate the messianic-expectation paradigm. The presumed messiah appears to be embedded into an enduring re-affirmation of hope, under an ever-present idea of salvation. However, the redeemer only exists in the hopeful present because it remains as a future-to-come; the saviour-to-come is present because it only remains in a hopeful future. The legitimization of the messianic expectation seems to be present under the affirmation of a contingent and open future. More explicitly, a Messiah that must have the structure of a promise, the temporal constitution of meaning and identity and what I see as the promise of repetition, a repetition from a structurally open-ended future. A careful reader will notice that my proposition is clearly influenced by the Derridean deconstructive view that asserts between “democracy and his understanding of time”[53] and its futurity.

The messianic-expectation paradigm I assess in the three stories showcased by Wiesel, Camus, and McCarthy means, first of all, that the saviour we dream of is linked in its concept to a promise or hope; the idea of hope is inscribed in the idea of a Messiah. In short, the idea of a promise is inscribed in the idea of the messianic-expectation paradigm.

What I aimed to explore in this paper was first, to underline the different manifestations of the evil archetype in the three books, and compare and highlight similarities between the stories. Furthermore, I explored how the symbolic metaphors such as the light, the fire, and the religious mysticism link to the messianic-expectation model and how they struggle with the experience with hope. To sum up, deconstructed the notion of hope linked to the messianic-expectation hypothesis that can only be validated as a concept-to-come. Moreso, a messiah that is always present implies a future meaning; the representations of hope, always signified as “the-future-to-come,” is implied in the three books by messianic expectations in an ever-present experience of evil. This evil presence manifests, if I may use a Buddhist analogy, because of fear; this fear creates suffering that provokes a sense of abandonment; then, in order to remove that fear, we invoke hope, which is expressed within the messianic-expectation paradigm, the saviour. Now, the saviour only exists in the future. The hope for the “coming” saviour always entails a hope-to-come.

[1] According to Derrida, metaphysical thought always privileges one side of an opposition, and ignores or marginalizes the alternative term of that opposition. Derrida has suggested that: “An opposition of metaphysical concepts is never the face-to-face of two terms, but a hierarchy and an order of subordination.” Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other or the Prosthesis of Origin, trans. Mensh, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996. [2] Eli Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 5. [3] Wiesel, Night, 43. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid., 64-65. [6] Ibid., 40. [7] Ibid., 69. [8] Ibid., 67-68. [9] Ibid., 33. [10] Ibid. [11] The Accuser was the primordial denomination in scripts of what later became known as Satān. [12] Wiesel, Night, 34. [13] Ibid., 45. [14] Ibid., 57 [15] Ibid., 87. [16] Ibid., 69. [17] Ibid., 65. [18] Ibid., 38. [19] Ibid., 37. [20] Ibid., 42. [21] Ibid., 25. [22] Ibid., 26. [23] Cormac McCarthy, The Road (New York: Vintage Book, 2006), 28. [24] McCarthy, The Road, 35. [25] Ibid., 77. [26] Ibid., 83. [27] Ibid., 137. [28] Ibid., 279. [29] Ibid., 64. [30] Ibid., 277. [31] Ibid., 172. [32] Albert Camus, The Plague (New York: Penguin, 2010), 97. [33] Wiesel, Night, 67. [34] McCarthy, 241 [35] Ibid. [36] Ibid., 242. [37] Camus, The Plague, 56. [38] Ibid., 185. [39] Ibid., 138-139. [40] Ibid., 169. [41] Ibid., 27. [42] Ibid., 75. [43] Ibid., 92. [44] Ibid., 59. [45] Ibid., 216. [46] Ibid., 152. [47] Ibid., 153. [48] Ibid., 99. [49] Ibid., 96-97. [50] McCarthy, 278-279. [51] McCarthy, The Road, 172. [52] Wiesel, Night, 80. [53] Jacques Derrida, The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe, tr. P.-A. Brault and M. Naas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 78.


Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Penguin, 2010.

Derrida, Jacques. Monolingualism of the Other or the Prosthesis of Origin, trans. Mensh, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.

———. The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe. Tr. P.-A. Brault and M. Naas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Book, 2006.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.

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