Charles Williams and the F.R.C.

This is the second post in a short series about Charles Williams and the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. You can read the first post, about A.E. Waite, here.

Charles Williams, a devout but skeptical Anglican, began reading the works of A.E. Waite when he was in his 20s, probably around 1909. It is certainly that a fairly early work of Waite’s, The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail (1909) had a big impact on Williams. We know Williams was reading Waite’s works at least as early as the nineteen-teens, when he started keeping an Arthurian Commonplace Book with notes on the King Arthur story. Williams and Waite began corresponding in 1915; Williams sent Waite a copy of The Silver Stair (1912), then Williams visited Waite at his home twice.

We have very little documentary evidence relating to those first two years of their friendship. It appears that the two men read many of each other’s works and met for at least two important conversations. The result was that Williams decided to join Waite’s society.

Williams was initiated into the Fellowship on 21 September 1917. He took the ceremonial name “Frater Qui Sitit Veniat,” which means, in context, something like “Let he who is thirsty come.” He purchased the complicated vestments, memorized the rituals, and participated in the lofty liturgy with dignity and solemnity. He wrote to a friend that most members read their parts off of cards, but that he always memorized the rite so as to participate most fully and seriously.

While the length and extent of Williams’s involvement with the F.R.C. are still under investigation, it is clear that he attended meetings regularly for ten years, memorized the rituals, climbed rapidly up the grades, and was initiated into some of the higher stages. He read many of A.E. Waite’s books, even after leaving the F.R.C., and continued to cite from Waite in writings all his life. Most significantly, he served as “Master of the Temple” for two separate six-month periods: essentially functioning as the high priest of these secret rites for a year of his life.

The influence of the occult generally and the F.R.C. specifically can be seen in all of Williams’s writings. Some signs are obvious: The Greater Trumps, for instance, is about the Tarot cards. There is a Black Mass in War in Heaven. There is a rather Waitean (or perhaps anti-Waitean) sorcerer in All Hallow’s Eve who engages in several nasty supernatural practices, including fashioning an eidolon or false body in which he brings back the souls of two dead women. Portals, grades, sacral objects, pentagrams, hidden meanings, powerful words, and ceremonial rituals abound throughout Williams’s works.

Even in the highly theological Arthurian poetry, mysteries, magic, secrets, and operative words abound. Taliessin practices magic in “The Queen’s Servant.” Saying, “Know by Our sight the Rite that invokes Sarras” (l. 40), he makes roses and golden wool appear in the air, then weaves them into a garment for a freed slave. In this poem, the magic spell is a “blessing” (l. 56), an act of holy “Art-magic spiritual” (l. 62).

What did Williams really believe about magic? Did he ever actually practice incantations, spells, and so forth, during his years in the F.R.C.? Well, remember that Waite split the Order over the question of magic: Waite desired to pursue the path of mysticism, not magic. Therefore, it is unlikely that anyone in the F.R.C. was performing obviously “magical” rituals. And Waite’s Fellowship was Christian, albeit syncretistic, so he certainly would not countenance the performance of a black Sabbath.

However, there is an historical distinction between goetia or “black” magic and magia or “white” magic (thanks to Stephen Barber for a conversation about this). It is possible that some members of the F.R.C. practiced elements of “white magic,” or at least that many of their rituals and practices would look an awful lot like magic to the ordinary 21st- (or even 20th-) century Christian. Fortune-telling, for instance, or at least some kind of divination with Tarot cards, continued in Waite’s Fellowship.

And Williams? In his forward to Witchcraft, Williams explains that he “saw the magical dimension as not necessarily other than the world we already know”—which suggests a possible real-life application of magic outside of the poetry. Yet he “came to regard magic as repulsive and corrupting [and consistently used] his extensive knowledge as a source of symbolic imagery for the evil in the mind of man” (Brewer 65). Magic is usually (although not always) a symbol for evil throughout his novels. All of this suggests that Williams probably did not recommend the actual practice of magic by Christians.

One more point about the influence of the F.R.C. on Williams Later on, in 1939, Williams (with some reluctance, or show of reluctance) founded his own fellowship: the Companions of the Co-Inherence. While it was a looser, clearly Christian group, it had many surprisingly Rosicrucian elements about it. One writer (Willard) claims that Williams’s Order still survives to this day.

Several questions remain.

