Ah! wretched dog, if I had offered you
a mass of excrement, you would have
smelled it with delight, and probably
have devoured it. So even you, unworthy
companion of my happy life, resemble
the public, to whom one must never offer
delicate perfumes, which exasperate,
but carefully raked-up mire.
Charles Baudelaire, “The Dog and the Vial,”
from Baudelaire, His Prose and Poetry,
translated by Joseph T. Shipley
In the tower library, there’s a brain with eyes inside a hermetically sealed glass jar, mounted on a plinth. Beside it is a lectern where librarians, listless and albino as marble statues, occasionally turn the pages of books they select from the shelves. The book that the brain begins to read goes like this:
Putrefaction as a Prelude to Social Revolt:
The Mexican War of Independence and the Mexican Revolution
A lavish theater of unspeakable fermentations, Mexico City tramples its inhabitants with a tumult of smells. Especially in the spring, the driest and warmest season of the year. The dirtiest, too. Even as the purple pyrotechnics of the blossoming jacaranda trees transform the metropolis into a festival with no particular patron saint, the atmosphere turns suffocating, lethal. Burned gasoline intensifies the air pollution. Without any rainfall to cleanse them, the streets gather spit gobs, stale puddles of graying oil, urine, dust, more dust, litter, cadavers, feces, blood. The foul runoff from shops and street stalls—emulsified grease—does nothing to revive the dead grass in pots and planters; it shrinks and sediments on the asphalt. Flies hover on crushed defecations, gleaming in the sun. The city: that proliferating corpse.
And this is just what the naked eye can see. The plumbing is another story.
As in most cities, the sewage system here is described as “combined”: its bowels run with both wastewater and rain. It’s not the most sustainable method. If all precipitation were captured, it would exceed the amount of water extracted from the subsoil or imported from other basins for human consumption. In practice, though, rainwater goes right down the drain and melds with shit, oil, detergent. Unharnessed, any lustral liquid that falls from the sky (the Valley of Mexico is ranked among the rainiest territories in the world) turns to wastewater soon after it touches land.
I imagine that all this rain must serve as a kind of enema in the guts of the capital, a clean stream that helps dilute the dense surge of muck. In the spring, though, the system courses with nothing but filthy water from toilets, kitchens, washing machines, hospital drains, factories, markets, malls, and butcher shops. What it loses in strength, it gains in toxicity. Aquifer overexploitation has caused the ground to sink unevenly, depending on the area and type of urban constructions. Some sites have sunk as much as several meters. Which means the drainage system, originally designed for the water to flow along with gravity, loses downward momentum under certain neighborhoods. It develops varicose veins, subterranean stagnations. Beneath the pavement, the swamp: a pressure cooker full of stenches straining for the surface. Walking the streets, you’ll often find manhole covers behaving like exhaust valves. They’re the mouths, the halitosis of the netherworld. Open anuses, vents of the diarrheal intestine shared by over twenty million inhabitants.
Inside and out, the city rots. Not everyone notices, just as many people are oblivious to their (our?!) own bad breath. A mirrored interplay of intangible vapors, the introjected features of an invisible face, olfactory self-awareness is a complex mechanism that can be explained (imagined, developed, fantasized about) by the anthropology of the senses: the epistemological perspective that, according to Juan Antonio Flores Martos, “focuses the importance of the senses on understanding social interactions and analyzes different cultural models that sensory experience—which varies by context—constructs.” If a city or society can perceive its own smells under particular historical circumstances, what does this say about its cultural dynamics?
Much has been written and said about the old excremental plague of Paris, which may be the archetypal case of a foul-smelling metropolis. Before the urban reforms of the second half of the nineteenth century, the French capital was a sordid, dirty, densely populated city, an intricate stagnation of medieval streets and alleyways. Paris—a cloistered expanse of waste-swamped byways, medina of corporeal promiscuities—stank. Among foreign visitors’ most frequent observations was how Parisians didn’t seem to notice the repugnant fetor that subsumed them. It’s a fairly obvious thing. As Florian Werner describes in his book Dark Matter: The History of Shit, “the foul odor was omnipresent, which brings us to a paradox: it didn’t exist. Our sense of smell is especially conditioned to perceive changes in the olfactory landscape. After about fifteen minutes, most people no longer consciously perceive a persistent smell in their surroundings.” Parisians spent centuries comfortably oblivious to their own ambient rot. At least until the late eighteenth century, when the situation began to worry them.
