Irony (fig.) and (lit.) in Modern American Religion

Literary and historical irony are intertwined.

This was Marty’s address at the 75th anniversary meeting of the American Academy of Religion in 1984.

The dictionary names “an ironical speaker or writer” an ironist. D. C. Muecke (3-13) has named those who study irony “ironologists.” Paul Fussell (68) calls “irony hounds” those who pursue ironic outcomes in human affairs. While ironists keep on providing texts for the other two, it is ironologists in literary criticism and irony hounds in historical inquiry who coexist in religious studies today. Given the preoccupation with textuality in such studies, literary irony has received much attention. The writings of Muecke himself, along with those of Wayne C. Booth, J. A. K. Thompson, and the many scores of critics referred to in their bibliographies, are book-length elaborations of this literary trope.{1} Most modern literary critics in England and America, among them Cleanth Brooks, Erich Heller, and Kenneth Burke, have included such irony in their analyses, and it is common in works on religion and literature. Booth admits that he has been tempted to propose “a requiem for the terms ‘irony,’ ‘ironic,’ and ‘ironically,’ because of their overuse and misuse” (1983).

Meanwhile, the irony hounds have less frequently been busy at book-length work, and they have been less central in religious studies. Three books come to mind. Hayden White has been chiefly attentive to European historians in Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Richard Reinitz has written an American counterpart, Irony and Consciousness. The subtitle of that work includes the name of the religious figure who made irony a focus, Reinhold Niebuhr, in his The Irony of American History{2}. Such works are less interested in tropes than perceptions of situations. The distinctions between the two sorts impel one to visit the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, 1933: s.v. “irony”) for definitions.

The irony of ironists, observed and dissected by ironologists, literary irony is “a figure of speech,” defined as one “in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt.”

On the other hand, the irony of situations, observed and dissected by irony hounds, is not a figure of speech though the dictionary marks it “{fig.)” Instead, it is “a condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things.”

One additional element appears in almost all such ironic perception, an element that separates it from, among other things, “the irony of fate.” This is the responsibility of the human actor or agent. Gene Wise (1973 300) typically accents this ingredient: “An ironic situation occurs when the consequences of an act are diametrically opposed to the original intention, and the fundamental cause of the disparity lies in the actor himself, and his original purpose.” Observation of such actors by people gifted with nothing more than the hindsight that comes with later birth can lead to what Kenneth Burke (514) calls “romantic irony,” an aesthetic stance that would represent a standing outside of or in a posture superior to the roles of others. For reasons that will soon become clear, Richard Reinitz (19) has chosen to name the actor-centered version that is not bound to fate or given to detachment and superciliousness, “humane irony.” This version most deserves attention in religious studies when they focus on the human subject.


An Apology for Ironic Interpretation

When identification with or sympathy for the actor is neglected, and when the observer of irony therefore stands outside of or in a posture superior to the agent, cynicism about others’ actions and passivity about one’s own can result. It was because of this possibility, indeed, tendency, that Hayden White concluded the introduction to his 448-page masterwork on irony with his own requiem for irony:

It may not go unnoticed that this book is itself cast in an Ironic mode. But the Irony which informs it is a conscious one, and it therefore represents a turning of the Ironic consciousness against Irony itself. If it succeeds in establishing that the skepticism and pessimism of so much of contemporary historical thinking have their origins in an Ironic frame of mind, and that this frame of mind in turn is merely one of a number of possible postures that one may assume before the historical record, it will have provided some of the grounds for a rejection of Irony itself. (xii)

His claim that an ironic frame of mind informs much historical writing in modern times corrects an impression possibly left several paragraphs ago in the reference to but three sustained books on the subject. The list of historians cited by White and Reinitz serves as a reminder that anyone who comes on the scene isolating and advocating ironic perception and writing cannot do so with breathless announcements about fresh discoveries. Such makers of announcements would be quickly dismissed by ironologists and those in White’s camp, for their great leaps forward in cultural lag, their obsolete au courantism. I am especially sensitive to this situation because I am publishing the first of a four-volume work on the twentieth century in the United States, Modern American Religion: The Irony of It All. Such a choice demands a rationale, of the sort that follows.

