Chattering Class

‘Man on Wire’ Philippe Petit on Creative Chaos

In 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked into the history books via a wire strung between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. That feat became the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary, "Man on Wire." Philippe continues to do wire-walking around the world and he's written several books, the latest of which is "Creativity: The Perfect Crime" is a book about the creative process.

© Matthew Banister & Keith Bomely

Brendan Francis Newnam: Philippe, for a man whose art requires such precision, you spend an awful lot of time talking about chaos in this book. That seems kind of counter-intuitive.

Philippe Petit: If you welcome chaos, chaos is gonna organize itself for you, in front of your own eyes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: How is that so?

Philippe Petit: Well, try it. Embark upon a project and welcome all the ideas from the outside and from the inside. You’ll get a beautiful chaotic mess in front of you, and, then, give it some time. Time will organize it, and, of course, you will be an accomplice in that organization. I always welcome chaos, knowing it will come with a little bit of help from me, to a nice, ordained structure.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Chaos, which you point out, is the Greek word for chasm, or a wide open mouth.

Philippe Petit: Yes. Since I am a Frenchman, I always refer to the senses and the tastes, and a culinary tongue is always there, lurking in the shadow. So, yes, the taste of, you know, the mouth wide open, engulfing all the knowledge that the world has to offer, chewing all this information, and then spitting out the essence, yes, that’s very French of us.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You actually use that metaphor in another part of the book. After the time of chaos, as it starts to take shape, you spend some time talking about some of the threats to creativity. And you talk about how lethargy lurks.

Philippe Petit: I love you! I love that you pick that up, because, yes, lethargy is a green-tongued monster, really lurking.

You have, I’m not talking about body language only, I’m talking about also the profound spirit of things, you know. It’s so easy for an artist, or just for the art of living artist, to fall into a comfortable system where everything works and serves you. Well, that is where the danger lurks.

You should be on the edge of your seat every day of your life. You should be surprising yourself. You should be learning a few rules to be able to break the rules. And my book, you know, it’s an invitation to do all that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, I can imagine some listeners thinking, okay, invite chaos, buck the system, you know, this sounds well and good, but this is coming from a guy who scaled the World Trade Center and walked across it on a wire. You are an extraordinary person. How do you know these principles will work for other people? I mean, what do you think about nature versus nurture when it comes to creativity?

Philippe Petit: Oh, I have a very strong thought about that! I do not believe at all in a pre-made system.

I don’t believe that you are born with ten amazing fingers that will lead you to be the best violinist in the world. I believe that, as long as you have those ten fingers ready to serve you, passion should be your motto, and let’s take the example of the violin. If you’re passionate about the violin, what are you going to do? You’re gonna use your ten fingers in manipulating this marvelous instrument day and night, and you are going to forget to sleep, and to eat, and to rest, and therefore, you’re gonna do it, you know, all day long. And if you play the violin all day long, you are going to become the best violinist in the world.

It’s a little bit the story of my life. I believe that no concessions to facility should exist, if this motto exists, passion. But, you see, passion is not being taught in school – and it should be, of course. So, we all have that passion dormant in us, but many of us had forgotten that. So, maybe my book will help in opening doors, saying, look, you have that passion in you. Awaken it and run for your dreams, and erase the word impossible from your vocabulary.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, what would you say to people who say passion’s great, but passion doesn’t pay the rent?

Philippe Petit: I will say, leave your apartment, grab a tent, and you don’t need to pay the rent.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Can you practice violin in a tent?

Philippe Petit: Absolutely! You know, life is short, and you have almost to make a decision. Do you want to enjoy life, do you want to create your own life, or do you want to curve you shoulder, do you want to, how do you say, glide your shoes and look at the floor and follow, you know, follow the people. I think you have to grab life to realize it’s an amazing, short experience, and make the best of it, and have fun, and love, and cry, and create.

We need to remember that we are amazing animals. All our senses are being dulled by our 21st century, with little texting, and blueberry, and raspberry, and boysenberries, and we are forgetting to be human animals. So, we need to smell, we need to bite, we need to look, we need to observe, we need to pray on, and my last word will be, creativity.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, I feel so inspired right now that I am going to run out of this studio and go write a novel and open a restaurant.

Philippe Petit: Yes, make sure the restaurant carries the title Funambule, in homage to your guest. Funambule is a French word for wire walker.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I will! Free drinks for you at Wire Walker any time.

Philippe Petit: What do you mean, free drinks? I want free lunches, free dinners, lifetime!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, I’m breaking the rules that you’re imposing on me, so maybe somewhere in the middle we can arrive at the answer. Philippe Petit, thank you so much for coming by our program.

Philippe Petit: Thank you very much.