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From Psychoanalysis to Vegetotherapy

Article by Phillip W. Bennett PhD

From Psychoanalysis to Vegetotherapy

I first got interested in Wilhelm Reich in 1962 when I read The Function of the Orgasm, and in 1963 I started therapy with someone trained by Dr. Reich, someone known to people in this room, Dr. Victor Sobey. So I was familiar with the material, but I took a break from it for a long time. There was a period of my life when I felt knowing this stuff was useless, there was nothing I could do with it except weed my own garden and I was doing that. But in 2004, I got reenergized and for the last few years I’ve been working on a book on Reich’s social and political thought. It is that material which I’ve mostly spoken on in the past. Today I’m going to branch out a little bit.

I have a Ph.D. in philosophy from NYU, so we’re going to start with a philosophy class. There are four philosophical commitments that Wilhelm Reich manifests in his work. I would like to say a few words about each of them.

Reich was a naturalist. What this means is that he had a commitment to the belief that what is natural is good. In fact, he didn’t think you really needed to teach morality or teach people to do the right thing. He felt that if people were not interfered with, they would naturally do the right thing, and what they would do would be a good thing. So for example, with children his belief in self regulation wasn’t just about eating and sleeping; it was also about their interaction with other children. If the kids had not been emotionally and sexually repressed, they would naturally do the right thing. What is natural is good for Reich, but what is not natural is not only bad but also irrational. Here’s a quote from Reich Speaks of Freud. I went back and reread this carefully because I’m talking about psychoanalysis; this is the book where Reich is reflecting on his relationship with Freud. So if you haven’t read this book it’s a really interesting book. Basically, half of the book is an interview that Reich gave to Kurt Eisler to be stored in the Freud archive.

“If you have a stream, a natural stream you must let it stream. If you dam it up somewhere it goes over the banks. That’s all. Now when the natural streaming of the bio-energy, is dammed up it also spills over, resulting in irrationality, perversions neuroses and so on. What do you have to do to correct this? You must get the stream back into its normal bed and let it flow naturally again.”

So you here the word “natural” being used and the assumption that, if it’s flowing naturally that everything is fine, and it’s only when it gets dammed up and when you move away from what’s “natural” that problems occur. This puts Reich on a direct collision course with Freud as we will see, because Freud as you may know believed that repression of sexuality was absolutely necessary. It was necessary because the young child was polymorphous perverse, it was also necessary because he felt civilization was impossible without the damming up or what he called the sublimation of sexual energy.

It’s interesting that Freud’s clearest statement of this is in the book Civilization and its Discontents. The last time Reich spoke in Freud’s inner circle was Thursday, December 12th, 1929, when he spoke of the prevention of neurosis. (The next night Reich caused a riot, and you’ll hear more about this in the third talk of the day.) It is in this book that Freud discusses at length the necessity for repression in society; and in Reich Speaks of Freud, Reich claims that Freud wrote Civilization is response to what Reich said about the prevention of neurosis in December, 1929.

In any case, It’s clear that there is a big difference between Freud and Reich on this issue of what’s “natural.”

Now there’s a related concept that’s not philosophical but there was a movement in Europe called Naturism. Naturism is this notion that being exposed to the sun is very good. It gave rise to nude sunbathing in a very popular way, not at all in the way it sometimes gets translated in more repressive cultures like ours, like how the nude beach is hard to find. Naturism was about getting out into the woods, etc, etc. There’s this great picture of Reich with Elsa and Eva and they are stripped to the waist dancing on the beach, and there are these wonderful pictures of Reich sitting and you have the impression from the way he’s sitting that he himself is probably naked, etc. That’s different from Naturalism. So I think this movement of Naturism which was very popular in Europe may explain the easy move towards having patients disrobe. Having patients disrobe, which he stared around 1937 or 38, was not such a big deal in Europe the way in this country–you’re going to jail, you’re abusing your patients, you’re doing this terrible stuff. Naturism is different from naturalism; naturism is about going out into nature and taking off your clothes. Naturalism is this whole notion that what is natural is good.

