ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 9, Number 2 (July 2012)

Notes on the Idea of “L’illusion vitale

Paul O'Mahoney

(Dublin, Ireland)

For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow (Ecclesiastes 1:18).

Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better (Ecclesiastes 7: 3).

I. Introduction
The concept of the “vital illusion” occupies a central place in Baudrillard’s thought. Often, when he employs it, he nods to its being originally a Nietzschean theme, often extending it when directly invoking Nietzsche to “the vital illusion of appearances”. The sentiment the phrase intends to express is easily comprehensible to anyone familiar with Nietzsche’s work; but, English academics are more likely to associate the phrase and idea with Baudrillard than with the thinker from whom he adopts it. As quickly becomes clear enough to anyone relatively familiar with Francophone scholarship, the phrase l’illusion vitale is commonly used in French criticism to refer to Nietzsche’s position, even as a kind of shorthand for a set of related ideas or principles. A single example will suffice to demonstrate its popular currency: an author writing quite recently, on E.M. Cioran, does not hesitate to insist that Cioran’s political position had to be understood as a transposition of the Nietzschean concept of “the vital illusion” into the political realm; it is there explained as: “the idea according to which the masses would not be up to assuming any part of the intellectual responsibility implied by the emptiness of modern beliefs, and would therefore perpetually be seen in search of newfangled values (valeurs inédites) to which to adhere” (David 2006: 169). He also differentiates Cioran’s position vis-à-vis the political role of literature from Sartre’s by suggesting that the former, owing to his political experiences, believed that if one wished to sacrifice to absolute values or convictions, it could only be from the point of view of the Nietzschean “vital illusion”, and therefore at an essentially aesthetic level (ibid., 110).

One finds in English scholarship no comparable popular recourse to “vital illusion”. If the phrase illusion vitale were directly derived from Nietzsche, one might reasonably expect such. In a German article of Baudrillard’s entitled “Das Perfekte Verbrechen”—as listed on the European Graduate School website, it is apparently the title essay of the German collection of the same name, but it seems quite a different essay to that available in Le Crime Parfait—two notable phrases occur. Baudrillard writes there of the radical illusion which resists the perfect crime, or the attempt to verify the world, to attain absolute truth and the identity of each thing with itself; and as examples of irreducible gaps that constitute this resistance he points out that language never means exactly what one wishes it to mean, and that a person is never entirely identical with himself. The whole of the “life energy” [Lebensenergie] derives from this fact, that things are never entirely identical with themselves. This fact preserves the illusion of the world, and Baudrillard writes: “Es ist die ‘vitale Illusion’, von der Nietzsche spricht”—it is “the ‘vital illusion’ of which Nietzsche speaks”. A few sentences later, the same phenomenon is described by the term lebenswichtige Illusion. This latter phrase recurs toward the end of the essay. There, Baudrillard writes that there persists some mystery in every being, which has nothing to do with transcendence, but with “that vital illusion of which we have spoken” [(jene) lebenswichtigen Illusion, von der wir gesprochen haben] (Baudrillard 1996; cf. 2000: 80-81).

What Baudrillard has in mind is obviously the Nietzschean illusion vitale which he so often invokes. Now, neither the phrase die/eine vitale Illusion nor die/eine lebenswichtige Illusion occur in Nietzsche. Thus, if the phrase is not taken directly in this form from Nietzsche, but is common in Nietzsche scholarship and obviously not Baudrillard’s coinage (meaning both die vitale Illusion and die lebenswichtige Illusion must be translations of the French phrase), from where might it be adopted?

II. The Problem
It is first worth clarifying to what the “vital illusion” refers. The word ‘vital’ must be read in the most literal sense. Nietzsche’s position is that, without the saving power of illusion, certain truths would overwhelm and drive to despair, and consequently to self-destruction or dangerous behaviour, the majority of men—the majority being assumedly too weak to bear the implications of these deadly truths. The first full elaboration of the idea in Nietzsche’s work is one of the most famous; in Untimely Meditations II.9 he writes:

If...the doctrines of sovereign becoming, of the fluidity of all concepts, types and species, of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal – doctrines which I consider true but deadly [Lehren, die ich für wahr, aber für tödtlich halte] – are thrust upon the people for another generation with the rage for instruction that has by now become normal, no one should be surprised if the people perishes of petty egoism, ossification and greed, falls apart and ceases to be a people; in its place systems of individualist egoism, brotherhoods for rapacious exploitation of non-brothers, and similar creations of utilitarian vulgarity may perhaps appear in the arena of the future (Nietzsche 2003: 112-13).

