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Indecent Images

Something else the government doesn't trust you with...

The American Communication Decency Act and its many descendants are a disturbing reminder of how fragile the freedoms we regard as being fundamental to our society really are. All it really takes to dispense with them are a few politicians having a bad hair day.

Personal rights and liberties guaranteed by a constitution are no more durable than the whims of the current fashion of elected officials — something the ostensible beneficiaries of those rights and liberties forget at their peril.

This web page hails from Canada. At least in theory, Canadians enjoy the protection of their right to expression as an aspect of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a document somewhat comparable to the American Bill of Rights. Therein it is written:

Fundamental Freedoms

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
(d) freedom of association.

Ya, right — in its quest to rid the on-line community of nasties, various authorities across Canada walk all over these rights daily. It's a nice sentiment, however.

A list that began "the things that are wrong with censorship" could go on for pages. One of the issues that would be near the top of the list is that censors invariably paint with very broad brushes. In the case of the CDA, in seeking to suppress sexually extreme material, its authors experienced the traditional knee-jerk reaction to bare breasts and proscribed everything which could be described as having any sexual content. You might well ask what falls into this broad classification. You'd probably have to ask it of a judge if the law decides it includes something you've put on line.

This page is a gallery of some of my favorite paintings. As nearly as I can tell, most of them would qualify as being indecent under the Communication Decency Act and its numerous drooling offspring. Were said laws to be broadly enforced, it would be illegal to maintain these images on a server located in the United States.

I should point out that all of the women in these pictures are at least a hundred years old, well past the age of consent.

Most of the pictures at this page are pre-Raphaelite — either painted by members of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood itself, or by artists with similar inspirations. While it's beyond the scope of this page to get into a detailed discussion of pre-Raphaelite art, I find it particularly significant that in their day, many of the pre-Raphaelite artists were decried as "indecent," perhaps by people with the same narrow mindset as our contemporary politicians and law-makers.

Own these pictures: If you'd like the paintings at this page — and other works by the artists discussed here — to grace your walls or enliven your monitor, we invite you to see the Indecent Images CD-ROM Collection, which will provide you with enough Victorian art to overwhelm your senses for the rest of the year.

by John Collier (1850 — 1934)

Collier was one of the last Victorian artists to truly paint in the pre-Raphaelite style — he worked extensively as a portrait painter, and many of his works reflect images of upper class Victorian and Edwardian England. He studied under Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and his teacher's love of classical Romanesque settings and willowy, exotic women is evident in this image. The portico behind the central figure — not terribly detailed in this scan, I'm afraid — is decorated with Greek letters. The knight kneeling before her is clearly Teutonic, however.

The current revival of interest in Victorian painters seems to have omitted John Collier. He was an accomplished and recognized artist in his day. He exhibited 130 pictures at the Royal Academy of Art in London, and was the vice president of Royal Society of Portrait Painters. He was awarded an OBE in 1920.

One of the reasons for Collier's current obscurity is that his reputation during his lifetime was almost exclusively as a portrait painter, and for the most part, his portraits are of distinguished old men that only historians, genealogists and documentary film makers with singularly thin production budgets are likely to recognize. The pictures for which he is recognized today are, for the most part, historical and mythological subjects, which he appears to have regarded as almost peripheral to his art.

Among his extant portraits are depictions of Charles Darwin and Rudyard Kipling, but these are perhaps the only subjects most of us are likely to recognize.

John Collier's 1898 picture of Lady Godiva is particularly evocative. In Collier's day as now, Lady Godiva was a frequent character at rural fairs, typically a busty young lass astride a horse, wearing nothing more than a smile.

In fact, the historical Godiva of Legend — more likely Godgifu — was an Anglo-Saxon lady with a social conscious somewhat ahead of her time. She was the wife of Leofric, the earl of Mercia. Leofric was something of a medieval tax 'n spend liberal who is said to have nailed the people of Coventry even more brutally than Tony Blair, if such a thing is to be credited. History records that he gave generously to monasteries and other institutions that didn't do much for the local citizenry. Godiva pleaded with him to ease his taxation, and after a time he agreed to relent upon the condition that she rode naked through the streets of town.

