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Great artists are so frequently assholes that I have learned to compartmentalize. Ok, so Lord Byron was loathsome in his relations with women; doesn't stop me from admiring his work unstintingly.

Whether such compartmentalization is difficult to maintain or distasteful - probably a bit of both - it's not a popular approach.  People prefer judgments.  There's a pleasing equanimity in being able to say, for example, that because Picasso hated women, Cubism amounted to a visual violence against women - cutting up the planes of their faces and bodies and rearranging them - and that our assessment of Picasso's achievement should be accordingly tempered.  In a world where bad produces bad, we find stability.

Such a world is not the one in which we find ourselves. 

As a result, many people require a certain amount of creative narrative to rationalize situations in which bad produces good.  Maurice Malingue is one such person.

Malingue was the editor of Paul Gaugin's letters to Mette Gad, his wife, and others.  Working in the middle of the last century, Malingue attempted to reconcile aspects of Gauguin's life that were in some tension: on the one hand, he was a genius painter; on the other hand, he was an asshole. 

The facts supporting Paul Gaugin's categorization as an "asshole" are as follows:  After fathering five children, he quit his job, lived apart from his family and contributed little to his family's support or upkeep.  He was openly unfaithful to his wife.  He did not return home either when his favorite daughter, Aline, or his favorite son, Clovis, died, both in their early twenties.  That Gauguin had syphilis, apparently of the variety that leads to madness, is something of a mitigating factor, though he seems to have contracted it after he set himself on the path of abandoning his family.

What Malingue made of these facts is laugh-out-loud funny to today's reader, who is at least 150 years too removed from the Romantics to be reflexively sympathetic to Gauguin's choices.  Malingue has no such scruples.  With a zeal unknown to generation acclimated to a divorce rate of roughly 50%, Malingue - in the Preface to Letters to his Wife and Friends - attacks Gauguin's wife, Mette Gad, and condemns her for expecting Gauguin to support his family:

[Gauguin's] letters constitute the most . . . overwhelming indictments in the trial of Mette Gauguin, who can now be charged with incomprehension of the artist, indifference towards the man, and with having as a wife failed the father of her five children.
. . . .
Mette, in contrast with wives of innumerable artists, found it difficult to contemplate poverty for herself and her children.
. . . .
It is probable that Mette, the daughter of an official, brought up with some degree of mental freedom but in the observance of somewhat rigid moral principles, never could understand how a father of five children could throw up a comfortable position without bothering what was to become of his family. 
Of Gauguin's abandonment of his children, Malingue remarks:

[Gauguin] is a father who suffered keenly in living apart from his children.  Obviously, he could have had them with him if he wanted to.  He renounced his paternal duties deliberately, because constrained to do so by the demands of his art.  The presence of his children would have imposed on him paternal obligations.
As for Gauguin's infidelity, Malingue takes a (dare I suggest typically French?) brazen line:

[Gauguin] plunged into casual amours at Pont-Aven, set up house in Paris with a Javanese, and in Tahiti bedevilled hussies invaded his bed every night.
These "bedevilled hussies" were 14 year-old girls who Gauguin took as his live-in companions.  (In Mario Vargas Llosa's telling - in This Way to Paradise - far from finding his bed "invaded" every night, the aging, broke and syphilitic Gauguin, whose legs were covered with sores, and who lacked money necessary to feed even himself, struggled to find girls willing to live with him.)

Of course, Malingue is full of shit.  Mette might not have been a creative woman, but she was in no way wrong (or even "rigid" in her morals) to expect financial support from her husband and the father of her many children.  Caring for five children might be inconvenient for Paul Gauguin, but the existence of children - not their presence or absence - imposes parental obligations; abandoning one's children geographically does not absolve a parent of responsibilities, however much one's time needs to be devoted to art.  As for adulterous husbands, at a minimum one can demand that they be discrete and steer clear of minors.

In fairness to Malingue, he lived in a different era, when he was not alone in being relatively receptive to justifying the bad acts of a genius, done in the name of his art.  All the same, Malingue's thinking - in any age - is slavish and lazy, the automatic "yes" of a dazzled fan.