Reich is also a materialist. That is, he clearly believes that there are no disembodied psychic entities, there’s no such thing as a mind, there’s no such thing as a soul. Whatever psychological entities we talk about, like thoughts, emotions, and feeling, he had a philosophical commitment to the belief that those were instantiated in some physical way, even if we didn’t know quite how they were instantiated. That is for Reich, and he ultimately comes to believe this, psyche and soma are one, they are just two different ways of thinking about one thing. You know the famous orgonomic symbol (you have it on your schedule today), you see these two arrows pointing at each other. Well you can put psyche and soma on those two antithetical but nonetheless identical beings or aspects of the underlying reality. This means that if you recognize something on a psychological level, for example characterological armor, he had to believe that this would be manifested physically somehow. And he eventually develops this concept of muscular armor. He came to believe that when working with patients you could work either way, you could work characterologically, or you could work on the musculature, but you would be working on one and the same thing: it’s not like there two different things, they are just two different ways of working on the one thing.

In any case, he was a materialist. Next he was a rationalist, and this is more complicated. It combines with his naturalism; as I said earlier for Reich, what is natural is also rational, and what is irrational is unnatural. Reich believed that there was a rational universe the secrets of which one could come to understand, could uncover through scientific investigation. He had certain fundamental commitments, for example he believed that if two things appeared the same, there was probably a reason that would explain it and thus he draws incredible analogies between the formation of galaxies and the formation of hurricanes. etc… He also talks as if he’s an instrument of the logic of his discoveries. It’s funny language, let me read it, it’s from The Function of the Orgasm; “Everything owes its existence to the remarkable course of scientific logic. It is not false modesty when I say that I feel myself to be merely an instrument to thislogic.”

That language could be very confusing or sound mystical. Like someone or something is guiding Reich, but he’s not saying that. He’s just saying that he was following this thread, and that lead him to great inferences, but there was a logic to the world and a logic to his uncovering the world. He’s also a rationalist in the sense that he has certain fundamental commitments such as this notion of antithetical aspects being at the heart one, so you have two things like sexuality and anxiety they seem antithetical, but they are both expressions of life energy, and the life energy can either express one way or another, so beneath the antithetical there’s a unity, and that’s almost a direct quote from Reich. This is a quote; “Out of a unitary force a splitting, an antithesis develops, that is my way of thinking about natural scientific things.” Well that’s what I’m calling a rationalist commitment which he then has to instantiate empirically, he has to get out and do the work.

And finally he was an empiricist. From everything I’ve heard, Reich was incredibly intuitive as a therapist; he was brilliant that way and I think also intuitive about the universe. He might attributed that to his contact-fullness or to his orgonomic sense, but what ever intuitions he had, they then needed to be substantiated empirically. He was a scientist.

I want to now move to the relationship between Freud and Reich and then I’ll turn to the movement from psychoanalysis to vegetotherapy. First, both Freud and Reich were natural scientists. Freud’s laboratory was the treatment room initially in hospitals and then later in his own private treatment room and then his incredible intellect; he just read a lot and synthesized a lot. Reich’s laboratory was the private treatment room, the clinic, because in addition to working in Freud’s free clinics he started his own clinics in Vienna in 1929, the streets because he was in the streets, the political organizations he belonged to and his non-political organizations, but eventually the laboratory. And of course his great intellect; he also read a lot and synthesized a lot.

In terms of the sciences relevant to both Freud and Reich, Freud was very much interested in chemistry and the biology of his day, he even considered at one point that psychology could be put on a neurological basis. Some of you may know The Project for a Scientific Psychology, that he wrote in 1895; it was never published in his life. All this is discussed at length in Frank Sulloway’s book, Freud: Biologist of the Mind. He was very much interested in evolutionary biology, Freud that is.

Reich read widely on chemistry, physics, biology and when he comes to the U.S. he develops orgone biophysics, but that’s beyond our talk today– we’re going to stay in Europe. They were both materialists. Freud never doubted for a second that there was some physical basis to libido, that there was some physical basis to the unconscious, etc..He just didn’t know exactly what it was, he looked various places. Neither Freud nor Reich believed that there was such a thing as a mind trapped inside the body or that it could somehow live beyond the body except maybe through their works. (There was a guy in Germany who makes accumulators who insisted that for years he was channeling Reich, he would go into séances and speak to Reich. Well he didn’t agree with Reich because Reich was clearly a materialist.) Though there were some points at the very end of his life when Reich said things that sounded potentially mystical, but I don’t see him as a mystic.

