Hello, Blue! If you missed Thursday's very special edition honoring Dr. Oliver Sacks – into which I poured more love than into any other piece since Brain Pickings began nine years ago – you can read it here; if you missed last week's regular edition – relationship advice from Joseph Campbell, Amanda Palmer reads Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska's beautiful poem "Life While-You-Wait," Grace Paley's advice to writers, a most unusual and wonderful vintage children's book for grownups, Martin Luther King, Jr. on how the Greek notion of 'agape' can help us be kinder to each other, and more – you can catch up here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
Engineer, physicist, and futurist Nikola Tesla (July 10, 1856–January 7, 1943) is among the most radical rule-breakers of science and is regarded by many as the greatest inventor in human history. His groundbreaking work paved the way for wireless communication and imprinted every electrical device we use today. Without Tesla, I wouldn't be writing these words on this keyboard and you wouldn't be reading them on this screen. But like all true geniuses, Tesla envisioned not only the practical applications of his inventions but the profound cultural shifts that any successful technology precipitates.
One of the most surprising, most obscure, yet most incisive of Tesla's predictions peers into the future of society's changing gender roles and considers how the advent of wireless technology would empower women, liberating us to develop our full intellectual potential repressed by the patriarchy for centuries.
In January of 1926, a reporter named John B. Kennedy interviewed Tesla about these very ideas. The piece was published in Colliers magazine under the title "When Woman Is Boss" and is discussed in Margaret Cheney's excellent Tesla: Man Out of Time (public library), which remains the most insightful and dimensional perspective on the great inventor's mind and spirit.
After reflecting on the future uses of wireless technology and practically predicting the iPhone, Tesla points to the empowerment of women as one of the most significant effects of technology on the world of tomorrow:
It is clear to any trained observer, and even to the sociologically untrained, that a new attitude toward sex discrimination has come over the world through the centuries, receiving an abrupt stimulus just before and after the World War.
This struggle of the human female toward sex equality will end in a new sex order, with the female as superior. The modern woman, who anticipates in merely superficial phenomena the advancement of her sex, is but a surface symptom of something deeper and more potent fermenting in the bosom of the race.
It is not in the shallow physical imitation of men that women will assert first their equality and later their superiority, but in the awakening of the intellect of women.
Tesla goes on to predict "the acquisition of new fields of endeavor by women" and "their gradual usurpation of leadership" as the inevitable result of that previously repressed potential, newly uncorked by the interconnectivity and educational empowerment that wireless technology would make possible:
Through countless generations, from the very beginning, the social subservience of women resulted naturally in the partial atrophy or at least the hereditary suspension of mental qualities which we now know the female sex to be endowed with no less than men. But the female mind has demonstrated a capacity for all the mental acquirements and achievements of men, and as generations ensue that capacity will be expanded; the average woman will be as well educated as the average man, and then better educated, for the dormant faculties of her brain will be stimulated to an activity that will be all the more intense and powerful because of centuries of repose. Woman will ignore precedent and startle civilization with their progress.
Only a decade later, Hedy Lamarr – herself a brilliant inventor who paved the way for wifi – would prove Tesla right, as would the growing numbers of women who would enter STEM fields and take leadership positions in the generations to come. Exactly twenty years later, Einstein would echo Tesla's prescient words in his heartening letter of advice to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist.
Tesla: Man Out of Time is a fascinating read in its entirety. Complement it with the story of history's greatest creative anarchists – a story, of course, starring Tesla.
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If I should ever cease to be amazed and enraptured by the magic of clouds, I should wish myself dead. And I am hardly alone – since the dawn of our species, the water cycle's most visible expression in the skies has bewitched artists, poets, and scientists like as a beautiful natural metaphor for the philosophy that there in an inherent balance to life, that what we give will soon be replenished. More than two millennia before poet Mark Strand and painter Wendy Mark joined forces on their breathtaking love letter to clouds, before Georgia O'Keeffe extolled the beauty of the Southwest skies, before scientists figured out why cloudy days help us think more clearly, the great ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote: "They are the celestial Clouds, the patron goddesses of the layabout. From them come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason." Indeed, there is a singular quality of prayerfulness to clouds – a certain secular reverence undergirding their allure to both art and science.
