Where the Beauty Lies

by Mark English

The neurologist treating my mother’s Parkinson’s disease, an old-school physician with a heavy Afrikaans accent, first suggested using music as part of her treatment some ten years ago. We probably would have got around to it anyway, as she had had some early training in music and retained a great love for certain Romantic piano pieces and also for the popular music of her youth. Now that her cognitive powers are narrowing, music is the only art form that gets through to her, so during my evening visits, I play an eclectic mix of recordings, using her (usually very subtle) facial reactions as a guide to what is working for her. It’s an effort for her to speak and increasingly talking is reserved for polite interactions and practical concerns (about pain or discomfort, for example). Lately I have been selecting slow songs and arias of deep emotional power. Her hearing is good, but she is unable to process linguistic input quickly.

This experience has influenced the way I understand music and the brain, and it has got me thinking about my own attitudes to music and the arts more generally. I have always had a natural tendency to favor simple and straightforward forms of expression.

That early Romantic manifesto, the Preface to the collection Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge, emphasizes the virtues of directness and simplicity. Recently I have been reconsidering these sorts of values and have come to be more aware of my own natural skepticism concerning intellectualism in the arts. (There are parallels here with the fideist tradition in religion to which I was once strongly attracted.)

In October, I wrote a piece in which I tried to articulate – drawing on a lecture by A.E. Housman – an emotion-centered view of art. Though I personally value art largely by virtue of its emotional content, I am not, of course,arguing that the crude manipulation of emotions associated with sentimental writing or music should be seen as art. This is where taste and critical expertise come in: precisely to distinguish between the emotion-generating works that manipulate the emotions in crude and clichéd ways, and those that don’t do this and yet still manage – no easy task – to touch us deeply.

The distinction between a sentimental song or novel or film and a non-sentimental but moving song or novel or film is a useful and meaningful one. And though there will never be perfect agreement about these sorts of things, this is one non-scientific area where you do tend to get a consensus amongst people who are well-educated in the forms in question. We want to say – and I think we can – that the sentimental stuff is inferior, artistically and aesthetically speaking.

There is something about Romantic ways of seeing things that appeals to me even though I unequivocally reject the key metaphysical and social (Rousseauian) assumptions upon which these views were originally based. Can the core insights be restated or reinterpreted in phenomenological or psychological terms?

The pianist Sviatoslav Richter had deep affinities with Romantic and late-Romantic composers such as Beethoven, Schubert and Rachmaninoff. But he was also closely associated with Bach and with 20th-century composers who were reacting against the excesses of late Romanticism (Prokofiev, for example).

Richter joked that playing Bach was for him a form of musical hygiene. But his Bach recordings – of The Well-Tempered Clavier, for example – are deeply emotional without being sentimental.

Earlier pianists (like Wilhelm Kempff, born in 1895) played Bach almost as if he were a Romantic composer. Richter, born in 1915, avoids doing this, as do most later-20th-century pianists.

As I say, my experience of listening to Bach’s keyboard music – and not least to Richter’s interpretations – is that emotions are very much involved. I don’t know if they are the same or different kinds of emotions from the ones expressed by Romantic composers (or even if it makes sense to speak of emotions in this way), but the musical language is certainly different.

In recent times I have been revisiting the Romantic repertoire through which I was first introduced to serious music. But I am hopelessly picky, and I relate strongly to the trope of the transcendent fragment.

There are very few Romantic compositions which I like in their entirety. One movement of a work I might love, but the following movement I might hate. I realize that musical compositions are supposed to be appreciated as wholes, not as bits and pieces. But due to personal idiosyncrasies or limitations – and perhaps due in part also to the prominent role that film scores have played in my musical education – the whole often seems to be less than the sum of its parts. For example, the first and second movements of Franz Schubert’s last Piano Sonata (D. 960) I find deeply moving, especially as Richter plays them. The rest of the piece doesn’t really interest me. (Bruno Monsaingeon used a section of the second movement to great effect in his wonderful documentary on Richter.)

I have a similar reaction to music from other periods: the suites of J.S. Bach, for instance, or equivalent pieces by neoclassical 20th-century composers. I prefer some movements to others.

