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To Make you See: Conrad, Eliot, Lewis, and one other

In his immortal preface to the "Nigger of the Narcissus," a preface everyone interested in literature should read, Joseph Conrad tells us what he believes to be the purpose of literature as art:

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see. That--and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there, according to your deserts, encouragement, consolation, fear, charm, all you demand--and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.

To snatch, in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time a passing phase of life, is only the beginning of the task. The task approached in tenderness and faith is to hold up unquestioningly, without choice and without fear, the rescued fragment before all eyes in the light of a sincere mood....In a single-minded attempt of that kind, if one be deserving and fortunate, one may perchance attain to such clearness of sincerity that at last the presented vision of regret or pity, of terror or mirth, shall awaken in the hearts of the beholders that feeling of unavoidable solidarity; of the solidarity in mysterious origin, in toil, in joy, in hope, in uncertain fate, which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world.

Elsewhere in the essay, Conrad, perhaps unfortunately, associates this task with the slogan "Art for Art itself." But while this connection is unfortunate, it arises rather predictably from the old, old tensions and irritations aroused in the heart of the artist by the demand for edification. The passage above is Conrad's response to those who, in his words, "demand specifically to be edified, consoled, amused; who demand to be promptly improved, or encouraged, or frightened, or shocked, or charmed,..."

Why do I say that it is unfortunate that Conrad associates his characterization of literature and art with the concept of art for its own sake?

I say so, because to do so gives the, in my opinion false, impression that the value of art has nothing to do with objective truth but only with the feelings of the artist. And if those feelings are "sincere," then even if the "art" in question is merely disgusting, pornographic, or nihilistic, it cannot fairly be criticized. The artist really felt the feelings portrayed or evoked by the art, and that is all that matters.

Now, Conrad knows better than that. That is why he talks about holding up the moment, making people see, and even about a glimpse of truth. He even includes in his list of misguided consumers of art those who wish to be shocked and frightened--presumably, those most likely to appreciate "transgressive" art as well as merely crude and exciting video and literature.

But it would be somewhat difficult, especially without introducing more specifically moral, metaphysical, or even religious categories, to say more clearly than Conrad does in what sense art is responsible to objective truth, and especially to objective moral truth.

I, following a long tradition of rushing in where angels fear to tread, shall take a shot at this old, old debate by introducing C. S. Lewis's category, from The Abolition of Man, of men without chests. Modern men, says Lewis, are not really smarter than men used to be. Rather, their heads appear bigger because of the atrophy of their chests. By the "chest," Lewis meant to refer to just, well-ordered, and well-formed sensibilities and emotions. Contemporary man has intellect (the head) and appetite (the belly) but lacks proper training in the appreciation of the good and the beautiful (the chest). If that was true in Lewis's day it is, of course, true in spades in our own. And as Lewis points out, the process (recommended by Plato) by which young people are treated not as manipulable made things to be brainwashed but rather as young birds being taught to fly by older birds begins, crucially, with the training of the aesthetic faculty and the emotions.

It seems to me that that is what Conrad meant by holding up the moment: The good artist, still more the great artist, shows a thing as it is and brings the viewer, or the reader, to an aesthetic and emotional response that is appropriate to the thing. In so doing, the artist cannot avoid the question of what is really true. If he presents disgusting things as if they are the only things, he is encouraging despair in his audience, which is not the appropriate response to horrors. If he presents them as if they are neutral and not disgusting, he is telling an aesthetic lie. And if he merely horrifies, shocks, or sexually arouses, he is appealing not to the chest but to the gut. The great artist makes you see in the sense that he appeals to the chest--to the right-ordered sensibilities and emotions--and forms those emotions in the very act of appealing to them. But this action of art cannot be accommodated by the category of "moralism." No nice little story with a nice little moral is going to make you see in the powerful and, sometimes, painful sense that Conrad is speaking of. No such story is going to form those just emotions and aesthetic sensibilities--or at least, not to any very great extent. And the reason is not far to seek. For as both transgressive and sensationalist popular art appeal directly to the belly, moralizing art appeals to the head--to the reader's prior realization that lying is wrong, that cheaters never prosper, and so forth.