First, if a condition, situation, or outcome best admits of an ironic interpretation—over against, say, a tragic or comic or pathetic one—the conscientious historian will favor it, no matter what the fashion. Second, historians, of all people, should not resent but should welcome the observation that what they are doing is in a long tradition, that it has numbers of precedents. Tradition and precedent are their stock in trade. One does not, for example, stop writing about the sacred or the family or the frontier or tragedy because “it’s been done.” Third, the recovery of figurative irony is part of the return to narrative in historical writing (Stone: 74-96). Thus fashion, old-fashion turned newest-fashion, also has its place. Figurative irony has to deal with the diachronic, with passages through time, since it concentrates on outcomes. Fourth, narrative needs a thread if it is dependent upon nothing more than a series of “and thens,” and ironic observation provides a plausible connector in certain circumstances.

To all this, I would add a fifth, one which acknowledges the influence of and participates in the recovery of an important element in the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. This element provides a response to White. It belongs to the hermeneutical preunderstanding of numbers of us and, in my case, in respect to Modern American Religion, the understanding, the Verstandnis itself. The Irony of It All proposes this perception of outcomes as the most important thing I would like to say about the turn of the century—in this case, a period from 1893-1920—the time that more than any other is the matrix of modern conceptions of reality in America.

I would have no interest in seeing all interpreters of twentieth century American religion give themselves over to irony hounding.{3} If not all observers are to be preoccupied by ironic perception, one would hope that their outlook would be partly informed by it.

By now it should be obvious that both the ironic trope in literature and ironic perception in history appear to a large extent as choice. Samuel Hynes (41-42) correctly notices that irony represents “a view of life which recognizes that experience is open to multiple interpretations, of which no one is simply right, and that the co-existence of incongruities is part of the structure of existence.” That assumption poses two sets of issues: why the ironic outlook for a particular historian, and what does the choice of it say about his or her work; and why the ironic perception in respect to specific stories?

First, the historian. Once more, because White is the irony hound who would banish irony, he provides the best critical voice:

The late R. G. Collingwood was fond of saying that the kind of history one wrote, or the way one thought about history, was ultimately a function of the kind of man one was. But the reverse is also the case. Placed before the alternative visions that history’s interpreters offer for our consideration, and without any apodictically provided theoretical grounds for preferring one over another, we are driven back to moral and aesthetic reasons for the choice of one vision over another as the more ‘realistic.’ (433-34)

On such terms White promoted, as alternatives, “the great poetic, scientific, and philosophical concerns” of the nineteenth century that were being eclipsed by the ironic in the twentieth century.


The Issue of Bias In Religious Studies

“Irony, like beauty,” writes D. C. Muecke, “is in the eye of the beholder and is not a quality inherent in any remark, event, or situation”(14). In the case of American religious concerns, the moral and the aesthetic are uncommonly interconnected, but here is it fair to accent the former: what is the moral concept of the ironic beholder and, by indirection, what is the moral vision of the beheld, the actors in this kind of historical narrative?

Such questions are urgent in religious studies because behind the quiet words “ironic perception” or “ironic outlook” looms the more portentous notion that a philosophy of history is somehow at stake. Especially when one cites Reinhold Niebuhr, such a philosophy is redolent of theological concerns, which, covertly or overtly, might introduce the value-laden into such studies. Overtly, it might be said in the Niebuhrian case, since that theologian argued that “the Christian faith tends to make the ironic view of human evil in history the normative one.” On these terms, he irony-hounded American culture to engage in critiques, to notice that “everything that is related in terms of a simple rational coherence with the ideals of a culture or a nation will prove in the end to be a simple justification of its most cherished values” (150, 155).