No poetic titan was more enchanted by the prayerful art-science of clouds than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote:
To find yourself in the infinite,
You must distinguish and then combine;
Therefore my winged song thanks
The man who distinguished cloud from cloud.
By the beginning of the 19th century, Goethe was Europe's most celebrated intellectual icon and Luke Howard – the man who "distinguished cloud from cloud," a young amateur meteorologist who pioneered a classification system for humanity's favorite atmospheric phenomena – was the only Englishman whom Goethe ever addressed as "Master." The verses the elderly Goethe penned for the young Howard endure as the most beautiful homage ever paid by one extraordinary mind to another – sentiments rendered in words even more moving than Thomas Mann's tribute to Hermann Hesse and JFK's eulogy for Robert Frost.
In The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies (public library), English writer and historian Richard Hamblyn chronicles Howard's journey from a humble young Quaker and insecure chemist to a reluctant scientific celebrity who warranted the ebullient admiration of Goethe and forever changed our relationship with the weather.
Painting by Wendy Mark from 89 Clouds by Mark Strand
In 1803, Howard self-published and distributed to friends a 32-page pamphlet titled On the Modifications of Clouds, &c – a classification system equal parts poetic and practical. Dusting off his schoolboy Latin, he came up with names for the three main categories of clouds – cumulus, stratus, and cirrus – and their various sub-taxonomies and combinations.
With his earnest enthusiasm for organizing the skies and imposing human order upon their ancient mystery, Howard rather unexpectedly captured the popular imagination – half a century before the telegraph became the first widespread medium of instant communication and long before contemporary social media, his essay, so to speak, went viral: Ardently discussed and passed hand to hand across the scientific and Quaker communities at a speed unprecedented in that era, it soon found its way to the prestigious journal Annual Review.
Soon, Howard was catapulted into the status of a scientific celebrity – but his feelings about fame and success, like Steinbeck's, were ambivalent: Mired in self-doubt, he was embarrassed by the praise he received but was gladdened to see his labor of love make a lasting imprint on culture. Hamblyn captures the root of this ambivalence:
Most pioneers are at the mercy of doubt at the beginning, whether of their worth, of their theories, or of the whole enigmatic field in which they labour.
Howard was at the mercy of all these pernicious forces – some of his peers criticized his use of Latin words instead of ordinary English language in naming the clouds, while others got busy pirating and plagiarizing his popular essay for profit. But his classification system stuck and took off – two centuries before Kevin Kelly coined his famous 1,000 true fans theory, Howard benefited from precisely this potency of a handful of dedicated supporters, who ensured that his morphology was included in the Encyclopedia Britannica and carried over into other European languages.
But no true fan was more crucial to the success and enduring legacy of Howard's work than Goethe.
Goethe at age 79 (Oil painting by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828)
Around the time of Howard's rise to fame, Goethe had grown increasingly interested in science in general and morphology, the study of forms, in particular – a rigorous fascination that produced, among many other things, his theory of the psychology of color and emotion. But meteorology, perhaps because it was a science of contemplation celebrating the inherent poetics of nature, enchanted the great German philosopher and poet more than any other scientific field.
When Howard came under criticism for using Latin rather than the spoken English of the era in his classification system, Goethe penned a passionate defense, insisting that Howard's Latin cloud names "should be accepted in all languages; they should not be translated, because in that way the first intention of the inventor and founder of them is destroyed." As Hamblyn points out, Goethe was "an arbiter of cultural and civilized value" and his word "was enough to settle any matter" – and so it did, ensuring Howard's Latin terms were henceforth the names by which we call the clouds.
But then something even more extraordinary happened – Goethe sent Howard fan mail.
