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Reading Dickens: Some Tributes, 2012

June 16, 2015 | By

Reading Dickens in the bicentennial year of birth: representation, art and aesthetics in commercial and industrial England as mirrored in ‘Hard Times’.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens as a young man. Image source: Dickensfellowship.org

Charles Dickens is pure delight for succeeding generations, in a time-defying manner. He is as much ours as he is a classic Victorian. His quaint world is Victorian and non-Victorian. His work enjoys this artistic duality: It is local and global; tempo-spatial and transcendental. His historicity and proximity to us constitutes unique artistic Elysian fields: a state of permanent bliss in a no-time realm. Neo-Victorianism is a critical strategy of re-visioning, re-thinking of a lost age for the contemporary audiences and in the present case, re-claiming this genius for our own age. And it is a high-paying strategy of cultural appropriation, forming a cultural continuum where past is not past but slides into a present formed of that past. It is trying to locate the traces of the past in the present, trying to locate and capture the fleeting spectral figure overseeing the fluidity of the changing present, much like the gods in Iliad watching human drama on earth.

Reading him in the bicentennial year of his birth in 2012 – from a different location in time, space and culture – can be very productive effort at re-claiming him as our peer. Dickensian impulse is dynamic. Its temporality in Victorian era and its elasticity, its amazing capacity of transcending that heavy situatedness in history by its airy lightness, its sheer narrative hierarchies, stylistic power and overarching realism as a mode of writing, and, its adaptability to altered circumstances and the great potential of proximity to different subsequent eras are some of the remarkable features possessed by not only Dickensian classics but by other serious artworks as well. The literary effect of Dickens lies in this innate doubleness of serious artworks: immediacy and distance; temporality/spatiality and universal dispersal through a negation of the mere locational physicality by acquiring a rare transnational and trans-cultural dimension and appeal. The present essay attempts a re-negotiation with Dickens and his progressive vision from a current critical perspective and the insights that can be recovered and generated from such a re-visioning of his work, in this case, Hard Times. First, let us try to situate the great Victorian in the contemporary setting of 2012.

novels of Dickens

Charles Dickens: Five Novels. Image source: Barnesandnoble.com

Approaching the vintage writer from the dual positions of a post-colonial reader and a global consumer of art in a mass society can yield fresh thematic continuities with his art, and, lay bare the contiguous areas with the preceding age and contexts. Basically, this is an alert political reading of a classic that involves the contemporary response to an art of an earlier era, thus closely re-examining the notions of continuities and disruptions, and, role of time and space in the evaluation of a master work that, much like a Grecian urn or statue or epic, refuses to stale or wilt, under the march of time. This contextualization of the historical moment, the situatedness, of both the writer and the reader in varied timelines and time-references— the framing of this location and situation of author and reader as joint producers of literary and social meanings in material conditions of culturally-active societies of different periods – can produce fresh epistemes about a piece of art work and its social origins. Such a historical engagement, in the present case with Dickens, as an illustrative example, can produce newer insights about industrial England, its official utilitarian ideology and the diminishing place of serious art as a repository of spiritual truth-values, and a site of creative and critical dissidence, in that society emerging from the last shadows of an agrarian economy and a feudal ideology of honour, virtue, community values, courtly love, charity and justice— rendered defunct by the forces of industrialization and its superseding ideology of profits, wealth-power as desirable matrix, social status, rapid urbanization, de-ruralisation and  utter and naked individualism. Pastoralism is dead. Long live crass commercial interests and a crazy drive for maximum profits in soulless centers of industrial production with its attendant miseries and other allied horrors well-known to later readers and navigators of such dismal places, thanks to Dickens and others. This historicist positioning can lead to a better hermeneutics of an artistic work by a person who is more of a sage rather than a mere chronicler of his times in an empty, mechanical manner, the way of second-hand writers everywhere. It can lead to a better understanding of the current categories of avant-garde artists as subversive set of radicals, and, serious art as act of challenging and undermining the dominant ideologies and further refine the inherent opposition between serious and commercialization of the same  arts in contemporary mass society inimical to great art and artists. In other words, such a conscious inquiry into the very epistemology of art and the problematic of serious and kitsch art amounts to a bold act of questioning the commodification of art, its utter reification and final reduction to mere mindless entertainment and titillation.

