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When I first encountered the word “soma,” it was in fiction. Soma is used to shape and control the future society in Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World. and again in his novel, Island.  But soma is more real than I, and probably many other readers, had assumed.

“Was and will make me ill,  I take a gram and only am.”


Brave New World is a 1932 dystopian novel by English author Aldous Huxley. It has been a popular novel in high school and college literature classes for more than 50 years. The story is set in London in the year AD 2540 (632 A.F.—”After Ford”—in the book). Huxley anticipates more than predicts a number of developments in areas such as reproductive technology, sleep-learning, and psychological manipulation.

The novel is usually seen as a prediction of “what was to come” and often lumped in with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. My own thoughts about the novel have changed since I read it in high school and taught it. Huxley also had a kind of reassessment of his book in an essay, Brave New World Revisited (1958), and in Island (1962), which is his final novel.

The “deep, resonant voice” of Mustapha Mond in the novel describes soma as “Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant.” As part of the government, he knows soma is a very effective way of controlling its population. It sedates and calms them. It also distracts them from realizing what is happening in their society – a society where even the privileged members of the World State are enslaved.


“A gramme is better than a damn,” said Lenina mechanically from behind her hands. “I wish I had my soma!”

Of course, via soma, the citizens are enslaved by happiness. John, the savage from outside society who serves as the naïve 20th-century character in the novel, realizes this when he is taken into the society and given soma. He throws the soma he is given out a window at one point, but lapses into using it later.

“All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” That is what Mustapha says of soma. It is “Christianity without the tears,” he says. There are no bad side effects, no guilt, no sin.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” That often-quoted idea came from Karl Marx, and Mustapha seems to have read Marx. Soma, like religion, offers comfort, but at the expense of individuality.

Psilocybe cubensis

There has been speculation about what soma really might be pharmacologically. In Food of the Gods, ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believes that the most likely candidate for soma is the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis. This rather ordinary looking hallucinogenic mushroom (which grows naturally in cow dung in certain climates) is a species of psychedelic mushroom whose principal active compounds are psilocybin and psilocin.

In the vernacular, it can be known as shrooms, magic mushrooms, golden tops, cubes, or gold caps. It was previously known as Stropharia cubensis. It is the most well-known psilocybin mushroom due to its wide distribution and ease of cultivation. In most of the world, it is an illegal substance to possess.

Soma is a real Sanskrit word that Huxley had encountered in his own experimentation with hallucinogen. It is usually described as a Vedic ritual drink that was important in the culture of ancient India. In both Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, the name of the drink and the plant are the same. In ancient texts, it is described as being prepared by extracting the juice from a plant (not mushrooms). The identity of that plant is now unknown and debated among scholars.

Some accounts by Ayurveda and Siddha medicine practitioners and Somayajna ritualists indicate  “Somalata” (Sarcostemma acidum), but there are also other candidates.

As was often the case in Indian tradition, the plant and its juice were personified as a god, Soma.

Huxley’s soma is never described in detail and there is no mention of mushrooms. The soma pill is more like a hangoverless tranquilizer or with the effects of an opiate.

In researching this article, I also found that “Soma” is the most common brand name of the muscle-relaxant carisoprodol, and is marketed by Royce Laboratories, Inc. It was FDA-licensed in 1996. It is a Schedule IV sedative-hypnotic, an anticonvulsant and anxiolytic muscle relaxant, and was first marketed in the United States in 1955 under the brand name Miltown as an anti-anxiety agent. Sometimes called a “miracle drug” in that time, it is supposedly the drug immortalised by the Rolling Stones as “Mother’s Little Helper.”

One sensationalized 1950s pulp paperback cover

My current view on Huxley’s novel is less science-fiction prophecy about totalitarian government and more about a warning on our pursuit of happiness at all costs.

On www.huxley.net some might disagree. One article says Brave New World  has come “to serve as the false symbol for any regime of universal happiness… any blueprint for chemically-driven happiness has delayed research into paradise-engineering for all sentient life.”

