Thoughts On Mankind In There Will Come Soft Rains Analysis Writing Sample

            In his short story “There Will Come Soft Rains,” Ray Bradbury is able to create a believable story without the use of human characters through creating a character in the house itself. It would seem at first glance that the house is the setting of the story;  however, as it goes about its daily routine for the people who no longer exist, except as silhouettes of ash on the west side of the exterior, it begins to emerge as the main character and the setting. The larger setting is, of course, the obliterated wasteland that lay in rubble outside the house. From the setting and the image of the phantom family that the house is programmed to service, the context of the story emerges. This home, the epitome of the modernization and mechanization of society had been built to replace the necessity for human labor in keeping a home. It prepares meals, runs baths, cleans, even reads poetry to the lady of the house in the evening. It had become, before the end, a replacement for human life. When the rest of the world was destroyed, the family vaporized as the worked in their yard one day, the house remains. Without a master it becomes more and more human.

As its day begins, the routines of its former existence are played out in a calculated fashion but this facade falls away as the day goes on and the usefulness of its many gadgets lose their purpose. I don’t think that the house becomes more human but instead, to illustrate its place as a crumbling remnant of human civilization Bradbury has it become more human as its own doom approaches. The windows snapping open at the approach of birds, implying the house is waiting and missing its own purpose. Like human civilization, as implied in the nuclear doomsday imagery, the house ultimately is destroyed by its own carelessness. A bottle of cleaning solvent left on a stove ignites and destroys the house even as it attempts to save itself. At its last moments, Bradbury makes the house its most human with it screaming in the night as it slowly is falls to the ground. In the inanimate but animated character of the house, Bradbury is able to tell the tale of humanity. It becomes its own tragedy and mankind’s own both in its existence and its death.

Lies And Life: The Portrait Of Dorian Gray In Dialogue With Aestheticism’s Aesthetics

In The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes, “The way of paradoxes is the way of truth. To test reality we must see it on the tight rope” (ch 3). In many ways, this line captures the spirit of the entire novel. This book cannot exist entirely in a vacuum, for it was too significant a part of the Aesthetic/Decadent* movement, and it references too directly Wilde’s wildly declaimed aesthetic theories (as presented in “The Decay of Lying”).  Yet it does not exist as a polemic in support of either the movements or the philosophies that Wilde suggests (to do so would, after all, invalidate his own ideals!) – instead, it walks a paradoxical pathway, at moments embodying his arguments and at the next moment critiquing them. While his own stated laws of aesthetics seem to dictate reality in his novel’s world, they simultaneously are brought to question within it.

The novel argues against realism in art by depicting a portrait that is more true-to-life than the man it pictures.  It defies Wilde’s own arguments that life should be lived in imitation of art, by portraying a man whose art-like nature has destroyed all that was pure and passionate within him. It pictures Life and Art poisoning one another as if they were enemies, longing for one another like lovers, and abstaining from one another like ascetics. It is a perhaps such a queer book precisely because one of its stated purposes is to be utterly purposeless and untruthful.

The Portrait as Abomination

Throughout this book, Basil’s masterpiece is reacted against with an often-violent antipathy that is not entirely explained by its appearance alone. If it is, as Basil recognizes when he finally views the image again after many decades, still in the original brushstrokes of the master, then one suspects that the art piece ought to still be beautiful in itself even if portrays the image of an aged and scarred individual. After all, many master painters have created beautiful works of arts that take as their subject an aged, infirm, or even decaying body. It bears to reason then that the cause for this horror is not so much that the portrait has a terrible subject, but that there is something about it which defies the laws of art and nature. This reasoning is confirmed when one recalls that even when the picture was at its most perfect, Basil himself reacted to it with shame and distaste. To the critic’s delight, Basil goes so far as to give a detailed aesthetic explanation for his reaction:

An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty…and for that reason the world shall never see my portrait of Dorian Gray. (ch 1)

            In this explanation, Basil critiques the newly-finished portrait in terms which precisely align with Wilde’s explanation, in his “The Decay of Lying” essay, about the ideal purpose of art. In this essay, Wilde gives four rules that he suggests define the proper relationship between Art, Life, and Nature. The second of these rules reads, “All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals.” (Wilde, “The Decay…”) This sort of elevation of the real is precisely what Basil had intended, though, in his portrait. He uses the word “ideal” many times in his description of the influence which Dorian has over him, even going so far as to liken his real, living personality to a new school of artistic thought.

