This paper is a major work I wrote in English Extension 2 for the NSW HSC Examination. It looks into the symbolic representation of scapegoating in Primo Levi’s “The Question of Centaurs”
The Question of Scapegoats
“It is convenient for the old men to blame Eve. To insist we are damned because a country girl talked to the snake one afternoon long ago. Children must starve in Somalia for that, and old women be abandoned in our greatest cities. It’s why we will finally be thrown into the lakes of molten lead. Because she was confused by happiness that first time anyone said she was beautiful. Nevertheless, she must be the issue, so people won’t notice that rocks and galaxies, mathematics and rust are also created in His image.” – Jack Gilbert1
20th Century American Poet Jack Gilbert once used poetry to highlight a major flaw of the human race: the inability to accept one’s mistakes. Linking this to the world around him, he highlighted profound evidence of a practice analogous to crime, namely scapegoating, having been undertaken by humans for countless millennia. There are numerous contemporary examples of scapegoating including the suppression of the Rohingya who “have faced decades of discrimination and repression under successive Myanmar governments”2 and the systematic abuse of ethnic minorities3.
Scapegoats are victims imprisoned by misinformation, innocent of the crimes for which they are punished. Scapegoating is a form of mimesis, the tendency of humans to imitate others and recreate images and personas already existing elsewhere4. Because scapegoating relies so heavily on a perpetrator tarnishing one’s image, this focus on mimetic theory is very important. Due to the broad occurrences of scapegoating in history and literature, I will be analysing and contrasting the methodologies behind specific instances of scapegoating which reveal determining qualities of scapegoats and the level of dehumanisation they are subject to by society. These will be examined in the context of the literary scapegoat, a representation of the characteristics of a scapegoat at a specific point in history5.
The word scapegoat comes from Christian and Jewish Scriptures, wherein a goat was presented to God as “a sin offering”6. The sacrifice of an innocent goat for the mistakes of the greater population is what evolved into scapegoating as it is known today. Although scapegoating is dependent on disconnection from the victim, there are positive frames of scapegoating evident in literature throughout history, the most well-known and ongoing instance being that of the Christian orthodoxy-influenced pairing of God and the Devil7, where absolution is achieved solely through Jesus’ sacrifice and “the devil is alien to all truth because he was a murderer from the beginning”8. The use of alien targets in literature – typically people of foreign races, animals and mythical creatures – is common as they are physically and emotionally foreign to those in the society. This alienation is the process of othering wherein “Others are considered filthy, impure even animalistic, and are henceforth symbolically essentially different and separate from the in-group”9. This externalisation of emotion for another living being enables scapegoating as the oppressor does not feel remorse for their actions.
The ability to portray scapegoats as symbolic beings highlights the value of literature in identifying and communicating what it means to be a scapegoat and the effects of scapegoating on the victim. The variations in the portrayal of scapegoats – particularly in contemporary literature – reflect the evolving nature of society and its tendency to either alienate foreigners or accept them.
Fascinated by the complexity of human nature, Plato theorised that human behaviour stems mainly from three sources: desire, emotion and knowledge, setting the basis for subsequent hypotheses on behavioural distinctions in humans. This essay will reference his Socratic dialogue “The Allegory of the Cave”10 to gain insight into our tendency to perceive objects materially. Subsequently, I will narrow my focus to a historically significant point in time: The Holocaust, which lies among the pre-eminent instances of 20th century mass scapegoating. I will reference the centaur scapegoat in Primo Levi’s short story “Quaestio de Centauris”11, originally published in 1961 in Italian. I will be using the 2015 English translation by Jenny McPhee12. As a holocaust survivor, Levi experienced scapegoating firsthand, ensuring an authentic representation of social behaviour pertaining to scapegoating13. His short story delineates the implications of the dehumanising practice not only on the community but on the centaur scapegoat in his work. My essay will demonstrate the qualities and perils of scapegoating as they appear in his work and what the story reveals about the tendency of humans to shun difference.
