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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Breaking the Frame: “The Fall of Icarus” and the Torturer’s Horse

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 02/12/06 at 10:31 AM

I was discussing W.H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” with a student during office hours recently, specifically the question of how to spot irony (the student had missed it). Looking up the poem on the internet, one comes across, first of all, the painting by Bruegel called Landscape and The Fall of Icarus, which inspired Auden. One also encounters Alexander Nemerov’s helpful essay in the current issue of Critical Inquiry, which relates the poem to Auden’s experiences of the war in China in 1938, and situates the painting in the actual Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.

You can see a large format version of Bruegel’s 1558 painting here. And there is a brief bio of Pieter Bruegel the Elder here; it places Bruegel in the context of 16th century Flemish narrative painting, marks his Italian training, and indicates the influence of Hieronymus Bosch.

Make sure you spot the following element of the painting. It’s easy to miss:

image
Those are Icarus’s legs.

What should be a story of the spectacular failure of human ambition is represented by Bruegel in a dim corner of the canvas, dwarfed by the scale of a massive landscape, and overlooked by nearly all of the human characters in the painting.

Compare the painting to Auden’s poem of 1938:

Musée des Beaux Arts
by W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

(Incidentally, to answer the question of how you can prove the presence of irony to readers unaccustomed to poetry, there isn’t any easy formula. The most solid—or most teachable—approach I can think of hinges on the dissonance between words indicating tone: “leisurely” does not go with “disaster,” and “amazing” does not go with “calmly.” It’s in the gap between words describing a single event that you’ll find Auden’s irony.)

What’s interesting about this poem more generally is the way Auden breaks the narrative frame, implicating the viewer of the painting as well as the reader of the poem in the ethical crisis occurring at the margin. While in the first and third stanzas Auden offers a reflection on the painting itself, in the second stanza he seems to wander off topic somewhat. The Crucifixion was a common enough theme for the “Old Masters” such as one would see in this museum in Brussels. But children skating on a pond? And most importantly, where does he get the “untidy spot/ Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/ Scratches its innocent behind on a tree”?

These mundane and perhaps contemporary elements from outside the painting extend the theme of social indifference to include the reader in the present day. It’s we who, in the face of war and injustice, continue steadfastly on our course as if nothing dramatic is happening, just as the “expensive delicate ship . . . sailed calmly on” in Auden’s poem.

Of course, it’s quite fair to suggest that Bruegel himself accomplished much the same breaking of the narrative frame in his 1558 painting, though in Bruegel’s case at least the marginalization of Icarus is part of a deliberate joke on the viewer. Where Bruegel makes disaster marginal, Auden reminds us to keep our eyes focused on the margins. And perhaps the idea of an ethics of social concern that is so important to Auden was not in Bruegel’s mind, Icarus being a mythical figure.

In his essay on the painting and Auden’s poem at Critical Inquiry, I think Nemerov errs slightly when he argues that Bruegel’s gesture is somehow contemporary:

But if we focus still more on the figure of Icarus, we can begin to see that the painting becomes, thanks to Auden’s poem, not just an allegory of 1938 but something somehow made in 1938, as though it were a surrealist work of the poet’s own era.

I don’t think such strong phrasing is necessary. And I’m also not sure that Nemerov’s invocation of Borges’s “Pierre Menard” is warranted, though the poem and painting may well be a Mise-en-abyme—for which a reference to Borges may always be warranted.

Finally, if one were to teach the poem and painting today, one would be sorely tempted to talk about contemporary situations where it seems society continues to fail to address its ethical blindspots. (Auden’s disquieting reference to “the torturer’s horse” might provide a convenient segué to a comment about the Bush administration.) Some might complain about yet another instance of the politicization of literary studies, but in this case the poem itself seems to require it; politicization is embedded into the structure of the poet’s own act of reading. 


Comments

I have always read this poem to mean that Icarus was not as important as he might have thought, and that life goes on. Or that arrogance is punished, which is a pretty orthodox Christian interpetation. I don’t see how he could be a standin for suffering humanity or the victims of injustice.

Or he could be the alienated and unappreciated artist or genius or tragic hero.  That doesn’t seem right for Breugel, though.

Kafka and William Carlos Williams also featured Breugel. I actually think that he was the greatest of all classic artists, but is underrated because XIXc aesthetes preferred Italian Renaissance neo-Platonic excess and prettiness. (A friend also says that Breughel was less readily available during the XIXc.) Breugel de-centered the individuals that Da Vinci and Michelangelo magnified.

A feature of Breugel to look for is the figure of chaos and pointlessness, a tangle of brush or a sprouting stump, which appears front and center in several paintings. The Boschlike paintins are even more chaotic, while the overpopulated village-life painting are disorderly in a mundane sort of way.