It is no secret to those familiar with the work of both men that C.S. Lewis was not fond of T.S. Eliot. Lewis got in frequent digs at Eliot which started with his intense dislike of modernist poetry in his (Lewis's) undergraduate days. And some of this criticism is justified. I hold no brief for much of the sheer obfuscation and unpleasantness of the early Eliot. That is why in my earlier post, I recommended "Little Gidding" as one of his greatest works. But there is one early Eliot work that I believe illustrates well what both Conrad and Lewis are saying--the poem "Preludes." Listen to this:


You tossed a blanket from the bed
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed's edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.


His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Here there is no horror for the sake of horror. The "you" character--whom I guess to be female--is portrayed vividly and with compassion. She sees the sordid images of which her soul is constituted, which in turn leads her to a vision of the street such as the street hardly understands. And that is a vision of a personalized "conscience" stretched out in a crucifixion pose across the sky, trampled by insistent feet in the rhythmic cadence of four and five and six o'clock. Walking across that conscience, who bears and suffers it. And like the hair that curls from the papers, the "fancies" curl around these images, and the rhythm of the poem pauses. Perhaps there is something more to the street, to the city, to the world. Perhaps there is, because perhaps there is some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing...And then, the conclusion...

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh; The worlds revolve like ancient women Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

In this poem, Eliot does what Conrad says art should do--he makes us see. It would be impossible to tell all that he makes us see merely by summarizing or paraphrasing it, and to that extent (I would not want to grant them too much) the school called the New Critics were right in rejecting what they called the heresy of paraphrase. I cannot tell you fully what Eliot's poem does, because only the poem can do it. But I believe it speaks to what I have called above the chest. I believe that it points to images, holds them up, and attempts to evoke just responses of compassion and understanding, including a painful understanding of the cynical rejection of the "fancy" that the street might have meaning or that the revolution of the worlds is governed by anything but chance. Just so we can imagine someone thinking, someone being, and just so we should be moved by the thought of such a soul.

Here is what Lewis said about the value of each individual human soul:

The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

And it is with this sort of care and specificity that Eliot shows us his character in "Preludes."

It is one of the joys of teaching that one's students think of things that the teacher would never think of. All of you who teach have had this experience, and I have it, too, from time to time, even though I have so few students. So I will credit here my single high school student, my eldest daughter, with the final connection in this post.

When we had had a long discussion along the lines of this post so far, including the final quotation from Lewis about the incredible importance of each individual, she said that she knows of a piece of art that makes you see, that holds up the moment as Conrad says art should do. And here, without further comment, is the work she wanted to talk about:

It's nine o'clock on a Saturday
The regular crowd shuffles in
There's an old man sitting next to me
Making love to his tonic and gin.

He says, "Son can you play me a memory?
I'm not really sure how it goes.
But it's sad and it's sweet
And I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man's clothes."

Sing us a song you're the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well we're all in the mood for a melody
And you've got us feeling all right.

Now John at the bar is a friend of mine
He gets me my drinks for free
And he's quick with a joke or to light up your smoke
But there's someplace that he'd rather be.

He says, "Bill, I believe this is killing me,"
As a smile ran away from his face.
"Well, I'm sure that I could be a movie star
If I could get out of this place."

Now Paul is a real estate novelist
Who never had time for a wife
And he's talking with Davy, who's still in the Navy
And probably will be for life.

And the waitress is practicing politics
As the businessmen slowly get stoned
Yes they're sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it's better than drinking alone.

Sing us a song you're the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well we're all in the mood for a melody
And you've got us feeling all right.

It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the manager gives me a smile
'Cause he knows that it's me they've been coming to see
To forget about life for a while.

