Les Miz From A New Perspective
From the Feature Story at http://www.plumbingengineer.com/. Great take on Victor Hugo’s great book. Look out, here comes Jean Valjean with Inspector Javert of the RWQCB right behind him.
The Intestine of Leviathan: a philosophy of the sewer
By Dan Cole
The first and only time I have come across any kind of a philosophical treatment of the sewer was when I read Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Initially, I read it with amusement, figuring that only in a book with such a title would one find this subject matter and that it was only there to prepare the reader for Jean Valjean's great escape.
Yet, in revisiting the story, I began to realize that Hugo is indeed offering to the reader a serious philosophy of the sewer. As a literary artist, Victor Hugo strings metaphor with metaphor to link the reader to a philosophical view of what the sewer means for civilization, as well as for the individual. Hugo uses Hobbes's metaphoric Leviathan as the proper name for the commonwealth and applies it to the city of Paris. Leviathan's intestine refers to the network of sewers inside the "gut" of the city. Although philosophy arises out of history, it abstracts from history a timeless/transcendent meaning and significance. We wish to unpack this abstraction and see what meaning and significance Victor Hugo sees in the sewer and whether it still speaks to us today.
The sewer is a mistake.This is Hugo's axiological claim of the sewer: It is a mistake. The fault lies in the disrupting effect the sewer has on the human and agricultural life cycle, in which excrement plays a vital part. To the urbanized reader, this will sound quite bizarre, because he has been preconditioned by a post-modern philosophy of the sewer. Being removed from the life of agriculture and having lost a natural instinct of crops, cattle and soil, the urban dweller thinks nothing of the sewer. It is out of sight and out of mind (until it backs up). To him it represents everything unclean and foul that is to be removed from his social environment through this conduit. This philosophy sees excrement as detritus (waste, trash) and readily identifies with Hugo's picturesque adjectives of "heaps of garbage," "tumbrels of mire" and "fetid streams of subterranean slime."
Hugo's philosophical perspective sees excrement as residuum (surplus, product). He is instructing us in what the Chinese have known for centuries: namely, that the most effective manure is that of man. It yields a hundred and twenty-fold in crops. He further claims that if all the human and animal manure were restored to the land instead of being thrown into the water, it would suffice to nourish the world. This is no small claim. The residuum nutrients, stercoraries, are the wealth of nations. In an eloquent stream of metaphors this wealth is expressed as "the flowering meadow; it is the green grass; it is marjoram and thyme and sage; it is game; it is cattle, it is the satisfied low of huge oxen at evening; it is perfumed hay; it is golden corn; it is bread on your table; it is warm blood in your veins; it is health; it is joy; it is life." This is the cycle of life. The nutrients of the furrowed soil arise in the crops, which feed the cattle as well as people. The nutrients of the soil transform into the nutrients of the blood, bringing life to the body. Stercoraries are eliminated from the body to return to the ground and feed the soil. The nutrition of the plains makes the nourishment of man.
The sewer breaks this life chain and starves the soil. The very substance of the people is carried away by the vomiting of sewers into rivers and from the rivers to lakes and oceans. This is not without a price. By the late 19th century, Hugo reported that France liquidated hundreds of millions into the Atlantic every year and that each hiccough of cloacae costs a thousand francs.
The sewer, economically speaking, makes the city a leaky basket. The amount of leakage is comparable to a quarter amount of governmental expenses. Hence, what could be the public fortune is found in the sewer. The net effect is an impoverishing of land, causing hunger, and the infecting of water, causing disease.
Hugo does offer an alternative to the sewer with a cost effectiveness that would double the splendor of Paris. He had in mind a double-functioning drainage system, already operative in the villages of England at that time that would bring pure water from the fields into the city and send back into the fields the residuum of the city (what he calls the rich water).
The history of the sewer reflects the history of men. Hugo further impugns the sewer by comparing it to the historic Gemoniae. In the Annals of Tacitus, this was a flight of stairs where executions took place. Death was by strangulation, and the bodies were flung down the stairs to rot, scavenged by dogs and eventually thrown into the River Tiber. So, also, the sewers of Paris reflect a terrible history of death. Pestilence was born there and despots died there. Again, a litany of metaphors depicts this history of death for the sewer. The sewer "has been a sepulcher; it has been an asylum. Crime, intelligence, social protest, liberty of conscience, thought, theft, all that human laws pursue or have pursued, have hidden in this hole."
The history of death passes through the sewer. That which is poured on the ground filters down into the open channels of the sewer. Hugo thinks of the blood of the St. Bartholomew massacre, public assassinations, political and religious butcheries and the washing of bloody hands.
These social historic catastrophes are also embraced by the philosophy of the sewer. The sewer not only disrupts the cycle of life but also reproduces the city and, with the mire, reproduces its customs. It recognizes everything "finding in what remains what has been, the good, the ill, the false, the true, the stain of blood in the palace, the blot of ink in the cavern, the drop of grease in the brothel ... orgies spewed out ... the trace of prostitution ..."
As pointed out earlier, to the urbanite the sewer represents everything unclean and foul, and we do not like to think upon these things, for it reflects a dark side to human history.
