Perhaps excitement is a function of our proximity to death. Too near to it is danger, fear, death itself perhaps, but too far from it is boredom, paralysis and ennui. The thought ‘this way life’, ‘that way death’ creates the tension in which life is lived most enjoyably. It is always fleeting. It is always unsustainable. The colours are recalled as having been brighter; the world smaller; the danger strangely reduced by that animal confidence that manifests only as wistful traces of certainty in the gut. These stories are ennervating, exciting to the teller – they speak to the core of what it means to be conscious: which is not to be too conscious – self-conscious – but to combine our best instincts with the effect of our long instruction in how to be alive. Through these stories, recounted experiences, we transcend the process of being human, no longer focused on eating or breathing or sleeping as goals in themselves but merely as the means to existence; to poetry; the keys to life but not life itself.
To Reach The Clouds is an extraordinary document for those reasons. It is not a book. Not really. Its artistic merit is entirely outstripped by the act it describes, albeit with great philosophical verve: an act of desperate purity, of beauty, of brutal physicality: determination, ascension, conquest – coherence.
In fact, To Reach The Clouds is among the most exciting books I have read in my life. There, poised in the sky of the mind, Philippe Petit stages the most illicit and delicious of artistic crimes: an unsanctioned wirewalk between the top floors of that icon of human endeavour: the Twin Towers. It is a dizzying feat not only because of its demands, its apparent lunacy, its altitude but also because the act itself is the life and death of its actor. The wirewalk between the Twin Towers is Philippe Petit’s life. Everything else is death; the book merely memorial. It need not read “he walked backwards and forwards and then fell from the wire and died” for this to be true. Instead Petit writes: “The wind passes behind me. I allow myself one breath. One pause. I let my face harbor a smile, the way humans do. I nail the cable down. I force him to tremble no longer. I abandon him there and walk away a few steps, supported by the atmosphere agglutinating against the huge wall I’m approaching […] The gods in my friends who are watching from the street […] Each with hands up to support me, to implore my success. Each with hands down to receive me if I fail.” All chillingly recounted in the present.
Petit’s book excites because it says ‘this is death and I hold it at arms length’: “Wirewalker, trust your feet!” The book has balance at its centre: ‘this way life’ and ‘that way death’ for the walker; proximity and distance to danger for the reader. Creative, analytical, wild and concentrated, it bubbles with dreams, drips with effort, ruffles with paper plans and the prosody of achievement. It is a book that is alive with death: approaching and facing death; cheating death; embracing death; being not ashamed of death, of life, its presence, its prospect, its reality. The wirewalker walked and now he is dead. This is a book about man’s war with death and Philippe Petit must be among the most eloquent and insane writers ever to have encapsulated the subject so totally by his experience and recorded it. The book would be an achievement if it did not pale in the comparison with the achievement it describes but more than that, and for the reader who is not a wirewalker, this book is a beautiful little volume up which we can all climb and through which we can hope, if only for a few hours, to live a little closer to the sky.