Philippe Petit’s Art of the High Wire, and the Artworks It Inspired

At root, we go to art, whatever its form, to be changed. To alter our perception, to see something new or something we have seen before in a new way, to contemplate the mysterious, the beautiful, the joyous, the awful, the searing.

The best art upends our world, shatters our assumptions, pierces our ignorance and venality. It inspires question upon question, wonder upon wonderment, and as it does so, it assaults us physically—roiling our stomachs, fluttering our hearts, goosebumping our necks, disturbing our sleep.

All art aspires to these things if it is to be worthy of its name.

In this post, I want to discuss three related works of art that in my estimation accomplish all—or at least a good deal—of the above.

1. Tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s unparalleled 138-foot traverse between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York City in 1974.
2...

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A Happy Belated Birthday to Henry David Thoreau

We’re not always up to speed at Traversing. We prefer to slow down our thinking, turning it more toward mulling, pondering, even a dollop or two of old-fashioned cogitating. Sometimes this slowness means we miss observances and even parties (drats!), like the ones that were held in various locales to celebrate Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday last July. But when we do miss folks’ big days, we always try to send a cheery “Happy Belated!” card to acknowledge our oversight and wish them godspeed.

So Henry, this card is for you. And given your towering presence in the literary and even spiritual life of our nation, I will go beyond the usual birthday niceties here to include an honest, but I think ultimately compassionate view of our relationship, your life, and the spirits that moved you in the brief time, a mere 44 years, that you walked—and walked and walked—upon this earth.

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Let’s sta...

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Bringing Joy to “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens

THE SNOWMAN

One must have a mind of winter 
To regard the frost and the boughs 
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time 
To behold the junipers shagged with ice, 
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think 
Of any misery in the sound of the wind, 
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land 
Full of the same wind 
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow, 
And, nothing himself, beholds 
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

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The snowman in this well-known Wallace Stevens poem from 1921 presents as a rather bleak figure. As we read in the 15 meticulously crafted lines above, he’s been “cold a long time,” immobile and inert, devoid of any thought linking the winter landscape in front of him to feelings of “misery,” barrenness and other ...

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What Is “The Shape of Water?”

What is the shape of water, anyway? Liquid, right? No, wait, “liquid” isn’t a shape, it’s a quality, like “flighty” or “rambunctious” or “wildly imaginative,” isn’t it?

Or is liquid a sound, like that of rushing waters or the slurping of jello or the gurgly slip-slap of lovers deep in the rhythms of coitus mellifluous?

The beautiful sound and sight and feel of liquid’s most essential and satisfying form is everywhere in Guillermo del Toro’s current, compulsively watchable movie, “The Shape of Water.” del Toro both wrote and directed it in the kind of creative project control that gets all artists giddy with anticipation and all critics sharpening their knives to pierce the artist’s overreach.

What emerges from his fertile imagination sometimes feels as liquid and ungraspable as the water that seems to slosh everywhere but onto the theater seat one is sitting in, while it he...

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A Happy New Year Gift From Ludwig van Beethoven

Got 12 minutes on this New Year’s Day for an Ode to Joy that will lift your spirit in appreciation for the year past? Yes, for that year, tempestuous and fraught as it may have been, and truly, for every other year and all the other days you have lived? With luck, there will be still more days stretching out before you, miracles all, awaiting…

Exactly what more important thing could you be going about today, on this first day of the new year, and the rest of your life?

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A note on the orchestra: Consisting of youths from Palestine, Israel, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Spain, it  was founded in 1999 by Argentina-born conductor Daniel Barenboim, who emigrated with his family to Israel at age 9, and the late Palestine-born Columbia University academic Edward Said. Their intention was to “instigate a conversation” in that historically troubled part of the world that would have the ...

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