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“Nothing matters”: Why it matters September 12, 2008

Posted by Michael Kuttnauer in Philosophy, Political Philosophy.

In The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942), Mersault says “Nothing, nothing mattered. . . . ”  That widely-read assertion, that much-discussed mood, is a window on the modern West.  To see why “nothing matters” is an important thesis in the study of Western culture, let’s ask what it might mean.  When “matters” is considered as a verb it has the conotation, “be important or significant.”  Thus, to say “my son (or daughter) matters” is to affirm that he or she is important, significant.  To go further, it may also mean he or she has a worth that is ultimate or intrinsic.  Sometimes, but not always, something or someone matters when its worth is seen as given by a being outside of, and greater than itself.  Absent such a being, my child would have no worth, and would, ultimately, be insignificant. 

So, a natural way to think about Mersault’s enduring remark is to regard him as believing that there isn’t anything that really has ultimate significance of that sort: No object, no person, not the world itself has an inherent objective significance, an enduring value endowed by God.  My son, David, who happens to be of great interest to me is, nonetheless, of no final positive value in this temporally and spatially limitless cosmos, henceforth without a meaning-giver.  This prospect terrified Kierkegaard: “If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passion produced everything . . . if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all — what then would life be but despair?”  Kierkegaard violently rejected such a prospect: “But therefore it is not thus. . . .” 

Mersault disagrees.  Nothing matters.

Nihilism is a term that may derive from Russia in the first half of the nineteenth century, coming into broad usage with the character Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and  Sons (1862).  In Germany, the term was associated with Nietzsche’s remark, “God is dead” (The Gay Science, 1882).  Mersault, a  twentieth century French Algerian, seems to be in that nihilistic tradition: if in the modern West God does not exist or is no use to us (“I had only a little time left and did not want to waste it on God”, Mersault says) there is no one to confer meaning.  Absent God, there is no ground for final value.  Absent value, nothing matters.  Subjective and intersubjective value are not denied: “I was assailed by memories of a life . . . in which I’d found the simplest and most lasting joys: the smells of summer, the part of town I loved, a certain evening sky, Marie’s dresses and the way she laughed.”   Imagining the guillotine that would end his short life for the pointless murder of the Arab youth, Mersault concludes, “I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.”   

But transcendent meaning is denied.  Instead, the world is absurd.   Mersault recalls that “That evening Marie came by to see me and asked if I wanted to marry her.  I said it didn’t make any difference to me. . . . Then she wanted to know if I loved her.  I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn’t mean anything. . . .”

The Stranger was published in France in 1942 during the Nazi occupation.  At the same time (1930s through 1960s) that Continental Existentialism nourished the idea of the absurd, the Logical Positivists of German-speaking and Anglo-American philosophy developed the Emotive theory of ethics.  That view argued that moral judments (“Hitler is bad,” “Playing by the rules is a duty”) were meaningless.  Carnap and the Vienna Circle, and Ayer in the UK and Charles Stevenson in America held that such judments are not informative but emotive.  They assert no facts about the world and are incapable of being either true or false.  Instead, they merely express the attitude of the speaker/writer and attempt to elicit a similar attitude from the auditor/reader.  Incapable of having truth-value, they are said to be “cognitively meaningless.”  It might be said that for the Positivists value judgments didn’t matter.

Inadvertently (Positivism and Existentialism, after all, were bitterly opposed philosophies), these two philosophies produced by mid-century a similar effect: each view asserted or implied that reason was insufficient for, or marginally relevant to, any discovery of objective, ultimate value.  Value was merely emotive and, in a sense, unreal.  But an old problem was left unsolved: there must be an antidote for despair and if secular reason leads us to nihilism, and is inadequate for the uncovering of the true and final meaning of life, then religion (or some other belief system) will answer instead.  So it was that — apart from science — anti-rationalistic, or non-rationalistic thought strongly reasserted itself in the twentieth century.  The post-Enlightenment culture of the Europeans and North Americans seemed at the close of World War II to have eroded the greatest hope of humankind.  The meaning of life seemed imperilled to a number of thougtful Westerners.  Some of those people worried that a meaning would be insisted upon, and if not by science, nor philosophy, then by less rational means.  After all, something had to matter.    


