15 July 1898

Dear Sir,

Your letter arrived just a few days ago. I want to thank you for the great confidence you have placed in me. You must first know that I would never presume to critique your theory that “It is not always essential to flux the interior of a tee before sweating the joint,” although I am concerned that you haven’t yet acquired your own plumbing “style.” I do see (if I am reading these specs correctly) that you have insinuated something personal, something yours, into the annealed tubing of your project with the “cantankerous” (great word!) commode. Let me direct you, if I may, to what, at least in my mind, is an essential text to accompany you on your plumbing journey: The International and Uniform Plumbing Codes Handbook (1897) by Uder Weiss. While Weiss writes with his customary prolixity, his breadth of scope is matched only by his depth of vision, and we must accept his idea that in order to understand our craft we must “plumb” its essence (I love how one can use that word in two ways and it kind of means the same thing) and retreat into its history, indeed, into its primordial anima. Are you prepared for this adventure, good sir? If the answer is yes, then you are already well on your way.

And all success upon your path!

Rainer Maria Rilke

P.S. By increasing the height of the tank float, more water will fill the tank; lowering the float reduces the water level. I’m not entirely sure why this particular “quandary” would lead you to “gnaw away at [your] tongue in a sanatorium outside of Zurich,” unless, of course, you’re referring to the existential pain of bearing witness to the fill valve’s Sisyphean cycle.

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29 September 1898

You’ll pardon me, dear sir, for waiting until this afternoon to respond to your follow-up missive. Although I was under the impression that your initial correspondence might be the end of it, I can see you’re not without persistence. That’s great! I’m here in Rome, marveling at the ancient architecture and, yes, occasionally admiring the intricate designs of copper tubing inside the restrooms in many of the city’s municipal buildings. In fact, during my morning constitutionals, I’ve come to understand that your remark “The lock nut will never remove itself from the tank lever” carries with it a deeper, more transcendental pith than perhaps you realize. I refer you to the ambitious Toilets: An Illustrated History (1871) by Drs. Hammerstein and Havernkamp. (Yes, I am aware of their later disastrous foray into the detective genre, but their earlier work is without equal.) In this unflinching tome, you will discover that sitting toilets came into use only in the last 75 years. It boggles the mind. What I’m trying to articulate here is slow it down, man! Don’t try so hard. Why not extricate yourself from the bowl and focus on the vent for a while? Vents provide a holy egress through which oxygen may penetrate during aerobic sewage digestion. And don’t think of the vent as merely an accessory—plumbing is a package deal, alpha to omega. Must I plumb? Ask it. Answer it. If thoughts of nude women come to mind as you consider this question, that’s normal, at least at first. Keep trying until the nude specters disappear, and if they don’t, well, it’s not the end of the world.

OK, then,
Rainer Maria Rilke

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25 November 1898

How do you keep finding me, sir? Your powers of divination are really quite astonishing. And may I add that, while I’ve found our correspondence to be oddly stimulating, lately I’ve been doing more work as a “poet,” hanging up the old plunger, moving on. This isn’t to say that your struggles with the plumbing arts don’t interest me—it’s just that I find it increasingly frustrating to address your rudimentary questions. For instance, you ask, “How do I get rid of tank sweating?,” and I’m thrown into a fit of pique. I mean, have you thought of a temperator valve? Or are you trying to make a larger point about the situation with Zola and "J’Accuse"—the Dreyfus thing. If it is not the latter, I must tell you that tank sweating is an issue you should have learned about months, if not years, ago. Tank sweating? Well, who knows? Maybe the pedagogy leans more toward the front of the bowl these days. In that case, check for defective washers on the spud pipe, or where the water inlet pipe and ball-cock assembly are attached to the tank.


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15 March 1899

What? Overly didactic and condescending? Where in the hell do you get off? This is plumbing, not some wispy romp around a meadow featuring you and your “feelings.” Let’s remember that you approached me for advice on toilets and life (which are, essentially, the same thing). You have wasted my time, sir, and you should be ashamed of yourself.


P.S. If you really are serious about engineering an ontological shift by “taming the water-level of human suffering,” be sure that the trip-lever rod isn’t rubbing up against the float ball and the lift wire isn’t in the wrong hole—either scenario will cause the tank ball to fall at an angle, sending you and your half-baked toilet project “up the Rhine,” as they say.