Hard Times_Dickens

Dickens’ classic masterpiece, ‘Hard Times’. Image source: Goodreads.com

The present brief essay attempts a resolution of all these allied and intersecting aesthetic issues by reading the overlooked, if not widely neglected, Dickensian gem called Hard Times from the overriding perspective of the theoretical literary criticism of the 20th-21st centuries, leading to a further interaction in the history of ideas. It does not evaluate the full text but select passages only extracted from the first two opening chapters that discuss the enduring issues of symbolic representations, art and aesthetics, ethics, morality and benefits of the liberal education vs. utilitarianism—themes and concerns that directly appeal to a current reader/critic more than other topical references contained in that novel. It is kind of benevolent raiding of this treasure and coming up with startlingly refreshing insights that still have a direct bearing on our own age, so far-off from his age, yet so near—thus displaying the true hallmark of a work of genius, that is, a correct historical understanding of the impersonal forces that shape up formations of societies and chart out their journeys and pathways clearly; in short, their histories in time and space; the narratives documenting the trajectories occurring in a continuum of the past, present and future. Only greatest writers reach such artistic vision and can render the same in artistic universes subtly and in a very convincing manner, without being dogmatic or vulgar.

The basic idea is that art works of classic vintage—again arbitrary classification of a cannon-formation biased in favour of the leisurely middle-class as against the folk arts—can, if properly investigated, result in providing knowledges that only autonomous art works can provide, as against other sciences, social or otherwise.

A great work of art is like an archaeological find or rare fossil—it contains the evidence of its age in it. Likewise, an art work contains the cultural DNA of its own age and all the preceding ages. It is a material product of a material age.

Dickens Collection

The Charles Dickens collection. Image source: Amazon.com

Hard Times (1854) of Dickens contains some exceptional progressive elements that make him stand out among other Victorians as a great Seer. It is a rare virtue given by Life to very few extremely gifted artists. Dickens belongs to this miniscule minority that includes Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, Flaubert, Balzac, and Tolstoy. A seer is a person who can easily transcend barriers of his time and space and by rising above the physicality of these dimensions of terra firma, look clearly into future.  These are the writers with global visions and integrated world-views, not the fractured, tortured and private point-of-views of their own classes. Only great artists positioned at certain historical moments can achieve this blissful feat of artistic gaze that can span centuries past, present and future and Janus-like, anticipate trends that are bound to occur in future, a future largely determined by historical forces.

Hard Times does that for us—the committed readers placed in the 21st century and reading Dickens retrospectively and finding this engagement with him still fruitful and relevant. While others are dated, Dickens speaks directly to a post-modern/ post-industrial/ post-structuralist/ post-colonialist reader/ critic—these theoretical positions are nothing but political reading strategies of canonical texts deployed by smart critics of the West to engender their own programmed evaluations and analyses of these artifacts made sacred by a common consensus of dons and critics embedded in the university system: by going backwards in time, the reader finds sediments of future in him. It can be amazing literary discovery with profound critical consequences.

The slim novel sans a preface and illustrations—his tenth with its action set outside London, his favourite playground, in a fictional Coketown that resembles manufacturing hubs like Manchester—was serialized in the weekly Household Words owned by Dickens, the clever businessman. The novel found resonance with the contemporary audiences and sales—primary reason for writing this critique of utilitarianism—improved considerably for its owner. It rolls out a heartless industrial England with its middle class fixated on rational thought, analysis, math, science and profits through manufacturing activity. In the new order of things, fact was privileged and fancy banished. You are back in the Plato territory. This crass commercialism can be crippling for the children who are taught to despise any art and imaginative activity. Circus is meant for lower creatures, not for the educated middle-class children raised on a dry diet of intellectuality and killing rationality. It is a frightening picture of a soul-less society that abhors its redeeming spiritual production in serious arts and literature and this profit-driven industrial unethical model of monetary progress finally climaxes in the rational totalitarian societies, imperialism, World Wars, Holocaust and other wars by the 20th century. The impoverishment of emotions and artistic truths leads to a split personality and a neurotic lonely society of late capitalism. The pauperization of the rich Renaissance man is complete at the emotional level. The Age of Da Vinci and Mozart is finally over. Commerce rules.

hard Times_Movie

The BBC adaptation of the novel ‘Hard Times’. Image Source: Amazon.com

These developments are in embryonic form in Hard Times. Sample the famous opening scene, setting up the binary of fact and fancy:

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders, — nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, — all helped the emphasis.

“In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!”