“Nothing matters” in Ancient Philosophy

If the history of ideas in the West could be given a kind of dialectical cast, then the “thesis” for Ancient philosophy might have been the Homeric tradition: a theocracy grounding ultimate meaning in gods (Zeus) or at least heroes (Achilles, Agamemnon).  The antithesis was Platonism and Greek moralism generally, a humanistic individualism when compared with the Homeric gods, demigods and heroes.  Platonism answered the question “What is Value?” (a) by denying it was determined by gods and (b) with the theory of Forms: Justice and other values (i) are realities, forms, subsisting independently of  deities and this world though (ii) participating in it and being an object of knowledge for its serious thinkers.  Justice matters because it is real.  But this antithesis to the previous theocentric outlook yields to a synthesis of atomism and despair in Lucretius.  Now the world is nothing but particles in motion: hope of a transcendent realm, and a final purpose for the world and life is superstition and vain.  So, from Homer through Platonism to Lucretius we witness a philosophy of God(s), superseded by one of objective value discovered by human reason, finally nullified by a soul-less materialism.  This dialectic is the first of two deicides in Western civilization. 

“Nothing matters” in Medieval/Modern Philosophy

The Christian Middle Ages combined with the Modern period of philosophy produced the next dialectical movement and the second murder of God.  Its thesis again was theocentric: the good is the City of God.  The meaning of life is the visio Dei.  But comes then the antithesis: the tragic conflict of simple piety with Modernity.  Even the philosophy of the pious Aquinas may have hinted at this: man in his material particularity must be acknowledged.  God is ultimate still, of course; but humanity, raised up by God, and newly informed by the insights of the pagan Greeks and Romans, is higher now.  This clash is depicted in the literature and philosophy of the early modern period, as reflected in literature by Cervantes, Shakespeare and Montaigne, on the one hand, in political philosophy by Machievelli, Hobbes and in pure  philosophy by Descartes.  Finally, of course, the scientific writers undermine theocentrism, Galileo and Newton, later on Darwin for biology and Marx in social science, followed by the depth psychology of Freud.  By 1900, the end of some fifteen centuries of Western development, from Augustine to Nietzsche, we can perhaps suggest that the final synthesis was a bit like a wasteland.  The tragedy of Godless Modernity, Kierkegaard’s formulation is worth repeating, is that at the heart of Reality, “a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all. . . .” 

As in the dialectic of the Ancient period, mentioned above, European civilization had moved from theocentrism to a renaissance of individualism and humanism, followed by disintegration, collapse.  As in the ancient world, God, again, is murdered.  The stage was set for a twentieth century post-modern reaction.  And that is what I will discuss in the third part of this essay.


The philosophical significance of the last century has yet to be written and in any case is beyond my ability.  In lieu of any such, I offer, as a kind of coda to the above, a mere sketch — and slight extrapolation — of what I take to be one hopeful post-war step toward a recovery of meaning in the present environment, the philosophy of Rawlsian liberalism.   Rawls’s liberalism (A Theory of Justice, 1971; Political Liberalism, 1993; The Law of Peoples, 1999) partly resuscitated the old view: justice, although not metaphysically real as it was in Plato, not divine as in Aquinas, did matter, after all.  A political form of justice was suggested.  I suggest that it might be seen as restoring, for the present period, a humanistic meaning or value of human life.  I stress that Rawls did not claim this on his own behalf.  In modernity, in democratic pluralism, if citizens agree, in spite of their deep, perpetual and irreconcilable religious and valuative differences, to render justice (or fairness) for everyone, that could be construed as an ideal of the common good  (Rawls’s interview with the liberal Catholic journal, Commonweal, reprinted in Rawls’s Collected Papers, Harvard, 2001 is helpful on this point).  For the heirs of the Enlightenment, why might that not constitute a meaning of life?  Justice is not, of course, the only thing citizens in a pluralistic society are working toward, but it’s the one thing around which they could be thought to be unified, or in Rawls’s words, “the single thing they’re all trying to do [together].”  They are unified because they, using only impartial reason, recognize the principles (liberty, equality) of our common modern morality and political format.  It is very widely felt that freedom and opportunity are the central political values of the modern world.  And if there is anything to that, it might be a small or large part of a great meaning for the contemporary period of historical development.  Modern meaning as citizen, free and equal. 

