Friday, August 08, 2008

When There Is No "Why"...

There is quite a bit of buzz about the upcoming release of the new film Man on Wire, which is a documentary account of Philippe Petit's 1974 illegal and clandestine 110-story high tightrope-walk between the World Trade Towers (pictured left). I remember first learning of Petit's stunt a few years back when I read about it in Paul Auster's The Red Notebook. (According to the movie trailer, Petit's stunt "made headlines around the world"... but, hey, I was still in diapers in 1974, so you can excuse me for only coming to the story of late.) By Petit's count, his walk took over six years to plan and it was, in almost every imaginable way, a death-defying stunt. The new film, directed by James Marsh in close collaboration with Petit, is reportedly framed as a "heist" story, focusing more on Petit and his friends' planning of the crazy-cum-criminal act rather than the reasons behind his decision to do it. Interestingly, Petit has claimed that he never understood the fact that, upon descending the Towers safely (but in handcuffs), the only thing he was asked by the throngs of waiting reporters was: "Why did you do it?"

Petit's answer: "There is no why." (Elsewhere, he is reported to have said: "When I see three oranges, I juggle. When I see two towers, I walk.")

I'm not sure that the mere mortals among us can really get our heads around Petit's act, but I imagine that it's even less comprehensible to us that the truth may be that "there is no why." Perhaps tightrope-walkers, and "daredevils" in general, are engaged in some highly sophisticated enactment of eudaimonia ("living well") that rejects on principle the very possibility of a human being reduced to "bare life." (On that note, I highly recommend your taking a look at the interesting dicussion developing on Mahogany Feed, where Dr. Trott suggests that "ultimate fighting" might demonstrate a similar disambiguation of bare life.) Still, I'm fascinated by Petit's claim that "there is no why," even if only because it seems to lend an air of aesthetic transcendence to what otherwise appears to be... well... madness.

And then there's this, from Auster's account:
"Each time we see a man walk on the wire, a part of us is up there with him. Unlike performances in the other arts, the experience of the high wire is direct, unmediated, simple, and it requires no explanation whatsoever. The art is the thing itself, a life in its most naked delineation. And if there is beauty in this, it is because of the beauty we feel inside ourselves."

I wonder whether Auster is right, first, to identify tightrope-walking as an "art" and, second, to suggest that it is the sole "unmediated" art that "requires no explanation whatsoever." I'm fairly well-inclined to agree with the first-- anyone who has ever seen a tightrope-walker in live action would be hard-pressed to say the performance is not an art-- but the second claim is a bit harder for me to accept. I'm not convinced that any art is "unmediated" or "the thing itself," and in the case of tightrope-walking I am tempted to say that what makes this art "beautiful" (such that it is) is the fact that it is mediated by the very real possibility of death. That is, the recognition of what Auster calls "the beauty we feel inside ourselves" is the intensification of human fragility and finitude (dare I say it... weakness?) embodied by the tightrope-walker. Not to get all Third Critique here, but it seems to me that what is beautiful about this particular art is that it exihibits a kind of purposiveness-without-purpose... or, at the very least, a purposiveness that extends beyond its "merely" teleological purpose (i.e., getting to the other end of the rope, alive). And what makes it even more captivatingly, almost painfully, beautiful is that we cannot help but ask "why, oh why, does anyone who could perish ever step on the rope in the first place?"...

I'm looking forward to the release of Man on Wire here in Memphis, which unfortunately isn't until 8/29. In the meantime, though, here's the movie trailer:


anotherpanacea said...

Your recent cross-blog pollination is awesome, Dr. J.

DOCTOR J said...

When I see five blogs, I pollinate.

Booga Face said...

Do you remember that scene in Return of the Jedi when Yoda says to Luke, "There is no why." I wonder if Petit thinks he is Yoda, and I wonder if that planet that Yoda lives on is an example of bare life.