First, Williams was never in the Order of the Golden Dawn, but only the F.R.C., yet the majority of writers on Williams have been confused on this point, stating that he was in the O.G.D. Why does this confusion persist? Mainly because Williams himself SAID he was in the Golden Dawn. Why did he say that, if it wasn’t true? There are [at least] three possible reasons:
* He was faithfully keeping his oath of secrecy to the F.R.C. He never spoke the name of the actual society he joined, thus maintaining fidelity to his vows even after he left.
* The Golden Dawn was more prestigious than the F.R.C. and Williams wanted to overemphasize his connection with Yeats, Underhill, and others, to bolster the impression that he was a great magical poet among other great magical poets, sharing their secret knowledge, wielding with them great spiritual power.
* Williams hated schisms. He wrote the East-West schism of 1053-1054 out of his poetic, mythologized church history in the Arthurian poems. Perhaps he wanted to emphasize continuity with the earlier Order, rather than the schismatic distinctives of the particular, localized Fellowship he actually joined.

Second, how could a good Anglican Christian participate with good conscience in an occult secret society that practiced divination, astrological prediction, and the channeling of energies? I do not yet have a full answer to that excellent question, but I have some speculations.
* Waite’s Fellowship was a Christian group. As strange as that may seem to some of my readers, especially those of the American Evangelical or Reformed traditions, that was the claim. Waite called himself a Christian, believed in the person and work of Christ, and organized his rituals all around the goal of knowing God better. We may believe he was mistaken in thinking that there was a “Secret Tradition” that contained more revelation than the Bible, but he at least thought he was forwarding the work of the Church and the sanctification of his members by his rituals.
* Someday in the future, I’ll be posting a summary of an excellent book called Modern Alchemy by Mark Morrisson. It explains some connections between the occult and science in the period 1890-1935. Put simply, and applied to this question of Williams and Waite: many people thought during that time that what had previously been called “magic” would prove to have a scientific basis. To quote Arthur C. Clarke: “Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.”
* Williams had a totalizing, holistic imagination. He always worked to unify ideas, rather than to categorize, taxonomize, or dissect them. He would be far more likely to focus on similarities than differences. Hence he would have sought to discover which of those elements of the occult harmonized with Christianity, and vice versa.

Third, why did he leave? Willard writes that “No one knows why he stopped attending” (273). Well, no. But one may guess. I have my own theory, as I’m sure others have theirs (which I would love to hear).

My theory is that Williams learned all there was to learn in the F.R.C.—all the hidden knowledge, all the holy secrets, all the facts and fancies and systems of symbolic imagery—and discovered that this gnosticism had no substance. Or, to put it another way, that what lay at the deep root of all these supposed “secrets” was, quite simply, only—only!—public Christian doctrine after all. He learned all there was to learn, and found he had known it all along.

That is my theory. Please share yours.

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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18 Responses to Charles Williams and the F.R.C.

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for this! I hope some of your enthusiatic readers who are not (yet) frequent commentors will answer your invitation with their theories, or their ‘thinking out loud’ on these strange and very interesting (and puzzling) matters! And that they will ‘not mind me’ (or only ‘mind me’ as much as seems helpful) as I pounce yet again!

    I understand that the Ritman Library/Bibliotheca Philosophia Hermetica in Amsterdam now has a lot of the F.R.C. papers, but am not having any success, so far, trying to find out more from their online catalogue.

    For the sake of thoroughness, I note that C.W.’s Order name is a quotation from the Vulgate translation of Revelation 22:17 (the online Douay-Rheims Bible translation (at drbo.org) renders this: “he that thirsteth, let him come”).

    O.G.D.: C.W. might have mentioned it (1) because people would be more likely to have heard of it, and (2) the F.R.C. is in significant ways in continuity with Waite’s Independent and Rectified Rite of the G.D.

    A bolder speculation is that C.W. might also have been a member of one of the magical G.D. successor versions (though I know of no evidence for this).

    What we do know, is that in the 1930s and 1940s, at least, some of C.W.’s practices were more magical than those of the F.R.C. Mrs. Hadfield, in her second book, describes his use of a magic sword. But a note in the F.R.C. Ceremony of Reception clearly states “There is no Sword in a Temple of the Rosy Cross.” We also know of at least one instance where Williams certainly did recommend the actual practice of magic by another Christian. A letter survives in which he suggests and teaches the use of a “banishing pentagram” to a young Christian woman who was afraid during the Nazi bombing. A bold speculative suggestion would be that part of the reason C.W. left the F.R.C. was because it was not magical enough for him. To the extent that he ‘set up on his own’, it was not by founding an order with grades and meetings and rituals wherein numerous members participated together, like the F.R.C. Instead, there seem to be, on the one hand, certain (magical) ritual practices involving certain young women, and on the other, the Company (with I know not what, if any, overlap between its members and the young women just mentioned: see also my edition of his Arthurian poetry, note 68, and my Inklings-Jahrbuch 10 (1992) contribution, pp. 53-54). I have not yet read Willard, but there were certainly members of the Company who were later members of the Charles Williams Society who considered the Society in some sense an extension or continuity of the Company. I do not know if any people still living think that way, or consider themselves members of the Company in any other sense.

