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Plotinus and the Muses

Author(s): R. Ferwerda
Source: Hermes, 118. Bd., H. 2 (1990), pp. 204-212
Published by: Franz Steiner Verlag
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PLOTINUS AND THE MUSES


Toiv'rwv
b8 oiv `ovXWav&y0vT0v

EV aiToLg, 0tw;

b6l

EtE7UEOE
QtQcOTOV

ToTEoi5oag ovUxav T15Uow;xakoi sizrELv


XQovog,TaSg[LEv
MoI5oa; ov5'MO
ToiiTo'

akX'tmowg, FQ

ijocv

i
xaci a MOi3aL
To6TE,acT'Ov b'

av

TL; TaXa TOv YEVO6pVOV

xQ6vov, &tu; ecriv exqavei; xcd yEv6>vog.A'yOLb' av nrQi avtoi J1 Zrw>If, then these beings were at rest in themselves, one could hardly,perhaps, call
on the Muses, who did not then yet exist, to tell us ?how time first came out?: but
one might perhaps (even if the Muses did exist then after all) ask time when it has
come into being to tell us how it did come into being and appear. It might say
something like this about itself.<<
Plotinus Enneads III, 7, 11, 7-11. TranslationARMSTRONG.
For two reasons the text we have in front of us has a peculiarcharacter.The first
reason is that the Greek Plotinususes here to expresshis thoughtsis ratheranomalous. Normally the ,u'v (here before MoicJaa) corresponds with &e in the next
clause, whereas the two clauses are divided by at most a comma. In our next
sentence, however, we find a semicolon after the first clause whereas the next
sentencestartswith ELXaX.
Thisuse of &XXE,
in connectionwitha foregoing[tFv, is
not uncommon in Greek; but if, indeed, gv correspondswith 'aLXaX,then &eafter
auTov seems to have no meaning. On the other hand, if ev correspondswith be,
the sentence beginning with 'aXkainterruptsthe Greek in an awkwardway. What
also strikes us is that Plotinus uses the word perhaps three times: ijow; twice and
TaXaonce.
The second reason why the passage sounds peculiaris that Plotinus first states
that the Muses did not yet exist when time was born, whereas after only one line he
casts doubt upon his own suggestion.
In order to investigate the possible backgroundfor this strangepassage I propose to look first at its grammarand style and then at the position of the Muses in
Plotinus' thought.
A. In his famous Greek Particles J. D. DENNISTON'writes about ?V ... 6. :
>>Thewords standingbefore pkvand be are usually correspondingelements in the
contrasted thoughts and further the most importantelements in the contrast<.If

J. D.

DENNISTON, The GreekParticles(Oxford21954) 371.

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Plotinusand the Muses

205

and put a comma aftertoi)to,


for a moment we leave out the words a da.. . TO6m
the sentence reflects clearly what DENNISTONmeans: the contrast is between Tag
Mouhoag and aoTo6v(sc. XQovov)and the translation would be: ?perhaps one
cannot call on the Muses, but one might perhaps ask time itself,< etc. Since this
sounds as a perfectly healthy sentence with a clear meaning I think that Plotinus
had in mind to write it down in this way. More editors have also had that idea and
critique d'un
drew the conclusion that the words &aXa. . . TO'T were a >>remarque
and that the best solution would be to delete them. Unfortunately,
grammairien<<2
however, our codices are unanimousin supportingthe traditionaltext, and therefore we will have to find another way out.
It is evident that Plotinuswants to comment upon his thesis that the Muses were
not yet born when time came into being. He introduces this commentary by the
words &XX'oaw, just as he uses these wordsfor instanceat I, 1,6,1, 111,7,13,13 and
III, 8,8,22. In all these cases he cautiouslyhints that there is another way to find a
solution to a certainproblem. The differencewith our case is that here the sentence
interruptsthe main clause, whereas in the other texts the words introduce a new
independent clause. I think that the easiest way to smooth down the anomaly is to
put a comma behind ToiTo, and put the whole line &a' . . . T6TEin parenthesi.In
that fashion it does not destroy the equilibriumof the main clause and it gives be
the function it should have. By the same token this position underlinesthe idea that
the contents of the remarkhas no bearing whatsoever on the general meaning of
the discussion concerningthe birth of time. It also fits Plotinus' normal style. He
frequently uses the figura of the parenthesis to make his style more vivid, as
SCHWYZER3
points out. The use of this figura here betrays in my view Plotinus'
uncertaintynow that he has come to speak about such an importantsubject as the
birth of time.
B. Before going into the question why Plotinusmentioned the Muses here at all
I want to draw attention to another strange phenomenon in this passage. At first
glance it resembles an introductionto a prayer,but then it looks as if we are dealing
with a prosopopoia or personification. Plotinus uses prayers or personifications
elsewhere but he never mixes them up. At III, 2,3,20-41 he introducesthe speaking x6o'atog:you may hear from the kosmos itself what it is. And at III 8,4,9-14,
Nature would be able to speak about itself what it is. In both cases the persons
present rather long speeches. In other texts we find very short utterings as at III,
7,12,38: Who am I (the time), IV, 4,7,14 (a planet), V, 3,3,4 (mind), V, 3,13,24
(thought), VI, 4,6,15 (soul) and III, 6,15,28 (matter). Because in our text time