The key book for unlidding the cesspool of this story is The Foul and the Fragrant, by Alain Corbin. His prologue, incidentally, coins the expression “anthropology of the senses.” This book (I read Carlota Vallé Lazo’s exquisite Spanish translation) examines why the human sense of smell underwent an eighteenth-century renaissance in “sensorial history, infatuated with the prestige of hearing and sight.” Dated between 1760 and 1780, the phenomenon emerged in the milieu of the Société Royale de Médecine, which was especially interested in epidemiology. Its goal was to identify causes of disease and halt their spread. In a world that still predated the discoveries of Pasteur—which is to say, a world in which bacteria and organisms hadn’t yet been discovered—this allowed for a whole series of conjectures on illness and infection, on health and its lack, that were a far cry from what is now accepted as true. Today, most bodily imbalances are attributed to the presence of microbes or pathogenic viruses. In the eighteenth century, however, illness was seen as a disorder, a putrid dissolution of matter. As if the body, as a living thing, suffered an invisible predisposition toward organic entropy, the disintegration of its parts. The axial concept was none other than putrefaction, recovered from a theory that Johann Joachim Becher, a renowned German physician, had developed in the seventeenth century. Becher said that putrefaction “constitutes a permanent inner movement in perpetual struggle against the principle of the natural, igneous cohesion among parts.” That said, he continued, “if the permanent combat waged within a living being should become favorable to putrefaction, if the blood’s balsamic spirit should be interrupted, this may prompt the triumph of gangrene, smallpox, scurvy, or putrid and pestilential fevers.”
Olfaction played a crucial role in these medical theories. Its training and use grew indispensable in the detection of sick organs potentially afflicted by some kind of invisible, internal decay. And so, the Société Royale de Médecine created a new vocabulary for defining a broad range of scents that had previously been unnamable and therefore imperceptible. From 1760 to 1780, French doctors established the first olfactory measurements and scales for locating the rhythms and phases of physical corruption: less rotten, more rotten, potentially rotten. The field of eudiometry emerged, a way to sniff out the state of the world—a world, needless to say, that looked suspiciously ill. Soon, not only physicians were obsessed with smelling and classifying everything; in fact, the entire population was swept up in the “pneumatic vogue” that scoured all things organic for indicators of hidden deterioration. Whiffing became a neurotic duty, a national hypochondria, a death-distress that enveloped a whole society. Especially the upper classes, represented by the Société Royale de Médecine itself.
It wasn’t that the French had suddenly gotten sicker overnight, or that their environment had spontaneously gone mephitic. The sanitary and odoriferous status quo was exactly the same; the sensibility was not. The symptoms pointed to a social illness. In Corbin’s words, “the olfactory attention to putrefaction opens vast perspectives onto the psychology of the elites in the twilight of the Old Regime.” Something smelled bad, and it wasn’t bodies. Something was rotten, and it wasn’t organic tissue. What was decomposing was the divine right of kings, aristocratic rigidity, the subordination of the bourgeoisie, the destitution of the popular classes.
Realizing the unsustainability of their situation, the elites found a medical metaphor for their precariousness. “Olfactory attention to putridity conveys the anguish of he who cannot hold fast—this is the key phrase—or retain the elements of his composition.” Alert, obsessed with the smell of rot, unable to prescribe a unifying balm, the physicians of the Old Regime were actually perceiving the decomposition of their own society: the wormy corpse that, like the Bastille itself, would be destroyed by the incensed French populace in the Revolution of 1789.
The same thing happened before the outbreak of the Mexican War of Independence and the Mexican Revolution. I’m not sure if anyone has explored the causal relation between these two social movements—which are essential, by the way, to the official narrative of the Mexican state—and the alarm sounded over the foul smells suffusing the capital in the twilight of the colonial period and the Porfirio Díaz administration. Maybe some historian has already done it, which would make any further discussion on my part an act of unwitting repetition. Still, the information is resting on my desk at this very moment, its open pages like fragrant flowers, inviting pollination by the curious bee of essayistic thought. I won’t waste my chance to sip from this expository nectar; after all, in the words of Alain Corbin, “All those who endeavor to understand or devise revolution might benefit from considering the fascination of rot from the perspective of the corpse’s delight.” But before I get too far ahead of myself, I’ll take a brief detour to visit an old teacher of mine and ask his opinion on the repulsive smells of his favorite cities.
II: THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK: ESSAYS AND SNIFFING
“My chiefest care in choosing my lodgings is always to avoid a thick and stinking air; and those beautiful cities, Venice and Paris, very much lessen the kindness I have for them, the one by the offensive smell of her marshes, and the other of her dirt,” says Michel de Montaigne in Chapter LV (Book I) of his Essays. He continues, “I am certainly partial to nourishing myself with good smells; yet no matter how keenly I may enjoy them, I am of the opinion that their best and chiefest excellency is to be exempt from smell. Nay, the sweetness even of the purest breath has nothing in it of greater perfection than to be without any offensive smell, like those of healthful children.”
