Category: Frankenstein’s Godlike Science (11/8, 11/15)


In the first half of the novel, readers learn how Frankenstein’s creature appears to become enlightened through the absorption of knowledge from the family in the cottage. His newfound skills and knowledge of human nature inspire him to try to take an active role in the family and in human society.

However, the events that take place after the creature attempts to enter human society cause us to reevaluate what he has learned or if he has truly become enlightened. After his rejection by the family, the creature regresses to a primal and violent state, reversing all of the progress towards civilization that he has made. The lessons he has learned from philosophy and history are forgotten, swept aside by his emotional devastation. Maybe this Adamic figure’s bitter apple is not the knowledge gained peering into the cottage but within it, where he is met with fear and disgust by his teachers.

The creature’s Adamic parallels continue in the latter half of Frankenstein, especially as he seeks a female companion. He says to Victor, “You must create a female for me with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being. This you alone can do, and I demand it of you as a right which you must not refuse to concede” ( 141).

This demand of the creature’s, which becomes an obsession both for him and for Frankenstein, shows how the creature has seen human society and learned its mythology enough to think that a female of his own kind is “a right” that he is owed by his creator. This Adam’s demands for an Eve make me further reconsider if the creature really is Enlightened at all, or if he is just mimicking a standard he has learned about human society.

However, later in the novel, some of the creature’s actions do show intellectual innovation to the point of enlightened thought. When he confronts Frankenstein at the lab on the Scottish island, the creature declares, “Slave, I before reasoned with you, but you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension. Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you. You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!” (164).

This inversion of power between creator and created demonstrates the creature’s ability to break free of ideological constraints. Not only does the creature rebel against his creator (something countless figures have done), but he claims power over him and even calls him “slave.” This most unusual perspective on their relationship shows how the creature has been able to think critically on his own, rather than just imitating others. Thus, perhaps “enlightened” is, in the end, an appropriate word for Frankenstein’s creature.

In my last post, I spoke about the enlightened state of the monster, and whether his hideousness resulted from becoming enlightened. He is not the only one that becomes enlightened throughout the text, however. Once Victor creates the monster, he is enlightened to the epic failure of his own obsession. The quote below from Vol. II, Chapter II speaks to the enlightened state of Victor.

“During my first experiment, a kind of enthusiastic frenzy had blinded me to the horror of my employment; my mind was intently fixed on the sequel of my labor, and my eyes were shut to the horror of my proceedings. But now I went to it in cold blood, and my heart often sickened with the work of my hands.”

This quote describes the feeling Victor has when creating a new monster, after being enlightened to the horror he had created in the original monster. Interestingly enough, the language used in this quote reverberates a sort of Biblical tone. “my eyes were shut…” and being “blinded” are all phrases used frequently in the New Testament to describe those who were unbelievers; particularly, the story of Saul who becomes Paul resonates here. Saul had persecuted the early Christians, and one day while traveling, God blinds him. This story is also descriptive of becoming enlightened, or any case of moving from darkness into light. Both the Biblical perspective of becoming enlightened and the Enlightenment perspective involve, after becoming enlightened, a sort of joyous glorification in the newfound revelation. However, this is not the case for Victor – his blood runs cold, his “heart often sickened” with the work of his hands. After Saul becomes enlightened and becomes Paul, the work of his hands becomes his great joy, not, as Victor’s, hated work. The critique Shelley is bringing out in her pointed choice of language allows her to show that once enlightened, or once out of the darkness, not all is joyful – whether being pulled out of darkness was an act of the enlightenment or the church. Either way, Shelley is moving her attack from simply the individuals of the enlightenment to all (including the church) who believe in the power of moving from darkness into light.