2
3

E. BREHIER, Les Enneades de Plotin (Paris 1956) IV p. 79 n. 2.


H. R. SCHWYZERin R.E. XXI p. 522 s.v. Plotinos (Sonderdruck Munchen 1978).

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206

R. FERWERDA

thinks that it is
does not speak about itself in the first person singularSCHWYZER4
not a personification. But since the first person plural is used in line 20 I tend to
that we could call the passus, beginningat line 12, a
agree with W. BEIERWALTES5
and not TL;.All
personification and that therefore the subject of X'yoL is XQOvog
that
they
are not introhave
in
common
other personifications in the 'Enneads'
duced by an invocationof gods or Muses. So we may conclude that our personification is a strange one and that there are at least formal similarities with prayers
which we find in other places in the 'Enneads'where Plotinusinvokes the aid of the
gods to solve difficult philosophicalproblems.
At IV, 9,4,6 he praysto god to assist him in tacklingthe problem of the birth of
multitude from One. At V, 1,6,9 he discussesthe same problem and does not even
want to try to reach a solution before he has called upon god himself, not in a loud
voice, but by addressinghim in prayer. At V, 8,9,13 the problem of the relationship between one and many again plays a role and here Plotinus advises us to call
upon the creatorof the cosmos to come. There is a certainsimilarityalso with what
we find at V, 3,17,30 where one calls upon god to enter a house for illumination.
However, this is not a prayer but an image.
We see that our text differsnot only from the usual form of the personification,
but that it is also different from the other prayersor invocations to gods. Whereas
in the other texts Plotinus always calls upon a god (or the creator), he speaks here
about invoking the Muses. And then he rejects the idea again. So we may conclude
that this strange text is something between a personification and a prayer. The
ambiguity of the passage again reflects, in my view, the uncertaintyPlotinus felt
concerning the explanation of the birth of time.
C. From the time of Homer and onwards the Greeks, especially poets, have
called upon the Muses to provide inspiration for singing their songs. It is even
Homer himself who triggersthe idea in Plotinus' mind in this text to think of the
call to mind a line
Muses. Three apparentlyunimportantwords(63twgbi FCQdrrov),
in Homer's Iliad (fH113) which is preceded by an invocation to the Muses. Even
the verb after rQdxTOV,teces, is very similarto the verb Homer uses: EiVnE0c.So
it should not surpriseanyone that in a flash Plotinusis tempted to invoke the Muse
in the same way, especially since Plato too had used the Homeric line in Republic
VIII, 545d8-e1. In describingthe decadence of ideal states Plato asks if it would
not be better to pray to the Muses, just as Homer did, to tell us &cw; bij ncQTov
OTacug eEsIaTE, how rebellion and unrest fell upon the states for the first time.
Whether Plotinus' playful variation of these examples is derived from Homer or

4 Op. cit. p. 524 and in the first edition of P. HENRY - H. R. SCHWYZER,


Plotini Enneades
(Paris-Bruxelles 1951) 387.
5 W. BEIERWALTESPlotin uber Ewigkeit und Zeit (Frankfurt am Main 1967) p. 248.