And the piano sounds like a carnival
And the microphone smells like a beer
And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
And say "Man what are you doing here?"

Sing us a song you're the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well we're all in the mood for a melody
And you've got us feeling all right.

Comments (24)


A beautiful and thoughtful post. I particularly like this bit:

"Contemporary man has intellect (the head) and appetite (the belly) but lacks proper training in the appreciation of the good and the beautiful (the chest). If that was true in Lewis's day it is, of course, true in spades in our own. And as Lewis points out, the process (recommended by Plato) by which young people are treated not as manipulable made things to be brainwashed but rather as young birds being taught to fly by older birds begins, crucially, with the training of the aesthetic faculty and the emotions."

Depsite going to a public high school, I was very lucky to have old fashioned English teachers who emphasized the classics of Western Civilization and helped cultivate in me a decent aesthetic faculty. Later in my late 20s, I was fortunate to pick up Maugham's "Of Human Bondage" which did a lot to lay the foundation in me for an appropriate appreciation of marriage and settling down (which I could only arrive at, like the hero of the novel, after appreciating how crazed I had become chasing the opposite). I fear (and this is an old conservative lament made 'popular' with Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind") for the future when I think about whether or not kids in American schools are properly getting the "training" they need. The good news is there are kids like your own who will receive this training -- perhaps someday they will lead a cultural revival thanks to your labors today. Keep up the good work!

Thank you, Jeff. We all work at it. I think it starts when they are very young, and it has so many aspects--negative as well as positive. The bombardment now with horrible stuff is very difficult to know how to deal with, but I think they will remember what they have encountered at home at the outset.

Excellent post, Lydia. I shall very possibly send my Intro to Lit students to it . . .

I'd be honored, Beth.

If they don't know "Piano Man," we'll get 'em a link. :-) It's not complete without the music, of course.

Probably they don't!

Lydia, I agree with your whole post. Although I think there is more poetry in

Yes they're sharing a drink they call loneliness But it's better than drinking alone.

than in any page of Eliot that I have read. That may be a matter of taste.

One of the reasons we encourage piano and singing with my kids is to develop that aesthetic sense deeply in a manner that can be done and re-done as an adult, lifelong, with music that is eternal, or at least not a passing fad. (I encourage my kids to sing by NOT singing myself - I am one of those horrible people who cannot hold a tune for "happy birthday.")

But one of the semi-humorous results of that is that sometimes people completely mistake our position in various situations: one priest as much as accused me of being an isolationist when I would not willingly consent to sending our kids to a large so-called "retreat" of which a major component was "christian rock". As if such music must perforce be a bedrock model of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Apparently he could not even conceive of being repulsed by the cludgey form of the art, regardless of the basic truth of the lyrics. Does this suggest that he no longer even knew where his chest used to exist?

There y'go, Tony: Some people will ask me why I included Billy Joel. And others wonder why I included Eliot. :-)

I think what you say about forgetting their chests is interestingly exemplified across the Christian political spectrum. I've been hearing about some Christian contemporary "artist" who is, for example, writing pro-homosexual-agenda "music"--what sounds like plain, left-wing propaganda masquerading as Christian art! So it's interesting that while some snobbish sorts would have us associate an artistic tin ear and a desire for edification without regard to artistic merit with old-fashioned folks, conservatives, etc., it's actually very visible on the left as well.

The only thing I would add to this excellent discussion, Lydia, is that we not lose sight of the more lighthearted or comic aspects of art, even great art. Talk of "art for art's sake" can get pretty dour and solemn at a times. Let's remember what Chesterton said, that funny is emphatically not the opposite of serious.

