Archive for the ‘Portable Feasts’ Category

It Ain’t ‘alf ‘ot, man: Richard Miller buzzkills Barthes’ (Bliss-Pleasure)

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Product Details“[R]eading as eros.” “[W]riting as seduction.” (Sure, why not.)  (Is that a record for the most apostrophes in one phrase?)

I’m really struggling with Richard Miller’s translation of Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of The Text. (Pleasure not as in “pleasure”, but as in “bliss”.) Really. Struggling. The slim-tome shows promise. (Promise not as in “promise”, but as in “potential”) It has a table of contents of some nifty French words, but in the book itself, there are no titles – just divider lines. So, big effing help there.

The text itself sounds like translated notes: choppy, random, curt. There are too many interstitial comments that refer to the lack of an English equivalent or NO English equivalent. This gets exceedingly tedious early on. Have I run into something over my head? Miller’s introduction does mention that our farmyard English is not good enough to translate French subtleties regarding pleasures (“bliss”) of the flesh. With that, I totally agree.

The blissful parts of the book – to use Miller’s code for Barthes’s jouissance – are intermittent little flashes of lucidity and exhibitions of theme-and-variation:

“In Phillip Soller’s Lois, everything is attacked, dismantled…; often it is a powerful gush of words, a ribbon of infra-language. The dismantling of language is intersected by political assertion…”

In Severo Sarduy’s Cobra, the alternation is that of two pleasures in a state of competition; … Language reconstructs itself elsewhere under the teeming flux of every kind of linguistic pleasure.”

“Flaubert: a way of cutting, of perforating discourse without rendering it meaningless.”

This is criticism from reading for oneself, I think. Then there are readings for the sake of high criticism. For example:

“Here, moreover, drawn from psychoanalysis, is an indirect way of establishing the opposition between the text of pleasure and the text of bliss: pleasure can be expressed in words; bliss cannot.”

“…[C]riticism always deals with the texts of pleasure, never the texts of bliss: Flaubert, Proust, Stendahl are discussed inexhaustibly; thus criticism speaks the futile bliss of the tutor text,… criticism is always historical or prospective:…”

Here’s some other stuff that I understood (despite my lack of French vocabulary – or subtlety):

Two Systems of reading: (1) Fast reading. It’s not about the play of language, the nuances of syntax. It’s about information, therefore there’s no verbal “loss” if you read quickly. (2) Slow reading. You can tell when something needs to be read slowly. Patterns require attention. The play of words needs to be enjoyed at leisure. There is “layering of significance” that is only possible during slow reading. Those layers remain opaque if you speed-read.

I read that and I was all like, “Holy F*ck, I understood that!” Maybe I shouldn’t give up so soon. This book is a perfect example of something that should be read slowly. As I get further into it, connotations of “bliss” and “pleasure” are slowly revealing themselves to me.

Barthes mentions Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva, which make me “blissful” because I just finished a graduate course in literary theory and criticism and those were two of the critics we studied. (No one wants to be called a literary critic anymore, btw. They want to be called by their “trades”: psychologists, linguists, political dissidents, etc. If you don’t want to be called a critic, don’t critique. Seriously.)

To reiterate, as I read further into the book, the meanings of “bliss”, “pleasure” are slowly revealing themselves. An “Oedipal pleasure” – “To denude, to know, to learn the origin and the end.”

Narrative: an “unveiling of the truth.”

The “excitation” of reading lies in the “hope” or “in knowing the end” of the story.

The eroticism of reading lies in the gaps – like when a woman’s blouse gaps open to show a glimpse of breast. It’s such a pimply, adolescent attitude. But it explains the appeal of a story (at least to me) of Thomas Pynchon’s “Entropy”, a short story designed from paralepses. Where the story gaps is where the best tension is. Sudden, unexpected shifts reveal another room, another person and another life, with no explanation why the narrative shifts back and forth. So I’m guessing that the eroticism of the novel reveals itself in its flawed architecture.

The novel is a body. What makes a body sexy is the imagination of the viewer, as well as the body itself. One views the beauty, but then the imagination kicks in and starts to desire to do things with that beauty, that body. The novel is (as I understand it) the pretty lady or handsome man that we fantasize about on the commute to work. We want to see their naughty bits and think about them and linger over them. (We are conscious of when the book gets good – the language more engrossing and demanding our undivided attention.)

