Poet of the sky

Philippe Petit

If you’re afraid of heights, or risks, you should take a look at this video as a sort of exposure therapy. In 1974, a Frenchman named Philippe Petit stretched a cable from one of the Twin Towers to the other, and spent an hour walking back and forth between them with no net beneath. Actually, he didn’t just walk, he ran, lay down, and spent time looking at the people 1,350 feet below. You can see a wonderfully dated newsreel about it here.

It’s old news now of course, and it has become part of New York’s mythology. The novelist Paul Auster said the walk was “a gift of astonishing, indelible beauty to New York.” Petit wrote two books about it over the years, Man on a Wire and To Reach the Clouds, and his film won awards at Sundance in 2008. Last year Irish writer Colum McCann wrote a fine literary response to Petit’s highwire act, Let the Great World Spin.

Petit walked back and forth eight times.

McCann gave several talks in New York and I heard him speak. He said that in his book, which Esquire described as “the first great 9/11 novel,” he wanted to dwell on an act of creativity that countered the destruction of 2001. I’m almost finished reading it now, and it is indeed very good, though it took me a little while to get into and I’m finding it marred by having too many characters and plots — I keep wanting to find out more about one group, only to discover that the story has moved on.

Nor did I get the significance of the tight-rope walk right away: who cares, really, about a circus act?

He dangles his leg and looks down.

When I discussed the novel with a friend, she told me I should see the film Man on a Wire, and then I’d understand. That’s when I watched the Youtube clips and found these unforgettable photos. I was entranced.

I still am, not just by the walk itself, but by Petit’s impish smile as he afterwards told an interviewer: “There is no why. Just because, when I see a beautiful place to put my wire, I cannot resist.”

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