Lecture 3: Lucretia and the Politics of Sexual Violence

Earlier this evening Professor Dame Mary Beard gave her third of six Gifford lecturesThe video of Beard’s lecture is embedded below (followed by a short summary) for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Jo Thor will offer her initial reflections on the lecture. Jo is currently a final year PhD candidate at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Beard’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

In this third lecture Professor Dame Mary Beard focused on the “various forms of sexual violence in the mythical history of ancient Rome” that were an integral part of its development. As she said, “The bottom line here is that early Roman history is bound up with rape, that almost all Roman stories of the foundational moments of their city feature violence against women as the immediate cause.” As she further explained,

if you want to understand Roman culture, one of the first things you need to see is not simply that there is such a massive parade of sexual violence, but more than that, that every single major political revolution or turning point in early Roman history was integrally bound up with sexual violence: the foundation of the city, the first Roman marriage, the establishment of the democratic republic, and its re-establishment after the abuses of the commission of ten.

Although she mentioned a number of instances of rape that had significant impact on Roman history, she noted that she would focus the majority of her lecture on “the Rape of Lucretia” (as the lecture title suggests).

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Sandro Botticelli, ‘The Rape/Story of Lucretia’ (c 1500)

In doing so Beard quickly noted that she was not simply interested in these stories of sexual violence for what they can tell us about the Romans, but that she was equally interested “to think [on] how  and why they have been embraced, paraded and debated in Western culture ever since.” As examples of this continued interest with Lucretia throughout the centuries she mentioned St Augustine, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Machiavelli, Pushkin, Shakespeare, and more recently the French playwright Jean Giraudoux and the operatic engagement of Benjamin Britten and, further stating that “there’s literally hundreds more.” On a conceptual level, as Beard went on to explain, the importance of the story of Lucretia (particularly in the west) is illustrated by the fact that  “when we debate rape, when we debate issues of consent – and what counts as consent – we are still debating questions that were raised in the ancient world often by this story.” And it is at this point in her lecture that she turned to look at the story of Lucretia in more detail.

She focused on the version of Lucretia’s story told by Livy during the reign of the first emperor Augustus at the end of the first century BCE. The story speaks of Roman ‘officers’ away sieging a nearby city (including Sextus Tarquinius the king’s son and Lucretia’s husband Tarquinius Collatinus) who, while getting drunk one evening, are debating whose wife is better. In order to settle the dispute they decide to ride back to Rome to see what their wives are doing. When they get home they find that most of the women were enjoying themselves “doing much what the men were,” except Lucretia who was busy “spinning and weaving.” As such, Lucretia was seen to be the better wife and having won the debate Collatinus invited the men into his home at which point Sextus Tarquinius was overtaken by “the desire to take her sexually by force” because of her perceived beauty and purity. He departed that evening not having acted on those desires only to return a few nights later to force her to sleep with him. Lucretia then sends word to her husband of what happened and insists upon her innocence and “calls on them to avenge what will be her suicide” saying that “’I am not going to provide an example (or justification) for an unchaste woman to go on living.’” Lucretia then follows through with her word by plunging a dagger into herself. Then a friend of her father and husband Marcus Junius Brutus takes that dagger “and vows to depose the monarchy and drive the whole family of the king out of town.” Beard went on to point out that this Brutus is a “mythical ancestor” of the Brutus who was the leader of the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar, illustrating the “layered complexity of this myth and history.”

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Beard then moved on to mention various versions of this tale and some of the various themes that have been picked out of it, but she focused a majority of this portion of her lecture on issues of guilt and innocence that have arisen out of the story. As she stated, “now, most 21st century commentators would start with the idea that the only question of guilt surrounds Sextus Tarquinius, the rapist.” This she said has never been much disputed and as such has not been the most interesting area of focus. The more interesting debates concerning issues of guilt and innocence have been focused on Lucretia herself. If Lucretia was innocent, then why did she kill herself?