Closing my copy of his Essays, I think about the differences between Montaigne’s olfactory preoccupations and those exercised by the members of the Société Royale de Médecine in the eighteenth century. Trapped in the psychological muck of rot and morbid obsessions, the latter toiled to identify the rhythms and stages of bodily corruption. Montaigne, meanwhile, fled fetidity as if it were pain, his aversion bright, cheerful, slightly fussy. Because smells permeated his “very mustachios” (“which are full,” he added), bothering him when they “will not out a whole day,” he preferred odorlessness, even if it meant sacrificing the pleasure of perfumes. Deep down, as Montaigne knew, all smells are confusing, and a pleasant odor can camouflage decomposition: “. . . fine exotic perfumes are with good reason to be suspected of some natural imperfection which they endeavor by these odors to conceal,” he wrote. An appropriate declaration for someone who, at the start of his book, speaks of “goodwill” and the desire to come across in his own “genuine, simple, and ordinary manner, without study and artifice.”
Which makes me wonder: does writing have a smell? If so, where does it come from? Would it be better if it didn’t?
Roland Barthes once said, “When written, the word shit doesn’t smell.” Sometimes, though, it seems to me that certain languages and forms of writing can stink and interfere with communication, becoming dead letters. It’s no coincidence that Dominique Laporte begins his History of Shit (a great French classic of scatology and malodorousness) by associating writing with foul smells. He does so by contextualizing two edicts signed in 1539 by King Francis I of France. The first eradicated the use of the “by then incomprehensible” Latin language and established French—which, he specified, should be written without ornaments or letters lacking in phonetic function—as the official language in all state affairs. The second obliged Parisians to build latrines, clean up trash, and generally tend to their own filth. Laporte writes:
Besides the coincidence of their mutual ordinance in 1539, is there any reason to place these two legal texts side by side? None perhaps, except the one provided by Varron in Book II of Analogia, wherein the word “latrine” is said to derive from the word laver [to wash]. In the end, the accuracy of Varron’s etymology is hardly our true concern. All it needs to do is be credible and help us fashion a figure of thought.
Strictly speaking, the cleansing of language is less a political act than an economic one. Language is liberated from excess, from a corrupting mass.
We would do well to see that in both cases—the policing of language, the politics of shit, and vice versa—it is a matter of uprooting oneself painfully from that clinging “remnant of earth.”
These passages come with a catch. The first is a gem of gratuitous thought: in an essay, the only alibi that can justify the futile endeavor of linking two or more unrelated elements is that which plumbs the false etymology of a random word for bird shit. Endozoochory.
The second makes me think of contemporary Mexican literature: washed literature (free of scholastic Latin hyperbatons and risqué highfalutin idioms) results more from economy than from politics. As Jacques Revel explains in his essay “The Uses of Civility” (from the third volume of his encyclopedic A History of Private Life), Montaigne’s century witnessed the popularization of De civilitate morum puerilium libellus, by Erasmus: a conduct book that sought to teach children the importance of not farting in public and keeping their bodies in a state of docile, unvarnished cleanliness. It also instructed them how to speak correctly, in a tempered voice, without singsong cadences or localized, trade-specific turns of phrase: “It is not wrong to descend from farmers, blacksmiths, well-diggers, or butchers, only to smell and act like them.” Laporte and Revel both interpret the publication of these rules as a typically Renaissance measure designed to facilitate contact and communication among people and social classes: a single language and a neutral smell for all. As if they sensed that perfumes, fetidities, and dialects are all disruptions in the refined, courteous, and aporophobic exchange (some nights I dream about the free market and jolt awake in a cold sweat) among citizens.
I’d venture that anyone who has read Montaigne’s Essays twice from start to finish, with a special eye to its sensory material, will see that he favored the sense of taste above all others. In the synesthetic words of the Mexican writer Luigi Amara: “Both Montaigne and Bacon, the two pioneers of the essay, advance the idea of feeling your way, of experimentation, the urge to taste things for yourself. Their characteristic verb is to try: not in the sense of a demonstration, but to see what something tastes like.”
Taste. Lingering at the table after a meal, sampling topics instead of trying to solve the mystery of 13 Dead End Drive. Savoring a pinch of this and that over mezcal and mineral water in an endless conversation: that was Miguel de la Montaña for you (thus Hispanicized by Juan José Arreola). A gourmet, libidinal, sybaritic disposition I confess I don’t entirely share, because I’m most at home with husmeo, which could be translated as sniffing around: that is, the same thing as “trying” in the gustatory sense, but under the table, scrabbling around the crumbs, drawn to the dark side like a Little-Dracula-cum-detective-sewer-rat.
With canine relish and human shame, I’d rather sniff than taste. The shame of being accusatory and police-like, an unspeakable, putrefied character squinting for the speck in your fellow’s eye without noticing the beam cleaved into your own, that uprooting of oneself painfully from that clinging remnant of earth.
My biographical truth is that I come from a line of policemen I can trace back at least to my great-grandfather (historical bastardy prevents me from going any further), a macho patriarchal petty tyrant who indoctrinated his people and his battalion in the certainty that if you’re corrupt it’s because, al chile, shit’s rotten at the top; cómo chingados do they expect us pigs to quit biting if every single day, as soon as the sun’s up over the barracks, that son of a motherfucking bitch warehouse boss, ese güey, won’t cough up your piece or uniform unless you slip him five hundred pesos first. ¿Cómo la ves, man?