Both Freud and Reich focused on human irrationality in a variety of ways. For Freud the focus was on the neurotic symptoms, for Reich it was more character structure, etc. They were both therapists, and they used a variety of therapeutic modalities. Freud used cocaine initially. He then studied with Charcot in France and became interested in hypnosis, so he then used hypnosis. Later he hears of this incredible case from his friend Breuer about this poor young women Anna O. and she in fact says what went on between them was a “talking cure”, and out of that grows psychoanalysis. So he moves from cocaine to psychoanalysis.

Reich also was a therapist who used different modalities. Reich started as a psychoanalyst as you know: his therapeutic mode was initially psychoanalytic though he quickly adapted psychoanalysis into what can be called character analysis, and then developed this embodied form of therapy which came to be known as vegetotherapy. But they were both therapists using a variety means and a variety of modalities.

If you read the book Freud: Biologist of the Mind, you can see clearly that Freud assumed that there was some physical basis for all this stuff. But there’s a difference between believing there’s a physical basis of something but then what kind of explanation do you use. Let me give you a quick example. It’s actually from my Ph.D. dissertation; you can go to NYU and read it. I’m going to bend over. When I did that, certain muscles tensed certain muscles relaxed, neurons fired, so you could explain what I did from a purely physiological level, but you can also explain it psychological, why did he do this, he was looking at his shoes, he wanted to greet his Japanese business partner and was showing respect, he was stretching his lower back… In other words, you could explain what I did in a variety of ways, but clearly what I did was a physical thing. Thus Freud offered psychological or psychoanalytic explanations for human behavior, but he certainly believed that beneath them or behind them was some physical reality even if he didn’t know what that reality was.

In this first talk, I’m going to focus just on therapy, I’m not going to talk about Reich’s problems with the psychoanalytic organization, I’m not going to talk about the history of that, I just want to focus on therapy.

One key feature is the existence of infantile sexuality. A second key feature is repression. Freud wrote a book called, The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement, and in this book he said “repression is the corner stone on which the whole of psychoanalysis rests.” Originally Freud believed that all neurosis were sexual in origin; Reich never gave that belief up. Freud does eventually when he introduces the concept of a death instinct that might explain human behavior, but originally, Freud and Reich were on the same page about the sexual origin of all neurosis. For Freud, we live in a culture where the repression of that sexual energy or libido is necessary, and this gives rise to an unconscious which often motivates our beliefs and actions and this unconscious has it’s own kind of language and reveals itself often symbolically. So through the use of free association to get past the censor, dream analysis, slips of the tongue, etc., the psychoanalyst interprets or looks at what the patient is saying and comes to understand the hidden meaning, and through this, the coded language of the unconscious. For example, as I recall, if you have a dream about a train, that’s always about sex. There are these standard kind of symbolic elements. You try to bring the unconscious to consciousness and hopefully when that occurs, the client has some kind of emotional expression, some kind of emotional release, abreaction, and then the symptom is diminished, that’s sort of psychoanalysis in four minutes. Takes a little longer to learn it and to practice it.

As for Reich’s relationship to psychoanalysis, Reich was born in 1897, so in 1918 he’s 21. He’s in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He develops psoriasis and is given a furlough and goes to Vienna to get treated for his psoriasis. He’s in Vienna when it’s clear that the war is over, and while still a soldier because he was never formally removed, he enters the University. The University had an arrangement where if you are a veteran you could do courses in a less time consuming way. He enters law school, quickly decides that that’s not for him, then enters the medical school and almost immediately starts practicing psychoanalysis. In those days you didn’t have to go through formal training, you would do it and then consult with your therapist. So he starts doing psychoanalysis while he’s a medical student. Reich’s major contributions to psychoanalysis
The first contribution was the movement from symptom to character structure, and this shows up in his very first book. The first book that Reich publishes is in 1925, The Impulsive Character, and in the introduction, let me read a sentence, this translation is by Dr. Koblenzer. This is Reich in 1925: “For a long time, psychoanalysis has not been a merely symptomatic treatment, rather it has consistently been evolving into a therapy of the character. This technical change dates from Freud’s first realization that what is essential in the analytic work does not consist of guessing the unconscious meaning of the symptom and communicating it to the patient but a detecting and removing resistances.” It’s interesting he attributes this to Freud, but actually Reich continues to focus on resistance, and if you think about resistance, that’s something that underlies the symptom, and that’s how he saw the resistance. There was a characterological way of resisting life energy that gives rise to the symptom, but Reich begins to see the importance of character structure as opposed to symptomology as early as 1925.