Earlier in the book, Nietzsche suggests the “motto” of history (or historiography) is fiat veritas, pereat vita: “let there be truth, though life perish” (ibid: 77-8). He calls the motto both dangerous and bold, and links it to the doctrine of universal becoming. Were history’s motto adopted by those charged with communicating with common men, this suggests, a people would quickly cease to be a people. If this might be considered the locus classicus for Nietzsche’s assertion of the deadliness of certain truths, which necessitate a vital illusion of appearances in order to be borne, an equally famous passage sets out the indebtedness to art as a will to illusion, one that is in fact prior to the will to truth, and without which the despair of being disillusioned by science would drive many thinking men to suicide; section 107 of The Gay Science (the final section of Book II) begins:

Our ultimate gratitude to art.— If we had not welcomed the arts and invented this kind of cult of the untrue, then the realization of general untruth and mendaciousness that now comes to us through science—the realization that delusion and error are conditions of human knowledge and sensation [Einsicht in den Wahn und Irrtum als in eine Bedingung des erkennenden und empfindenden Daseins]—would be utterly unbearable. Honesty would lead to nausea and suicide. But now there is a counterforce against our honesty that helps us to avoid such consequences: art as the good will to appearance (Nietzsche 1974: 163).

The Henri Albert translation of the passage renders “the realization that delusion and error are conditions of human knowledge and sensation” as “cette comprehension de l’illusion et de l’erreur comme conditions du monde intellectuel et sensible” and the final phrase “art as the good will to appearance” as “l’art, en tant que bonne volonté de l’illusion” (Nietzsche, trans. Albert 1901: 158). It thus places an emphasis on illusion which does not correspond to a use of “Illusion” in Nietzsche’s German (the final phrase is “die Kunst, als den guten Willen zum Scheine”). In § 110, meanwhile, Nietzsche claims that the force of knowledge depends not on its truth but on its ancientness, the degree of its acceptance or assimilation, and its status as what Albert renders “[une] condition vitale” (ibid., 164). A very closely related passage which makes much the same point is Beyond Good and Evil § 4; there it is alleged that “error is a condition of life”—and that to dare to avow such suffices to place a philosophy beyond good and evil. Again, in Albert’s translation we find this condition of life rendered as condition vitale: “Avouer que le mensonge est une condition vitale, c’est là, certes, s’opposer de dangereuse façon aux évaluations habituelles; et il suffirait à une philosophie de l’oser pour se placer ainsi par de là le bien et le mal” (Nietzsche, trans. Albert, 1903: 16). For each occurrence of condition vitale, the term in Nietzsche’s original is Lebensbedingung—which also occurs in the plural form in Beyond Good and Evil §§ 62, 268, 276.

These passages suffice to illustrate this particular Nietzschean theme; any able reader directed to them will by consultation of the original understand what the phrase l’illusion vitale is intended to capture. But while they illustrate it excellently, nowhere in them does the precise wording appear. Indeed, the phrase does not seem to figure anywhere in Albert’s Nietzsche translations. Nor is it in Lichtenberger’s study of Nietzsche’s philosophy, published the same year as Albert’s Zarathustra. These translations, which introduced Nietzsche to his first generation of French readers, cannot account for its origin.