For some it is not enough, of course.  Many of the Right- and Left-Counter-Enlightenment critiques re-surface in opposition to Rawls.  But a sense of justice holding for equal liberty and equality for all, embraced by peoples of incompatible and even hostile religious ideologies living and voting together in the democracies and pluralistic societies of the present era, may suggest one element in a meaning of life that Mersault’s now-famous remark has seemed to everyone who has read The Stranger  unable to account for.  When one considers alternative foundations for a meaning of life, political liberalism may seem not weak. 

Whatever our theories of human being consist in, and however we like to understand the great traditions of Greek and Christian philosophy and modernity and post-modernity, the question, What does my life mean? does not go away.  Camus may be right: We are the creature that cannot cease longing for ultimate value and not finding it.  “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”  Today, to many of the Euro-Americans of the West, neither Athens nor Jerusalem seem to wholly assuage the need for meaning.  And nor does science.  Historical materialism is repudiated, and post-modernism sees no possibility of a reasoned solution.  Pragmatism flourishes in America, but it denies any intrinsic worth and is actually consistent with one possible interpretation of “nothing matters.” 


The West

Edward Said in his Orientalism argued that the western world had unfairly stereotyped the Orient, to its detriment.  Much discussion followed.  A generation after Said’s book, Buruma and Margalit published Occidentalism, the reverse of Said’s thesis.  Occidentalism claims that enemies of The West have stereotyped it, again unfairly and even dangerously since these antagonists sometimes say that “The West” must be made to pay for its sins.

A noteworthy feature of Occidentalism is its having originated not, as one might suppose, in the far or middle east, but in the west itself.  It is in the nineteenth century Naturphilosophie of Schelling that the imperative to overcome the “calculating mind” of the West and to restore the “organic” social life it displaced was formulated.  That kind of view resurfaced in later Russian anti-Modernists, notably Ivan Kireyevsky (1806-56) and Dostoevsky.  Their target: rationalism and reasonableness as pernicious elements in the Western outlook.  The blame, for Kireyesvsky, is Aristotle who, in championing the mean or average, in effect defended mediocrity.  These Romantics idealized no golden mean, of course; rather the heroic.  For the Romantics, German or Russian, The West was a culture of Handler — merchants — and not Helden —  heroes. 

Reactions against a western civilization that had rejected the heroic view of life or the “spiritual” for the insipid Aristotelian mean were well underway by the twentieth century in various parts of the world; by 1940, Russia, Germany and Japan were among the most important nations for the articulation of this reactionary movement.  But what is “the West” against which so many reacted?  Mainly a hemisphere?  Paris, and westward therefrom to England, Scotland, and North America where the Enlightenement reached its fullest apotheosis?  Debauchees and atheists?  The Beatles?  Or is it “heartless” Science? 

Perhaps the West is better conceived of as less a location, and less as celebrities or products, and not quite a strategic alliance such as NATO.  The West can be conceived of instead as a set of ideas, ideas found in the history of western philosophy and culture.  From Plato and Aristotle, the West has valued logos, which implies both the rationally explicable, and that part of us that rationally explains.  When reason is set against faith, there may be a drift toward secularism, as happened after the Middle Ages in the West.  Here is the root of the idea of science.  However, as secular reason rises in the early modern period, religious faith is less powerful.  The consequence is that both a scientific culture and the milieu of disappointment grow apace, at the expense of gullibility and tranquillity.  In politics, The American and French revolutions embodied the new idea of the individual and her rights, especially the right of liberty, deployed sometimes against forms of existing authority.  In the century just passed, from the “great illusion” of 1914-18 to the recent demand that “Western Civ has got to go” (Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence), yet other Western concepts have been resurrected and contested: nationalism, the high arts, and strict observance of morals and religion.  These then are some of the main ideas that go to make up the idea of The West.  Some are of firm opinion that certain of these ideas have occasioned an erosion of the sacred and the heroic, calling perhaps for more or less severe retribution against the blasphemers, God’s latest murderers. 

