A Tightrope Poet of the Impossible

Gio Clairval is an Italian-born writer who lives in Paris.

Yesterday, the road seemed too difficult and tiredness threatened with a feeling of void. I said to myself, “Why have I chosen the trade of writing–this hard journey?” Then I heard the words of Philippe Petit, high-wire walker (but he prefers to call himself ‘tightrope walker’)—an interview aired by the Italian TV channel, RAI3, and I found his answers inspiring.

I’d like to dedicate these words to Jeff, who is reaching the end of his book tour, his tour de force, and to all the friends who achieve impossible things, like   a booklife.

The rope is a harsh mistress

Petit answered questions about one of his six books, the only one that was never translated into English, TRAITE DU FUNAMBULISME (Treatise of Tightrope Walking). The only existing treatise on wire walking, and also the story of a man longing for absolute, attempting to relate the finite to the infinite.

Philippe warned, “No, the rope is not what we imagine; it is not a universe of light, space and smile. It is a trade, sober, tough, disappointing. Those who are not ready to give up everything to feel alive, they do not need to become tightrope walkers. Above all, they could never make it.”

“The taste of a second of stillness, when the wire consents to give it to us, is a moment of happiness.”

A word comes to mind, ‘meteor’, from the Greek meteoros, meaning ‘high in the sky.’

Philippe Petit is a poet of the impossible.


“Fear is the emotion of those who walk below. I can see no reason to be afraid of falling. I can’t fall. Up there, I get unexpected bursts of energy. […] On the rope, I am indestructible. Otherwise, I would not go.” No boasting swindler of the clouds, here, but decades of stainless-steel experience.
“It’s the mind that pulls the body by the sleeve, not the other way round.”
Of course, he refuses all security: nets, harnesses. “Have you ever seen a bird on a leash? I strive to weave threads of certainty under my rope.”

TRAITE DU FUNAMBULISME (Treatise of Tightrope Walking), Preface by Paul Auster, Paris: Albin Michel, 1997.

The most famous walk

In 1974, Philippe Petit, in his own words, “got the towers married.”

As soon as Petit was observed by witnesses on the ground, the Port Authority Police Department dispatched officers to the roof to take him into custody. One of the officers, Sgt. Charles Daniels, later reported his experience:

“I observed the tightrope ‘dancer’—because you couldn’t call him a ‘walker’—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire….And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle….He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again….Unbelievable really….Everybody was spellbound in the watching of it.”

Rain had begun to fall, and Petit decided he had taken enough risks, so he gave himself up to the police. Provoked by his taunting behaviour while on the wire, police handcuffed him behind his back and roughly pushed him down a flight of stairs. This he later described as “the most dangerous part of the stunt.”

When asked why he did the stunt, Petit would say “When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk.”

“Before & After; Talking of the Towers,” New York Times http://tinyurl.com/y8b87xv

-Gio Clairval can be found at http://gioclairval.blogspot.com/


5 comments on “A Tightrope Poet of the Impossible

  1. I loved the documentary about Petit, MAN ON WIRE. Great post.

  2. Graeme Robertson says:

    “Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman — a rope over an abyss…. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”

    You’re right, Gio. Things like this remind us why we choose the hard journey.

  3. Jim Schnebly says:

    Beautiful post about a fascinating individual. Molte grazie.

  4. jeff vandermeer says:

    Really great post, Gio. Always love your perspective.

  5. Erin Stocks says:

    I echo Jeff. Good to read this, especially on a Monday morning.

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