Speaking of St Augustine’s own wrestling with the story Beard stated that he reached “an impossible conundrum: if she was entirely innocent, why did she commit self-murder (an act that he judged much more harshly than we would)? If she was guilty of adultery, then why has she been so honored as a symbol of chastity?” She noted that nowadays we would likely link Lucretia’s suicide with her distress, trauma, and shock, but that this has not been the common view for most of history.

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Titian, “Tarquin and Lucretia/The Rape of Lucretia” (1571) (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

Some argued that Lucretia consented (such as William Vaughan). Others argued that she not only consented but took pleasure in the sexual encounter “and that is why she – and she alone – knew that she had to die.” Beard mentioned debates that arose in the 1980s from Titian’s painting of Lucretia on this point. As she noted, “one radical art historian read the counter narrative here, suggesting that Titian was showing a willing victim” but that “one equally radical female critic expressed amazement that he could possibly see in this anything other than ‘an unambiguous exhibition of force and defenselessness, of intimidation and fear, of violation of the woman’s privacy, integrity, selfhood and will?’” In turning to this recent discussion, her main aim was to point out “the longevity of these debates.”

Others, as Beard pointed out, focused on what they perceived as Lucretia’s concern for her own reputation. As Beard noted, “Augustine’s main answer to the question of why she chose to kill herself was because public shame was more important to her than true chastity,” and she noted that Livy’s telling of the story did hint at this possibility when he wrote of “Lucretia’s fear of the dishonor that would fall upon her.” Some pushed this line of argument even farther arguing that she was “a victim of the vanity of her own reputation” and/or that the issue of pride was of more importance here than was the issue of her guilt or innocence.

She mentioned that this last line of argument is often seen to be a predominantly Christian line of argumentation (i.e. one concerned with Christian guilt rather than Roman shame), but not entirely so. At this point in the lecture she turned to the poet Ovid. After briefly comparing Ovid’s description of the Rape of the Sabine Women to Livy’s de-eroticized depiction Beard turned to one line of Ovid’s telling of the story of the Rape of Lucretia:

succubuit famae victa puella metu

The line is located in the story “when Sextus Tarquinius has just made the threat that he will dishonor Lucretia by killing her together with the slave.” Ovid’s line is of particularly interest here because of the many possible nuances of translation. As she noted, “the straightforward way to translate this is ‘the girl, conquered by fear of bad reputation, gave in.’” Beard noted that “puella is also the standard Latin word for girlfriend or mistress, so we are already being asked to wonder about how far this is seduction, but there also is an even stronger sense than in Livy that Lucretia’s main concern was her reputation.” Furthermore since word order in Latin does not determine sense as it does in English and the fact that “famae can mean bad reputation, or good reputation or widespread reputation, even celebrity” we could come up with an equally legitimate translation of this line and read it as “the girl overcome by fear succumbed to/surrendered to celebrity.” In the Q&As after the lecture Beard challenged anyone to come up with a better English translation of this line that more adequately retained the ambiguities of the Latin.

As she began to conclude her lecture she more explicitly focused on how the story of Lucretia relates to our own time. As she claimed, “many of the standard templates we have for defining sexual violence, for excusing it, for giving alibis for it, for challenging women’s accounts and motivations, are rooted in classical antiquity and in all the debates that classical antiquity has sparked in the literature and painting of the millennia that followed.” She concluded that this fact “should prompt us to think how we might challenge some of the ways we have come to ‘think Lucretia” in our own day and age.

 

 

11 thoughts on “Lecture 3: Lucretia and the Politics of Sexual Violence

  1. Professor Dame Mary Beard’s Gifford lecture(s) eloquently shows how we are heirs of our past. The relevance of history is not limited to understanding our society but is also key for improving it. What seemed like a distant story from antiquity, by the end of the lecture became a commentary on the current situation of victims of sexual violence. The story of Lucretia transformed into a story of a woman who had been raped by a powerful man and whose death could not even protect from slurs and victim-blaming. How could it be any more relevant to our times?