Without Dutch it is hard to research Breughel, but apparently most of his biography is conjecture (I never found much more than was at your link).. The speculation that he had contact with the Brethren of the Free Spirit or related heresies appeals to me.

When you talk about “the torturer’s horse”, that’s Auden—there’s no sign of it in this particular Breugel, though perhaps there is in some other. At one point Auden renounced a lot of the Communist poems which happen to have been his best, though perhaps he was drunk when he did it.

By John Emerson on 02/12/06 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nemerov’s piece had some interesting data but its general thesis was unconvincing to me. WTF was Pollock doing in there?

From a Communist point of view Icarus could have been the individual hero as contrasted to the masses. Auden probably never was a very good Communist, but he tried to be one for quite awhile, and his phrase “necessary murder” got him attacked by Orwell. A google of the phrase and the names will get you the Nation, Commentary, and many others about the dispute.

By John Emerson on 02/12/06 at 01:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, John, Auden never embraced Marxism, even when his closest friends and collaborators were vocal Communists. Interestingly, as Edward Mendelson has pointed out, they were all (like Amardeep’s students) deaf to the irony with which Auden habitually treated Marx and Marxists—as when in one of his plays Marx strides onto the stage accompanied by these words from the Chorus:

Oh Mister Marx you’ve gathered
All the material facts
You know the economic
Reasons for our acts

And if those words aren’t ironic enough for you, note that they were sung to the tune of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March.

“Musée des Beaux Arts” was written after his complete disillusionment with Marxism, but some years before his conversion to Christianity, so whatever the “orthodox Christian interpretation” of the poem might be, it would be irrelevant in this case. It is, for Auden, an exceptionally straightforward poem: it tells us quite directly what the “human position” of suffering is—it happens while the whole world, for various reasons, ignores it—and the poem leaves it to us to decide what to do with this insight.

By on 02/12/06 at 01:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I should add, for clarity’s sake, that while Auden never embraced Marxism he was of course heavily influenced by it, and drew upon its categories in some of his poems. But I cannot think of a single poem of his in which explicitly Marxist categories are used without some tacit or explicit reservation.

By on 02/12/06 at 02:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Treating Marx and Marxism with irony doesn’t make you a non-Marxist. I don’t know about the dates or the specifics, but Auden was pink for a considerable period—Orwell called him on it, and Auden repented of it.

The orthodox Christianity would be Breugel’s. I’m not sure that B. was orthodox, but on this point he might have been. I know that this is supposed to have been an Auden thread, but Breugel is infinitely more interesting.

By John Emerson on 02/12/06 at 02:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m probably a little dense today, for some reason; but I’m don’t see how Auden’s poem is particularly ironic.  Where’s the irony?  Why is it ‘ironic’ that a ship seeing something amazing (a boy falling out o’ the sky) then sails ‘calmly’ on?  Isn’t that the whole point of the poem?  What I mean is [my denseness making me uneloquent when it comes to explaining myself]: the implication here seem to me to be that, had Auden written

the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed on in a pretty agitated fashion, let me tell you...

then he wouldn’t be being ironic.  But that doesn’t compute for me.  It’s not that this is unironic, but that it’s a completely different poem.

By Adam Roberts on 02/12/06 at 02:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

However, I now do notice that I said “this poem” when I probably should have said “the painting”.

By John Emerson on 02/12/06 at 02:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On an entirely unrelated note: Does any flagship journal in any other have a crappier layout than Critical Inquiry.  I can resize the text forever and that ridiculously ugly sidebar will still spill into the content . . . and also, it just looks so, what’s the word?  Amateurish.  You may now resume your more substantial discussion.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 02/12/06 at 03:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

... in the second stanza he seems to wander off topic somewhat. The Crucifixion was a common enough theme for the “Old Masters” such as one would see in this museum in Brussels. But children skating on a pond? And most importantly, where does he get the “untidy spot/ Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/ Scratches its innocent behind on a tree”?

I thought the point of the second stanza was to widen the frame to include Bruegel’s other work, particularly <a href=”
http://gallery.euroweb.hu/html/b/bruegel/pieter_e/painting/landscap/winter.html">this</a> (also at Musée des Beaux Arts), but the last bit I can’t help with. If you don’t know it already, you may find Frayn’s Headlong of interest (good ride, but falls apart at the end).

By nnyhav on 02/12/06 at 04:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sure, Auden was pink. (In more ways than one, I suppose.) But he was never Red. And unlike most of his friends and colleagues, he never joined the Party, though he tried not to let that be too well known. You mention the “Communist poems that are his best,” but there aren’t any such poems, unless you define any poem that espouses leftish sentiments as “Communist.” Or do you have particular poems in mind that I don’t know about?

