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From Cather Studies Volume 3

Her Mortal Enemy's Daughter

Cather and the Writing of Age

As a little girl in the 1950s I was a passionate reader. Like my peers, I devoured popular series and began to learn-from the March sisters, the Ingalls sisters, and Cherry Ames, Student Nurse-what might lie ahead for me in terms of place and movement, family and friends, work and love. I read to learn what my culture said would happen to me next.

Much has changed, of course, now that I'm a reader by profession. But sometimes I still read fiction to learn what will happen to me next. In middle age, the uncharted territory that lies ahead is that of aging and dying. There is a part of me that searches for the books that will help me accomplish these tasks. As a girl I found my books easily; they stretched out in long rows on the shelves. But now I often can't find what I'm looking for, and when I consult the bibliographic tools that guide my reading they offer little help.

David Plath has suggested some of the reasons for this dilemma: Old age has become a cultural nightmare for postmodern humankind . . . a condition that we make extraordinary efforts to avoid or deny, for it places a fearful strain upon our heritage of ideas that bind together human effort and reward.... Our secular era . . . is left to symbolize old age with metaphors of disaster and terminal disease. And the season of years before old age, once known as "life's prime," now is named a "crisis,"...a time . . . for testing the limits of a dangerous condition. (109-10)

Our cultural strategies for dealing with "a dangerous condition" have included isolation, distance, and, as Plath says, denial. For example, when I consult a ten-year index of a foremost U.S. feminist journal, Signs, I find only three brief entries under "aging." And the subject index of Marilyn Arnold's invaluable 1986 bibliography of Cather criticism includes not a single entry under "old age" or "aging."

Yet, as I reread Cather's fiction in my middle age, I discover that the books I have been looking for do exist. Negotiating the spaces between middle age, old age, and dying is a great subject and strategy of such texts as Death Comes for the Archbishop, "Old Mrs. Harris," Sapphira and the Slave Girl, and My Mortal Enemy. Although it is seldom acknowledged as such, Cather's post-1922 fiction is one of our invaluable cultural resources for confronting the coming of age.

As we know, the 1920s were a crucial decade for Cather. She passed her "milestone" fiftieth birthday, saw both her parents suffer final illnesses, and, by 1931, was an unmarried, childless lesbian woman, the senior member of the senior generation of her family. Additionally, her lifetime had been a period in which "unprecedented disesteem for the elderly" had developed in U.S. culture. By the twenties old age was widely considered a "national problem" (Achenbaum 40, 125); in 1935 Social Security would offer the first governmental response to that "problem." As I've argued elsewhere, Death Comes for the Archbishop, published in 1927, presents, through the person of Latour, a "golden legend" of a life in which old age is honored as a period of dignity, value, and culmination.[1] A large component of the satisfaction Archbishop has afforded its readers comes from the way Latour evades the problems of unemployment, indigence, disrespect, and lack of self-determination that, by the 1920s, had come to attend the approach of old age for most U.S. citizens.

Archbishop Latour is a man, however, and a nineteenth-century man at that. For Cather the subject of aging women was a much more complex and problematic one. Although her earlier fiction is studded with legendary old women, such as the indefatigable "old dames" of "The Bohemian Girl," her later fiction offers no "golden legend" of a woman's aging and death to match the exemplary narrative of Latour. However, in the important portraits of aging women in Cather's fiction after 1925 I find something more sustaining than legend: a record of the difficulties and imperatives of living and inscribing the later years of a female life span. In many ways this record begins with My Mortal Enemy (1926). This pivotal book is Cather's last novel-length first-person narrative and her first such narrative in an explicitly female voice, as Nellie Birdseye recounts her fascination with Myra Driscoll Henshawe, the female legend of her childhood.

Some of the most trenchant recent comments on women and aging have come from lesbian feminists, who protest familial and specifically mother-daughter models for relations between older and younger women, saying that such relations inevitably lead to the exploitation or "erasure" of the older women.[2] In this context, it is significant that Nellie Birdseye pays no attention to her own female relatives. The "only interesting" stories Nellie has heard from her family are about Myra, who is herself an "orphan" entirely without female relatives, reared by a rich uncle. When the adolescent Nellie bonds with Myra,[3] she is reaching beyond "uninteresting" family models to the tutelage of an older woman who can introduce her to a life of romantic self-determination.[4] In the boldest form Cather had yet attempted, Myra states important issues for the writer: at forty-five she is an openly and unflaggingly passionate, willful, sexually ambiguous woman, both anxious and defiant about her own aging process.