…you know where this will lead. We will submit to the demands of the flesh (of the text), or we will discover that we are not compatible (we prefer not to submit to the demands of the text).

…the French…le sigh…


Cobra: And, MaitreyaProduct DetailsProduct Details



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Today, on the first day of the “winter” break, there’s much to be done.  Christmas cards. Dry cleaners.  Post office.  Groceries.  Arsenal vs. Man City rerun.  But the impulse to write hit me and all else fell away.  My body seems to know when it’s time to hit the keyboard.  Or mini-me (my mini-lappie) or even a notepad.  My body told me what to do today.  Specifically, it let me know that it was time to write about this book:The Writing Life

Some books are like jewels, like my “portable feasts” books.  This book is a perfect, sweet opal, full of charming vignettes.  But it’s so much more than charm.  It’s opalescent quality comes from these heartfelt, LIVED moments in real time.  Discoveries were made, analogies were generated, faith was lost, faith was restored.  Through it all, Dillard’s humor winks at us in daring and in cheekiness.  “Aim for the chopping block”, she writes.  The physical act is not the objective.  Write towards the vision. 


Once, in order to finish a book I was writing and yet not live in the same room with it, I begged a cabin to use as a study.  I finished the book there, wrote some other things, and learned to split wood.

Simple conversation, on the surface, but rub it a bit and wisdom shines through. 

(1) Living with writing: it’s a bit like having a child in the house – or a tenant.  Sooner, rather than later, they will need your undivided attention, no matter what else of import may be occurring.  You are the only one who can deliver that attention.  You can’t hand it off to a nanny or a text message.

(2)  Writing that occurs while you’re writing something else.  The entire time I was working on my last post, I was thinking about this one.  It’s awkward and annoying, but typical for me.  One idea begets another.  It’s actually one of the easier things to handle when writing for a specific objective.

(3)  “Learned to split wood”.  Mental links to physical.  Mental activity tied to physical activity.  That’s why writing and typing are so satisfying.  I’m thinking and generating and rehearsing and arguing.  In my head.  My body is washing dishes, ironing, grading papers, talking with someone.  Not always, mind you.  Sometimes I just plain close my eyes and rehearse something in my head, or play with shapes. 

The current’s got me.  Feels like I’m about in the middle of the channel now.  I just keep at it.  I just keep hoping the tide will turn and bring me in.

God, when I was writing my research paper on “The Dream of Gerontius” by Newman, this is what it felt like.  My vision had no shape, no objective other than to cram in other people’s thoughts and either agree or disagree. It was hard!  I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it.  But I just kept re-reading the poem – the sections where Gerontius or his soul were speaking.  Making comments about what certain lines sounded like, what they reminded me of.  I researched the Latin bits (the only part I truly enjoyed).  So my first, second, and third drafts sounded more like marginalia than erudite scholasticism.  But after about five pages of observations, translations, and kvetches, I had enough wood to grow a stump.  I saw a couple of different patterns I could exploit.  I started to chop some wood, aiming for the stump.  I managed a decent paper.  I tried to do right by the research process.  My insights were scholarly, if not very far-reaching. I was happy with the end product.  I had chopped enough wood.  But I never enjoyed it.  What I did enjoy were the small moments – a turn of phrase, the seamless fabric of quotes and original wording, shaping the vision, working with Latin.  Lots of swimming and a lucky tide.

The written word is weak.  Many people prefer life to it.  Life gets your blood going, and it smells good.  Writing is mere writing, literature is mere.

This is why people don’t like writing – because you can only be admired for it in hindsight.  Never while it’s happening.  While it’s happening, you are judged harshly for not doing something “active” and “useful”.  When it’s all done, though, the tune changes.  It’s a thing created.  After it’s done, it looks like it was work.  When you were working on it, you just looked lazy.  This is the exception to the rule that you can see more clearly from a distance.  Writing doesn’t look like much when it’s happening.  But if you could see inside the brain, you’d see  the synapses firing like crazy and blood flowing through the creative, then the analytical parts of the brain; one then the other then both.  In teaching, this is why non-English people have trouble taking writing seriously. 

