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What to Stream: “Mississippi Mermaid,” François Truffaut’s Hitchcockian Thriller

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It’s an enduring tragedy when great films are spurned by both critics and viewers at the time of their release. The judgment of history is often more accurate. François Truffaut made an unabashedly romantic and continent-hopping Hitchcockian thriller, “Mississippi Mermaid,” in 1969, starring Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo. The film, adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich, is one of Truffaut’s most personal, passionate, and accomplished films, even something of a manifesto of his vision of life, love, and the cinema. (It’s streaming on Amazon Prime.) If anyone was equipped to make a Hitchcockian film, it was Truffaut—after all, he had spent years crafting his book of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, which came out in 1966 and became a classic of film literature. It was precisely Truffaut’s strategy to wrap his deepest concerns in a superficially conventional “genre” package. But critics didn’t get it. For more popularly oriented reviewers at the time, it was insufficiently glamorous and glitzy; for more artistic-minded ones, it seemed commercial and derivative. It was a commercial failure, too.

The action starts on Réunion, the French island just east of Madagascar, where Louis Mahé (Belmondo), the reserved and inhibited young heir who owns and runs his family’s cigarette factory, awaits his fiancée, whom he met through a personal ad. Named Julie Roussel (Deneuve), she arrives by boat, and doesn’t seem to be quite all that her letters portended. But, for Louis, she’s also more: far from merely offering a meeting of the minds, she also ignites his long-stifled sexual desire. He dismisses any suspicions arising from the gaps in her story. He renders himself vulnerable to her wiles, and she takes full advantage of his vulnerability, fleecing him and fleeing. Louis hires a detective to find her and flies to the south of metropolitan France to recover his tranquillity—until Julie turns up again.

Like Hitchcock’s films, “Mississippi Mermaid” is a meticulous contemplation of locations: the heat and the light of Réunion are virtually characters (and Truffaut revels in the incongruity, for a native Parisian such as himself, of celebrating Christmas in a tropical climate). He weaves the island’s colonial history into the action and takes dramatic note of the island’s ethnic diversity, giving its characters of color prominence and voice while also indicating—in a jolting image of workers in a tobacco field—his own sense of shock at its stratification. Louis is a cloistered boss, siloed in his upbringing of privilege and tradition, blind both to others and to himself. One of the hints of his connection to Truffaut (who, though not at all privileged in his youth, had become a prosperous young boss himself) is the place of images in the story: Louis celebrates his romantic passion by publishing a picture of Julie on his packages of cigarettes, which pass through the factory’s machines like a strip of film through a projector. (Also, Louis’s right-hand man is played by Marcel Berbert, Truffaut’s real-life production manager.) No less than Hitchcock, Truffaut balances the mystery and tension—and the artifice—of his drama with piercing symbolic touches, and those symbols run throughout the movie, both in winks and allusions, in the intense weight placed on tiny physical objects and fine turns of dialogue (for instance, the uses of the formal “vous” and the familiar “tu”), in the references to other movies, and in constant silent undercurrents that drive the action.

Truffaut displays a virtuosity of choreographed long takes, which culminate in a grand sequence, at the center of the film—one that’s as exquisite as it is suspenseful—in which the estranged couple is reunited. Yet the sharply defined narrative framework, the aesthetic elaboration of the carefully calibrated storytelling, is no mere commercial concession or professional deception. Rather, it serves the practical purpose of providing a link to something that matters just as much to Truffaut: backstory. Where Louis’s lineage, traceable through centuries, burdens him with formalities and social constraints, Julie’s story dovetails with Truffaut’s career-long obsession (starting with “The 400 Blows”) with the neglected, abused wild child, whose life of deceit is part of a desperate struggle for a tiny toehold on stability. The inventive elegance of Truffaut’s style trembles with the labyrinthine wiles behind the appearances, seethes with the passion beneath the elegant surfaces. Deneuve, with a taut grace that never betrays the tension of maintaining it, embodies Julie’s high-gloss manners and high personal style in touches reminiscent of Tippi Hedren’s role in Hitchcock’s “Marnie,” yet another story of a female predator who was an abused child. (Truffaut would revisit the theme of an abused girl’s eventual revenge in one of his rarest and wildest films, “A Gorgeous Girl Like Me,” from 1972—as a loopy comedy, with references to “Vertigo.”)