Nellie's description of Myra's graying hair indicates the special charge that evidence of aging has for this female narrator: "Her black hair was done high on her head, à la Pompadour, and there were curious, zigzag, curly streaks of glistening white in it, which made it look like the fleece of a Persian goat or some animal that bore silky fur" (6). In Nellie's view, this most usual mark of physical change in a middle-aged woman indicates extraordinary, androgynous vitality; the zigzag streaks suggest white lightning, and the vigorous, curling white hair is associated with a goat, a traditional emblem of male lust. Yet Myra's hair is femininely styled "à la Pompadour," evoking a royal mistress whose power came from her viability as a sexual commodity within a patriarchal monarchy.

When Nellie visits the Henshawes in New York, she discovers that while their marriage is still electrically volatile, Myra's life is a complex web of passionate relationships, the most intense of which seem to be with women. Throughout Nellie's childhoodMyra's heterosexual elopement has embodied romance. But Myra in middle age bursts the seams of Nellie's tightly corseted version of romance. She strides about a New York overseen by an equally ambiguous female goddess, the great, gilded Saint-Gaudens Diana that then dominated Madison Square. Throughout the book, even in her death scene, Myra is dressed in furs, which evoke the animal vitality of her own graying hair.

In Cather's earlier novels such exceptional vitality often came to fruition; she harnessed it to land (in Alexandra), to art (in Thea), to fecundity (in Ántonia). But now, with the new condition of a clear-eyed female narrator, Cather could execute none of these extraordinary expedients. Myra's power is contained within a relentlessly male frame. Her marriage to Oswald is forbidden by her uncle because of his hereditary quarrel with another old Irishman, Oswald's father. When Oswald and Myra quarrel about an emblematic, phallic key, Myra declaims, "I will know the truth about this key, and I will go through any door your keys open" (49). Her declaration expresses what young Nellie recognizes as an "insane ambition" to subvert the restrictions of gender (41). However great her vitality, Myra can never go through all the doors that the key of male prerogative opens to her husband. Throughout the novel, the power of an aging woman like Myra must be expressed in male terms. She reads plays and poems by and about men, staging her very death scene by appropriating "Gloucester's cliff." Myra describes her own head as "no head for a woman at all," but suitable for a "wicked . . . Roman emperor" (63). The narrating Nellie too is often at a loss to find a female vocabulary in which to inscribe Myra Henshawe.

It is no wonder, then, that most of Myra's cherished friends are from the theater, where priorities of role and gender may seem more fluid. At the Henshawes' midnight New Year's Eve party an elderly actor personifies this fluidity; "during the supper his painted eyebrows spread and came down over his eyes like a veil" (45). As Elaine Showalter suggests in Sexual Anarchy, the veil signified complexly for turn-of-the-century artists, almost always evoking concealed femininity and female sexuality (145). Here the veil slides over an old, male face. Cross-dressing and ambiguities of gender are topics of the evening; "there was a great deal of talk" about Sarah Bernhardt's controversial Hamlet (46). (Later Myra arranges for young Nellie to see the play.)

At the center of the theatrical New Year's Eve scene, a "beautiful" old woman, the Polish actress Helena Modjeska, embodies many of these ambiguities of gender. Importantly, Modjeska is a historical figure whom Cather chose to incorporate into this work of fiction. As Sharon O'Brien has written, "actresses were important symbols of female autonomy and creativity to Willa Cather" (167). As portrayed in My Mortal Enemy, Modjeska, who comes to the party with a young female singer, is apparently experiencing professional decline in her late career, and Myra attends her with admiration and deep solicitude. Young Nellie is nonplused by Modjeska; she can summon up no present cultural context for such a woman. To the girl, the actress seems "of another race and another period," with hands "fashioned for a nobler worldliness than ours . . . to hold a sceptre, or a chalice-or . . . a sword" (45-46). Only the artifice of the theater can offer sufficient scope for such an old woman. At the evening's end, Modjeska becomes the impresario of the New Year's festivities; she orders her female companion to sing the "Casta Diva" aria from Norma, a prayer for peace directed to an undying female god.