You don’t realize how much work it is until you have to do it yourself.  Then you realize you can’t do it well; it’s not as easy as it looks, an denigrate it even more.  _____________________________________________________________

image         image



clip_image002  Heraclitus §  FRAGMENTS


This is an edition well-named.  In fact, when I saw how sketchy the fragments were, I was ready to send this book back.  They look more like marginalia than a work of philosophy.  Like Heraclitus was hanging out at the lyceum one day and was bored and doodling on his papyrus or whatever. 


Then…THEN, I started reading.  It was like…like…going backwards in time, shuffling my mental rolodex through poets, essayists, novelists, philosophers, teachers that I had met in my past lives.  So powerful was the familiarity of the ideas presented in this svelte, chic volume. 


Some of it sounds like it came from the Bible.  Some of it sounds like it came from “The Epic of Gilgamesh”.  The rhythm (as much as it can be rhythmic) feels like “The Hollow Men” by Eliot.  The moments of transmutation mimic Ovid.  Or did Ovid mimic Heraclitus?  If the tidbits are this good, the complete works must probably constitute the Atlantis of ancient literature.


Between FRAGMENTS, and “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, the Bible – as a work of literature – sounds modern.  I can appreciate even more, what a stupendous collection of genres it constitutes now that I have seen what came before.


If you have followed this blog over the last couple of years, you know how I feel about introductory elements.  Introductions, forewords, afterwords, tables of content, etc.  Most of the time, they are just there to make the page count.  Very few have I considered useful.  The Foreword by James Hillman is outstanding.  It states its points clearly with out any Harold Bloom-style posturing from a LazyBoy up on Mt. Parnassus.  Succinct, Spartan prose combined with luminous and illuminating perception. It was a pleasure to read, and it was interesting. 


Hillman pretty much had me at “archetypal”.  That’s from the first sentence.  And thanks to his Foreword, I understand what “deconstructivist” means.  Paragraph two contains a handy summing up of the pre-Socratics:


“Early Greek thinkers sought the stuff of which the world was made.  For Thales it was water; for Anaximenes, air; for Anaximander, a combination of hot and cold.  Empedocles expanded the stuff to four indestructible elemental principles, while Anaxagoras is said to have proposed innumerable generative seeds composing the nature of things.”


As a lover of words, I’m fascinated by the prefix “Anax-”.  A prefix like that with its accompanying variations naturally leads me to wonder what it means.  Is that a Hellenic prefix?


“Heraclitus took a different tack.  His method is more psychological.”


Thank you. Seriously.  Because of that introduction, everything that came after made sense and was easy to understand.


The first part of FRAGMENTS resonates with history and poetry – I am overwhelmed by a sense of familiarity, like that feeling you get when you walk in your front door after days away, except intensified because I did not expect to find something like this here.  The same thing happened when I first read the beginning of Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES.  (I found out from my English prof that the transmutation style was popular at the time and it was really no big deal that it sounded just like the Bible.  It was like “duh!”  Sigh…)


The word “fire” appears a lot in the frags.  Hillman explains that it was, quite possibly, Heraclitus’s way of expressing “flux” – “a metaphor for the shifting meanings of all truth.”  The idea of flux is the firing synapse that sparks memories of other writers, other literatures, other philosophies.  For example, H. wrote “Just as the river where I step/is not the same, and is,/so I am as I am not.” (81)  (See also frag 41.)  Translation: you can’t go home again.  (Thomas Wolfe).  Someone else, I don’t remember, also said something along the lines of “you can’t step in the same river twice.”


Fragment #4:  “People dull their wits with gibberish,/and cannot use their ears and eyes.”

Fragment #5:  “Many fail to grasp what they have seen,/ and cannot judge what they have learned,/although they tell themselves they know.”


Eminem and Dr. Dre: in modern parlance…


Nowadays everybody wanna talk like they got something to say
But nothin comes out when they move they lips
Just a buncha gibberish
And muthafuckas act like they forgot about Dre.


Yeah, I know. But why not???


“What was scattered/gathers./what was gathered /blows apart.


