Man on Wire

"To me it's so simple-- life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise in rebellion. To refuse to taper yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself. To see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge and then you live your life on a tightrope." -- Philippe Petit, in Man On Wire

Dana Stevens' review of the film conveys both the irresistible beauty of le coup and, it must be said, the high personal cost of its success. After the WTC walk, Petit abandoned Annie Allix, his longtime lover and chief source of moral support, and J-F Blondeau, the childhood friend and secret sharer who came up with the ingenious idea of using a bow and arrow to send the wire across the void. While this idea solved a technical problem, its sheer homeliness may have also gone some way toward lowering the ambient anxiety, making the feat seem -- as I suspect it had to, for all of them, on some level -- like, despite the danger, it might still be just a prank, a lark, child's play.

I'm of two minds about whether the result was worth the sacrifice. Without the wound of 9/11, I might be inclined to say that while Petit's walk was beautiful, it was probably not worth the pain it caused, especially to Blondeau and Allix. One might object that they knew what they were getting into, or should have, and one would not be wrong. A small but necessary correction might be simply to give credit where it's due: everyone who helped Petit deserves gratitude, praise, admiration, not just Petit himself.

But there's more to it than that. It would be intellectually dishonest to fail to acknowledge that, after 9/11, Petit's walk seems like a profound gift.

I'm on a wire myself, writing this -- Petit's walk was certainly full of beauty, yes, but it was also a rebellion, full of rage and defiance. Crossing empty air, he was making his way through scary, primitive territory. If he'd fallen, would it have been "for us"? (For "our own good"?) The religious implications are clear enough; and no man should be a religion; one would hope that 9/11 alone would once and for all put the lie to messianism. Petit's walk seems questionable for just these reasons - it is easy to imagine how it could be put to a terrible use, as a justification for terror. But this would pervert it. There's an important difference between symbolic engagement with wild energies, and their mobilization in the service of terrible aggression in the real. The difference must be understood, and upheld - if only in defense of a world, now lost, where the incredible hubris of building two enormous towers on the south tip of Manhattan could be convincingly addressed (not bested, certainly not redeemed) by a daring man and a handful of no less daring accomplices, with no loss of life and, arguably, an increase of it.

So maybe the question becomes: Was the address convincing? Did Petit's act carry conviction? Or was it just a stunt?

As far as I know, Petit asked for nothing from his audience, not even their attention - he just stepped out into the sky. (It was Allix, from the ground, who cried, "Regardez!") He demanded no money, no press, not even the attachment of his name to the work. In this sense, at least, it was a kind of gift -- even before 9/11. At the same time, the gift still isn't unalloyed. I mean, why choose the towers, if not in acknowledgment of how wonderfully they would serve as a vehicle for his immortality, should he survive the crossing?

My friend, the poet Richard Katrovas, writing on prison art, has thoughfully pressed the same question even further, exploring the difference between art without conviction and the sorts of art that can get you, well, convicted. (Do the latter have more claim to our attention? More purchase on the truth? Is this linguistic register even useful? Claims and purchase -- this is the idiom of property.) Anyway, the essay I've just linked to is nominally about art programs for the incarcerated but more deeply about the problems posed by defiant art, including whether such art is even possible under the conditions of late (very late) capitalism. A witness to the Velvet Revolution, the son of a chronically incarcerated con man, and no stranger himself to real and symbolic imprisonment, Katrovas suggests that, especially in a so-called "free" society, the deepest freedom comes through the artist's embrace of ephemerality, the renunciation of the ambition to use art to build monuments to the self. Instead, there is the production of gifts, in Lewis Hyde's sense, best of all coming without a name attached:

Most art is prison art, if William Blake's famous 'mind-forg'd manacles' are taken seriously as endemic to the human condition. The truly free man or woman doesn't make art the way any 'serious' artist does, because any serious artist, any constant (in both senses of the word) maker of Small Art, does so because she or he is chained to compulsions and egocentric ambitions no less securely than the prison laborer or slave is chained to his Big Art task. Perhaps only when the work of art is conceived not as a commodity or monument or testimony, or prophecy or admonition, but as a gift, a true gift, does the artist, the giver, achieve something we may call freedom, though the product of such freedom certainly will not have purchase on 'greatness,' 'profundity,' 'wisdom'; such art will certainly be ephemeral.

(Which is not to say artists should not be paid for their work - but that is a subject for another day.)

* It now seems perfectly inevitable that I should be reading the late novelist Rocco Carbone's Libera i miei nemici, his last novel before his cruelly untimely death this summer, based on his work in the Rebibbia women's prison.