I know how it’s supposed to work: all segments, including the apparently less appealing ones, contributing to the whole as the intellectual architecture of the work reveals itself. I have heard Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition described in these terms, but I must confess that I myself have never experienced the piece this way. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, on the other hand, or the Goldberg Variations, I can embrace in their entirety – almost. And possibly also Elgar’s Enigma Variations. But these are exceptions.

I see music as being like language when looked at in stylistic terms, and language (especially spoken language) as being like music in certain ways. For any given time and place, there is a set of musical possibilities, just as there is a set of stylistic possibilities with respect to language. The constraints that delimit these possibilities relate, with respect to language, to the actual state of the language (in terms of grammar, semantics, pragmatics, etc ); and, with respect to music, to the instruments and styles current at the time. Without going so far as to make ontological claims or appeal to some form of modal realism, I see this set of possibilities as being more important than any actual writing/speaking or composing/playing. It exists (this set of possibilities) not in itself but in the minds of those who are familiar with the conventions in question. Great and less-great writers express the spirit of the time as far as that spirit (or ‘feel’) can be expressed in language and imagined action, just as composers exploit the musical traditions and technology of their day. But the genius – as I see it – lies in the culture, not the individual. Or rather, the genius of the artist is to express (a part of) the deeper “genius” or spirit of the culture of the time. That culture – created over time by countless ordinary interactions – not only sets or determines the possibilities, it can be defined in terms of those possibilities. (The set of sets of cultural possibility?) And it is here that the deep beauty lies; individual artists and their works are valuable only to the extent to which, in expressing a subset of possibilities relating to a particular branch of cultural expression, they hint at something more.

The tradition of philosophical Idealism traces back, of course, to the likes of Plato and Pythagoras. And though Plato’s views on knowledge – which motivate his wariness or skepticism concerning art and artists and his views on education – are based on ideas that are quite alien to modern thought, the fact that there have been so many Platonist revivals over the last two thousand years suggests that he got some fundamental things right.

The most significant revival of Idealism for our culture occurred during the Romantic period, but many of these modern forms of Idealism featured an element that was lacking in classical Platonism and Neoplatonism and indeed which could be seen as inimical to the classical versions: an emphasis on human cultural diversity. The key idea here is the concept of the unique genius or spirit of a language or people. Giambattista Vico had talked about language as an artistic expression of the human spirit, but it wasn’t until the 18th century and, in particular, the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt that notions of linguistic and cultural diversity really came the fore and ethnic groups came to be seen as embodying a kind of group spirit or genius.

Idealism of this kind flourished within Romance linguistics in particular and constituted a powerful and influential tradition of thought throughout the 19th and early-20th centuries. Karl Vossler, a major figure in this movement, saw languages as expressions of national character, their lexical, syntactic and pragmatic peculiarities being indicative of the type of mind predominating in that particular linguistic community.

Though I don’t subscribe to the views of this Romantic school of language study, at least they took seriously matters which more positivist practitioners tended to downplay as peripheral and unimportant: that is, matters of style. For ordinary speakers of a language stylistic factors loom very large and play a hugely important role in communication. And artists and critics typically have a strong intuitive sense of the style of a given piece or author or period. Twentieth-century scholars have developed a number of valuable frameworks for the study of style, which I have not discussed here, and the suggestions outlined above about sets of possibilities merely represent a tentative attempt to restate the basic insight of linguistic idealism without resorting to religious or crypto-religious ways of speaking.

In Chomskyan linguistics there is a crucial distinction between competence and performance, and the key distinction I have been making has something in common with this idea. Someone’s linguistic competence relates to all they know about a particular form or variety (or forms or varieties) of language. This knowledge is mainly intuitive, though it has been learned via exposure to spoken and written language over a long period of time. Actual performance, by contrast, includes slips of the tongue and expressions which the speaker herself recognizes as infelicitous or ungrammatical (according to her idiolect – or particular understanding of the language).

