Age of Iron | Critical Essay by Mike Marais

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of Age of Iron.
This section contains 5,170 words
(approx. 18 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Mike Marais

SOURCE: "Places of Pigs: The Tension between Implication and Transcendence in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg," in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, 1996, pp. 83-95.

In the following essay, Marais contrasts relations of power in Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg.


In a recent article on J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg, Stephen Watson observes that "the bulk of South African literature gives much evidence of that atheism of the imagination which is always conspicuous when a writer has set up barriers between human beings and the crucial questions of existence, such as their very awareness of themselves as spiritual beings". Watson maintains, however, that Coetzee's novels do not exhibit this form of "truncated imagination":

There are times in his recent fiction, particularly The Master of Petersburg, when it really does seem as if the spiritual needs of human beings are not simply the alienated form of their longing for justice and fraternity; when these emerge, clearly, as an expression of ineradicable psychic drives as well as the consequence of facts about our human situation which no amount of social engineering can hope to change.

This remark overlooks an aspect of The Master of Petersburg which is a key feature of Coetzee's recent fiction: its thematization of the inevitable implication of literature in the relations of power which determine the social context in which it is produced. By extension, then, the "truncated imagination" to which Watson refers is a condition of writing in a politically-fraught social context, one which Coetzee's novels cannot escape. Despite this oversight, however, Watson's remark does touch on a significant and paradoxical dimension of these novels which runs counter to this self-conscious admission of implication, that is, the desire which they evince to become a more human literature by transcending the stultifying politics of their social context. It would seem, then, that Coetzee's recent fiction is grounded in a paradox, one which this article will examine by means of a comparison of Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg.


Set in Petersburg in late 1869, The Master of Petersburg focuses on the murder of a young student, Ivanov, by a group of nihilists led by Sergei Nechaev. The killing of Ivanov by this group of student revolutionaries is probably best remembered as the historical event which inspired Dostoevsky to write The Devils, a novel which explores the political implications of the ethical problem posed in Crime and Punishment, that is, the indifference of the amoral superman, in the absence of a spiritual essence, to issues of good and evil. Coetzee's decision to focus on the above-mentioned incident suggests that he too, like Dostoevsky, wishes to examine the ethical ramifications of political nihilism in his novel. Furthermore, the fact that he departs from history by making the murdered student Dostoevsky's stepson, and by fabricating Dostoevsky's return from exile to Petersburg following the murder, suggests, in addition, that he wishes to explore the latter writer's personal and artistic response to the amorality of these revolutionaries.

Dostoevsky's literary response to revolutionary nihilism revolves around the biblical story of the Gadarene swine, a tale in which unclean devils, having been exorcized from a sick man by Christ, enter a herd of swine. This story serves as the structural metaphor through which Dostoevsky explores and ultimately condemns political nihilism in The Devils. As the following comparisons drawn by one of the nihilists in the novel indicate, the story generates a series of analogies which suggests that Russia is a "sick man" possessed by devils, and that the swine which the devils enter upon being exorcized are the revolutionaries:

These devils who go out of the sick man and enter the swine—those are all the sores, all the poisonous exhalations, all the impurities, all the big and little devils, that have accumulated in our great and beloved invalid, in our Russia, for centuries … all those devils, all those impurities, all those abominations that were festering on the surface … will themselves ask to enter into swine…. They are we … and we shall cast ourselves down, the raving and the possessed, from the cliff into the sea and shall all be drowned, and serves us right, for that is all we are good for.