Re Adam: perhaps it would be better to say that the poem generates its energies from incongruities, which are not necessarily ironic, though incongruity is usually the source of irony—the relevant incongruities being the simple and unselfconscious ass-scratching of the torturer’s horse while its owner is doing his foul business, or the ship’s (probably commercial) fixedness of purpose that manages to ignore a boy falling out of the sky. The reader could certainly compose some deeply ironic tales based on these events, even if the poem doe snot mandate them.

By on 02/12/06 at 04:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

... in the second stanza he seems to wander off topic somewhat. The Crucifixion was a common enough theme for the “Old Masters” such as one would see in this museum in Brussels. But children skating on a pond? And most importantly, where does he get the “untidy spot/ Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/ Scratches its innocent behind on a tree”?

I thought the point of the second stanza was to widen the frame to include Bruegel’s other work, particularly this (also at Musée des Beaux Arts), but the last bit I can’t help with. If you don’t know it already, you may find Frayn’s Headlong of interest (good ride, but falls apart at the end).

By nnyhav on 02/12/06 at 04:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . um: “does not.” I hate doe snot, it gets all over my coat sleeve.

By on 02/12/06 at 04:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It does have a readable background and font color, though.

By Jonathan on 02/12/06 at 04:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, my student thought that Auden was somehow celebrating the fact that Bruegel marginalizes Icarus. She took the opening lines of the poem quite literally. Initially, she was reading “About suffering the old masters were never wrong” as suggesting that the disregard for suffering described in the poem is a good and true thing: something to treasure.

Am I right in guessing that the reason you don’t find it to be ironic is that, in a sense, Auden did mean that the Old Masters had it right, because the pattern of disregard for suffering Bruegel’s painting expresses is true. And perhaps Auden was in some sense arguing that the mundane and the extraordinary must coexist, and therefore he was celebrating the mundane ("While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along"). I could see that argument, though I don’t see Auden that way (check out “The Unknown Citizen” for another Auden take on the mundane)

But with regards to suffering in particular, I can’t find any coherent reading that poses disregard as a viable ethical response. Don’t you find that Auden is outraged by what he’s describing? If so, the irony is in the gap between what he says (oh well, life goes on) and what he presumably means (damnit, what is wrong with us?).

By Amardeep on 02/12/06 at 04:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Jonathan, you’re the only one who thinks my site doesn’t.  I took a poll.  (Very scientific.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 02/12/06 at 04:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, pink specifically means someone who doesn’t join the Communist Party, but allies with it and consistently supports it. Orwell wasn’t pink because he didn’t do that—he accused Auden of that, and Auden repented of it.

Someone who doesn’t join the party but doesn’t want it to be well known.... there’s a bit of real ambiguity there, no?

For whatever reason, the best-known Auden poems come from the time when he was doing the bad stuff. Using the word “Communist poems” was hyperbole on my part, I suppose. I guess I should more precisely have said “seemingly Communist, but secretly non-Communist ironic poems”. Except that that makes it seem that Auden was living in the shadow of the Gulag or something, whereas in fact he chose to associate primarily with Communists.

By John Emerson on 02/12/06 at 04:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As to the topic at hand, I see more disillusionment than outrage, esp. given the scene of the poem.  Or maybe I make too much of it, and shouldn’t imagine this poem as the reenactment of thoughts processed while literally staring at the painting in question.  The quaintness of that moment, the implied bending forward, hands clapped behind back, studying the detail . . . I suppose I can fathom seething, but not outrage.  (Caveat: I haven’t read that much Auden, and don’t know if I mill relevent grist here.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 02/12/06 at 04:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that the point is that Icarus’ suffering was a direct result of his overreaching, and that those tied to the plough had other things to worry about.

This might well be related to Auden’s attempts to relate to Communism.

From an more individualist point of view, Icarus’ suffering might taken be more sympathetically. Yet venturesome free-market type individualistic ideologies also require a degree of hard-heartedness toward the defeated.

By John Emerson on 02/12/06 at 04:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Auden famously wrote “poetry makes nothing happen.” There is nothing necessarily ironic about the opening lines, unless one senses a bit of devotional hyperbole in “they were never wrong” and considers that irony. The poem has always seemed to me to be more of a call, or tribute, to the apolitical (itself a highly political stance) than to the political, especially in art. Much more could be said.