The secular West has been feared and demonized for a century and more.  Militant Islam is only the most recent and conspicuous of peoples disenchanted with our way of life.  Mein Kampf  rants against aspects of the modern western world.  Japanese of the Romantic Group and the Buddhist/Hegelian school assembled in Kyoto in July, 1942 to consider “how to overcome the modern.”  (The “modern” turned out to mean “the West.”)  The Soviet Union opposed Western freedoms as did the Maoists.  Perhaps a common theme in Nazi, Imperial Japanese, and Soviet, post-Soviet Russian and Communist Chinese ideologies is the view that the ascendent western world values the wrong things: for Germany and Japan virtue lay partly in tradtion, the past; for the communist regimes, in the future society of justice.  Modernity’s decadence was undoubted in that — by valuing the pursuit of happiness –it valued mainly the present.

Into this twentieth century ferment over ideas came radical Islam.  Humiliated by a West that had left it behind in everything, the jihadiis’ ideologues for decades emphasized and exaggerated the failings of the infidel civilization.  The West, it was found, was trying to murder the Almighty itself, desecrating the sacrosanct, defiling the brave, despoiling the sacred people and their territory.  Some concluded that was a capital offense.

A rhetoric that may lead not only to suicide or homicide and even genocide began to be heard from some of the devout, as in the 20s, 30s and 40s among dedicated Nazis, Japanese Imperialists, and Russian and Chinese Communists. 

Hence, contemporary Iran.  The Los Angeles Times of October 20, 2007, just following President Ahmadinejad’s U.S. visit to Columbia University, gives this quote from the Iranian chief of security forces Esmail Ahmadi-Moghadam, explaining Iran’s crackdown on Iranians who adhered to what the newspaper’s writers, Mostaghim and Daragahi called “Western cultural ways:” “‘Thanks to enforcing law and order, we are witnessing a dramatic reduction in homicides.'”  He spoke next of apparently West-inspired Iranians who had driven motorcycles recklessly.  They too were being dealt with.  He continued the central thesis: “‘[D]espite the nagging of the West-toxified critics who want Iranians to abandon their Islamic and national values and embrace rotten western values [Iranian] wrongdoing . . . has decreased [due to harsher punishment].'”

And which are the “rotten western values” foisted on the “West-toxified” Iranian subjects by those Occidentals?  “‘In the so-called cradle of the free and open society — the U.S. and Columbia University — they asked our respectable president, Why aren’t boozing, homosexuality and debauchery allowed in [Iran]?‘”  Such, apparently, are the principal values of the West and the chief legacy of the civilization of Aeschylus, Abraham, St. Thomas and Kant, of Isaac Newton, Mary Wollstonecraft and Abraham Linclon.

To Iranian anti-West rhetoric of recent times, one might add that of Russia since the Georgia affair.  From whatever nation or people, though, a salient question remains: what should we take from this sort of thing?  First, that Occidentalism is an ideology one of whose relevant theses is that the western world kills God and undermines values, destroying any meaning for our lives.  Second, as we contemplate old and newer political and moral forms of life in the modern democracies, we should not dismiss the legacy of nihilism and “nothing matters,” nor the plain fact that some detractors of the West assocatiate that view with our civilization and call for punishment (analogous to that given their own miscreant West-inspired motorcyclists) of what they take to be a decadent culture.  The 9-11 pilots almost certainly felt that the West was a disease and that it was spreading and had to be excised from humanity’s body.  This persistent animosity toward an important civilization, grounded in part on a belief that the philosophy or ideology of the West produces its decadence, make it apparent that the salience of Mersault’s dictum endures.  And that philosophical imagination  will be useful in reconstructing a meaning that is yet possible for our own time.  For the Modern West, prime inheritor of the Enlightenment ideas and values, something must matter, after all. 




1. Paul Moloney - September 13, 2008

The statement “nothing matters” can be contentious but not necessarily so. It depends on how the word “nothing” is used. If “nothing” is taken to be “non-existence”, it is true that non-existence does not matter. The statement, though, is not meant in this way. It means, that of all that is, none of it matters.

As a contentious statement, it does not offer any argument, and therefore, cannot be argued against. One can only argue that it is not an argument. If someone equivocates “something” with “nothing”, they are saying yes and no at the same time, which is to offer no argument.

