The Victorian Sage

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Tag: a tale of two cities

History, Fiction and So Forth.

In preparation for a presentation at a symposium in a few weeks, I have been reading for the first time Hayden White. White is the go-to theorist as far as the confluence of literature and history goes, and this is a direction I would like to take. We make sense of history through narrative, and we often use fictional narratives as a way into understanding historical events. To use a familiar example from my reading, in his 1859 preface to A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens says:

Whenever any reference (whenever slight) is made here to the condition of the French people before or during the revolution, it is truly made, on the faith of the most trustworthy witnesses. It has been one of my hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time, though no one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr Carlyle’s wonderful book.

So Dickens was motivated by, among other things, the wish to enhance public understanding of the French Revolution, though he is perhaps somewhat naive in believing that the philosophy underlying that event is entirely set down in Carlyle’s “wonderful book”. He wasn’t adding anything to Carlyle’s philosophy, just reproducing it, and doing so in a more accessible manner. Two Cities has gone on to be the most popular novel ever, according to Wikipedia (albeit no proper citation for this stat is provided – but it’s one of the most popular, at any rate). Taking his Carlylean source, Dickens managed to create for popular consumption a vision of a great historical event that communicated certain ideas about that event, that posited a certain meaning of that event. There are a few ways you could formulate Dickens’ “message” in the book: perhaps the most important element was that of retribution or nemesis – the rich kind of deserved it, or at least brought it on themselves:

It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee, and it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw. Such vapouring, combined with the extravagant plots of Monseigneur for the restoration of a state of things that had utterly exhausted itself, and worn out Heaven and earth as well as itself, was hard to be endured without some remonstrance by any sane man who knew the truth. (Two Cities, Bk. II, Ch. 7)

So it was a harvest: it didn’t come from nowhere. This is, in a way, quite a benign and optimistic reading of the French Revolution. If you don’t want a bloody harvest, then don’t sow one! It was a matter of injustice, cruelty, selfishness on the part of the nobles. Be less selfish and more open to change, and revolution won’t happen. This was not a meaning for the past or about the past, it was a meaning derived from a narrative of the past that was applicable to Dickens’ own contemporaries (or so he thought). He doesn’t really make this explicit, but coming on the back of the several explicit Condition-of-England novels he had just written, such a reading is hard to avoid. He does say in the famous opening that the time in question was very like “the present period”. History is not just history, it also has lessons for the present and the future. The present is the past, give or take a variable number of elements. What the past  means, then, is very important for reading the future and for future conduct. Therein lies its interest.

Hayden White, as a theorist of history, says that, “ideology is the central problem of intellectual history because intellectual history has to do with meaning, its production, distribution, and consumption, so to speak, in different historical epochs” (190). Each epoch, then, has to produce meaning anew (though never wholly anew, either, always inflected by the past), and the task of the intellectual historian is to analyze the means by which meaning is produced within different social and cultural milieus. White’s approach to this is purely semiological, based on an apparent belief in the possibility of outlining a sophisticated sign system at play in any given work, and citing Barthes’ S/Z as a model (196). The faith in semiology dates White a bit, though even at the time the book was published (1987), semiology was already passed its heyday in the humanities. White uses it here for an interesting reading of The Education of Henry Adams, a book I haven’t read. The Education is an autobiographical text, therefore factual, therefore a historical document. Biography is by definition on one end of the scale in terms of truth; fiction is at the other.

Biography 1. the process of recording the events and circumstances of another person’s life, esp. for publication (latterly in any of various written, recorded, or visual media); the documenting of individual life histories (and, later, other forms of thematic historical narrative), considered as a genre of writing or social history.

 Fiction 4.a. The species of literature which is concerned with the narration of imaginary events and the portraiture of imaginary characters; fictitious composition. Now usually, prose novels and stories collectively; the composition of works of this class.