    We have all heard of Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement, but we should not forget what is happening at our doorsteps. According to the Ministry of Justice, 2013, 85,000 women per year are raped in England and Wales and more than 400,000 are sexually assaulted. [1] Unfortunately, although not surprisingly, ‘28 per cent of women who are victims of the most serious sexual offences never tell anybody about it’, and ‘only around 15 per cent of women and girls who experience sexual violence ever report it to the police.’ [2]

    Women’s Voice
    There are many reasons for these high numbers of sexual offences and their victims (male or female) not speaking out. Conscious and unconscious efforts to silence and, if that does not work, discrediting survivors are some of the major problems. The third Gifford lecture showed how the stories of violence against women were narrated, amended, fantasised, interpreted and used by men as a tool to determine women’s bodily autonomy. This reminds me of a poignant quote from a nineteenth-century British sex worker, who criticised the contemporary legislation called the Contagious Diseases Acts. They were introduced to curb the spread of venereal diseases by arresting, testing and forcefully keeping in hospitals women only, ignoring that it takes, well, two to tango. She allegedly said:

    “It is men, men, only men, from the first to the last, that we have to do with! To please a man I did wrong at first, then I was flung about from man to man. Men police lay hands on us. By men we are examined, handled, doctored…. In the hospital it is a man again who makes prayers and reads the Bible for us. We are had up before magistrates who are men, and we never get out of the hands of men till we die!” [3]

    As Mary Beard points out in her ‘Women and Power: Manifesto’, Lucretia’s only voice or expression of agency is denouncing the rapist and announcing her suicide. [4] Virginia was denied even that. She was ‘saved’ by death that was chosen for her. We see here a grim picture where women are only pawns in the world of sexual and bodily politics.

    So far Lucretia’s story has been a story told by men for men. Even if these narrations are partly directed at women, they exist to tell them what values and behavioural norms they should adopt in order to meet the expectations of patriarchal society. This is what also happens in modern courts and police stations where it is often signalled to victims of rape, whether female or male, that they did not behave in a way that fit the expected pattern. This can be connected with the victim’s clothing or reaction to the sexual assault. Fortunately, male and female victims fight for the right to reclaim their stories. This is done, inter alia, through art. Professor Beard gave the example of Artemisia Gentileschi. She was a rape survivor who dealt with the topic in her paintings. Rape Crisis Scotland, for example, organises poetry workshops and recitals of survivors’ poems (I highly recommend these powerful events!). Most recently there is Bea Goodwin’s re-interpretation of the Opera “Rape of Lucretia” (2019). [5] She gives women more voice and visibility and provides us with new lenses trough which we can look at the story’s characters afresh.

    This lack of visibility and voice goes beyond sexual assault. The recent publication by Caroline Criado Perez “Invisible Women”, analysing how our world is designed for men, show how easy it is to miss this inequality and silence when the normative gender is male. The story of ‘husband/wife competitions’ in Lucretia’s story, the rape of the Sabines and Professor Beard’s analysis of them is an important reminder for us of how strongly the objectification of women is ingrained in our history and culture. In these stories, women are silenced and their needs, emotions, and rights are disregarded. They are trophies for men.

    Breaking silence is difficult, because it exposes problems within our society and institutions about which we would rather stay oblivious. Fortunately, there are positive changes happening. Those members of the Gifford Lectures’ audience working in academia will be aware of the increasingly visible problem of sexual harassment at universities. Professor Graham Towl’s recent article for The Guardian, discusses how universities deal with sexual violence and encourages prospective students to take that into consideration when applying and choosing a university. [6] It reminds us of how no progress can be achieved without breaking the silence and how we can all contribute to change. In the #MeToo ‘era’ there appear more and more critical articles about sexual harassment at universities. [7] Listening about rape and consent at a Gifford Lecture – usually covering more ‘traditional’ topics – is a welcome sign of change. However, as projects such as the 1752 Group, Dr Emma Chapman’s activism and the Consent Collective (to name just a few) show, we have not gone very far yet. These initiatives tackle the problem of sexual violence in academia and they have a very long way to go. Some of the obstacles were laid down in the lecture when discussing Lucretia’s story.