I agree, Paul. That's one of many reasons that I sort of deprecate the "art for art's sake" phrase. In fact, bluntly, I don't like it. And I think it's not infrequently been associated with bad art. Artists themselves need to be careful not to take themselves too seriously. When Lewis was an undergraduate (and not even a Christian) he grumbled in a letter about being surrounded by "damned dilettantes talking le art pour le art." He and several of his friends even planned a spoof/hoax set of modern poems in the early Eliot style, which Lewis referred to as the "sick of everything school of poetry." They were going to submit it to Eliot's publishing house and then if it was accepted reveal that it was a hoax. The project, like most such projects, died a natural death before going to its end. But I think it was a healthy impulse. Lewis's own artistic abilities are often underrated and I think are most evident in his ability to portray goodness, most especially in the Narnia books and also in _The Great Divorce_ as well as in _Till We Have Faces_. As Eliot was the poet of the way of negation, Lewis as a writer and in his fiction was always the advocate of the way of affirmation. And in one of the very passages where he disagrees with Eliot (accusing Eliot of trying to make people be too penitential and of disliking Milton partly for that reason), Lewis said, "As long as we live in merry middle earth, it is necessary to have middle things."

I'm a first-time commenter, but a long-time occasional reader.

What I take issue with is this part:

"Contemporary man has intellect (the head) and appetite (the belly) but lacks proper training in the appreciation of the good and the beautiful (the chest). If that was true in Lewis's day it is, of course, true in spades in our own. And as Lewis points out, the process (recommended by Plato) by which young people are treated not as manipulable made things to be brainwashed but rather as young birds being taught to fly by older birds begins, crucially, with the training of the aesthetic faculty and the emotions."

The syntax in the last sentence is a bit odd, but I take it that Plato is here alleged to have recommended brainwashing manipulable young people. Apart from the question of whether or not Plato really did recommend things like this (look at C.D.C. Reeve's "Philosopher-Kings" for an argument that he does not), it's only fair to point out how the brunt of Lewis' own ideas in the paragraph are taken from, well, Plato. First, there's the language about "the good" and "the beautiful." But also and less obviously, the association of the different faculties with heart, chest, and gut is lifted straight out of Plato's Timaeus (69d-70e). And the process Lewis does recommend at the end (though not the metaphor of the birds, in any case) sounds a lot like the famous "ascent to virtue" passage in the Symposium. In any case, not to be a pedant, but it bothers me when philosophers beat up on Plato when convenient but then don't give credit where credit is due. (If this isn't what Lewis is doing then you can gently correct me.)

Fantastic post! I'm going to link to it in a discussion I've been having over whether secular music with lyrics concerning conduct inappropriate for Christians should be avoided entirely by Christians. My point has been that songs with legitimate artistic merit reflect the true, and even if they don't actively preach against it, unless they lie (or present the subject artificially, which is a kind of artistic deception) or go for the gut with a sensory appeal, then there's nothing in principle wrong with them. Obviously, if you as an individual are partial to temptation or if it becomes a real distraction from other things, then you should worry about it, but there's nothing in the nature of the thing itself to make it immoral.

The syntax in the last sentence is a bit odd, but I take it that Plato is here alleged to have recommended brainwashing manipulable young people.

I think the odd syntax has thrown you. I believe she is saying that Lewis echoes Plato in saying that the process of training people rather than brainwashing them begins with aesthetics. It's one of those classic grammatical ambiguities ("which phrase is modified?") that makes interpretation as much fun as it is. ;-)

Tim--I apologize for the convoluted sentence. Jonathan has correctly understood me. What Lewis says is that Plato recommends first training the artistic sensibilities rather than the intellect, and Lewis agrees that this is the correct order of things and is not brainwashing but rather proper nurture of the young.

Jonathan--In the abstract, I certainly agree with you about the songs. In the concrete, it would depend upon about a gazillion things--for example, to what extent and how effectively does the song positively recommend or even glorify the wrong conduct?