In a somewhat similar way, then, what I am drawing attention to here are not actual literary works – or, by extension, musical compositions, etc. – but rather an intuited set of possibilities that lies behind actual works. It is the fact that this set of possibilities can be felt or sensed (by those who understand the culture of that time and place sufficiently well) which prevents this view from being dependent on assumptions about the existence of an independently existing Platonic realm.

These views are not completely worked out and may not be convincing – or even of any interest – to others. But they are based on strong convictions and (I believe) on some genuine insights.

As I indicated, I am trying to salvage something from the Romantic perspective which I once embraced but subsequently rejected. The view which I am putting aligns in some respects with Romantic ideas, but departs from them in certain ways.

I have talked about Platonism, but Rousseauian social ideas (evident in Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s early thinking) also pose problems. Another feature of the Romantic mindset that is deeply flawed is the tendency to mythologize the artist and his or her work. It is widely recognized that this entails a kind of false reverence that is more readily explicable in terms of social psychology than in terms of aesthetics.

14 Comments »

  1. As a practicing pianist/composer, I read this piece on music with great interest. Often I feel writing on music comes up short. Sometimes extravagant claims are made concerning what music essentially “is”. Conversely, there is also deflationary approach that reduces music to the mere expression of an age or a sociological function. I think your comments here strike a good balance. Your emphasis is upon the experience of the music itself, which might be, your critique of romanticism notwithstanding, an emphasis that might have been made possible by the Romantic revolution itself. Music is experienced also in time; as it is a temporal art there present mindedness of a lot of music makes possible the kind of preferences for sections of a large piece of music as opposed to the unity of all sections. But that is just a guess on my part.

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  2. an old-school physician with a heavy Afrikaans accent

    You will find them everywhere, mangling the English language with delight. But I love the Afrikaans language and I love the Afrikaans people. If you get the chance, read the books by Herman Charles Bosman, especially the Oon Schalk Lourens stories. They are a literary delight(written in English) and you will come away with a deep affection for this rugged, hardy, idiosyncratic people.

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  3. Mark,
    In a somewhat similar way, then, what I am drawing attention to here are not actual literary works – or, by extension, musical compositions, etc. – but rather an intuited set of possibilities that lies behind actual works. It is the fact that this set of possibilities can be felt or sensed (by those who understand the culture of that time and place sufficiently well) which prevents this view from being dependent on assumptions about the existence of an independently existing Platonic realm.

    This is a fascinating essay. It is fascinating because you reject one thing(beauty being an outcome of a Platonic realm) but then have great difficulty in creating a coherent alternative. The most you can say is that it is an ‘intuited set of possibilities that lies behind actual works‘. That is a baffling explanation that makes no sense to me. But I am not surprised. Anyone who believes we are ‘just’ a biological machine faces the same difficulty. How do machines perceive the true, the good and the beautiful? How do machines love the true, the good and the beautiful? There is no credible explanation or answer to these questions except to say:

    1) we are ‘just’ machines;
    2) we evidently perceive and love the true, the good and the beautiful;
    3) therefore, by some miraculous sleight of hand, that we call emergence, the love of the true, the good and the beautiful somehow emerges from our computing machinery; and we call this miracle ’emergence’.

    But that is not an explanation, it is a label designed to preserve postulate 1.

    Consider this. At its most basic level, a computing machine does something like this:

    C = A + B

    This is a purely mechanical affair which does not contain the possibility of love, truth, goodness and beauty since they are nowhere to be found in either the terms or the operations. Now we add complexity to our computing:

    C = 2A + 3B – pi

    But complexity does not contain love, truth, goodness and beauty either, so it cannot add them to the computation. So we add more complexity and still we don’t get the desired result. There is no possible way in which added complexity can create love of truth, goodness and beauty because added complexity only creates further complexity. This may be complex form, complex function or complex interaction. But never has complex form, function or interaction been shown to produce consciousness, let alone love of truth, beauty and goodness, because it is a completely different kind of thing. AI proponents have been mightily pursuing this goal but all they can produce is a crude, weak simulation that contains no hint of consciousness.