    Understanding Rape
    Professor Beard’s thought-provoking presentation of how Lucretia has been discussed, judged, and sometimes condemned throughout history is all too relevant to modern ethics and politics. Laura Bates, a feminist writer, describes the existing ‘misapprehension that a victim can somehow influence their own assault or be partially to blame for what happens to them’ in the twenty-first context. [8] This could be easily applied to the debates discussed by Professor Beard.

    One of the most interesting (and distressing) themes mentioned in the lecture was the question of whether Lucretia ‘enjoyed the rape’. Among the heated debates, there were many attempts at denying Lucretia’s victimhood and depicting her as guilty in one way or another. This made me think of one of the biggest taboos surrounding rape, which often leads victims to self-doubt and self-loathing: many victims of rape experience orgasm during the assault. It is one of the possible biological responses – our body tries to protect us this way from physical harm. Of course, Augustine’s concern was less biological and more concerned with Lucretia’s intentions and desires; however, this connection calls me to first acknowledge our own ignorance pertaining to sexual violence before dismissing historical debates as ‘outdated’ and ‘irrelevant’ and claiming our moral superiority. [9]

    Our ignorance and judgement of rape victims lead to another important point illustrated so well by Lucretia’s story. It is the internalisation of guilt, imposed by social norms on the survivors, and their reactions that do not seem ‘logical’. Livy’s Lucretia feels a need to punish herself while simultaneously asserting her innocence: ‘As for me I am innocent of fault, but I will take my punishment. Never shall Lucretia provide a precedent for unchaste women to escape what they deserve.’ [10] Professor Beard pointed to the historical shift in the debate from more straight-forward condemnation of Tarquin to scrutinising Lucretia’s behaviour. This shift led to suspicions about Lucretia’s innocence. Even death could not protect her from accusations of being cunning and calculative (e.g. She knew that she had committed adultery but did not want to admit it. Therefore, she executes the death penalty herself). This puzzling logic cannot fail to remind us about what modern victims need to face when taking legal actions against the attackers. Their reactions are used as evidence to undermine their accusations. The investigations are focused on the victims and not the perpetrators which further traumatises the victims. Modern examples include, now too well-known, line of investigation that questions victim’s dress, alcohol consumption or lack of defence during the attack, or a newly introduced law that allows the investigators to request the victim’s phone and access all information there. The accuser can refuse to hand in the device but that would usually mean dropping the investigation. So the victims need to make a choice between justice and privacy. [11] Meanwhile the alleged perpetrators are treated like Augustine treats Sextus Tarquinius – he avoids the theologian’s scrutiny that Lucretia has to endure.

    This is because rape has been seen as the victim’s problem. We talk about ‘Lucretia’s problem’ forgetting that the problem lies with Sextus Tarquinius. This pattern is maintained by rape culture where women are told to take numerous precautious against ‘getting’ raped, while men are rarely told simply not to rape regardless of the circumstances. [12] This misplacement of attention is partly caused by lack of comprehensive understanding of what rape is. It is sometimes very narrowly understood as forced penetrative sex when one of the people actively fights against it. The spectrum is, however, much broader. In the lecture we heard how some argued that since Lucretia had ‘chosen’ to be raped over being killed and dishonoured post-mortem, she ‘consented’ to the intercourse and, therefore, was not raped. While in this extreme scenario this argument might seem easy to debunk, it has parallels with those disbelieving victims of the #MeToo allegations. Some argue that if a person unwillingly agreed to sex in order to save their job, career or reputation, they ‘consented’ to it and thus rape did not occur. These people forget about the importance of the power dynamics and the concepts of willingness, pressure and coercion in defining rape and sexual harassment in general. They go even further by accusing victims of fame-seeking; just as in the case of the possible translation of Ovid’s poem mentioned by Professor Beard.

    Professor Beard’s lecture was a true feast for all those interested in history, history of art, sexual violence, women’s rights, morality and ethics. She covered many more topics than could possibly be mentioned in this blog and that were equally thought-provoking. Above all she effortlessly (or so it seemed!) managed to show how strikingly relevant history is to our everyday life. For me, a history research student, her lecture was incredibly inspiring. As historians we can, and we should, use our expertise to influence the current discussions and laws in an effort to make our societies kinder and more just places to live in.

