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Desultory Notes on the Tarot

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Patrice Boussel: The Great Game

Translator’s Introduction

A further entry in Patrice Boussel’s Manuel de la Superstition deals with cartomancy proper, and more specifically, with the card ‘spread’ entitled Le Grand Jeu, which may be translated literally as The Great Game, as we have done here, and which also exists as an expression, appropriately derived from gambling, and which means “to go for broke,” “to go all in,” or to make a “supreme attempt,” as noted by René-Louis Doyon. This expression also lent its name to the eponymous literary and artistic movement, loosely led by René Daumal, and which evolved on the margins of Surrealism. Finally, the term also served as title for a famous 1934 film by Jacques Feyder, in which a card reading plays a pivotal role in the plot. The genesis of the term is examined in depth by Malcolm Yapp in his lecture, ‘The Legend of the Great Game’, in the British Academy 2000 Lectures and Memoirs, pp. 179-198. The perceptive reader will note the intriguing literary indications in the last paragraph, an allusion, it would appear, to the writing technique of the French Symbolist author Paul Adam.

This little outline of cartomancy using a piquet deck is largely culled from the classic work on the subject by Boiteau d’Ambly, Les cartes à jouer: et la cartomancie, published in 1854 and itself largely based on the works of Etteilla as far as the section on divination is concerned.

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The Great Game

Patrice Boussel

The art of reading the cards, that is, to predict the future by means of cards, bears the learned name of cartomancy. Cartomancy is practiced with the thirty-two cards of a deck of ordinary piquet playing cards, or with the seventy-eight cards of a tarot pack. What we ordinarily understand by the Great Game, is the use of the set of cards of one of these decks with a view towards knowing events in the near or distant future. The meaning of each of them is giving by correcting its traditional value by its neighbouring cards and by its position within the set of the spread. The complexity of the Tarot deck and the difficulty of certain symbolic interpretations means that amateurs who wish to know their future or that of their friends generally content themselves with the thirty-two cards with which they play belote.

We may also use the Great Game to find out if a marriage will be successful, if we may count on an inheritance, if a lawsuit will be favourable, of a voyage will be a happy one, etc. In each case, it will be necessary to pay particular attention to certain cards corresponding to the subject: the dark or fair-haired gentleman will be the king of clubs or of hearts, a profitable death will be the ace of spades upside-down, the ace of hearts may bring some news, etc.

The most classic method of distributing the cards is as follows: after having shuffled the deck thoroughly, have the querent cut the deck using the left hand. Count the cards from the pack and take out the seventh, the fourteenth, etc. … by always placing the intermediate six cards at the bottom of the deck. Continue this operation until twelve cards have been taken out and spread in a circular arc from left to right, in the order they were picked. Check if the consultant is represented within these twelve cards (a king, a jack, or a queen, according to whether it is a man, a young man, or a woman; spades or hearts according to whether the person is dark or fair-haired).

If the card representing the interested party is not among the twelve cards, find it in the remaining pack and place it after the twelfth card. Otherwise, have the querent pick a thirteenth card from among the twenty remaining cards. The interpretation may then begin.

First of all, give a summary interpretation of the entire spread, then, going from the card which depicts the querent, analyse the cards encountered by counting off five by five until one reaches the starting point. Finally, in order to obtain further supplementary interpretations, have the querent draw a card, face down, from the remaining pack, for each of the thirteen cards whose meaning is still obscure. It will be possible to continue in this way until the pack has been completely used up.

In the exceptional case where all has not been made clear, we may yet again take the first thirteen cards, shuffle them, have the querent cut them once again with the left hand, then arrange them face down in six piles (for the person, for the home, for one’s expectations, for what does not wish for, for the surprise, for one’s consolation), by proceeding in this way: spread the first six cards from left to right; on the second round, place a card over the first five; on the third, place the two last cards on the first and second pile. Each pile is then turned over and explained.