Truffaut’s critical vision of a cruel society that neglects and abuses children under the guise of norms of discipline, education, and order is nonetheless not merely a cause for practical change: in his view, it’s haunted by irrational drives that cannot be controlled or reformed. Truffaut told the story of Louis and Julie as an express response to the film of a friend with whom he’d soon have a break: Jean-Luc Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou,” in which Belmondo played a staid businessman who runs off with a young woman (Anna Karina) on a romantic idyll that turns violent. The allusions are clear throughout, in visual quotations and textual references (including a visit to a movie theatre to see “Johnny Guitar”). Truffaut’s film turns to violence, too; it pushes in the direction of a Liebestod, as does Godard’s film. But Truffaut relies on a more conventional psychological framework to fill in his characters’ personal and social dimensions—and in order to develop an idea of love that’s simultaneously perverse and redemptive. The twisty but tightly knit plot of “Mississippi Mermaid” ultimately suggests irreconcilable conflicts between the individual and society. (It does so, ultimately, with a surprising reference to “Grand Illusion,” by Jean Renoir, to whom the film is dedicated.) The romantic ideal that Truffaut dramatizes here is wildly unjust; his notion of personal healing and the redemption of shattered lives has terrifying implications. Above all, Truffaut suggests the ideas beneath Hitchcock’s erotic tensions and dramatic reversals: they bring to light a tragic sense of life and its unbearable contradictions, bearably.

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The Musical Mysteries of Josquin

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The singer and composer Josquin Desprez traversed his time like a diffident ghost, glimpsed here and there amid the splendor of the Renaissance. He is thought to have been born around 1450 in what is now western Belgium, the son of a policeman who was once jailed for using excessive force. In 1466, a boy named Gossequin completed a stint as a choirboy in the city of Cambrai. A decade later, the singer Jusquinus de Pratis turned up at the court of René of Anjou, in Aix. In the fourteen-eighties, in Milan, Judocus Despres was in the service of the House of Sforza, which also employed Leonardo da Vinci. At the end of the decade, Judo. de Prez joined the musical staff at the Vatican, remaining there into the reign of Alexander VI, of the House of Borgia. The name Josquin can be seen carved on a wall of the Sistine Chapel. In 1503, the maestro Juschino took a post in Ferrara, singing in the presence of Lucrezia Borgia. Not long afterward, Josse des Prez retired to Condé-sur-l’Escaut, near his presumed birthplace, serving as the provost of the local church. There he died, on August 27, 1521. His tomb was destroyed during the French Revolution.

The murkiness of his existence notwithstanding, Josquin attained an enduring renown of a kind that no previous composer had enjoyed. In 1502, the Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci, the chief pioneer of movable-type music publishing, issued a volume of sacred motets, with Josquin’s four-voice setting of “Ave Maria . . . virgo serena” (“Hail Mary . . . serene virgin”) at its head. The piece must have cast a spell, and the beginning shows why. The highest voice, the superius, sings a graceful rising-and-falling phrase: G C C D E C. Each of the lower voices presents the motif in turn. After it arrives in the bass, the superius enters again on a high C, forming an octave pillar. A second phrase unfurls in similar fashion, then a third, with the voices staggered so that only two move together at a time. Eventually, the scheme changes, the texture thickens, and the descending order of vocal entries is reversed. About a minute in, all four voices coalesce to form a gleaming C-major sonority. The entire opening gives the illusion of breadth and depth, as though lamps have been lit in a vaulted room. Music becomes a space in which you walk around in wonder.