Moreover, even before the image is seen to have magical qualities, it is corrupted by the influence of realism. As Basil later explains, “I determined to paint a wonderful portrait of you as you actually are” (Wilde ch 9, emph. added).  This insistence on telling the truth about Dorian may actually be more the cause of the painting’s power than Dorian’s own ill-fated prayer.  Wilde’s fourth aesthetic rule states: “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art” (Wilde, “The Decay…”). This painting instead aims to tell the truth about beauty, and in so doing corrupts the natural purposelessness of art. The painting can clearly be seen to be improper art before any hint arises in the story that it is also in any way uncanny or evil.

It is to be argued, then, that this novel begins with a piece of art which breaks the aesthetic laws of Wilde’s world, by trying to make art mirror life, when “Life in fact [should be] the mirror, and Art the reality” (Wilde, “The Decay…”).

From the very first day that Dorian comes face to face with the portrait, it is described as being “the real Dorian” (Wilde ch 2), while he himself seems to be changed. It is Basil, who must sense the images’ power in some unspoken way, who points this out repeatedly in the first two chapters, even saying of Dorian that “he is all my art to me now” (ch 1). When the picture begins to show all the signs of living while Dorian seems to float through life unaltered, one should hardly be surprised, for the natural role of Life and Art had been reversed from the book’s beginning.

Wilde has not written a novel that is a simple polemic for his own aesthetic views, nor is it quite a rejection of nor quite a manifesto for the Aesthetic/Decadent movement – instead, this novel merely takes place in a world where Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy is altered from conjecture to force-of-reality. In this world, Art is capable of perfecting mirroring ever-changing Life and reality (as it is not in our own world), and Life for its part is in fact capable of becoming Art, with all of Art’s attending amorality and immortality. This book does not so much preach an aesthetic doctrine as it imaginatively embodies its meaning. It is a horror story inasmuch as it is a book about bad art; it is about the embodiment art that has reached that point which Wilde describes in “The Decay of Lying” as art’s final “decadent” phase. The cause of everyone’s profound dissatisfaction with the portrait is that it communes too deeply with reality, and in so doing creates a life that overindulgences in a false aesthetic.

Dorian as the Medium and the Message

            It is not terribly surprising that the portrait can be understood as an embodiment of bad art; it is more curious to see that Dorian himself quickly ceases to be a lovable boy and becomes not only a created object but a piece of bad art. If in regards to the portrait this novel shows what happens when an art piece defies Wilde’s aesthetic theories by attempting to mimic life rather than remain true to its unreality, in regards to Dorian, the novel shows what happens when an individual embodies Wilde’s philosophical third rule: “Life imitates Art… external Nature also imitates Art” (Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”). It can easily be suggested then that in his portrayal of Dorian Gray, Wilde is admitting a certain failure in this aspect of his aesthetics – of course life cannot actual be what art is, immortal, amoral, and unfailingly beautiful. If Life were to be so Art-like, it would be morally abhorrent to the rest of the human world.

Dorian appears to blame his soul’s decay on the influence of Basil’s pernicious art piece and the influence of an unnamed and amoral book – he imagines that his life is imitating art, just as his portrait has imitated life. Lord Henry, of course, encourages Dorian in approaching life in this way, as if it were a play to be watched or a book to carouse. To some degree, their interpretation of what Dorian experiences may be accurate. Perhaps his life-self and his painted double have essentially switched their imitative positions.  However, it seems more accurate to say that from the moment that Dorian met Lord Henry, he slowly begins to cease being an independent person and becomes instead the raw materials that Henry used to fashion a new artwork.  Henry himself is the strongest proponent of this perspective on Dorian’s life: “To a large extent the lad was his [Henry’s] own creation… [who] assumed the office of art, [and] was indeed, in its way, a real work of art” (Wilde ch 4). At every stage of Dorian’s development, he can be seen as a product of Henry’s manipulation, and his life appears less to be an imitation of Basil’s art than the artistic creation of Henry’s imagination.