Another method consists of having the querent shuffle and cut the deck with the left hand, then pick twelve cards, face down, in turn, and place them one after the other from top to bottom, from left to right. There are turned over in the same order in such a way as to obtain a sort of square. If the querent’s card is not present in the draw, look for his card in the pile and place it in a row more or less corresponding to its position in the pile, turning from right to left, starting from the highest card, called the card of destiny. After having given the greater outline of the future such as it is symbolised by the spread, shuffle the remaining pile, have it cut (using the left hand) and four new cards are drawn by the querent. The first will be placed on the card of destiny; the second on the card of the home (below); the third on the card of consolation (to the left); and the fourth on that of surprise (to the right). Supplementary information is given by the rest of the spread.

In general, hearts and clubs are good and happy signs; diamonds and spades bad and signs of misfortune. The court cards of hearts and diamonds announce blonde or fair-haired people; the court cards of clubs or spades dark-haired people.

The meaning of the eight cards in the four series is as follows:

  • The king of hearts is an honourable man who seeks to help you; reversed, his loyal intentions will be stopped.
  • The queen of hearts is an honest and generous woman from whom you may expect help; reversed, it means delays in your hopes.
  • The jack of hearts is a decent young man, often a soldier, who will join your family and who hopes to help you; reversed, he will be prevented from doing so.
  • The ace of hearts heralds pleasant news; it represents a meal between friends if it is surrounded by court cards.
  • The ten of hearts is a surprise that will bring great joy.
  • The nine of hearts promises reconciliation or tightens the bonds of friendship.
  • The eight promises satisfaction from one’s children.
  • The seven of hearts announces a good marriage.
  • The king of diamonds is a rather important man who is thinking of causing you trouble, and who will cause you trouble if he is reversed.
  • The queen of diamonds is a wicked woman who speaks ill of you, and who will cause you harm if she is reversed.
  • The jack of diamonds is a soldier or the mailman bringing bad news. Reversed, there will be no mail.
  • The ace of diamonds announces a letter.
  • The ten, an important and unexpected voyage.
  • The nine, delays where money or good deeds are concerned.
  • The eight, bad news or business propositions.
  • The seven, arguments or a surprise if it is accompanied by hearts.
  • The king of spades is a doctor or a lawyer; he may announce a serious illness or an unsuccessful trial.
  • The queen of spades is a widow or divorcee. Reversed, she will cheat you.
  • The jack is a young man, a spy or a traitor. Reversed, he will not be able to harm you.
  • The ace heralds a victory or great sadness; reversed, it announces a bereavement.
  • The ten, night time.
  • The nine, delays in business, or death.
  • The eight, bad news or tears.
  • The seven heralds arguments, troubles, losses.
  • The king of clubs is a powerful, fair, man, who may become a protector. Reversed, his good intentions will undergo a delay.
  • The queen is a dark-haired woman who loves you. Reversed, she will be jealous.
  • The jack of clubs promises a marriage, which will only take place after numerous difficulties if he is reversed.
  • The ace heralds gains, incoming money, and reversed, theft.
  • The ten of clubs is a sign of fortune, of inheritance.
  • The nine, of success.
  • The eight, of founded hopes.
  • The seven, of weakness or of thinking of someone else.

The individual significance of each card remains necessarily vague, it only gives but a general theme, and it is indispensable to know the card or cards which precede it in order to give an interpretation of the spread. Always according to tradition, the following sequences number among the more important:

  • Four kings in a row: honour; three: success in business and protection; two: good advice or rivalry between men.
  • Four queens: Lots of gossip, anger and backbiting; three: cheating and jealousy; two: friendship.
  • Four jacks: success or laziness; three: complications; two: arguments or forthcoming marriage.
  • Four aces: success or a death; three: libertinage or sentimental success; two: enmity or hesitation.
  • Four tens: success; three: change of state; two: loss.
  • Four nines: good deeds; three: troubles and hardships; two: troubles.
  • Four eights: success; three: marriage or abandonment; two: troubles.
  • Four sevens: intriguers; three: entertainment; two: small news or pregnancy.

Etteilla, who had great success in cartomancy a little under two centuries ago, has given many examples of interpretation. Thus, “for some undertaking or other, one needs the four aces and the nine of hearts for success. If the nine of spades comes out, it will not succeed.”