So effusive was the letter, so full of ardent admiration – it even claimed that the cloud classification system had inspired Goethe to write poetry about Howard – that the humble young meteorologist immediately assumed it was a hoax, a cruel joke by one of his critics or a prank by a facetious friend looking to check the scientific starlet's ego. But it was all true – Goethe was a great admirer of Howard's work, and had written and published poems inspired by it and even celebrating it directly. Hamblyn explains:
Goethe’s encounter with the classification of clouds ... had given him enormous pleasure. For some time he had been speaking of little else, and all in all it seemed as if the old man of letters had been granted a new lease of life.
Eventually, Howard copied Goethe's words into one of his notebooks – perhaps to assure himself that he hadn't dreamt the glowing praise, or to immortalize its gladdening effects on the spirit:
How much the Classification of the clouds by Howard has pleased me, how much the disproving of the shapeless, the systematic succession of forms of the unlimited, could not but be desired by me, follows from my whole practice in science and art.
Painting by Wendy Mark from 89 Clouds by Mark Strand
Hamblyn traces the origin of Goethe's enchantment with the classification system some years earlier:
Howard’s theories of cloud formation thus enhanced the development of Goethe’s own view of the ‘wholeness’ of nature, the wholeness of its ’mind’, as it were, and in his essay ‘Wolkengestalt nach Howard’ (‘Cloud-shapes According to Howard’) he praised the achievements and evident humanity of the brilliant young English meteorologist. But this was only the beginning. Goethe’s admiration and his sense of indebtedness to Howard’s meteorological theories did not rest there, but led on to one of the most extraordinary personal homages ever paid by one scientific worker to another.
The great German poet set out to adapt Howard's essay into a series of short musical poems, one for each of the major classes of clouds, together titled Howards Ehrengedächtnis (In Honor of Howard) – a beautiful celebration of the eternal dialogue between art and science in the shared enterprise of illuminating nature's mystery, and an immensely heartwarming homage from one great illuminator to another.
When o’er the silent bosom of the sea
The cold mist hangs like a stretch’d canopy;
And the moon, mingling there her shadowy beams,
A spirit, fashioning other spirits seems;
We feel, in moments pure and bright as this,
The joy of innocence, the thrill of bliss.
Then towering up in the darkening mountain’s side,
And spreading as it rolls its curtains wide,
It mantles round the mid-way height, and there
It sinks in water-drops, or soars in air.
Still soaring, as if some celestial call
Impell’d it to yon heaven’s sublimest hall;
High as the clouds, in pomp and power arrayed,
Enshrined in strength, in majesty displayed;
All the soul’s secret thoughts it seems to move,
Beneath it trembles, while it frowns above.
And higher, higher yet the vapors roll:
Triumph is the noblest impulse of the soul!
Then like a lamb whose silvery robes are shed,
The fleecy piles dissolved in dew drops spread;
Or gently waft to the realms of rest,
Find a sweet welcome in the Father’s breast.
Now downwards by the world’s attraction driven,
That tends to earth, which had upris’n to heaven;
Threatening in the mad thunder-cloud, as when
Fierce legions clash, and vanish from the plain;
Sad destiny of the troubled world! but see,
The mist is now dispersing gloriously:
And language fails us in its vain endeavour –
The spirit mounts above, and lives forever.
Hamblyn considers what impelled Goethe to transmute Howard's classification into his high art of poetry:
For Goethe the identification and naming of the clouds had done nothing less than transfigure mankind’s relationship with aerial nature. The clouds had been released into the scientific consciousness, from where they could reach further, into the realm of the pure intellectual spirit, as addressed in the last line of ‘Nimbus.’ The greatness of Howard’s classification, for Goethe, was that it accounted for the material forces of cloud formation while allowing for the immaterial forces of poetic response to be heard. And his poems, like the essay which preceded them, took the form of just such a response. Art could answer science, it could find within it not only a source of subject matter but a source of real inspiration. Goethe’s cloud poems, as reactions to an energizing scientific insight, were heartfelt, joyous and sincere.