Interest in Josquin was strong enough that Petrucci released three volumes of the composer’s masses—settings of five sections of the Roman Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). Posthumously, the flood of publications only increased, to the point where an observer wryly said, “Now that Josquin is dead, he is putting out more works than when he was still alive.” Extravagant claims were made. The humanist Cosimo Bartoli described Josquin as the Michelangelo of music; Martin Luther called him “the master of the notes.” In subsequent centuries, performances of his works all but ceased, yet his name remained one to conjure with. In 1782, the historian Charles Burney declared that Josquin had achieved “universal monarchy and dominion over the affections and passions of the musical part of mankind.” For August Wilhelm Ambros, in 1868, he was the first composer in history “who makes a prevailing impression of genius.” In the twentieth century, the early-music movement brought Josquin’s scores back to life, and the revival continues five hundred years after his death. The Tallis Scholars, the best known of Renaissance vocal ensembles, recently completed a recorded survey of eighteen masses attributed to Josquin. Such groups as Stile Antico, Cappella Pratensis, Blue Heron, and the Huelgas Ensemble are participating in a Josquin festival in Antwerp in August. The “Ave Maria” is a staple of choirs around the world.

With Josquin began the cult of the great composer—a mind-set that has left a distinctly ambiguous imprint on classical-music culture. And his rise to superhero status brought with it a curious paradox. Although commentators across five centuries have agreed on Josquin’s preëminence, his works can easily be confused with those of other gifted contemporaries. Two anecdotes from the early sixteenth century illustrate what might be called the Josquin mirage, in which the lustre of his name warps musical perceptions. Baldassare Castiglione, in his treatise “The Book of the Courtier” (1528), made note of the composer’s snob appeal in aristocratic settings: “When a motet was sung in the presence of the Duchess, it pleased no one, and was considered worthless, until it became known that it had been composed by Josquin Desprez.” The opposite fate befell a piece by Adrian Willaert, one of Josquin’s most accomplished successors. When Willaert first came to Rome, he found that the papal choir was singing one of his motets, under the impression that it was by Josquin. When Willaert corrected the mistake, the singers lost interest in the work. Such stories help to explain why attributions to Josquin proliferated after his death: affixing his name to a score was guaranteed to stir interest. The same syndrome has long haunted Renaissance art, where an emphasis on the singular profile of canonical artists has led to violent debates over authenticity and a thriving marketplace in forgeries.

Well over three hundred pieces were ascribed to Josquin at one time or another. In recent decades, musicologists have been culling dubious items from the catalogue. This spring, I followed the work of two leading Josquin authorities, Joshua Rifkin and Jesse Rodin, who are preparing a drastically pruned list of likely Josquin pieces—a hundred and three in all. Some scholars worry that the deattribution process has got out of hand; the half-joking fear is that Josquin will end up disappearing almost completely, like the Cheshire Cat. Thanks to the pandemic-era phenomenon of the Zoom seminar, I was able to watch some of the deliberations, which kept raising bigger philosophical questions: How does an aura of infallibility come to surround a figure like Josquin? What becomes of the music that lapses into anonymity, just as “The Man with the Golden Helmet” seems to have fallen out of the Rembrandt canon?

There is nothing fake about that aura: Josquin was an astonishing composer, one whose contrapuntal dazzlements can make Bach look clumsy. But he dwelled within a comprehensively astonishing community of creative artists. To explore Renaissance choral music is to enter a forbidding forest of names: Dunstable, Power, Binchois, Dufay, Busnois, Ockeghem, Regis, Faugues, Compère, Weerbeke, Agricola, de Orto, Obrecht, Isaac, de la Rue, Mouton, Brumel, Févin, Richafort, Ghiselin, Gombert, Pipelare, Martini, Clemens non Papa, Morales, Willaert, Lassus, Palestrina. Every one of them wrote music worth hearing. The period bears witness to the emergence of composition as an art: Josquin becomes the patron saint of an essentially new profession that is struggling to gain the level of recognition long accorded to painters and poets. Distinct personalities materialize from the historical mist. We hear the sound of the self, singing toward a kind of freedom.

The term “composer” began to enter general circulation only in the late fifteenth century. The practice of naming the authors of musical works was still catching on. Documents of the period usually call Josquin a cantore, or singer. Yet his rise to fame helped bring about a change in status. In 1502, a courtier to Ercole I, the Duke of Ferrara, wrote a letter evaluating candidates for a musical appointment. One of them, Heinrich Isaac, was “easy to get along with,” the courtier said; another, Josquin, “composes when he wants to, and not when one wants him to.” Also, Josquin asked for two hundred ducats, Isaac for much less. Ercole I hired Josquin.