“If one wishes to know whether a child will do well, and if he will keep his inheritance: the four aces form a guarantee of property, and a marriage proportional to his sentiments, and if it is a young lady, she needs the four eights and the king of hearts, which will herald peace and harmony in her marriage.”

“To know how much delay a couple will have for their wedding, either by year, by month, or by week: the queen of spades will find herself with the queen of hearts. Every other eight will be so many years of delay; every nine will be so many months; every seven will be so many weeks.”

“To know whether a man will find success in the military: the four kings must find themselves with the four tens, and if by chance the four aces are also in there, then he will reach the highest grades, according to his capacity.”

“For a change of place, or of any state whatsoever: the person, master, mistress, or servant: if it is a master or mistress, one needs the four jacks, the ten and the eight of diamonds, and the ten of clubs for success. If a nine of diamonds is in there, it signifies delays. If it is a servant, he needs the ten and the seven of diamonds, the eight of spades, and the four queens for success.”

Divination by means of cards thus finds itself helped by solid and detailed traditions. If the querent shows good faith and if the person reading the Great Game has some talent, or if it is accepted that they possess some sort of second sight, very often it can happen that some astonishing predictions can be made.

It can also happen that this great means of raising the veil which hides the future may be in the wrong, but there is one case in which it can prove to be most useful, and in which the cartomancer will never be wrong, it is the that of the novelist struggling to continue the story of his characters’ adventures. When an author of serialised novels finds himself in a difficult situation, when he does not know what will become of his heroine, or how his hero will resolve the problem in question, what new devilment his opponent will come up with, the most elegant solution, the one that will be assuredly place him in tune with his readers, will be to draw the cards for each of the children of his imagination. He will thus discover the real next instalment of his story, and without any fatigue, without any possible error, he will know the future.

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Patrice Boussel: The Tarot

Translator’s Introduction

The extensive and insightful review by Patrice Boussel of Paul Marteau’s Le Tarot de Marseille has already been published here, and we now turn to one of Boussel’s own works, his Manuel de la Superstition, published in 1963 by La Palatine. This slim and eclectic work compiles some of the erudite librarian’s musings on a wide variety of subjects, whether well-known or obscure, whether learned or deriving from folk traditions, and which are typically labelled as “superstitious.”

Boussel, after passing in review a number of definitions of ‘superstition,’ ranging from those provided by theology, Voltaire, Littré and de Maistre, among other authors, states that, “To be superstitious, is to believe not only in the truth of the outside world, but also to accept that we may present a certain importance in that world, that it may exert an influence on us as we may exert an influence upon it, and that, in brief, it is accessible and comprehensible to us, which obviously appears absurd to a reasonable philosopher.” (op. cit. p. 7)

This first excerpt deals with the Tarot, and quite succinctly. In passing, one will note the allusions to concepts expressed by other authors published in these pages. Boussel’s closing remark, rather than being a mere ironic dismissal of the process of Tarot study – in cauda venenum – instead highlights the necessarily personal and self-reflexive nature of the undertaking.

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The Tarot

Patrice Boussel

The Tarot pack consists of seventy-eight cards or arcana. Among them, we distinguish twenty-two figures, the Major Arcana, and four series of Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana are: the Juggler, the Popess, the Empress, the Emperor, the Pope, the Lover, the Chariot, Justice, the Hermit, the Wheel of Fortune, Force, the Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, the Devil, the God-House, the Star, the Moon, the Sun, the Judgment, the World, the Mate.

The four series of the Minor Arcana are the arcana of Sword, of Cup, of Coin and of Staff, each series comprising four figures (King, Queen, Valet and Knight) and ten cards (from the ace to ten).

There are many ways of drawing the cards, in general fairly comparable to those used for reading playing cards. The essential, in both cases, resides in the interpretation of the connections between certain cards brought about by the spread.

It is said that the Tarot is “the most ancient book in the world.” Some call it “the Bible of the Bohemians,” and some consider it to be an authentic “thinking machine.” Each card having a symbolic value, and for each operator, the combinations of the seventy-eight arcana may be considered as being infinite, the result is that the Tarot represents a concentration of human wisdom and an inexhaustible source of predictions.

The main thing is to know how to use it.

