In Search of Fear: Notes from a high-wire artist

Philippe Petit in Lapham's Quarterly:

FearA void like that is terrifying. Prisoner of a morsel of space, you will struggle desperately against occult elements: the absence of matter, the smell of balance, vertigo from all sides, and the dark desire to return to the ground, even to fall. This dizziness is the drama of high-wire walking, but that is not what I am afraid of. After long hours of training for a walk, a moment comes when there are no more difficulties. It is at this moment that many have perished. But in this moment I am also not afraid. If an exercise resists me during rehearsal, and if it continues to do so a little more each day, to the point of becoming untenable, I prepare a substitute exercise—in case panic grabs me during a performance. I approach it slyly, surreptitiously. But I always want to persist, to feel the pride of conquering it. In spite of that, I sometimes give up the struggle. But I do so without any fear. I am never afraid on the wire. I am too busy.

But you are afraid of something. I can hear it in your voice. What is it?

Sometimes the sky grows dark around the wire, the wind rises, the cable gets cold, the audience becomes worried. At those moments I hear fear screaming at me. To imagine that one evening I will have to give up the wire, that I will have to say, “I was afraid, I met Holy Fear, it invaded me and sucked my blood”—I, the fragile walker of wires, the tiniest of men, will turn away to hide my tears—and yes, how afraid I am.

On the ground I profess to know no fear, but I lie. I will confess, with self-mockery, to arachnophobia and cynophobia. Because I see fear as an absence of knowledge, it would be simple for me to conquer such silly terrors. “I am too busy these days,” I’ll say, “but when I decide it’s time to get rid of my aversion to animals with too many legs (or not enough legs—snakes are not my friends, either), I know exactly how to proceed.” I will read science reports, watch documentaries, visit the zoo. I will interview spider-wranglers (is there such a profession?) to discover how these creatures evolved, how they hunt, mate, sleep, and, most importantly, what frightens the hairy, scary beast. Then, like James Bond, I won’t have any problem having a tarantula dance a tarantella on my forearm.

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