Clearly, Leofric was of the opinion that his wife, confronted with so unpalatable a choice, would shut up and return to her knitting. Godiva was made of sterner stuff — she issued a proclamation to the effect that the people of Coventry were to remain indoors on the day of her peregrination, got nekkid and climbed the nearest horse. Leofric relented and dialed back his onerous taxes.

One can only imagine that if this sort of thing worked today, much of the west midlands of England would be R rated.

Collier's picture of Lilith is among my favorite of his works. It appears to have been an obscure painting in its day, attracting little attention. While it's compelling to attribute this to widespread blindness amongst all who viewed it — perhaps the only reasonable explanation for ignoring Lilith's obvious charms — it's more likely that audiences of the period were sufficiently disturbed by Collier's choice of subjects as to wish to distance themselves from this particular picture, the notoriety of its creator not withstanding.

Lilith was painted in 1892, still very much the height of the era of Victoria, when it was politic to observe the proprieties, at least when one was likely to be seen doing so.

Lilith is a pagan figure, a vengeful deity of storms and wind in Mesopotamian mythology. She brought disease and death to the unworthy, and came to be viewed as a goddess of retribution. Her name means "beautiful maiden" in Sumerian. She's barren, and in later Babylonian mythology, she's described as a prostitute of Ishtar. Ishtar was believed to have sent her into the streets of Babylon to seduce its men and entice them from the beds of their wives.

The tradition of Lilith is somewhat removed from the character of Sumerian theology. Lilith is a goddess of lust and passion — she brings sexual ecstasy to her worshippers and destruction to anyone clueless enough to oppose her. No prizes will be awarded for guessing which Lilith John Collier painted. Upper-class Victorians must have attacked him with their ear trumpets once they'd looked up her origins.

It's probably worth noting that while snakes experience some image problems in christian doctrine, Lilith's origins predate the christian bible by a good three thousand years.

by John William Waterhouse (1847 — 1917)

Hylas and the Nymphs is one of my favorite paintings, by one of the most evocative of the later Victorian painters. Waterhouse painted quite a few classical and mythological subjects — actually, one of the best things about Waterhouse was that he just painted a lot, and if you like his work there are all sorts of his pictures available in reproduction.

The majority of Waterhouse's paintings used the same model — in this case, several times over. Her identity has long been a matter of considerable speculation, as Waterhouse himself left no record of who posed for his most notable works.

In this picture, Hylas, the squire of Heracles, is about to be lured to his death by a number of very English water nymphs. In the original Greek myth, Hylas was sent by Heracles to search for water on the island of Cios — he's carrying a pitcher in his left hand in this picture.

Waterhouse could fuse dreamlike worlds with strikingly real figures as few artists before or since.

John William Waterhouse seems to have been attracted to subjects in which his male subjects were on the point dying at the hands of women. There are probably a few good psychological papers and research grants in the observation that Hylas in this picture looks a lot like Waterhouse himself. Waterhouse also painted himself as the doomed knight in La Belle Dame Sans Merci, not included in this article.

Waterhouse was influenced by Lawrence Alma-Tadema — as well as having himself been born in Rome — and his early works include a number of Roman landscapes and still-life paintings. What is perhaps most remarkable about Waterhouse is that while he created worlds of knights, sorceresses, devious women and mythological catastrophes on canvas, his own life was respectable and quiet. He was an associate of the Royal Academy, and lived in St. John's Wood.

The Lady of Shalott is also a personal favorite — purists will note that it's not at all indecent, and perhaps doesn't really belong here. Purists are a nuisance. The Lady of Shalott is technically an Arthurian character, if a rather peripheral one. She was a popular subject among the pre-Raphaelite painters, however, owing perhaps more to Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem of the same name than to Malory. She's depicted by Waterhouse, William Holman Hunt, Sidney Harold Meteyard and several others. Aside from being the most attractive woman of the lot, I find Waterhouse's Lady to be the most evocative of both the poem and of the myth upon which it draws. Most of the paintings of the Lady of Shalott portray her as a sorceress, rather than as a woman.