Dorian’s metamorphoses from a boy into a piece of art can be seen as the truest reason for his downfall. Thus, if one says that his great flaw is his over-indulgence in aesthetics, it is to be understood that by this one means the processing of losing the soul’s individuality and conforming to the aesthetics and thoughts of another. Henry knows this, for he admits it to Basil: “All influence is immoral… to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions” (Wilde ch 2). Yet this is precisely what he does to Dorian, and in fact he describes his actions toward the boy in precisely this way, speaking of playing him like an insensate instrument, as if to “project one’s soul into some gracious form” (Wilde ch 3). Later in the novel, Henry will define moral good as integrity of personality: “To be good is to be in harmony with one’s self” (Wilde ch 4). If one accepts this theory, then Dorian has become bad or evil not because of his own moral flaws, but because he has ceased to be himself and instead become merely the instrument of another’s will. It is for this reason that Dorian becomes increasingly a spectator in his own life. When Sibyl kills herself, he must ask: “Why is it that I cannot feel this tragedy?” (Wilde ch 8). Likewise, right before he kills Basil, he has “that strange expression that …was neither real sorrow in it nor real joy. There was simply the passion of the spectator” (Wilde ch 13). He cannot feel these things precisely because he has ceased to feel his own passions and is instead the product of another artist.

It might seem that if Dorian is a type of an inversed Galatea, then there could be some merit to this elevated status. Despite the fact that such a pose is immoral in turns of being untrue to one’s self, it may seem noble inasmuch as it achieves the transfusion of Art into Life (as described by Wilde’s aesthetic rules). Perhaps when Dorian says “life itself was the first, the greatest, of the arts” (Wilde ch 11), it can be understood to mean that when life is self-consciously created as a form of performance art, that it has its own artistic validity. Wilde would probably agree. Unfortunately, though, Dorian is inherently bad art, just as Dorian’s portrait had been inherently bad.

 Dorian is not made into art for the sake of art, nor is he a creation for the sake of creation. Instead, he is art for the sake of proving an intellectual philosophy. He has been crafted as a living argument for Henry’s ideas. As the reader knows from Basil’s arguments and from the prologue, art is only valid inasmuch as it is senseless. Dorian was in fact thoughtless and pure when Henry discovered him – but what Henry creates out of him is little more than a puppet from which “to hear one’s own intellectual views echoed back to one” (Wilde ch 3). Sadly, once Dorian becomes art, he is not excellent art, but just a polemic for decadence. His creation breaks the first rule of art, which is: “Art never expresses anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines” (Wilde, “The Decay…”). The painting may be flawed by its realism and the way it too closely imitates the reality of Dorian’s soul, but Dorian himself is flawed by his creator’s desire to make argumentative rather than symbolic art. Both the portrait and Dorian himself are corrupt precisely because they break the rules that Wilde has established for good art. In this way, the novel embodies Wilde’s own aesthetic theories by displaying what would happen if they were in fact immutable laws of nature whose defiance would bring punishment down upon art and artists alike.

If Life Poisons Art, Then Let Us Abstain

            According to Wilde’s aesthetic theories, Life inevitably destroys Art:  “…when Life gets the upper hand, [it then] drives Art out into the wilderness. That is the true decadence, and it is from this that we are now suffering” (Wilde, “The Decay…”). This theme of reality destroying art permeates Wilde’s entire novel. Just as Dorian’s decadent life poisons and destroys his portrait, so the reality of love poisons Sibyl’s ability to portray love on the stage, and so also Basil’s ability to create great art is destroyed by the way in which life comes between him and his ideal Dorian. Perhaps it is because life is such an anathema to aesthetics that there is a strong ascetic undertone to this book, a theme that has been puzzled over by more than one critic.

