It [the settled belief of the Catholic imagination] is plainly contrary to fact, as it seems to me: but fact or truth, when it lies beyond the most immediate material realm, naturally interests most men very little: and nature has not given them either the wish or the power to discern it. By choice, when we can, we live histrionically, intent on the eloquent embroideries we make upon things and people; it is a sort of dream or play which we wrap our actual life in. And the Catholic Hypnosis is a very nice one, fitting the facts in a very acceptable wise way when one has decided that the facts themselves are not decent, and can't be allowed to go about naked. I like civilized artifices of this sort.
The Old River Control Auxiliary Structure is a rank of seven towers, each buff with a white crown. They are vertical on the upstream side, and they slope toward the Atchafalaya. Therefore, they resemble flying buttresses facing the Mississippi. The towers are separated by six arciform gates, convex to the Mississippi, and hinged in trunnion blocks secured with steel to carom the force of the river into the core of the structure. Lifted by cables, these tainter gates, as they are called, are about as light and graceful as anything could be that has a composite weight of twenty-six hundred tons. Each of them is sixty-two feet wide. They are the strongest the Corps has ever designed and built. A work of engineering such as a Maillart bridge or a bridge by Christian Menn can outdo some other works of art, because it is not only a gift to the imagination but also structural in the matrix of the world. The auxiliary structure at Old River contains too many working components to be classed with such a bridge, but in grandeur and in profile it would not shame a pharaoh.
The first book to draw me in was Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, originally published in 1942, in French, but not translated into English until 1983. I won’t go into why this subject has a special attraction for me (that’s for another time), but I was very pleased with what I found there.
Among the five hundred miles of levee deficiencies now calling for attention along the Mississippi River, the most serious happen to be in New Orleans. Among other factors, the freeboard—the amount of levee that reaches above flood levels—has to be higher in New Orleans to combat the waves of ships. Elsewhere, the deficiencies are averaging between one and two feet with respect to the computed high-water flow line, which goes on rising as runoffs continue to speed up and waters are increasingly confined. Not only is the water higher. The levees tend to sink as well. They press down on the mucks beneath them and squirt materials out to the sides. Their crowns have to be built up. “You put five feet on and three feet sink,” a Corps engineer remarked to me one day. This is especially true of the levees that frame the Atchafalaya swamp, so the Corps has given up trying to fight the subsidence there with earth movers alone, and has built concrete floodwalls along the tops of the levees, causing the largest river swamp in North America to appear to be the world’s largest prison. It keeps in not only water, of course, but silt. Gradually, the swamp elevations are building up. The people of Acadiana say that the swamp would be the safest place in which to seek refuge in a major flood, because the swamp is higher than the land outside the levees.
Then, by accident, I came upon a little book called H20 & the Waters of Forgetfulness, by Ivan Illich (who had been a major figure for me in the past, and has recently reemerged as a focus at the urging of my friend and collaborator Peter Lamborn Wilson, for whom Illich is central). I was surprised to find out that Illich’s essay had begun as a lecture at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture in 1984, and that it was, in part, a gloss on or reply to Water and Dreams.
Bachelard uses water here (as he does elsewhere with the other elements) as an endlessly generative image, as a way of gathering language around an image, and re-imagining the world. And, as in all his work, the tension between reverie and rationalism keeps the discourse alive. “Here … materialism, imagined through the material imagination, takes on a sensitivity so sharp, so painful, that it can understand all the woes of an idealistic poet.”