Here’s a quote from Reich speaks of Freud where Reich is looking back on psychoanalysis, he says “You see in the psychoanalysis of the early 20’s, the neuroses or the neurotic symptom was considered to be something sick in an otherwise healthy organism. That was the idea then. It was my character analysis which introduced the basic concept that the character structure is ill or sick while the neurosis, the neurotic symptom, is only an outgrowth of a general characterological condition.”

It’s very interesting, there’s this interesting parallel between symptom and character structure like the symptom is a growth of the deeper character structure. It is analogous to Reich’s later work on cancer, where the cancer tumor is a symptom of a deeper pathology. In any case, there is an interesting parallel you see between saying that the tumor is an outer symptom of a deeper illness and in saying the neurotic symptom is one sign of a deeper characterological structure. In any case you have Reich’s movement from symptom to character.

The second contribution is Reich’s continued focus on resistance. This is very important because one of the things that Reich quickly observed is that while you could bring the unconscious material to consciousness–the patient can recall “the primal scene” (“Oh I remember now when the dog bit me”), but if there was no emotion, there would be no relief from the neurotic symptom–there had to be an emotional expression. So what was getting in the way? Well the resistance to giving in to the emotions. So Reich just kept focusing on the resistance, and that was also one of the roots of later vegetotherapy. What do I need to do to get this person capable of expressing emotion, if for example, their chest is constricted or something else is getting in the way of their expression.

So you have the movement from symptom to character structure, you have the focus on resistance, and then of course Reich felt it was incredibly important to focus on the negative transference, that is, all of the ways in which the therapist in the eyes of the patient becomes the abusing parent or whatever. Most of my time in therapy with a certain therapist who will remain nameless involves hating his guts and trying to kill him. And that’s the negative transference part. (He and I’ve come to a reconciliation; I only mildly loath him now.) So that’s Reich’s contribution to psychoanalysis. To the body The movements of the body has three major players. First there is Sandor Ferenczi, a Hungarian. He was part of the original circle of Freud’s, dismissed by Jones of being mentally ill. I don’t know if he had any basis for that dismissal, but then the use of the phrase “mentally ill” for people in that circle was pretty liberal. As you know it was used to describe Reich. So Ferenczi is one of the sources. Another source is a name that may be new to you and that’s Elsa Gindler, and then the third source is Elsa Lindenberg.

Reich refers to Ferenczi in The Function of the Orgasm. Reich says, “Ferenczi was that talented and outstanding person who was perfectly aware of the sad state of affairs in therapy. He looked for a solution in the somatic sphere and developed an “active” technique directed at the somatic tension states but he did not know of stasis neuroses and failed to take the orgasm theory seriously.”

In 1928, Otto Fenichel, Reich’s good friend at the time, wrote an article called, “Organ Libidinization Accompanying the Defense Against Drives.” In it he summarizes all the ways in which people have hinted at a muscular basis for neuroses. This is as early as 1928, and Ferenczi was the main person Fenichel is summarizing in this article.

Obviously Reich read what Fenichel had read, so he knew this literature; moreover it’s inconceivable he didn’t read this article by his then close friend, Fenichel (a friendship which disappears some years later. I just want to call your attention to some aspects of this article. This is Fenichel about Ferenczi: “In the study of the organic phenomena accompanying instinctual conflicts of the psychic apparatus, Ferenczi talked about what he called “pleasure physiology.” He observed that with progress in the analysis and the consequent resolution of psychic tension, the somatic tensions may also vanish.” So he’s beginning to see some correlation between musculature and psychoneuroses. This is again quoting from Ferenczi in the Fenichel article: “Sometimes we find it necessary to call the patients attention to his bearing, the tensions of his musculature, and through this to some extent to mobilize him. As a result, he usually begins to talk about something that was hidden or unconscious.” And he actually used “relaxation” exercises. Ferenczi also came out from behind the couch. You know in the classic psychoanalysis the patient is lying and the therapist is back here sleeping or texting, writing letters.

