Drainage on my mind…

December 10, 2008


The other night, I caught the tail end of a special on the The History Channel called “The Sewers of London.”  Wow, that must have drawn quite an audience…but I was watching.  It described the horrors of cholera and typhus in London before the scientists had sorted out the causes of these scourges.  The miasma theory (infection borne by odor) which was wrong, but which nevertheless motivated great public works that led to spectacular gains in public health, dominated the medical establishment.

The Great Stink of the the mid-19th century in London arose from raw sewage dumped right into the Thames, the source of the city’s drinking water.  The theory of water-borne disease was not accepted, and Pasteur’s germ theory was not developed yet.  Get the stink away and the cholera will leave – it was common sense!

bazelgetteEnter Mr. Bazelgette, heroic engineer of the Victorian Age.  (Alas, we  have these giants  no more!)   He built a huge gravity drainage system that directed the city’s sanitary waste to two large pumping stations, from which it was lifted into giant holding reservoirs.  (They must have been a frightful sight when full!)  When the tide on the Thames was going out to sea, the reservoirs were emptied into the river, and the sewage was carried downstream, away from the city.  “The solution to pollution is dilution,” as they say in the engineering world.  Today, the beautiful Thames Embankment, imitated the world over, including in New York City’s Battery Park developments, sits on top of the massive gravity sewers designed by Mr. B.

londondrain1 thames_embankment

Around the same time, Doctor Snow made his famous map, dear to epidemiologists and cartographers, that showed the incidence of cholera in a neighborhood he studied.  He inferred correctly that the cases were all linked to the snow_mapsource of their drinking water, a local pump.  To test his notion, he dared to remove the handle (take note, Mr. Dylan) and the frequency of cholera deaths in the area dropped suddenly.  Case closed!  Disease is carried by…something…in the water, not by smell!

Which brings us to Alida Valli, the woman at the head of this post, the love interest of Harry Lyme (Orson Welles) who meets his ignominious end in the sewers of post-war Vienna in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man. I heard about this film from my mother, at a very young, formative age. Was I, perhaps, conditioned by what Pynchon calls the “Mother Conspiracy, ” just as poor Slothrop was? Is that why I now make my living fiddling with drainage systems and subterranean infrastructure? Well, leaving aside my hydraulic-psychoanalytics(and Freud was, I recall, very fond of hydraulic metaphors) it’s a great film.  And if you think I’m the only one who spins strange associations off of this film, read this appreciation of Ms. Valli.

I recently saw Valli in another film, Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case, a not-so-great film in which she plays a wonderful femme fatale. Yep, she did it, she get’s hanged.  The film’s location shot of the court struck me as it showed the corner blasted away from a bombing raid – it was shot in 1947.

And on the subject of sewers and culture, check out:

  • He Walked by Night – Richard Basehart kills and is killed in this Los Angels noir featuring a climax in the storm sewers
  • V by Thomas Pynchon – Benny Profane searches for the albino alligator rumored to lurk within the New York system
  • Need I say it, Les Miserables, which includes an entire chapter devoted to the history and importance of the Paris sewers, and includes some deprecatory words on the modern ones
  • Various memoirs of the Warsaw Ghetto – hiding and escaping in sewers was common
  • Adolf Loos’ emphasis on plumbing as the standard by which civilizations are to be judged
  • Gibson’s novel featuring The Stink, The Difference Engine

There are other items I’m sure…send me your finds!


Drainage Redux

January 13, 2005

Well, the new millenium has been here a while, so it’s time to get this text out there on my blog. Drainage is the third issue of the rare pamphlet series Wine of Life, the first two numbers being, unfortunately, lost forever. A subsequent number of this series, The Sailor’s True Binnacle is not positively authenticated, but I may post it here later [linkadded 12/09]. Scholarly researches have shed little light upon the individuals or group responsible for this inspirational, and deeply troubling tract, but it is clear that they were influenced by a wide range of intellectual currents dominant in the late 1970s, specifically nascent apocalyptic cultism, the incipient therapeutic culture, and concerns about the decay of American infrastructure. The identity of Lichanos (the signature) is unknown, but the meaning of the word, literally translated from the Greek, is “forefinger.” I have taken my nom de blog from the anonymous author. I present it here as an interesting text in the literature of sewerage and plumbing, and as a rare attempt to link them with deeper elements of human culture.


Wine of Life, No. 3

Hylas: Pass the ouzo.

Philonus: We’re all out.

Today, many people’s thinking is being transformed under the impact of their realization of the importance of Drainage, both to their own lives, and to the wider life of their world. Recognizing the significance of Drainage and the nature of our commitment to it is an essential part of every man’s effort to construct a meaningful world for himself and to come to terms with Reality. However, the bewildering array of facts to be accumulated and digested concerning this force causes many to have a fatal moment of hesitation — an unfortunate circumstance, as even the humblest intellect possesses the requisite powers of mind to grasp this elemental subject. Drainage is very important in all of our lives, and it can be a lasting means of insight into the machinations of Our World, if only we undertake to reveal its mysteries.