It looks to me like it smells to you, and I can’t say I’m shocked that it stinks so bad. He who sniffs around assumes the body of the crime: the dead dude, the deceased. It’s inscribed in the very origins of the word:
From the Latin odor, foetor. 1. n. A smell emitted by things like beef, bacon, mutton, partridge, etc., as they begin to spoil.
There’s always something rotting in this life. Within our modern parameters of civilization, you’d better be a neurotic cop if you’re going to keep stenches from adhering to the body, sullying it, defacing it, devastating it. The Spanish word hedor (stench) comes from the Latin foetor, which is related to the adjective foedus, -a, -um: ugly, dirty, dreadful, repugnant // terrible, destructive // (fig.) shameful, ignominious, despicable, cruel, criminal, dishonorable. And also to the transitive verb foedo, āvi, ātum, āre: to mar, to sully, to disfigure // to mutilate, to harm // to devastate // (fig.) to dishonor, to tarnish, to degrade.
In the end, the accuracy of the etymology is hardly our true concern. All it needs to do is be credible and help us fashion a figure of thought:
The police campaign against foul odors is based on the belief that they can pass themselves on to someone and thus devastate them, impoverish them, make them reek—like an illness, a demon, a reactionary invasion, an act of black magic. A curse, the evil eye, the violent return of whatever’s repressed, the righteous revolution of shit and death against health, exchange, and civilization. But that’s only true from a moral perspective—bad smells aren’t harmful, after all—which doesn’t mean I doubt the hygienic utility of face masks.
III. THE FEAT OF INDEPENDENCE
On August 31, 1790, twenty years and fifteen days after Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla released his famous insurgent cry in the town of Dolores, Viceroy Juan Vicente de Güemes Pacheco de Padilla y Horcasitas, better known as the 2nd Count of Revillagigedo, published a proclamation in Mexico City on rules, prohibitions, and fines for the proper administration of human waste. The viceroy was horrified by the stench of rot that suffused the New Hispanic capital. Dominated by ancient conceptions of urban and political management, the city harbored all manner of putrefactions.
Revillagigedo, a governor imbued with the most avant-garde ideas of his time, hoped to perpetuate the modernizing project of the Bourbon Reforms. As Marcela Dávalos writes in her book Basura e Ilustración: la limpieza de la Ciudad de México a fines del siglo XVIII [Trash and Enlightenment: Cleaning Mexico City in the Late Eighteenth Century], to understand the revolutionary implications of the viceroy’s measures, we must first understand the Enlightenment ideals of the world he represented. Not to mention how those ideals clashed with the outmoded beliefs underpinning both the New Spanish colony and the Spanish Empire as a whole.
When Revillagigedo disembarked in Mexico City, he found a metropolis that reflected the stale, antiquated society of its inhabitants. Almost nothing had changed since its founding: the conquistadores had divided up the territory in the name of God and the king, then followed sixteenth-century architectural templates to establish an urban model that prevailed, out of inertia, until the second half of the nineteenth century. The city’s space and society were intimately bound up in medieval tenets. For example, the universe was believed to be a finite, hierarchical, neatly ordered structure that branched out into each and every human problem. In this worldview, both celestial bodies and earthly matters occupied a fixed place; movement brought neither credibility nor prestige. The same was true of astronomy, politics, and urban planning. Guided by these principles following the destruction of Tenochtitlán, the Europeans organized Mexico City as a sort of Ptolemaic system: the center was for them, the outskirts were for the indigenous, and beyond that was the void, the countryside. In this way, the city itself was composed of two concentric circles, which were demarcated by canals that acted as ramparts, borders restricting any kind of dynamism. Cloistered and immobilized within its own limits, the sanitary system had few opportunities for movement. Not even the aristocratic center of the capital had a waste-disposal system. Excrement, trash, and dead animals rotted in the streets and stagnant canals, mere meters from sovereign nobles, pious ladies, and sumptuous carriages. In exceptional cases, they were collected and transported to indigenous neighborhoods—within the city itself, that is, which did nothing to improve sanitary conditions. And no one saw or smelled anything repugnant because such was the order of the world.
Revillagigedo, however, viewed reality through the epistemological lens of the European Enlightenment and the mechanistic physics of his time, which treated the universe like a mechanism of a newfangled machine. While ancient physics held that bodies remained inalterably in place, eighteenth-century physics urgently sought a fundamental law of motion in all areas of observable reality. The entire universe was on the move, and it was essential to come up with a kinetic understanding of how it worked. Nature, bodies, and even cities (physiology, medicine, urban planning) were part of this new vision. William Harvey’s experiments with blood circulation, understood as a hydraulic system in constant flux, were revisited and applied. They seemed to say: everything is always moving, just like the cranks of an invisible engine, the blood in the arteries of a cosmic heart, the air in the alveoli of a dynamic celestial lung.