I said in my first post that the creature created by Doctor Frankenstein was enlightened, but was actually worse off for it. As described in my previous post, it was his enlightenment that lead directly to the creature’s misery. Now, I would confess that if the story had ended with the monster moving on and becoming the almost superhuman that Kan had originally envisioned, my previous post would have, almost certainly, lost some credibility. The truth is however the monster stays just as miserable. In his final conversation with Walton he says, “I pitied Frankenstein; my pity amounted to horror: I abhorred myself. But when I discovered that he,  the author at once of my existence and of its unspeakable torments, dared to hope for happiness; that while he accumulated wretchedness and despair upon me he sought his own enjoyment in feelings and passions from the indulgence of which I was for ever barred, then impotent envy and bitter indignation filled me with an insatiable thirst for vengeance”

As I just said, if the creature had become a functional and aware being my original argument might have to change, but the fact of the matter is, he didn’t. He remained just as miserable and unstable. He comes straight out with it, and says that he abhors himself. He spend his entire existence, all of the maturity that he had worked so hard to gain was used in little more than pursuing vengeance upon his creator. The very fact that his creator would seek happiness while, the created was so miserable speaks to the level of depravity that the creature had reached. He was so miserable, so upset, so completely furious with his very existence that he decided that no one else around him could be happy.

This anger, sadness, and rage which consumed him, wasn’t preinstalled by Frankenstein. The mad doctor didn’t try to create a self loathing creature for laughs, the creatures misery came from his enlightenment. My argument will remain the exact same. Enlightenment is a powerful force, Shelley would not argue that. However, it does not seem to be a force for ultimate good.

The process of “enlightenment” is most aptly applied to an individual who has been confined to the knowledge forced upon them be another person or group. Kant defines this “immaturity” or “the inability to make use of one’s intellect without the direction of another” (“An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?,” pg. 1). Enlightenment, therefore, is the ability to use one’s intellect on his own, without influence of other individuals or groups.  By this definition, the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is already “mature” or enlightened, even though he is not educated. Before learning to communicate, he lives in isolation, seeks out shelter and food, and then resolves – by his own accord – to learn language and other forms of knowledge. Ironically, the more he learns, the more he regrets acquiring knowledge, and desires to regress; the knowledge of this transition becomes a danger to himself and to others.

Since Victor deserted the monster just after its creation, it knows no form of living aside from independently. The creature is also already at full physical development, so as he acquires knowledge he has the capability to judge it without accepting it blindly as fact. Since the monster was created at full physical development and has subsequently lived in isolation, he is the dream creation of the Enlightenment period – “a blank slate.” He pursues learning with “enlightenment” ardor, such as when he figures out how to learn language through the family in the cottage by paralleling Safie’s lessons (pg. 81), and he further expresses his intellectual curiosity when he describes: “I ardently desired to understand them, and bent every faculty towards that purpose…” (81).

Yet, the more the creature learns about Western civilization via the books and lessons Felix gives to Safie, the more unhappy he becomes. With further knowledge, the more he reflects on his own situation and place in society:

“I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me; I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had for ever remained in my native wood, nor known or felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat!” (83).

He explicitly states his pursuit of knowledge is detrimental (“…sorrow only increased with knowledge”), and, furthermore, the final sentence indicates his wish to return to an ignorant state of being, in which he knew only the basics of survival. Thus the creature reveals the paradox of his enlightened attitude. He curiosity and fervor for knowledge decreases with its gain; the more he uses his independent thought, the more he detests his isolation and desires society.  As he says later,  “Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was” (91).  The creature arguably began at an enlightened state, but with further education, desires to be, in fact, immature and ignorant if it means happiness and companionship.

In the Third Volume of the novel, when he is denied the promise of a companion and rejected again by Victor, he uses this misery to wreak vengeful violence on Victor’s loved ones. Thus the acquirement of reason and knowledge becomes a danger. Victor expresses this sentiment as a justification for destroying his companion for the creature:

“I was now about to form another being, of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant; she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate, and delight…in murder and wretchedness…she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal…” (118-119).

Thus, knowledge and enlightenment becomes detrimental, causing self-loathing and lashing out to others. If the creature had not learned of his own misfortune, he arguably would not have committed the crimes that take place in the rest of the novel.  Knowledge and the knowledge of the acquirement of knowledge is depicted as something to be wary of and critiqued in Frankenstein, thus bringing the notion of “Enlightenment” into question.