It is misguided to conclude, as David Coad does, that since Dostoevsky implies "that the [nihilists] are possessed by the devil, pervaded by evil", Coetzee simply shares this conviction. It is true that he employs the parallels created by The Devils when his own character, Dostoevsky, argues that it is futile to imprison revolutionaries such as Sergei Nechaev since nihilism is a "spirit" for which the individual is merely a "vehicle", a "host". However, he applies the story of the Gadarene swine not only to Russia and the phenomenon of revolutionary nihilism, but also to Dostoevsky himself and his literary response to this phenomenon. So, in The Master of Petersburg, Dostoevsky is depicted as a "sick man" possessed by devils. The outward sign of this affliction is his epilepsy, a sickness which the novel relates to demon possession. Indeed, he speculates that not "seizure" but "possession" would be "the right word" to describe the fits from which he suffers. Coetzee's application of the story of the Gadarene swine to Dostoevsky's artistic response to nihilism emerges when this character is described as shaking "his head as if to rid it of a plague of devils". Elsewhere, Anna Sergeyevna tells him that he is "in the grip of something quite beyond [her]" and while engaging in sexual intercourse with him, at the onset of climax, she utters the word "devil". Significantly, in this scene the sexual act is depicted as both an inspiration and an exorcism, with Anna Sergeyevna occupying the dual role of muse and exorcist. As the novel ends shortly afterwards with Dostoevsky commencing work on The Devils, the implication, therefore, is that this text is also to be equated with the exorcized spirits in the story of the Gadarene swine. Clearly, this equation gives the title of Dostoevsky's text fresh significance. A further inference now also surfaces, namely that the readers within whom copies of the novel can be said to take up residence correspond to the swine in the biblical study.

I read Coetzee's reworking of the story of the Gadarene swine in The Master of Petersburg as a comment on the implication of writer and literature in the power dynamics or "sickness" of the social context in which they are located. Through applying the story to the artist and the artistic process itself, Coetzee suggests that Dostoevsky and his work are not immune to the "sickness" of Russia. Both are a part of Russia and are therefore also "sick". It is significant, for example, that as the novel develops, the boundaries between this character and his social context are increasingly blurred. He refers, for example, to epilepsy as "the emblematic sickness of the age" and earlier equates himself with Russia: "I am required to live … a Russian life: a life inside Russia, or with Russia inside me".

Clearly, "sickness" and devilry in this novel therefore serve as a metaphor for a destructive force at work in Russian society. The nature of this force is never clearly revealed in The Master of Petersburg but can be deduced when this novel is compared with Age of Iron. In both novels, a strong affinity emerges between the protagonist and his/her social and physical context—in the latter case, South Africa. Thus Mrs Curren describes the country as her "mother", "the place of the navel, the place where [she] join[s] the world". Moreover, like Dostoevsky, she too is ill and her illness, cancer, serves as a correlative of the diseased and deformed nature of South African society. In this regard, Mrs Curren often refers to South Africans as being ugly, deformed or virtually inhuman. As the novel proceeds, it gradually emerges from Coetzee's use of mythological analogies that it is the apartheid state's structures of power that exert this deforming influence on its citizens. So, for example, Mrs Curren claims that her tumours have been "sent by Saturn" or Cronus, the archetypal political father. Furthermore, the state and its ideological apparatuses are on various occasions likened to the Gorgons and to Circe, myths which deal with the metamorphosis of human beings into stone and swine. The implication here, then, is that the state's power relations have dehumanized South African people.

In both Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg, Coetzee's point seems to be that the networks of power within the societies in question pervade and pervert every aspect of life, including art. "Power", as Mrs Curren puts it, "is power, after all. It invades. That is its nature". A less cryptic statement on the corrosive aspect of power can be found in Coetzee's "Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech":

About these [unnatural] structures of power [that define the South African state] there is a great deal to be said…. The deformed and stunted relations between human beings that were created under colonialism and exacerbated under what is loosely called apartheid have their psychic representation in a deformed and stunted inner life. All expressions of that inner life, no matter how intense, no matter how pierced with exultation or despair, suffer from the same stuntedness and deformity. I make this observation with due deliberation, and in the fullest awareness that it applies to myself and my own writing as much as to anyone else.

Although Coetzee is specifically referring to the South African context here, the parallels which I have traced between Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg suggest that his point holds for all societies which have been "defined" by "unnatural structures of power" and for their literatures since these are inevitably preoccupied with "power and the torsions of power".