In his Brave New World Revisited  (non-fiction published in 1958), after almost thirty years Huxley considered whether the world had moved toward or away from his vision. He concluded that the world was becoming like his novel’s world much faster than he originally thought.

Why was that? Huxley points to overpopulation as one reason. He was also interested in the effects of drugs and subliminal suggestion on the population.

Interestingly, in those 30 years since the novel Huxley converted to Hindu Vedanta.

The book concludes with some action which could be taken to prevent a democracy from turning into the totalitarian world, and in his last novel, Island, he fictionalizes those ideas to describe a utopian, rather than dystopian, nation.

Poor savage John who falls into a “brave new world” (deep nod to Shakespeare’s The Tempest for all that) tries to escape that soma-ed society and return to his savage “island.”  We wish him, and all of us, well.

“Benighted fool!” shouted the man from The Fordian Science Monitor, “why don’t you take soma?”

Get away!” The Savage shook his fist.

The other retreated a few steps then turned round again. “Evil’s an unreality if you take a couple of grammes.”

“Kohakwa iyathtokyai!” The tone was menacingly derisive.

“Pain’s a delusion.”

“Oh, is it?” said the Savage and, picking up a thick hazel switch, strode forward.The man from The Fordian Science Monitor made a dash for his helicopter.”

*  *  *

It was after midnight when the last of the helicopters took its flight. Stupefied by soma, and exhausted by a long-drawn frenzy of sensuality, the Savage lay sleeping in the heather.

The sun was already high when he awoke. He lay for a moment, blinking in owlish incomprehension at the light; then suddenly remembered-everything.“Oh, my God, my God!” He covered his eyes with his hand.”

 

Cross-posted at my One-Page Schoolhouse site

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archie married
There was a meme online back five years or so about making your  Facebook profile picture a comic or cartoon character that you identified with for some reason. LOts of superheroes and princesses appeared. While I was surfing around for images, I discovered something pretty shocking about my old friend Archie Andrews of Riverdale. He got married. More than once.

It is even more complicated than that because the comic book universes on paper, TV or in the movies have lots of alternatives these days. I did some browsing at a local comic book shop and found a few Archie collections including Archie: The Married Life Book 1, part of the “Married Life Series.” In this series Archie marries blonde Betty and in another version marries vixen Veronica.

I binged through this 320 page opus in two nights like I zipped through the 12-cent comics I was buying back in the early 1960s.

archie romeo.jpg

I haven’t checked in on Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica in a lot of years and a lot has changed. One of the articles I read was titled Archie Gets Married and Goes to Hell.

The Archie I grew up on bounced back and forth between Betty and Veronica with occasional flirtation with anew girl at school.  Hie never-ending high school career of innocent foreplay lasted  68 years. He married Veronica.  When I first read about this I was a little sad, because I had been rooting for Betty all along.

Did marrying off Archie work for the publisher or was it a bad move?  The resulting comic, The Married Life: Archie Loves Veronica, sold 24 times their usual 2,500-odd copies per issue.

If you grew up with Archie, as I did, you will find it disorienting to see Archie and Veronica married and to see their marriage falter. Reading the comics as a pre-teen, I identified with these teenagers in a constant state of sexual tension and unrequited lust.

I grew up with the 1950s Archie classics. I can’t say whether or not Betty and Veronica actually acted as a guide to dating for a generation, but they certainly had an impact on the 1950s and early 60s generation.

The original Archie made his debut in 1941 and has been known ever since for his all-American wholesomeness. He also had a split passion for rich, brunette, glamorous Veronica and sporty, blonde girl-next-door Betty. A new management team at the publisher decided to bring him into the 21st century. The Veronica marriage hit me first, then I find out there is the alternate universe marriage to Betty, and Archie has a career as a musician in New York City and…

riverdale-tv

Part of that 21st century plan allowed for the creation of Riverdale, an updated TV version of Archie and his crew on the CW network. The first season premiered January 2017 to positive reviews, and was renewed for a second season.