Even if a work teaches falsehood, it can be used effectively for teaching if it will not simply corrupt the reader/hearer. Example: I'm a bit of a fan of Ellis Peters' Cadfael novels. They aren't all equal in artistic merit (though Peters could write one heck of a powerful novel when she wanted to); I think the last, _Brother Cadfael's Penance_ is probably the best. One of the things she does there is to promulgate the dangerously incorrect view that you can do what is wrong as long as you are willing to "pay for it." This is actually a surprisingly common modern error. I was discussing it with my daughter the other day and would be happy for her to read the book (though she hasn't yet). I used for contrast a fascinating and little-known novel by, of all people, Agatha Christie, writing under a pseudonym. The book is _The Burden_. I highly recommend it, so I won't do a plot spoiler, but she very neatly and rather profoundly corrects the error that you can do what is wrong and then be willing to pay for it. The short version of the answer is that someone else always ends up paying. I would not hesitate to use _Brother Cadfael's Penance_ in a class simply because of that ethical error. I'd probably teach it along with _The Burden_ to point the contrast.

I do think that when a work actively teaches what is false that is an _aesthetic_ fault.

In the concrete, it would depend upon about a gazillion things--for example, to what extent and how effectively does the song positively recommend or even glorify the wrong conduct?

Yep. The objective likelihood that others would be enticed to bad conduct or that one would be perceived as endorsing bad conduct must certainly be part of the consideration in the individual case. In my case, I was only resisting the assertion that "the song lyrically describes conduct that God hates without apparent condemnation" is an adequate basis for saying that a song is unfit for Christian listeners. That would seem to cut off a whole lot of work that is legitimate from an artistic perspective. Granted, I was going as far to defend Jimmy Buffett's "Why Don't We Get Drunk," so maybe I went over the edge entirely. But, darn it, ribald humor takes skill, too! :-)

If you want to pull your horns in and advocate something less hard to defend, how about Brad Paisley's "I'm Gonna Miss Her"--about a guy who goes fishing despite the fact that his wife has threatened to leave him if he goes fishing. Very cute song.

I like that one too. There's even a nice performance art aspect to that one, namely, the arch in my wife's eyebrow when I start singing the chorus.

And since there are evidently Billy Joel fans here, how about "Only the Good Die Young?"

Thanks Jonathan Prejean and Lydia for pointing out the right reading of the passage I mentioned. I think maybe it was not the syntax after all and I just read it too quickly the first time--combine that with my tendency to be defensive about Plato (the result of hearing too many overly literal interpretations of the Republic) and you get my hasty comment above.

Another good example, Shannon! Being Catholic, I can't have any sympathy for the perspective from which the lyrics are written; obviously, I don't want "Virginia" (not exactly subtle!) to succumb to temptation. But as an artistic image, I think it's perfectly evocative of the actual situation.

Again, I believe that the actual advocacy of falsehood is an artistic flaw. I do not say, and did not mean to imply in the main post, that "holding up the moment" simply means amorally showing some situation. It's obvious that "Only the Good Die Young" is _advocating_ a set of rather tired ideas to the effect that Christian morals are stifling, that youthful sex is better than chastity, etc. I would certainly say that this is an artistic flaw in the song. Simply to say, "Well, that's probably what some young man would say in trying to seduce a girl" doesn't get a whole lot more from me than a shrug. The aggressive advocacy of falsehood is an artistic problem. It doesn't become "artistically true" just by being an accurate picture of a probably successful seduction. The artist is evoking an emotional response of interest, excitement, and approval towards promiscuous sex and of dismissiveness and disdain towards Christian ethical teaching, not to mention confirmation dresses and gold crosses. These responses are not true to things as they are.

By the way, I would say something similar of Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," which if we can compare genres so different (hard to do) may well be as good qua lyric poem as "Only the Good Die Young" is qua song. And the brevity of Marvell's poem gives it the advantage of being able to be interpreted in a wider variety of ways (one can say that _perhaps_ the lover is proposing marriage, though probably not), and it does not deliberately mock Christianity, either.