In many ways Cather's brief portrait of Modjeska parallels the later one of Archbishop Latour, which presents an idealized version of male aging, also based on a historical personage. Onto Modjeska, Cather projects a romantically intense avatar of a fictional aging woman: a noble figure of unabated passions who appropriates a younger woman's voice to pay homage to a great diva. For Nellie, the "Casta Diva" aria evokes continuities of female power that she locates in Myra: "For many years I associated Mrs. Henshawe with that music . . . [with] a compelling, passionate, overmastering something for which I had no name.... when I wanted to recall powerfully that hidden richness in her, I had only to close my eyes and sing to myself: 'Casta diva, casta diva!'" (48). Such richness is outside the confines of Nellie's vocabulary; when she searches for words, they imply a masculine ("overmastering"), not a feminine, power.

As an adult narrator, Nellie Birdseye is a somewhat elusive figure, but we know one sure thing about her: she cannot sustain the romance of the unaltered aging woman, the diva projected onto Modjeska and Myra. This becomes apparent when she is reunited, at twenty-five, with the Henshawes in a West Coast city where Myra, fifty-five, is dying of cancer. Myra is now absorbed in the work of "life review," which Robert Butler has influentially established as one of the primary psychological tasks of a person near death.[5] Nellie is at first "delighted" to find Myra still "herself" (62), but the dying woman scorns the individual consistency that her young friend is eager to find in her old idol. Recent scholars of aging emphasize that collectivity, common experience with a cohort of chronological peers, is important to our negotiation of successive "life course" stages;[6] it is such collective experience that Cather must have had in mind when she wrote in her diary of her future's being linked to "people of my generation" (Woodress 480). But Myra, in her last months, has few such resources; her only present peer is her husband, Oswald, who refuses to acknowledge the extremity of her situation. In her last days, Myra rails against the indignities of proximity and intimacy. Nursing her, her tender husband and her loyal friend Nellie become Myra's mortal enemies. Oswald will not free his wife from her former self, the girl he remembers loving, although she cries out in exasperation against continuity, consistency, and identity itself: "Oh, let me be buried in the king's highway!" (92). At last, Myra summons the strength to stagemanage her own death: outdoors, anonymous, alone.[7]

Myra's death is both daughterless and motherless. Yet, although she never mentions her mother, she refers again and again, with disparaging humor that reflects contemporary ethnic prejudices, to "old Irish women," the women who must be her own female forebears. Quarreling with Nellie, she casts herself as a stock "Biddy" and speaks in a mocking, degrading brogue. In her last days she shows Nellie her secret hoard of gold pieces, saying, "All old Irish women hide away a bit of money" (85). With that money she pays homage to a beloved woman and to her own hereditary Catholic faith; she buys yearly Masses for the dead Modjeska. And finally, the hoarded money enables Myra to hire a car and buy the melodramatic death she desires. One of the suppressed stories of My Mortal Enemy is of Myra Driscoll Henshawe as the daughter of old Irish women, a heritage she both mocks (as her culture would have encouraged her to do) and stubbornly preserves.

Thus the final issues of My Mortal Enemy are those of a daughter or other female survivor of an old woman: inheritance, continuity, and what to make of the example of a female elder's life and death. Gemstones, which, unlike humans, do not decay or die, are a persistent motif in this book, and they are Nellie's material inheritance from Myra. Middle-aged now herself, Nellie, through her involvement with the "romance" of the long-dead Henshawes, has undergone experiences that have, as Plath said, placed "fearful strain upon [her] heritage of ideas that bind together human effort and reward" and have disoriented and incapacitated her. Myra's amethyst necklace, inherited from an unrelated woman, recalls the coral pin that Sarah Orne Jewett's autobiographical narrator received from Mrs. Todd in The Country of the Pointed Firs.[8] In Jewett's book, the jewelry became an emblem of a continuous female tradition and was an important, usable resource of the narrator's art, as writer.