Biography documents; fiction invents. But really what biography can ever be wholly documentary, and not at all subjective? And what fiction can wholly escape the world? Do we not always read to find something out about the world we live in? Even fantasy obeys rules of realism in the realms such as that of character motivation, if not in that of setting (but, again, how many fantasy setting are recognizably of this world – Game of Thrones is basically set in the European middle ages, for example [with dragons]). So, invention and documentation are on a continuum: fiction cannot be wholly fictional; documentary cannot be wholly documentary – but in relative terms, a text may be more or less fictional, and by implication less or more documentary, without approaching the absolute in terms of either concept.

Historical fiction is thus the paradigmatic text. It is avowedly both documentary and fictional, both of the real world and of the world of the imagination. It explicitly is what other texts effectively are. Avrom Fleischmann sets out some criteria for a historical novel in The English Historical Novel:

1 The plot must include a number of historical events, particularly those in the public sphere, mingled with and affecting the personal lives of the characters.

2 At least one historical figure must appear in the novel.

and, more abstractly

3 The novel must convey, by imaginative sympathy, the feeling of how it was to be alive in another age.

Time-wise, Fleischmann suggests that the historical novel has to take place at least 40-60 years in the past, which he admits is somewhat arbitrary.

Apropos of the last point, I would suggest another reasonable way of gauging it would be that the novel must be set in a time before the target readership were born; or,alternatively, before the author was born [this would probably have a significant overlap with Fleischmann’s criterion, as – guessing – I’d say the majority of books may well be written by persons aged between 40 and 60.]

Apropos of 2, I don’t think there is any historical figure in Two Cities, but it would seem odd to suggest that it is not, therefore, a historical novel. Indeed, it is one of Fleischmann’s primary discussion texts, and he doesn’t mention its failure to comply with his rule at all. Still, I would prefer to see it as an exception to a decent rule, rather than a proof of the invalidity of said rule. Classically, in novels like War and Peace. one will find real historical figures mingling with the fictional characters.

There are also novels of contemporary history; and narratives of contemporary history in other media. One thinks of a series like The Newsroom, in which the plots revolve around actual news stories, be they the Trayvon Martin case, the Petraeus affair, or whatever. But what is the purpose of such narratives? Do we as receivers use narratives to help us think through important public issues? Or do authors use such events to foist their ideas on us, and to tell us how to think about such matters? Some do, certainly. But there is no choice. We cannot use narrative for pure escapism; we are shaped by reality, and it is always with us. We can only begin to analyze the ways in which reality inflects our imaginative works, and the place to start is those works which are both imagination and factual; from here we can begin to understand how imagination works with and works on reality. Narrative cannot shape physical reality, but it can shape our ways of perceiving it, and we, in turn, shape in more or less important ways the physical reality that surrounds us. The way we shape it may well be in line with the narratives we hear and internalize. W.B. Yeats once asked, “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” The answer: I don’t know about that case specifically, but in general the stories we tell ourselves and each other do seem to empower us to act in certain ways. The great religions of history are built on stories; more recently we have tried to remove the narrative from our understanding of the world; science deals with the physical, laws and charters with the moral. Narrative is relegated to the subsidiary role of entertainment and escapism – and rightly so! I don’t want to suggest that we should live according to some story to which we ascribe divine significance. If we could take stories for what they are, as being always completely sui generis, and not as representations of deep and unalterable general truths, we would perhaps be better off. But can we? And by “we” I don’t mean me. I mean, arrogantly, all of those persons for whom a story has an extractable lesson, a nutshell, a content inside and outside the form, for whom it attains the grandeur of a moral lesson, even a foundational myth, even The Word of God. All of those people who experience events and stories symbolically, and who seemingly have to do so to find this world livable.

A story is only itself, just as a fact is only itself. A story about a fact is many things, a dialectic of event and reaction, and a shadow of many other events and reactions. There is no end to the things it can be. But it can never be one exact thing, except, tautologically, its ungraspable, indefinable, practically inexistent self.