The specifically eighteenth-century approach to these mechanistic theories conceived of movement as a phenomenon occurring between bodies and the environment, between the living and the non-living, between the interior and the exterior, never restricted to a single realm. Medicine, for example, ascribed ailments to atmospheric changes. Permeability and symbiosis were an everyday reality. Indifferent to the concept of skin-as-boundary, scientists were convinced that air had the same composition as living organisms. If air quality could cause epidemic diseases (as physicians believed), and if circulation allowed the bodily mechanism to function properly (as Harvey’s discoveries claimed), then the conclusion (according to scientists) was to make air flow like blood in the veins. Moving air, they decided, was purer air. “Stagnation is insalubrious,” they said.
Such were the ideas to which Revillagigedo subscribed.
The decrees of August 31, 1790, included new regulations to prevent urban waste from rotting within the city and polluting the air with malignant effluvia. The viceroy set fines for anyone who defecated or littered in the streets. He laid the groundwork for the construction of sewage pipes through which feces could be sent on their way toward Lake Texcoco. He created a garbage and excrement collection system with its own schedule, stops, and mule-drawn carts. He assigned locations, always on the city outskirts, for the new dumping sites. In short, he prescribed the means by which people were henceforth supposed to engage with filth. All based on the flow of waste. Mechanistic theory applied to trash and shit.
But this wasn’t just an attempt to eliminate bad smells and modify the private habits of the New Spanish population. After all, no activity, no matter how insignificant it may seem, is innocent when it comes to human philosophy. Being born, eating, growing up, shitting, sleeping, getting sick: these may be simple acts. But human beings have developed ever-changing attitudes toward each and every one, altering not only the significance ascribed to those acts, but also the anthropological, social, and political consequences they incur.
If Revillagigedo and his Enlightened allies insisted on stirring up the stagnant, toxic, putrid vapors of Mexico City, it was because, deep down, maybe even unconsciously, they sensed—with distress—that the colonial structure and their own power showed obvious signs of putrefaction. The cloistered cellars of the social edifice needed to be aired out and connected to the upper floors, if not politically, then at least hygienically. The mechanism had been stopped for centuries. If they wanted to save it, they had to rev it up again, drain its miasmas, set bodies—and waste—back in motion.
As proof that Revillagigedo’s olfactory hyperesthesia responded more to political intuition than to the city’s actual smells, well, we have the fact that his reforms were an epic failure for almost an entire century. City dwellers kept defecating in the street and accumulating trash both inside and outside their homes. The mule-drawn-cart-based garbage collection system never worked. The canals never flowed. There was no consensus over the taxes to defray the sanitation costs. And neighborhood habits persisted. Most residents didn’t mind the accumulated muck, the rotten matter, the stench. They never associated these things with illness. Some—lots—even protested the viceroy’s regulations. Marcela Dávalos recounts the case of one Spanish nobleman who opted to pay a fine rather than drain his overflowing latrine in the city center.
By contrast, the pestilent class structure and caste system soon showed signs of genuine rot. In this rigid social pyramid, where every stratum occupied a fixed place, the air was soon as unbreathable as inside an undrained latrine. The colonial corpse was far too worm-riddled to hold the throne without prompting repulsion and rancor in everyone who—thanks to certain interests and sensibilities—was now noticing the stink. And so insurgent uprisings injected movement into the heavy air of political reality, just twenty years after Revillagigedo first spoke out against the foul odors of the capital.
IV. THE ROTTEN MESS OF PUBLIC HEALTH
Another case of olfactory attention to rot as a prelude to revolution occurred in late-nineteenth-century Mexico, during the Porfirio Díaz administration, known as the Porfiriato, from 1876 to 1910. While large swaths of the population were lulled by the tranquil current of peace and political optimism, hygienist physicians were catching whiffs of something pretty gross.
Before we discuss what it was they were smelling, we should stress the importance of medical opinions in those years. In Mexico, as in all Western or modernizing countries, medicine was newly armed with Louis Pasteur’s nascent theory of infectious diseases, and it cohered as a science by emphasizing the urgency of hygiene as an essential discipline for human health. Early hygienist projects were conducted in the mid-nineteenth century, in French and English factories, with the twofold intent of establishing sanitary workspaces and disciplining laborers. Hygienist medicine—with its insistence on disinfecting bodies, cleaning surfaces, and waging war on the chaotic promiscuity of space—was soon adopted as policy, not only by factory owners but also by governments as a form of health advocacy and social control. Epidemiologically and seditiously speaking, national leaders concluded that there was nothing more dangerous than a dirty and unruly populace.
Porfirio Díaz was aware of these measures and proved particularly receptive to medical opinions. Policies of hygienist medicine prevailed throughout the entire Porfiriato. It wasn’t just a response to the smallpox and typhoid epidemics of 1893 and 1899, or the 1902 outbreak of bubonic plague in Mazatlán, which, together, killed nearly 200,000 Mexicans and demanded particular sanitary measures. Above all, hygienist policies proved to be an indispensible ideological tool in the operation and legitimization of the Porfiriato’s political-technological framework: that is, in the establishment of modern capitalism in Mexico. Take, for example, the drainage system in the region called Anáhuac.