Sabrina

The original Sabrina, 1962 || (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link)

At the end of 2017, Netflix ordered a two-season spin-off series based on the comic book Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

Sabrina Spellman is the title character of the Archie Comics spinoff comic book Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Sabrina first appeared in Archie’s Mad House #22 in October 1962. (Too bad I didn’t save my copy of that issue in good condition as it goes for over $400 these days.)

Sabrina of 1962 was fun and light. This was a time when TV had another nice witch, Samantha, was very popular on Bewitched.

And Sabrina the Teenage Witch also had a 7 -season TV run with the light, safe and funny version of witchcraft.

In this much darker re-imagining of a new Sabrina, she is still 16 and having to choose between an unearthly destiny and her mortal life which, of course, includes a boyfriend.

This series is recommended for “Teen+.” In the third book in the series (I can read them free via  KindleUnlimited), “it’s the night before Halloween, the night before Sabrina’s sixteenth birthday, the night of the blood-moon and the lunar eclipse, and she has made her decision: She will go into the woods of Greendale as a half-witch and emerge… on the other side of a frightful ritual… as a fully baptized member of the Church of Night.”

There isn’t much innocent sharing of a burger and fries at the malt shop here.


Things get even darker in the regular Archie universe. Book 6 in the Married Life series says on the cover “The Death of Archie.”

Oh, they are really messing with my childhood. I may have to dig in my old comic book collection and reread some of the old classic Archie comics of many decades past.

When I was in college, I wrote a short story, “The Book,” that was about a book that revealed the date of death for everyone who was living at the time it was opened. The questions the story asked were whether or not you would want to know that date, and if you did know, how would it shape your remaining life.

The story (which I overly-optimistically sent out to The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other out-of-reach magazines) no longer exists. It was part of a literary funeral pyre a few years ago when I returned a stack of fiction and poetry back into the universe. But those two questions have stayed with me, and I imagine with others, my entire life. The story and questions came back to me when I started reading The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.

The novel is similar to my old story because the mystical knowledge is not so much what the stories are about. Like my story, the novel is about what people do with the knowledge. (In my story, one of the three main characters chooses not to open the book.)

The novel starts in 1969 in New York City when four adolescent siblings go to psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die.

The prophecies do change their life paths, though not in always obvious ways.

In an interview, Chloe Benjamin was asked if she was given a date for her own death, would she be living her life in a different way? Her answer is the kind of cheating answer many of us would give.

“I have thought about whether I would want to know my date of death, and I always say only if it were good. It’s a paradox! But would I live it a different way? I think yes. I think it would be impossible not to, depending on what it was. Maybe I wouldn’t live it differently if it was very far in the future, because that’s sort of the supposition that we all go on, and hope for, but certainly if it were soon, I think that that would impact the decisions that I made.”

The novel’s adolescents who learn their fate go in different directions. Simon heads to San Francisco for a new liberating gay life. Klara becomes a magician where reality and fantasy can be toyed with as a career. Daniel, the oldest, becomes a doctor, perhaps hoping to  put some human control on Fate. Varya becomes a researcher specializing in longevity and comes the closest to actually testing the space between science and immortality. I won’t include any spoilers here about whether or not the prophecies hold true, but religion, free will, fate and magic do enter all their lives in some way.

It is ironic that the book is called The Immortalists because knowing their fate means they all know they are not immortal. (The title comes from the name of Klara’s magic act.)

Of course, no one reading this really believes in immortality through this life. But we do think about the possibilities of life after death. I won’t go into religious territory here, but there is lots of research into near-death experiences (NDE).

One large study I found concluded that consciousness can be preserved for a few minutes after clinical death. Dr. Sam Parnia of the State University of New York spent six years examining 2060 cases of cardiac arrest patients in Europe and the USA. Only 330 of those survived as a result of a resuscitation procedure, and 40% of those reported that they had some kind of conscious awareness while being considered clinically dead.