            This uneasy distaste for life is most evident in Lord Henry equivocation on the relative value of experience. It is of course Henry who is constantly encouraging Dorian to live at fever pitch and to waste no moment of youth on contemplation or charity when he could be actively experiencing the world. Even in the final chapters, Henry is urging Dorian not to forsake his rakish ways. Yet, at the same time, Henry begins the novel by lamenting the fact that experience destroys the body and throughout the remainder of the album he is always the one to argue that art and life are incompatible. While Sibyl herself is the first to point out the cause of her artistic failure, when she says, “you have taught me what reality really is…I have grown sick of shadows” (Wilde ch 7), Henry also manages to diagnose it without ever speaking to her. He says of Sibyl: “The moment she touched actual life, she marred it, and it marred her, and so she passed away” (Wilde ch 8). Likewise, he will later argue that Basil is incapable of being truly interesting because he is so dedicated to his art. It seems that Henry is the spokesman in this book for the idea that life and art are is some way anathematic to one another. Perhaps it is this that he has in mind, in the first chapter, when he suggests that beauty and intellect cannot exist beside each other.

            However, if life and art cannot comfortably co-exist, what does this mean for the artist, or for individuals like Dorian and Sibyl who exist in the twilight space between art and life?  In regards to Sibyl, Lord Henry argues that “the girl never really lived…she was less real than they [Shakespeare’s characters] are” (Wilde ch 8). In Dorian’s case, he is able to both be art and to live life precisely because he is able to channel the poison of life away from his physical body and onto his painted body. Yet his life poisons art just as surely as Sibyl’s brief glimpse of reality did.

            It is in regards to this point that critics point out the importance of the Narcissus myth for this story. Narcissus is frequently compared to Dorian Gray in the novel, from the first chapter where Henry says, “He is a Narcissus” (Wilde), through to the revelations mid-book that he has actually kissed his own portrait. Tivador Gorilovics, in his article “Narcissus’ Attitude towards Death,” discusses the parallels between Narcissus and Dorian Gray, specifically in regards to their complicated relationship with death and the cessation of desire. When Narcissus discovers his reflection, he is poisoned and destroyed by his overwhelming passion. Likewise, Dorian Gray’s portrait is poisoned by the passions of the living Dorian, and the living Dorian is essentially poisoned by his regret for what he has done to his beloved portrait (or, as he says, to his soul). In the last chapters, Dorian seems to be searching for some sort of renunciation of desire that will save him – in the end, the only perfect renunciation he can find is death. Likewise, Gorlovics describes Narcissus’ denial of outside love in favor of self-contemplation:  “It is not unpleasure that is substituted for pleasure, it is Neutrality. We should not think of depression here, but of aphanisis, asceticism, and anorexia of living… he is taken over by a ‘desire for non-desire’” (Gorilovics 266).

This phrase “anorexia of living” could equally well apply to what Nunokawa sees as a pervading theme in Wilde’s novel: a “perverse preference…for the state of boredom where desire ceases” (363). Nunokawa argues that throughout the book, Wilde creates a strong atmosphere of boredom, which his characters both lament and cling to as preferable to the full-blown experience of their desires. He describes the dandy as having an “investment in desire’s recession” (Nunokawa 362). This desire to detach from life and experience is not only seen in Dorian’s late-life attempts at renunciation, but is evident from the very beginning of his experiences, as he tries to detach emotionally from his grief for Sibyl, and persists through-out his life as he flits from attachment to attachment without fully investing in any of them. This detachment (which was described above as evidence of Dorian’s having transformed from human being into artwork) is also evidence of how Dorian’s transformation has removed him from life itself. By removing himself from attachment and lasting desire, he has attempted to remove the threat with life poses to art.