The project of draining the Valley of Mexico’s lake ecosystem began in the sixteenth century under the auspices of the cosmographer Enrico Martínez. Not until the final quarter of the nineteenth century, however, was the operation endowed with the technological, political, and financial resources to be conducted, effectively and enduringly, through the Great Sewage Canal. In his article “Urbe inmunda: poder y prejuicios socioambientales en la urbanización y desagüe de la ciudad y valle de México” [“Filthy Metropolis: Power and Socio-Environmental Prejudice in the Urbanization and Drainage of the Capital and Valley of Mexico”], Sergio Miranda Pacheco explains the real reasons why the project was finally completed:
The Porfirian elites glimpsed the need to finish draining the valley in order to exploit the array of businesses represented by the capital city. These businesses had encountered a nearly invincible dam in the waters that constantly flooded their surrounding properties and streets; in their inadequate sanitary network; and in the increasingly pestilential presence, within their central neighborhoods, of a dispossessed and marginalized multitude, one continuously afflicted by epidemics and infectious diseases. And so, the project to finalize the draining of the valley was touted as an urgent matter of public health and sanitation.
Perhaps without even realizing it, hygienist doctors took up the marketing strategy that sold the draining project as essential to public welfare. As for their own perception of the hydraulic matters at hand, it’s interesting to see how they insisted more on the need to build excretion ducts for draining Texcoco’s waters and vapors than on the importance of guaranteeing clean water for human consumption. The School of Medicine produced various theses on the topic. For example, take José María Guyosa’s 1892 text: El Valle de México: Ventajas que resultarían a la salud pública con el desagüe [The Valley of Mexico: Benefits Incurred to Public Health through Drainage], in which we find assertions like this one:
All affairs of general city hygiene shall depend on Lake Texcoco so long as it persists in its current state of insalubrity . . . We are astonished by the condition of that putrid lake, of that decomposing body that collects the excremental matter of the city, dissolves it, ferments it, and blows the gases of this putrefaction back into the city in gusts of wind.
Was there really that much shit? Did Lake Texcoco really deserve to be described as a “decomposing body”? Was the city really so inundated with unwholesome gases? A couple years ago, I visited Lake Nabor Carrillo for the first time. It did have a peculiar smell: like marshland and algae, maybe with a slight fecal after-whiff. Nothing truly nauseating, though. I struggle to imagine that the Valley of Mexico smelled especially terrible in those years. And I find it even harder to believe that it stank worse than it does now. A population of approximately 600,000 inhabitants—no matter how much detritus they strewed, no matter how inadequate their sewage system was—couldn’t possibly have produced the same pestilence as the twenty-first-century waste of over twenty million people. Lake Texcoco no longer exists as such. But its terrains accommodate the General Drain of the Valley, the Great Sewage Canal, large lagoons (as part of a hydraulic wastewater system), and enormous landfills that discharge gases into the atmosphere. I can’t compare the smell of the past with the smell of today, but I’m pretty sure today’s is worse. The thing is, we no longer have, as people did then, a sociocultural sensitivity that translates doubts about its own unsteadiness into olfactory concerns.
The Great Canal was finished in March 1900. In June 1902, Roberto Gayol’s sewage system was inaugurated. These were joined by other building projects, begun in 1903, to transport clean water from Xochimilco into the capital. One might assume that such developments put an end to foul odors and disease. But no: deadly illnesses continued to decimate the populace. In 1901, the mortality rate reached its highest point since 1895. Deaths attributed to digestive illnesses and epidemics like typhoid, measles, and smallpox accounted for nearly half of all deaths between 1901 and 1905. In the months before Díaz resigned (on May 25, 1911), the capital was struck by a typhoid epidemic. In response to this catastrophe, in 1915, the engineer Alberto J. Pani meticulously studied the causes of insalubriousness afflicting Mexico City as compared to other major cities of the world. He took the mortality statistics recorded in 1911 for thirty-one cities in Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Based on these figures, Pani discovered that Mexico’s mortality coefficient (42.3 for every thousand inhabitants) exceeded even that of African and Asian cities like Cairo and Madras (40.1 and 39.5, respectively). “Mexico City, capital of Mexico, must surely be the least healthy in the world,” he ruled.
The cause was not, obviously, Lake Texcoco and its putrid vapors. Dr. Eduardo Liceaga reached this conclusion in 1905, when he salvaged the honor of his bewildered colleagues by conducting an epidemiological study to determine the true source of the noxious air: social inequality. “The root cause of the problem,” wrote Liceaga, “is quite clear; poverty is the key element that favors the dissemination of cholera and death. Although efforts at drainage, cleanliness, and water-provision do ameliorate the living conditions of all social classes, many other improvements in housing, nutrition, and education will be necessary, especially in poverty-afflicted sectors.”