    The conclusion we should draw from this is that postulate 1 is false, we are not ‘just’ biological machines. There is something more. But this is a conclusion that appals all right thinking materialists. They cannot abandon postulate 1, we are just machines, because this is their foundational article of faith. And so they add an escape clause, it is called ’emergence’. But it is only a label and it has no explanatory power.

    Mind you, I do the same thing, having different articles of faith, and I use a different label. Which is why I have adopted St. Anselm’s famous quote – Fides quaerens intellectum(faith seeking understanding) as my motto. But this is not the fideism you referred to at the outset.

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  4. 1970scholar

    Thanks for the kind words.

    “Your emphasis is upon the experience of the music itself, which might be, your critique of romanticism notwithstanding, an emphasis that might have been made possible by the Romantic revolution itself.”

    Despite my criticisms of Romantic myths, I see the Romantic period as a watershed in Western intellectual and cultural history. To a large extent the changes that occurred in the 19th century made modern ways of thinking possible. We are all affected.

    Extendedness in time is also a feature of language-based art forms like fiction, and image-and-language-based art forms like movies.

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  5. Labnut (and all)

    “This is a fascinating essay. It is fascinating because you reject one thing (beauty being an outcome of a Platonic realm) but then have great difficulty in creating a coherent alternative. The most you can say is that it is an ‘intuited set of possibilities that lies behind actual works‘. That is a baffling explanation that makes no sense to me.”

    I don’t know that I am trying to *explain* anything so much as trying to find a way of not throwing the Platonic baby out with the bathwater. I can’t accept Platonic metaphysics/aesthetics, but I can see that Plato had some important insights (aesthetic and social). I relate strongly to his wariness about art, for instance. (The banishment of artists from his ideal republic is much misunderstood but I don’t really want to get into an interpretation of Plato here.)

    My suggestions are based on some ideas from the 18th and 19th centuries about the nature of culture which incorporate Platonistic and Romantic ideas. I thought perhaps these ideas could be restated in terms of a consciousness or awareness of a particular culture and the possibilities of expression in various areas which that culture (or cultural ideal?) allows.

    Style is a key concept here.

    The attempt to restate (a form of) Platonism in terms of possibilities etc. is my own idea. It is a general – and very tentative – suggestion and is not based on my own (subjective) aesthetic preferences.

    Much of what I am saying *is* based on my own experiences and preferences, however. For example, with literary works and films, what interests and attracts me is the culture to which the works provide a window. That’s why I like Ozu’s documentary-like approach. That’s why I like social realism (and not fantasy, etc.). Chekhov also comes to mind.

    Obviously music is more abstract. But some forms of music are very closely tied to particular cultures. And songs are necessarily culture-specific.

    I want the artist to ‘disappear’. Note the window metaphor above.

  6. Mark,
    I thought perhaps these ideas could be restated in terms of a consciousness or awareness of a particular culture and the possibilities of expression in various areas which that culture (or cultural ideal?) allows.

    For example, with literary works and films, what interests and attracts me is the culture to which the works provide a window.

    I agree with these sentiments and find it fascinating to enter a culture through the ‘window’ that art provides. But I can’t help thinking you are not talking about ‘beauty’ but rather about the beauty of a certain kind of knowledge. We can find beauty in the true and beauty in the good but nevertheless it is its own category and if we want to understand it we must examine it as it stands alone, independent of the true and the good.

    What does beauty do for us? Well, it gives us pleasure, it gives us delight and it gives us enjoyment. But the same could be said of the bouquet of a rose. The aroma causes in us a desirable, pleasurable and enjoyable sensation but we hesitate to call it beauty. That is because beauty has something additional, a defining component, and that is recognition. At the moment we see something of beauty we experience a thrill of recognition, an ‘aha’ moment. That thrill of recognition of beauty is followed by another defining emotion, that of appeal. Beauty, once recognised does not relinquish its hold. It continues to draw us in, it continues to appeal to us. Contrast that with the bouquet of a rose. Continued exposure makes us indifferent to it, it loses its appeal. Our sensations lose their sharpness with continued exposure. But the same thing cannot be said of beauty, it has an enduring appeal.