Perhaps part of the secret to how life threatens art is hinted at in the homoerotic nature of the Narcissus story. Early in the story, Dorian says to Basil “I am less to you than your ivory Hermes…How long will you like me? Till I have my first wrinkle” (Wilde ch 1). As Wilde points out in his essay on aesthetics, art has the ability to be flawless and immortal while nature is inherently flawed. “Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out. When I look upon a landscape I cannot help seeing all its defects”  (Wilde, “The Decay….”). Perhaps life threatens art in the same way that learning about the reality of Sibyl threatens Dorian’s idealization of her, and in the same way that learning the truth of the portrait threatens Basil’s idealization of Dorian – which is to say that the truth of Life threatens to expose Art for the liar that it is. Real, natural people age, and have defects, and flaws, and cannot be works of art. Looking upon the landscape of nature, or of a natural body, and seeing only defects is a way to distance one’s self from it and deny that in all its carnal, filthy, physicality it can also be an object of desire. Gorilovics writes about the “the impossibility of satisfying a desire” (266) for Narcissus, but in Wilde’s century the love that dares not speak its name may have been equally incapable of being satisfied. By sublimating desire for real bodies into desire for art, the threat of true life and true desire may be averted. Not only is one able, as Nunokawa suggests, to be “abandoning the adored body before it has time to grow old” (370), but one may also abandon it before it has time to be threatening. It may be argued that the true importance of lying, for the Aesthete, is that it enables him to remain in the closet. Just as Basil’s painting must be locked away to protect it from judgmental eyes, truth must be locked away, less the Aesthete’s indulgences and desires destroy his life by their revelation.

The Liar’s Truth

            Philosophy has long puzzled over what is called the Liar’s Paradox. If a man says, “I always lie,” is there any chance that he is telling the truth in that statement?  Likewise, if Wilde has an essay that exhorts people to lie, one has every reason to doubt whether he intends all the statements in that essay to be believed! It is important to keep in mind how unreliable a narrator Wilde can be when trying to assess whether his novel dramatizes or embodies his actual aesthetic theories.

This unreliability is especially heightened by the fact that the text itself plays with the question of philosophy and misrepresentation. Throughout the book, Basil points out that Lord Henry says all manner of things which he doesn’t mean: “I don’t agree with a single word that you have said, and, what is more, Harry, I feel sure you don’t either” (Wilde ch 1). Moreover, Henry does not entirely deny that this is true, but rather simply replies that “The value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it” (Wilde ch 2). While Dorian may be a perfect model of Henry’s arguments, Henry himself doesn’t appear to follow them at all.  Yet when Oscar Wilde spoke of this book, he identified himself thus: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be — in other ages, perhaps” (Wilde, “The Letters…” 352). One can assume, then, that despite the provocative Henry-like statements he makes in his essays, Wilde’s actual aesthetic theory may be more idealistic and Basil-like.

The point of this reminder is to show once again how this book must not be translated simply as a piece of propaganda for either Wilde’s aesthetics or the Aestheticism movement which he inspired.  Rather it should be seen as a delicate investigation of his public aesthetic beliefs, which at one moment seems to support them (as when it shows that overindulging life in one’s aesthetics leads to dissatisfaction) and at the next moment seems to show their failure (as in the eventual tragedy of all his Decadent characters). If he seems to simultaneously speak to a desire for the cessation of attachment and at the next moment ring an anthem for decadence, then it must be remembered that he is walking the tightrope of paradox, and not attempting to tell The Truth but rather to tell beautiful and untrue stories.

Awareness of the author’s attempts to tell lies and create paradoxes is the real answer to Nunosawa’s complaints that “such a denigration of desire appears more anomalous…when it is placed next to the gospel of passion upon which [the] author staked his life…. [there exists a] discordance between the dandy’s distaste for the state of desire and his author’s defense of it” (363). Wilde is attempting here to argue both sides of a debate. At one moment, through Basil’s voice and through the dreadful fate of all his characters, he gives society’s call for renunciation and self-control. At the next moment, he mouths the Aesthetic/Decadent call for freedom (which is the one he most frequently espouses in life as well).  By giving both sides, he allows the reader to form his or her own sympathies.  Wilde is not trying, as Henry might, to influence his readers – he is merely trying to lie to them.

Conclusions

The first rule of art given in Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” is repeated in the prologue to his novel: “No artist desires to prove anything.”  Subsequently, it would be entirely inappropriate to try to read this work of art as a treatise.  Let us believe for a moment that this is good art, by Wilde’s own standards. As such, it must not be meant to prove anything, nor to be realistic in terms of the relationship between art and life, nor to tell the full truth about the author as he is shown in each of the characters – instead, it is meant to be beautiful, and to explore these areas without making judgments about them.  Yet with this caveat in mind, one can nonetheless use the novel as a case study from which to draw certain conclusions both about the book itself and about Wilde’s aesthetics.