The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

Now this insistence on unadorned bare facts is a sure shot killer of imagination—an asset for the children globally. Thomas Gradgrind is typical manufacturer who wants only facts as fancy cannot be productive in his limited world of earning profits. His vision is Platonic: Create fact-driven warriors for a hungry industrial republic that sucks out the poor workers and promotes ruthless entrepreneurs like him with deficient emotions and feelings. Fancy and her poetic children are banished, as they inflame passions and feed lies. In Chapter 2, the same factuality as a new religion for a strictly rational society is ironically presented through a series of exchanges between three pompous all-knowing men and their timid wards and incidentally the issue of representation comes up suddenly in this exchange, making this interesting passage a post-modern one:

‘Very well,’ said this gentleman, briskly smiling, and folding his arms. ‘That’s a horse. Now, let me ask you girls and boys, Would you paper a room with representations of horses?’

After a pause, one half of the children cried in chorus, ‘Yes, sir!’ Upon which the other half, seeing in the gentleman’s face that Yes was wrong, cried out in chorus, ‘No, sir!’ — as the custom is, in these examinations.

‘Of course, No. Why wouldn’t you?’

A pause. One corpulent slow boy, with a wheezy manner of breathing, ventured the answer, Because he wouldn’t paper a room at all, but would paint it.

‘You must paper it,’ said the gentleman, rather warmly.

‘You must paper it,’ said Thomas Gradgrind, ‘whether you like it or not. Don’t tell us you wouldn’t paper it. What do you mean, boy?’

‘I’ll explain to you, then,’ said the gentleman, after another and a dismal pause, ‘why you wouldn’t paper a room with representations of horses. Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality — in fact? Do you?’

‘Yes, sir!’ from one half. ‘No, sir!’ from the other.

‘Of course no,’ said the gentleman, with an indignant look at the wrong half. ‘Why, then, you are not to see anywhere, what you don’t see in fact; you are not to have anywhere, what you don’t have in fact. What is called Taste, is only another name for Fact.’ Thomas Gradgrind nodded his approbation.

‘This is a new principle, a discovery, a great discovery,’ said the gentleman. ‘Now, I’ll try you again. Suppose you were going to carpet a room. Would you use a carpet having a representation of flowers upon it?’

There being a general conviction by this time that ‘No, sir!’ was always the right answer to this gentleman, the chorus of NO was very strong. Only a few feeble stragglers said Yes: among them Sissy Jupe.

‘Girl number twenty,’ said the gentleman, smiling in the calm strength of knowledge.

Sissy blushed, and stood up.

‘So you would carpet your room — or your husband’s room, if you were a grown woman, and had a husband — with representations of flowers, would you?’ said the gentleman. ‘Why would you?’

‘If you please, sir, I am very fond of flowers,’ returned the girl.

‘And is that why you would put tables and chairs upon them, and have people walking over them with heavy boots?’

‘It wouldn’t hurt them, sir. They wouldn’t crush and wither, if you please, sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy — ’

‘Ay, ay, ay! But you mustn’t fancy,’ cried the gentleman, quite elated by coming so happily to his point. ‘That’s it! You are never to fancy.’

‘You are not, Cecilia Jupe,’ Thomas Gradgrind solemnly repeated, ‘to do anything of that kind.’

‘Fact, fact, fact!’ said the gentleman. And ‘Fact, fact, fact!’ repeated Thomas Gradgrind.

‘You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,’ said the gentleman, ‘for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.’

The girl curtseyed, and sat down. She was very young, and she looked as if she were frightened by the matter-of-fact prospect the world afforded. (Pp 18-20)1

This long passage is illustrative of the general distrust of the Victorian England and its ideology of rationalization and scientific progress of the fanciful arts, objects, carpets and papers suggestive of any symbols and their artistic representations. The bald argument that horses are not seen in real galloping on walls, butterflies perching on the chinaware and flowers not trampled by the feet in gardens militates against the very symbolic nature of art and artistic representation. The open distrust and hostility against fancy and imagination—creative synthesizing faculties—completely undermines the foundations of arts in such a mercenary society concerned with wealth and power through tech applications and factual existence devoid of finer emotions and aesthetics. This open mocking of the fancy and representation of objects and animals recalls the Platonic derision of art as lies. All such representations—commercial art in this case—are twice removed from reality and therefore, undesirable in a society that is rooted in the real facts and not some imaginary creations by an idle mind. Art is unreal. Pragmatism is the ruling value that results in imperialist England conquering one-third of the world through its hunger for more profits, markets and colonies.

