Friday, September 11, 2015

Philippe Petit on the Twin Towers

Do you remember?

On 7 August, 1974, The French tightrope artist Philippe Petit spent forty-five minutes in the air between the newly constructed Twin Towers. He didn't merely go from one tower to the other; he walked back and forth eight times. Once, he laid down on the wire and rested.

A thousand feet below, crowds quickly formed. On the sidewalk, his girlfriend started things off by pointing into the sky:
Look! A wirewalker! A wirewalker!
If you haven't seen it yet, I urge you to view the documentary of the effort, Man on Wire. It is beautiful and fascinating.

The essay below, by Petit himself, was published in the Wall Street Journal two years after 9/11. It is quirky and strange. Some may even find it off-putting.

I remember reading it on my parents' porch and crying uncontrollably. It is difficult for me to avoid doing so now.
My Towers, Our Towers 
You breathe, don't you? 
So do I. And so did they, the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Whenever a cloud interrupted the sunshine that made their silver robes flutter chromatically, the drop in temperature caused the steel skeletons to contract a little; when it passed, they expanded again. 
You and I groan in anger at times. So did they, when gales forced them to sway, although they had been designed to win that sort of tug-o-war. 
All this I know for a fact; because I rigged a cable between the two towers, from crown to crown -- the appellation for the inclined set-back of the top floors that supported the roof, coined by Leslie Robertson, the buildings' structural engineer. 
That gray morning of Aug. 7, 1974, the twins, separated at birth, acquiesced in a temporary union, as they welcomed a trespassing poet determined to etch his destiny upon the sky. I linked them with a smile, that of my cable's catenary curve. The curve of my involuntary smile mirrored that of the cable as I took my first steps. The towers whispered in awe. At mid-crossing, I sat down to contemplate the horizon and noticed that it, like my balancing pole, was slightly curved; the towers had imparted to me a most important discovery: "The earth is round!" They quieted down the moment I genuflected, so that I could hear the clamoring of the astonished audience that had gathered a quarter of a mile below. The towers kindly held their breath as I lay down upon the wire, they eavesdropped on my silent dialogue with a red-eyed sea gull that hovered above me. 
That morning, the twin towers became my towers. 
Six years earlier, learning of their impending birth, I had decided to conquer them. I watched them grow. I spied on them. I fell in love. Then, under cover of night, I married them, with a seven-eighths-inch steel cable composed of six strands of 19 wires each. At daybreak, the entire world was our witness. 
For what seemed an eternity, we enjoyed each other. I visited them often, through the ups and downs of their colorful lives. I introduced them to my friends and family. And then, on a perfectly clear blue September morning, I watched them die, stabbed in the back by assassins who vaporized in mid-air. 
I heard my towers cry for help for a long, long time. I listened in anguish, powerless, to their last sighs. I witnessed their collapse and fell silent, eviscerated. Where had they gone? Who besides me knew that, despite 200,000 tons of steel, glass, concrete, and aluminum, the towers were made mostly of air? Between every piece of solid material, air! Mostly air. Could it be air to air? Like ashes to ashes? 
Fluidly, in a deadly cascade of smoke and debris, in a matter of seconds, they erased themselves, taking thousands of human lives with them. 
I close my eyes, I remember and pay my respect to the victims and their families. That dreadful morning, my towers became your towers, our towers. 
Eleven years ago, when my young daughter died without warning, the dean of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, the Very Reverend James Parks Morton, came to my side. He offered me guidance from his heart, but quite commandingly: "Speak of her in the present; you must not use the past tense!" 
When asked today, "Do you have children?" I answer, "Yes, I have a daughter named Gypsy. She is nine and a half years old, and no longer alive." 
So are my twin towers, our twin towers, gone, yet still standing tall, made of thin air, yet gloriously defying the sunset on this warm late summer evening. 
Look at them! 
Mr. Petit, artist in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, walked on a high-wire from one Twin Tower to the other on Aug. 7, 1974.
Cross posted at Save Versus All Wands.


  1. Thank you for reprinting (reposting) this lovely elegy. I remember weeping on reading it a year or so after 9/11. I was 12 when Philippe dared the winds of a quarter mile up that day. Having a terror of hights, I couldn't even look at the news footage. But a year later, I was taken to the top, where the wind howled. By then, they didn't allow anyone within about 15 feet of the edge. "It'll pick you up and toss you over the side", the guide said. Mr. Petit's words here are filled with love. Thank you for letting me reread what's possibly the towers themselves' best tribute.

  2. I forgot to say--on 9/11 every year since, I've thought about Mr. Petit's words.

    1. Yes. Me too. And as you say, they are so filled with love.

  3. Just say the movie "The Walk". Mr. Petit's artistry touches me deeply.