Avrom Fleischmann, The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1971)

Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1990)

Civilizational Apocalypse in The Dark Knight Rises

Revolution and the overthrow of all the reigning structures of power and governance is one of the great fantasies of the post-industrial individual. We all want  to do it. The ambivalence we feel for society is noted in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1930):

Primitive man was actually better off, because his drives were not restricted. yet this was counterbalanced by the fact that he had little certainty of enjoying his good fortune for long. Civilized man has traded in a portion of his chances of happiness for a certain measure of  security. (65)

[C]ivilization is built up on renunciation […], it presupposes the non-satisfaction of powerful drives – by suppression, repression or some other means. (44)

It is in the nature of things that a sense of gratitude for the increase in security wears off along with the memory of the insecurity of early stages of civilization, and we begin to consider those thwarted drives of ours, and consider how much civilization weighs down upon us, and, as Freud notes, decreases our chances of happiness. This is why, perhaps, one of the great fantasies of popular culture is the breakdown of civilization, a total social apocalypse. It’s not something we would want to experience in real life, probably – remember that additional license brings additional personal insecurity, increased threat from nature and our fellow humans – but we have to have some outlet for that aggression borne of those repressed or suppressed drives. If we can express our hostility to civilization by destroying it in imagination, that will perhaps be enough.

This is where film comes up trumps. It is the great medium of violence and destruction. Societal breakdown can be done in books, but film engages the senses directly, and destruction is an experience of the senses. In literature, Dickens took on modern history’s greatest societal breakdown of the French Revolution in his A Tale of Two Cities, and made the climactic set-piece a description of the mob violence in inner-city Paris. For effect he relies heavily on the recurring metaphor of the rising sea to describe the mob:

The sea of black and threatening waters, and of destructive upheaving of wave against wave,whose depths were yet unfathomed and whose forces were yet unknown. The remorseless sea of turbulently swaying shapes, voices of vengeance, and faces hardened in the furnaces of suffering until the touch of pity could make no mark on them, (A Tale of Two Cities, Bk. II, Ch. 21.)

This is a relevant example because a recent blockbuster film, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), has taken its cue from Dickens’ book in depicting the end of civilization as we know it, as Christopher Nolan (director and screenwriter) and Jonathan Nolan (screenwriter) made clear. The influence is apparent also in the film, where there are a few nods, most notably a certain character’s graveside oration being taken from the famous closing paragraphs of the novel.

The Dark Knight Rises uses Dickens to deal with issues around total societal breakdown and civilization’s descent into anarchy leavened with kakistocracy. The film’s villain, Bane, is concerned to usher in “the next era of western civilization”, and to do so he takes over Gotham, imprisoning or killing all the politicians and fatcats of the business world and invoking “giving Gotham back to the people” rhetoric. There are some cathartic scenes of mob violence and a breaking-open-the-prison scene reminiscent of Dickens’ Bastille scene. We see all the rich and powerful being “ripped from their decadent nests”, as Bane puts it, and getting their comeuppance. We’ve already been shown their corruption in the early parts of the film, so there’s no sympathy.




But Nolan’s sympathies aren’t really with the mob at all, and the people of Gotham never rise above a faceless mass. Apparently the people’s republic is run entirely by criminals; all the decent people just hide in their homes, it is implied, and we never meet any of them. In fact, one of the big problems with this film for me, judging it as a piece of socially and politically engaged work of narrative art rather than simply a superhero film, is how narrow its character-base is: everyone’s either a criminal or a cop. (I think, by the way, it wants to be judged as more than a superhero film, and that’s why they publicized their use of Dickens: he has a certain intellectual cachet they want to appropriate.) The criminal or cop thing is a problem: eventually, the film will have to come down on one very narrowly defined side, and that side definitely isn’t going to be the criminals.

And that’s what happens. The eventual reclaiming of the city from the Bane faction is undertaken by Batman with the help of a huge cohort of policemen who have been trapped underground but now burst forth into daylight. The huge final set-piece is a street battle of cops still in their blues versus Bane’s mercenaries. While Gotham’s general population are apparently hiding in their bedrooms, the police come along and do all the work. The camera lingers on them and a tribal beat kicks in as they line up in an orderly fashion to begin battle against the usurpers.