This is not the place to settle the issue of value-freeness in religious studies or historical inquiry; suffice it to say that in the latter area the notion of utterly value-free history has few defenders today. More positively, one might allow for the possibility that the hint of a biblical or specifically Christian outlook on history might help bring into bold profile the fact that positivist, progressivist, Marxist, or other outlooks also transcend “simple rational coherence” and are also philosophies of history that belong to the hermeneutical Vorverstdndnis of scholars who hold them. And, more neutrally, it is to be noticed that already in Niebuhr’s prime, agnostics like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Hans Morgenthau helped form an informal club of “atheists for Niebuhr” (Bingham: 360), who did not share his theological normativity in order to acquire his ironic stance. Nor, for that matter, did Reinitz (90-104), who emphatically did not share Niebuhr’s religious faith or theology, yet who advocated his insight into irony.


Humane Irony: Illusion and Aspiration

What led Reinitz to name the Niebuhrian form “humane irony,” and what leads me to see in it a corrective to the “skepticism and pessimism” that led White to want to dismiss the ironic mode, was condensed in a sentence that clearly set forth the Niebuhrian dialectic. It is well known that his favorite biblical verse referring to divine transcendence as a background to irony was Psalm 2:4, referring to the illusions of pride among the earth’s agents: “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.” What kept Niebuhr from using such a reminder to induce skepticism and pessimism, not to say detachment from and superciliousness toward the human agents, was the corollary to this claim, in the important urging that this God was “a divine judge who laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations” (155; emphasis mine). The secular advocates of humane irony are humanists of the sort who honor human aspiration and endeavor.

The eye of the ironic beholder focuses first and always on the illusions, especially those of innocence, virtue, wisdom, and power, that help lead to the “contradictory outcome of events” (Reinitz: 178). Humane irony does not degenerate into a sneer whose only message is, “What fools these mortals be!” Humane irony, whether theologically motivated or not, always has to be marked by empathy on the part of the scholar for the people who are victims of powerful historical actors and agents as well as for those actors and agents themselves. The Niebuhrian passage on this is classic:

The knowledge of [irony] depends upon an observer who is not so hostile to the victim of irony as to deny the element of virtue which must constitute a part of the ironic situation; nor yet so sympathetic as to discount the weakness, the vanity and pretension which constitutes another element. (153)

Niebuhr elsewhere sees situations to admit of ironic interpretation if “virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue” (viii), but this would not permit overlooking the virtue. Similarly, this is the case “if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its limits,” but the wisdom is also to be observed. To the extent that historians or other interpreters retain some sympathy for people who act, who must act, in history, they are likely to be more faithful to the human subject, less prone to identify with a quasi-divine viewpoint that would make them victims of illusions that would lead to ironic outcomes on a grand scale. Should someone feel that employment of this perspective must lead to the passivity, apathy, even anti-activism that White and others have feared as a corollary to ironic interpretation, the hyperactive, energetic, pro-activist career of Reinhold Niebuhr in the human polis must be an impressive contradictory example.


The Issue of Exceptionalism

When humane irony is to be employed in specific cases, the parallel issue remains: why these cases? Just as too expansive definitions of “religion” dissipate the value of that word—if everything is religious, nothing is religious, it is said—then too expansive uses of “irony” dissipate the value of that outlook: if everything is ironic, then nothing is irony, in any useful sense. From transcendent and common sense angles alike, of course, all human history is ironic. Outcomes usually contradict “the promise and fitness of things.” One uses restraint, then, in applying it to cases. The issue of what historians call “exceptionalism” comes to the fore.

Normally, one would be restrained in the turning of an ironist’s eye on the poor or oppressed of the world, even or especially in the rare cases when good things happen, to contradict what might have been expected to happen, as in the case of their victory in a revolution when the odds were in favor of their defeat. Of course, the poor and oppressed are capable of living with illusions, but these are not of the sort that usually evoke ironic interpretation. On those terms, the vast majority of pages devoted to social history would have little reason to display irony. One would not readily apply it to victims of the Irish potato famines or of religious persecutions in Europe. The generous natural, human, and political resources of America, on the other hand, have been more rich in developing illusion thanks to “the promise and fitness of things” that seem to be inherent in its situations.