A good visualization of this idea is the Tao.  One color is eternally in the process of becoming the other. The book’s most consistent theme is that of the convergence of opposites.  They exist together, change together, not necessarily causing the other, but each creating space for the other to exist.  Almost baroque in the way each force plays out its own melody in harmony with other forces, all going in the same direction, but in their own way.


Ø  “Harmony needs low and high/as progeny needs/ man and woman.”


Ø  “From the strain/ of binding opposites/ Comes harmony.”


Ø  “The cosmos works/ by harmony and tensions/ like the lyre and bow.”


After the Bible, and alongside Gilgamesh, this is one of the most resonant works I’ve ever read.  Even more so than “Prometheus Bound”.  It’s magic!



The Epic of Gilgamesh at


Perseus Digital Library – awesome site for ancient documents including Greek, Latin and Germanic


Fun map of philosophical relations of the pre-socratics






For SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY to be depressing would actually be an improvement. It’s full of reports of cruelty, injustice, vengeance, sadness; overwhelming unfairness and loneliness – both above and below ground. There’s no peace in most of these souls. Being merely depressing would hover refreshingly lightly above its pages.

The dead of Spoon River did “not go gentle into that good night.” They “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Judges whose position brought them no glory, criminals whose only crime was to be desperate: did “not go gentle into that good night.”
Women who wanted more for themselves than others wanted for them, girls whose lives were indentured because they had no one to stand for them “rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Young men who went to war, young women who waited – they are waiting still – did “not go gentle into that good night.”
The accident victims, the murder victims, even the beaten in body and bones – “rage, rage against the dying of the light”.
The wise whose wisdom did not comfort, the innocents who believed until the end, the faithful broken and unbroken; the philosophers, the fools, the found, and the fallen:
All did “not go gentle into that good night.”
All “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
…and that was just the first dozen pages…


So… the whole book is like that. And you look for some photon of hope, some atom of relief from the 16-ton anvil of misery that is this incredible collection of personalities. The blurb is informative, but a bit short-sighted. Yes, there are over two hundred personalities/poems in this book, but after about page 25, you start seeing the same themes come up again and again. Still, it’s a work of such blazing confidence that deserves to be a classic. It’s a huge job. Kind of like, oh, I dunno…memorizing a story like The Iliad or The Odyssey. Or even illustrating the Bible on the ceiling of a church. Yeah, kind of like that.

I bet Edgar Lee Masters was a real ray of sunshine! Poets are not known for sailing smooth seas of emotion. They are a lot like actors: their emotions are a layer of epidermis, whereas for the rest of us, they are more of an internal organ. I have to say, on reading poem after poem of crushed dreams, crushed spirits, cruel ignorance and the usual seven deadly sins, there are, once in a while, people who are at peace and ready to go. This, of course, constitutes a minute minority.

Why should anyone read this steaming pile of desolate wretchedness?

Because each poem is excellently crafted. Because each poem is a human being.

Because you are in the book. Because everyone you know is in the book.

Because if you’re not careful, you’ve seen what happens to the people who made the same mistakes you did.

Because it takes guts to write poetry. Guts to put it out to the public. Guts to defend it.

One thing I was curious about. Why do most of the women in SRA die ugly, miserable deaths? Hmmm? Here I am all defending Edgar Lee Masters, and it looks like he hates women – or feels sorry for them. It’s hard to tell. Good, kind women cut down in the flower of their youth. Girls forced by circumstance to tie themselves to brutal beasts beating the life out of them. I know this really happened, but did it happen so much, or did it color his life so much that almost every female in SPA is a testament to his (a) powers of observation, (b) powers of exploitation, or (c) powers of indignation?

You will probably read this book if you take American Lit in college.  You should read it for the poetry and the artistry and its unique design.  As poetry goes you will more likely pick up this slim tome before you spend a second glance for Pound or Wordsworth.

However, can I just say, (and Nick Hornby agrees with this) who made up the rule that great literature has to be depressing?  Just because writing is about miserable people wallowing in miserable misery, it might last, but the Camus’, the Eliots, the Kafkas and Masters’ of this world forget that the opposite is also true.  There’s beauty, simplicity, generosity, civility and grace in this world.  It’s like trees in a forest.  You may not see them, but you know they’re there. 