The Enlightenment was a time when people believed they could find the answers to every possible question on Earth through scientific research, thus leading them away from the church. Not only did the Enlightenment discount God’s impact on the world, it left some people with the idea that perhaps they could play God’s role and create life on their own. Shelley’s purpose in depicting Victor’s character as someone who is trying to take control from God in the process of life and death by creating a monster and giving it life is to show the outcome of how the research would eventually reverse and destroy the researcher’s life.  Victor begins his quest for life as a curious youngster, who “As a child, I had not been content with the results promised by the modern professors of natural science. With a confusion of ideas only to be accounted for by my extreme youth, and my want of a guide on such matters, I had retrod the steps of the knowledge along the paths of time…” The reader watches this seemingly innocent scientific curiosity turn horribly wrong.  In the process of bringing the monster to life, both the creator and the creation will achieve Enlightenment, but both will also be haunted by the realities their education has bestowed on them.

Victor and his creation both learn a lot throughout the story, through both science and surrounding social cues. Victor looks to science to create life and is successful, making him a supposedly enlightened person. The monster is born with no social awareness, but takes on a greater meaning of human life to the point where he realizes its flaws and tragedies, which make him want to revert to his previous state. After Victor has created life, he too does not know how to handle this newly learned knowledge. He runs in horror from the monster, not knowing what he was supposed to do with the life that he created (86).  Running from the monster would be his first mistake post-creation, but when the monster ends up killing William and frames Justine for the murder he realizes his desire to create life might have not been one of his best ideas. Victor will eventually have to pay the ultimate price for playing God after he watches those around him suffer, foreshadowing his eventual resulting demise. Victor sought Enlightenment and although he did succeed in solving the mystery of life, it was impossible to be happy because it was found through his reason. Even though the monster was able to learn and broaden his intellectual perspective, the sad reality that he will never assimilate to human culture made it impossible for him to be happy as well. Both Victor and the monster achieve a state of Enlightenment, but after observing the outcomes of both their lives despite their gained knowledge suggests that Shelley is saying that some things in life should remain in God’s control. Perhaps man will never understand all of life’s wonders, and the fate of those who try to break down natural barriers will end in tragedy.

 

In Frankenstein, who would be Prometheus? In the Greek tale, Prometheus is the one who brings light to mankind. Subsequently, he is the one who suffers in isolation for his sin against Zeus. I think some would argue that Victor Frankenstein is Prometheus. I, however, would counter that with the claim that the monster is Prometheus. Through his indirect education, his story brings enlightenment (fire) to the reader. Furthermore, after learning works such as “Paradise Lost,” he is isolated–like Prometheus.

The monster says, “Like Adam, I was created apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different than mine in every other aspect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature: but i was wretched, helpless, and alone.” (Vol II, Chap. VII, 90) With the addition of this quote, there is now a three way comparison to consider. The monster compares himself to Adam. Except, unlike Adam, the monster doesn’t feel connected to his creator. The Creator for Adam is God; The Creator for the monster is Victor. In Prometheus’ case, it would be Zeus. The monster, while similar to Adam, is actually more comparable to Prometheus. Both are subjected to loneliness and isolationism by their creator. In addition to the Adam comparison, the monster likens himself to Satan. Toward the end of the novel, the monster states “I had cast off all feeling, subdued all anguish to riot in the excess of my despair. Evil thenceforth became my good” (Vol III, Chapter VII, 159) The latter part of this quote is an allusion to Miltion’s Satan, a character who is isolated by his creator, God. Satan, like Prometheus, is punished for rebelling. Satan, like Prometheus, brings something new to the world; in his case, Satan brings the knowledge of good and evil. Thus this novel could have been subtitled in different way. For example, “Frankenstein: The Modern Satan.” The story of Prometheus has taken many forms, and in this novel, the story is paralled with the monster’s story.

