Here’s a question: If you put up a tightrope between two of the highest buildings in the world and tried to walk from one building to the next – how far would you get?
A frenchman who did just that, back in 1974, didn’t limit himself to walking from one end to the other. He managed to lie on the rope and look at the sky. He was able to kneel down and salute his audience, a quarter mile below him. Ultimately, he mocked the police for almost 45 minutes, until he decided to leave the wire for good before they would send a helicopter to get him.
But the story gets even more amazing: As narrated in the documentary film Man on Wire, once the frenchman delivered himself to the cops, they took him to a prosecutor – who offered to drop charges if he would perform a live show to the crowd waiting outside. He was welcomed by an amazed audience, and by a groupie who immediately took him home to relax on her waterbed. Later on, the same guy was awarded a permanent entry card to the sightseeing platform of the skyscrapers he had conquered.
The frenchman was Philippe Petit, the skyscrapers were the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and his prank was certainly one of the most amazing acts of poetic terrorism the world has ever seen.
Kidnap Someone & Make them Happy
The Urban Dictionary knows: “Poetic terrorism differs from the concept of ‘random acts of kindness’ in that its acts are not always kind, but its ultimate goal is not malice, but broadening of the mind.”1
“Weird dancing in all-night computer-banking lobbies. Unauthorized pyrotechnic displays. Land-art, earth-works as bizarre alien artifacts strewn in State Parks. Burglarize houses but instead of stealing, leave Poetic-Terrorist objects. Kidnap someone & make them happy. Pick someone at random & convince them they’re the heir to an enormous, useless & amazing fortune – say 5000 square miles of Antarctica, or an aging circus elephant, or an orphanage in Bombay, or a collection of alchemical mss.
Later they will come to realize that for a few moments they believed in something extraordinary, and will perhaps be driven as a result to seek out some more intense mode of existence.”
Why (Or: Why Not?)
When asked about the “why” of his act on the wire, Philippe Petit refused to answer. Still, he certainly had a good reason; he just didn’t see the need to articulate it: Why he did it? – Why not? Petit did what he did because it seemed like the right thing to do. He wanted to “believe in something extraordinary”, “to seek out some more intense mode of existence”.
Coming back to my question from the beginning of this post: I didn’t ask you about your tightrope walking skills to test your sportsmanship. Yours truly wouldn’t be able to walk more than two steps on that wire, even if it was hanging half a meter above the ground. But to me, the real issue is that if you tried to pull off a prank like that in the New York City of our days, you would get shot by a SWAT team before you could even floss your teeth.
Sadly enough, it’s real terrorism that brought us to this point. Terrorism that destroyed the very buildings Petit walked on. Terrorism that killed thousands of innocent people. What worries me, though, is that our fear of terror has taken us to a point where we cannot distinguish anymore between friend and foe; between a justified longing for security and the necessary risks we need to accept in order to be free; between terrorism that kills and poetic terrorism that makes our lives meaningful and interesting.
Ultimately, I think that loss of differentiation tells a story about our society.3 It tells a story about us. It tells a story about the lives we’re living – and, implicitly, a story about the lives we might want to live instead.
Life on a Tightrope
Let’s look at Bey’s poetic terrorism once more: “Later they will come to realize that for a few moments they believed in something extraordinary, and will perhaps be driven as a result to seek out some more intense mode of existence.”
Make people believe in something extraordinary.
Make them seek out some more intense mode of existence.
Isn’t that something worth pursuing?
You don’t have to harm anybody to do that. You don’t have to force anybody to do that. It may already be enough to do something beautifully crazy, and make them a part of it, a witness. Just as Philippe Petit did, that day on the wire between the twin towers: Thousands of spectators were touched. Thousands of spectators got a message. Thousands of spectators were taken, for a brief moment in time, to a totally different reality. Even the police officer who received Petit once he left the wire said, in not-all-that-concealed admiration: “I observed the tightrope dancer – because you couldn’t call him a walker – approximately half-way between the two towers. I personally figured I was watching something that somebody else would never see again in the world. Thought it was once in a lifetime.”
Think about that: “Never again […] in the world”, “once in a lifetime.” The rareness of the event made it even more precious. But wouldn’t it be great if more of us experienced moments like this?
The twin towers are gone now. Due to real terrorism. Fuck that. What we need is a lot less violence. And a bit more poetic terrorism.
Petit said: “Life should be lived on the edges of life. You have to exercise rebellion to refuse to tape yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge – and then you are going to live your life on a tightrope.”
See, there are other towers out there. Higher towers. Towers to climb on. Towers to connect with a rope. And boy, ain’t there a lot of tightropes! Both literally and metaphorically. What are you waiting for? Amaze some people. Amaze yourself. Be a poetic terrorist. Go walk on wire.
Walk on a wire. Do weird things. Astound your spectators. Be a poetic terrorist.
- Wikipedia doesn’t even have an entry for the term, despite having one for a music album of the same name. That alone speaks volumes. [↩]
- That label was originally an attack on Bey by Murray Bookchin. I somehow feel it’s more a decoration than an insult, so I use it here. [↩]
- I count myself to be a part of that society, even though I’m not a US citizen, nor have I lived there for a longer period of time. Things in Germany don’t look all that different. [↩]