On the High Wire
(New Directions, 2019)
Philippe Petit’s On the High Wire (New Directions) is a slim handbook that is divided into twenty-four sections, ranging from “The Quest for Immobility” to “The High Wire Walker’s Salute” to “The King Poles” and, lastly, to “Fear.” Petit’s writing is frequently as nimble and as playful, as surprising and as unflinching, as his feats on the wire. In “Setting up the Wire,” Petit writes:
This cable must be free of all traces of grease.
Each steel cable is lubricated when it is manufactured. The first operation, therefore, is to remove this grease. The best method is to stretch out the cable in the corner of a garden and to leave it there for several years. At the end of that time, you will hunt through the tall grasses to retake possession of the “old” cable. To make it new again, wash it in gasoline and rub it with emery until it is clean and gray. It is a good idea to leave a considerable length of cable exposed in this fashion, perhaps five-hundred meters. Walk-lengths can then be cut off when needed.
An absurdity limns this text as it does Petit’s performances—in addition to his high-wire artistry, Petit, who “caught the incurable disease, Excess of Passion,” is also proficient at street-juggling, horse-back riding, fencing, and bullfighting. In “Exercises,” his inventory of activities recalls the style of Donald Barthelme’s “Glass Mountain,” an itemized story that also chronicles a seemingly impossible quest, viz., assailing a glass mountain. Petit details “The Death Walk,” the “caboulot,” “the human load,” “the human column,” “the human pyramid,” “the human belt,” “the human wheelbarrow,” “the high-bar catch-and-swing,” “the ‘baptism of wire,’” and “The Ladder of Death,” among others. Petit compiled this list of exercises at the age of only twenty-three, the age at which he wrote On the High Wire. Except for the posture—the head tilted down at the handbook as opposed to up at the wire—the reader inhabits a similar attitude to that of the viewer of the high-wire act. A sense of awe spreads. Make-believe diffuses. The reader wonders: Is this real?
On the High Wire, translated by Paul Auster, brings to mind a book of instructions by another artist: Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit. Whereas Ono, in VOICE PIECE FOR SOPRANO, writes:
- against the wind
- against the wall
- against the sky
Petit, in “The Wind,” writes:
Nothing is stronger than the wind. No one is stronger than the wind.
Not even the courageous bird.
The wind can make crossings on a bicycle or a unicycle extremely perilous. You must therefore use your biggest balancing pole.
As for working without a balancing pole in high winds: it is a descent into hell.
Like Ono’s Grapefruit, the self-contained sections of On the High Wire mean the handbook is qualified for a coffee table, or for a waiting room table, or for the shelf of a toilet tank, where one can open it without facing the commitment of narrative linearity. Yes, a loose sense of progression characterizes On the High Wire—the first four sections are: “Definitions,” “Warning,” “Setting up the Wire,” “The First Steps”—but it is also fitting to start with the final section: “Fear.” “But you are afraid of something,” Petit says. “I can hear it in your voice. What is it?”
In On the High Wire, the wire itself figures prominently. Petit personifies the wire, and over the course of the book, we are privy to the intimate relationship that exists between equilibrist and rope. The wire has a soul, it has breath; the wire, like a lover, leaves its imprint on the body and provokes reminiscence. “I am nostalgic for the old ropes. You walk on them with bare feet. Not so on the cable.” Indeed, in “Perfection,” Petit’s account of the cadence of a crossing connotes the sage advice of a relationship counselor: “For high-wire walking does not mean breathing in unison with the rope, but making sure that this joint breathing does not hinder the breath of the one or the palpitation of the other.” In The Age of Wire and String, Ben Marcus supplies a definition of the wire that is at home in Petit’s universe.
The only element that is attached, affixed, or otherwise in contact with every other element, object, item person, or member of the society. It is gray and often golden and glimmers in the morning. Members polish it simply by moving forward or backward or resting in place. The wire is the shortest distance between two bodies. It may be followed to any area or person one desires. It contains on its surface the shredded residue of hands—from members that pulled too hard, held on too long, got there too fast.
There are moments where On the High Wire stumbles. At times, it feels like Petit reaches for figurative language that eludes him—“With the top of the trees he shares the day’s last light, a light softer than air.”—as though he has not quite fully executed a half-turn jump without the balancing pole. At other times, his sentences suffer from a staleness: “Acquiring this knowledge is the work of a lifetime.”
The reader may question the logic that has led Petit, during his enumeration of exercises, to add, when describing a backward somersault, or “salto mortale,” the parenthetical “never done without a safety belt,” but not to include this same restriction in the ensuing exercise: “Jumping from a springboard or teeterboard attached to the cable and landing on the under-stander’s shoulder.” Ought the reader to believe that this undertaking may be performed free of such safety equipment? (As an aside, Petit’s use of “under-stander” to identify the person on the wire who must bear the weight of the principal performer adds welcome nuance to just what it means to “understand.”) But such nitpicking of Petit’s reasoning is out of place here. For if the reader has read “Warning,” she will know that: “As for this book— / the study of the high wire is not rigorous, / it is useless.”
Useless as it may be, Petit’s study of the high wire—with its odic mentions of former high-wire walkers, its aphorisms, its aptitude for defamiliarization (Who will see a rope in the same way?)—is, mostly, arresting. He deftly toggles between perspectives, switching from first-, to second-, to third-person, sometimes within a single section. In “Great Crossings,” the result of this perspectival manipulation is for the reader to relive, from varied angles, the feats of the tightrope walker. Petit’s ability to generate suspense, moreover, is not limited to when he is up in the air. He shows a knack for writing first sentences with a hook. “The Blindfolded Death Walk” begins: “You have no idea what’s in store for you.” “Practice” starts: “The shock of it lasted several days.” And “Perfection:” “Attention!”
Petit’s passion for his craft is obvious; his knowledge of his art is deep; his imperatives feel vital—and, given the stakes, presumably they are. What most recommends On the High Wire is the voice of its author. Petit’s style, true to his title of the Magician of High Altitudes, captivates. In the book’s Afterthought, he says: “As an adolescent, sleeping on the top of an armoire, I could not understand the rarity of my amorous conquests. A friend suggested I bring the mattress down to the floor and the liaisons proved more numerous. But my sleeping became less felicitous.” Here, the reader has an urge to reply with Petit’s own advice: “Don’t waste your time on the ground.”