I believe with the text I’ve provided, I have firmly established the monster as the Promethean archetype. However, what makes the readership the ‘enlightened’ ones in this allegory? A quote from the monster’s farewell  . In a manner that is almost prophetic, he says: “I shall collect my funeral pile, and consume to ashes this miserable frame, that its remains may afford no light to any curious and unhallowed wretch, who would create such another as I have been.” (Vol II, Chapter VII, 161)  Here, the ‘light’ of enlightenment becomes dichotomous, as the monster promises that “no light” may be afforded to anyone who wishes to take creation in his own hands. In this instance, the image of light is seen to be a negative thing–an inspiration to do something evil. He further uses the image of light and fire in a positive, while painful, capacity. Explaining his death plans, the monster states “I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away” (Vol II, Chapter VII, 161)  The readers are the only ones who will experience the monster’s funeral, as he plans to take his life in solitude. Therefore, the ‘light of that conflagration’ is directed toward the reader. In both instances, the light that the monster will or will not bring is being brought to the reader. In the first instance, he is speaking against creation science, deciding not to bring ‘light’ to anyone new–as if Prometheus had a second chance not to bring fire. However, the reader is allowed to see the death of the monster in the form of fire, which I believe is as a symbolic warning of the end game of science that desires ‘to play God.’

If Victor is Zeus or God, and the monster is Prometheus (or Satan), then the question of “is he enlightened” is not the focus of the novel. The monster, then, is the one who holds the secret, and I said above, the readers are the ones who are the audience for which the secret can be shared.

 

I really like this photo of Prometheus. Not only does it show his torment and isolation, but the positioning of his body suggests he is falling. A fallen angel perhaps? I’m curious in my readers’ thoughts about how this also photo relates to Frankenstein’s Monster?

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As I said in my previous post, Kant Wouldn’t Call Him a Monster; He’d Call Him Enlightened, Frankenstein’s creation is, according to Kant’s standards, enlightened.  However, it was brought to my attention in class that, according to John Locke, the creation is never able to be 100% enlightened.  This is because Locke’s definition of enlightenment includes experience.  One must learn from actually experiencing that which he or she is acquiring knowledge about.  Therefore, the creation’s enlightenment through a secondhand education is not true enlightenment.  That is, until he begins to experiment with the human vices he has learned about.  This, one could argue from a Lockean perspective, is when the creature begins to truly become enlightened.  Shortly after he kills two of the people Frankenstein cares for, the creature realizes that he needs to experience love and sympathy to become happy, complete.  Again, experience.  So, he gets the courage to approach Frankenstein and implore him to create a female companion to experience the giving and reciprocation of those feelings.  From this, we see that the creature, although not wholly enlightened, is actively maturing in both the Kantian and Lockean enlightenment philosophies.  This can also be seen in Volume III, Chapter II (on pages 120-121 of A Norton Critical Edition, Second Edition).

After Frankenstein destroys the creature’s companion in-progress, the creature angrily approaches Frankenstein.  He says, “I had feelings of affection, and they were requited by detestation and scorn … Your hours will pass in dread and misery, and soon the bolt will fall which must ravish from you your happiness for ever.  Are you to be happy, while I grovel in the intensity of my wretchedness?  You can blast my other passions; but revenge remains –revenge, henceforth dearer than light or food!  I may die; but first you, my tyrant and tormenter, shall curse the sun that gazes on your misery ….”

In this, Frankensteins creation tells him that, because he will not create another being that will allow him to experience love and sympathy, he will exact a revenge that will make it impossible for Frankenstein to experience it as well.  He will kill all those dear to him.  This is Lockean in the sense that the creation is admitting that experience is important to becoming mature, enlightened, and fully human.  It is also Lockean because the creation begins to rely on and value the only knowledge he has experience with:  revenge.  On the other hand, it is also Kantian.  In his “An Answer to the Question:  What Is Enlightenment,”  Kant says, “What is particularly noteworthy here is that the public that had previously been placed under this yoke [of immaturity] may compel its guardians themselves to remain under this yoke ….”  Frankenstein’s creation, by taking love out of his creator’s life, is doing just that.  For, if in the Lockean philosophy, experience is a key component of becoming enlightened, then taking away experience is the reversal of enlightenment.  That is to say, the creation is forcing Frankenstein to “remain under” the “yoke,” or be unenlightened.