This knowledge will not be transmitted here. Very weighty tomes have been devoted to the Tarot, and they give but a glimpse of it. After having read and reread them, it will be necessary to go and consult the occultists and Gypsies in order to study the practical way in which the cards are handled, then one will need to struggle alone with the seventy-eight cards for a long time, and, after many years, perhaps one will notice that that the best of what one may find in the Tarot is what one has put in there oneself.

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Patrice Boussel: On the Tarot of Marseilles

Translator’s Introduction

Paul Marteau‘s seminal work on the Tarot of Marseilles received widespread praise and a number of positive book reviews, some of which have been presented on this site. They show not only the ‘reach’ which Marteau and his publisher may have had, but above all, the interest which the Tarot aroused, and this from all angles. Effectively, the book was reviewed by art critics, playing card historians, literary figures and critics of all stripes rather than by occultists and fortune-tellers. One extensive, insightful and engaging review, by a critic well-qualified to do so, provides an in-depth view of the reception of this important work, and raises a number of important points in so doing.

The author, Patrice Boussel (1916-1985), was a senior librarian and a specialist on the history of medicine. Boussel was a prolific author, writing with wit and erudition on a great range of subjects; his illustrated histories of medicine, surgery and pharmacy “are considered classics and their rich iconography is often a revelation that bears witness to his curiosity and his artistic sensibility.”

Boussel further wrote works on all manner of subjects, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Beaumarchais, the cult of relics, eroticism and gallantry in the 19th century, and guides to the battlefields of France and to the D-Day landing beaches of WWII. Closer to our subject matter, Boussel also penned a series of guides to the local legends and secret histories of a number of regions of France; Burgundy, Brittany, Normandy, are all examined in this perspective; and closer still, Boussel wrote a guide to the fortune-tellers of Paris. Finally, in 1963 Boussel published a Manuel de Superstition, to which we shall have occasion to return.

These numerous and varied publications express the man’s cultured background and wide learning; having graduated in both philosophy and law, Boussel became interested in mathematics and geology, and after marrying a pharmacist, became interested in the medical sciences. He later became the curator of the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris. A fuller biography of the man may be read here (in French).

Æsculape (pub. 1911-1974), the journal in which this article was published, was a monthly illustrated journal “on literature and the arts in their relations with the sciences and medicine,” founded by Benjamin Bord and later edited by Jean Avalon. The journal, although ostensibly aimed at the medical practitioner (“and his wife and his patients…”), had a much wider readership on account of the variety of its topics, its readability and the wealth of illustrations it contained. The iconographic collection built up by Avalon was highly considered, and the journal quickly became the official journal of the International Society for the History of Medicine. Out of print since 1974, copies have become sought-after items by amateurs of the weird and wonderful.

Æsculape, n° 1, 1950.

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On the Tarot of Marseilles

Patrice Boussel

Georges Courteline, in a masterpiece, Boubouroche, Marcel Pagnol, in another masterpiece, Marius, brought to life men possessed by the demon of cards, and because they were writing comedies, they were able, without concession, without abstract discourses, to show just how serious a thing the game of manille is. They raised laughs, they raise laughs, and they shall raise laughs at their characters, for these fellows are real, reasonable, and tragic, if you like, and yet they do not know it; for they naturally engage in one of the most natural and important acts of man, they gamble. Gambling is a serious matter, much like marriage or death, which explains the involuntary but definitely comical aspect of a gambler, of a cuckold, or of an undertaker.

Reading a medical treatise, a marriage contract, a manual of contract bridge, on the contrary, only very rarely engenders hilarity. The frivolousness of their authors saddens us rather: not only do they take themselves seriously but they wish to be taken as such… and they manage to do so. The reader, forgetful of his human condition, fretfully wonders about the consequences of a bad dose of tuberculosis, of the marital community property regime, or a four no-trump bid, as though, master of his destiny, he considered himself immortal, happy in his domestic life, and unbeatable at cards. He no longer has any desire at all whatsoever to laugh.