Early literature analysing scapegoating and mimesis began with Plato’s hypothesis that a person’s desires are strictly limited to what they can perceive around them. Scapegoating connects a person’s image and aspirations14, whereby a person’s desires and how they are viewed by society are used to discriminate against them. The discrimination based on image is related to mimesis, which describes the tendency of humans to desire emotions and qualities based on what they perceive in others. This is powerful because it can be used to manipulate the desires of a collective by tainting their image or by normalising certain hostile behaviour. In this way, scapegoating draws on mimesis, holding a person accountable for given problems because that is what is desired by the collective and considered ‘correct’.
Scapegoats have been portrayed in literature throughout history and literary scapegoats are essential to analysing human nature over time. Texts highlighting scapegoats often depict their emotions and are influenced by the beliefs held by society at that particular point in history. As “sustained analysis is not natural to the human mind and requires both talent and training”15, the human condition is susceptible to manipulation and even as it develops, it is weak when trying to overcome incomprehension of a concept or object. Scapegoats have been represented in many forms throughout history, most often humans but sometimes animals. The traits attributing to their oppression are always derived from their characterisation and image from the perspective of society. They are held to a lower standard in society and their subjugation is unquestioned.
“Quaestio de Centauris”, which is translated as “The Question of Centaurs”, is a story following a sentient centaur, Trachi, and describing his life, education, anatomy and a destructive event in his life: his mental reversion back to his primal form due to immense pain and suffering. Through the indifferent tone of the narrator, whose perspective parallels that of a Nazi soldier in a concentration camp, Levi positions readers to feel rage and frustration at the oppression which Trachi undergoes and hopelessness at the eventual emotional collapse he faces.
Authors exploring scapegoating often introduce a heterocosm, an alternate world which transcends the scope of exploration in realist fiction16. The heterocosm of “Quaestio de Centauris” enables Levi to use centaurs as an intellectually similar yet physically different race. Unlike the centaurs described in Greek mythology, who are represented as barbaric creatures with great strength and the intelligence of humans, Levi’s centaurs are initially depicted as feeble and subdued, revealing the need for a heterocosm which allows Levi to overcome the confines of the predefined world and introduce fantastic elements. It is important to analyse the traits which define literary scapegoats in their depicted heterocosms in order to explore how our negative tendencies to exclude or ostracise have always been present and how our innate humanity has been shaped by the status quo.
Plato’s deductions about the three main sources of human behaviour are well represented in his dialogue, “The Allegory of the Cave”, exploring the value of psychological perception in balancing the power of senses and understanding. The allegory is a common starting point for academics and philosophers to represent everything from beliefs about reality to the limitations on art17. However, it has not yet been sufficiently applied to scapegoating and is a critical basis for defining aspects of scapegoating: perception, image and the balance between different worlds of understanding. Plato positions readers to think about the cooperation between material and spiritual worlds in detecting and conceptualising objects. Although only material worlds are apparent to the human eye, Plato suggests the necessity of understanding spiritual worlds in experiencing reality.
In his story, Plato pictures men chained to the inside of a cave such that their only interaction with the outside world is visual stimuli in the form of shadows and aural stimuli in the form of the sounds of people walking past. Their lack of the ability to move around at will represents their loss of perception of the spiritual world as they are only fed elements of the material one. This stifling setting is effective in evoking disgust from readers at the conditions these prisoners have to bear. With the darkness in which they reside further emphasising their stifled curiosity, releasing one of the men and forcing them into the light of the outside world acts as a catalyst for his exploration and understanding of the spiritual world he has sacrificed. Plato continues that “when he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled”, symbolising the man’s reluctance to accept anything except the material world wherein he had been confined18. However, over time, he interacts with his surroundings and perceives the world in a way he was previously incapable of considering.
As the free man returns to the dark cave, Plato reasons that he will be blind after being accustomed to the light for such a prolonged period, and that the trapped prisoners will infer from his blind state that he has been harmed by the outside world. The blindness undergone by the man, no longer a prisoner confined to the artificial world, is merely a by-product of his enlightenment. Therefore, their deductions, extending to killing those who attempt to persuade them to leave the cave, stem from misinformation. They reject knowledge of any form, hinting at the notion that narratives challenging one’s world view are inherently threatening.
Furthermore, Plato’s work encapsulates a meaningful aspect of the human condition, the inability to comprehend an event or object without experiencing it both spiritually and materially. The men, chained to the walls of the cave, lose more than their mobility; they lose their ability to question the information received by their senses due to their abnormal circumstances and the fabrication of their own reality through ignorance represents a subhuman aspect of their cognisance of perception. They truly become impoverished versions of themselves, shackled both physically and intellectually.