    It is the instant recognition and the enduring appeal of beauty that set it aside from the other sensations. The other sensations can easily be explained as being useful for promoting survival but the same cannot be said of beauty. Beauty is not functional. We cannot explain it by appealing to evolutionary patterns of development. To this we can add the fact that it is universally valued.

    Put these four things together, instant recognition, enduring appeal, lack of utility and universal valuation and we have a conundrum. They point to something beyond us, outside of us, something that transcends us, but how can that be?

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  7. Hi Mark and Labnut,
    Being an Afrikaner “rock spider”, as my English speaking friends playfully referred to me at UCT, I must confess that I am probably a bit of a cultural philistine – I am not particularly knowledgeable in any ‘high’ cultural area; art, music, literature, etc. But I am radically eclectic and derive deep enjoyment at times, depending on my mood. So, the first question that arises, is my deep experiences of the power of creative works by Beethoven, Shakespeare, Momix, Calder or Elvis Presley less real than yours? I am certain that it is different, but is my subjective experience of beauty less than yours?

    Are the spectators of a nomadic tribal dance in the Kalahari under a bejeweled sky less overcome by the beauty of the scene?

    As I suggested in Dan’s previous post, culture exists and has great efficacy, but it is not real. It becomes real in the minds of those that engage it, most of the time while being otherwise directed – i.e. a cultural artifact becomes a subjective experience which is the result of physical phenomena. Culture and brain interact and different modes of brain function have been demonstrated in different cultures.

    We are stupendous biological organisms, there is no machine in existence that comes even close to our abilities. All of our experiences, whether cultural or natural, are produced in our nervous system, one person at a time. This miraculous faculty of mind could certainly make one think of a supernatural power, but that is probably just our imagination. Since each of us has a different mind, culture will appear different to each of us, i.e. it is not real.

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  8. Hi Liam (aka Rock Spider 🙂 )

    is my deep experiences of the power of creative works by Beethoven, Shakespeare, Momix, Calder or Elvis Presley less real than yours? I am certain that it is different, but is my subjective experience of beauty less than yours?

    In the sense that you mean of subjective experience, I am sure yours is just as real, if not more real. Naturally, some people are more sensitive or aware than others. I have a close friend who insists I will only ‘see’ something when it rises to hit me in the face! That is because she is driven by sensory perceptions while I am more cerebral.

    And this perhaps illustrates where beauty lies. The key thing about beauty is that moment of recognition which demands our attention as we wonder at that moment of beauty. This makes it cerebral and yet we perceive it in a sensory way. Beauty then lies at the intersection of the sensory and cerebral worlds. And yet it is more than that. A mathematician will perceive deep beauty in his equations. I strive for beauty in my programming. I am overcome by the beauty in poetry. These are all cerebral things that evoke powerful emotional reactions in us as we recognise their beauty.

    So, for me at least, beauty is the bridge between the sensory and cerebral worlds but is itself rooted in the cerebral world. Quite how that is possible is the main contention. I appeal to a source outside us, beyond us, while you, in common with most readers, claim it is rooted in our biological machinery. Neither of us can demonstrate our contentions to the satisfaction of the other. I point to the impossibility of a biological machine perceiving beauty while you point to the unlikelihood(impossibility?) of there being anything beyond or outside ourselves.

    You say it is “probably just our imagination” while I reply that biological machines cannot imagine.

    Since each of us has a different mind, culture will appear different to each of us, i.e. it is not real.

    My reply is that culture is ultimately rooted in the three transcendentals, the true, the good and the beautiful. From my point of view, culture is rooted in something real, the love of the true, the good and the beautiful, despite the many and varied manifestations of culture and behaviour..

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  9. Liam

    “[I]s my subjective experience of beauty less than yours?”

    No of course not.

    “Are the spectators of a nomadic tribal dance in the Kalahari under a bejeweled sky less overcome by the beauty of the scene?”

    This example plays well into what I am talking about. Cultural ‘insiders’ would have a very different *kind* of experience from Western observers. A shared cultural experience – where everyone understands the rituals and the codes – is different from an experience which doesn’t involve cultural knowledge. (I am not saying that all worthwhile experiences have to involve culture-specific knowledge.)