The Moon, from the set of so-called Charles VI Tarot cards. This card, as well as the following ones, belong to a series of seventeen conserved in the Cabinet des Estampes of the Bibliothèque Nationale. These cards were, it is thought, executed in 1392 by an artist from the rue de la Verrerie in Paris, Jacques Gringonneur. These figurines are obviously from the 14th century, but nothing proves that they were part of the games created for the mad king and which the head of finances mentions in his accounts. The two astrologers we see here were replaced by two baying hounds in the later decks of the 15th century.

The book which Mr Paul Marteau has just published with Arts et Métiers Graphiques, on the Tarot of Marseilles, is not a joyful book, but it is a handsome book, and even a good book for many reasons, not all of which are those given by Mr Jean Paulhan in the preface he has provided, nor Eugène Caslant in his preliminary exposé.

Le Tarot de Marseille may be considered as being a promotional work, since the cards, published in 1761 by Nicolas Conver, master cardmaker in Marseilles, are currently being republished by B. P. Grimaud, and that “Paul Marteau, master cardmaker of France, is one of the directors of the Grimaud firm, globally renowned for its manufacture of playing cards.”

Le Tarot de Marseille is not a work of erudition, a “scientific” work, since it includes no bibliography, and we find almost none of those footnotes, respected by readers to the point of not reading them.

Le Tarot de Marseille is not a history book. The author says nothing of the origin of the cards, nor of the various hypotheses which have been proposed, he even says nothing of the historical position of this Marseilles Tarot.

Le Tarot de Marseille is not the work of an astrologer, for if the author uses the houses for the astrological spread, which is classic, he makes no allusion to the planetary influences, which could be deemed essential.

Finally, Le Tarot de Marseille is not a treatise of arithmosophy, to employ the term coined by Dr Allendy, author of the Symbolisme des Nombres. Mr Paul Marteau’s symbolism seems to be fairly summary: he opposes the Material to the Spiritual, instinct to religious sentiment, activity to passivity…

For all of this, may Mr Paul Marteau be praised.

The Hanged Man, from the so-called Charles VI deck. The Tarot deck is composed of 78 cards: 22 trumps, of which 21 are numbered, and four suits, consisting each of 14 cards. The names of the suits are: sword, cup, staff, and coin. Each suit has a king, a queen, a horseman, a valet, and ten cards numbered from 1 to 10. Of the 22 trumps, one is unnumbered: it is the fool, called Le Mat. The others are numbered from 1 to 21. The first five: the Juggler, the Popess, the Empress, the Emperor, and the Pope, constitute the lesser trumps. The last five, called the greater trumps, are the Star, the Moon, the Sun, the Judgment, and the World. The Hanged Man shown here is the twelfth card of the pack.

In his preface, Mr Jean Paulhan deals with occult matters and writes:

“The least that can be said of the specialists of occultism is that they also go awry, even more quickly than their sciences. I dare not even think of those who wind up in misery, or vile disease: neither Court de Gébelin, nor Éliphas Lévi – nor the Gypsies either, whose mysterious function, it would appear, was to spread the Tarot throughout the world, derived any profit from the riches they kindly promise us. There is worse, and the occultists best-known to us – those of the Enlightenment: Saint Germain, Cagliostro, Mesmer, Casanova, Etteilla a little later – end up in general by living at the expense of naïve elderly ladies seeking immortality. In brief, as happens one day, sooner or later, for the famous mediums, they cheat. When they do not adopt the trade that resembles most that of soothsayer: secret agents, informers; or else spies, turning for the benefit of the State which pays them the trenches they have dug out of the laudable concern of finding hidden treasure.”

The author of Le Tarot de Marseille must not “go awry.” He knows the existence of occult matters, but he wields them with prudence, and above all, with health. The superficial critic could say:

— But it’s a manual – a luxurious one – for beginning cartomancers!

No doubt seasoned professionals already have their own personal keys and have no need for the interpretation proposed by Mr Paul Marteau. This would bother them rather, for they might notice contradictions with what they hold to be true, which would inevitably sow some doubt in their souls, particularly avid for certainty.

The historians – equally professional – will consider this book with neither bibliography nor soothing references useful only for its beautiful reproductions of ancient images. They will not say that they are beautiful, but that they are precise, for beauty can be but foreign or unwelcome for the true historian. They will praise Mr Paul Marteau the technician, “the great master cardmaker of France,” and will only blame him for having had these ideas, and above all – o scandal! – for having presented them without any scientific apparatus.