The first of these conclusions ought to be that the balance between life and art is a sacred and delicate one – overindulging either realism is aesthetics, or aesthetics in real life, may prove to destroy life, or art, or both.  If art is to imitate life, it should be sure to lie thoroughly and not try to capture the changeable, flawed nature of its subjects. If life is to imitate art, it should be sure both to avoid become static and unresponsive, and also to maintain its independence and freedom of will.

The second of these conclusions is that the very power of art to create beautiful and seductive unrealities is also its weakness, in that the preference for unreality may disable the Aesthete’s ability fully embrace his own passions and experiences. Narcissus dies from looking at the things he cannot touch, likewise the man who compares his beloved to an artistic ideal will find that love dies when that ideal is found to be a lie. Wilde himself seems to recognize this, for in some ways “The Decay of Lying” may be seen as equal parts Aesthetic manifesto and social satire. It is arguing that lying is absolutely necessary and that civilization should overcome and reform nature — but this argument is coming from a man who refuses to stay in the closet and instead indulges his sexual nature.  Perhaps the essay is itself a lie, determined to hold up to society a mirror of its hypocritical inability to either accept the full truth or to fully condone lies.  In the same way, Wilde’s novel can be seen as equal parts aesthetic/sexual manifesto, horror story, and satirical mockery of the way in which society forces pure Hellenic love to remain hidden. It is, after all, this unrequitable love that paints Dorian into a canvas where he must grow old and miserable in a hidden storage room. Perhaps lying will never be entirely satisfactory, in the end, and perhaps Wilde – who eventually went to prison for his truth telling – knew that all along.

Works Cited

Nunokawa, Jeff . “The Importance of Being Bored:  The dividends of ennui in The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Studies in the Novel 28.3 (1996): 357-371.

Spaas, Lieve and Selous, Trista. Echoes of Narcissus. New York: Berhahan Books, 2000.

Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying: An Observation.” Minnesota State University Moorhead Website.  29 October 2002.  29 March 2009.  <http://www.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/philofart/wildetext.htm>.

Wilde, Oscar. The Letters of Oscar Wilde. Ed. R. Hart-Davis. London: Hart-Davis, 1962.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray.  The Literature Network.  29 March 2009.  <http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/dorian_gray>.

* In order to distinguish between the art-historical Aestheticism movement and the philosophical use of the noun “aesthetic,” which is defined as “a set of theories regarding art,” the movement and its adherents will be capitalized throughout while the standard noun will remain in lower case.  (As in: “Wilde’s anti-realist aesthetic was an essential part of the Aesthetic subculture.”)  A similar process will be used for the Decadent movement and the adjective “decadent.”

Concept Of The Jack Of All Trades

The Jack of All Trades is a master at none, so as they say. However, it may be more fitting to claim that these people who can perform a lot of things can survive in a world in flux. I believe this claim, so to speak. It is quite simple: a person who knows a lot, or can do a lot of different things would be more productive than a person who only specializes on a single line of work. If that is the case, I believe that a “Renaissance man or woman” (Jack of all trades) has an advantage over the typical the single-specialty type of person. However, many would still claim otherwise.

I would agree with the fact that a person should gain knowledge from numerous fields because all of these garnered knowledge would be useful at some point of his or her life. I would argue that studying on a single field alone would hinder the person’s intellectual growth and the search for knowledge will most likely be limited on that field alone. Yes, it may have its advantages since the person could master such field, but it takes time to master a single field. I would also like to argue that the renaissance person or the jack of all trades would have a huge advantage in terms of applying the knowledge in the modern world. With society in flux and today’s world in crisis, the number of job positions on different fields continue to change.

On a personal level, I believe that I am a renaissance person in the making since I want to focus on a whole lot of different fields. It would satisfy my hunger for knowledge on fields related to my course. Even if I would not be a master on any of these fields, I would still be competent enough to perform the required task related to these fields. Mastering a certain field does not have to be immediate since it could be achieved through the experience gathered from those different fields.

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