By formulating this through an allegory, Plato warns readers of the dangers of misinformation and exhibits the ease with which humans can lose their ability to understand reality. The allegory is especially effective in its form as a Socratic dialogue19, a discussion between Glaucon – Plato’s brother – and Socrates. Their continued dynamic, whereby Glaucon questions Socrates throughout the allegory, enables Plato to convey the main plot while educating readers on the limitations of human nature. This form also invites readers to participate in the discussion and reason with Plato’s world view, stimulating the understanding readers gain from the allegory.
Primo Levi’s short story, “Quaestio de Centauris”, focuses on the repercussions of individuality in a society which discretely shuns unfamiliarity. The story commences with a diegetic description of a heterocosm20, in which centaurs are viewed merely as animals. Throughout the story, the narrator, of whom we are given scant information, remains distant and inconsiderate of the centaurs’ suffering. Trachi, the centaur this story follows, expresses extreme discomfort as he is forced to stifle his lust and ultimately, he mentally reverts back to his primitive animal form. This chaotic overtone distinctly conveys the ability of centaurs to imitate characteristics akin to humans but their inability to cross physical barriers.
Levi depicts a race similar to humans in every way except physique primarily through centaurs: half-human, half-horse creatures, “with the torso of a human joined at the waist to the horse’s withers”21, derived from Greek mythology. Levi’s allusion to a well-known mythological creature is noteworthy as he develops the centaurs in a unique way, highlighting their uselessness as a result of imprisonment. This challenges readers to adapt their understanding of how significant one’s representation is because of the effect of the centaurs’ degradation and subjugation on their previously majestic image. The centaurs in Levi’s story are described as creatures susceptible to the same passions and aspirations as humans but with the distinction that their bodies mainly take the form of horses, their instincts being feral. This fundamental distinction between centaurs and humans act as a source of conflict as humans fear the unknown and the differences posed by centaurs act as barriers to trust and meaningful relationships. Although having the body of a horse seems admirable and advantageous because of the superior strength and speed22, centaurs are widely despised for their equine characteristics. This subversion of the centaurs’ abilities reveals the negativity surrounding their superiority. The humans in the story realise that by alienating centaurs, they are free to assert complete control over them. Additionally, Levi explains that a centaur is born through a “moment of human-feral fullness” and adds that “centauresses are never mentioned”. By informing readers that the creation of a female centaur is horrid and that “they were not proud and nimble but insufficiently vital; they were infertile, idle, and transient” he emphasises the lonely existence of centaurs. They are incapable of reproduction, lack the ability to sustain meaningful relationships and are treated like farm animals by humans who build a façade of adoration but hold the centaurs to subhuman standards.
As an Italian Jewish Chemist during the Holocaust, Levi was taken to Monowitz, one of the three main concentration camps of Auschwitz23. By working to produce synthetic rubber in a laboratory and trading stolen materials for extra food, Levi avoided the harsh conditions faced by most Auschwitz prisoners. This enabled him to survive through the war while learning German from another Italian prisoner. The time Levi spent in Auschwitz had a distinct impact on his writing. Levi found solace and catharsis in poetry, through which he channelled his immense anger and despair. Consequently, his practice of expressing himself through poems evolved into the urge to write stories incorporating his trauma24, including “Quaestio de Centauris” where Levi’s struggles are evident.