Today, the trend is towards the opposite error, of dismissing Gauguin's mastery because he was an adulterous pedophile and a deadbeat dad.  But such reasoning would be equally slavish (to PC standards) and lazy.

We live in a world in which good can come from bad.  In which - Malingue is almost certainly right - Gauguin could desperately miss his children, and yet do nothing to be with them or help them.  In which Gauguin's actions can be wrong and sick, and still the general public is much the better for them.

The accurate narrative is the critical and rigorous one, the one that describes the world in its ambiguity, and that captures and conjures what beauty there is in such a world as ours.  It's not an easy narrative to tell or to absorb, not a narrative that likely to gain popular currency.  And yet it's the narrative in Gauguin's painting; it's the reason, in fact, that Gauguin is great.

(Image of Paul Gauguin's Self-portrait with the Yellow Christ from the National Gallery of Australia website)

This situation is critical

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Daumier_The_Critics.jpgThis week's New York Times Book Review ran an multi-piece special on "Why Criticism Matters," and I, for one, was delighted, despite the fact that the articles barely managed to say anything interesting. 

Two of the critics - Katie Roiphe and Sam Anderson - agree that critics have to write better than dimwit attention-mongers who leave opinions on websites, which - as an insight - ranks with the observation that a normal foot has five toes.  A third critic, Adam Kirsch, insists that "a serious critic is one who says something true about life and the world," which is the kind of subjective pseudo-deep remark that I'd expect from Khalil Gibran.  A pastiche piece excerpting quotes from great critics of the past includes some nuggets like Randall Jarrell's remark that "[c]riticism demands of the critic a terrible nakedness," and Oscar Wilde's invocation of "Beauty."

All of which made me giggle.  The reason criticism twists so uncomfortably between its insecure need to justify itself and its inability to offer that justification in anything like persuasive terms is because critics seem unwilling to name their true "value added": they know more.  They've read more of the books by the author under review than you, and especially I, have; they've had more discussions, thought more deeply, written more about the topic, seen more, done more and experienced more of relevance to the issue than you and I have.  Their opinion is an elite, expert opinion, and that's why it's useful.

It's also why the critics don't want to mention it.  Aside from the social faux pas inherent in establishing and brandishing such qualifications, elites and experts aren't having such a grand time of it in today's culture.  Glen Beck recently cast elites as the bad guys in his thriller, The Overton Window (a fact I myself wouldn't know if I didn't read a review of it in an elitist rag like The New York Review of Books). 

In addition to such bashing, elites have suffered a real diminution in power.  In the one passage of surpassing interest in the Book Review, Adam Kirsch made this point:

Like everyone, I wonder whether a general audience, made up of what Virginia Woolf called "common readers," still exists.  If it does, the readership of The New York Times Book Review is probably it.  But measured against the audience for a new movie or video game, or against the population as a whole, even the Book Review reaches only a niche audience.  Perhaps the only difference between our situation and Arnold's is that in Victorian England, the niche that cared about literature also happened to constitute the ruling class, while in democratic, mass-media America, the two barely overlap.
Critics used to pass judgment on the cultural representations of political power; now they're talking about artifacts of just another interest group.  The demotion is embarrassing.

Nonetheless, people still listen to experts and elites.  Knowing more still counts for much.  People may be stupid, but even stupid people know the difference between an informed opinion and an emotional one.  They may prefer one or the other on a given day, or depending on presentation - and America's is not a culture that appreciates a condescending, informed opinion - but people recognize a need for knowledge in their lives.

The critics offering highfalutin, vague and indirect explanations are working against themselves.  No one who talks eloquently around the elephant in the room can be deemed an authority.  Critics who talk honestly and openly about what distinguishes their contributions, and who do so in an accessible way, will find not only do they command authority, but that they've earned it.   
(Image of Honoré Daumier painting, "The Critics," from Artnet)

Hasn't the governess suffered enough?

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Governess_Turn_of_the_Screw.jpgIn 1934, Edmund Wilson, in an essay called "The Ambiguity of Henry James," argued that governess was crazy, and that the ghosts were hallucinations resulting from her sexually-repressed psyche.  Since then, volumes of critical argument debating the point have amassed.  (So much so, in fact, that Edward J. Parkinson, Ph.D., compiled an overview of the critcism for his dissertation.)