It is because of their representation, and therefore replication, of these "deformed and stunted relations" that South African and Russian writing are depicted as being disfigured in both Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg. In the earlier novel, for example, Mrs Curren refers to the words of her diary as "the issue of a shrunken heart", and as "words vomited up from the belly of the whale, misshapen, mysterious". And in the later novel, as Coetzee's broadening of the application of the story of the Gadarene swine to include the artistic process indicates, Dostoevsky's The Devils is not detached from but a part of "all the poisonous exhalations, all the impurities, all the big and little devils, that have accumulated in our great and beloved invalid, in our Russia, for centuries". In the societies portrayed in these novels, then, the literature produced is cast as a literature which, to appropriate Coetzee's term, "supplements" history by reproducing those oppositions related to class, race and gender conflict "out of which history and the historical disciplines erect themselves". Being "unable to move from [such] elementary relations of contestation, domination, and subjugation to the vast and complex human world that lies beyond them", it is, to use Coetzee's description of South African literature in his "Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech", "a less than fully human literature".

The "relations of contestation, domination, and subjugation" to which Coetzee refers here, can readily be detected in both of the novels under discussion. Indeed, upon comparison it becomes evident that the two texts share a basic pattern in this regard. Both depict societies which, temporally, find themselves in the interregnum between a decaying, old political order and a new one seeking to establish itself. In each novel, a protagonist who embodies the values of Western society confronts revolutionary nihilists who challenge his/her ethical assumptions. In the conflictual relationship which then develops, each protagonist condemns his/her antagonist's nihilism in ethical terms. Finally, the protagonists of both novels embark on literary exercises which reflect the assumptions that underpin their relationships with the nihilists.

The basic structure of the relationship which is depicted between protagonist and nihilist-antagonist in both of these novels is oppositional: the former—be it consciously or unconsciously—endeavours to adopt a subject position in relation to the latter, a position from which s/he then attempts to define and reify him/her. Significantly, these attempts at reification are conducted in terms of the dyadic structure of the Western ethical system. In Age of Iron, for instance, Mrs Curren's confrontation with the nihilism of John leads to an ethical judgement being passed on him and his political cohorts: "Comradeship is nothing but a mystique of death, of killing and dying…. I have no sympathy with this comradeship…. It is just another of those icy, exclusive, death-driven male constructions". And, in The Master of Petersburg, the character Dostoevsky echoes this judgment in his condemnation of the nihilism of Sergei Nechaev and his associates: "Nechaevism is not an idea…. It is a spirit…. It is a dull, resentful and murderous spirit". When asked to assign a name to this spirit, he responds with the word "Baal".

Clearly, the oppositions of God/Devil, heaven/hell, elect/reprobate, Christian/heathen, good/evil, right/wrong, life-directed/death-directedand, ultimately, self/other which inform these judgements, assist in establishing those relations of domination and subjugation which "contaminate" society. The oppositional structure of the ethical system which Mrs Curren and Dostoevsky employ to judge and thereby define their antagonists thus colludes with the state's networks of power. As with all oppositional constructions, it facilitates the process of othering in which subject defines object by integrating the latter into its interpretive framework.

This complicity of conventional Western morality in the state's power structures is made especially clear at the end of The Master of Petersburg when the fictional Dostoevsky starts writing The Devils. By presenting his novel, as the pretext of The Devils, Coetzee contrives to make his reader evaluate the historical Dostoevsky's novel in terms of the fictional Dostoevsky's relationship with the nihilists in The Master of Petersburg. Against this background, The Devils has to be seen as a continuation of its author's attempt to other the nihilists, that is, to condemn nihilism in terms of the Manichean dualism of conventional morality—as E. H. Carr argues, it is a fairly transparent attempt to "demonstrate the fundamental identity of moral evil and political nihilism". The metafictional dialogue which Coetzee sets up between his novel and The Devils suggests, therefore, that Dostoevsky and his novel remain locked in the oppositional mode of the contestatory relations that define Russian society. It also implies that, in depicting the nihilists as being possessed by devils, Dostoevsky not only endorses these relations, but also places them in a transcendental realm, thus providing them with a secure metaphysical foundation.