Poverty wasn’t the key element, however: the plutocracy’s foul, insatiable accumulation was (“any bearer of foulness is powerful, and anyone powerful uses filth to secure his dominion”). There was—and remains, more than ever before—the truly rotten mess of public health, not to mention the engine of the insurrections to come. Though slightly muddled over the terms and agents (blaming poverty instead of the crooked elites), Liceaga’s medical assessment heralded this cause and effect, which the Flores Magón brothers, ideological precursors of the Mexican Revolution, had been warning of since 1901 in their anarchist newspaper Regeneración. Unfortunately, the anti-reelection uprisings of 1910 etched themselves into the national memory as the main revolutionary cause. Years later, once the gunfire had gone quiet, the battlefield was perfumed with the incense of an institutional democracy that continues, unfailingly and often, to celebrate electoral liturgies as the social plague releases its miasmas down below. Sooner or later, this long-buried stench will awaken new and perfected sensibilities in us.
Fascinated by Alain Corbin’s suggestive ideas on the causal relationship between olfactory sensitivity and revolutions, the author of this essay has applied it to two critical events in the narrative of the modern Mexican state: the War of Independence and the Mexican Revolution.
The second section, “Theoretical Framework: Essays and Sniffing,” intended to shed light on the dichotomy between the modern ideal of olfactory and idiomatic neutrality as a touchstone for free interchange among citizens and, by contrast, “sniffing around” as a detective disposition, an obsession with the constant and disruptive degradation of signs and identity. It also sought to emphasize the moral, not medical, nature of how bad smells can be incriminated.
In addition, though, it’s worth stressing that the sole intent of this essay has been to develop, expand, and apply to the Mexican context—as a sheer exercise of thought—an idea the author found appealing. By no means is he interested in proposing any kind of revolutionary prophecy rooted in olfactory awakenings. Yet it still warrants referencing, however superficially, two smell-based sensibilities of the present: symptoms of social and civil putrefaction, and potential revolutionary airs.
The first has been developed in the Mexican search brigades for people who have been forcibly disappeared by organized crime. For those unfamiliar with these brigades, they are composed of individuals who explore terrain (grasslands, ravines, forests, caves, vacant lots, yards, basements, garbage dumps) in search of clandestine graves where their missing loved ones may be buried. Among other strategies, they dig holes, insert metal rods into the earth, and then sniff them to detect cadaverous odors. In her essay “Una semana de búsqueda en las entrañas de la tierra” [“A Week-Long Search in the Bowels of the Earth”], written in response to the Fourth Search Brigade for Forcibly Disappeared People in January 2019, Daniela Rea quotes a directive that illustrates, all by itself, a powerful, sophisticated olfactory awakening in a growing—and increasingly desperate—sector of the population: “If you’re going to dig, don’t wear perfume or deodorant because it throws us off the scent.”
The second nose-based revival in contemporary Mexico is the result of water contamination. Unless you live deep in a remote area, it’s impossible to keep from being regularly trampled by the pestilential reek of wastewater and industrial runoff, whether they flow underground or in direct contact with the atmosphere. Evidence of this olfactory awakening can be found in many works of contemporary art that address it: the book Cultivos by Gilberto Esparza; the film Resurrección by Eugenio Polgovsky; the project Circuito de Auscultación Hidrográfica by the collective Panósmico; the prayer Ay agüita by Íñigo Malvido; the research undertaken at the Instituto Mexicano de Intersticiología; anything by Rodrigo Cue; the Enciclopedia de cosas vivas y muertas: lago de Texcoco by Adriana Salazar Vélez; the piece Possessing Nature by Tania Candiani and Luis Felipe Ortega; the actions Nariz de Estudios Patafísicos at Biquini Wax; a certain novel called Desagüe; and the documentary El buzo by Esteban Arrangoiz, among many other present-day cultural artifacts.
This essay wishes to end by flagging the perspicacity of one contemporary research project that has successfully synthesized, in a single format, the two olfactory revivals I’ve mentioned here. It’s La fosa de agua [The Water Grave] by Lydiette Carrión, a book that narrates her investigation of specific femicides and forced disappearances in the districts of Ecatepec and Tecámac, Mexico State. It chronicles human lives shot through with fear and despair, adolescent doubts, victims, perpetrators, witnesses, corrupt officials, evil lawyers, real estate mega-projects, metropolitan landscapes set against the backdrop of the earthy Sierra de Guadalupe, wastewater channels, railroads, neighborhoods, working people, soldiers. Yet the crux of Carrión’s mural are the stories of the young victims and the sagas their families are forced to endure: how dozens of people have spearheaded the search for their missing daughters when the authorities would not. How, thanks to the relatives’ tireless sniffing around, the Great Canal was finally dredged to search for bodies on February 18, 2014. The results were horrific. Seven thousand skeletal remains, in addition to dozens of dismembered and decomposing bodies, all jumbled together in the same putrid conduit of wastewater to which we all contribute, from the safety and privacy of our bathrooms, every single time we flush the toilet in an attempt to rid ourselves of our own stench of shit.
