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Why Is The High Wire Impossible To Resist?

Jul 26, 2013
Originally published on May 6, 2015 12:20 pm

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode To The Edge.

About Philippe Petit's TED Talk

High-wire artist Philippe Petit tells the story of his 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers and explains his lifelong fascination with pushing himself to the limit.

About Philippe Petit

Philippe Petit surprised the world when he walked illegally between the Twin Towers in 1974. He's also tightrope-walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Notre Dame Cathedral. Petit's book, To Reach the Clouds, is the basis of the Academy Award-winning documentary film Man on Wire.

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Our final story begins August 7, 1974, New York City.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It started out as another routine morning for a New York helicopter traffic reporter, but he had more to tell his radio listeners then how the traffic was on the West Side highway.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: I'll tell you what, I have a very queasy feeling in my stomach right now, because I'm at, let's see, 1,500 feet and up here at 1,500 feet or in that area there is somebody out there on a tight rope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center, right at the tippy top.

REPORTER #1: That somebody was Philippe Petit, a 24-year-old Frenchman doing his higher wire act 1,350 feet up and no net below.

PHILIPPE PETIT: Certainly, to enter a world of terror, you should not be pushed by someone. You should be called. You should be curious. You should have the heart of an explorer.


REPORTER #1: He and some associates managed to hide out in the World Trade Center towers overnight and early this morning rigged a 140-foot steel cable between the two buildings using some sort of crossbow device.

PETIT: I have been often passing the threshold of the impossible, because the impossible is a human invention. Whenever man goes through or to those apparent limits, if you're being called, it's not as bad as if you're being forced.


REPORTER #1: Sergeant Charles Daniels, who talked Petit off the high wire, called it a first-rate performance.

CHARLES DANIELS: He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire. And then he would go down on one knee and lay down on his back and just completely relax, and swing one of his legs over the wire, as if he wanted to just take a little nap.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: As spectacular sights go, how would you rate this one?

DANIELS: Supreme. The apex of excitement.

RAZ: You may know the story. It was the subject of an Oscar-winning film called "Man on Wire." And in it, French wire walker Philippe Petit went, quite literally, to the edge of the World Trade Center and stepped off.

PETIT: To the edge, that sounds tailored for me.

RAZ: Philippe was 24 years old when he made that walk between the Twin Towers. And we'll get to the why in a moment, but first, from Philippe's TED Talk, his first step.


PETIT: On the top of the World Trade Center, my first step was terrifying.

There is no recipe. There is no parameter or algebra formula that I could give to say, if you need to concentrate in duress or in an amazing moment in your life, do this and do that. It all depends of who we are.


PETIT: All of a sudden, the density of the air is no longer the same. Manhattan no longer spreads its infinity. The murmur of the city dissolve into a squall whose chill and power I no longer feel.

I was intensely focused on walking the wire, which I am anywhere, even when I'm not a quarter of a mile in the sky.


PETIT: I leave the balancing pole. I approach the edge. I step over the beam. I put my left foot on the cable. The weight of my body raised on my right leg, anchored to the flank of the building. Shall I ever so slightly shift my weight to the left, my right leg will be unburdened, my right foot will freely meet the wire. An inner howl assails me. The wild longing to flee. But it is too late. The wire is waiting decisively. My other foot sets itself onto the cable. Faith is what replaces doubt in my dictionary.

RAZ: Is that - is that what it is? It's that faith, that faith that you will actually do this, you will finish it?

PETIT: It's interesting, because when I put one foot on the wire, I have the faith, the certitude that I will actually perform the last step. If not, I will run away and hide in (unintelligible) days, you know. So you cannot have a project, a goal if you don't have faith. If not, it will be like, oh, I hope one day, you know, the success will fall from the sky and, you know, I'll be there to receive it. It doesn't work like that, in my opinion.

I remember at six years old, when I unwrapped, like so many other kids, my first little magic box at Christmas. And I had a desire to practice, to understand, to do in front of the mirror, the magic tricks before to rush to my parents or the kids at school and say hey, take a card. So that sense of perfection is something that marked my life from almost the beginning.

RAZ: And once he mastered magic, Philippe moved on to juggling, and soon, he was spending a lot of time at the circus watching musicians and jugglers.


PETIT: And I saw - oh, no, no, no. I didn't see, it was more interesting - I heard. I heard about those amazing men and women who walk on thin air, the high-wire walkers. Now I had been playing with ropes and climbing all my childhood, so that's it. I'm 16. I'm becoming a wire walker.