When I was 10, my father had to have brain surgery for a tumor. This was the 1960s and a procedure like that was probably quite crude compared to today. His surgeon was writing a book about NDEs and questioned him after the surgery where he was clinically dead for a short time. My father did not have any extraordinary NDE story, but I became quite fascinated with the idea of these experiences. I read things that will well beyond my years and grasp, but the fascination remains with me.

What happens after we die? What do those who “die” and come back to life report?

Many of those people recall their resuscitation and recount details about sounds in the room or the actions of the staff. The most common reported experiences and feelings include: feeling calm and peaceful, a sense of no time passing, the now clichéd “going into a light,” and sensing or seeing yourself separated from your body. Some report seeing a person, sometimes a person they know who has died, sometimes an unknown “guide.” I found it interesting that the smell of bread baking was often noted as a smell they recalled.

What did all this mean to a ten-year old who was thinking about his father’s death and his own, and who was grappling with the things he had been taught as a Catholic by the church?

I took comfort in it at the time. All of it seemed to indicate that there was something after death – and it didn’t seem like something to fear.

Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another. That is the law of conservation of energy. I was not the only person to consider that in relationship to the human soul. If that soul, or human consciousness, is energy – and we all have seen EEG and EKG tests that measure the electrical energy in our heart and brain – that means it cannot just die or disappear.

Then, what happens to that energy after physical death? What form does it change into?

Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to that or to whether or not there is some “life” after death.

I love science, but it treats consciousness as just a product of the human brain. Near-death experiences seem to point in another direction.

Robert Lanza, known for his Biocentrism theory, believes that consciousness moves to another universe after death. He claims that consciousness exists outside the time and space and the physical body. And that would mean that it survives physical death.

The biocentrism theory isn’t a rejection of science. Biocentrism challenges us to fully accept the implications of the latest scientific findings in fields ranging from plant biology and cosmology to quantum entanglement and consciousness. By listening to what the science is telling us, it becomes increasingly clear that life and consciousness are fundamental to any true understanding of the universe. This forces a fundamental rethinking of everything we thought we knew about life, death, and our place in the universe.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” says Hamlet to Horatio. I think Hamlet is correct.

I think next I will read Chloe Benjamin’s earlier novel, The Anatomy of Dreams.  Dreams and particularly lucid dreams are also things that I have had a lifelong interest in studying.

The creation of man by Prometheus. Marble relief, Italy, 3rd century CE.

“A man is a god in ruins.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?” ― John Milton, Paradise Lost

 

The story of Dr. Frankenstein and the “monster” he created is now 200 years old. Most people think of it as a horror story, but it was intended to be much more.

If you ever read the book, rather than just seeing any of the almost 100 movie incarnations of the monster, you would know that it has a lot to do with man’s consideration of mortality.

You may heard about the story’s origin. In 1818, Mary Shelley published the first edition of Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus, but it began on a stay near Lake Geneva with her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, and fellow poet Lord Byron. Trapped indoors by storms and bored, they decided to have a little ghost story writing competition. The story that Mary created wasn’t so much a ghost story, but her story idea led to the novel.

Mary

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

I only learned recently in reading a new edition of the novel that Mary Shelley had lost a premature baby daughter when she was only 17. She was haunted by thoughts and visions of the dead baby. She wrote in her journal that in a dream she saw her dead daughter brought back to life after being robbed vigorously in front of a fire.  It was only two years later, when she was 19, that she wrote the novel.

In movie versions of the novel, electricity sent through a human body brings the dead body to life. There were experiments done in her time, such as those by Alessandro Volta, to find the connection between electricity and the way our muscles move. But Shelley never described the details of the reanimation process. She describes the scientist finding an “elemental principle of life” which allows him to give life to inanimate matter. He realizes the God-like power this offers him and hesitates to use it. But finally, after two years of constructing a body using materials supplied by “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house,” he finishes his creature and brings him to life.

Dr. Frankenstein never gives the creature a name. (“Frankenstein” is the doctor, not the creature, but the movies have made that distinction unclear.) Shelley intended the result of the experiment to be considered a monster to be pitied. Certainly, one theme of the novel is the dangers of man “playing God” – a theme that is very relevant today as we experiment with genetics and artificial intelligence.