    ———-
    [1] Quoted in Laura Bates, Casual Sexism (London: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 345. From “Ministry of Justice, Home Office for National Statistics, 2013”.
    [2] Ibid., 347.
    [3] Extract from an interview with a prostitute by Josephine Butler found in The Shield, 1869.
    [4] Mary Beard, Women & Power: A Manifesto (London: Profile Books, 2017), Kindle Edition, Location 113.
    [5] http://operawire.com/new-camerata-opera-2019-review-the-rape-of-lucretia/ Accessed : 10 May 2019.
    [6] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/may/07/the-question-students-should-ask-how-is-my-university-tackling-sexual-violence Accessed: 7 May 2019. You can read more in Tackling Sexual Violence at Universities ed. Graham Towl and Tammy Walker (London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2019).
    [7] See for example, Kate Huangu and Caitlin Powell, “Sexual Assault: the Past, Present and Future of Policy at our University”, in The Student (24th May, 2019), 1, 4-6.
    [8] Bates, Everyday Sexism, 346.
    [9] Myself included. I first learnt about various biological and psychological responses to sexual violence at workshops organised by Dr Nina Burrowes and her Consent Collective a couple of months ago.
    [10] Livy, The Rape of Lucretia from Ab Urbe Condita, Book 1.57-59.
    [11] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/29/sexual-assault-case-dropped-refused-police-phone-rape Accessed: 9 May 2019.
    [12] The problem is of course much more complex. I should clarify here that both men and women can be perpetrators and victims.

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  2. Thanks.. I am quite relieved that you engaged so positively and constructively (I have been a bit afraid that it might all have come across as a bit unintentionally conservative.. certainly unintentionally, but you know what I mean!). I remain very struck by the ways we are still replaying some of those arguments.

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    • This is interesting to hear! I’m also glad that you don’t find my blog too cautious (I could push some things further!). I think I wouldn’t interpret your lecture as ‘conservative’, because 1) I’m familiar with your opinions and voice in feminist debates and 2) you were probably aware of the very mixed character of the audience (I don’t know whether that played a role?).
      Something that I’d be really interested to hear more about is combining lecture 2 and 3. I feel that as white women we have a responsibility to draw people’s attention to intersectional feminism, and specifically black feminism. I’m not an expert in the area myself but it’d be interesting to hear how you’d combine these three topics (sexual violence, feminism, racism).
      Thank you for genuinely wonderful lectures!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks. On talking to the aiudience… I think with a (happily) very mixed audience, it is useful to adopt a rhetoric of persuasion!

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  3. I couldn’t make it to Edinburgh but have watched the lecture online – thank you Gifford Lectures for providing that opportunity, and thank you Professor Beard, I found the lecture very stimulating. I have to declare my hand and say that I am a male, but have nevertheless been engaged with the Lucretia story and the urgency and difficulty of some of the issues, as I have been developing a dramatic production of Shakespeare’s Lucrece for the last couple of years. Work started with a group of my female students before Weinstein and the #MeToo movement, and it has been fascinating to see current events “catch up” with ancient myth. The point I would like to make, and it follows on from Professor Beard’s comment that the “problem” doesn’t go away – nor should it, is that we performed Lucrece in India in late 2018. It is a culture where women do kill themselves after being raped because of shame. Nevertheless the overwhelming response from women in our audiences, particularly young women, was a sense of empowerment because the “problem” was being given space and a voice. Post show discussions were fascinating. Shining a light on the classical world can and does illuminate our own. Thanks again for the lecture and the series.

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  4. Thanks to prof Beard and all who have contributed to this project. I trade as a holistic communication and education specialist and I’m deeply concerned about the limits of written “language” as a medium of communication. (I use the word language with some reluctance because in the scientific discipline of Linguistics language is viewed as a spoken phenomenon)

    I am particularly concerned about the lethal capacity of writing/written things: its capacity to cause a calcification of our consciences or hardening of our hearts by limiting our capacity for creative imagination and associated empathy/magnanimity.