I've long regarded Tennyson's depiction of the Lady of Shalott as a pagan character in an essentially christianized mythology — she's about as pagan as the literature of the times was likely to permit. Two of the characters in my novel Wyccad discourse on the nature of the lady, which has engendered a remarkable degree of flaming from a few readers of the book who originally appear to have thought "Wyccad" was a drawing application.

One can speculate at some length as to which verses of Tennyson's poem Waterhouse's painting is intended to illustrate — assuming that it's drawn from a particular passage at all. I favor this one:

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in its banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
Over tower'd Camelot;

Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round and round the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river's dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance —
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.

At the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

Arthurian images seem rather hackneyed at the moment — it's important to realize that we're inclined to view the myths of Camelot through entirely too many bad interpretations from Hollywood. Who among us could have sat through First Knight — or even the previews thereof — and want anything more to do with Arthur, Lancelot and the rest. Camelot has been reduced to a Monty Python production, even by film makers who might have intended otherwise. For Tennyson — and certainly for the painters who were similarly inspired a hundred years ago — Arthur was a genuine heroic figure, and the death of the Lady of Shalott a genuinely moving tale.

by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 — 1912)

Lawrence Alma-Tadema was born in Holland. He moved to London in 1870, where he resided for the reminder of his life. He was something of a poster child for romantic painters, and was among the most masterful and accomplished artists of his day.

His most memorable pictures are of classical Rome as it never was — clean, flawless and resplendent.

Alma-Tadema's family intended that their son study law, but at the age of fifteen he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which was about as survivable as beheading at the time. He was given leave to spend his last few months at leisure, indulging himself in his hobbies of drawing and painting. His extended rest allowed him to recover.

He entered the Royal Academy of Antwerp in 1852, where he studied under the Belgian painter Egide Charles Gustave Wappers. In 1863, he married Marie-Pauline Gressin, the daughter of a French journalist. They honeymooned in Italy, from whence Alma-Tadema first drew the inspiration for his later Italianate paintings. Marie died six years later.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema moved to London in 1870 to avoid the Franco-Prussian War, for his health and to be with his favorite student, Laura Epps. They were married in 1871.

Already a celebrated artist by the time of his arrival in England, Alma-Tadema became included in the circle of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which appears to have had a considerable influence on his work. His pictures from this period forward are brighter, more detailed and somewhat more fanciful.

In that most of the female subjects in his paintings were modeled by his wife and daughters, it's perhaps not surprising that Alma-Tadema painted relatively few nudes. This is rather a shame, as he was clearly good at them. Legend has him painting a number of erotic works for Edward VII, which none of Edward's descendents have permitted to come to light — probably not surprising if you consider who Eddy's descendents are. In the Tepidarium, above, is easily the most recognizable of his nudes. It was painted in 1881.

In the Tepidarium is another fanciful depiction of classical Rome. The public baths enjoyed by Romans were built in three chambers — the Caldarium, or hot room and the Frigidarium, or cold room, both of which opened onto the Tepidarium, where bathers could lie about, converse, drink and plot the downfall of the empire if the mood struck them.

Alma-Tadema's painting is clearly somewhat inaccurate — no self-respecting Roman woman would have held her fan like that.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema enjoyed a long, distinguished career followed by what might well be the most precipitous fall from popularity of any of his contemporaries. With the death of Victoria in 1901 and the end of the age she presided over, tastes in art changed, but Alma-Tadema did not. Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism and a number of other schools of art emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century, and Alma-Tadema was quickly forgotten. John Ruskin, an eminent art critic of the period, described him as "the worst painter of the nineteenth century." Ruskin was a bit of a blowhard.

By the time of his death in 1912, Alma-Tadema couldn't give his pictures away. He remained almost completely forgotten until the end of the twentieth century — he lives again in reproduction, and his meticulous depictions of classical Roman architecture have served as the research for innumerable sword and sandal films. Ridley Scott is said to have consulted Alma-Tadema's paintings extensively in creating the sets for Gladiator — admittedly, this might not be exactly the legacy Alma-Tadema would have wished for himself.