In failing to move beyond the power relations which pervade the society in which it is produced, the literary text which the character Dostoevsky settles down to write at the end of The Master of Petersburg (ostensibly The Devils) is, in Coetzee's terms, "less than fully human". In representing the deformed and stunted relations created by the state's hegemonic strategies, it reinforces them and thus colludes with the state's dehumanization of its citizens. This point emerges clearly when the imagery used to depict the state's dehumanization of South Africans in Age of Iron is compared with the imagery applied to Dostoevsky's writing in The Master of Petersburg. As I have indicated, in the earlier novel the impact of the apartheid state's manipulative power relations is depicted by means of an analogy between the state and Circe: like Circe, the state dehumanizes people or turns them into 'swine'. And, in the later novel, Coetzee's reworking of the story of the Gadarene swine constructs a link between the readers of Dostoevsky's novel and swine. The parallel which exists, here, in the portrayal of the brutalizing effect on society of state structures and the similar effect produced by literature suggests that the latter merely replicates the operation of the former, and thus collaborates in the state's dehumanization of its citizens.


In the passage from the "Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech" quoted earlier, Coetzee indicates that literature's implication in the network of power relations which defines a society such as South Africa is inevitable. His argument in this regard is very similar to Said's contention that "texts are worldly, to some degree they are events, and, even when they appear to deny it, they are nevertheless a part of the social world, human life, and of course the historical moments in which they are located and interpreted". Despite maintaining this position in the above speech and enacting it in his fiction, Coetzee has on occasion suggested, paradoxically, that it is possible for literature "to move from elementary relations of contestation, domination, and subjugation to the vast and complex human world that lies beyond them". For instance, in "The Novel Today", after having referred to fiction which "supplements" history, he refers to another fictional mode that "occupies an autonomous place" and "operates in terms of its own procedures and issues" and not those of history. And, in "Into the Dark Chamber", he argues that the writer should not "allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them". Instead, the challenge for the writer should be "how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one's own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one's own terms".

In Age of Iron, Coetzee takes up this challenge and explores the possibility of transcending the power relations which define South African society. This exploration marks the point at which the pattern of similarities which I have thus far traced between this novel and The Master of Petersburg ends. Differences between these novels begin to manifest themselves in the development which Mrs Curren's relationship with John undergoes following her initial condemnation of his nihilism. As I have indicated, her initial moral condemnation of John may be compared with Dostoevsky's response to Nechaev. After Bheki's death and her visit to Guguletu, however, Mrs Curren appears to realize that the system of Western values and ethics in terms of which she judges and acts has lost all validity and relevance in the historical context in which she finds herself. Thus, she comes to question her right and ability to judge at all:

"But now I ask myself: What right have I to opinions about comradeship or anything else? What right have I to wish Bheki and his friend had kept out of trouble? To have opinions in a vacuum, opinions that touch no one, is, it seems to me, nothing. Opinions must be heard by others, heard and weighed, not merely listened to out of politeness".

At this stage in the novel, it becomes clear that the references to the Furies which occur throughout suggest that, just as these mythical creatures lost their ability to protect Classical Greek society when that society ceased to believe in them, so too the Western system of ethics in modern South Africa has become obsolete. By juxtaposing in this way an archaic ethical system with one in the process of losing currency, the novel shows that ethics are socially and historically relative.

Her realization that the conventional system of Western ethics has lost its legitimacy in South Africa is the point in the novel at which Mrs Curren attempts to break out of the relations of contestation to which the dualism of that ethical system predisposes her. The procedure which she decides upon in her attempt to "rise above" these power relations is quite clearly articulated in the novel in the following passage:

I want to be saved. How shall I be saved? By doing what I do not want to do. That is the first step: that I know, I must love, first of all, the unlovable. I must love, for instance, this child…. He is here for a reason. He is part of my salvation.

In other words, she strives to overcome the deformed relations between human beings entrenched by the South African apartheid state's politics of dominance and subservience through learning to love the "children of iron"—those, such as John and, indeed, herself, who have been brutalized by these very power relations.

The efficacy of this strategy emerges in the way in which it enables Mrs Curren to reconstruct her relationship with John: "Yet something went out from me to him. I ached to embrace him, to protect him". The allusion, here, to a restoration of the umbilical bond between mother and child indicates that love is an emotion which is based on relationship and connection rather than separation and objectivity. Accordingly, it may be deduced that in this novel, "love" signifies a form of consciousness which, in acknowledging "our formation out of an interdependence with other human beings", points to the possibility of developing a relational mode which subverts the divisive power relationship in which subject defines object. And, in subverting the boundary between subject and object, self and other, it holds out the hope of constructing an ethical system which is grounded not in subject-centred consciousness, but in intersubjectivity.