Cops ready for battle

Cops ready to battle to take back Gotham

So it’s a fairly blatant authoritarian fantasy at this point, one that asks: what if the police were freed up to really clean up the streets and take out the trash without holding back? Wouldn’t that be awesome? At the end of a film that has seemed to question western civilization to its very core, to announce the death of the American way, to allow Bane to call his revolution a “necessary evil” and imply (by the depiction of absolute and ineradicable corruption among Gotham’s elite) that he’s right, it’s back to square one: the same old militaristic and authoritarian fantasy. The same institutions. The same cops. It’s not consistent and it’s not smart. It just means that, ultimately, The Dark Knight Rises isn’t an interesting film, and it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s not Kubrick.

It’s dangerous, too, if we get back to Freud. The aggression felt in Gotham against society is eventually channeled into aggressive action upholding the very institutions that are responsible for the forcible repression. The way to escape being repressed is to channel it all into repressing others. That’s the one socially and legally viable expression of primal drives. It’s a very vicious cycle (“vicious” in more than one sense). This approximates to Freud’s account of the formation of the super-ego: “The aggression is introjected, internalized. actually sent back to where it came from; in other words, it is directed against the individual’s own ego. There it is taken over by a portion of the ego that sets itself up as the super-ego” (77). So if one wanted to make a purely Freudian reading, Bane and co are the ego, because the superego (the cops and Batman) turns its aggression on them. But what the aggression that could be against society is really being turned against in the diegetic world are a group of criminals and neer-do-wells whose guilt has already been clearly established by the objective eye of the camera. The fantasy at work is of having one’s cake of security in civilization and eating it in the form of permitted aggression against a group who wholly deserve it. As long as there’s a Bad Group who can be punished with compunction, civilization’s strictures aren’t unbearable. Freud mentions this too:

One should not belittle the advantage that is enjoyed by a fairly small cultural circle, which is that it allows the aggressive drive an outlet in the form of hostility to outsiders. It is always possible to bind quite large numbers of people in love, provided that others are left out as targets for aggression. (64)

Gotham has that now. And. as far as the old guard are concerned, all is forgiven.

The Future of Gotham

So one might engage in a bit of speculation as to what happens in Gotham after Bane has been defeated. Firstly, who’s in charge? The police, one supposes. It’s now a police state. As a symbol and an icon, Batman’s in charge (we see his statue being erected in a plaza downtown, as the local dignitaries look on), but as a person, he’s out of the picture. But symbols are important, as Nolan’s trilogy has always made clear. “The idea was to be a symbol”, Bruce Wayne says in Rises; Dent was a symbol: that was how pre-Bane society kept from anarchy. Symbols are more important than actual people. Now, they’ve got a new symbol, but no new ideas or no new possibilities for structures. Father Reilly is still around, too, taking the kids into Wayne Manor, which is to be an orphanage. Maybe religion isn’t dead in the new land. The point is, though, people are feeling good. Foley represented the lazy, unmotivated cop, but even he got off his ass when he saw the Bat-symbol light up the sky and knew the fight against Bane was on. It’s a new symbol, not a new regime. The regime might be liberal-capitalism, fascist, feudalist (like the time of Thomas Wayne as depicted in the first of Nolan’s trilogy, Batman Begins). Doesn’t matter. It’s about Real Heroes/ Symbols, not structures.

But one could wish Nolan had put in some real people – as in, not just police. The citizens sat on their asses till the police who had been buried underground broke free and took back the town. And Nolan even feels no need to acknowledge the people. He doesn’t even dramatize their cowardice. They just don’t exist. They’re nothings, waiting for some real cops with proper training to get shit done. But I guess that’s the superhero genre: it’s not a democratic genre. It’s fascistic. In so far as community is invoked, it’s a community of well-drilled fighting men. In the end, commitment to genre values maybe trumped what Nolan might have wanted to say about society and history. Or maybe he really is into the idea of the police-state.