Religion, the present subject, intensifies the potential for illusions. Religion in America, of course, admits ironic interpretation before any elements of “the modern” are plausibly to be discerned. Reinitz singles out and successfully makes the case for irony in Francis Parkman, Richard Hildreth, Henry Adams, down to Carl Becker in respect to those longer American pasts, and especially shows how Richard Hofstadter’s ironist eye informed his writing on earlier periods (III, 2, 3; V, 2). Thus the American Puritans, as Perry Miller constantly observed (Wise, 1968), in respect to their aspirations and illusions relating to their covenant and their chosenness have been ripe subjects. Similarly, in the national period, as the concept of the covenant and chosenness were enlarged into the notion of the Redeemer Nation (Tuveson), many occasions credibly call forth and even demand the ironic vision. Both South and North in the Civil War lived with illusions of innocence, virtue, wisdom, and power. There are, most scholars admit, more reasons to discern tragedy than irony in the South, though C. Vann Woodward (209-10) also employs and observes irony there, and irony marks much of the North’s contradictory outcomes. Given this background, it would be vain to speak of the unique validity of irony in the modern unfolding. But the exceptionalist is content with distinctives as opposed to uniqueness, and distinctive reasons abound. The age almost universally spoken of as liberal, progressive, and modern provided a stage full of actors for whom religion was the intensifier of illusions, and the way they lived with those illusions and the outcomes of their ventures set the matrix for later twentieth-century events. Thus whenever “modernisms” in theology are reasserted, as they were in the mid-twenties and mid-sixties, one sees in the denial of “the promise and fitness of things,” as perceived by the agents who propound modernisms, something that extends an element first discernible around the turn of the century. Similarly, whenever “fundamentalisms” in reaction to the modern find aggressive restatement, as they did in the mid-twenties and mid-eighties, one is prepared to see the beginnings of new ironic outcomes to match their illusions. Yet there is no reason to dismiss out of hand the plausibility and human aspiration in many endeavors of both camps.


The Eyes of the Beholders

Four sets of eyes are involved with the exceptional stories of modern American religion. The first two belong to people with the advantages of longer hindsight, who have the better perspective on outcomes and the distance that makes sympathy for intentions more difficult: the historians and their readers who come on the scene long after. The other two sets of eyes belong to people who have had less time and, because of their own involvement with illusions, less motivation to gain perspective on outcomes: the actors themselves. Yet even in their brief years, enough of them gave evidence of ironic awareness to legitimate a chronicling of these. To take a vivid example from modernist camps, the Social Gospel progressives, it is well known, had to deal with the trauma of World War I and the frustration of Wilsonian idealism as almost instant contradictions to the promise and fitness of things—and they as actors, and their original purposes, had been part of “the fundamental cause of the disparity” between intention and outcome. Their antagonists, who became the parties of Fundamentalism, in their intention to come up with a single, verifiable, authoritative orthodoxy, ironically observed themselves fighting with each other over a wild pluralism of anti-modernist options, many of them self-contradictory even if all based on a Bible now called inerrant, interpreted by Common Sense Realist rationalists.


Rhetorical Criticism and History

In order to track the interpretations of the actors who saw ironic outcomes on their own, or the other possessors of eyes among their contemporaries, their enemies, one develops particular genres of historical writing. For example, the illusions of the American poor and oppressed, the followership in religion, are less the subject than are those who give voice to and sustain the illusions and are agents of acts based upon them. This means that one must hear the voice and read the evidences. What results is what I would call “rhetorical history,” or history of rhetoric, which lies between more pure intellectual history on the one hand and deliciously impure social history on the other.

Paul Crawford provides some guidelines for such rhetorical history, history written by the critics who first “must so absorb the realities of conflict and the climate of opinion and audience attitudes of the time under consideration” that they can mentally place themselves in the past under study, yet must not pretend to divorce themselves “from the advantages that recent scholarship has given to hindsight” (102-3). The actors in this story did not wake up one morning in 1893 and decide to be subjects of ironic interpretation. Historians must remember that as much as they are alert to outcomes.