In yet another testament to the power of creative culture's unsung sidekicks, the four cloud poems Goethe wrote in 1817 would have remained little more than a private delight for the German luminary – were it not for a young translator at London's Foreign Office who was so captivated by the poems that he took it upon himself to translate them into English and give them a wider audience. That young clerk, Johann Christian Hüttner, was the one who translated and transmitted Goethe's admiration to Howard himself – a dedicated cross-pollinator of greatness.
But Hüttner's vision extended beyond the mere translation of the verses – feeling that the poems would greatly benefit from a richer context for readers who may not have encountered Howard's original essay, he convinced Goethe to write a few introductory remarks about Howard and his work. The poet was happy to oblige and penned the following verse in just a few days:
When Camarupa, wavering on high,
Lightly and slowly travels o’er the sky,
Now closely draws her veil, now spreads it wide,
And joys to see the changing figures glide,
Now firmly stands, now like a vision flies,
We pause in wonder, and mistrust our eyes.
Then boldly stirs imagination’s power,
And shapes there formless masses of the hour;
Here lions threat, there elephants will range,
And camel-necks to vapoury dragons change;
An army moves, but not in victory proud,
Its might is broken on a rock of cloud;
E’en the cloud messenger in air expires,
Ere reach’d the distance fancy yet desires.
But Howard gives us with his clearer mind
The gain of lessons new to all mankind;
That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp,
He first has gain’d, first held with mental grasp.
Defin’d the doubtful, fix’d its limit-line,
And named it fitly. – Be the honour thine!
As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall,
Let the world think of thee who taught it all.
It was an astonishing gesture of intellectual generosity and remains among history's most touching intersections of notable lives. So intensely interested was Goethe in the mind behind the cloud classification system that, with Hüttner's help, he soon convinced Howard to write a short memoir chronicling the development of his scientific ideas and the circumstances of his life that fertilized the soil for his invention. Howard sent back an earnest text of irrepressible humility, in which he wrote:
I am a man of domestic habits and very happy in my family and a few friends, whose company I quit with reluctance to join other circles.
This made Goethe all the more enamored with the young meteorologist's sincerity of spirit. Well into his seventies, he wrote in a letter to Hüttner:
For a long time nothing has given me so much pleasure as the autobiography of Mr. Howard, which I received yesterday and have been thinking of ever since. In truth nothing more pleasant could have happened to me than to see the tender religious soul of such an excellent man opened out to me in such a way that he has been able to lay bare for me the story of his destiny and development as well as his innermost convictions.
How Howard developed his sensitive soul and how it sprouted his trailblazing scientific contribution is what Hamblyn explores in the remainder in the beautifully written, rigorously researched, wholly fascinating The Invention of Clouds. Complement it with the very differently but equally bewitching 89 Clouds and the science of how clouds actually stay up in the sky, then revisit Goethe's taxonomy of color and emotion.
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“The impulse to create begins – often terribly and fearfully – in a tunnel of silence," Adrienne Rich asserted in her spectacular 1997 lecture Arts of the Possible. But it was exactly three decades earlier that another of humanity's most incisive intellects made the finest – and timeliest today – case for the generative function of silence in a creative culture drowning in noise.
In The Aesthetics of Silence, the first essay from her altogether indispensable 1969 collection Styles of Radical Will (public library), Susan Sontag examines how silence mediates the role of art as a form of spirituality in an increasingly secular culture.
Shortly after she wrote in her diary that "art is a form of consciousness" and shortly before Pablo Neruda penned his beautiful ode to silence and Paul Goodman – who shared a mutual admiration with Sontag – enumerated the nine kinds of silence, she writes:
Every era has to reinvent the project of “spirituality” for itself. (Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at resolving the painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.)
In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is “art.” The activities of the painter, the musician, the poet, the dancer, once they were grouped together under that generic name (a relatively recent move), have proved a particularly adaptable site on which to stage the formal dramas besetting consciousness, each individual work of art being a more or less astute paradigm for regulating or reconciling these contradictions. Of course, the site needs continual refurbishing. Whatever goal is set for art eventually proves restrictive, matched against the widest goals of consciousness. Art, itself a form of mystification, endures a succession of crises of demystification; older artistic goals are assailed and, ostensibly, replaced; outworn maps of consciousness are redrawn.