However, Kant says that an enlightened person is the one who would be able to do this to those in charge of him.  This would mean that the creation is mature.  But, Locke says that without experience, one cannot be enlightened.  Since the creation will never be able to experience love (thanks to Frankenstein), he can never be completely enlightened.  Therefore, the “monster” is in a perpetual state of maturation in which he will never be 100% enlightened.

When considering who in this novel experiences Enlightenment, I would have to argue that both Frankenstein and his creature technically reach this ultimate goal, but both become corrupted in the process.  Frankenstein, a young man excited to learn, finds himself on a self-destructive path of desiring to conquer death.  His journey to Enlightenment begins with his study of “natural science,” something that was very popular within the Royal Society.  However, since the studies he found himself interested in were really works of alchemy, his enlightenment lead to corruption rather than true intellectual achievements.  Thus, he creates a monster in his search for “the elixir of life” (23), and upon viewing the creature that he had made, realizes what a treacherous mistake it had been.

Similarly, the indirect education the creature receives from the De Lacey family can be seen as the creature receiving enlightenment, however it also causes his corruption.  It is true that the creature learns language quickly and begins to rationally understand the moral implications of the pieces of literature he was learning from, but because the literature he is learning from is fiction, the knowledge he gains leads to unsettling discoveries that only reinforce his monstrous beginning.  He realizes that the more he learns, the more of an outcast he becomes.  This confusing knowledge weighs on him, as he comes to see that no matter how learned he becomes, he will never be accepted into human society:

“I cannot describe to you the agony these reflections inflicted upon me; I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge.  Oh that I had for ever remained in my native wood, nor known or felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat!  Of what a strange nature is knowledge!” (83)

As a result of his education, and thus his enlightenment, he knows that he will forever been seen as an outsider in the world.  Without a family or property, he has nothing to make him a worthy citizen, and on top of that he is hideously deformed, making it impossible for him to get someone to listen to him.  He curses this education and determines that since no man, not even his creator, will show kindness towards him, he will show no kindness to anyone, as he explains to Frankenstein:

“I am malicious because I am miserable; am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? You my creator, would tear me to pieces, and triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me?… Shall I respect man, when he contemns me?… if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear; and chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred” (102).

Clearly, the creature can think for himself, reason and rationalize all day long as any enlightened thinker would want, but because of how and why he was created, and the type of education he received, he only becomes more of a monster.  Similarly, the ideas that started in Frankenstein with genuine curiosity grow into a god complex and extreme narcissism making him just as much a monster as the creature.  This tension between creator and creature culminates in the third part of the novel when Frankenstein refuses to make a companion for the miserable creature and the creature responds:

“Slave, I before reasoned with you, but you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension.  Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you.  You are my creator, but I am your master;- obey!” (120)

Both Frankenstein and the creature have become so completely consumed by horrible things that have happened in their lives as a result of Frankenstein bringing the creature into being, that they find themselves in a never ending power struggle.  Both feel as though their reasoning is infallible, however both have been led to make bad decisions based on their flawed enlightenment.  Shelley is thus suggesting a case against the idea of enlightenment by showing the detrimental consequences it can have on all of those who choose to engage in it.

Frankenstein’s “creature” enters the world in an unusual manner.  He is born into the body of an adult but has the experience and intellect of a young child.  As he gains experience and knowledge, he begins to grow.  It is arguable that the creature does not undergo the full process of enlightenment since his immaturity is a result of his circumstance rather than self-incurred.  The creature begins as neither enlightened nor unenlightened.  Instead, he simply exists. This in-between state reflects the creature himself; he is neither alive nor dead, man nor animal. As he gains experiences, connections, and thoughts through his time observing the De Lacey family, the creature becomes enlightened.  However, it is this same enlightenment that causes his violent actions and self-ruin.