Second, critics must try to identify and distinguish ideas and attitudes of rank-and-file members of a movement and the views of its leaders, “particularly as embodied in their private expressions or in remarks to relatively sophisticated hearers who may not be typical of ordinary members” (ibid.). In these transactions, the occasions rich in ironic potential are given nuanced expression. The accent is likely to remain on the rhetoric of the leader and one must deduce from it something of what the followers heard or read. Thus if a Milwaukee priest and journalist can, over a period of years, fill halls and parks with Polish Catholics who agitate for Polish bishops for Polish people, one need not follow home all members of the audience to search for their probably never-existing diaries or likely lost letters in order to learn something of these peoples’ expectations.

In respect to method, third, there must be attentiveness to the written or oral discourse and other forms of symbolic behavior, since many of the actors’ intentions and expectations come in a complex of communicative modes. Finally, especially when studying the subject of religion, which can be epiphenomenal in a pluralist culture, the rank and file members and leaders may have only been identified with one or two phases or aspects of a movement for brief periods of time. These four observations are not a complete methodological prescript, but they do remind that rhetorical history, like rhetorical criticism in the literary world, follows some broad sets of rules.


Modernist and Anti-Modernist Extremes as Cases

This is not the place to detail as a case study the five sets of actors who crowd my stage at the turn of the century, the matrix of Modern American Religion. Suffice it to say, by way of illustration, that the world view of the theological modernists, who saw themselves as cosmopolitan or universalizing propounders of a progressive religion on the lines of a single rational and scientific model, turn out today to sound more dated and less accessible to most readers than do or would agents of Hassidic Judaism, Asokan-era Buddhism, or primitive or medieval Christianity. The British social philosopher Ernest Gellner spoke to this ironic situation: “As the Christians have found, the modernism of one generation is doubly dated in the next” (123).

Yet these modernists, as people of conscience and responsibility, had to act, and their intention to make the faith come out with what they saw to be a humane and in any case inevitably progressive unfolding of history, was marked by a spirit that can easily evoke admiration. Similarly, their enemies, who came to be called fundamentalists, who formed their party not as simple old conservatism but in reaction to modernism, can be seen to have had responsible intentions before the outcomes of their agency contradicted the promise and fitness of things. The fundamentalists were able to show that modernists were failing with their apologies, most notably among the secular intellectuals at whom they were aimed; and the modernists could quote fundamentalists not finding the unitive orthodoxy that seemed so obvious to them, but instead engaging in internecine warfare and sectarian battles. Thus one kind of premillennialist said of another that it was bannered as inclusive primitive Christianity, yet it “had nothing new in it that is true and nothing true in it that is new.”{4 } And while each camp made the claim that its orthodoxy of fundamentals was manifestly the right interpretation of the Bible, one reactionary could ask another, in lines that suggest an awareness of irony, “Do you think it wise to exalt into a ‘test of fellowship’ a doctrine so recently enunciated, that does not have a single passage of Scripture beyond the question of a doubt upon which to rest its feet?”


Three Other Case Studies Anticipated

The three other sets of actors include the literary and philosophical “moderns,” leaders of religiously bonded ethnic groups and denominations, and discerners of the negative effects of modernity who invented modern therapies (the ecumenical movement, the Social Gospel, and imperial civil or public religion). Ironically, the first of these, who ordinarily saw themselves, and were seen as, secular, turned out to devise religious or quasi-religious alternatives to the religion they would displace. Ironically, the leaders of the groups devised means to distance their members from confusing and beguiling elements in the surrounding pluralist culture, only to see that participants in the groups came in any case to find conflict between parties within them to be more urgent and satisfying than with parties around them. Ironically, discerners of differentiation, in their interest in promoting “wholeness,” the organic the restitutio ad integrum of which William James spoke, succeeded chiefly in being dismissed as adding to the competition of claimants to loyalty, and for being modernists who did not find their way back to the integrum at all. One should also add a grand “ironically” in respect to the already-referred-to reactionaries: ironically, it was precisely in the period that historians almost universally mark as modern, liberal, and, progressive that all the enduring twentieth-century intransigencies and conservatisms were born. Here we might cite Conservative Judaism and organized Orthodox Judaism, unyielding Eastern Orthodox Christian traditionalisms, anti-modernist Roman Catholicism that would dominate until Vatican II (1962-65), many forms of black Protestant conservatism, and the panoply of Protestant options including fundamentalism, reactionary evangelism pentecostalism, premillennialism, and the like.