    “As I suggested in Dan’s previous post, culture exists and has great efficacy, but it is not real. It becomes real in the minds of those that engage it, most of the time while being otherwise directed – i.e. a cultural artifact becomes a subjective experience which is the result of physical phenomena. Culture and brain interact and different modes of brain function have been demonstrated in different cultures… All of our experiences, whether cultural or natural, are produced in our nervous system, one person at a time. This miraculous faculty of mind could certainly make one think of a supernatural power, but that is probably just our imagination. Since each of us has a different mind, culture will appear different to each of us, i.e. it is not real.”

    I’m not sure why you need to say culture is “not real” just because each of us has a unique perspective.

    Cultural phenomena don’t exist ‘in themselves’, sure. They derive from and are dependent on interacting bodies/brains.

    Take a language like English. There are many varieties. Some are codified in grammars and dictionaries. What is being codified, though data-based, may be seen as a simplification, an idealization. But it is a useful one.

    Yes, we each have our own unique understanding of English. But it makes sense and is useful – in fact it’s essential, unavoidable – to talk of different languages and different varieties even if their boundaries are vague.

    Are they real? In a strict sense, maybe not. I’ve already conceded that they are simplifications, idealizations. But (and I think Dan was saying something like this recently) I wonder what the point is in insisting on their not being real. Or on their being real, for that matter.

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  10. Mark,

    “But (and I think Dan was saying something like this recently) I wonder what the point is in insisting on their not being real. Or on their being real, for that matter.”

    Most of the time there would be no point. However, when disputes arise the question becomes fundamental. When something is real it can be examined, information be acquired, and distinctions made about what is true or false. Examples abound of scientific enquiry helping us obtain clearer understanding of difficult issues. Race and gender are good examples: significant biological differences have not been found between the races. The opposite seems true for the genders.

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  11. Liam (and others)

    “When something is real it can be examined, information be acquired, and distinctions made about what is true or false. Examples abound of scientific enquiry helping us obtain clearer understanding of difficult issues.”

    I would say that, to a large extent, cultural phenomena can also be studied in this way.

    Are there not experts on (various categories and kinds of) cultural phenomena? Can you not say things to which evidence – sometimes definitive evidence – may be brought to bear about medieval architecture or the literature or music or customs of a particular time or place? I tend to see much traditional scholarship as being based on principles not dissimilar to scientific principles. You can’t do experiments but your findings are evidence-based. Archaeology is based on non-documentary physical evidence, traditional scholarship on linguistic and textual analysis and so on. You can’t underestimate the impact that the analysis of certain key texts (Biblical texts, in particular) had on the development of the Western worldview. And developments in philology led to a new understanding of Western history (the links between Sanskrit and Latin and Greek, for example). Yes, people jumped to conclusions and (sometimes damaging) myths were promulgated, but if you focus on the actual scholarship you can discern slow but clear progress in unravelling our history. Evidence-based speculations from genetics complement evidence-based speculations from historical linguistics and vice versa.

    Admittedly, what I was focussing on in the essay was not so much this side of things but rather on the sort of expertise that a critic (rather than a scholar) might have – relating to matters of style and aesthetic judgment. But, again, I see a continuum where others may want to make more clear-cut distinctions. For example, European philologists often combined expertise in grammar and historical linguistics with literary connoisseurship/criticism.

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  12. Hi Mark,
    I essentially agree with most of what you say. The point that I was trying to emphasize is that there is a qualitative difference in the kind of knowledge acquired from examining reality, and perhaps reality as it is, from that acquired by studying our culture and its historical artifacts. This boils down to the (obvious) differences in the information acquired in the social sciences and the physical/biological sciences.

    Just one example. In the sciences related to reality we can usually go back repeatedly to look at the phenomena again, since they will always be with us .

    In the ‘sciences’ of psychology, history and culture one can never go back since time inexorably marches on. Despite this significant limitation, the findings of research into history and culture nevertheless are extremely valuable. One just cannot measure directly the phenomena involved. This leads to much greater uncertainty and opportunity for error and deception. C’est la vie.

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