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Plotinusand the Muses

207

from Plato we will never know but neither is it very important6.There can hardly
be any doubt, however, that the whole line of Plotinushas every aspect of a literary
device expressingthe idea that he has reached an importantpoint in his reasoning7
and that some superhumanaid would be welcome. Surely, the subject of the birth
of time is importantenough in itself. For Plotinus time is life of the soul (line 44).
Hence it is connected with our innermost being. And when a person is going to
speak about such essential things, the aid of gods is alwayswelcome. So if Plotinus
would have said, >let us invoke the aid of the Muses<<,
everythingwould have been
correct and understandable.But he preferredto act differentlyand in order to find
a reason why he did so it is useful to look at the role the Muses play elsewhere in the
'Enneads'.
Apart from our passage we find a Muse only in V, 8. The first occurs in the first
chapter line 10, where Plotinus speaks about stones: some stones have been made
into the statue of a god, for instance, of a Grace or a Muse. A Muse, the text tells
us, is a god and is associatedwith the Graces. This should not amazeus. Speusippus
put images of the Graces in the Mouseion of the Academy (Diog. Laert. 4,1) and
Euripides sings in his 'Heracles' (673 ff.):
Never I'll pause to bring together
Muses and Graces in a lovely companionship.
Hence, there is nothing strange in finding the two goddesses here in the same
line. The second place where we find a Muse is in chapter 10, line 44: >>Butone
must transportwhat one sees into oneself and look at it as one and look at it as
oneself, just as when someone possessed by a god taken over by Phoebus or by a
Muse, could bringabout the vision of the god in himself, if he had the power to look
at the god in himself.<<
Let me first say a few words about CpOLP36XnTO;
?>takenover by Phoebus<<;
the
word is used in Herodotus 4,13 where Aristeas is called qpoLrSkTXJTOg.
Usually this
Aristeas is considered to be a shaman, due to the strange stories that Herodotus
tells about him. It is used twice in the case of orators who make their speeches
under the influence of Apollo: Longinus, De Subli. 16,2 (Demosthenes ipav?uizo Osoioxat o(ovFL pOlf3XiTnrTOg:inspiredby a god andtakenover) and
GOE'Lg
Plutarch, Pompeius 48 (Cato, '(Lnvovg xat (polfP6OTTOg:inspired and taken
over, foretold the future for the city and Pompey in the Senate). People who are
taken over by Apollo are out of their mind, can foretell the future and are better
speakers and poets. That is what these texts tell us. In the passage of Plotinus the
sees more and better.
cpoLjO6kXTpTos
It is of course unnecessary to elaborate upon the close relationship between
6

A. H. ARMSTRONG,
Plotinus'EnneadsIII (London1957)337.
V. CILENTO,Mitoe poesianelle Enneadidi Plotinoin: 'Sourcesde PlotinEntretiensHardt
V' (VandoeuvresGeneve 1957)283.
7