Death, from the so-called Charles VI deck. Death is the thirteenth card of the pack. If they still play “tarot” in Burgundy and in Franche-Comté, the cards of the deck serve especially for the prediction of the future. The explanation of the “arcana” is, in essence, the aim of cartomancy. The interpretation of the combinations which they may present, of the influence exerted on this interpretation by the neighbouring minor cards, is a more complex matter than the summary explanations given by certain professionals would have one believe. The “science” of the Tarot demands knowledge of the kabbalah, of astrology, and of hermetic philosophy.

The author has “striven to show the reader that nothing in this Tarot has been placed at random, that the drawings have been conceived in such a way as to give significance to the slightest details, that the colours are always suited to the presiding idea of each card, and that the entire set reveals a transcendental philosophy.”

To explain the existence of soothsayers, of somnambulists, of fortune-tellers, one must accept that there exists, within every man, something secret, which guards itself and which refuses to be drawn out. The coffee grounds, the crystal ball… and in a more detailed and more precise fashion, the Tarot, enable one to evoke this something by stimulating the psyche of the seer, or of the cartomancer. No doubt the interpretation will always depend on this psyche, regardless of the instrument employed, but if we accept as much, how could we not accept that the perfection of the instrument may facilitate this interpretation? Now, the Tarot seems to be, and by far, the best of the lot.

3 of the major arcana plus the Mate, of the Tarot of Marseilles (Grimaud edition). The 22 arcana, of which the first, the Mate, is unnumbered, date back, according to the occultists, to the 22 major arcana of priestly magic.

“The Tarot is a universal vibrating instrument and becomes a source of energy by the fluidic projection of our thought.”

The Tarot provides “the symbolic keys of the universal laws which preside over the destinies of man.” Believe it – or not, the essential is that men would have thought in this way, and they would have summarised their philosophy in a collection of 78 images.

Court de Gébelin began his study on the Tarot pack with this striking phrase:

“If one were to announce that there still exists a work of the ancient Egyptians, one of their books that escaped the flames that devoured their superb libraries, and which contains their purest doctrine on interesting subjects, everyone would undoubtedly hasten to become acquainted with such an extraordinary book.”

Rather than making a general, and necessarily superficial, study of all the Tarot decks, Mr Paul Marteau has preferred to take as his subject the one he considers as being the best. From these 78 images, he has derived a philosophy, he has shed light on what one may imagine, by means of the Tarot of Marseilles, “of the universal laws which preside over the destinies of men,” he has therefore accomplished the task which he had set himself, and it must be admitted that those who would think otherwise would be bad jokers.

4 of the major arcana of the Tarot of Marseilles (Grimaud edition). The last trump, the World, marked with the highest number, takes all the others. These tarot cards are the faithful reproduction of a deck printed in Lyons in the 18th century.

“It would be imprudent to treat it as a handbook of physics or of geometry,” says Mr Jean Paulhan. “On the contrary. It must not be learned by heart. Nor shown – despite being, in my mind, very accurate and very beautiful – to all one’s friends. It must be read, of course, but to be immediately forgotten, and later read once more (without ever being reread). In brief, to relegate it to that secret part of ourselves, to which the Tarot as a whole is but a constant allusion.”

Le Tarot de Marseille presents itself as “a sort of dictionary, or even an encyclopaedia,” it is as serious as a book on law, a dictionary of philosophy, or a treatise on the game of chess might be, but it is by no means boring; the simplicity, the naïvety of the the engravings is moving, and moreover, the subject of the book – functionality and user’s guide to an instrument to know the unknowable – is entirely alive. To believe that we are about to know what we believe – at the same time – we cannot know, is that not human, “too human,” just as surely as considering oneself to be in love, cuckolded, or mortal?

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Follow the links for further details on: Marcel Pagnol; Marius; Georges Courteline; Boubouroche, Dr René Allendy; Le Symbolisme des Nombres.


Images of the “Charles VI” Tarot and Grimaud Ancien Tarot de Marseille courtesy of the BNF.
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