But Nellie Birdseye's inheritance is disablingly "unlucky"; wearing the amethyst beads, she feels "a chill over my heart. Sometimes, when I have watched the bright beginning of a love story, when I have seen a common feeling exalted into beauty by imagination, generosity, and the flaming courage of youth, I have heard again that strange complaint breathed by a dying woman . . . 'Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy!"' (104-5). This powerful ending emphasizes Nellie's physical link with the dead Myra; it is occasioned when she feels the weight of Myra's jewels on her own female body, over her breasts. Nellie complains that her strategies for dealing with stories have been disrupted by her troubling inheritance from Myra. A story's "bright beginning" is preempted by the aging, dying woman's unforgettable private voice. What happens next? What does Nellie reply to this intrusive, insistent voice? The novel ends with the absence of her response, in unstoried silence.

As a young writer of twenty-five Willa Cather had gone with unaccustomed trepidation to see Helena Modjeska perform in New York: "I was almost afraid to go-afraid that she might have changed too greatly." But she found that Modjeska retained "the old . . . poetic charm." "It would be idle to say that she has not lost through illness and age, but much that was characteristic of her powers at their best is still to be felt." At the age Nellie Birdseye was when Myra died, Willa Cather feared the spectacle of a revered woman in her later years; all she found to praise in Modjeska at fifty-eight had to do with the actress's retention of her midlife powers. Cather mourns, "Ah! The pity of it that this woman must grow old!" (The World and the Parish 1:458-59)Cather at this age yearned for godlike older women of unflagging endurance; she feared the transition from midlife to the changed powers and prerogatives of old age.

Such fears link Cather to Nellie Birdseye, who is clearly an autobiographical character.[9] But, importantly, there are two autobiographical characters in My Mortal Enemy. The other is an eager eighteen-year-old journalist who worships Oswald and is eager "to get him to talk to her about music, or German poetry, or about . . . actors and writers he had known" (78).[10] In this novel it is as if Cather has split herself in two. One part, Nellie Birdseye, is preoccupied with the great and troubling female spectacle of Myra's aging and death. The other part, the nameless young writer, attaches herself to Oswald, romantically eager for male tutelage and tales of male experience. It is telling that Cather kept the writing part of herself fictionally free from Myra's thrall, in contrast to Nellie's final thwarted silence. The split suggests Willa Cather's own complex gender allegiances in mid-career, and it also suggests her conflicted allegiances to Myra's model of aging and to Oswaid's. Oswald, although older than his wife, is unflaggingly boyish; after Myra's death he lights out for the territory, Alaska. To him, the wife he nursed in her last years seemed the mother of the girl he loved; he refuses to allow Myra to become what she was determined to be: a strong old woman. Oswald's evasions link him to traditional U.S. male protagonists (such as Jim Burden) and to the youth culture that was burgeoning in the 1920s.

Following from this split, the male and female characters in Cather's next novels, Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, work out very different stories of aging. In characters such as Archbishop Latour, Father Vaillant, Euclide Auclair, Count Frontenac, and the two Quebec bishops, these books suggest various ways to frame male aging as a process. But Cather cannot seem to manage the same thing with women, especially if those women are passionate and/or sexually active. Instead we have brief portraits such as those of Sada, Dona Isabella Olivera, Madame Auclair, Jeanne Le Ber, and the prostitutes of Shadows, almost all of which are fictionally truncated with death or removal. In Archbishop, the undying powers of a goddess have gone underground, in the great and terrifying river of "Stone Lips." And in Shadows, a book that appears to celebrate maternity, there is not a single portrait of a living mother with her living daughter.

As biographers remind us, these books were written during the last years of Cather's beloved parents.[11] Her autocratic mother's final three years, in a California sanitarium, were particularly painful. Willa Cather felt compelled to pay long annual visits, but she seems to have found physical proximity to her mother very difficult in these years; at least once, she lied to friends, saying that she had stayed in California for four months when she had only stayed for six weeks (Woodress 420). Diana Hume George has noted the "oscillations of dependency" between aging daughters and mothers in women poets' work. George speculates that "to watch one's mother . . . fall into 'nursling dependence', even or especially if that 'nurse' is you, is to rehearse for the possibility of that same catastrophe in your own body" (149). Like Simone de Beauvoir, George suggests that "in order to preserve our sense of ourselves as strong, we . . . distance ourselves from those beloved and aged parental bodies" (141) Cather's near-frantic movements during her mother's last years resemble the oscillations George describes. George also describes the "courageous" efforts her poets have made to get to a place where they can "do their aging and dying fearlessly" (135). and do it on the page. In the fictions I have been discussing, we see Willa Cather's enormous difficulties in writing (and living) the course of female aging. After Shadows on the Rock we see her finding the courage to accept and to inscribe that course, giving weight and dignity to each of its phases.