The creature becomes attached the to the peasant De Lacey family.  This attachment marks the development of the creature’s feelings as he begins to express emotions of sympathy and concern.  As his attachment grows, the creature begins to expand his knowledge and adapt to their ways of communicating.  He rapidly learns their language and can even read and write.  These advances mark the creature’s enlightenment.  He opens himself up to everything around him and continuously seeks to learn more.  The creature is no longer limited by an inability to understand.

However, it is with this knowledge that the creature begins to recognize his disconnect from humans.  While previous to his enlightenment the creature knew his presence was unwelcome, he did not understand it nor comprehend its extent.  Guided by his new knowledge he is able to recognize the differences between human’s features, body, and voice of humans and himself. His growth and enlightenment soon becomes an emotion burden, causing him to feel desperately alone “…when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. Alas! I did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity” (II.IV). The creature’s enlightenment and gain of knowledge cause him to act out violently.

In retaliation against his creator, Frankenstein, the creature kills his young boy, remarking in chapter 15 “I gazed on my victim, and my heart swelled with exultation and hellish triumph: clapping my hands, I exclaimed, ‘I, too, can create desolation.”  The creature continues to pursue those close to Frankenstein.  While it appears the creature is acting out immaturely, he pursues each character intentionally.  Though the creature is distressed by his actions, “Think ye that the groans of Clerval were music to my ears? (III.VII)” and “I pitied Frankenstein; my pit amounted to horror: I abhorred myself, (III.VII)” he commits the with purpose, “I recollected my threat, and resolved that it should be accomplished” (III.VII).  The creature reasons that the benefits of his violence, revenge on Frankenstein, overshadow is costs, such as feelings of guilt and self-loathing. The creature’s rational decision making demonstrates his ability to evaluate and process information for himself.  The creature’s enlightenment causes him to use his knowledge to harm others.  The creature remains enlightened, though it is arguable whether he using his freedom from immaturity wisely.

 

 

 

 

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein recounts the story of a tortured genius striving to conquer life and death.  As part of his conquest, he brings into existence a being made up of the by-products of death.  The creature lives a bizarre life at once in close proximity to a family of French exiles, but also in extreme isolation.  By eavesdropping on the family, the creature gains the ability to speak and read, eventually stealing books for his own perusal.  The education the creature receives from Plutarch, Goethe, and Milton, while intellectually rich, does not lead to enlightenment.

While the creature does learn to speak and communicate from these books, he engages solely in fancy and imagination.  All three books are works of fiction, which Enlightenment philosophers such as Thomas Spratt condemned as impractical.  The creature cannot learn anything that will help him survive from such works, nor will he learn how anything in the real world actually functions.  He may learn the mythology of heaven and hell, but how can this apply to living in the physical world?  The best the creature can do is draw comparisons between himself and literary characters: “Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition” (90).  The fact that he identifies more with Satan than any other character implies that he possesses a naturally endowed evil temperament.  Furthermore, the creature believes that Paradise Lost is a true history and takes every word of the poem literally.  Such a failure makes it impossible to think creatively, preventing the creature from ever going beyond the basic functions of existence.

The creature’s failings in understanding the power and importance of language stem from his creator, who also possesses these defects.  Early in the novel Victor Frankenstein believes sincerely in the legitimacy of alchemy (a trait he shares, ironically with the founder of the Royal Society, Sir Isaac Newton).  The inability to consider that a text may be false or apocryphal leads Victor to attempt to conquer death.  Yet his deficiency in interpreting language goes beyond the written word to the spoken word.  In the final volume of the novel, Victor ruminates over the monster’s warning that “I will be with you on your wedding night” (121).  He takes the monster at its word and believes that he will be the next target on the monster’s murder spree.  So convinced is he of this that he “took every precaution to defend my person, in case the fiend should openly attack me.  I carried pistols and a dagger constantly about me, and was ever on the watch to prevent artifice” (138).  Victor becomes obsessed with protecting himself and never considers the safety of his bride to be.  The monster makes the bold move of attacking Victor’s pride rather than his person, capitalizing on Victor’s own failure to understand the value of language.

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