    Finally, a curious thought just struck me about the East-West Schism of 1054 and his (late) Arthurian poetry. Not only is it almost wholly set before 1054, and perhaps around a time of very strong orthodox East-West unity against the Monothelite heresy, but the great exception to this of a much later time, the ‘flash-forward’ to the fall of Constantinople in the Taliessin through Loges “Prelude”, takes place in 1453 when the Emperor, Constantine IX, was loyal to the Union of Florence (1439) between East and West, though he had not dared to proclaim it publicly in Constantinople until 1452.

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Oh, David, you delight me. Wow. I LOVE your suggestions that the FRC was “not magical enough,” and you seem to have some evidence for that. I wonder if Grevel will give us more facts in his long-expected biography.
      Thank you for the Douay-Rheims reference. I have made notes of all these comments of your and will include them in any future work I do on the topic. Much obliged.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thanks! “Not magical enough” does seem one real possibility, though it leaves matters even more bewildering than F.R.C. membership already tends to. The “Stella” papers to which I refer (briefly) in my book and 1992 paper are in the Wade. As far as I know the “banishing pentagram” letter is too, now. If so, it would be worth comparing it carefully with published (or other archival?) sources on such rituals, to see if that gave a more precise idea of where C.W. may have ‘got’ his – though he can improvise other things so freely that we might still be none the wiser. I do hope, and expect, Grevel Lindop’s biography will give us more facts, and perceptive interpretations. When I read how bewildered Lois Lang-Sims was at the time in both her ‘Company’ and other experiences, it occurs to me that C.W. may never have really explained anything to anyone – that even those who ‘knew the most’ in one way or another may all have been left to conjecture from ‘square one’. I heard a very interesting talk by Stephen Dunning, long before he had finished the doctoral dissertation which lies behind his book, which suggested that C.W. (among other things) did indeed cling to “public Christian doctrine” in an way Owen Barfield, for example, did not. All that I have managed to read and learn, so far, leaves matters about as fascinating, perplexing, and disquieting as before.

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        • Sørina Higgins says:

          Your final sentence, ” All that I have managed to read and learn, so far, leaves matters about as fascinating, perplexing, and disquieting as before,” pretty much sums up my CW experience, too.

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  2. Michael M. Morbey says:

    Hi Sørina,

    Your good discussion has reminded me of some short notes from years ago. I first learned about Charles Williams from a poet I met briefly in Montréal in 1964. I have read the Charles Williams novels and a bit more by him and about him. Although he was an Anglican, his Christian imagist perceptions of the world (and the cosmos) seem to have brought him much closer to the worldview of Eastern Orthodoxy and Cappadocia. I have always understood him to be a Christian and an antidote to occultism in any form. I’ve linked my notes, for whatever they are worth, and you are welcome to them.

    Michael Morbey

    CHARLES WILLIAMS
    web.ncf.ca/an359/charles_williams_notes.htm

    PLATONIC FORMS, IDEAS, DEMONS
    web.ncf.ca/an359/platonic_forms_ideas_demons_notes.htm

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Thank you for these posts, Michael. I really appreciate them. I think you are doing important work about CW. I would say, though, that there’s more syncretism in his work than you admit.

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  3. Michael M. Morbey says:

    Hi Sørina

    Yes. I guess that there is this possibility of syncretism and it is good that you are bringing this hidden history to light in a scholarly way and not as ammunition to dismiss Charles Williams. It is just that my radically relativistic and apophatic mind affirms the “Co-inherence” and “This also is Thou; neither is this Thou” as supportive of his own stated Christian intentions. [I have come across a negative website, very unlike yours, in which I could wonder if there is a vicarious participation in Inkling occultism in the very rejection of it.]

    I always understood that when Charles Williams wrote of Broceliande, he was also
    writing of himself. He had been there and had come through it and survived.

    “Dangerous to men is the wood of Broceliande. Hardly the Druid, hardly a Christian priest, pierced it ever; it was held, then as now, by those few who in Britain study the matter of the marches that there the divine science and the grand art, if at all below the third heaven, know their correspondence, and live in a new style–many a mile of distance goes to the making: but those fewer, now as then, who enter come rarely again with brain unravished by the power of the place–some by grace dumb and living, like a blest child, in a mild and holy sympathy of joy; but the rest loquacious with a graph or a gospel, gustily audacious over three heavens”.