Since it is the relations of contestation imposed by the state which dehumanize people, it follows that "love", in undermining the subject-centred consciousness which underpins such relations of power, has the ability to humanize that which has been brutalized. Indeed, this point emerges in the novel when, in an allusion to the analogy between the state and Circe, Mrs Curren comments as follows: "Metamorphosis, that thickens our speech, dulls our feelings, turns us into beasts. Where on these shores does the herb grow that will preserve us from it?". From this analogy it may be inferred that "love", which subverts the subject-object relation of dominance and subservience, is the equivalent of the herb moly through which Odysseus breaks Circe's spell and restores to his men their humanity.

The humanizing ability of "love" is also apparent in the novel's designs on its South African reader. In this respect, the effect of the change which Mrs Curren's relationship with the "children of iron" undergoes on the letter which she writes to her estranged daughter—who is also characterized as a child of iron—is significant. In contrast with the text on which Dostoevsky commences work at the end of The Master of Petersburg (a text which "supplements" history and so endorses oppositional relations and, accordingly, brutalizes its readers), Mrs Curren's text represents a mode of relationship which is grounded in affinity rather than division. Thus it is presented as an intimate letter from the writer-as-mother to the reader-as-daughter, a letter in which the writer attempts to restore the broken "filial" connection. Being a letter of "love", and therefore the product of a reconstructed ethical consciousness, it constitutes an attempt to represent a mode of intersubjectivity which undermines the state's oppositional relations and, after the manner of moly, restores to the reader—also a victim of the Circe-like state—her humanity.


There lies a danger in drawing too absolute a distinction between Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg on the grounds of the potential of the former to humanize the reader, since in certain significant respects this novel questions its own ability to achieve this end. By identifying the South African reader with Mrs Curren's estranged daughter, the novel constructs as its reader someone who is somewhat indifferent to its content. Furthermore, Susan VanZanten Gallagher is correct when she argues that in presenting itself as a letter which has to be conveyed to its reader by an inebriate, the novel advertises the possibility that the words which form it "may remain dead leaves" and "never even find an audience", and thus seriously "questions its own basis for existence". This self-reflexive questioning can, in part, be ascribed to the fact that it is impossible for the novel and, indeed, for Mrs Curren to "rise above [their] times", that is, to transcend the relations of contestation which have underpinned those times. (As I have already indicated, an admission to this effect is contained in Coetzee's "Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech".) Paradoxically, then, even as it thematizes the notion that the text, through transcending its temporal context, can provide a representation of a relational mode which is able to humanize its brutalized South African reader, the novel seriously questions the feasibility of this endeavour.

This strategy of nurturing the impossible can be observed throughout Coetzee's oeuvre and is, perhaps, most clearly articulated in Life and Times of Michael K in the medical officer's description of K's stay in the Kenilworth camp as an "allegory … of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it". It amounts to what Julia Kristeva has called "strategic essentialism"—in this context, a practice through which the text, whilst acknowledging their validity, self-consciously disregards social constructionist notions that the subject is constructed through and determined by insensible social relations of power. In Age of Iron, for instance, Mrs Curren, after becoming aware of the extent to which she has been brutalized by the state, comments as follows:

I have intimations … that once upon a time I was alive. Was alive and then was stolen from life. From the cradle a theft took place: a child was taken and a doll left in its place to be nursed and reared, and that doll is what I call I.

These "intimations" of an original identity which pre-date her state-conferred, artificial sense of self inspire her to rewrite her identity through reconstructing her relation with John. In the novel, this process of self-reconstruction is couched in terms usually reserved for fiction-writing, a fact which suggests that Mrs Curren, rather than excavating an original self, becomes the author of her self—engages, that is, in the Nietzschean paradox of discovering her self through creation. Instead of affirming the existence of transcendental essences, then, such "intimations" of an original identity and a primal relation based on connection and not separation function strategically in Coetzee's fiction. After all, being "intimations", they cannot "affirm", only allude, hint or insinuate. Accordingly, they serve primarily as an incentive to and stimulus for change.