The prominence of the phrase in Francophone criticism bears comparison with another Nietzschean phrase occasionally employed by Baudrillard, which merits brief discussion: arrière-mondes, or ‘backworlds’. Again, its popularity is such that it has passed beyond Nietzsche criticism and become a regular feature of philosophical discussion. This certainly can be traced to Albert. Arrière-mondes originates as a translation of a Nietzschean coinage; the third of Zarathustra’s discourses is titled “Von den Hinterweltlern”, or “Of the Backworldsmen”. Albert’s Ainsi parlait Zarathoustra, published in 1892, translates it as “Des hallucinés de l’arrière-monde”, “On the Hallucinators of the Hinterworld”. When Maurice Betz came to revise Albert’s translation for his 1936 edition, he apparently baulked at the literal translation, giving it an explanatory gloss as “Des visionnaires de l’au-déla”, “Visionaries of the Beyond”. Despite this revision, which explains the meaning of Hinterweltler, Albert’s rendering, being first on the scene and serving to popularise Nietzsche’s idea in France, achieved canonicity there, ensuring that Hinterwelt, the “backworld” or world beyond, would enter popular discourse as arrière-monde. The English translation of this section by Thomas Common, published in 1911, which updated the first translation by Alexander Tille from 1896, titled the section quite simply, in an accurate translation, “Backworldsmen” (Tille similarly had “Of Back-Worlds-Men”). Kaufmann, in his celebrated study of Nietzsche, calls Common’s translation as a whole “particularly inaccurate”, adding that it nevertheless “held the field until 1954” (Kaufmann 1974: 492)—the year Kaufmann’s own full translation in The Portable Nietzsche was published. The English “field” was thereafter dominated by the translations of two of the men who did most to popularise Nietzsche in English after the war, Kaufmann’s and that of R.J. Hollingdale. Kaufmann’s own translation of the section’s title is “Of the Afterworldly”; Hollingdale (1961) opts for “Of the Afterworldsmen”. It is perhaps owing to the influence of these translators that “backworlds” and “backworldsmen” have lacked any great currency in Anglophone criticism. More recent translators have opted against such glossing and restored something of the original coinage: Graham Parkes’ translation (2005) offers “On Believers in a World Behind”, while Adrian del Caro’s (2006) has “On the Hinterworldly”. Though Albert’s translations do not provide an origin for illusion vitale, the story of the popular adoption of arrière-monde owing to its early appearance setting a tone for the reception of Nietzsche in France perhaps provides a clue about where to search for one.

III. The Phrase
As Baudrillard’s German article suggests, a German phrase antecedent to the French illusion vitale should either be vitale Illusion or lebenswichtige Illusion. These do not seem to figure in German criticism however. A reader of the English translation of Eugen Fink’s Nietzsches Philosophie will find the claim: “According to Nietzsche art, the vital illusion which seduces us towards life, is in the grip of metaphysics and religious illusions” (Fink 2003: 40). This translation probably shows the influence of the French tradition, however. The term in Fink’s original (first published in 1960) is Lebensillusion (1979: 49), a term which I do not believe occurs either in Nietzsche’s books or published notebooks. Rather interestingly, Karen Horney uses the term “lebenswichtigen Illusionen” near the end of “Das Mißtrauen zwischen den Geschlechtern” (Horney 1930: 535). The particular passage seems to have been omitted in the translation “The Distrust Between the Sexes” in Feminine Psychology (Horney 1994: 117-8). Horney’s essay however has no mention of Nietzsche.

That French tradition of Nietzsche interpretation—or as one chronicler of the reception puts it, the “Nietzsche vogue” in France—goes back to Nietzsche’s own lifetime, though unfortunately for Nietzsche, only to his unproductive and ecstasy-blasted last decade. Though the first article of length written on Nietzsche seems to have been by Paul Lanzky in late 1884 (in a “provincial Hungarian journal”, by a man Nietzsche assessed, or dismissed, as “in summa, a journalist”; Kaufmann 1974: 463), and the first lectures on his thought were delivered by Georg Brandes in Copehagen in 1888 (ibid., 4), Nietzsche’s popularity in France at the turn of the last century was probably greater than in any other European country. His influence on Gide, for example, is well attested in the latter’s journals (though they reveal he evidently had a low opinion of Also Sprach Zarathustra), and evident even in the title of L’immoraliste (1902). Much has been written about the general reception of Nietzsche in France in the early part of the twentieth century: the studies of Schrift (1995), Smith (1996), Le Rider (1999) and Forth (2001) provide overviews of the subject.