This becomes stunningly apparent in "Old Mrs. Harris." First, the story newly acknowledges the bodily experience of aging and issues of hour-to-hour physical care. Nothing in My Mortal Enemy is as intimately, specifically evocative as the silent scene in which Mandy massages Mrs. Harris's swollen feet. However, Mrs. Harris's daughter and granddaughter, Victoria and Vickie, are least able to deal with the old woman's bodily changes, following the defensive distancing strategy that Cather had come to know well. It is two unrelated women-Mandy and Mrs. Rosenwho comprehend and meet Mrs. Harris's deepest needs in her last months. They allow Mrs. Harris to be an aging, dying womanwithout objectifying, erasing, or infantilizing her. Mrs. Rosen's perception of her "old friend" has none of the regret for the losses of old age that is evident in young Willa Cather's review of Modieska. Instead, Mrs. Rosen thinks, "There was the kind of nobility about [Mrs. Harris's] head that there is about an old lion's: an absence of self-consciousness, vanity, preoccupationsomething absolute" (81).

"Old Mrs. Harris" also addresses issues of aging in terms of their construction in different cultures at different historical moments. Mrs. Harris longs to be framed less as an individual and more as a member of a generational cohort; she fondly remembers her former life in Tennessee, where old women "ordered life to their own taste" (131). In the West, Mrs. Harris never sees other old women. According to Tamara K. Hareven, since the mid-nineteenth century the "instrumental" importance of aged family members to the work of family life, the tradition to which Mrs. Harris's Southern family is accustomed, has declined, insulating middle-class Euro-American families "from the influence and participation of aging parents and other relatives" (181). Thus, when the Templetons suffer local scorn for letting Mrs. Harris manage the kitchen, antebellum-style, they are caught in an important transition in the socialization of aging in the United States, as the Cather family had been. Written soon after the stock market crash and only a few years before the implementation of Social Security, the story also emphasizes the economic plight of the old woman: her son-in-law has seized all her financial assets, and she has virtually no personal space or possessions. Much more specifically than Cather's earlier work, this story historicizes the experience of female aging in the twentiethcentury United States.

Also for the first time, Cather acknowledges female aging as a continuum, a "story" that recircles and recurs, so that Vickie and Victoria will reexperience the old age of Mrs. Harris as they move from one stage to another and undertake their own life review. Earlier, Nellie Birdseye and Cather herself had been "stuck" in a terrible impasse, unable to acknowledge the process of female aging. With this story, written at the time of her mother's dying, Cather is dislodged into a rich, multilayered temporal fluidity. No longer does she confine herself to the first person, to the limits of bird's-eye vision. Instead, she moves from age to stage, from girl to man to woman. In "Old Mrs. Harris" there are no mortal enemies, only mortal inevitabilities.

With the literary and personal achievement of "Old Mrs. Harris" behind her, Willa Cather was free to incorporate the course of female aging as a great and various component of her life work. Into Lucy Gayheart she dropped the extraordinary cameo of Mrs. Ramsay, whose midlife passion has become, in old age, "less personal, more ethereal.... If growing old did that to one's . . . understanding, one need not dread it so much," Mrs. Ramsay's daughter thinks (727). "The Best Years" includes a rich portrait of a mother who has outlived her only daughter, and the powers of the diva are refrained in "The Old Beauty."