    (From Charles Williams, The Calling of Taliessin, in The Region of the
    Summer Stars (Oxford U. Press, 1952, first 1944.)

    If you are looking for a turn-of-the-century [1890-1935 +/-] connection of Romantic
    “creativity” with scientific thinking, perhaps the inner connection of the world of
    Charles Williams with Dante, Fr. Pavel Florensky, Einstein, and Maxwell would be an
    interesting place to start. Intuitively, Co-inherence and Relativity go together!

    Michael Morbey

    EINSTEIN / DOSTOEVSKY / DANTE
    web.ncf.ca/an359/einstein_dostoevsky_dante.htm

    Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918
    http://www.noteaccess.com/APPROACHES/Kern.htm

    Charles A. Huttar, “Deep lies the sea-longing”: inklings of home (1).
    archive.is/VJvmr

    Negative website
    The INKLINGS – Charles Williams (1886-1945)
    http://www.crossroad.to/Excerpts/books/lewis/inklings-williams.htm

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Thank you for this, Michael. I am familiar with Charles Huttar’s work; in fact, he is revising it for inclusion in my volume “The Inklings and King Arthur.” Will you be sending a proposal for that book, do you think?

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      • Michael M. Morbey says:

        Thank you, Sørina. These were just some of my old notes, more intuitive than extensively researched, less argued according to scholarly convention with detailed reviews of the literature. Most of my old notes on topics like this, however, do seem to be consistent with the Byzantine way that I came to understand Charles Williams.

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Michael Morbey,

    I have not read your references carefully, yet, but thought I would go ahead and mention that Dr. Leslie S.B. MacCoull thinks it likely that C.W. knew at least John Parker’s 1894 translation of The Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. And Parker went on to translate and publish The Works of Dionysius the Areopagite Part I. Divine Names, Mystic Theology, Letters, &c. in 1897 (available at the Internet Archive, scanned from a copy at the Kelly Library). So, as anything from a precocious eleven-year-old on, C.W. could have read and mastered the complete Corpus Areopagiticum in English translation, well before he published anything, or could read Waite’s The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail (1909), or made the acquaintance of D.H.S. Nicholson, A.H.E. Lee, and Waite. Alas, I have yet to read the whole of it, myself. (See further my comments added to my October guest post on the Place of the Lion, here.) Do you happen to have an impression, or opinion, about the likely scope of influence of the Corpus Areopagiticum on C.W.?

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    • Michael M. Morbey says:

      Hi David,

      Thank you for drawing my attention to your fascinating studies in this area. Although I am not aware of his actual literary links, Charles Williams must have had contact with the Corpus Areopagiticum, not only because of what he says but because he is so adept in his handling of the Angellick Hierarchy in a manner more akin to Eastern Christian theology than to the negative theology of the West.

      For an Eastern Orthodox Christian, the Celestial Hierarchy is world-affirming, no longer the dualistic two-story universe of Neo-Platonism. The negative theology of the West, consistent with its own rules, must negate itself: “This also is Thou; neither is this Thou.” The spiritualistic chorismos of the sensible and the intelligible worlds has been overcome and God’s good Creation affirmed.

      Your discussion of the personality of the Angelicals (or the lack thereof) reminds me of some old notes which I have linked below. They possibly do correspond to Calvin’s virtutes Dei and the Eastern Orthodox Energies.

      Michael Morbey

      David Dodds, The Place of the Lion Part 8
      Posted on 2 October 2013 by Sørina Higgins
      theoddestinkling.mymiddleearth.com/2013/10/02/lion-part-8/

      ‘The Eidola And The Angeli’
      invisiblekingdoms.wordpress.com/category/charles-williams/

      PARALLELS TO THE BYZANTINE-HESYCHAST, DIVINE ESSENCE/ENERGIES DISTINCTION
      web.ncf.ca/an359/parallels_byzantine-hesychast_divine_essence-energies.pdf

      VIRTUTES DEI / ANGELS
      web.ncf.ca/an359/virtutes_dei_energies_angels.htm

      Fr. Stephen Freeman, Christianity and the One Story Universe
      http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/series/christianity_and_the_one_storey_universe

      Constantinos Athanasopoulos and Christopher Schneider, editors, Divine Essence and Divine Energies Ecumenical Reflections on the Presence of God in Eastern Orthodoxy
      http://www.amazon.ca/Divine-Essence-Energies-Ecumenical-Reflections/dp/0227173864

      Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, The “Neo-Patristic Synthesis”
      http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/cambridge/the_neo_patristic_synthesis

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Dear Michael,

        What a Christmas (Julian) or Epiphany (Octave, Gregorian) Feast I find spread here! Allow me to thank you, before tucking in!