Here, Dickens, through a clever juxtaposition of fact and fancy in a utilitarian society, destabilizes the binary. The first one to debate the Fact vs. Fancy in educational programme for the middle-class children in this dialogic novel of contradicting voices—Louisa’s sullen responses to the parental homilies in third chapter for instance—in an open manner, Dickens displaces the Fact from its privileged position in this disturbing capitalist polarity of ideas crucial for  winning the mindscapes of a young segment of the dry bourgeoisie and legitimizing the philistinism in the name of education and new culture. The social campaigner and activist writer debunks this theory by subtly suggesting through dialogues and unfolding situations the perils of such a dangerous social engineering and anti-enlightenment project that is patently anti-human, anti-imagination and totalitarian. Such scary mercantile ideology eventually ends in Nazi and Fascist forces unleashing terror on Europe in the last century. Aggression, naked greed, power lust, wealth-accumulation, self-aggrandizement create a selfish and self-serving culture of extreme predatory impulses that threaten the humanist and liberal edifice of old civilizations in the West even to-day. Dickens subverts the official ideology of such a predatory culture and offers a merciless critique from inside a system that murders its own innocent children—his own title for the second chapter of this great but undervalued novel.

All arts and languages are symbolic and highly representational of ideas. By denying fancy, you are denying great arts and their power of symbolic representations. You are also denying meaning and marvellous capacity of arts for creating not lies or false world but creating parallel realities and realms that are autonomous and free of the tyranny of the restrictive time and space. These wholesome and organic worlds produced by synthesizing minds over the centuries restore our sense of sanity, wonder and delight, otherwise denied in an extremely pedestrian real world of stock exchanges, banks, insurance and assembly-line production of automatons inhabiting standardized mass societies globally. By first foregrounding and then displacing the fact in the discourse by its utter absence in the lives of the children of the Victorian England, gifted and visionary Dickens could foresee the tragedy and terrible consequences of such a narrow and one-dimensional programme for hapless human development. He cleverly deconstructs and destabilizes the terms of this obnoxious polarity of an industrial society placing premium only on sciences and commerce as panaceas for overall development and growth. His strong critique of education that frowns upon playful nursery rhymes or a chance encounter with travelling circus—with folk tales and carnivalesque elements—or ways of seeing faces in the moon constitutes a severe indictment of his society obsessed with wealth accumulation through anti-labour practices and later on by imperialist acquisition of colonies and wars. Scientificity can be destructive for the starved human soul. It is anti-human, inimical, unethical, anti-development and completely oppressive. Symbolic representations through arts, music, painting, architecture, poetry, and math cannot be replaced by the dry balance sheets of a marauding civilization with its mighty navy or military powers. For a rounded development, the liberal arts are as much needed as commerce and science. The departure from a high Renaissance vision of a liberal and humane and just society in favour of sheer profits can lead to paupersation and extreme hard times and give rise to rational instruments of thought control and jingoistic credos. Although the novel was written three years before tumultuous period in subjugated India, at a time when a broken nation was undergoing its sporadic and largely unorganized revolt against the cruel Raj, Dickens fails to notice this consequence of the colonial agenda of Victorian England and the imperialist designs: the suppression of the locals by the unscrupulous invaders. Entire troops were shot and innocent natives were hung from trees by the “democratic” British in a land stolen from their legit citizens in the name of civilization. The Revolt of 1857 finds no mention in later egalitarian Dickens. But Hard Times exposes the fact that any civilization divorced from arts as repository of the finest spiritual values is tyrannical both inside and outside its home country and it not only murders its innocent children but also other innocents scattered in outer colonies in its relentless quest for more profit. Unless pitiable sentiment-devoid, eminently practical and calculating figures like Gradgrinds and assembly-made teachers and government officials and skeptical merchants like Bounderby do not recover their capacity to imagine horses walking up and down on the walls through their symbolic representation or flowers cheering up drab halls on carpets, the hard-boiled skepticism will terminate in nihilism, agnosticism and a bitter skepticism, creating dictatorships at school, college and corporate levels and producing one-dimensional servants for the soulless mechanical system geared around lifeless figures of profit and anemic culture where everything, including homicide, domestic violence, rape and incest, human rights abuse, are all entertaining news for the de-radicalised minds living in gated ghettos.

Hard Times offers a refreshing post-modern read and Dickens, like Rabelais or Cervantes, shows that some works foresee future better than the official documents and government offices and upon careful, close and critical readings, reveal the essence behind the appearance or phenomenon and also the non-dormant seeds of coming ages deposited in their texts.