By Tony Christini on 02/12/06 at 06:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m like the dull student who doesn’t get it.  I don’t think the poem is particularly ironic.  Auden thought the old masters had gotten it right:  suffering is not particularly noteworthy, and the kind of heroic suffering of Icarus’ spectacular fall is not any more deserving of notice than any other suffering.  Is Auden really saying:  “Brueghel had it wrong:  he should have made the painting about Icarus and placed him at the center”?  I’d hate to think I’d been reading this poem wrong for 30 years.

By on 02/12/06 at 09:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is Auden really saying:  “Brueghel had it wrong:  he should have made the painting about Icarus and placed him at the center”?

No, I think Auden recognizes social norms: margins are margins. But, he believes we ought to attend to them for ethical reasons. (It’s a small distinction, but it seems to matter to you, so I thought I would underline it.)

I find it hard to see why one would bother to read the poem (i.e., non-ironically) as a celebration of indifference, either to Icarus or, say, the Rape of Nanking. Aside from the ironic elements from the poem itself, as Nemerov points out, Auden had been to China in 1938, and published a book called Journey to a War about it with Christopher Isherwood the following year. Oh, and there were the broadcasts he did for the Republicans in Spain in ‘37 (and the book Spain). I recognize that his experiences in Spain were a source of ambivalence for him, but why wouldn’t we read an ethic of social concern in his contemporaneous poetry? 

Auden did write “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper.” (But notice, even there, the jab at corporate executives...) Poetry makes nothing happen not because it is cut off from the world, but because it is qualitatively different from political propaganda. That difference also is also what enables it to survive (autonomously) in a thoroughly politicized world. It’s poetry’s survival that is Auden’s argument in the second stanza of the Yeats poem, more than its apolitical status.

By Amardeep on 02/12/06 at 10:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think it’s a celebration of indifference.  I think he’s saying that the poignant thing about human suffering is precisely that life goes on, we don’t in fact attend to it even when it is close by.  That is what the Old Masters got so right.  Daily life can go on and in fact should go on.  It is more significant than the heroic fall. 

For me the poem is about this contrast between the heroic and the everyday.  I wish Auden were more outraged about suffering than he is, but I’m seeing it.  At best he is merely ambivalent about what attitude to take, at worst callous.  If he wants to make the fall of Icarus into an allegory of indifference to human suffering on the scale of Nanking I think the poem doesn’t work (for me).  Icarus dies because he’s a careless youth who gets carried away and goes to close to the sun. 

To attribute irony to the poem you first have to attribute a certain position to the author.  I’ve always taken the poem to signal a kind of cynical world-weariness rather than ethical outrage, but I could very easily be wrong.

By on 02/12/06 at 10:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I believe Jonathan gets it exactly right when he writes, “I think he’s saying that the poignant thing about human suffering is precisely that life goes on, we don’t in fact attend to it even when it is close by.” I think Jonathan gets it exactly wrong when he writes, “I’ve always taken the poem to signal a kind of cynical world-weariness.” To call attention to the poignancy strikes me as anything but cynical. The poem says—in contrast to its imagined bystanders—that there are miraculous births, dreadful matryrdoms, and disasters, even if we do not notice them because our mundane concerns prevent us from paying attention.

By on 02/12/06 at 11:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s well said, “our mundane concerns prevent us from paying attention.” I just think that the poem gives weight to both sides.  For example, there are aged people waiting for a miraculous birth to take place, and there are children who don’t especially want it to happen.  Is the poem throwing its weight behind the aged and against the children?  I don’t think so, because it says.  “There must be...” That is, that’s the way human beings are.  It’s not exactly cynical (poor choice of words on my part) just realistic in a kind of sad, resigned way.  The miraculous and the everyday are in a kind of balance.  Auden gives the everyday its due, as well as the heroic and the tragic. 

I confess though that the more I look at it the less I understand this poem.  I don’t get what that nativity scene is doing in there.  I cannot dismiss what the poem is saying on the surface as ironical, yet I cannot see it as a brief in favor of indifference either.

By on 02/13/06 at 12:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A hero’s business is a hero’s business. Ditto that for a holy one. The “miraculous birth” and Icarus are one thing, but what about the survival of much of the everyday or civilization itself that is also threatened in our world? Were the “Old Masters” right about that “suffering”? And if the speaker is only referring to Heroic or exalted suffering, why the opening reference to plain old “suffering”?

One could say this is a technical slip or technical weakness of the poem. But it also may signal that the speaker, or indirectly Auden, devalues human capacity to engage, to intervene in suffering of all variety.

Sure “we don’t in fact attend to [suffering]” of all variety “even when it is close by” but sometimes we do. Sometimes our inattention is poignant, I suppose. It is also frequently horrific, and worse. The poem/speaker seems rather placid about the horrific and worse side of things.