I am not a scholar of this, or any other, issue, and I haven't done anything more than skim the arguments in the course of Internet surfing.  But nothing I've glimpsed has made me want to read more deeply because the arguments seem so implausible.

The Turn of the Screw is a multiple frame story: the unnamed and unidentified narrator tells us what Douglas said, and Douglas in turn reads from a manuscript written by the governess.  The narrator gives no indication of being unreliable, and Douglas exists on the page as serious and discreet. 

The questions about narrative credibility only begin when the governess' narrative voice takes over the story.  The governess, after all, is seeing ghosts - ghosts whose presence are not confirmed by another witness; additionally, the governess liberally leaps to wild conclusions (The ghost was looking for little Miles!  The children see the ghosts!  The ghosts want to possess the children!) that are supported by no tangible evidence.

Nonetheless, Douglas attests to the governess' credibility.  He tells us, at the beginning of the book, that the governess had been his sister's governess, that he'd found her

the most agreeable woman [he'd] ever known in her position. . . . [S]he struck me as awfully clever and nice.  Oh yes; don't grin: I liked her extremely and am glad to this day to think she liked me, too. 

(p. 3.)  He also reveals in his preamble to the governess' manuscript that the governess never saw her employer again after her initial interviews for the job.  (p. 7.)

By the end of the book, (spoiler alert!) with little Miles' heart abruptly stopped, the reader can easily forget Douglas' testimony from the beginning of the story.  According to Douglas, after this governess had a charge die on her watch, she nonetheless was able to continue working in her profession.  She was not shunned by prospective employers, which suggests strongly that her employer, Miles' uncle, gave her a good recommendation. 

More astonishingly, her employer didn't see the governess after the death of his nephew.  This fact is all the more shocking because, before Miles' death, the governess dispatched Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, with Flora, Mile's sister, to take refuge at the uncle's flat in London.  With a niece crowding his bachelor lodgings because, in the throes of illness, she appeared possessed by the ghost of her former governess, and with a nephew dead in the arms of the current governess back in the country house in Essex, the uncle still doesn't meet with the governess - not to investigate, not to commiserate, not to mourn, not to condemn.

Granted, the employer admittedly didn't like the fuss and bother of caretaking children, but once Flora is at his London abode, and Miles needs to be buried, he must engage - just as he had to divert himself from his bachelor's schedule to hire another governess after the first governess, Miss Jessel, died.  Why he would engage without seeing the current governess is odd. 

I picture the employer sending money and a glowing recommendation through his solicitor, and then prodding her on her way.  Or possibly the solicitor made quiet inquiries to place her elsewhere.  But in all events, Miles' death seems to have prompted a distasteful cover-up - and one that bespeaks both a sense of guilt on the part of the uncle and a sense of vindication for the governess.  In his smoothing over of the event, the uncle tacitly acknowledges that he shouldn't have left the governess alone and without recourse to his advice.  Such a concession seems exceedingly unlikely in the event of wrongdoing (even insanity-induced wrongdoing) by the governess.

No other option accords with Douglas' testimony.  If the governess had been subject to state action because of Miles' death - whether criminal investigation, imprisonment, commitment to an insane asylum, or civil suit - she would not have been able to continue her work as a governess with Douglas' sister.  Nor is it likely that her personality would have been so winning by the time she met Douglas.  Moreover, the uncle almost certainly would have seen the governess in the course of such state action, whether to provide testimony or otherwise.

To insist on the insanity of the governess in the face of Douglas' testimony is to question Douglas.  Some critics do.  For example, various theories suggest that Douglas is a "grown-up" Miles.  But I think that, by the time we're positing convoluted scenarios in which dead children resurface elsewhere in the story as grown adults with different names, we're out of the realm of interpreting Henry James and into the fresh, wide-open space of independent creation.   