I like to think that the producers of the HBO depiction of Rome referred to Alma-Tadema as well, and then created a vision of Rome that looked as unlike his as possible.

by Henry Fuseli (1741 — 1825)

Henry Fuseli predates the pre-Raphaelites by a good margin — his works are somewhat more stylized, although they often touch on mythical themes. This one, of course, embodies the stuff of which censors' dreams are made. Is Titania really getting romantic with a donkey? Well, it has the head of a donkey, which is probably enough to qualify it as bestiality in the eyes of the morally born-again. It's my understanding that reading literature is not a requirement for public service — it may even be a detriment. This being the case, I hasten to add that Bottom, the fellow with the enlarged ears, is not really a donkey, but has merely been turned into one temporarily. This painting is a scene from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Fuseli was born Johann Heinrich Füssli in Switzerland, of Swiss and German parents. He migrated to Berlin in 1763, where his illustrations of Shakespearean themes caught the attention of the British ambassador, who convinced him to visit England. Several years later he moved to Rome. By 1779 he had returned to England, and the best of his paintings were completed in London. History notes that he has the distinction of having slept with Mary Wollstonecroft, whose daughter, Mary Shelly, would write Frankenstein.

In 1799, Fuseli exhibited a large collection of paintings illustrating the works of John Milton. The exhibition failed a year later for want of patrons — dead for well over a century by the time of Fuseli's interest in him, Milton wasn't remembered as much of a party animal. To Milton's credit, his pamphlet Areopagitica, published in 1644, was a well-reasoned denunciation of censorship. Areopagitica probably indicates some progress in this regard — in Milton's day, just publishing his pamphlet was illegal.

It might well be said that Fuseli enjoyed heroic subjects above all — it's engaging to regard him as Boris Vallejo before his time. Muscular amazon women were a bit hard to find in Fuseli's day, however. Fuseli's male characters are enormously muscular in some cases, while his women are often wildly dramatic, or brazenly sexual. Sometimes they're both — dramatic sex has few equals.

One of the enjoyable aspects of Fuseli's works are the margins — as in these pictures, there are frequently the oddest bits of detail and grotesque inspiration wrought in miniature around the edges of his paintings. Some of the fairies in Titania and Bottom, for example, are truly weird.

The Nightmare is arguably one of Fuseli's most recognizable works at the moment. Disturbing as many of his pictures are, it seems to turn up as the covers and headpieces for books and magazine articles on mental illness and such. It's unlikely that Fuseli himself would have favored this interpretation of his work. If you regard a larger catalog of Fuseli's pictures, it's a small leap of imagination to appreciate that the artist just had a dark, engagingly twisted imagination, and the rare skill to give it life on canvas.

In whatever afterlife exists for artists, Fuseli is no doubt greatly relieved that he lived before the age of analysis and Prozac.

by Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833 — 1898)

One of the central figures in pre-Raphaelite painting, Edward Burne-Jones created some of the truly memorable pictures of the period. He drew inspiration from mythological and classical sources — he was influenced by his friend and fellow medievalist William Morris, and many of his works illustrate images from Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur and other legends of Camelot. The figures in his paintings are starkly real, rather than being merely icons from old stories. He's a master of painting faces on people that suggest deep and complex personalities.

Edward Burne-Jones lived most of his life in England, although he traveled to France and later to Italy. There's a sort of darker shadow of Lawrence Alma-Tadema in many of his paintings — the wraithlike women that Alma-Tadema would paint before Italianate columns and arches appear in some of Edward Burne-Jones' works, their features more resolved and their expressions rather more dark and disturbing.

While his work is not as well known today as that of some of his contemporaries, Edward Burne-Jones was immensely popular in his day. It was fashionable in the 1870's and 1880's for women in London to emulate the appearance of the characters in his paintings, attiring themselves in flowing dresses. Edward Burne-Jones himself appears to have ignored much of his own fame, his interests largely on his painting. His popularity did bring him numerous private commissions, and allowed him to paint some of his most ambitious works.