The most powerful and confronting aspect of Levi’s story is the idea that Trachi’s pain is too great to express and that its enormity is not meant to be understood. He experiences unimaginable torment and anguish, emphasising his humanness through emotion and physicality. This heightening emotional nuance is what truly allows Levi’s writing to be categorised as a recreation of authentic experiences that warns readers about the importance of tolerance and acknowledgement of identity. This is effective because it shines a light on real life injustices, such as the Holocaust, which are built upon the same premises as Levi’s story. As a Jewish scapegoat in Nazi Germany, Levi’s and his family were abused by the Germans to further their regime25. Hitler galvanised support for his campaign by capitalising on Germany’s history of Anti-Semitism and fuelling the voters’ rage by pinpointing Jews as the root cause of their economic woes. The abuse of the innocent in Nazi Germany is similar to Trachi’s plight as a centaur whose “entire human half was crammed with dreams” but who cannot accomplish the majority of his wishes. It extends to Trachi’s raging love for a human named Teresa. The innocence of his love is clearly portrayed through “a long song, its rhythm bold and strong, with words I didn’t understand.” However, because Trachi is a centaur, his love cannot be reciprocated and he is left to suppress his emotions without aid from those who were previously described as ‘loving’ him. The harsh lesson being conveyed through Trachi’s helplessness resonates with readers and provides insight into Levi’s despair as he experienced unjustifiable suffering in Auschwitz. Furthermore, the portrayal of Trachi’s love through music emphasises its purity and depicts his emotions in their rawest form. By constructing a literary scapegoat as authentic as Trachi, Levi offers readers a glance at the powerless positions of scapegoats and seeks to contextualise them in the metanarrative of the human experience.
Before being used as the term to describe the mass murder of Jews under the German Nazi rule, Holocaust referred to other horrific bloodbaths26. The word comes from the Greek holokauston, meaning “a burnt sacrifice offered whole to God”27. Through its sacrificial context, the cruelty and atrocity of the Holocaust is evident; the bodies of millions were burnt in open fires and crematoria. This point in history is also defined by the Hebrew word ‘Shoah’. Although it now mainly refers to the Holocaust, its literal meaning is “catastrophe”. It is used in old literature to indicate utter annihilation, including several times in the Bible, such as in Zephaniah 1:15, to describe “a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of shoah and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” Levi’s life through continual destruction, whereby he never had any certainty of his life or death, is impossible to understand for those who have not experienced that level of catastrophe28. Similarly, Trachi’s experiences as a centaur are too foreign and harrowing to understand. He is born into a society which treats him as a subordinate to humans despite his intellectual and emotional connections with humans. Levi highlights these connections throughout “Quaestio de Centauris”, crediting Trachi with experiences and emotions alike to those of humans. Levi offers readers a sense of familiarity and allows them to develop an emotional connection to him. By forging a link between centaurs and humans, Levi emphasises the centaurs’ humanity and urges readers to reflect on the differences between people in society, from varying appearances to thoughts. This is clear through Trachi’s education, whereby “he learnt Greek from the island’s shepherds” and was also educated on “intimate things about grasses, plants, forest animals, water, clouds, stars, and planets”. However, his differences are also outlined, primarily his feral qualities, including “the reflex in his own gut” when both animals and humans gave birth. Although there is a sense of wonder at Trachi’s animal instincts, allowing him to “feel the approach of a gale or the imminence of a snowstorm many hours before it actually arrived”, the dichotomy between his tame and wild characteristics accentuates his degraded position in society, as he is marginalised based on certain diverging traits rather than accepted for his similarities.
Levi represents “the centaur as the emblematic figure of contamination”29. As an outcast, he “lived mostly in solitude, left to himself, which was the common destiny of those like him.” Trachi’s exclusion results in the loss of a fulfilling life and lead to his depiction as a mindless animal, lacking rights and freedom. This provides insight into Levi’s method of characterising Trachi. He details Trachi’s value by exhibiting his human traits, including the ability to express himself through language. However, he simultaneously stifles Trachi’s wishes.
The narrator explains the necessity to hide Trachi from the outside world, as “a combination of rationality and intuition advised us to shield him from unnecessary contact with our human world”. This separation further accentuates Trachi’s punishment for difference which is represented through the social distinction between him and humans. Levi further emphasises the distinction through the narrator’s relationship with the centaur as, although he felt an “exclusive and jealous affection” for the creature, Trachi is ultimately viewed by society as an outsider. Levi uses the variable emotions felt for Trachi to invite readers to consider their own morals and this reveals the capacity of literature to reveal flaws that would not be evident otherwise. By detailing two contrasting views throughout his short story, Levi seeks to embed a fragment of his own experiences into the mistreatment of centaurs. This has the profound effect of conveying Levi’s struggles in a powerful way: “precise, meticulous, and with frequent and pertinent mental associations”30.