Mary Shelley subtitled her novel “The Modern Prometheus” and she expected her readers to know the story from Greek mythology of the Titan Prometheus. His name means “forethought” and he is a troublemaker for the other gods. He is credited with the creation of man from clay, done at Zeus’ bidding. But he defies the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity. A hero to mankind, his theft and gift enabled progress and civilization. But Prometheus is punished by Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, and sentenced to eternal torment bound to a rock. Every day for eternity an eagle (emblem of Zeus) would feed on his liver. The organ (which the ancient Greeks considered to be the seat of human emotions) would then grow back only to be eaten again the next day.Prometheus is freed from his torment by the hero Heracles (Hercules).

Shelley’s scientist is a strange combination of ideas. He is heroic, tragic, genius, madman. Lord Byron was a fan of the play Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, and Mary’s husband Percy wrote his own Prometheus Unbound a few years later, so perhaps this topic was part of the Lake Geneva conversations.  Prometheus came to be viewed as a symbol of human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge. But he also represents the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences. The Romantics viewed him as someone whose best efforts to improve human existence resulted in tragedy.

“Modern Prometheus” was a term coined by philosopher Immanuel Kant in reference to Benjamin Franklin and his experiments with electricity. (Mary’s father was the political philosopher and novelist William Godwin, so it is likely she was aware of this reference. Dr. Frankenstein comes to see his creation as a monster and regrets giving it life. He decides that death must be viewed as a final thing.

The movie versions of her story, as with many other movie versions of novels and of real life, have made deeper impressions on audiences. The serious themes that Mary wanted to address are made less important in the films, while the horror of the “monster” and the “madness” of the scientist are brought to the front.

Frankenstein is a Gothic novel and clearly a part of the Romantic movement, but is also a very early example of science fiction. It can be argued that it is the first true science fiction story when compared to earlier stories that are more fantasy. This scientist and his modern experiments in the laboratory that echo some of the science of today does what most modern sci-fi still does. It looks at where we are and imagines where that might lead in the future. Like much sci-fi, her story is a cautionary tale, a warning.

 

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld my man completed …” (Draft for Frankenstein)

The first edition of the novel was published in 1818 in three volumes (the “triple-decker” format was typical for 19th-century first editions) with only 500 copies and without Mary’s name on the book.  A second edition in 1822 had two volumes with her name on the title page. By then a successful play, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake, had driven some demand for the novel.

It wasn’t until 1831 that a one-volume edition appeared. Mary heavily revised the novel to make it “less radical” and this is the version that is generally read today. But there are versions of the original “uncensored” edition and some nice annotated versions that I would recommend as they give the reader background on elements of the story. There is even a version called Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. I have read all of them and the story continues to interest me as I read more about Mary Shelley and think about how her story applies to our modern times.

 

Last spring, I wrote about the Law of Attraction and the LOA came up in a conversation this past week. A friend asked me if I had ever heard of it. I said I had. He asked me if I ever tried using it to my advantage. I said I had not.  Why not, he asked. And I didn’t have an immediate answer. We discussed it.

This “law” has a pretty big community online and plenty of pages talk about it, including Wikipedia. Of course, there are books about it too.

It is not a new idea. It has been around since the late 1800s.

It has been covered several times in Psychology Today which looked at what they see as “the truth” about it. An article titled “Throw Away Your Vision Board” got a lot of hits online (many of them negative about the topic even being covered by the magazine) and a follow-up to the first article.”

If you have not heard of it before, this law, or technique, might sound a lot like a scam. The idea is that you can use it to manifest the things you want. If someone told you that by using the LOA you would be able to attract into your life whatever you are focusing on – a person, a new car, or a job – you might be interested. The belief is that LOA has the power, using just your mind, to translate whatever is in your thoughts and materialize them into reality.