The Three Graces isn't particularly representative of Edward Burne-Jones' work — it's almost a sketch, rather than a finished painting, and lacks the brooding, mythic quality of many of his pictures. In another sense, however, it's a distillation of his portrayal of women. Immediately human and at the same time other-worldly, they speak wordlessly of a time when such virtues might be embodied in flesh.

I confess that it appeals to me for this page specifically in that it seems also to speak of a world wherein grace was not immediately equated with repression and synthetic modesty.

The Beguiling of Merlin, while lacking even a hint of indecency in the strictest fuming martyr sense, is arguably among the best of Burne-Jones pictures. It illustrates both his distinctive style and his breathtaking command of the medium of canvas and paint. It's an Arthurian subject, a popular body of influence at the time Burne-Jones was painting, but it lacks the superficial Victorian pop-culture presentation that a great deal of Arthurian interpretation was inflicted with at the time.

Merlin is being beguiled by Nimue, a lady of the lake in the tradition of Arthurian romances. She's just cast a spell upon Merlin, who's tangled in a hawthorn bush and is powerless to resist her. While it's a bit hard to make out in this scan, Nimue has Merlin's book of spells in her hand, from which she presumably intends to read and summon forth something she oughtn't.

Burne-Jones habitually drew a great number of preliminary sketches for his works, and this one is responsible for more than most. The Beguiling of Merlin took him nine years to complete. His mistress, Maria Zambaco, was the model for Nimue. Readers disappointed by the generally decent tenor of this picture may be comforted to note that Burne-Jones did many of his preliminary sketches of nude models — one such drawing for The Beguiling of Merlin survives in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University.

by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 — 1882)

Rossetti seems to be enjoying a renaissance at the moment — while Venus Verticordia has yet to appear as the cover of a romance novel, many of his other works have done so. The distinctively sensuous features of the women he painted will probably be familiar — or in many respects, of the woman he painted.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the founders of the original pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, a secret society of artists, in 1848. His painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin is the first work to include the then-mysterious initials "PRB." The ideals of the original pre-Raphaelites were to paint the sensuous, tangible reality that they saw, rather than the frozen, iconic images which were popular in accepted art circles at the time.

Something of a medievalist, Rossetti published translations of several of the works of his namesake, the fourteenth century Italian poet Dante Alighieri, including La Vita Nuova. The distinctive style of his later paintings suggests the early Italian artists.

Most of the Rossetti paintings with which we are familiar came later in his life, after 1853, when the original brotherhood had disbanded. His wife, Elizabeth Siddal, died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862. She's perhaps best remembered as the model for John Everett Millais's painting Ophelia. Rossetti's life fell into an ongoing cycle of drugs and alcohol, and his household was an icon of domestic disorder. He had affairs with a number of his models. Among other things, his personal zoo is legendary, including owls, wombats, parrots and peacocks, among others.

The first of his wombats, named Top, was a frequent guest at his dinner table, where it habitually fell asleep in the centerpiece. Top is believed to have been the inspiration for the character of the dormouse in Lewis Carroll's book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

In 1872 he tried unsuccessfully to end his own life.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's later works are singular and distinctive. Most of the pictures for which he's famous are of a single woman, Jane Morris, the wife of William Morris. She's seen here as Proserpine — Rossetti usually painted her as an ethereal goddess, quite removed from the sensual, erotic depictions of his other lovers. She stares darkly from innumerable canvasses, ineffable and silent and yet as intensely human as any subject of a painting might be.

by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 — 1905)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau was a student of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He completed over eight hundred pictures during his lifetime. Like Rossetti, he seems to be enjoying a rebirth in his popularity of late, although a somewhat anonymous one. His painting The Birth of Venus, illustrated here, is frequently seen in reproduction, but it's rare indeed to find someone who knows the name of the artist responsible for it.

Bouguereau owes some degree of his later obscurity to his opposition to the early impressionist movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. His later works were increasingly ignored by a public taken by the newer styles of painting.