Coetzee's general observation on the Buberian I-Thou relation is significant in this latter regard: "Intimations of the lost relation … inspire our efforts to reconstitute again and again the 'between' of the primal I-Thou". Apart from being manifest in characters such as Michael K and Mrs Curren, whose attempts to reconstitute the primal I-Thou are dramatized on the presentational surface of the respective novels themselves, this process of inspiration by intimation is frequently extended to include the reader of the text. In attempting to transcend the relations of contestation which define the society in which it was produced, Age of Iron, for instance, provides the reader with an "intimation" of "love"—that emotion which bridges the gap between the subject-object power relation. So, for example, Mrs Curren describes her letter and, by implication, the novel to her daughter and, by further implication, the actual reader of the novel in the following manner: "In this letter from elsewhere … truth and love together at last. In every you that I pen love flickers and trembles like St Elmo's fire". The suggestion here is that, like Mrs Curren's house, the novel is a "museum" which not only preserves the idea of the "lost relation", but also, as the etymology of the word "museum" suggests, inspires the reader with "intimations" of love to recreate his/her times and so convert South African history from a static realm of being into a dynamic realm of becoming.

Of course, being intimations, such prompts are easily overlooked or ignored. Indeed, it is the nebulous and minimalist nature of these "intimations", which can either be responded to or overlooked by the protagonists and readers of his novels, that accounts for the fluctuations in Coetzee's oeuvre between the guarded optimism of texts like Age of Iron and the bleak pessimism of The Master of Petersburg. Like the protagonist of the former novel, who is inspired by "intimations" of an original identity to reconstruct the "'between' of the primal I-Thou" in her relation with John, the character Dostoevsky, in the latter novel, receives "intimations"—in the form of the visions which he has of trying to communicate with his son underwater—which initially encourage him to reconstitute the filial bond. As the novel advances, however, these "intimations" are progressively blocked out by the exigencies of the dynamics of power in Russian society. So, towards the end of the novel, Dostoevsky comes to feel that "he has lost touch with Pavel and with the logic that tells him why, because Pavel died here, he is tied to Petersburg".

With the loss of the inspiration which comes from these "intimations", Dostoevsky is unable to humanize and resurrect his son, a son who, it earlier becomes clear (in an obvious allusion to the fate of the Gadarene swine), has flung himself or been pushed from a tower and who, it is also frequently suggested, has drowned. Indeed, the novel ends with Dostoevsky writing a text in which, as Watson puts it, "he proceeds to take an evidently true story about his dead stepson, one in which the latter is shown in a particularly good light, and rewrites it so that it is transformed into an episode of gratuitous cruelty". In other words, he writes a text inspired not by "intimations" of the primal I-Thou relation, but by the reality of the "deformed and stunted relations between human beings" created by the structures of power that define the Russian state. He produces, that is, the kind of text which, to use again the distinction which Coetzee's draws in "The Novel Today", "supplements" history, rather than that which "rivals" it by operating "in terms of its own procedures and issues". In so doing, he endorses those very hegemonic strategies which caused his son's death. When it is kept in mind that Coetzee's reworking of the story of the Gadarene swine equates Dostoevsky's The Devils with the devils who possess the swine and force them to hurl themselves from a cliff, the final perverse irony in this novel may be appreciated. In a complete metaleptic inversion of linear narrative, The Master of Petersburg ends by suggesting that Dostoevsky—who at the beginning returns to Petersburg to establish, among other details, whether it was the police or the revolutionaries who pushed his son from the tower—sired "the devils" who were responsible for this act.

In conclusion, then, one finds in Coetzee's fiction a minimalist programme for prompting change which is, quite literally, undermined even as it is articulated. Convinced of the need for change in the society in which he writes but, at the same time, aware of the compromising nature of the ineluctable "worldliness" of the literary text, this writer has had to choose between subsiding into silence and adopting a strategy of paradox. Premised as it is on this uneasy balance between knowledge of implication and hope for transcendence, this strategy can, at best, generate only "intimations" of an alternative to the status quo, intimations which are therefore often either overlooked or ignored.

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