And while the “The poem says that there are miraculous births, dreadful matryrdoms, and disasters, even if we do not notice them because our mundane concerns prevent us from paying attention,” it puts this in the context as wonderful beautiful art of masters. But what is so wonderful? – such “master”ful understanding is the merest truism: humans are blind and indifferent to exalted tragedy. Of course, it may be horrible when greatness or potential greatness crash or great ideals are killed. But does this poem show it to be horrible - or hum-drum? And what about the more widespread tragedy of the unexalted? Are the apparently revered Old Masters blind to that? Is that not “suffering”?

Are the Old Masters incapable of art about such concerns that might be transformative beauty and truth, in addition to tragic beauty and truth? Nothing against tragic beauty and truth – and this is a great poem in a lot of ways - but what of transformative beauty and truth and everyday suffering? Is everyday suffering not “suffering”, and not suffering worthy of tragedy and able to be transformed both? Such poems move and impress me more, in a variety of ways. Also, they are more needed, in my view. And some of the Old Masters even created a number of them – a reality that seems to be elided by this poem of Auden.

The Literary Encyclopedia notes that:
“Auden was tired of being a poetic mascot of the Left, and two major poems bring down the curtain on his thirties involvement in socio-political critique and consciousness-raising: “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”, a poem that honours the memory of a great poet whose reactionary ideas are forgiven because “poetry makes nothing happen”, and September 1, 1939”, a work that calls time on the hopes of a “low dishonest decade”. If in this poem Auden is close to being the “pink old Liberal” which in “Letter to Lord Byron” (1936) he prophesied he would become, he is, more intriguingly, on the verge of the return to Christianity which marks a decisive change in his outlook and poetic style.”

Of course some of Auden’s poems challenge the status quo - outright condemn it in places, are even sometimes propagandistic in effect, though aesthetic as well - and so are political in that sense and in other ways. But this poem does not seem to me to be a particularly political poem, at least in much progressive sense. It also seems likely that at this point in his life - or at least in the moment - Auden would have been quite fine with that.

By Tony Christini on 02/13/06 at 12:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Amardeep asks: “Am I right in guessing that the reason you don’t find it to be ironic is that, in a sense, Auden did mean that the Old Masters had it right, because the pattern of disregard for suffering Bruegel’s painting expresses is true.”

Not exactly.  I think it’s more that I need more than simple incongruity (the ship sailing on whilst a boy falls from the sky) to generate irony.  The poem is saying: extraordinary things do happen, and there is a great deal of suffering, but life goes on; it isn’t especially moved by the suffering, or the marvellous.  Why is that ironic of all things?  It might be ironic if life had in some sense pledged to give suffering its proper place in the universal scheme (or something); but no such pledge has been made by Life.  Unless I missed something.

My pedagogic angle on irony takes off on the Alanis Morrisette inaccurately-titled song Ironic, via a stand-up routine I saw on British TV a couple of years ago.  Can’t remember the comedian, but he pointed out that:

‘It’s meeting the man of your dreams, then meeting his wonderful wife’, is not ironic.  That’s just tough.

‘It’s like a traffic jam when you’re already late’ is annoying, but not ironic.  Unless the meeting you’re late for is a meeting of town planners at whch the dreadful state of the town’s traffic system is the main item for discussion.

And most of all: ‘it’s ten thousand spoons when what you want is a knife’ is not ironic: it’s just fucking weird.  How can the woman’s cutlery drawer contain so many spoons?  Now, just conceivably, this might be ironic if Alanis had spent all night rifling through the cutlery drawer, pulling out spoon after spoon after spoon, until dawn’s light started seeping through the kitchen window and she finally gave up in despair and went to bed, leaving an enormous pile of spoons on the floor.  And then, waking much later, she had realised with a start that actually a knife would have done.

By Adam Roberts on 02/13/06 at 03:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Back to my Red Auden interpretation. My understanding is that Auden was a decent, kindly, basically genteel person who was drawn into left politics by the spirit of the times and the events of the thirties, and that the brutality of Communism which he had to teach himself to accept was inimical to him, and that after trying to affirm it for awhile he had a powerful change of heart (that is, returned to his original decency and abandoned his attempt at cold realism).  The Icarus poem situates itself somewhere in this territory—Auden had been trying to “make himself hard” and even if he’d given up on Communism, this poem would be in some sense a residue.

Of course, to be a good anti-Communist anti-Fascist you have to make yourself hard, too.  Moral equivalence be damned—the state is the monopoly of violence, and any state must be ruthless when threatened.

By John Emerson on 02/13/06 at 10:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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