Audio book

Audio book of ‘Hard Times’. Image source: itunes.apple.com

In conclusion: Hard Times is political. It is cautionary. For a post-colonial reader, Hard Times bears an uncanny resemblance to a third-world nation of today where liberal education has been willfully neglected and commerce and management studies are allowed to flourish. By neglecting liberal studies, governments are manufacturing mercenary warriors for their MNCs and war zones involving discontented civilians and farmers. India is like Coketown: antiseptic, anemic, sterile, android, and oblivious to the significance of the use-values residing in arts, theatre and music. Dickens suggested obliquely that the march of such immoral culture will inevitably end in tragic circumstance. The fate of a Van Gogh or the howl of an Allen Ginsberg is a warning sign seen earlier by Dickens. Unethical progress of 1% of the world will be fraught with dangers for an unheeding status-quo. As long as sanctuaries provided by artists like Dickens—in the form of counter-cultures and alternative value-systems, these signifying systems of sanity and emotional wellness may delay the eruption of the deep ruptures and developing fractures of the fault-lines of a soul-less highly-regulated, rational and regimented social systems of administration engendering pseudo demands and desires for standardized and identical masses of a consumerist society. Unless use values are not re-installed and arts re-inscribed in the vacated areas of the state ideological apparatuses as a conscious interventionist measure, the de-humanisation and de-personalisation will continue and erosion of finer aspects persist. The hard times will like to continue and intensify further, enabling the creation of more Waste Lands of an Eliot or the Absurd of Kafka and angst of Camus. Arts will then romance formalism, jettisoning communities and their social concerns. This is frightful scenario. Brief redemption, of course, is available, as a temp relief in a dark tragedy: The serious art and its uplifting experience. It can offer to the enlightened critic or reader way out of the morass through its ethical side. A reading of Dickens in 2012 demonstrates that artists like the delightful Dickens possess the faculty unique to towering giants from the field of Fancy: Rare clairvoyance. Their diagnostic and narrative skills combined with accurate reading of future can provide anti-dotes to the acidic regimen turning homo-sapiens into mere homo-economicus.

A must-read for those skeptics who want to learn how great art talks to you, irrespective of the intervening centuries, and never loses its vitality for coming generations by renewing itself for them by growing again via dormant secondary seeds left within the residues of the textual landscapes more real than factual societies. These are the artifacts of loving hearts that constitute meta-realities and never stale for any end-user due to their intrinsic use-values that accrue to serious art. In Dickens, journalism and high art crystallize for a reading public. He was unique champion of social justice and equity and his activist side facilitated the banning of many obnoxious practices of an insensate society. It was a happy wedding of public cause with pure art created for a serial reader of a weekly. His own miserable childhood, the dislocations of family, blacking factory episode that haunted him forever caused vastly by the falling fortunes and cruel imprisonment of his poor father for bad debts made him a stern champion of the rights of the poor and practitioner of relentless realism that exposed government’s inhuman treatment of the toiling worker and child labour in the industrial England, forcing them to bring in many reforms. Ironically, he was an author in whom commercial success combined with critical acclaim. He had become a celebrity and visited America and did public readings of his work. Such adulation was fated for Hemingway only at a later stage and to Tolstoy also. Eminently readable, delightful and successful, Dickens was the last celebrity who got all the ingredients right, after Shakespeare. His work is transcendent and luminous. It is both highly topical and global in its wide sweep. His canvas is gigantic, matching with Shakespeare only in its stunning breadth and width and depth. Most of his fictional characters are real for us. He is a writer who could effortlessly collapse the purely conventional, arbitrary boundaries between fact and fiction and create autonomous lands and people. He created classics beyond the pale of time. All this happened due to the eclectic mix of his immense gifts of critical observation, astute story-telling, flawless and spontaneous style, an ear for dialogue, a marvellous and fertile imagination, huge talent, command over language and its creative use, industrious nature and profound moral stance. His poor social status and working hours spent in blacking factory as a child in early life prepared a soil for later growth of the artist within. Life chose him as its spokesperson and he acquitted well that demanding role. After Dickens, this benevolent union of so many traits—personal genius placed in indifferent community and a hostile age in a transitory period of evolving history— never repeated, in England at least. This synthesis made him an Immortal. The novelist and his ensemble cast of eccentric folks still cast a magic on us and this feat, in itself re-confirms his solid reputation as a writer of social commitment and of the underdogs and his beautiful prose would be loved by us all, now and forever.

Work cited:

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. New Delhi, Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd. 2011

  1. Ibid

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Mumbai-based, Sunil Sharma, a college principal, is also widely-published Indian critic, poet, literary interviewer, editor, translator, essayist and fiction writer. He has already published three collections of poetry, one collection of short fiction, one novel and co-edited five books so far. His six short stories and the novel Minotaur were recently prescribed for the undergraduate classes under the Post-colonial Studies, Clayton University, Georgia, USA. He is a recipient of the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award---2012. He edits online journal Episteme: www.episteme.net.in
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