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The Old History of the Sewer

Tis a Season to Reap, and Tis a season to Sow, yet We cannot raise the cane and wheat back up when it’s in defeat. The Environment and eco system of the planet is a living breathing entity, fragile, tactile, Our support system, one that circles back to the ingress and egress of life, the intake and outtake, haute cuisine to the olde Septic system and the olde sewer.

Today let us turn to and consider the wisdom of a solution 200 years ago in France.

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If we imagine Paris removed like a cover, the subterranean network of sewers, regarded from a birds’-eye view, would represent on either bank a sort of large branch grafted upon the river. On the right bank the encircling sewer will be the trunk of this branch, the secondary tubes the branches, and the blind alleys the twigs. This figure is only summary and half correct, as the right angle, which is the usual angle in subterranean ramifications of this nature, is very rare in vegetation. Our readers will form a better likeness of this strange geometric plan by supposing that they see lying on a bed of darkness some strange Oriental alphabet as confused as a thicket, and whose shapeless letters are welded to each other in an apparent confusion, and as if accidentally, here by their angles and there by their ends. The sewers and drains played a great part in the Middle Ages, under the Lower Empire and in the old East. Plague sprang from them and despots died of it. The multitudes regarded almost with a religious awe these beds of corruption, these monstrous cradles of death. The vermin-ditch at Benares is not more fearful than the Lion’s den at Babylon. Tiglath-Pileser, according to the rabbinical books, swore by the sink of Nineveh. It was from the drain of Munster that John of Leyden produced his false moon, and it was from the cesspool-well of Kekhscheb that his Oriental menæchmus, Mokanna, the veiled prophet of Khorassan, brought his false sun.

The history of men is reflected in the history of the sewers, and the Gemoniæ narrated the story of Rome. The sewer of Paris is an old formidable thing, it has been a sepulchre, and it has been an asylum. Crime, intellect, the social protest, liberty of conscience, thought, robbery, all that human laws pursue or have pursued, have concealed themselves in this den,—the Maillotins in the fourteenth century, the cloak-stealers in the fifteenth, the Huguenots in the sixteenth, the illuminés of Morin in the seventeenth, and the Chauffeurs in the eighteenth. One hundred years ago the nocturnal dagger-issued from it, and the rogue in danger glided into it; the wood had the cave and Paris had the drain. The Truanderie, that Gallic picareria, accepted the drain as an annex of the Court of Miracles, and at night, cunning and ferocious, entered beneath the Maubuée vomitory as into an alcove. It was very simple that those who had for their place of daily toil the Vide-Gousset lane, or the Rue Coupe-Gorge, should have for their nightly abode the ponceau of the Chemin-Vert or the Hure-poix cagnard. Hence comes a swarm of recollections, all sorts of phantoms haunt these long solitary corridors, on all sides are putridity and miasma, and here and there is a trap through which Villon inside converses with Rabelais outside.

The sewer in old Paris is the meeting-place of all exhaustions and of all experiments; political economy sees there a detritus, and social philosophy a residuum. The sewer is the conscience of the city, and everything converges and is confronted there. In this livid spot there is darkness, but there are no secrets. Each thing has its true form, or at least its definitive form. The pile of ordure has this in its favor, that it tells no falsehood, and simplicity has taken refuge there. Basile’s mask is found there, but you see the pasteboard, the threads, the inside and out, and it is marked with honest filth. Scapin’s false nose is lying close by. All the uncleanlinesses of civilization, where no longer of service, fall into this pit of truth; they are swallowed up, but display themselves in it. This pell-mell is a confession: there no false appearance nor any plastering is possible, order takes off its shirt, there is an absolute nudity, a rout of illusions and mirage, and there nothing but what is assuming the gloomy face of what is finishing. Reality and disappearance. There a bottle-heel confesses intoxication, and a basket-handle talks about domesticity; there, the apple-core which has had literary opinions becomes once again the apple-core, the effigy on the double son grows frankly vert-de-grised, the saliva of Caiaphas meets the vomit of Falstaff, the louis-d’or which comes from the gambling-hell dashes against the nail whence hangs the end of the suicide’s rope, a livid fœtus rolls along wrapped in spangles, which danced last Shrove Tuesday at the opera, a wig which has judged men wallows by the side of a rottenness which was Margotton’s petticoat: it is more than fraternity, it is the extremest familiarity. All that painted itself is bedaubed, and the last veil is torn away. The sewer is a cynic and says everything. This sincerity of uncleanliness pleases us and reposes the mind. When a man has spent his time upon the earth in enduring the great airs assumed by state reasons, the oath, political wisdom, human justice, professional probity, the austerities of the situation, and incorruptible robes, it relieves him to enter a sewer and see there the mire which suits it.

It is instructive at the same time, for, as we said just now, history passes through the sewer. St. Bartholomew filters there drop by drop through the paving-stones, and great public assassinations, political and religious butcheries, traverse this subterranean way of civilization, and thrust their corpses into it. For the eye of the dreamer all historical murderers are there, in the hideous gloom, on their knees, with a bit of their winding-sheet for an apron, and mournfully sponging their task. Louis XI. is there with Tristan, Francis I. is there with Duprat, Charles IX. is there with his mother, Richelieu is there with Louis XIII., Louvois is there, Letellier is there, Hubert and Maillard are there, scratching the stones, and trying to efface the trace of their deeds. The brooms of these spectres can be heard under these vaults, and the enormous fetidness of social catastrophes is breathed there. You see in corners red flashes, and a terrible water flows there in which blood-stained hands have been washed.

The social observer should enter these shadows, for they form part of his laboratory. Philosophy is the microscope of thought; everything strives to fly from it, but nothing escapes it. Tergiversation is useless, for what side of himself does a man show in tergiversating? His ashamed side. Philosophy pursues evil with its upright glance, and does not allow it to escape into nothingness. It recognizes everything in the effacement of disappearing things, and in the diminution of vanishing things. It reconstructs the purple after the rags, and the woman after the tatters. With the sewer it re-makes the town; with the mud it re-makes manners. It judges from the potsherds whether it were an amphora or an earthenware jar. It recognizes by a nail-mark on a parchment the difference which separates the Jewry of the Juden-gasse from the Jewry of the Ghetto. It finds again in what is left what has been,—the good, the bad, the false, the true, the patch of blood in the palace, the ink-stain of the cavern, the tallow-drop of the brothel, trials undergone, temptations welcome, orgies vomited up, the wrinkle which characters have formed in abasing themselves, the traces of prostitution in the souls whose coarseness rendered them capable of it, and on the jacket of the street-porters of Rome the mark of the nudge of Messalina

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