Let’s go back in time…when barbarism was the order of the day. Oh wait!  That was last week!   In these times where poetry is either despised for being outdated or violated by rap, I’m proud that we possess verse going back farther than we can imagine.  I think drawing, singing, dancing – and verse – are the oldest, most stubborn survivors of a world that constantly tries to undo them.  Dancing has become blatantly pornographic, as opposed to subtly pornographic.  Singing has been supplanted by amateurish hollering and babbling.  Drawing is more about emotional diarrhea and manifest mental illness than about universal truths or talent.  And VERSE!  Poetic verse absolutely defies every generation’s attempts to ignore it into extinction!

Poets don’t make money.  They don’t go on talk shows.  They don’t guest star on sitcoms.  But they’ve been around since…well, at least since the 3rd millenium B.C.  Perhaps longer.  Wherever there was spoken language, someone must have cobbled together a rhyming couplet. 

The Epic of Gilgamesh was originally written in cuneiform on stone tablets.  I don’t know if it was in verse form, but the story it told has been rendered into both prose and poetry.  When I read it in college, we used a prose version.  I should have kept it.  Now I have a verse version by Herbert Mason from Mentor Books.  With an afterword, no less, instead of a foreword.  It has a very good blurb on the back, with a complete waste-of-space comment by one William Alfred of Harvard University.  It’s all quite nice, but they should have just put it in after the Afterword.  Gilgamesh is a story of such Jungian archetypal richness, it’s like life is spilling all its secrets to you personally.  The story resonates like a tuning fork with associations past and present.

So that’s the big picture.  On reading it, I was shocked the same way I was shocked reading “Birds” by Aristophanes.  The language is so casual, crude even, that I can’t believe the translation is for real.  It’s kind of amusing, really.  Here I am complaining about how porn-y dancing and singing are today, then in the first part of the story, Enkidu, the Sumerian “Tarzan”, is set up to be caught in flagrante delicto with an ancient tart.  What is this? CSI-Sumeria?  So yeah, the story has its quirks. 

There’s a fantastic section where the city of Shurrupak suffers a flood because the gods…well…they thought it was a good idea at the time.  Check this out:

Ea, who was present
At their council, came to my house
And, frightened by the violent winds that filled the /air,
Echoed all that they were planning and had said.
Man of Shurrupak, he said, tear down your house
And build a ship.  Abandon your possessions
And the works that you find beautiful and crave
And save your life instead.  Into the ship
Bring the seed of all the living creatures.

Wow!  Are you starting to make the connections?  This is the 3RD MILLENIUM B.C.!  1500 years before Homer, even.  Amazing!  As you can imagine, this story has made many people over the centuries since its translation VERY uncomfortable.  Every great work of literature has some scandals in its closet, I’m sure.  People are kind of crap that way.

Getting back to the Jungian archetypes, this story is a catalogue of humanity in the same way THE CANTERBURY TALES is a catalogue of British social strata.  Where do I even start?An Old Babylonian Version of the Gilgamesh Epic (Illustrated Edition) (Dodo Press)

    1. Gilgamesh and Enkidu represent two halves of a whole.  They are brothers, friends, enemies, soul-mates.  I think JJ Rousseau may have read this story because he used to philosophize about how a pastoral existence created a true man, whereas a cosmopolitan, urban existence created a pretentious git, out of touch with emotions and his own psyche.
    2. Dream-interpretation.  I love reading about dream interpretation!  I’ve noticed that when I try to describe dreams, what comes out is the language of psychoanalysis (not the Freudian version, however)
    3. The prostitute in the first section is to Enkidu what Eve was to Adam.  A temptress.  Whether she was a bad person or not, is open to interpretation.  But there are some thick associations between hers and Eve’s modus operandi.
    4. The mother figure.  Oy! Such a mother I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy’s dog.  The problem is, the mother is the one who’s in charge of interpreting Gilgamesh’s dreams.  She has every advantage in working his worries to her advantage.  Read D. H. Lawrence’s SONS AND LOVERS.
    5. There’s an extraordinary balance to the psychological evolution of Gilgamesh and Enkidu together.  Gilgamesh was god-like and was brought down to the level of man.  Enkidu was animal-like and rose to the level of man.  They meet in the world of men, travel together, work together, learn from each other, and are undone by human mistakes – hey! just like the rest of us. 
    6. The idea of enduring painful physical journeys in order to reach – not a map destination – but enlightenment.
    Trust me, this is a drop in the symbolism bucket that is THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH.  I would suggest, if you’re going to read an American or European classic, read this story alongside whatever else you’re reading.  You will be amazed at how much more you get out of common era literature.