That friend that I had a conversation with recently said it was described to him as “think it and it will become true.” I don’t think believers would describe it as being that easy. Hey, we have all wished for things and not gotten them. In broader terms, LOA is saying that if you focus on negative thoughts, negative things will be attracted to you. A focus on positive thoughts will attract positive things and lead to you achieving your goals.

Become what you want to attract. It sounds much too easy.  But will the Universe respond to your positive vibrations?

If you dig a little deeper into LOA, you will find tactics like using vision boards or mantras. You will find most of these techniques used in other self-help book that are not about LOA. But I have read that the law of attraction is not so much things you do, as how you live.

My friend decided after our conversation that it sounded similar to him to weight loss programs. Someone is always coming up with a new diet plan, but essentially what needs to happen in order to lose weight and keep it off is for you to change the way you live.

I can accept that negativity attracts negativity. Being positive probably will improve your life. But I don’t know that positivity alone can get you things.

Read some sites about the law of attraction and you will find a lot of generalizations for how-to: follow your inner truth,  listen to the universe, and pay attention to the messages and signs it presents to you.

The writer of those articles in Psychology Today ended up digging deeper into LOA and writing a book about it – Throw Away Your Vision Board: The Truth About the Law of Attraction. Spoiler alert: His conclusion is that there is no Law of Attraction. But he also has his own “Key to Achieve Principles” and The Action Board goal-achieving system. Self-help attracts self-help. Help yourself.

A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan has two subtitle versions: “The Education of an Amateur Builder,” and the one I used for a previous post in 2010, “The Architecture of Daydreams.”  That this book has sat on my bedside book stack for all these years is not an indication of the quality of the book or my enjoyment of it. I bought it 7 years ago, started it, put it aside, and then started back into it again last spring and have dipped into it on and off and between other readings. I finally finished it on New Year’s Eve because I didn’t want it to remain unfinished into the new year. A small, doable, New Year’s resolution. It works reading it in parts as a story and as instruction. Think of the chapter as courses in a very long meal, or as occasional visits to Michael’s little place for another lesson. His place wasn’t built quickly, so why read it all in a weekend.

I was attracted to it because, like Pollan, I have long wanted of a room of my own. Okay, not a “room” but a separate building, albeit a small one. For me, it has been a small log cabin that has been in my head and sketched on many sheets of paper ever since I read Walden and a host of other books where people escaped and wrote in some cabin isolation. You should not need a cabin to be a writer, but it still seems Romantic (capital R) to me.

cover

In the snow…

He wanted a “shelter for daydreams” and I identify not only with that, but also with his lack of skills needed to build such a place. Pollan writes that “Apart from eating, gardening, short-haul driving, and sex, I generally prefer to delegate my commerce with the physical world to specialists.”

So,  I read the book for both of its subtitles, as instruction manual about how to actually build such a structure, and as an armchair-dreaming builder. As instruction manual, it had its limitations. I’m not in a place where I can hire a real architect and custom builders to make my cabin. Plus, my plan has always been to do it myself. I also don’t have the land to build on, so it is astill “armchair building” for now.

But as an armchair building adventure tale, the book is kind of a Moby-Dick reading experience to me. I learned about building a little place and how to place it on a piece of land, and also about the history and meaning of all human building. It is about finding your place in your environment in the same way that you need to place your cabin to take advantage of views, sunlight, and to deal with drainage and winds and weather. In Melville’s book, you learn about whaling, whale and the sea, and about your own place in and away from this world.

In the spring

Will I start building this spring? Well, I still don’t have that piece of land or all the skills to build a place on my own or a set of blueprints that I would use yet. But over the years, I have learned some of the building skills by repairing my home, building a rock wall and a garden shed. I have collected plans for cabins and one-room sanctuaries, though none feel like “the one” that is floating somewhere in my brain.

Perhaps 2018 will be the year the daydream gets built.

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She wants film. She wants to go outside. She loves light. Something always remains. Textile Goddess, by Victoria Pero. (Hamilton Club Gallery, Paterson) It is a day to be quiet and pensive. Line ‘em up. When they walk, is that a goose step?

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