In his Preface to The Turn of the Screw, James is forthright about leaving the ghosts vague:

What . . . had I given the sense of?  Of [the ghosts] being . . . capable . . . of everything - that is of exerting, in respect to the children, the very worst action small victims . . . might be conceived as subject to.  What would be then . . . this utmost conceivability? . . . There is for such a case no eligible absolute of the wrong; it remains relative to . . . the spectator's, the critic's, the reader's experience.  Only make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough . . . and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy . . . and horror will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.  Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications. 

(p. 8.) 

This Preface, combined with the testimony James gave Douglas to submit on the governess' behalf, elucidates James' intent.  He wrote a ghost story.  Whatever the governess' psychological profile, she is in the presence of ghosts.  James just thought the ghosts would be more effective if he left them highly undefined and let the readers' imaginations fill in the details.  Rather than offer "weak specifications," James wants the readers' imaginations to fire up. 

I hope I'm not out of line when I say, with all due respect to the Master, that I think he let himself off the hook of detailing the "weak specifications" a little too soon.  Without a doubt he fired up readers' imaginations.  But, as I detailed in a prior post, precisely because the horror of the story isn't palpable, because his "general vision of evil" wasn't "intense enough" to weather the changing consciousnesses of readers in ever-more-modern societies, the absence of "weak specficiations" has enabled readers' imagations to wander wildly from the topic of the evil in which the ghosts were engaged.  Ghosts?  Modern readers dismiss ghosts and look for alternative explanations, Freudian sub-texts, and twisted conspiracies.

Poor governess: the ordeal to which the author subjected her is nothing compared to her eternal afterlife on the prongs of the critics' pitchforks.

(Image of Michelle Dockery playing the governess in a BBC television version of The Turn of the Screw from The Mirror)

Words fail

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The New York Review of Books is a superb publication.  I therefore cannot describe the way it has glossed over Walter J. Ong as anything but shocking. 

Ong posits that changes in human society and development is explained by the differences in human consciousness in oral and literate cultures.  Current neuroscientific work is finding support of Ong's theory.

Ong may turn out to be the great and definitive thinker of the second half of the twentieth century, the person who laid the foundation for our understanding of our own consciousness in a technologized (and technologizing) world.  And yet The New York Review of Books contains merely two reviews of his substantial body of writing, the most recent dating from 1968.

The 1968 review, of Ong's The Presence of the Word, is by Frank Kermode, a writer I admire; yet Kermode doesn't strike me in this review as being at his best.  (His gratuitous rudeness - "If one calls the style of [Ong's essays] highly typographic, it is only a way of saying that they have no style at all" - seems out of place, as well as out of character.)

The crux of Kermode's critique is that Ong's study of the impact of the transition from orality to literacy on humans and their societies sets forth a defective theory of history.  In Kermode's analysis, Ong's theory fails for two reasons: (1) the evidence supporting the Ong's theory equally supports other theories, and (2) Ong organizes his evidence to promote a Catholic agenda.

Neither objection seems terribly cogent.  Humans and their history are incredibly complicated, and the ambiguity of evidence supporting theories of human history is commonplace: we should neither be surprised, nor dismissive, when evidence can support multiple theories.  

Moreover, The Presence of the Word (which I have not read) collects adaptations of talks Ong gave as part of the Terry Lectures, the purpose of which is "that the Christian spirit may be natured [sic] in the fullest light of the world's knowledge."  That Ong's talks in this context have a theological agenda is therefore no surprise.

Ong's most important well-known (and probably most important) work, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, cannot be tarred with this brush.  The book lays bare Ong's passion for understanding based on truth.  The accusation of subordinating his scholarship to a missionary agenda is offensive - and unsupported: Kermode's claim that [get exact quote] "Ong values orality because it is holy" fades in the face of Ong's numerous assertions in Orality and Literacy that

without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials . . . . Literacy is absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself.
(p. 14-15.)  Whether Ong fundamentally revised his theories since The Presence of the Word, or whether Kermode simply misconstrues Ong, I cannot say; but that The New York Review hasn't reviewed Orality and Literacy (or any of Ong's prodigious output since 1968) is a lapse.