The book opens. Nothing moves in the tower library. The languid albino women look frozen in place. A voice speaks.
BRAIN IN THE JAR: Given that I have no nose, there’s not much I can contribute to an essay about smells. Bodiless, bottled up in the library, my intellectual reactions are conditioned by my literary memory alone. After reading about La fosa de agua, all that comes to mind is “The Part about the Crimes,” the fourth section of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, a novel that has become famous as a result of the direct, insistent, stark, crude, exorbitant, repulsive, and torturous enumeration of murdered women, inspired by the femicides of Ciudad Juárez.
“The Part about the Crimes” is full of extended fragments like these:
A week later her body turned up. It was found by some city maintenance workers in a drainage pipe. There was bruising on her chin and around her left eye. Severe bruising on her legs and rib cage. She had been vaginally and anally raped, probably more than once, since both orifices exhibited tears and abrasions, from which she had bled profusely . . .
Five days later, before the end of January, Luisa Celina Vázquez was strangled. She was sixteen years old, sturdily built, fair-skinned, and five months pregnant . . .
Four days after the discovery of the body of Guadalupe Guzmán Prieto, the body of Jazmín Torres Dorantes, also eleven years old, was found on the eastern slopes of Cerro Estrella. The cause of death was determined to be hypovolemic shock, occasioned by the more than fifteen stabs she had been dealt by her attacker or attackers . . .
The body exhibited multiple stab wounds to the abdomen, abrasions to the wrists and ankles, and marks around the neck, as well as trauma to the head produced by a blunt object, possibly a hammer or a stone.
. . . a girl of between sixteen and twenty was found on some stony ground near the Pueblo Azul highway . . . According to the medical examiner, the right breast had been mutilated and the nipple of the left breast had been torn off, probably bitten or cut with a knife, though the putrefaction of the body made it impossible to say for sure. The official cause of death: fracture of the hyoid.
Female corpses amassed, one after another, in cold, brutal, bureaucratic reiteration. Atrocities that are hard to read at all, especially when you know they actually happen in real life. I remember how when I read “The Part about the Crimes,” assailed with endless descriptions of traumatized bodies, I begged the librarians to take the book away. Because it’s one thing to know, in the abstract, that these sorts of crimes exist, but it’s quite another to read—captive in a jar—an interminable litany of horror, hundreds of cases, explicit forensic details. Literature rarely triggers such visceral discomfort and shock. My encephalic folds harbor few such sensations. One is derived from Philosophy in the Bedroom, by Marquis de Sade, in which Eugénie’s education becomes a catalogue of nauseating cruelties. Another is Ríos, lagos y manantiales del Valle de México [Rivers, Lakes, and Springs of the Valley of Mexico], by the architect and sociologist Jorge Legorreta.
A declaration of love to a dying landscape, mandatory reading for any city dweller, atlas of a painful and vulnerable beauty, Legorreta’s book is a detailed index of hydrologic formations that have been poisoned, drained, buried, and blotted from the official map. Ríos, lagos y manantiales del Valle de México reads as if Bolaño hadn’t only chronicled the discovery of the cadavers and their forensic descriptions in “The Part about the Crimes,” but also the victims’ biographies, where they were born, the trails they walked as children, how their personalities evolved, how their bodies grew and changed, and how those bodies, now brutalized, follow the course of decomposition.
The section I found most powerful is the one on rivers. According to the author, there are currently forty-five rivers in the Valley of Mexico. Twelve of them flow twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year; the other thirty-three run from April to October alone, during the rainy season. All begin as clear water from mountain springs. As the currents run down the slopes and enter urban areas, they mix with pestilent wastewater from residential drainage systems, flow into the grim underground piping network, cross the city, and follow an intricate path of sewage ducts to rivers coursing with industrial waste, which proceed to dump them—a toxic corpse—into the ocean.
Just as they’ve done now, the languid albino librarians sometimes—maliciously, I suspect—freeze in place and neglect to turn the pages of the book laid out in front of me. I’ve had the photograph of a black river, seething with purulent scrofula of plastic, diapers, shit, industrial waste, and dead bodies, occupying my field of vision for hours. Then the synesthesia of sight awakens a phantasmagorical sense of smell in me. I fall captive to a limbic hallucination in which an unjustifiable stench of rot steals like a thief into my jar. Catching its whiff, I feel like I’m going crazy, like my blood is boiling, my flesh writhing, my consciousness crawling with worms. Outside myself, I shudder as if possessed in my glass prison; the jar rattles and tumbles from its plinth. The glass riotously shatters, the librarians wake from their lethargy, and I’m left helpless on the floor, thrashing like a fish.
Copyright © by Diego Rodríguez Landeros. Translation copyright © by Robin Myers. All rights reserved.