I just finished watching “Man on Wire”. It is a BBC documentary about a French man named Phillipe who tight-rope walked between the World Trade Center twin towers in 1974. In that the documentary is entertaining, thought provoking, visually stimulating and well-produced, I recommend it, so if you plan on watching it I must warn you that this post contains spoilers. I want to use this documentary as an example of everything that is wrong with the mindset of our current world society.
The documentary of course sets out to present Phillipe’s tight-rope-walking deed as spiritual, beautiful, amazing, bold, harmless, artistic and poetic–which is partially justifiable. I’m getting in a dither over this documentary, though, because here we have a man who, shamelessly, broke the law to fulfill his own all-consuming passion. He is a narcissist, whose own ambitions and interests are more important than law and other people. He, I think, is a great example of this current world’s philosophy of self-importance and rebellion, and the consequences of such a philosophy play out even in this little documentary, which he produced himself, based on a book he wrote about himself.
Many people do things that are illegal because they think they know better than the law. Drunk driving, smoking pot, digital piracy, etc.–all illegal things that people think are harmless which somehow justifies them doing it. This was the mindset Phillipe and his companions had when they attempted this death-defying feat, and yet, despite the narrators’ constant reiterations that it was “beautiful” and “harmless”, I couldn’t help noticing how totally non-harmless it was.
They put other people’s lives at risk. Yeah, he put his own life at risk, which I am sure he felt every right to do, but I have to wonder whether he realized that he was putting the lives of the people below him at risk too. What if he fell? He would die, sure. But what if he fell on someone? Or on many people? They would die too. Did he think about that? And if he did, what can we say about the mind of a man who concludes that fulfilling his own desires is more important than other people’s lives? Yeah, he was a pro. He walked between the two towers eight times, and lasted up there for forty five minutes. And he did not fall. But he could have dropped something. In fact, he did drop something. Spectators on the ground saw a black bit of cloth fall. What if that had been the construction helmet he had been wearing? Or what if it had been his balancing pole? As beautiful as his acrobatics were, they were not harmless. He put other lives in danger, and that is why it is illegal.
Aside from the immediate and what I think are obvious dangers of what he did, I was greatly dismayed by how his whole world-attitude affected everyone around him. Many of his friends helped him in his adventure. He would have never succeeded in traversing between the towers if not for the help of the six-plus people that helped him attach the wire, sneak into the trade center and so on. I am particularly upset over how he treated his girlfriend. Here was a woman that devoted her life to him. She gave up all her interests and followed him—I’m not just assuming this, she flat out said it in the documentary. She helped him practice his tight-rope walking. She supported him in everything he did, to the point where it exhausted her. She was concerned for and awed by him every time he went out there, even to the point of tears. Did he ever think about what his narcissistic actions were doing to her?
In the documentary, Phillipe said, “You have to exercise rebellion”. There is a reason, however, that rebellion is not really that cool of a thing. Yeah, he rebelled against the law by doing something he thought was harmless (which really wasn’t). But this rebellion displayed itself in every aspect of his life. After everything his loyal and loving girlfriend did for him, what did he do when he got out of jail, after his antics were displayed on the front page of every newspaper around the world? He locked lips with the first girl that clung to him from an admiring crowd, and spent days in a hotel room having sex with her, a “magnificent explosion of pleasure”, as he described it. And he bragged about it. He called it “passion of the flesh” and defended it. He rebelled against the norms of monogamous romantic love–loyalty to one person. I was crushed watching his girlfriend, at the end of the documentary, try to describe the changes that came over Phillipe when he became famous, and then try to explain why they quickly broke up, and then, after all that, try to say why it was a “beautiful thing”. She was still head over heels for the man after all those years. And he had long since forgotten her.
This man’s narcissism hurt more than the woman closest to him. His French friends, whom he’d known as a child and who helped him on every tight-rope walking adventure he went on, were completely abandoned by him after he succeeded. One of his friends in particular, whom he was closest to, explained how their relationship got somewhat strained during the months of planning because Phillipe’s safety was foremost on his mind. Phillipe was ready to throw caution to the wind, but his friend went out of his way to make sure he didn’t get hurt. Immediately after he succeeded, Phillipe completely cut off contact with his friends. I watched his friend interviewed at the end of the documentary. He explained what happened to their relationship like so: “There was something broken in our friendship. It doesn’t matter, because we did it…I mean you cannot take away what happened, and uh…yeah what happened is that, uh…” and then he burst into tears. While Phillipe had his name on the front of every newspaper, had all charges dropped if he agreed to do a juggling act for some kids, and ran off with girls he didn’t know for “magnificent explosions of pleasure”, his friends were expelled from the United States and told to never come back.
His seemingly harmless ambition, the thing that drove this man, resulted in the endangerment of innocents, the betrayal of the woman that loved him, and the severing of his closest friendships. These are the results of chasing your desires, at the expense of all else. These are the results of living for yourself, of putting your own ambitions above the law and decency because “you know best”. In the end, you don’t even get what you hope to get, or what you do get is not what you thought it would be. I can’t count how many times I heard Phillipe and the cast of other narrators explain how beautiful and uplifting the whole thing turned out to be, but I don’t see it. Yeah, at the time it made headlines around the world. And in a week he was forgotten. So he wrote a book, to make people remember him again, and after what I’m sure is a charming read, the reader shelves it alongside all his other books, and forgets. So he had this documentary made, and yeah, it won awards, got on the BBC, and had much critical acclaim. And after watching, people will shelve the DVD right next to their copy of March of the Penguins, and forget about him.
Everything this man has lived for is fruitless. Celebrity is volatile at best. The only things that have the potential to remain with you for the remainder of your life are they very things he freed himself from as soon as he got the temporary celebrity he wanted–his friendships. Where are the groupies who slept with him after he got his picture in the paper? Who knows. He probably doesn’t even remember their names. Where is his fame? Encapsulated in a DVD that may be watched off and on for a while but which is sure to become completely obscure in a few years–even Mozart has masterpieces no one has heard of.
The less controversial position of this post and one which I’m sure 99% of readers will agree with is that relationships are more important than fame, and that celebrity is fleeting. The point I really want to drive home, however, is that rebellion and self-gratification are the seeds of all behavior that leads to the ruination of these very relationships, and yet these are behaviors our society celebrates and rewards. We celebrate sensual gratification and personal expression and repudiate temperance and order. This is a tragedy.