RAZ: You were 16...


PETIT: I found two trees...

RAZ: ...when, as you as you described, you found two trees.


PETIT: Trees with character.

RAZ: And you say, trees with character.

PETIT: Oh, I'm glad you picked that up. Trees with character - I should have that on my business card, if one day, I have a business card. But, you see, that's the big difference between me and, let's say, a regular wire walker, somebody who is about to move their mass from point A to point B, is that first I choose my point A and point B, and if they are not inspiring and beautiful and have some artistry in them, I would go somewhere else.

RAZ: Philippe, George Mallory, the first Westerner to attempt to scale Everest, was asked why, you know, why do you want to climb it? And he said, famously, because it's there.

PETIT: Well, yes, it's a famous question. And it's a famous answer, because it was there. I would more personally, maybe add, because it's in there and I will point at my chest, you see, this desire to overcome adversity, this desire to live, to live fully, which we don't see often this day. We don't see people who are happy with their life, you know. They usually wait for retirement or vacation, two notions that I do not comprehend. And I remember, many people after my walk between the Twin Towers asked me, so - what's next? You cannot do anything anymore.

These were the two highest towers in the world, right? And I have a box at home, a red box under my bed, which has, you know, I throw in postcards of a cathedral or a beautiful canyon or the Rapa Nui Island, Easter Island sites where I would love, one day, to put a wire. And I will continue to want to place my art in special, meaningful places to do something unique and, by that, to inspire the one who will look at it.

RAZ: In his TED Talk, Philippe Petit tells a story of another wire walk he did, it was less well known than the one between the Twin Towers. He was invited to do it by Teddy Kollek, who was the mayor of Jerusalem at the time, and it was to open the Israel Festival.


PETIT: And I choose to put my wire between the Arab quarters and the Jewish quarters of Jerusalem over the Ben Hinnom Valley. And I thought it would be incredible if in the middle of the wire I stop, and I - like a magician, I produce, I make appear a dove and send her in the sky as a living symbol of peace. Eighty thousand people spread over the entire valley. The mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, comes to wish me the best. But he's nervous because, actually, all those people were people who considered each other enemies. So I start the walk. Everything is fine. I stop in the middle. I make the dove appear. People applaud in delight. And then, in a most magnificent gesture, I send the bird of peace into the azure, but the bird, instead of flying, it goes flop, flop, flop and lands on my head.


PETIT: And people scream. So I grab the dove, and for the second time, I send her in the air. But the dove, who obviously didn't go to flying school, does flop, flop, flop and ends up at the end of my balancing pole. So now - you laugh, you laugh. But hey. I sit down immediately. It's a reflex of wire walkers. Now in the meantime, the audience, they go crazy. I mean, they must think, this guy with this dove, he must have spent years working, what a genius, what a professional.

So I take a bow, you know, I salute with my hand and at the end, I bang my hand against the pole to dislodge the bird. Now the dove who, now you know obviously cannot fly, does, for the third time, a little flop, flop, flop, and ends up on the wire behind me. And the entire valley goes crazy. Now but hold on, I'm not finished. So now I'm like, what, 50 yards from my arrival. And I'm exhausted, so my steps are slow and something happened. Somebody, somewhere, a group of people start clapping in rhythm with my steps and within seconds, the entire valley is applauding in unison with each of my steps, but not in applause of delight like before, in applause of encouragement. For a moment, the entire crowd had forgotten their differences. They had become one, pushing me to triumph.

So after the walk, Teddy and I become friends. And he tells me, he has on his desk a picture of me in the middle of the wire with a dove on my head. He didn't know the true story. And whenever he's daunted by an impossible situation to solve in his, you know, hard-to-manage city, instead of giving up, he looks at the picture and he says, if Philippe can do that, I can do this. And he goes back to work. Inspiration. By inspiring ourselves we inspire others. I mean, I will never forget this music and I hope now neither will you. Please take this music with you home and start gluing feathers to your arms, and look at the world from a different perspective. And when you see mountains, remember, mountains can be moved.


RAZ: Philippe Petit was the subject of a documentary "Man on Wire." His entire talk can be found at TED.NPR.org. He's got a new book out and it's all about his latest passion, knots, like, you know, the ones you tie. It's called "Why Knot?"


RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to the show this week. If you missed any of it or you want to hear more or you want to find out more about who was on it, you can visit TED.NPR.org. You can also find many more TED Talks at TED.com. And you can download and subscribe to this program through iTunes or the NPR smartphone app. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.