The dawn of the Drainage Force in history broke c. 1789 in the England of the early Industrial Revolution. The suction from the countryside pool of free agricultural laborers by the satanic mills of London, Birmingham, and Sheffield, created a large urban working and lower middle class population of unprecedented concentration. This, as well as the swelling influx of bourgeois housing developments, created a monumental demand for drainage of all types to the extent that the quality of sewers became an object of status and municipal pride for cities. Such magnificent minds as the Age could produce thought it an honor to be engaged on projects of waste disposal and drainage gradients, and the times bode well for both man and Drainage.

However, this brief period of enlightened treatment of Drainage was short-lived due to the inherent contradictions involved in the 19th century’s persistent failure to perceive Drainage as both a thing-in-itself and as an extension of the Will over reality. This precipitated, inevitably, the grave crisis of the 1880s, subsequently recalled as the Period of Travail, in which man realized his debt to, and the yoke of Drainage. The years of this period represent a tragedy peculiar to the capitalist system’s economic cycle: a shortage of this precious man-made resource arose, and the fabric of our civilization was for a moment in danger of being horribly stained. Not even radical action by a coalition of private and public forces could avert either the close of the Golden Age of Drainage or the commencement of that Twilight in which our thralldom changed to serfdom.

. . . original text here is lost

After having considered the chequered history of humanity’s response to the issue of drainage, as well as the spotty and feeble reaction to the recent crise, one cannot but look to the future with dismay, and perhaps fear. Recent calculations of an expert in the field indicated that the next stage in the historical development of the Drainage Problem is due to be reached at the end of the year 2000 (see diagram 1), which conclusion is given amplification and clarification in the probing monograph, “Towards an Interpretation of the Drainage,” in which the author, Hilton Korngold, describes with disturbing calm the widespread deterioration of urban drainage systems in the Western World. In this work, Korngold writes:

We must arm ourselves with all the material and spiritual forces at our disposal to ensure that this crucial epoch is one of the transcendence into unity of Drainage and Drained or else our culture is doomed to destruction. Extrapolation from our present condition along the lines of Revelation yields a vision of Busting sewer mains and all waters of the world made as wormwood, unfit to drink. Mankind would be reduced to a primitive state of disunity, neighbor isolated from neighbor by vast surging cataracts of fluid, while the monument of our era’s accomplishments would gradually be submerged beneath festering pools of stagnant runoff. In this hell on earth all laws of sense will be overturned, men will go mad for lack of water to drink, sinks and cisterns will back up onto your floor instead of efficiently disposing of your wastes, and the Power of the Plumber will be null. Men in their frenzy of despair and disbelief will turn the evil upon themselves, building houses at the bottom of hills, in marshes, and along oozing gullys, while the Few Who Know will be the object of arrogant derision. And it is the folly of human inaction which will bring down on us this recapitulation of the Flood.*



The contemplation of this horrific aspect could easily push one into a slough of despond, but that would be a poor response. As with all ideas and problems, we must seek a full understanding of our coming plight thorough an analysis of its genesis deep within the manifold paradoxes of the human spirit. Humanity, of course, wants good drainage, whether or not it is aware of it, since it wants clean sheets and clean toilets, and indeed, clean minds. (For let us not forget the metaphorical mental Drainage.) The Drainage problem is just one more chapter in the book describing man’s troublesome ascent to the stage of his full realization of himself, dogged as he is by the continual urge to self-destruction, whether expressed or suppressed.

People all want the same things in life: love, family, and security, of which Drainage is just a part, and the fact that they consistently follow a course of action calculated to frustrate these very desires is irrefutable evidence of a deep-seated inner conflict which we all share to some extent. Thus, the problem of Drainage is, in a sense, a great unifier of the human community, for in it we see all of our wishes, fears and needs crystallized into a single problem and image. Moreover, Drainage contains within itself the essential contradiction necessary for the solution of the dilemma, for even as Drainage hangs Damoclean and French-Revolution sharp over our heads, the solving of the problem would even yet catapult the human community into a New Age through rapid social evolution. Drainage is, Drainage has been, Drainage will be, and as goes Drainage, so goes Man.. We must strive, as loving men, to grasp the essence of Drainage, to lose ourselves in the contemplation of the mandala of Flux and Flow, for in Drainage too is manifested the principle of Being, Being of which the World is merely the manifest substance. Through the union of thought and action man will overcome, will progress , and will achieve unity with the natural world and the world of his own making, all which is but one Moment in the development through time and space of Being. Through Drainage, may we Know and Drink the Wine of Life.

*Hilton S. Korngold, “Toward an Interpretation of the Drainage,” Journal of Historicist Philosophy, 98 (October, 1972): 302 – 398.