Composers were a new phenomenon because written music was itself a relatively recent innovation in the long history of the arts. The earliest examples of fully decipherable staff notation, from the early eleventh century, record Gregorian chant; multivoiced sacred music was written down at Notre-Dame, in Paris, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Troubadours, trouvères, and other poet-composers produced a beloved corpus of song, though the words tended to receive more attention than the notes. The most formidable figure of the age was Guillaume de Machaut, who lived from around 1300 to 1377. Celebrated chiefly for his sung poems of courtly love, Machaut also wrote two dozen motets and the earliest mass cycle for which a composer is known. Such large-scale elaborations on canonical texts sustained careers in the following century, as Popes, princes, and other potentates sought to flesh out courtly ceremonies with splendid sounds. The history of written music is inextricable from structures of worldly power, even if the composers occupied a low place in the hierarchy.

Josquin exemplifies the art of polyphony: the interweaving of multiple voices according to strict contrapuntal rules. The primary mandate was to control dissonance—a term that was understood differently in medieval and Renaissance times than it is today. It indicated not just discordant combinations of tones but also problematic relationships between notes. The octave, the fifth, and sometimes the fourth were considered to be “perfect” consonances; thirds and sixths were “imperfect”; other intervals fell into the “dissonant” category. A wariness of thirds partly explains why medieval music can sound stark and strange to modern ears. Thirds are at the core of tonal harmony, defining major and minor keys. In the early fifteenth century, English composers, led by John Dunstable, began using thirds in abundance. Their lush, chord-rich sound became known as the “English countenance,” surprising and delighting listeners on the Continent. English sources are also the first to name composers in large numbers.

“And that, son, is where wealth comes from.”
Cartoon by Robert Leighton

Geopolitics had a hand in what happened next. King Henry V of England, who may have dabbled in composing, won at Agincourt, in 1415, and soon took over northern France. English officials brought with them their favorite choristers; Dunstable evidently served John of Lancaster, Henry V’s brother and military commander. Thanks to Joan of Arc, England’s holdings soon shrank, but not before its music had seeped into northern France and Belgian lands. Coincidentally or not, this region brought forth the next major wave of musical activity. A vast number of fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century composers, Josquin included, belonged to what is today called the Franco-Flemish School.

Leading the procession was Guillaume Dufay (circa 1397-1474), who brought dancing elegance to exalted masses and streetwise chansons alike. His motet “Nuper rosarum flores” was written for the consecration of Florence’s cathedral, in 1436, its stately sonorities echoing against Filippo Brunelleschi’s octagonal dome. Other mid- and late-fifteenth-century composers expanded the field of possibility. Antoine Busnois specialized in a lucid interplay of motifs; Johannes Ockeghem in opulent, unpredictably flowing designs; Johannes Regis in intricate structures that gather narrative energy from the calculated addition and subtraction of voices. (Josquin may have based his setting of “Ave Maria” on Regis’s motet of the same name.) By 1500, dozens of Franco-Flemish singer-composers had radiated across Europe, establishing a virtual monopoly at certain Italian musical centers, the Vatican included.

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College, but for Influencers

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A Harvard for influencing does not yet exist—it’s only a matter of time—but the school of Tina Meeks comes close. Want to know what to do with your hands in a photo? She’ll send you a link. Want your interiors to look more Nancy Meyers and less “C.S.I.”? She’ll tell you what light bulbs to buy. Want to quit your nine-to-five and become the sort of trusted personality who makes six figures a year documenting and distributing your life? She’ll coach you, for five hundred dollars an hour.

“Not everyone can make three hundred thousand dollars a year,” Meeks said the other day, referring to the sum that she earned in 2020, “but if you can make an extra three thousand, or an extra thirty thousand, that’s still life-changing for many people.” She was videoconferencing from her house, in Virginia, and had on a white tank top, her hair in two high pigtails. “So many moms and wives get lost in their family life, but you can still do really big things for yourself in the midst of that.”

