Man on Wire

Philippe Petit, the man who walked between the Twin Towers the morning of 7 August, 1974, has finally had a worthwhile film made about his epic triumph. The film has been out for several months, after a successful premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last Spring.

Considering this film: after thirty four years, Jean Louis breaking into sobbing tears as he remembers what happened after the walk. And also: his face as he recalls how Philippe looked on the wire, once he began his walk. Once the impossible struggle was over, and he was alone on the wire, nothing between him and death.

I have considered that moment thousands of times. Philippe talks about the first step: that the hardest part of an endeavor, artistic or otherwise, is committing to that first step. Where one foot is on firm ground, and the other one can bring death. Where we stand now, certainty. Where we step, the void, and infinity.

“It was the worst wire we ever made,” Jean Louis said. And there was no way to know if, when the towers swayed in the wind that day, they would pull the wire enough to snap the cable. There was nothing to say that the wind wouldn’t be hurricane-strength, or that lightning might not strike the cable. Or that Philippe, in looking down 1/4 of a mile to the ground, wouldn’t for a moment lose his fearlessness to heights, and develop vertigo. Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, explores the idea that vertigo is not the fear of falling, but the fear that comes with wanting to fall. That when you get close to the edge, something compels you to jump, something pulls you towards the edge.

I sang at the funeral of William Styron two years ago, and sat within whispering range of President Clinton, who spoke beautifully, and in a way that it felt like he was speaking to every one of us personally: he brought us in close. Many others spoke-Ted Kennedy among others, and e very one of the speakers-his daughter, the politicians, the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, all of them mentioned his account of his depression, and his successful emergence from it, Darkness Visible. I’m reading it now, and it is an act of courage that reminds me again of Philippe’s walk.

I’m reminded of the advice of a cellist friend of mine, who said that darkness and depression is a river that tempts us, as artists, to wade in, but we must resist this temptation. This is the same theme I was working with this Summer, as I wrote The White Goddess for Silvie Jensen (heroically performed this July in 110 degree heat at The Stone). In The White Goddess, Robert Graves describes how She is a three-form being, Virgin, Mother, and Crone; that she is the muse, but she can also be deadly. That her nests, when one comes across them in dreams, are lined with the entrails and jaw-bones of poets.

We invoke the muse, we pray to be inspired, but to dive in too deep to those waters of inspiration can kill of us. One is reminded of Dante, who invoked the muse to speak of his journey to the pit and back, with the help of a guide. I’m reminded of how we cannot go down there alone. Because divers get the bends; because when we venture into the infinite void on our own, we find the devil at our shoulder, like Jesus in the wilderness (really, the deserts to the West of the Dead Sea). Because the mind can, like the snake eating its own tail, spiral inwards with a black-hole-like strength, and become a self-perpetuating tail-spin that bores a hole straight down, into the depths.

Not so Philippe. Dancing above the void, dreaming with the sea-gulls, he flew, he soared above humanity. Nothing equals this achievement. Not Ussain Bolt’s perfection as he runs; not Michael Phelps in his superb focus and flight-like swimming. Philippe’s artistry was to show us that we can be alive, fully aware and alive, above the pit of death and despair. That death has no dominion; that the pure embodiment of inspiration reveals the height of humanity, which can soar above it all on the wings of impossibility. Why did he do it?

He says, there is no why. He did it because he had to.

The same reason we write, and play, and love. Because we have to. Knowing precisely and exactly what lies below that 1/4 inch wire, and walking anyway. Because we have to.

Then I consider the footage in the film of the towers going up. 1970, 1971. Ground breaking. The foundations being laid. The footprint of the towers visible, but there are no towers. It is finally, after seven years, a scene we can watch, and have enough emotional distance to see the parallel with the site now, which resembles this early footage to an eery degree, without losing sight of the footage itself, which is full of hope. The lower stories built, the steel beams like bones sticking up towards the sky. Looking like the weeks after. And finally, the buildings receiving their shiny outer verticality, that impossibly high verticality of parallel thin metal reaching towards the sky.

To Reach The Clouds, Philippe calls his book. Stretching towards the sky, the wire defining the space around itself as pure verticality. As we watch, this movie, this story reveals itself as a love story. The love between Philippe and the towers: this strange, compelling anthropromorphisation of these giant towers. We remember our love of the infinite, our love of stretching to explore the limits of our humanity. And the love that compels us to do so.

And I remember what Philippe told me in 2001, mid-September, when he came to speak at Oberlin. He said, the greatest message we can send after this destruction is to build them ‘as they were, where they were.’ Com’ era, dov’era.

The courageous purpose of Styron’s book is to provide a testament to those who suffer that depression is something that can be overcome. He says in Darkness Visible,  Men and women who have recovered from the disease–and they are countless–bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable. For those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet, trudging upward and upward out of hell’s black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as “the shining world.” There whoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair.

E quindi uscimmo a riveder la stelle.

And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.