Jeremy Townsley, an academic studying scapegoating theory, notes that a scapegoat is “normally an outsider, but on the border of the community, not fully alien to the community.”31 This notion is sustained throughout “Quaestio de Centauris”. There are very few centaurs in Trachi’s society and this contributes to their oppression because they are not numerous enough to fight for themselves and humans are unfamiliar with them due to their rarity. These are essential characteristics of scapegoating; the victim is not strong enough to fight for themselves and is an easy target of misinformation. There is distinct importance of tone and voice in Levi’s story and by using an objective and distanced voice, he positions readers to experience the narrative from a scholarly distance, like an historical artefact. As the passion and tension of the story builds, the effect is given greater power through Distanciation32, an almost Brechtian effect, whereby the story is driven by the reader’s reflective detachment rather than emotional investment.
Rather than a story written to educate and entertain, the crude expression of subhuman emotion and first-person reflection of Levi’s story mimics a rite of passage recollection. Comprising of a concise introduction on centaurs followed by a close account of Trachi’s most subhuman experience – his emotional suffering caused by suppressed love – Levi writes in “a modernist form: spare and concrete, yet riddled with meaning”33. As a shorter piece of work, “Quaestio de Centauris” sustains the narrator’s distinct active voice, omitting the need for Trachi’s firsthand narration. This results in a more authentic human recount of the centaur’s plight, Furthermore, it portrays the narrator’s limited understanding of Trachi’s suffering, as although he is sympathetic, his account implies inevitability of Trachi’s emotional instability. Through this, Levi positions the centaur as the subject of the suffering, rather than an object of abject pity. This almost mournful acceptance elucidates the effects of shunning those who one cannot relate to and underserving of intimate connection.
René Girard (1923 – 2015) was a French historian and social science philosopher who dedicated years of observation to how humans communicate with one another. He coined the term conflictual mimesis which he stated would “inevitably unify by leading two or more individuals to converge on one and the same adversary that all wish to strike down”34. Girard lived through World War Two and experienced the true extent of scapegoating during the Holocaust, developing his understanding of the practice. His critique of Plato’s work on mimesis can be divided into positive and negative components. These extend further than Plato’s exploration of human nature in “The Allegory of the Cave”, to the aspects of human behaviour identified in his other literature, in which Plato argues that “if we truly understand human nature, we can find individual happiness and social stability”35. Girard acknowledges that Plato identified the influence of mimesis in fuelling violence, and explained how human behaviour is altered through desire. The philosopher “accuses Plato of being terrified of his mimetic discovery, of attempting to conceal the traces of collective violence at the heart of human culture”36. These resonant elements are each evident throughout “Quaestio de Centauris”, whereby violence is caused through the captivity of an intellectual being, Trachi. Trachi’s desire, as a creature with identical traits to humans, compels him to chase Teresa and through the physical suppression of this desire, he reverts to a purely violent and mindless version of himself, one which the narrator cannot understand.
The theme of self-grievance is resonant in Levi’s story, where Trachi is forced to deal with his raging emotions himself. The immense suffering literary scapegoats are put through reveals the characteristics of alienated personas, as a result of unfounded animosity from the community. The purpose of literary scapegoats, as shown by Levi, is not to embody the typical scapegoat but to create “a complex narrative of who is in the wrong, who has been wronged, and what the purpose of scapegoating really is”37. Furthermore, society is led to believe that their well-being is dependent on the suffering of the scapegoat and that its purpose is to suffer for the greater good. Through this, the sacrificial nature of scapegoating is evident, whereby society cannot find compromise on their pursuit of a scapegoat’s harm. This idea is prevalent in many works on scapegoating, especially distinct in Ursula Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”38 (1973) which depicts a utopia dependent on the perpetual suffering of an innocent child. This is reinforced in Levi’s story, which positions readers to connect with Trachi on an emotional level and treat him as equal to humans while dismissing his captivity and the cruel numbness the narrator employs when describing him. The reason for the constant diminishing of a scapegoat on the harmony in a society is attributed to unification through shared circumstances. This is a motif in Levi’s work and echoes elements of Girard’s theory of conflictual mimesis: friendship through common struggles. Humans tend to find emotional connections to others, especially through hardship, where a collective works for the strength of each individual39. Emotions such as hatred and disgust are extremely strong and society strengthens each person in the same way as with hardship, thereby achieving unification.