     leaves of grass cover0001I thought this would be a good opener to National Poetry Month. Whitman is to American poetry what Mark Twain is to American novels. What Chaucer is to English poetry.  What Camus is to French neurotic philosophy.  What Cervantes… yeah, okay. Point made.  The version in the pic is from the Barnes & Noble Collector’s Library.  It’s even got a ribbon book marker. How genteel.

    The more I read through this book, the more similarities I see between Whitman’s poetic style and the poems of Allan Ginsberg.  The labyrinthine sentences bundled up into chunky stanzas, the rhythmic repetitions and jazzy, zig-zaggy time signatures of HOWL, A SUPERMARKET IN CALIFORNIA, and SUNFLOWER SUTRA, just to name a couple.  In fact, Ginsberg mentions Whitman in line one of ASiC.  How exciting to consider that if it hadn’t been for Whitman, some important Beat poetry might not have happened when it did.  We might have had to wait another generation or two, and it might have ended up being “Grunge” poetry.  Like their music isn’t depressing enough.  haha.

    This post is categorized as “Portable Feasts” because this volume is a wallet-sized book with teeny, “eye-strain-o-vision” print.  How tiny is the print? The 4x6x2 inch tome-let contains over 200 poems. Long ones, short ones, popular ones.  Obscure ones.  Well done, Barnes & Noble, you “marketing bonanza” you!  Whitman gets a lot of stick for his rambling. But he strikes me as a person who was very sensitive to nature and loved being out of doors.  Also, I’m Catholic enough to appreciate the structure of a poem like “Pent-up Aching Rivers” with its litany of “Froms”.  Several poems are designed as litanies to the outdoors and the human spirit.  It’s overwhelming how observant Whitman was.  Nothing got past him.  What I especially love about his work is that he’s not just an observer and reporter of objects, he’s an observer of transitions.  He’s incredible.  So much of his poetry is so broad in scope – like a Bierstadt painting…and then there’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”.  Like I said, nothing gets past him.

    The volume has an afterword by, I assume, the editors who compiled this.  I was happy to read that the editors’ take on Whitman’s influences is not far removed from my own observations.  Then there’s an index of titles, an index of opening lines, a biography so compact, it’s a wonder they even bothered, and a quite good blurb on the slipcover.


    Poem Flow By TextTelevision, Inc – download poetry to read on your iPhone.


    Sponsors for Natl. Poetry Month




    THE FIVER: Better than it sounds, smarter than it looks



    The Fiver’s tea-time take on the world of football


    Just like Harold Bloom turns authors’ names into adjectives, THE FIVER turns an alarming variety of bodily noises into verbs — some I didn’t even know were possible by humans. These snippets have been harvested from 2009 columns of THE FIVER. I think their humor writing is absolutely top writing!


    "[We] confirm they have made the offer to Manchester United for the acquisition of the rights of the player [Him]," ole-ole-ole-ed a piece of paper delivered from the Bernabéu by a winged fez-wearing monkey earlier today.

    "At [His] request – who has again expressed [His] desire to leave – and after discussion with [His] representatives, United have agreed to give [Them] permission to talk to [Him]," harrumphed a magnanimous Manchester United club statement this morning.

    "Consultations with Utrecht, the town and the club, have proved fruitless and I want no risk," sniffed Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen.

    "We’re an attractive proposition to other companies," honked an SFA spokesman.

    "If you’re at the club you always wanted to be at, then that goes beyond any money," Beckham wiffled from the fly-speckled porch of his luxury aluminium trailer.

    "He’ll be the last person we sign," puces Ferguson.  [Author’s note: How the F*&$ do you make a color a verb???]

    **This counts towards my "Blog Countdown to South Africa 2010!" 



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