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No. 1966:
The Sewers of Paris

by Rob Zaretsky

Today, historian Rob Zaretsky tells us about the romance of sewers. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The sewers of great cities are, like the unconscious mind, labyrinths of the unthinkable or unspeakable. It is risky to ignore either one. Two nineteenth century Frenchmen, Victor Hugo and Georges Haussmann, revealed the stakes involved in their very different works on Paris.

Hugo tells us that "The history of mankind is reflected in the history of waste disposal [cloaca]." He leads the reader of Les Misérables through the medieval bowels of Paris. Here there are no secrets: criminal and political acts coexist in the subterranean muck. "No false appearance, no whitewashing, is possible," Hugo writes. The surface world of appearance gives way to unadorned reality in these deep corridors. 

This subterranean world was terra incognita in the early 19th century. The ancient sprawl of sewers was unmapped. As a result, the mystery of the city's intestines fed upon itself, stirring popular fears. Diseases of the human body like cholera were thought to brew in the sewer's miasma or night vapors. No less important, diseases of the body politic also festered there: ever since the Revolution, the sewers were considered a warren for subversives and criminals -- like Hugo's hero Jean Valjean, forced to traverse this vail of tears and slime. 

Georges Haussmann changed forever this fierce underworld. From 1852 to '69, the Emperor Louis Napoleon Bonaparte put Haussmann in charge of Paris. His task was both to stamp out Paris' revolutionary past -- celebrated by Hugo -- and prepare its future as the seat of imperial greatness.

Haussmann left office just before another revolution, the 1871 Paris Commune -- an ironic end to his cleanup. Yet he left us with the Paris cityscape w know today -- the grand avenues, the stately buildings, the uniform facades, the great traffic hubs. The disemboweling of congested, unruly neighborhoods like the one surrounding the cathedral of Notre Dame (now situated in splendid isolation). These are Haussmann's accomplishments -- or, in the eyes of Hugo, evidence of his crimes.

Haussmann was proudest of what he wrought below the glittering surface of Paris. He took his prefectoral sword to the Gordian knot of the city's sewers. The size of the system was quintupled, a single standard was imposed on the dimensions of the new tunnels. Like a surgery patient who recounts his operation in great detail, Haussmann personally showed off Paris's new innards to czars, Kaisers, and kings. Soon the sewers joined the waxworks and the Louvre in Paris guidebooks.

Today's sewers scarcely convey the awe that once inspired Hugo and repelled Haussmann. Tourists can now stroll along an immaculate strip of perfectly respectable sewer. They can watch a documentary film. They can visit the inevitable souvenir stand. Listen closely: perhaps you will hear an echo of Hugo's lament that, after Haussmann, the filth is now well behaved. 

I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston Honors College, and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages.

V. Hugo, Les Misérables. (Tr. Norman Denny) Penguin, NY: 1982.

D. P. Jordan, Transforming Paris: The Life and Labors of Baron Haussmann. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995

D. Reid, Paris Sewers and Sewermen: Realities and Representations.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.


Felix Nadar sewer photo 
Photo of a Paris sewer, taken during Haussmann's period, by Felix Nadar