A former Army reservist, Meeks, who is thirty-four, intended to be “the cool auntie who travelled the world with her military career,” she said. “Then I got pregnant.” She became an insurance adjuster, first for cars—“very fast-paced, because people literally get into accidents all the time”—then for property. “Aside from the police, you’re the first call that most people make,” she said. “It’s not like I was a brain surgeon, but to be able to talk them off the ledge—it was fulfilling.”

She joined Instagram in 2012, to share family photos. Then house photos. Then food photos. Five years and another child later, her husband told her,“If you’re going to spend as much time on social media as you do, you should find a way to make money from it.” She dove deep into YouTube. “That’s how I learned photo composition, how I honed my aesthetic,” she said. She tagged brands. “The day that Children’s Place shared my post was, like, the best day ever. They didn’t even pay me.” She came up with formulas for equitable compensation: her baseline rate for a single photo is the number of dollars equal to four per cent of her following on Instagram, which is currently sixty-seven thousand five hundred. Sponsorships allowed her to quit her fifty-five-thousand-dollar-a-year day job, at the end of 2019, by which time she had three kids. The drama of 2020 was good for business. “After the social unrest and the amplify-Black-voices movement, brands that had offered me five hundred before suddenly had a two-thousand-dollar budget,” she said. “No one wanted to be called out for not paying influencers of color their worth.” Why share her trade secrets? “It’s a fourteen-billion-dollar industry,” she said. “They can’t give it all to one person.”

“It’s not as much fun now that they’re starting to take us seriously.”
Cartoon by Mick Stevens

Meeks occasionally offers free advice over Zoom. Her last session, in May, was derailed by traffic. “I’ve been stuck on the interstate, in park, for forty-five minutes,” she told her Zoom guests. A child wailed in the back seat. She fielded questions anyway.

“How do you become comfortable with pics and videoing?” Tana Almerico (942 followers) asked.

“Look in the mirror and practice,” Meeks said. “Learn your best angles.”

“I don’t have a place in my house that’s really pretty,” Toni Jones (3,620 followers) said. “Is it worthwhile to rent an Airbnb?”

“Once you start, you’re going to have to keep up with that,” Meeks said. “Work with the space you have. The main thing is good lighting.” She continued, “Most homes have very muted yellow lighting. Go to the store and get daylight light bulbs. It is going to change your life. It’s also going to blind you, just a little bit.”

“I only have one child, who’s one year old,” Kourtney Marsh (22,400 followers) said. “Does family size matter?”

“It’s a factor,” Meeks replied. “But you have a baby. Babies just make us spend money on everything.”

After a brief spell of dead air (a tunnel, a few plaintive cries of “Mommy”), Meeks announced, panting slightly, that she was home. Next question.

“I’m almost fifty. My kids are ten and twelve,” TaJuana Robinson (927 followers) said. “My day-to-day life is not that exciting. What do I even talk about that would be of interest to anybody?”

“Your experiences with tween and teen-age girls,” Meeks said. “People get caught up in needing to have this exciting life. The most exciting thing to happen to me today was being stuck in traffic and having to tell y’all about it.” She added, “On a very surface level, I’m just home with my kids.” ♦

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Cynthia Ozick on Never-Never Lands

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Your story “The Coast of New Zealand” revolves around a group of friends from library school who make a pact to meet for a meal once a year, and not to communicate between meetings. Did you know from the start what the outcome of the pact would be?

Photograph by Ulf Andersen / Getty

“The Fanatic” was my original title, and it was this notion that ultimately compelled what was to come, both what I knew beforehand and what turned up, all on its own, to surprise. I have always been drawn to the idea of the fanatic, the zealot, the proselytizer, the Johnny One-Note, the deceiver, the false explainer—the enemy of the ordinary. Sometimes his name is Bartleby. Sometimes his name is Gilbert Osmond. Sometimes his name is Aylmer, practitioner of the relentless science of perfection. But here his name is simply George.

The four characters are, to some degree, anachronistic, drawn together initially by their old-fashioned names—Evangeline, Olive, Ruby, and George—and their old-fashioned choice of profession. Is that aura of fustiness essential to the story?