In our current globalized, post-colonial environment, we reject notions of historical change that rely on racial (and increasingly, religious) superiority.  The reason for that rejection is not ideology: we believe it's true.  Ong - like Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel - offers us a theory of human social development that is race (and religion) neutral - literacy (not race or religion) is the provocateur.  (For Jared Diamond, geography is the culprit.)  No publication purporting to offer an analysis of our times can fail to engage Ong in some capacity.  To ignore Ong is to court irrelevancy.

(Image of Fr. Walter J. Ong from the St. Louis University Walter J. Ong Archives website)

Give back the poems

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Paul_Noth_Shakespeare_cartoon.pngEach fresh assertion that so-and-so-other-than-Shakespeare wrote the plays (and sonnets) provokes mild eye rolling from me.  I can't think of a bigger waste of time than pondering that question, much less writing a magazine article or - heavens! - a book on the subject.  James Shapiro and Michael Posner obviously disagree with me, the latter actually arguing that a Jewish woman, Amelia Bassano Lanier, wrote Shakespeare's works (I hardly know whether to kvell or cry at that theory).

If one is so maddeningly insistent on uncovering literary fraud, however, Walt Whitman strikes me as a vastly superior target to Shakespeare.  As Christopher Benfey writes in his recent piece in The New York Review of Books, "Well into his thirties, Whitman was a non-poet in every way, with no mark of special talent or temperament."

Benfey makes this comment in the course of reviewing two books, Three American Poets: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville, by William C. Spengemann, and On Whitman, by C.K. Williams, both of which argue strenuously that Leaves of Grass sprang as unexpectedly and unbelievably from Whitman's head as Athena did from Zeus's.

Here's Spengemann:

[N]o amount of information regarding such matters [as upbringing, early experiences, habits, sexual inclination, and the like] will account for the unforegrounded appearance of Leaves in 1855, the form those poems take, or the appeal they have held for poets and readers of other times, other places.
(second alteration in original).  Williams is even more baroque:

It's as though [Whitman's] actual physical brain went through some incredible mutation, as though - a little science fiction, why not? - aliens had transported him up to their spaceship and put him down again with a new mind, a new poetry aparatus.  It is really that crazy.
My first thought on reading these perspectives was, Occam's razor: the simplest explanation is usually correct: and the simplest explanation is not that Walt Whitman's brain was replaced by aliens, but that somebody else wrote the poems.

My suspicions grew as Benfey quoted from Williams's observations about the waning of Whitman's talent.  Shortly after Whitman published his unprecedented Leaves of Grass, he "lost the connection to his music," Williams claims, a condition that lead Whitman to ever-more-desperate attempts at "sounding like himself" in his later poetry.  

Sounding like himself?  Isn't this a case for finding out who really wrote Leaves of Grass?  More probable by far is the likelihood that Whitman had a falling out with the true author of Leaves and no longer had access to poems he could pass off as his own . . . right?  Whitman himself apparently endorsed the theory that Shakespeare didn't write the works attributed to him - an attempt by Whitman to distract attention from his own literary plagiarism, no?  And what about the fact that Whitman claims to have fathered six children without ever getting married?  Shouldn't Whitman scholars be devoting more effort to researching whether one of Whitman's loved-and-left baby mamas was actually the author of Leaves of Grass?  One doesn't have to troll very far through nineteenth century verse to find a weirdo woman poet with a mysterious relationship to an unidentified "master," a poetess who had withdrawn from the world for unexplained reasons (the trauma of out-of-wedlock birth perhaps): I speak, of course, of Emily Dickinson.

When the book arguing that Leaves of Grass is actually the work of Emily Dickinson, and that the cause of her seclusion was her seduction and abandonment by feckless Walter Whitman, I promise I won't roll my eyes.  I expect a cut of the royalties.

(Cartoon punchline is "In fact, the work's been so good that we question whether it's Will's own"; from The New Yorker, June 14 and 21, 2010 issue)

A rebuttal to Kihika

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Captured_Mau_Mau_fighters.jpgIn Ngugi wa Thiongo's A Grain of Wheat, Kihika, a Mau Mau rebel leader, expresses some brutal opinions about the way preceding generations dealt with imperialism:

I despise the weak.  Let them be trampled to death, I spit on the weakness of our fathers.  Their memory gives me no pride.  And even today, tomorrow, the weak and those with feeble hearts shall be wiped from the earth.  The strong shall rule.  Our fathers had no reason to be weak.  The weak need not remain weak.  Why?  Because people united in faith are stronger than the bomb.  They shall not tremble or run away before the sword.  Then instead the enemy shall flee.
(p. 180.)  