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  5. Pingback: Sources for CW and the FRC | The Oddest Inkling

  6. Anthony Fuller says:

    I apologise for this rather belated addition to the comments. The involvement of Charles Williams in the F.R.C. should, in my view, be considered in the context of the fact that many Anglo-Catholics, including priests and two Bishops, were members of the secret occult group the Stella Matutina. The S.M. was the magical successor to the Golden Dawn when it split into three factions. The Reverend A.H. Lee was also a member of this group and a so-called Chief in the 1930s when the Amoun Temple was revived. I understand that evidence will be presented in the near future to demonstrate that Williams attended at least some meetings of the Amoun Temple.
    The question as to how a committed Christian could also be a member of an occult group carrying out magical acts is increasingly receiving academic interest. The question carries even more interest when it relates to anglican priests: several priests from the Community of the Resurrection (Mirfield Fathers) were members of the S.M. Order in the first two (possibly three) decades of the 20th century. Timothy Rees (CR), who later became a Bishop, was very active in the Order as was Father Fitzgerald, and others. Given the close intimacy of life in the community, along with regular confession, it is absolutely certain that the occult and magical activities of several of the CR members were known, and even sanctioned by the Father Superior W

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  7. Anthony Fuller says:

    My post should have continued “…Father Superior (later Bishop) Walter Howard Frere who was a friend of the head of the S.M. Order, Dr R.W. Felkin. All of this is documented. One intriguing possibility inheres in the fact that Charles Williams would have been well aware that one of the S.M. Temples had a unique method for its candidates to enter the Temple for initiation. This entailed entering a large wardrobe where a spiral staircase led to the Temple below. The candidate was blindfolded at the top and the blindfold was not removed until a later point in the initiation when (in the words of one its initiates) “I suddenly found myself in a magical world”. Williams undoubtedly learnt of this Temple from A.E. Waite and/or A.H. Lee. It is tempting, of course, to speculate that Williams may have recounted this true story to C.S. Lewis.
    Anthony Fuller

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Fascinating details, Anthony! Thank you for them. Can you share your sources with us?

      I tend to think that CSL was more influenced by Lewis Carroll’s looking-glass stories on the wardrobe point, but your suggestion is tantalizing.

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  8. David Orth says:

    Very interesting connections to know about. Glad the discussion is positive and engaged. Sorry I’m just noticing it. I do believe that there are esoteric levels of Christianity that are hinted at in canonical texts, but not really grasped by the church – if I may make sweeping generalizations. These layers keep surfacing however, just as they surface (but are not fully exposed) in the Biblical canon. While I have never understood ritual magic, the question of spiritual power (as counterpoint to spiritual knowledge) is always central to faith. I believe this power is primarily accessed through confession (think self awareness & humility) – this is the Christian magic – to understand the ways we lose God. To the extent ritual or the tarot assist this, great. To the extent they distract or even destroy through “wrong efforts” or “wrong thinking” or manipulations, not so great. Some helpful references that bring this into more contemporary focus are: “Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism,” also much of Jacob Needleman’s work especially “Lost Christianity,” and the brilliant little essay on Religion and Magic (can’t remember the exact title) in the book “The Indestructible Question.” Finally, the contemporary Episcopal theologian Cynthia Bourgeault especially in her three books “Wisdom Jesus”, “The Meaning of Mary Magdalene”, and “The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three.” This esoteric tradition turns some “orthodox assumptions” on their head. However, it is not so much doctrine that is turned on its head as the “use of doctrine.” In this hermetic Christianity, doctrine is not used to “contain” and protect, as much as to “break up” and release. Doctrine is used to erode automatic thinking and cultural assumptions. The goal is more “freedom” than “protection.” But I am exaggerating, because ultimately it is characterized more by “both and”, less by “either or.” (Sorry Kierkegaard – I know you didn’t really mean it that way).

    Also, if I may, this tradition sees religion as a “craft.” This insight begins with the understanding that religion is creative, but also dangerous (all table saws come with a page of warnings – so should religion). Also, craft pulls together a lot of elements are generally opposed. For instance a craft brings together personal experience, discipline, respect for tradition, & invention. These work together in a kind of organic harmony that most religion fears & undermines. I have tried to write a bit about this (search for my little essay “The Riddle of Craft).”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for these comments and reading suggestions. Your essay reminds me of a talk I heard W. David O. Taylor give on the superfluity of art, which in turn loops back to CW’s ideas of his “superfluous lieutenancy” of the Companions of the Coinherence. There is something extravagantly generous about art and about the beauty of God’s artistic creation, isn’t there?

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