Could Nolan have learned anything from Dickens’ book here? The thing about Two Cities is that for all the stuff about revolution, it ends up being a personal drama. Why does Carton die? For his beloved, Lucie. Does his sacrifice mean anything in terms of the revolution? Nope, nobody even knows except Lucie and her family. It’s an act of private heroism that doesn’t really redeem the situation. Nothing changes. Maybe the message one can pick up from these two works is just that nobody knows what comes after a revolution. It’s hard to create an diegesis of post-revolutional society and rebuilding structures. All bets are off. A police-state is probably as good a guess as any. The French Revolution didn’t take long in giving birth to a dictatorship under a military leader. In Gotham, maybe Gordon takes over; he was in charge of the resistance to Bane, at any rate. Not much of a political innovator, Gordon. He’ll just reinstate the old regime, the old structures of power. Soon he’ll be maneuvered out of power by some ruthless young punk. Remember the exchange at the beginning of the film: the congressman says Wayne is about to be fired because he’s a war hero and “this is peace”. Some of those old Machiavellians might still be around, or if not, there are more where they came from. Give it eight months, Gordon will be gone; give it eight years, Gotham is back where it was: a steaming pile of corruption and a disenchanted populace. Something terroristic will grow. Remember Bane’s revolution was a harvest, and in this Dickens’ philosophy was key:

It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee, and it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw. Such vapouring, combined with the extravagant plots of Monseigneur for the restoration of a state of things that had utterly exhausted itself, and worn out Heaven and earth as well as itself, was hard to be endured without some remonstrance by any sane man who knew the truth. (Two Cities, Bk. II, Ch. 7)

The theory of revolutions and of necessary evil in Rises means that things have to change to stop all this happening again. Again, Nolan is clear that it’s a harvest: there was a causal connection between the draconian Dent-Act-era politics and the Bane uprising. So my prognostication for Gotham is grim: nothing’s changed, the happy-clappy dancing around the Bat-symbol can’t last long, and soon the reign of idealism will give way to materialism, responses grounded in actual conditions of living, and the structures will fail again, because they have every time so far. The Dark Knight will have little choice but to Rise again, but in the meantime he should brush up on political theory – maybe try something socialist going next time, help the proletariat to lose their chains? Symbols will only get you so far for so long, and this is the one thing Gotham’s never tried.

Re-reading A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities may be the best-selling novel of all time. Wikipedia’s list of best-selling novels gives it top spot, but the citation for its sales is a Telegraph article by novelist David Mitchell in which he makes a passing comment to that effect. Other sources agree, but I’ve come up with nothing authoritative. Still others say Don Quijote or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. But the Tale is definitely up there. For the Dickensian, it’s an odd one. It is not very Dickensian, in some respects. It has little in the way of comedy, with only the grave-robber Jerry Cruncher playing a comic role, with his constant suspicions that his wife is “floppin'” against him. Even that has an uncomfortable edge of darkness in the suggestions of domestic abuse. Reading the book, I was reminded of George Orwell’s comment on Dickens:

He is all fragments, all details – rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles.

The Tale is pretty short and streamlined, so it has very few gargoyles. If Orwell is right, it’s lacking the very thing that makes Dickens special. Ironic, then, that it’s apparently his most read book.

But the great advantage the book has had is its historical setting. The French Revolution remains fascinating as an example of things falling apart, humanity going way out there, a civilized society giving way to wholesale butchery of its own citizens. It is, and certainly was in the 19th-century, something that needs to be made sense of. Even very recently, Jonathan Nolan, co-scriptwriter of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) cited this as the reason he tried to draw on the Tale for his script:

A Tale of Two Cities was, to me, one of the most harrowing portraits of a relatable, recognizable civilization that completely folded to pieces with the terrors in Paris in France in that period. It’s hard to imagine that things can go that badly wrong.