Something definitely matters, even if it is only the concept that nothing matters. That concept mattered to Camus, or else he would not have gone to the trouble of conveying that concept in his book.

I think that Professor Kuttnauer makes a brilliant point concerning justice. If justice does not unify us, nothing will. It seems, though, that hardly anyone takes justice in the sense of virtue, as if there could be justice without a just person. No one will be just to us except the just person. As a virtue, justice belongs to the one practicing it. If society centers around anyone, it is the just person. In order to be just to others, sometimes we have to suffer injustice. In order not to scandalize those pursuing Wisdom, Socrates suffered the injustice of death, though he himself did not consider that death to be an evil. Like love, the practice of virtue is not for the faint of heart.

2. Michael Kuttnauer - September 14, 2008

You put Camus’ point well. “Nothing matters,” as you interpret it, “means, that of all that is, none of it matters.” I do, however, think it is arguable. It is a proposition, having a truth value. So that it is appropriate to argue whether “nothing matters” is true or false (or possibly meaningless).

The thesis “nothing matters” did matter to Albert Camus himself, I agree. But Camus would insist that it did not matter to the cosmos itself, not to God (Camus was a non-believer). Nor does anything matter to the cosmos or to God, who in the contemporary period seems to a number of thinkers either absent or non-existent.

Whether a societal solidarity built upon justice could supply a meaning sufficient to assuage what some worry is the pointlessness of the world is worth considering, I believe.

3. Paul Moloney - September 14, 2008


I decided to first take a strict philosophical interpretation to the thesis “nothing matters”. Such an interpretation is not plausible when it comes to a literary work. That nothing matters to God or the cosmos is another argument. I would agree that nothing matters to the cosmos. That nothing matters to God would depend on the actual existence God. If the existence of God cannot be demonstrated then whether anything matters to God or not cannot be demonstrated.

Since you have a better literary understanding of the work of Camus than I have, and since you brought up the concepts of the cosmos and God in relation to the idea of absurdity, I assume that Camus can be said to represent those who believe this life is absurd because it does not matter to a higher power, whether to God or the cosmos.

The absurd can be associated with unreasonableness, as arguments are said to be reduced to their absurdity. The absurd also has the aspect of meaningless. The world does appear meaningless. It is through reasoning that we give purpose to the universe. Reasoning is never meaningless. There is always a point to reasoning. There is always a reason to reason.

Whether anything matters or not seems to have to do with intelligence. Nothing would matter to the cosmos if the cosmos lacks intelligence. Some argue that God is Intelligence. If God is Intelligence and if God exists then it would seem to follow that everything matters to God.

4. Moriae - September 16, 2008

I thought of commenting, but on reflection it didn’t seem to matter.

5. Dwight Furrow - September 16, 2008

I must confess I have never understood the argument (or sentiment) that if something lacks ultimate, transcendent value, it lacks value. Why would I perceive my family to have diminished value if they are not the product of a divine plan? And why would life be meaningless if our existence is just a happy accident? I just don’t get it. I think Nietzsche was right. If you have to ask the question “what is the meaning of life?”, you are already suffering from a disease. You have already decided against life. Life as opposed to what–death?

However, since the question is often raised, I will play along. I suppose the logic goes something like this. As human beings we have always valued our children, our everyday activities and projects, the beauty of nature, the people we depend on, etc. But any of these things we value can be destroyed in an instant, and most human beings have lived under constant threat of such catastrophic loss. That prospect can induce despair. Thus, to have what we value connected to something that cannot be destroyed, that is not contingent, that offers hope beyond hope is an antidote to despair. (As I noted above, it doesn’t follow from this that in the absence of the divine, ordinary things have no value. The absence of the divine would seem in fact to enhance their value since they are even more vulnerable, but that’s just me.)

And I think you are absolutely right, that secular reason has not provided an adequate antidote to such despair, as the continued persistence of relgion attests.

I am sympathetic to your view that liberalism is a comprehensive conception of the good that tries to supply that meaning. What I mean by liberalism here is that the aim of life is personal happiness, and a central component of personal happiness is autonomy.