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208

R. FERWERDA

Apollo and the Muses. According to Pindar(fragment 116), Apollo, the leader of
the Muses, broughtthe Muses down from their home on Mount Helicon to Delphi,
tamed their wild frenzy, and led them in formal and decorous dances8. Ptolemy I
founded games for Apollo and the Muses9.Both Apollo and the Muses could give
the power of healing and prophesy to their followers (Aristeas and Aristaeus)10.
We should not be surprised,then, to find them here in the same line. But what does
strike us is that the inspirationcaused by a Muse can be comparedto the inspiration
of an ecstatic by such a late philosopher as Plotinus'l. Their frenzyhad been tamed
by Apollo a long time ago. Nevertheless, for Plotinus, as this text clearlyshows, the
Muses are still able to inspire people, to provide deep insight. And he knew of
course that poets believed that the Muses could give a divine touch to their verses
that made them eternal12.Muses took away the vicissitudesof time, because they
were in touch with eternity. And now we can returnto our text at III,7,11. When
Plotinus comes to speak about time as the child of eternity, (I think that the word
Et?'oes has also a connotation of being born (fallen from the womb)13, he is
tempted to invoke the aid of the Muses in order to describe accuratelyhow time
appeared. But he hesitates. This hesitation is not, I presume, caused primarilyby
the question whether the Muses were born before time or not. The ancient authors
know of both traditions. From Hesiod, for instance, we learn that the Muses
>transcendentle temps, exactement comme Aletheia?<14.This idea would have
suited Plotinus well in this passage, had he been aware of it; in fact in this same
treatise (111,7,4,7 and 11,12) he tells us that Aletheia is a part of the intelligible
world and if the Muses are related to Aletheia they too can be assumed to be
anterior to time. But there is, of course, also the traditionthat the Muses are the
children of Zeus and Mnemosyne; accordingto that view, they must have been
born after time had come into being. But it is hardly this question which makes
Plotinus hesitate; as we have seen he speaks too casuallyabout it to give us the idea
that it was of any interest to him. His hesitation was due to something else. So far
his description of time had been strictlyscientific and by his refusal to invoke the
Muses he shows that he had decided to stick to the usual way of reasoning about
this problem. Therefore he prefersto ask time itself to speak about its birth. But in
the stammeringlines before the descriptionwe notice how for a moment his mind is
torn between the temptation of listening to the divine Muses and the conviction
8 R. GRAVES,Greek Myths (Pelican books 1966) I, 79.
9 W. F. OTro, Die Musen (Darmstadt 1961) 37.
10 I. MURDOCH,The Fire and the Sun (Oxford 1978) 24. R. Graves Op. cit. I 277.
11 For Dionysus as leader of the Muses, see M. P. NILSSON, Griechische Feste (Darmstadt
1957) 274. The Muses are also mentioned in lamblichus, Vit. Pyth., 30.
12 OTTo, Op. cit. 35.
13 For instance III, 8,4,8. See R. FERWERDA, La signification des images et des metaphores
dans la pensee de Plotin (Groningen 1965) 174 note 1.
14 M. DETIENNE, La notion mythique d'Aletheia in: Rev. Et. Gr. 73 (1960) 33.

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Plotinusand the Muses

209

that only scientific reasoning will satisfy him here. His hesitation, his uncertainty
even breaks asunder the grammaticalorder of the sentence5.
D. When I suggest that Plotinus decided to renounce the aid of the Muses
because he wanted to discussthe birthof time in a scholarlyway, I have the feeling
that I have left out something importantconcerning the position of the Muses. I
think for sure that Plotinuswanted to discussthingsscientifically.At the same time
he was awareof the fact that listeningto the Muses would certainlyenrichhis spirit,
but that it would also put him in dangerof not fully understandingthe divine truths
and of transmittingit in a warped way to his fellow men.
Listening to the gods, putting on the robe of a prophet, is a dangerousjob. The
Greeks knew all about it16. There was not much room in Greek tradition for
listening. They put much more emphasis on seeing and consequently the eye was
more importantto them than the ear. It has even been said that this was due to the
fact that the eye was more movable than the ear. A man can direct his eye upon a
subject, but he can hardlymove his ear so that he can hear only one sound amid the
turmoilof this world17.But this is certainlynot true for all Greek writers.When we
look at the evidence from the 'Enneads' it is clear that in general Plotinusfavours
the eye just as his compatriotsdid.
Images of the eye, light, and seeing around,while listeningto the voice of God,
prevalent in Hebrew and Jewish literature, is virtually absent in the 'Enneads',
except for a few texts to which I wish to draw attention here, especially V,
1,12,14 ff.: ?If we want to perceive what is present (in us) we have to turn our
power of perception inward. It is as if someone expecting to hear a voice which he
wants to hear withdrawsfrom other sounds and rouses his ear to catch what, when
it comes, is the best of all the sounds which can be heard; in this way we must here
let perceptible sounds go and keep the soul's power of apprehension pure and
ready to listen to the voices from on high<<.
This is really an astounding image. We may compare it to Plato's Critias 54 d
2 ff. but Plato's point is not protrepticin the sense that Socratesshould concentrate
on listening to the sounds he has heard. And when we go to Seneca's Epist. 94.59
we come, it is true, closer to our image but there is no hint there that the apprehension of unamvocem depends on the purityof the individualsoul'8.It may be argued
that Plotinus was inspiredto use this image from what he knew about the harmony
of spheres of the Pythagoreans. It may also be true that he applied here what he

15

See R. FERWERDA, L'incertitudedansla philosophiede Plotin,in: Mnemosyne33 (1980)

119ff.
16

See OTro, op. cit. p. 34: XXXIII(119ff).