So the book can appeal to the many people to whom the idea of literature in its purest form is uninteresting. This isn’t just literature; it’s an interpretation of a great and cataclysmic historical event. It’s both dramatic and instructive. There’s a way into the story for the non-literary. Dickens and his contemporaries would have been more aware of this element than many academic readers of today. They had read their Carlyle, for starters:

[L]et any one bethink him how impressive the smallest historical fact may become, as contrasted with the grandest fictitious event; what an incalculable force lies for us in this Consideration: The Thing which I hold here imaged in my mind did actually occur; was, in very truth, an element of the All, whereof I too form part; had, therefore, and has, through all time, an authentic being; is not a dream, but a reality! (“Biography”, 1832)

What Carlyle wanted, and what he got, was novelists using the raw materials of society and of history to construct their works upon. Fiction is not a realm apart, but is, to a great extent, a way of making sense of the world and of humanity.

And Dickens certainly had a message about the French Revolution and how his readers were to make sense of it, albeit a fairly obvious one: it was a result of aristocratic greed, selfishness and negligence. It was payback. If the peasants had been better treated, it wouldn’t have happened.

It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee, and it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw. (Bk. II, Ch. 24)

This philosophy provides part of the architecture of the book: show the evils of the ancien regime, and then show the “harvest”. In the many reflections of such themes throughout the book, Dickens adopts a sternly portentous tone, contributing to the impression of humourlessness the book creates. It’s Dickens playing the role of the sage, incorporating his reading of Carlyle into his writing style. But it’s probably the seriousness of tone of this book that recommends it to latter-day readers like Jonathan Nolan. Indeed, the time may be ripe for a new adaptation of the Tale – incredibly, there doesn’t seem to have been a cinematic adaptation since the Dirk Bogarde one of 1958, according to an IMDb search. Maybe 2011-2012 would have been the time, with the Arab Spring, the European financial meltdown, and a generalized anger against political structures and politicians, for a Tale for our times.

Any new approach to the book would have to change a lot. Though Dickens’ humour is mostly absent, his other prominent characteristic of sentimentality is very much present. This centres mostly on the egregious Lucie Manette, one of the Dickensian dolls modern-day readers (me included) find insufferable. Despite the subject, there’s also a surprising smugness to Dickens’ portrayal of the English national character as it  is demonstrated by Jarvis Lorry and Mrs Pross. Lorry is the English man of business, associated with dullness, solidity and honesty. Pross represents the born servant, fit for little else but happy with her lot:

[Miss Pross was] one of those unselfish creatures—found only among women—who will, for pure love and admiration, bind themselves willing slaves, to youth when they have lost it, to beauty that they never had, to accomplishments that they were never fortunate enough to gain, to bright hopes that never shone upon their own sombre lives.

Her final struggle with Madame Defarge is a sort of stereotype death match, in which English self-denial, practicality, and honesty defeats French excitability and passion. Here again, Dickens reminds me of Carlyle, who had praised stupidity in Past and Present (Bk. III, Ch. 5) as being a predominantly English characteristic, and one allied with practicality and good sense. Dickens, like Carlyle, seems to be positing that for such people, national glory can and should be a substitute for any sort of commitment to oneself. For Dickens, Prossian self-denial is also dubiously linked with gender. She’s a little like the heroine of Flaubert’s “Un Coeur Simple” as a character, but the authorial ideology surrounding them is totally different, and Flaubert’s treatment of his protagonist is much more searching and less complacent.

So there’s quite a bit to cavil at in this book, as in most of Dickens. It has that wonderfully dramatic and iconic last scene, which can probably be pictured even by those who have never read the book, so deeply is it entrenched in cultural memory. As much as anything, it’s the iconography of the guillotine, awesome and terrible, that we think of when we think of the Tale, and that gives such resonance to the work. The intrinsic merits of the book, when divorced from its status as the pre-eminent fictional approach to a milestone in history, are not that great. But because that historical context is there, the Tale is still relevant to modern approaches to fictionalizing history, like The Dark Knight Rises. The book is a way in to all sorts of speculations about history and civilizational development. Like animals for certain Amazonian tribes, A Tale of Two Cities is “good to think”.

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