Ferenczi had the therapist sitting right next to the patient and he saw therapy as much more of a collaborative effort between patient and therapist, so you see a lot the roots of what later becomes standard in Reich’s therapy is in Ferenczi’s work. And maybe it’s no accident that Jones, who from all that I’ve learn was one of the most rigid, uptight Britishers, dismissed Ferenczi as being mentally ill. (Jones’ behavior in regards to Reich was just unbelievably lacking in integrity. But that’s another story.)

One of the things that Ferenczi noted was a pelvic block; he said, this is again Ferenczi’s observation, “The most extreme degrees of cramp occur in the musculature of the pelvis.” An observation which is in agreement with the fact that what succumbs to repression is in the main representative of sexual drive. So Ferenczi is seeing all this stuff but he never develops a therapy around it. But he’s making these observations. If you’ve read Reich or if you’ve been in therapy, this whole idea of a pelvic block being very important. There’s two other names I want to quote. One is Vilma Kovacs, another Hungarian psychoanalyst. In a 1925, Kovacs says, “The continuing spasm of her [that is, a patient’s] total skeletal musculature served the purpose of maintaining and hiding sexual excitement.” So here is the insight that not only is psychoneuroses manifested muscularly but it has to do with sex, it has to do with a way of binding up sexual excitation. Again this will become incredibly important to Reich’s therapy. Also Felix Deutsch had talked about somatic health: he said it “means, in the psychoanalytic sense, freedom from pathologically bound organ libido.” So you see all of these fascinating things. Sometimes people think Reich was a genius, which he was, but he didn’t make this stuff up, he was a very smart reader. He absorbed and took in so many different things, and out came his unique therapy. I really encourage you to someday read this Fenichel article. Now Reich clearly read all of this.

Now movement therapy. This woman Elsa Gindler who I mentioned a moment ago, and that may be a new name to some of you, she developed a form of therapeutic movement and breath. She like Reich suffered at one point from TB. I don’t know if you’re aware that both Reich’s father and brother died of tuberculosis, and Reich himself got tuberculosis early in 1927; he went to Davos where he finished writing The Function of the Orgasm, the first one. While she was curing herself from tuberculosis she made observations about breath, and the way movement could facilitate breath. So that’s Elsa Gindler. Now she wasn’t doing this out of yoga, she was doing it this with her own body.

When Fenichel moved to Berlin in 1922 (I don’t know what took him to Berlin), a woman named Clara Nathenson who later becomes Clara Fenichel studied with Gindler and apparently Fenichel himself studied with this woman. Apparently when Annie and Wilhelm Reich moved to Berlin in the fall of 1930 (they moved together though there relationship wasn’t too strong) according to Eva Reich (I don’t know if this is correct), Annie studied with Clara, together with Eva. Eva must have been 6 years old, and when they would come home, Reich would always ask questions, what is this thing that you’re doing, what is this movement stuff, so if this is correct Reich is getting this idea through Annie and Eva and through the Fenichels that there is some kind of muscular, there’s a way of addressing this muscular correlation or correlative of neurotic symptomology or neurotic character.

Mayday, 1932, Reich meets Elsa Lindenburg, who becomes his second “wife;” he never legally married her but she was his wife. She was a dancer, she studied with Laban in Berlin, and he believed in democratizing dance, dance for the masses. He also developed this elaborate notation system for noting the choreographed piece. (He was also a Nazi, but we’ll leave that out.) So you have this sense that perhaps Reich, through his relationship with Elsa, through his learning about this Elsa Gindler, is developing this notion that we can do therapy on this bodily level.

Indeed, in turn he is influencing Elsa. So Reich leaves for the states in August 1939, Elsa stays behind in Norway, and this was a pretty iffy thing even though she wasn’t Jewish, but she was certainly a communist, and you know the Germans occupied Norway pretty easily and quickly. My buddy, known to some in this room, Bjorn Blumenthal, after the war when Blumenthal entered the University, he took classes with Elsa Lindenberg and it was through taking these classes that he first came to Reich; that’s how he learned about Reich and now he runs the Norwegian Institute of Vegetotherapy– I guess it’s one of the main training institutes in Oslo for new therapists. So his contact with Reich was through Elsa Lindenberg and again this bodily therapy.