17 J. C. VAN OPSTELTENin >Forum der Letteren< (1962) 139-140.


18 M. ATKINSON,
Plotinus'EnneadV, 1 (Oxford1983)250. See also PlutarchDe

>TheMusestake people to the harmonyof spheres<<.

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Mus. II, 9:

210

R. FERWERDA

suggests at I, 3,1,33 ff. about the education of the musician who moves from the
enjoyment of perceptible sounds to the noetic harmonywhichis the source of their
attraction. But there may be even more to it. In Pliny's Nat. Hist. 11.45.251 we
read that the innermost ear is the seat of memory. So if we want to know what is
hidden to us we should pay attention to what our ear can teach us.
If our ears are pierced through by an arrow or fastened to the ground, as in
HieronymusBosch's hallucinatingpictures19,we may believe that our communication with higher spheres is interruptedand frustrated.Our horen (hearing) is then
der Gehorsam,obedience, slaveryto earthythingsandwe will never be able to lead
the life of the spirit20.But the functionof the ear is preciselythis: to pay attention to
what is above. God Himself, accordingto the Jews, dug our eyes in our head. (Jes.
50.5 and Ps. 40.7). And in Greek literature we find strange stories about the
cleansing of the ears which point in the same direction. So we are told that Melampus once burned and buried a snake which had been killed by some servants.The
snake's offspring, out of gratitude, came to lick his ears. After that Melampus
could hear the voices of animals and predict the future for men21.Similarstories
are known about Cassandraand Helenos. So from the time of yore the Greeks had
an inkling of what a clean and attentive ear could reveal to men. They also knew
about the dangers.
Ulysses had himself tied to the mast of his ship so that the song of the Sirens
would not drive him from his path and destroy his ship and the whole crew. >>Come
this way, most admirableOdysseus, glory of the nation! Stay your ship, and listen
to our voice! No man ever yet sailed past this place, without first listening to the
voice which sounds from our lips sweet as honey! No, he has a great treat and goes
home a wiser man. For we know all that the Argives and Trojans endured on the
plains before Troy by the will of Heaven; andwe know all that shallcome to pass on
the face of mother earth!< (Odyssey 184-190. TranslationROUSE).
The Sirens know everythingon earth and if Ulysses listens to their voice he will
also know everythingand ... be killed. That is the punishmentof opening the ears

19 W. FRANGER,Hieronymus Bosch (Dresden 1975) 199: Auf der Zeichnung >>Walderhaben


Ohren<<lauschen zwei machtige Geistesohren: Symbole fur das innere Gehor, die Tugend des
Gehorsams.< See also p. 410: >>Aufdem Gemalde >>DieVersuchung des heiligen Antonius<<findet
man rechts unten eine Figur mit nur einem Bauch und einem Ohr. Durch dieses Organ ist der
Bauchling als Horiger der untersten Materie ausgewiesen.<<Und auf dem Gemalde Der Garten
von Eden findet man ein Ohrenpaar das von einem Pfeil durchschossen ist. Dieses zerschnittene
und durchpfeilte Ohr soll dem Beschauer zum BewuBtsein bringen, daB nur die Einsicht in die
nachfolgende Strafe dem Menschen zur Besonnenheit verhilft (p. 48).
20 It has often been noted that audire (to hear) and oboedire (to be obedient) are related verbs,
just as in Dutch horen and gehoorzamen are related or, in German horen and der Gehorsam.
Listening can lead to slavery and therefore can be dangerous.
21 Hesiod 'Eoiai' Fr. 12 = Apollonius Rhodius, Arg. I, 118. See I. LOFFLER,
Die Melampodie
(Meisenheim 1983) 32 ff.