However, I am skeptical that Rawl’s version of liberalism can accomplish this. If what matters to human beings are their families, personal projects, the people we depend on, etc., and these have traditionally required sanctification, how can impartial reason reinforce these commitments? Impartiality and the abstract conception of justice that Rawls articulates requires that, in some contexts, I diminish my commitment to family, friends, and personal projects when they conflict with the pursuit of justice. Rawlsian liberalism requires that what I am partial to cannot be over-riding. That is what impartiality means. But these are the very things that require sanctification (in its secular form) and I don’t see how justice (understood as Rawls does, as fairness) as a moral ideal supplies that. Hence, I find Aristotelian approaches to liberalism more inviting.

Finally, I have some reservations about the way you understand ‘The West”. It seems to me that at the heart of the long-standing opposition to the West is liberalism’s attempt to put personal happiness and autonomy at the center of life’s meaning. The “non-Westernl” objection was that liberalism undermines traditional sources of value and identity because it advertises personal happiness and autonomy, which can be conceptualized independently of traditions. (or in the case of the Nazis or the communists the pursuit of personal happiness undermined their “glorious” vision of a heroic new being which required individuals to cooperate with the regime)

Today, however, it is largely the authorities (religious and governmental) in the non-Western parts of the world who stoke that objection because the pursuit of happiness and autonomy undermines their power over their subjects. Most ordinary people in non-Western countries seem to want modern technology, consumer goods, wealth, etc.–all components in the pursuit of personal happiness–while holding on to as much of their culture as they can. What they don’t want is to have Western influences constantly rammed down their throat, especially at the barrel of gun.

The idea of a culture clash between the West and the rest seems to me to be overdrawn. It is not about competing visions of the meaning of life. The hostility has to do with particular policies of Western countries that lead to foreign occupation, support for oppressive regimes, appropriation of resources, military adventurism, etc. In the case of the conflict with Russia, the conflict is just old-fashioned nationalism and control of spheres of influence–I doubt that culture has much to do with it. The genuinely cultural conflicts between the West and the rest are replicated in the cultural conflicts here in the U.S. between traditional values and liberalism. It is thus not a civilizational clash, but an ideological one that occurs within the West as well as within much of the rest of the world.

6. Huan - September 16, 2008

The West seems to have given traditional values and personal desires equal weight though, I suspect this is not the case for countries that hold traditional values as their primary doctrine. We just seem to be a bit more ahead of the curve on this post-modern wave of anti-structure.

I think ‘nothing matters” totally matters, since it’s essentially the main cause for the current culture of mindless hedonism. Then again it’s kinda hard to argue against mindless hedonism, it just feels so good.

7. Muap Conners - November 20, 2008

What are the implications for societies if, indeed, something matters? For example, it matters to the Western mind whether women get to vote. It matters to the Islamic mind that they don’t get to vote. The upshot of this “mattering” is that eventually societies will come to blows over whose “mattering” is going to prevail.

One society’s right (both in the sense of correct and inalienable) is another’s pervisity. The contemplation of the truth of this subjective, relative fact is that finite and imperfect people go nuts trying to find a “meaning” for what they prefer, and then just give up. So, they strive to convince themselves nothing matters when we have objective evidence that there are some things that do matter and somethings that don’t in terms of survival, or else all activity directed at saving the planet, recycling, non-poliferation treaties and AIDS assitance to Africa are just inconsequential niceties that make us feel good rather than acts of virtue. (Good God! Can Ayn Rand be accurate?)

And the guy who gets to decide what matters and what doesn’t is called – what else – the leader (Kaiser, Fuhrer, Khan, King, President, Pope) and that’s why it matters who is in a position of power.

Having said that, it is clear that Western culture, defined a sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, divorce, abortion and drug use, is one matter. Western culture defined as a woman’s right to choose, tolerance for alternative life-styles, and the pursuit of chemical happiness is another matter. In matters of nothing, cultures devoid of decisions about what matters and what doesn’t don’t last very long. But who cares? No one but liberals and anthropoligists and elites who get to poke around ruins and watch strange rituals as entertainment. I came to grips with the divide, not between modernity and traditionalism, but between meaning and nothing that day I saw a hero of the siege of Leningrad – his chest full of medals -pose for pictures in a San Diego “exhibit”. I saw tough Marines weep at the indignity.

God isn’t silent. People just don’t listen well.

8. Angry Bird - November 21, 2012

Im going surfing

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