Sorry if this is disappointing to you, Jonathan. Perhaps I end up sounding like more of a prude than the main post would have led you to expect.

On the other hand, I'm not going to say, "No Christian should ever so much as hear 'Only the Good Die Young' or read 'To His Coy Mistress'." To my mind that would obviously be going way overboard. I would advocate, however, a Christian's not performing either.

There's actually even more to say: Marvell's poem is a good deal cleverer than Joel's lyrics, and that among other things because Marvell is not pushing a heavy-handed agenda in the way that Joel's lyrics are. I'll put "The grave's a fine and quiet place,/ but none I think do there embrace" above "They built you a temple and locked you away/Aw, but they never told you the price that you pay/ For things that you might have done" any day. Relatedly, the carpe diem short lyric poem was a known "set piece" in Marvell's time, and there is partly for this reason a much greater distance between poet and speaker in the Marvell poem than in the Joel song.

I think that a lot of times the interpretation of works of art according to which they aren't really saying anything is falsifying to the work. To say that the opinions in "Only the Good Die Young" about Christianity, etc., aren't really being advocated is, I think, an incorrect interpretation, and I would not encourage young people learning to interpret art to try in that way always to assume a vast difference between speaker and artist so as to excuse the artist from the charge of advocating faulty morals, theology, etc. Often, the obvious interpretation is the correct one, and it becomes strained to say, "Oh, this is just a portrayal of what someone might say." Sometimes, as in the Marvell case, one can give good reasons of genre and surrounding artistic context for making such an argument, but absent those, I think one should take things pretty much as they appear on their face.

Sorry if this is disappointing to you, Jonathan. Perhaps I end up sounding like more of a prude than the main post would have led you to expect.

Not at all; I actually agree with the sentiment that the aesthetic quality is made inferior by the flaw. As an attempt at a kind of "reverse-preaching," it necessarily fails. Where I think we might differ is what that failure entails. There's certainly an argument that a half-truth is merely a kind of lie, but I think the half-truth has to be used in a way that is actually intended to mislead. Where there's an artistic failure, it may well be that the artist himself is aiming in the wrong place, so that while it's true so far as it goes, it misses the mark. He captured what he was trying to capture, but his net was cast too narrowly to encompass the big picture.

There are also those lines, like "sooner or later, it comes down to fate" and "I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints" that are (IMHO) about the desperate anguish that this quest for the wrong brand of companionship is intended to soothe, and there's certainly something a bit obsessive, particularly in the insistent repetition, that hints at something darker. I think Billy's tipped his hand, because I don't think you write lines like that without meaning to say something. (Or maybe he just ran out of rhymes, and I'm completely overthinking this.) Is it out of balance? Absolutely! That's a flaw. But there's some sense in which he got it completely right, not just in what the guy subjectively believed but in the real, underlying emotion beneath it. Like I said, maybe I'm reading more into it than is there, but I don't think the speaker here is being reduced to a caricature here. Maybe Mr. Joel is saying more than he knows, which can make for good art as well.

Having previously read Prof. Feser's Steely Dan post, I wonder what he'd think of "Hey Nineteen."

Don't forget this famous rendition of a Cohen song which starts with the story of King David and Bathsheba and closes with a resentful, despairing view of love.


I'll probably be writing a piece for the Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society on George Rostrevor's Hamilton's book The Tell-Tale Article. This book, which was in the Lewis library, begins by observing the unusual frequency in modern (Modernist!) verse of "the." He teases out the implications and, in so doing, helps me to see one of the probable reasons for Lewis's dislike of Eliot's poetry as poetry (also Auden's).

Hamilton was a friend of Owen Barfield and the fantasist E. R. Eddison (indeed, he helped to get The Mezentian Gate into print). A poet whom Lewis admired very much, Ruth Pitter, has written of her deep appreciation of The Tell-Tale Article.

It's worth tracking down.

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