Congress appropriated three hundred million dollars to find out. This was more money in one bill—the hopefully titled Flood Control Act (1928)—than had been spent on Mississippi levees in all of Colonial and American history. These were the start-up funds for the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, the coordinated defenses that would still be incomplete in the nineteen-eighties and would ultimately cost about seven billion dollars. The project would raise levees and build new ones, pave cutbanks, sever loops to align the current, and hold back large volumes of water with substantial dams in tributary streams. Dredges known as dustpans would take up sediment by the millions of tons. Stone dikes would appear in strategic places, forcing the water to go around them, preventing the channel from spreading out. Most significantly, though, the project would acknowledge the superiority of the force with which it was meant to deal. It would give back to the river some measure of the freedom lost as the delta’s distributaries one by one were sealed. It would go into the levees in certain places and build gates that could be opened in times of extraordinary flood. The water coming out of such spillways would enter new systems of levees guiding it down floodways to the Gulf. But how many spillways? How many floodways? How many tributary dams? Calculating maximum storms, frequency of storms, maximum snowmelts, sustained saturation of the upper valley, coincident storms in scattered parts of the watershed, the Corps reached for the figure that would float Noah. The round number was three million—that is, three million cubic feet per second coming past Old River. This was twenty-five per cent above the 1927 high. The expanded control system, with its variety of devices, would have to be designed to process that. Various names were given to this blue-moon superflow, this concatenation of recorded moments written in the future unknown. It was called the Design Flood. Alternatively, it was called the Project Flood.
Slaves with wheelbarrows started the levees. Immigrants with wheelbarrows replaced the slaves. Mule-drawn scrapers replaced the wheelbarrows, but not until the twentieth century. Fifteen hundred miles of earthen walls—roughly six, then nine, then twelve feet high, and a hundred feet from side to side—were built by men with shovels. They wove huge mats of willow poles and laid them down in cutbanks as revetments. When floods came, they went out to defend their defenses, and, in the words of a Corps publication, the effort was comparable to “the rigors of the battlefield.” Nature was not always the only enemy. Anywhere along the river, people were safer if the levee failed across the way. If you lived on the east side, you might not be sad if water flooded west. You were also safer if the levee broke on your own side downstream. Armed patrols went up and down the levees. They watched for sand boils—signs of seepage that could open a crevasse from within. And they watched for Private commandos, landing in the dark with dynamite.
To the Corps’ belief that a river confined by levees would similarly look after itself the success of the jetties gave considerable reinforcement. And Eads added words that spoke louder than his actions. “If the profession of an engineer were not based upon exact science,” he said, “I might tremble for the result, in view of the immensely of the interests dependent on my success. But every atom that moves onward in the river, from the moment it leaves its home among the crystal springs or mountain snows, throughout the fifteen hundred leagues of its devious pathway, until it is finally lost in the vast waters of the Gulf, is controlled by laws as fixed and certain as those which direct the majestic march of the heavenly spheres. Every phenomenon and apparent eccentricity of the river—its scouring and depositing action, its caving banks, the formation of the bars at its mouth, the effect of the waves and tides of the sea upon its currents and deposits—is controlled by law as immutable as the Creator, and the engineer need only to be insured that he does not ignore the existence of any of these laws, to feel positively certain of the results he aims at.”
The Christian drama was a magnificent poetic rendering of this side of the matter, a side which Socrates had envisaged by his admirable method, but which now flooded the consciousness of mankind with torrential emotions. Christianity was born under an eclipse, when the light of Nature was obscured; but the star that intercepted that light was itself luminous, and shed on succeeding ages a moonlike radiance, paler and sadder than the other, but no less divine, and meriting no less to be eternal. Man now studied his own destiny, as he had before studied the sky, and the woods, and the sunny depths of water; and as the earlier study produced in his soulanima naturcditer poetathe images of Zeus, Pan, and Nereus, so the later study produced the images of Jesus and of Mary, of Heaven and Hell, of miracles and sacraments. The observation was no less exact, the translation into poetic images no less wonderful here than there. To trace the endless transfiguration, with all its unconscious ingenuity and harmony, might be the theme of a fascinating science. Let not the reader fancy that in Christianity everything was settled by records and traditions. The idea of Christ himself had to be constructed by the imagination in response to moral demands, tradition giving only the barest external points of attachment. The facts were nothing until they became symbols; and nothing could turn them into symbols except an eager imagination on the watch for all that might embody its dreams.