Cather's last completed novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, is her own ambitious project in life review. In this extraordinary book, Myra Henshawe, the autocratic, androgynous diva, is reimagined as Cather's great-grandmother. This kinswoman is presented without romance but with unsparing specificity and new attention to the sexual anger of a woman moving from midlife into old age. Nellie Birdseye's troubling semiprecious inheritance, the amethysts, is transmuted into the obdurately gemlike Sapphira, Willa Cather's own female and familial legacy. Also in this novel, Cather worked to expand her portrayals of aging women in her attempts at multiclass and multiracial portraits such as those of Jezebel, Rachel, Till, Lizzie, and Mrs. Ringer. Although not fully successfully, Cather attempted with such portraits to extend the limits of her own experience and heritage.

In the context of such issues, My Mortal Enemy may be seen as an important marker in Cather's career in that it initiated an important project of her later years, a complex and nuanced exploration of the experience of aging women. The unspecified, silencing "mortal enemy" became, in such works as "Old Mrs. Harris" and Sapphira, an intimate, knowable presence: a female relative. And as she transmuted family history and traditions of aging in her last fictions, Cather implicitly acknowledged that she was, herself, that mortal enemy's daughter.

As I reread these books in my own middle age, My Mortal Enemy and its successors are becoming as necessary to me as Little Women once was. And the new scholarship that is beginning to be called "age studies" is increasingly available to help us to recognize and to historicize Cather's later writing as an invaluable record of the difficulties and riches of one North American woman's writing and living of the coming of age.[12] In this way too Cather's fiction is a resource for us all.


 1. I discuss Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock as novels of aging in "Willa Cather and the Coming of Old Age," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 37 (winter 1995): 394-413. (Go back.)
 2. For a discussion of these issues, see MacDonald and Rich, especially "Outside the Sisterhood: Ageism in Women's Studies " (121-28). (Go back.)
 3. Skaggs argues that Nellie desires the Henshawes as "surrogate parents" and says that a "major theme" of the novel "could be the disheartening possibilities a surrogate daughter is forced to learn from her closest adult models" (99). (Go back.)
 4. Rosowski provides the most complete discussion of romanticism in My Mortal Enemy. (Go back.)
 5. "Life review," as identified and defined by psychoanalyst Robert N. Butler in the 1960s, has become an important and widely used concept in recent studies of the experience of aging. (Go back.)
 6. In recent decades, "life course" has also become a key concept in the study of aging. Featherstone and Hepworth usefully describe the "conceptual shift in gerontology from life cycle to life course analysis.... the term 'life course' suggests more flexible biographical patterns within a continually changing social system. It permits a more dynamic approach to relations between the individual, the family, work and others" (154). On this subject, also see Ryff and Migdal, Van Tassel, and Hareven and Adams, especially the essays by Plath and Hareven contained in the latter. (Go back.)
 7. Lee emphasizes Myra's and Nellie's theatricality throughout her reading of My Mortal Enemy (211-23). (Go back.)
 8. Cather's edition of Jewett's stories had been published the previous year. (Go back.)
 9. As a young girl Willa Cather had, like Nellie, been drawn to older women, some of whom, such as Mrs. Silas Garber, suggested romance and mystery. At twenty-five she was, again like Nellie, supporting herself by teaching in a city far from her family home. When Myra protests her working as a teacher, Nellie replies, "I know what I want to do, and I'll work my way out yet" (64), a statement that suggests the self-knowledge and determination that also characterized the young Willa Cather. (Go back.)
 10. Nellie Birdseye professes to "hate journalism" (64). But Willa Cather, of course, was a working journalist from her late teens until she was nearly forty. (Go back.)
 11. Woodress is my principal biographical source throughout this essay. (Go back.)
 12. Margaret Morganroth Gullette defines "age studies" as "a large interdisciplinary zone whose practitioners are becoming increasingly aware of age as a category... The zone includes women's studies, gender studies, literary gerontology, life-course studies in developmental psychology, sociology, family and social history, and anthropology" (45). For a recent account of the development of such interdisciplinary studies, also see Woodward. (Go back.)


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——. Lucy Gayheart. Later Novels. 1935. New York: Library of America, 1990.
——. My Mortal Enemy. 192-6. New York: Vintage, 1961
——. Obscure Destinies. 1932. New York: Vintage, 1974.
——. Sapphira and the Slave Girl. 1940. New York: Vintage, 1975.
——. Shadows on the Rock. 1931. New York: Vintage, 1971.
——. The World and the Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902. Ed. William M. Curtin. 2. vols. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970.
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