Rising and Falling
Two Stories of the World Trade Center Towers
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Though I wrote last week’s essay, “Left Bereft,” out of my personal experience of 9/11, I did read to prepare for the essay and I’ve done reading since. Purely naturally, I think, without any pointed focus, the reading since has concentrated me on a theme I offered early in “Left Bereft,” when I wrote of taking in the view atop the Arc de Triomphe:
Holy Ambition, it was magnificent, the grand designs of men to rise above themselves and the earth, to inscribe upon it, in ascent, a human, artful grandeur to compete with that of nature.
I intended in that sentence an echo of what I presumed would already be in every reader’s mind, thoughts of the World Trade Center Towers.
Many people forget, if they ever knew, that the Towers, on their completion, were not kindly treated as an architectural achievement. The significance they came to possess for many — the emotional resonance, too — evolved later, from the symbols the towers for various reasons became for people. One form of symbol arose from Philippe Petit’s historic 1974 highwire walk between them just over a year after they opened. It served as a kind capstone to the original ambition of their twin piercing of the skies. Petit’s singular, human ambition, to conquer with his artistry, in his own ascent, the corporate, state achievement of the Towers’ rise – to rise above them and command them under his skill – lifted individual spirits worldwide. This is what a lone person of talent and daring is capable of doing!
That’s one movement of the theme – the rise.
The other is the fall: The Falling Man.
The Towers rose up, and they fell. A lone man soared above that summit, and many people on a single day fell from it, the image of one lone man, again, coming to symbolize them all.
About the rising up, I read Paul Auster’s introduction to Petit’s 1982 book On the High Wire, which Auster translated from the French, reprinted in The Paris Review in 2019: The Paris Review - Philippe Petit, Artist of Life. Auster, lucky to live in Paris as a young man, lucky to come upon a young Pettit performing his artistry on the street then, observed him again soon after heading for his first great walk, between the towers of Notre Dame. A couple of years after for Petit, there would be the Sydney Harbour bridge.
Among the many aspects of Petit’s art that captured his fellow artist’s attention and admiration was how much the Frenchman had to lose and how little he sought to gain from his feats.
Why did he do it, then? For no other reason, I believe, than to dazzle the world with what he could do…. With an ambition and an arrogance fit to the measure of the sky, and placing on himself the most stringent internal demands, he wanted, simply, to do what he was capable of doing.
This is perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the book: the high wire is an art of solitude, a way of coming to grips with one’s life in the darkest, most secret corner of the self. When read carefully, the book is transformed into the story of a quest, an exemplary tale of one man’s search for perfection. As such, it has more to do with the inner life than the high wire. It seems to me that anyone who has ever tried to do something well, anyone who has ever made personal sacrifices for an art or an idea, will have no trouble understanding what it is about.
Auster had returned to New York by the time Pettit walked between the WTC Towers but hadn’t himself witnessed one of the aerialist’s highwire walks until 1982, when Petite ceremoniously crossed Amsterdam Avenue in New York City to the tower of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. The vision Petit creates, that Auster receives and recreates for us in a different language, is now ours:
He slid down to one knee and acknowledged the crowd again; he balanced on one foot; he moved deliberately and majestically, exuding confidence. Then, suddenly, he came to a spot on the wire far enough away from his starting point that my eyes lost contact with all surrounding references: the apartment building, the street, the other people. He was almost directly overhead now, and as I leaned backward to take in the spectacle, I could see no more than the wire, Philippe, and the sky. There was nothing else. A white body against a nearly white sky, as if free. The purity of that image burned itself into my mind and is still there today, wholly present.
While stories of success are by no means simple ones, tales of tragedy will curse us with their complexity. On one level, Junod’s “Falling Man” is the story of efforts to determine the identity of that one iconic figure among the estimated 200 who fell from the heights that day, splitting open and splattering apart on the pavement with a volume and frequency that haunts those who heard it. (One body even hit a fireman and killed him too on impact.) On a larger level, the essay explores the controversy that immediately followed publication of Richard Drew’s famous photograph, and the decision soon after by many media outlets to stop printing or broadcasting it and similar images. Many people felt it an offense against the dead to display their broken images or their bodies on a course for death.
That subject — not specifically regarding the Drew photo but about ideas of the sacred and the profane that underlie its kind of controversy — will be the subject of my Wednesday essay.
Junod’s article is behind an Esquire paywall and may not be available to you. Here, then, is Junod in conversation about his article at The Ringer. Here is Drew talking about his photo with CBS News. It’s a fascinating story, with an even more fascinating backstory, about which I’ll write more Wednesday.
In 2009, Colum McCann won the National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin, a novel spanning the lives of 12 characters on a single New York day, the day of Philippe Petit’s highwire walk between the WTC Towers.
In the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in Colum McCann’s intricate portrait of a city and its people. Let the Great World Spin is the author’s most ambitious novel yet: a dazzlingly rich vision of the pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s.
Mordicai Gerstein won the 2004 Caldicot Medal for his 2004 children’s book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.
And here is Petit performing just this year, at age 73, in Washington D. C.
Finally, Joshua Doležal, the creative and scholarly, now industrious force, too, behind the very successful The Recovering Academic substack, recommended to me as “gold” Rudolph Chelminski’s essay on Petit “Turning Point,” published in the Smithsonian Magazine. New to me, I couldn’t find a copy to read online in time for this offering. (A single Smithsonian link to be found doesn’t work.) It is collected in Best American Essays 2002, but without a digital edition, you’ll have to order a not readily available hard copy. This being one of the Homo Vitruvius Recs & Revs posts (recommendations and reviews), thanks for the rec, Josh!
That’s it for today. Faire un essai with you all Wednesday!
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