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Plotinusand the Muses

211

and listening to voices from above. In the enjoyments of their song the lethal
poison is hidden. The Sirens are goddesses of the other side, perhaps of the
underworld22.Their figure and function are not distinguishablefrom that of the
Muses in our oldest texts. Alcman fragm. 10 D., 30 P. says ?The Muse sings, the
clear Siren<c.For him the danger in their song is not apparent. In Plato we find
Alcibiades fleeing from Socrates as from the Sirens, his hands on his ears (Symp.
216a). In the midst of more than 100 fantasticetymologies the name of Hades (the
underworld)is derived from a word which means to know (otba). Everyone, Plato
says, who has come to Hades wants to stay there because Hades binds them by
satisfyingtheir desire of the deepest insight. Let us say therefore that no one wants
to come back, not even the Sirens: they are all spellbound (Plat. Crat. 403 de). In
his 'Republic' (617c) Plato buts the Sirenson the spheres of the planets in order to
sing each one tone, one note which together make the harmony of spheres. For
Plato the meeting with the Sirens is a matter of life and death. In later ages the
question was raisedwhy Plato had given the role of singingthe harmonyof spheres
to the Sirens and not to the Muses. Plutarchtries to solve the problem by suggesting that the music of the Sirens in Homer is not (!) hostile to men but that it
liberates the souls from the bodies which, when dead, lie around them. (Quaest.
Conv. IX, 745cff)23. We find the Sirens again in Jamblichus (vit. Pyth. 82 (the
harmony[of spheres]in which the Sirensare) and in Porphyry(vit. Pyth. 39) where
they sing the song of the harmony of spheres. Hermias calls the Siren the soul
which keeps matter together (in Plat. Phaedr. 214) and Proclus makes even three
kinds of Sirens, the heavenly, the vivifying and the purifying(in Plat. Crat. 158).
At the end of antiquity Boethius has Philosophy remove the poetical Muses
because they cannot heal illness. They only make it worse by their sweet poison.
Then
and >Sirenspleasant even to destruction<<.
harlots<<
She calls them >>tragical
(= philosophical) Muses to help her. (De consol. philos. pr.
she calls upon >>my<<
1,1).
It is regrettablethat Plotinusnowhere mentionsthe Sirens. But it is unthinkable
that he would not have been aware of the debate going on in his own philosophical
circles about the meaning of Muses and Sirens. However it may be, the whole
discussiongives us a good idea of the backdropagainstwhich the Muses in Plotinus
play their role. On the one hand they are a source of inspiration for poets and
philosophers alike in whose midst Peitho (Persuasion)prefers to dwell24.And it is
clear from elsewhere in the 'Enneads' that Plotinus prefers Peitho to Ananke
(Necessity) when he tries to solve the ultimateproblemsof his philosophy25.At the
22

See G.J. DE VRIES,De zang der Sirenen (Groningen 1969) 1-35.


J. Y. VERNItRE, Symboles et mythes dans la pensee de Plutarque (Paris 1977) 23.
24 Plut. Quaest. Conv. 245 c.
25 See my article ?Pothos and Peitho in Plotinus<<
in The Persistence of Religions: Volume in
Honor of Kees W. Bolle, Sara Denning Bolle and Edwin Gerow editors (forthcoming).
23

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212

R. FERWERDA

same time there is the fear that the song of the Muses may be the seduction of the
Sirens and that the attentive ear will not hear the harmonyof spheres26which may
reveal the essence of time and life and soul, but the magical incantation of death
which may destroy the philosophical building he has constructed with so much
care. That was his dilemma which shines through his stammeringgrammar, his
threefold use of 'perhaps'and his hesitantrefusalto call upon the aid of the Muses.
Ede, MarnixCollege

R. FERWERDA

26 A joy to the ear. J. LACAN,Ecrits(Paris1966)821callsattentionto the factthatin French


j'ouis (I hear)andjouis (enjoy)arerelated.He hasalsosomethingto sayaboutthe sexualpleasure

thatsomepeoplederivefrombeingtouchedor lickedby theear.Thougheroticpleasureis a divine


gift, I have foundno evidencethatthe Greekswere awareof this eroticfunctionof the ear.

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