One of those who helped determine the reception of and response to Nietzsche was Charles Andler (like Baudrillard, a Germanist whose early tastes and interpretations brought him into conflict with academic examiners), whose six-volume study of Nietzsche’s life and work (Paris: Brossard, 1920-31) did much to popularise the latter’s philosophy. Andler travelled to Weimar as early as 1904 to meet with Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. Förster-Nietzsche, with whom “Andler eut des rapports polis” (Tonnelat, 1937: 153), accommodated his requests for documents relating to her brother. Andler had originally intended to publish three volumes, and hoped to have the first two finished and in print (with Félix Alcan, who published Lichtenberger’s 1892 study of Nietzsche) before the end of 1913 (ibid., 165). The first was to be titled Les Précurseurs de Nietzsche, as it would eventually be, but the other two prospective titles (so Tonnelat reports) are uncertain (ibid., 164). As it happened, the Great War apparently delayed and possibly led to some rethinking of the project. The first volume had gone to press “at the hour of the Battle the Marne” in 1914. Upon publication it was dedicated by Andler to a colleague at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and to former students at the École normale supérieure and Sorbonne, all Germanists killed in the war (cf. Wenley 1921: 499).

In treating of Nietzsche’s precursors, Andler includes a discussion of Friedrich Schiller. The most profound affinity between the two Andler identifies as a pessimism concerning knowledge, or its potential to liberate; instead of a commonly accepted view (perhaps the secularised version of the sentiment “Seek the truth, and the truth shall set you free” of John 8:32), rather the question arises whether it is not irresponsible, even criminal, to seek, or more precisely to propagate, the naked truth; to present human life “dévoilée” (Andler 1920: 44-5). Andler quotes lines 59-60 of Schiller’s “Kassandra”: “Nur der Irrtum ist das Leben/Und das Wissen ist der Tod”: “Error alone is life/And knowledge is death”. Schiller’s imagining of a Cassandra who, as Andler has it, “already hears the footstep of a destructive god” is one of the fabular images which illustrate a conviction in the life-destroying nature of truth, particularly scientific truth (the two lines prior to those quoted in Schiller’s poem use the same metaphor of unveiling). In Andler’s clarification, we encounter the key phrase:

Mais ces affabulations imagées ont pour mission, chez Schiller, d’illustrer une doctrine à laquelle il reste fidèle depuis sa jeunesse. La vérité sur le monde et sur la société, si nous la connaissions toute, détruirait en nous l’illusion vitale. Il serait à craindre que la majorité des hommes, imprégnée de cette science, n’abdiquât la vie. C’est cela précisément qui a été le tourment de Nietzsche à l’époque où il se demandait quelles conséquences lointaines résulteraient d’une liberté absolue de l’esprit. Et il a conclu, comme Schiller, que la science ne donnerait à la majorité des hommes que désespoir (ibid., 46)

But these imagined fables have with Schiller the purpose of illustrating a doctrine to which he remains faithful from his youth. The truth about the world and society, if we understood it wholly, would destroy in us the vital illusion. It would be something to be feared that the majority of men, imbued with this science [i.e., that which destroys illusions], would quit life. It was precisely this problem which tormented Nietzsche at the time he posed to himself the question of the distant consequences which would result from absolute freedom of the spirit. And he concluded, like Schiller, that science would bequeath to the majority of men only despair.