But modern art, Sontag argues, is as much a form of consciousness as an answer to our longing for anti-consciousness, speaking to what she calls "the mind’s need or capacity for self-estrangement":
Art is no longer understood as consciousness expressing and therefore, implicitly, affirming itself. Art is not consciousness per se, but rather its antidote – evolved from within consciousness itself.
As such, art usurps the role religion and mysticism previously held in human life – something to satisfy our "craving for the cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech." The spiritual satiation that arises from this dialogue between art and anti-art, Sontag points out, necessitates the pursuit of silence. For the serious artist, silence becomes "a zone of meditation, preparation for spiritual ripening, an ordeal that ends in gaining the right to speak."
In a counterpart to her later admonition that publicity is "a very destructive thing" for any artist, Sontag considers the zeal the artist must have in protecting that zone of silence – a notion of particular urgency in our age of tyrannical expectations regarding artists' engagement with social media:
So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate, that ambivalence about making contact with the audience... Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture: by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, consumer, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss
And yet, in a sentiment that calls to mind Kierkegaard's astute observation that expressing contempt is still a demonstration of dependence, Sontag recognizes that the gesture of silence in abdication from society is still "a highly social gesture." She writes:
An exemplary decision of this sort can be made only after the artist has demonstrated that he possesses genius and exercised that genius authoritatively. Once he has surpassed his peers by the standards which he acknowledges, his pride has only one place left to go. For, to be a victim of the craving for silence is to be, in still a further sense, superior to everyone else. It suggests that the artist has had the wit to ask more questions than other people, and that he possesses stronger nerves and higher standards of excellence.
Silence, then, is exercised not in the absolute but in degrees, mediating between art and anti-art, between consciousness and anti-consciousness:
The exemplary modern artist’s choice of silence is rarely carried to this point of final simplification, so that he becomes literally silent. More typically, he continues speaking, but in a manner that his audience can’t hear...
Modern art’s chronic habit of displeasing, provoking, or frustrating its audience can be regarded as a limited, vicarious participation in the ideal of silence which has been elevated as a major standard of “seriousness” in contemporary aesthetics.
But it is also a contradictory form of participation in the ideal of silence. It is contradictory not only because the artist continues making works of art, but also because the isolation of the work from its audience never lasts... Goethe accused Kleist of having written his plays for an “invisible theatre.” But eventually the invisible theatre becomes “visible.” The ugly and discordant and senseless become “beautiful.” The history of art is a sequence of successful transgressions.
Committed to the idea that the power of art is located in its power to negate, the ultimate weapon in the artist’s inconsistent war with his audience is to verge closer and closer to silence.
And yet, Sontag points out, silence is relational – while it may be the intention of the artist, it can never be the experience of the audience. (For a supreme example, we need not look further than John Cage, who even during his most forceful imposition of silence was in dynamic dialogue with the audience upon which silence was being imposed.)
Sontag, in fact, shined a sidewise gleam on this notion three years earlier in her masterwork Against Interpretation – for what is interpretation if not the act of filling the artist's silence with the audience's noise? She writes:
Silence doesn’t exist in a literal sense, however, as the experience of an audience. It would mean that the spectator was aware of no stimulus or that he was unable to make a response... As long as audiences, by definition, consist of sentient beings in a “situation,” it is impossible for them to have no response at all.
There is no neutral surface, no neutral discourse, no neutral theme, no neutral form. Something is neutral only with respect to something else – like an intention or an expectation. As a property of the work of art itself, silence can exist only in a cooked or non-literal sense. (Put otherwise: if a work exists at all, its silence is only one element in it.) Instead of raw or achieved silence, one finds various moves in the direction of an ever receding horizon of silence – moves which, by definition, can never be fully consummated.