The several allusions and quotations in the brief illustrative portion of this case study are not germane to the theoretical material here; references to these will be provided in the long narrative chapters in Marty, 1986.

These five sets of actors, here so cryptically referred to, become the subjects of a narrative hundreds of pages long. The narrative is the place to test the case study, but the framework of the narrative, the hermeneutical preunderstanding, has, I believe, broader promise for religious studies in general. The ironic interpretation of religion may have a quiet contribution to make to modern politics, when religion is so often the bonding agent in aggressive, national, ethnic, and cultural aggressive movements.


Humanities And Humane Irony

I cannot resist the suggestion as well that while not all humanities studies must be humanistic—some structuralisms and formalisms, it is often suggested, are not, even in intention—so they need and will not always be humane, as in the sense and case of “humane irony.” Yet, since historians remain in the humanities, and ply their trade in the company of scholars in religious studies, and since they will, in this reading, willy nilly bring presuppositions and assumptions to their narratives, it is valid to project some consequences of the particular ones they bring.

Insofar as their inquiries, teaching, and writing have a bearing on a the outlooks of colleagues, students, and readers, it is valid to ask whether the weariness of ironologists about the concept of irony itself, or the wariness of irony hounds like Hayden White, should preempt the space that might be given to the Niebuhrian irony that Reinitz calls “humane.” One need not bias religious studies by working out of the background of a belief in a God who is perceived as “not hostile to human aspirations.” On purely humanistic grounds, one can promote sympathy for such aspirations; indeed, many humanists would keep religion at a distance precisely because it does not always promote such sympathies through its accent on the transcendent.

As a consequence, Hayden White’s contention that “irony tends to dissolve all belief in the possibility of positive political actions” because it a tends to a view of “the essential folly or absurdity of the human condition” (434) can be countered. The folly and absurdity may be essential to that condition, but they are not, at least not for all irony hounds, the essentials of that condition.



This article is based on a Scholars Press Associates Lecture at the American Academy of Religion, December 9, 1984, in Chicago. I wish to thank Conrad Cherry of Scholars Press for the invitation, encouragement, and contribution to the theme, as well as William R. Hutchison for arranging a seminar at Harvard University on the subject in November, 1984. Wayne C. Booth and David Tracy provided valuable counsel in respect to literary and theological themes, while students in my seminar on Irony in Modern American Religion in Autumn, 1984, made the greatest contributions of all.

  1. See the references to Booth, Thompson, Brooks, Heller, and Burke in the bibliography that follows.
  2. See the references to White, Reinitz, and Niebuhr in the bibliography that follows
  3. .I shall be treating these ironic outcomes in respect to the modern as a projection into later times, while turning to the conflictual in respect to religion and then to the pluralistic in respect to America in later volumes covering 1920-52 and 1952-1973/74; that leaves who-knows-what for 1974-. But those are topics for other days and other articles five and ten and fifteen years from now.


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Crawford, Paul. 1980. “The Farmer Assesses His Role in Society,” in Paul H. Boase, ed., The Rhetoric of Protestant and Reform, 1978-1898. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Fussell, Paul 1970. “The New Irony and Augustans.” Encounter XXXIV. June, 1970.

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Muecke, D.C. 1969. The Compass of Irony. London: Methuen and Co.

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Reinitz, Richard. 1980. Irony and Consciousness: American Historiography and Reinhold Niebuhr’s Vision.

Stone, Lawrence. 1981. The Past and the Present. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Thomason, J.A.K. 1927. Irony: An Historical Introduction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

Tuveson, Ernest Lee. 1968. Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role. Chicago: University of Chicago.

White, Hayden. 1973. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.

Wise, Gene. 1968 “Implicit Irony in Perry Miller’s New England Mind.” Journal of the History of Ideas VII. 1973 American Historical Explanation. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.

Woodward, C. Vann. 1968. The Burden of Southern History. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.


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