This is the earliest occurrence of the phrase of which I am aware. The subject is one which Andler identifies as central to Nietzsche’s concerns; indeed, the problem “tormented” him, and the life-giving power of illusion, particularly illusion qua art, Andler proposes and frequently reiterates as a mainstay of Nietzsche’s philosophy. In the third volume, Nietzsche’s first “system” is called “the philosophy of illusion” (Andler 1921b: 172ff.). This is reinforced for Andler by Nietzsche’s reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus, whose punishments follow on his display of wisdom: wisdom, it seems, is a crime against the natural order. “Such is the meaning of this myth as interpreted by Sophocles. The Sophoclean tragedy is a doctrine of illusion [enseignement de l’illusion]” (ibid., 59). This is reminiscent of a phrase which recurs in the second volume—dealing with Nietzsche’s youth until the break with Wagner at Bayreuth—which holds that tragedy raises the question of “salutary illusions” [illusions salutaires]. For example, tragedy died of the “frankness” of Euripides; the question arises, then, as to whether this frankness was a vice. “One is always led back to this alternative which imposes on us a choice between salutary illusion and truth” (Andler 1921a: 203; cf. 301). The “salutary illusion” or the beneficial lie (mensonge bienfaisant, shades of the Platonic gennaion pseudos), in which, we are told, Nietzsche’s Leipzig and Basel colleagues Erwin Rohde and Franz Overbeck also believed, for Nietzsche could only be art (ibid., 376; cf. Lichtenberger 1892: 141-9). The same general analysis of Nietzsche’s first “system” as a “philosophy of illusion” (formulated at roughly the period after The Birth of Tragedy, when Nietzsche was studying and lecturing on ancient rhetoric, and writing the eventually abandoned series of essays that the editor Holzer later titled Das Philosophenbuch) had been set forth by Andler in an earlier article, which likewise emphasised the crucial role of art in creating new illusions to replace aging myths or dead religions (Andler 1909).

Elsewhere it is said that Nietzsche recognised that if the moderns had surpassed the Greeks, it was in enlightenment, in Socratic critique and in knowledge; this surpassing is marked by a new attitude, which promotes education not as a salutary illusion but as an efficient force for truth (Andler 1921b: 293). Andler also reminds that for Nietzsche, traditional ideas still possess force and appear true to us because “their ancientness is like a gauge of their vital efficacy [efficacité vitale]. They spare us the pain of dangerous, trial-and-error groping [du tâtonnement dangereux] in the shadows” (Andler 1922: 40); he quotes the lines from the opening speech of Byron’s Manfred “on which the adolescent Nietzsche meditated” (and which no doubt recall the Ecclesiast): “Sorrow is knowledge: They who know the most/Must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth/The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life” (ibid., 41).

The illusion salutaire clearly seems a corollary of the illusion vitale, which is a deeper or more fundamental phenomenon, a constitutive experience of human life and a condition of its successful continuance. Andler’s use of the latter phrase, which as mentioned does not appear to occur in a directly translatable way in Nietzsche (at least, neither as the vitale Illusion nor the lebeswichtige Illusion employed by Baudrillard, nor as Lebensillusion, lebeswichtige Wahn, Lebenswahn, or any similar phrase), is the earliest instance of the phrase I have encountered. Whether Andler’s book is its precise origin (and the study was very influential), it is clear enough that it took hold very early in Nietzsche scholarship in France, quickly gaining a popular currency which continues, and which has no corresponding use in Anglophone criticism. 

IV. Epilogue
A few corollary remarks, perhaps a little off-point but of interest, and which may underline the influence of Andler, may conclude. As always, research into the twentieth century intellectual history of France reveals strange cross-currents, coincidences and tantalising suggestions of influence. One interesting connection worth mentioning here, given the influence Mauss’s studies of gift exchange and cycles of obligation had on Baudrillard’s thought, is that Mauss’s short essay “Gift-Gift” was originally written for a 1924 Festschrift for Andler (Schrift: 151 n. 7), about the same time his masterpiece Essai sur le don appeared in L’Année Sociologique. Jean Giradoux, meanwhile, was a student of Andler’s at the Ecole normale supérieure—whose play La guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu of course furnished the template title for the first of Baudrillard’s Gulf War essays published in Libération on January 4th 1991.

Finally, an odd note: there exists a book, presumably a play, by Robert Télin, published in 1919, titled L’illusion vitale: pièce en trois actes (Paris: L’Hexagramme). I can obtain no information on the book’s content, and a search of the online Bibliotheque Nationale de France catalogue suggests it is not stocked there, though three of Télin’s texts are. [Editor’s note: Perhaps one of our readers solve this mystery?]


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© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2012)

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