    Written material can therefore promote a self-fulfilling prophecy of negativity. Literary canons can confine us to unhelpful orthodoxies.
    Authoritative texts tend to undermine individual agency and autonomy even (perhaps especially) where they most “successfully” advocate it.
    The more people agree with a proposition (the more it “succeeds”) the harder it may be to discover the “exceptions” that prove the rule.
    We therefore end up with a triumph of generalities: stereotypes dominate discourse.
    We become immersed in the texts’ virtual reality, to varying degrees.
    I address these and related issues in my book “The Bible: Beauty And Terror Reconciled” (TBBTR), a critique of the literalistic, fundamentalist Christian worldview that I was once immersed in myself.
    In TBBTR I document the conscious and unconscious “rape” of Joshua (Jesus) of Nazareth by successive generations of Judeo-Christian, Torah-Thumping and Bible-bashing groups and individuals for approximately 2000 years.
    I argue that this “rape”, a kind of self-abuse has been induced by the confusion of the UNWRITTEN New Covenant with the WRITTEN New Testament, consciously or unconsciously.
    That experience has helped me recognize fundamentalist thinking tendencies in other ideological contexts, including ostensibly secular, self-consciously scientific settings.

    I believe this is what people are referring to currently as “group think” or “thinking/communicating in a bubble”, especially when the dangers of “social media” are being discussed.

    And I think ideas about strength and weakness, similar to those in the rape rubric or trope come into play here.

    The idea of “strength in numbers” is clearly related to that of peer pressure and reputation: was the self-sacrificing, Christ-like Lucretia so terrified by what the likely(?) majority opinion would be that death seemed the best remedy?
    Did she think her own and her immediate family’s views were or would be so inconsequential?
    Whose opinions bore the most weight in her calculations: her husband and father’s or the women with whom she had been interacting during the men’s absence?
    Did she fear Tarquin’s opinion more than his wife’s, whom she had “defeated/conquered” with/without trying?
    These and a variety of other questions can be explored but I would like to address some “confinement” of opinion, and hence a possible failure of empathy/magnanimity I detected in prof Bird’s language.
    At around 1:01:50 in the video prof Beard says “Were still debating the Lucretia ‘problem’ now. It should be the Sextus Tarquinius problem.”
    I think this self-correction, complete with the use of the prescriptive word “should” rather than the descriptive “could” suggests an unhelpful propensity to assign blame to males.
    In saying this, I am not seeking to minimize the cruelty or culpability of Sextus Tarquinius.
    Nor am I challenging the widely attested Western(?) view that males are more disposed to this kind of sexual crime.
    What I hope to alert prof Beard to is the danger she risks of perpetuating an unhelpful orthodoxy.
    She is in danger, I think of presenting us with an either-or, male-or- female problem, in a scenario where approximately 2500+ years of grappling with the rape trope and related issues has could have us treat it as a male-and-female problem.

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  5. ‘succubuit famae victa puella metu’

    No ambiguity in the Latin that Lucretia was ‘conquered by fear’, and in the context that it was fear wielded by Sextus Tarquinius. Oh, I forget, they’ll argue: ‘But she had nothing to fear but fear.’

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    • I diagree about the lack of ambiguity! The phrase ‘succubuit famae’ as you first read it (even if you later see that famae goes with metu) should, I think, prompt the reader or listener to think twice.

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  6. Thanks from me as well as an online viewer.

    I wonder, not so as to excuse anything but perhaps to cast light on the patriarchy, whether the ancient equation of women’s bodies with nature, and men’s with culture/politics, is relevant?

    It occurred to me when you described Roman politics as founded on (mythological) violence against women. So the story might then, in part, be saying that culture and politics must be “seized” from nature/states of nature (to anachronistically use Rousseau).

    It’s an explicitly patriarchal way of putting it, of course, but if right holds an uncomfortable truth, one even relevant for our times of consciousness of raping nature.

    I suppose a test would be whether any commentators take it in this way…

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