While wa Thiongo doesn't outright endorse Kihika's view of history, he doesn't refute it, either.  But - though Kihika's unyielding condemnation and lack of interest in nuance might be appropriate (and is probably necessary) for a guerrilla fighter - history is more complicated, more interesting and kinder to Kihika's forebears than Kihika allows.

As an overall descriptive of the black African response to British imperialism, "weak" is an inadequate adjective.  "Measured," "thoughtful," "multi-faceted," "practical" or "wise" are all more accurate.  A close reading of the historical record reveals, decade by decade, a slowly-evolving, pragmatic African response to the British colonial presence.  Here is a summary:
  • From 1895 (when the British officially arrived) through 1914, the colonists came with - in addition to a breathtaking sense of superiority and the ideology of Pax Britannica - some things the Africans wanted and/or adopted: Jesus, medicines, new ways of living and - importantly - enough power to banish the twin menaces of the Masai and the Swahili slave traders.  Some Africans did rebel and resist the British, and the British mounted "punitive" military expeditions against those tribes; but Africans also cooperated with the British, and some African leaders allowed themselves to be co-opted into service of the imperial cause. 
  • From 1914 through 1922, Africans adjusted their views of the British.  The whites came to be revealed as fallible humans - and hypocrites: not super-human bringers-of-peace and banishers-of-slavery-and-tribal-warfare, but self-interested farmers who warred among themselves and forced the Africans into the white fight.  Criticism of British government policies began to be voiced.  Africans protested against "alienation" of African lands and reassignment of such property to whites.  Africans additionally began to question to white missionaries' interpretations of Christianity, where such interpretations condemned traditional African practices.
  • From 1922 through 1939, African opinion condemning colonial abuses coalesced, although little agreement could be reached about how to address such abuses.  The Kikuyu, the largest tribe, split internally on the issue of how to engage the British.  Few were willing to allow white missionaries to continue to "represent" black interests, but advocates for slow-going diplomacy found opponents in favor of more radical measures designed to bring faster results.
  • From 1939-1952, Africans again adjusted their views of British rule, this time in light of WWII and India's triumphant achievement of independence.  The Africans saw that the British could be defeated.  The condemnation of colonial abuses hardened into a rejection of the imperial presence altogether.  Jomo Kenyatta emerged as a leader who could shepherd Kenyans into independent nationhood.
  • From 1952-1963, the Emergency pitched black Africans (and the Kikuyu especially) into a guerrilla war for independence.  British atrocities during this period confirmed the worst suspicions about the white man being more devil than human and promoted a dichotomy of black-African-good/white-Colonist-bad that was to influence subsequent thinking about the colonial era.  Nonetheless, not all blacks resisted the British (e.g., the spear-carrying soldiers depicted in the accompanying photograph), and the British had some African supporters.
As this overview suggests, the black African response to imperialism in the time leading to the years covered by A Grain of Wheat was not at all passive or submissive, but complex, sophisticated and characterized by a reluctance for reflexive, knee-jerk behavior.  In its diplomacy, the response asserted that Kenyans were a people of a nation dealing as equals with another nation.  In its entirety, the response was one about which Kenyans, including Kihika, could justifiably feel pride, if reductive, backwards-glancing concerns about emasculation and, to use Kihika's word, "weakness," didn't force a less positive interpretation.

For all its admirable undermining of reductive ideologies (explored in this post), A Grain of Wheat could have and should have done more to depict the variegated reality of Kenyan history and to honor the individual men and women whose forbearance, patience and negotiations skills gave the Mau Mau violence its claim to justice - and who made Kihika a freedom fighter, rather than a thug.

(Image of black African soldiers [carrying spears] escorting captured Mau Mau fighters from The Daily Mail)

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About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Critical thinking category.

Courage as indispensible is the previous category.

Dignity is the next category.



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