The sewer is the conscience of the city. Emerging from this history of the sewer, Hugo discloses his moral philosophy of the sewer. Ethically, the sewer is a cynic in that it is painstakingly indifferent and tells all. As the conscience is the judgment seat for truth telling, the sewer is no liar and hides no secrets. The sewer declares what the individual tries to hide. It possesses the real and definitive form of human habit behind false appearances. The sewer is a place of confessing the secrets thrown away in it.
Such diversity of habits and customs can be found in the sewer. There is a stump of a bottle revealing drunkenness or a handle of a basket revealing domestic life. Within merges the spittle, the vomit, the fetus. The sewer is more of a recollection of vices than anything else is. Cigarette butts reveal the addiction to tobacco. Grease laden waste lines indicate the culprit behind the social problem of obesity. Sexual liaisons utilize the sewer to dispense the evidence of condoms. The sewer is the disposal port for unwanted or expired drugs. Sanitary napkins disclose the monthly menses. Almost anything imaginable has been discarded into the sewer, anything we wish never to see again or to be found out. Yet plumbers know.
As a conscience, the sewer reveals the dismal side of human habits and social behavior, divulging all their hidden secrets. These again are things that we do not wish to think upon.
The proposal of restitution The entrails of Paris had accumulated to 247,828 yards (140 miles) and had become such a maze that no man could succeed in guiding himself through its channels, until the boldest of all men approached Napoleon. The bold endeavor of Pierre-Emmanuel Bruneseau revolutionized the sewer during a seven-year span. This was needed, since the sewer was rebelling in several inundations. Hugo relates the 1802 inundation, when the mire spread to cover the curbstones to a depth of 14 inches, and the Rue Saint Pierre was covered to a depth of three feet over 261 yards.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Bruneseau revolution had left the sewer "neat, cold, straight, correct and respectable." (You can now take tours in the Parisian sewers). However, the miasma of cloacae affected the respiration of the city. Some of us who are near sewage treatment plants are aware of this unwholesome respiration from the sewer.
Hugo returns to his former proposal: Water needs to be employed to purify the air, i.e., to wash the sewer. By washing the sewer, Hugo means, "the restitution of the mire to the land; return of the muck to the soil and the manure to the fields. There will result, from this simple act, to the whole social community, a diminution of misery and an augmentation of health."
Victor Hugo's philosophy of the sewer evidences a strong environmental awareness, even as early as the late 19th century. In contemporary parlance, we call this awareness sustainable sanitation. A 2001publication entitled Toward Sustainable Sanitation (International Association of Impact Assessment, http://www.riles.org/TSS.pdf) claims that "the present approach to the disposal of human wastes - central collection and treatment of sewage - is unsustainable." The proposed answer is, once again, to restore the organic loop. However, the solution is much more difficult today than it would have been during the 19th century.
Even though underground sewers and treatment plants have reduced the pre-modern problems of pathogens and open-air sewage that caused the spread of sickness, restoring the sludge with such pathogens to agricultural soils may also restore the spread of disease. These pathogens are relatively short-lived, however, and eventually break down in the soils. The real problem is in the modern waste flows that have become "dirtier" than in centuries past.
This dirtier waste is the result of the industrial contaminants (toxic chemicals, heavy metals and pharmaceutical wastes) mixing with human waste, making recycling even more dangerous for agricultural fertilization. Because of this, today's system of sewers and treatment plants are inferior technologies for recycling human waste. One point of inferiority is the treatment plant's conversion of nitrogen to a gaseous form that is eliminated to the atmosphere. The elimination of nitrogen, the most important nutrient for plant growth, voids its potential use as recyclable fertilizer. Another point of the treatment plant's inferiority is that it is not designed for recycling, only for disposal. Hence, the EPA sludge standards are not high enough to entrust the sludge to our agricultural soils.
Herculean as these problems may be in a post-modern era seeking sanitation sustainability, strategies have been put forth to overcome. One strategy is to separate industrial waste from human waste altogether. This can be done by treating industrial waste at its source, before it enters the sanitary waste system. Another separation strategy is to treat domestic waste at its source. This can be accomplished by composting. SIRDO technology (Sistema Integral de reciclamiento de desechos orgánicos: Integrated System for Recycling Organic Wastes, http://www.sirdo.com.mx/) is an alternative waste collector system to provide safe biofertilizer by utilizing solar heating and bacteria.
Still, before we can even begin to consider sustainable solutions for sanitation, a paradigm shift will have to occur to instill a new philosophy of the sewer. The political and engineering communities (including LEED requirements that focus on water reductions and recycling but categorize nothing for sludge recycling for agricultural use) will have to embrace a philosophical world and life view that includes the natural earth and its agricultural life cycle inclusive of the organic loop of stercoraries. Human waste will need to be seen as residuum rather than detritus.
This paradigm shift also will need to occur in our moral consciences, since the sewer reveals more of our vices than our virtues. Preceding sustainable sanitation, a reform of habits and a return to virtue is necessary. A sustainable sewer ought to reproduce a green city; its mire ought to reproduce the customs of sound and wholesome living. As we clean up our habits, so also the sewer must be cleaned up.
The reclamation of our declining levels of organic matter is what the timeless/transcendent significance of the sewer is speaking to us today. Our present history is requiring this philosophy of us. If sanitation is to be sustainable, we need to correct what is, in Hugo's estimation, our mistake.