Understanding ignorance is essential to comprehending the underpinnings of scapegoating40, which relies on misinformation to taint the image of either an individual or collective based on certain traits. Girard lists these tainted groups among those vulnerable to scapegoating as “children, old people, those with physical abnormalities, women, members of ethnic or racial minorities, the poor, and those whose natural endowments (beauty, intelligence, charm) or status (wealth, position) mark them as exceptional.”41 In Levi’s story, centaurs like Trachi are mistreated because they are ‘unfamiliar’ to humans even though their minds, thoughts and dreams are alike. This is greatly attributed to the lack of information about centaurs in circulation within Trachi’s society, where although the narrator’s father pays a blacksmith significantly extra “in vain to persuade him to maintain a certain reserve”, the astonishing reality of the centaur’s existence is enough that “every Sunday at the tavern he gathered a crowd around him and told the entire village about his strange client.”
Levi’s story incorporates the unique element of a mythical creature from Greek mythology. This enables him to explore a creature with a set of predefined characteristics. Elizabeth Lawrence describes a centaur as a creature which “expresses the close relationship between people and horses that has so often existed throughout history”42. This echoes an idea inconsistent with Levi who regards centaurs as creatures “very different from the classical tales we know.” By including this note in his opening description of centaurs, Levi warns readers of the distorted construction of the centaurs in his story. Instead of representing a sacred link between humans and horses, Levi scorns centaurs – the product of bestiality – and refers to the ‘inferiority’ of a horse’s mental capacity to disconnect it from humans. This reflects on the effect of using a heterocosm which parallels the real world. Levi invites the reader to make assumptions based on what they know about centaurs and then challenges these assumptions through his own degrading definition by which centaurs are mere farm animals. This shows the true extent of Levi’s pain and suffering, whereby he takes an innocent creature and tarnishes its image to express himself.
The heterocosm of “Quaestio de Centauris”, as seen through the lens of Plato’s allegory, is indifferent and speaks of the centaurs’ discontentment. The story encapsulates the emotions Levi felt at Auschwitz, and the reflective and unremorseful tone of the human narrator, who claims that he is Trachi’s friend, creates immense discomfort for readers. Through this, Levi reveals the harms of shunning difference. Although the centaur scapegoats have the bodies of horses, they have the same intellectual calibre as their human captors. The pain they undergo for unsubstantial reasons is unimaginable and symbolic of scapegoats throughout history. This reveals the cruelty of human nature, by which humans ignore the suffering of those considered foreign43. In “Quaestio de Centauris”, this is represented by the suppression of Trachi’s point of view. The story always assumes his emotions rather than question him directly, resulting in his solitude whereby “only once, when a horsefly bite provoked a painful abscess in his [Trachi’s] rump, did we require the skill of a veterinarian, but he was an understanding and discreet man, who most scrupulously promised to keep this [Trachi’s existence] professional secret”. The assumption of his wishes reveals the extent of scapegoating in Levi’s story, whereby seemingly caring actions like providing Trachi with medical attention were treated furtively to hide him from the world. This contributed significantly to his reclusive life and subjugated status. Girard identified that “it is not difference that dominates the world, but the obliteration of difference by mimetic reciprocity, which itself, being truly universal, shows the relativism of perpetual difference to be an illusion.”44 Trachi is inherently different from the humans in Levi’s heterocosm, yet the segregation based on physical attributes makes Trachi’s differences so demeaning in his society.
Human nature is bound by patterns and has the tendency to discriminate based on what can be seen. This is evident in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” with disbelief at the possibility of a world unlike the apparent cave. Furthermore, this is the premise of Levi’s work, which seeks to address the heart of our tendency to blame others for our own mistakes. Through this, it is apparent that scapegoating is a practice wired into human nature and this is evident from major scapegoating events including the Holocaust and its antecedents: the Dreyfus affair, pogroms and the blood libel. Levi’s work is vital in gaining a deeper understanding of our tendency to shun difference and through “Quaestio de Centauris”, he causes readers to experience the anguish and suffering stemming from the subjugation of scapegoats. This suffering is perennial, and the deliberate targeting and persecution of minority groups has continued to endure throughout history. Through his story, Levi depicts the destructive nature of scapegoating and compels readers to empathise with the subjugated, thereby answering the question of scapegoats.
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