As an aside, The Birth of Venus is also available as a set of paper dolls, allowing the central figure in the painting to be clothed in a number of contemporary fashions. No foolin'. William-Adolphe is probably planning to have himself reincarnated as a hand grenade so he can be mailed to the perpetrators.

One of the remarkable things about Bouguereau's work is the variety of techniques and perspectives he brought to his paintings — or perhaps this isn't as remarkable as it seems, his having wrought so many pictures. For example, while it's hard to see here, Nymphs and Satyr embodies a remarkable technique, giving it an almost transparent appearance. Bouguereau was capable of applying his talents equally effectively to lusty mythical creations like these as he was to images of family life and children that could bring tears to the eyes of anyone short of a politician.

Bouguereau is also credited with persuading a number of French art schools to admit women for the first time — as students, rather than models — including the Académie Française.

While it's likely that Bouguereau was aware of the revolution in painting in England at the time he was working, it would be improper to suggest that his work qualifies as being pre-Raphaelite. I'm not sure he'd appreciate the comparison. What he does have in common with Rossetti, Burne-Jones and the others is his superb technique wrought upon mythical subjects. The characters in his pictures are starkly human — in gazing at The Birth of Venus it's no great leap of imagination to see the girl at its center come to life and dance unselfconsciously for the assemblage of lovers around her.

I would imagine that pictures like these must be the stuff of censors' nightmares — wanton, sexual, pagan and wrought by someone who can't be interviewed on Frontline. I have both these paintings in reproduction hanging before me as I write this, and I wonder how anyone can regard them as being indecent. Christians have a lot to answer for. As an aside, of all the painters that these small scans don't do justice to, Bouguereau probably fares the worst. Perhaps his works have the most to lose. In any case, several of his pictures are available in really exemplary reproductions at the moment — for about the cost of dinner and a movie you can own one of them for a lifetime.

by William Rimmer (1816 — 1879)

William Rimmer is one of history's more obscure painters, but I like him. He's also my great-great-great-uncle — someone has to keep the family name alive. Thanks to Tarkus for e-mailing me this scan, whoever Tarkus might be.

William Rimmer was a self-taught painter, and he had an eye for the details of anatomy. In addition to painting, he was a gifted sculptor. His sculpture is monumentally heroic. At various times in his life, he practiced medicine, worked as a shoemaker and painted signs, as well. He taught art on and off for most of his life, and wrote two books, Elements of Design and Art Anatomy, which are still in use today.

The only reference work I've found about William Rimmer was a booklet published by the Whitney Museum of Arts in 1947, something of a family heirloom. It says of William Rimmer "He wished to paint Eve as God made her, but since his picture was intended for paid show in Boston and the year was 1839, she was draped. Someone remarked her drapery looked like a doormat. 'It ought to,' growled Rimmer, 'it was painted from one.' " The spirit of the Communications Decency Act clearly predates the Internet by a good century and a half.

Sadly, none of William Rimmer's female nudes made it to the Whitney Museum's booklet, perhaps for obvious reasons. I'm told that his work lives on in a somewhat modified version of this picture that appears as the logo of a record label founded by the band Led Zeppelin.

Evening or the Fall of Day depicts the god Apollo rising from the earth at sunset — pretty much everyone who sees it seems to think it's Icarus, an angel or various christian devils.

Many of William Rimmer's pictures are of combatants — Roman warriors were a popular subject for artists when he lived, but he had a gift for capturing not only the images but the sweat and entrails of battlefields and gladiatorial arenas. His pictures are capable of either transporting you back to those barbaric times or making you grateful that you chose a career in merchant banking, as the case may be.

I consider Flight and Pursuit to be the most evocative of William Rimmer's pictures, as well as his most intriguing. The foreground figure is typical of one of his protagonists, muscular and detailed. His pursuer is somewhat more metaphorical, in that he's translucent. The intricate architecture behind him is faintly visible through his body, suggesting that the fellow being chased is running from something other than a man.

—Steven William Rimmer
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