So you have a theoretical commitment, things must be instantiated on the body, you have the influence of Ferenczi and these other people I mentioned, also this notion of breath, and slowly Reich begins to develop this therapy. In 1937 he writes an article about the respiratory block, so he’s already noticing a correlation between the musculature and breathing and the way this is inhibiting the flow of life energy. And by 1938 his patients are disrobing so he can more clearly see the armor, but also call it to their attention perhaps by touching or something of that sort. Reich by the way, I forgot to mention this earlier, was an incredible mimic: he was a very very good actor, so he could play back to his patient their typical facial or bodily expression or something like that to try to make it public. When Neill comes over, Neill and Reich meet in Oslo, Neill comes over in the summers for therapy, he talks about disrobing. So this disrobing begins around 1938, but remember folks were much more casual about nudity than they are in the U.S.

When Reich first comes to the U.S., he puts out his English language journal, The Journal of Sex Economy and Orgone Research. The first issue occurs in 1942, and the opening article is The History of Our Institute, and in that article he says, “We’re relatively new here, there is as yet no pedagogical group nor anyone doing therapeutic gymnastics.”

What is this therapeutic gymnastics? Well, the following year, and article appeared in the IJSO, by Lucille Bellamy, and I’ll just read a few paragraphs: “The principles of vegetotherapeutic gymnastics was first worked out by Elsa Lindenberg, a coworker of Dr. Reich’s in Norway, beginning in 1936. Thus although I developed my method independently, during a time I myself underwent vegetotherapy, I am not the first to use such a method.” And then she says, “The underlying principle of vegetotherapy is the establishment of the orgasm reflex. This is also my goal as a teacher of vegetotherapeutic gymnastics, however it would be untrue for me, to assert that orgastic potency may be achieved through gymnastics; it must be plainly understood that I consider such results for my work impossible. It is only through the treatment of the vegetotherapist that orgastic potency is made probable. I consider vegetotherapeutic gymnastics as a correlate of vegatotherapy.” The point here is that Reich recognized the need for or possibility of a correlative to the ongoing therapy in the form of exercises of various sorts, at least at this point.

My final thing I would like to show you, In Reich Speaks of Freud, there is an article of Reich’s from 1938 where he distinguishes vegetotherapy from psychoanalysis. And you can read it yourself. Where psychoanalysis talks about repression, vegetotherapy talks about vegetative block. Where psychoanalysis talks about sexual origin of neurosis etiology, vegetotherapy talks about the function of the orgasm and emotional disturbances caused by disturbances to this function, etc. So the goal of psychoanalysis is the discovery of unconscious emotional mechanisms, the goal of vegetotherapy is discovering the vegetative physical mechanisms, etc. All of this is in Reich speaks of Freud, I strongly encourage you to read it in that book on pages 270-274.


Dr. Philip W. Bennett Biography:

Philip W. Bennett, PhD, has a long standing interest in Wilhelm Reich which began in the mid-sixties and included therapy with Dr. Victor Sobey. His main focus these days is on Reich’s social and political thought, in an attempt to understand fully what Reich means by work democracy. His recently published article, “Wilhelm Reich’s Early Writings on Work Democracy: A Theoretical Basis for Challenging Fascism Then and Now,” appears in the current issue of Capitalism. Nature. Socialism. (March, 2010). His article, “The Persecution of the Dr. Wilhelm Reich by the Government of the United States,” appeared in the International Forum of Psychoanalysis, earlier this year (Vol 19, #1, 2010). His article, “Double-Blind Controlled Experiments and the Orgone Energy Accumulator,” will appear in the next issue of the Annals of the Institute of Orgonomic Science. Prof. Bennett has spoken a summer conferences at Orgonon and at one-day conferences in New York City, sponsored by The Institute for the Study of the Work of Wilhelm Reich.

This post was written by:

- who has written 11 posts on The Journal of Psychiatric Orgone Therapy.

Philip W. Bennett earned a PhD from New York University in the early 1970s and was a professor of philosophy for many years after. He is now retired from academic life. Bennett has spoken on aspects of Reich's work both nationally and internationally, and has published numerous articles. He is now finishing a book on Reich's social and political work entitled From Communism to Work Democracy.

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