Illustration by John Vernon Lord from a rare edition of 'Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There'
She illustrates this with the classic scene from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, where Alice encounters a shop "full of all manner of curious things," and yet whenever she looks closely at any one shelf, it appears "quite empty, though the others round it were crowded full as they could hold." Silence, similarly, is relational rather than absolute:
“Silence” never ceases to imply its opposite and to depend on its presence: just as there can’t be “up” without “down” or “left” without “right,” so one must acknowledge a surrounding environment of sound or language in order to recognize silence...
A genuine emptiness, a pure silence is not feasible – either conceptually or in fact. If only because the artwork exists in a world furnished with many other things, the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence. Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech (in many instances, of complaint or indictment) and an element in a dialogue.
Silence, Sontag argues, is also a way of steering the attention. In a passage triply timely today, half a century of attention-mauling media later, she writes:
Art is a technique for focusing attention, for teaching skills of attention... Once the artist’s task seemed to be simply that of opening up new areas and objects of attention. That task is still acknowledged, but it has become problematic. The very faculty of attention has come into question, and been subjected to more rigorous standards...
Perhaps the quality of the attention one brings to bear on something will be better (less contaminated, less distracted), the less one is offered. Furnished with impoverished art, purged by silence, one might then be able to begin to transcend the frustrating selectivity of attention, with its inevitable distortions of experience. Ideally, one should be able to pay attention to everything.
Many years later, Sontag would advise aspiring writers to learn to "pay attention to the world" as the most important skill of storytelling. Silence, she argues here, invites us to pay selfless and unselfconscious attention to the world the artist is creating. In a sentiment that explains why there are no comments on Brain Pickings and captures today's acute spiritual hunger for a space for unreactive contemplation amid a culture of reactive opinion-slinging, Sontag writes:
Contemplation, strictly speaking, entails self-forgetfulness on the part of the spectator: an object worthy of contemplation is one which, in effect, annihilates the perceiving subject... In principle, the audience may not even add its thought. All objects, rightly perceived, are already full.
The efficacious artwork leaves silence in its wake. Silence, administered by the artist, is part of a program of perceptual and cultural therapy, often on the model of shock therapy rather than of persuasion. Even if the artist’s medium is words, he can share in this task: language can be employed to check language, to express muteness... Art must mount a full-scale attack on language itself, by means of language and its surrogates, on behalf of the standard of silence.
Once again, Sontag's extraordinary prescience shines its brilliant beam upon our time, across half a century of perfectly anticipated cultural shifts. Much like she presaged the downsides of the internet's photo-fetishism in the 1970s and admonished against treating cultural material as "content" in the 1960s, she captures the entire ethos of our social media in 1967:
The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence. A coquettish, even cheerful nihilism. One recognizes the imperative of silence, but goes on speaking anyway. Discovering that one has nothing to say, one seeks a way to say that.
The Aesthetics of Silence is an immeasurably rewarding read in its entirety, as is the remainder of Styles of Radical Will. Complement it with Sontag on love, "aesthetic consumerism" and the violence of visual culture, how polarities imprison us, why lists appeal to us, her diary meditations on art, and her advice to aspiring writers.
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Many great artists have in common the ability to transform trauma into creative power. Among them is the great French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (June 7, 1848–May 8, 1903), whose work influenced such legendary artists as Picasso and Matisse.
A wonderful addition to both the best children's books about making sense of loss and the finest children's books celebrating cultural icons, Mr. Gauguin's Heart (public library) by writer Marie-Danielle Croteau and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault tells the bittersweet, unbelievably beautiful story of Gauguin's early childhood and how, after his father's death, the young boy sought solace in art and transmuted his grief into his first painting.
In this 2004 debut, Arsenault – whose genius has produced such subsequent treasures as Jane, the Fox & Me, Virginia Wolf, and Migrant – once again reveals herself to be one of the most gifted and evocative visual storytellers of our time.
We meet young Paul, a little boy who lives with his beloved parents, his sister Marie, and a dog he adores – "an odd-looking, little orange dog" with whom Paul goes everywhere, plays constantly, and even has conversations.
But the oddest thing about the little orange dog is that is that only Paul can see it.
One day, the Gauguins depart for Peru, and Paul's imaginary companion boards the ship with the rest o
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