Fusty, yes, but not in the way of moldy or decaying; rather, in the wafting purity of a forgotten innocence. Even Olive’s attempt to replace her name with the more up-to-date Susan only reinforces her almost maidenly self-consciousness. And the pre-digital library, with its fans and date stamps and ancient wooden cabinets, declares long-ago simplicities. George alone, despite his commonplace name, is looking for fiery dragons to slay.

Yet if their agreement—“the Pact”—is the opposite of fusty, what is it really? “To live in the whirlpool of the extraordinary. To aspire to the ultimate stage of fanaticism.” What did you (or George) mean by that?

Walter Pater’s famous credo is also George’s: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” But the story questions whether George has, in truth, lived up to this passion. And whether the rest of us ought to—and, if not, then what is “success in life”?

George’s rules for the Pact make a real impression on Evangeline—to the point that she almost rejects a loving relationship that she doesn’t think is in keeping with those rules. Why do you think she is so affected by George’s prescriptions while the other women aren’t?

Evangeline’s partners in the Pact are entertained by George’s outrageous pronouncements, but they do, as we soon learn, have their feet on the ground, and look to the future—suitable jobs, marriage, children—as a pragmatic progression appropriate to any normal life. But Evangeline is mesmerized by the exceptional, a vision of transcendence; she has an avarice for the peaks of experience that George inspires. The others are too quickly satisfied by the everyday.

Why did you dispatch George to New Zealand? Simply to get him as far away as possible?

Evangeline’s trust in George’s extraordinary spirit is at first absolute. Like him, she sees New Zealand as the acme of what he calls his “solitary will.” (As for me, I never for even a minute believed that George went to New Zealand.) So immersed is she in George’s tenets that she takes the preposterous for the truly original, while we can see (or maybe not?) that New Zealand is no more than a never-never land.

But only look at his history as he tells it: his parents a double suicide, à la Stefan Zweig and his wife; his great-uncle and his great-aunt vaudevillians, their closets stuffed with costumes (is his showy jacket one of these?); his having his supper in the wings while the show goes on; his sojourn at the Waldorf; his claim that New Zealand is the founder of the digital age; and so on and so on. All this excites Evangeline’s imagination. The proof of her devotion is her revelation of what might account for his not showing up: “He meant to shock her, he meant to undo her expectation. . . . The shock of his disappearance was not a negation of the Pact; it was its electrifying fulfillment.”

Why do you think he does break the Pact in the end? Does he lose interest? Is he ashamed of not having lived up to it? Or is it impossible to know?

My guess is that he is as mercurial as his inventions and gets tired of his one remaining acolyte, and moves on to find fresh ones. There may be other reasons: whatever they are, they are sure to be implausible. (Ultimate implausibility characterizes fanaticism.)

The story has an ornithological theme: Nate Vogel, a devoted bird-watcher, has a name that means “bird”; George has orange elbow patches the color of a parrot; he and Evangeline meet on a park bench covered in owl droppings. How did birds become a motif for this story?

Birds, yes, but also other creatures of pedantic interest, including seals and sea lions, and evolutionary wonders such as dinosaurs becoming birds, and hippos deriving from dolphins. All this, as it happens, comes under the rubric of George’s dicta “that eventuality is always inevitability, that the implausible is the true authenticity.” These apply also to Evangeline’s marriage to Nate Vogel: Why else would a fantasist end up with a dry fact-collector?

Are these characters going to be part of something longer, or do they exist only within the confines of “The Coast of New Zealand”?

Well, Nate Vogel would be acutely uncomfortable anywhere else; he’s content in his prosaic Stamford, Connecticut—his own never-never land of quotidian desire. But Evangeline? She might turn up wherever folly lies.

Earlier this year you published your seventh novel, “Antiquities.” Are you working on another one? Or will you be sticking to shorter forms for the moment?

A story of six thousand words seems exactly the right thing just now. A story of fewer words—one or two thousand, say—yields a momentary epiphany, while a novel rides on wave after wave of a sea. But a long story, neither the one nor the other, can capture the span, and thereby the meaning, of a life.

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