I was at the premiere screening a couple of summers ago of a documentary film about the high rise daredevilry of a Frenchman called Philippe Petit. He had once illegally crossed the Twin Towers on a wire, with no recourse to safety devices and even at one moment lying on the wire to show how at home he happened to be thousands of feet in the air.
Yet at the question and answer session after the film, and where he was in attendance, he was asked a question that seemed to be like a cerebral equivalent of a huge gust of wind that left him barely able to hold his place on the stage. A young woman near the back of the cinema asked him if he sympathised with terrorists. As the head of the festival reluctantly repeated the question to Petit, who hadn't quite caught it, I sensed the poor woman was being silently terrorised herself by the whole room. The silent majority had rejected the question, no matter if I thought it was the first good query this unexciting Q and A had thrown up. It was true the question had been badly phrased; however I believed I knew where it had come from. Earlier, the director, who was also present, had said he wanted to give the documentary the pace and purpose of a crime film. And Petit throughout the film had talked of the importance of freedom - that we are so often constrained in our lives and we need to find ways to feel free. Do terrorists not design their actions a little like Petit's - as logistically precise missions that are obviously not legal? Do they not also so often insist that they are not terrorists but freedom fighters? And did the 9/11 terrorists not take out the very buildings that Petit many years before had conquered? Obviously there were major and fundamental differences, and as Petit insisted throughout the film, he had a life wish not a death wish. But the question I believed was still a valid one. As Petit vociferously insisted that of course he had nothing to do with terrorists, and as the festival director asked the person who asked the question if she had anything to add, and she replied weakly that she had not, I wanted not so much to further the enquiry as reveal to her that at least one person in the audience was on her side. I formulated my question incorporating the observations I've mentioned above, and after I had asked it, sitting as I was in the front row, Petit immediately replied that this was a useless line of reasoning and he thought he had already answered the question satisfactorily. Again the festival director asked if I had anything else to add, and I replied, though almost to myself, "lots - but it would wait for another day."
I suppose that other day came several months later, when I was sitting in a cinema caf bar and someone came up to me saying that she thought she knew who I was. I am usually good with faces, so whenever this happens and I don't instantly recognize the person, I feel as if I am in the process of losing brain cells; that some part of my mind has been switched off never to be turned on again. But this was one of the few occasions where the initial feeling of anxiety quickly gave way to pleasure. Was I, she asked, the person who had followed her question with a similar one at a question and answer session at the premiere of Man on Wire a few months before? She said she had asked the original question, and felt so relieved that someone else in the audience knew why she was asking it. Even the two friends she was sitting with, just after she had asked the question, looked at her as if to say what the hell was she thinking. For a minute she felt as if all alone in the world with thoughts that nobody shared, and then this voice from the front of the auditorium piped up with a more formulated version of her query.
She looked the same age as her voice: she sounded to me like a post-grad student, that day, in the age of her voice, in the nature of the question, and in the tone of its delivery. Maybe even someone in the early stages of her dissertation, not yet flattened by the wealth of reading that would be expected; still with questions to ask that hadn't been knocked out of her. As we stood there talking about the film, I watched as she immersed her prettiness in concentrated thought. She possessed none of the coquettish desire to please I so often would see in women trying at the same time to be both beautiful and intelligent, and she even possessed expressions that while reflecting her thoughts were in danger of decimating her attractiveness. A certain frown she offered, or the way she would screw her eyes up in disapproval. Was she that rarity - a natural intellectual? There were certainly lots of unnatural ones. How many intellectuals, professors and writers adopt a body language that advertises their presence as intellectuals more than it reflects their thoughts?
Marie's thoughts seemed to create not the smooth body language of the professorial; more the impression of a tree gnarled by the wind. Marie was not beautiful, even in repose, but she was pretty. She had a fine bone-structure and a well-proportioned figure, but there was nothing that startled about her: her complexion was fresh but a little dull and her eyes were clear but not conspicuously striking. I know of many women who possess less overall attractiveness, but in two or three areas have eyes of such beauty, or skin of such luminosity, that we immediately notice them, and don't find it easy thereafter to take our eyes off them. Marie did not ask for one's eyes to rest on her for long.
This didn't stop me from feeling immensely attracted to her, however, even I wasn't sure for some time whether that attractiveness was sexual, and she may have said the same about me. If we saw each other for a couple of months before anything happened, it wasn't chiefly through a mutual lack of attraction - for I believe that was present - more through a mutual sense of attentiveness elsewhere; and perhaps through a certain emotional tentativeness on mine - but that can wait till later. The way I have described Marie may more or less have been the way Marie would have described me. I know I am reasonably plain looking, and that whatever attractiveness I possess lies less in presenting myself than forgetting myself. When I teach - for I am a secondary school English teacher just over thirty - I do so with a sense of engagement that has little to with dramatic pedagogy. I know of a number of friends who have taken acting classes to improve their teaching skills, friends who insist that performing in the classroom is central to conveying information to the students. I feel that performing would create a distance between myself and my subject, and I'm at my most effective, I believe, when I forget who I am in the process of telling the kids about why a writer is important, why a book matters.
I'm not so sure though whether most people aren't acting whether they are teaching or not: I sometimes wondered whether the teachers I knew took acting classes less to improve their teaching skills, than as an alibi for their desire to become better actors generally: to become better performers in their lives. When I think back to ex-partners, they always expected me to make more of an effort with their friends and their family. I always assumed it would be better to be natural. Be natural but make an effort they would reply. I never quite understood what they meant. I've always thought they were mutually incompatible terms, and I knew of too many people who were obviously making an effort and not remotely looking natural that I decided effort was one of the most useless qualities in human interaction.
Let us take asking questions for example. I have always asked questions because I am curious about the answer; but so often I hear of people making an effort to ask questions that I wonder if they have any energy left to hear the reply. Groping around desperately to ask someone a question, they've taxed themselves so intensely for that first question they're not sure if they can come up with another one. Worrying that they might not be able to do so, they miss the answer altogether, and yet I find it is in the answer to the first question that often leads to my second, and then to a third and so on.
Now this might seem like a long-winded digression, but I think it locates quite precisely my desire for Marie and her desire for me. It also manages to explain why, I believe, we were the two people who asked questions that were meaningful at the film's Q and A. This isn't to suggest great depth on my part or on Marie's - whatever that might mean - but I know when I heard Marie's question it came from a place very different from the typical question and answer session that demands someone make 'an effort' to ask a question. How often are these effort-filled questions serving the social situation but adding nothing to meaningful content? So when I heard Marie ask her question, and sensed the weight of resistance to it, I felt obliged to offer a question in turn that would support her own, no matter if I expected the indifferent reply I received. Petit was a brilliant, astonishingly daring man, but he wasn't someone to whom ready answers to difficult questions came. He would rather tightrope walk across tall buildings.
If I've been reluctant to say that in those first few months of knowing Marie that I was in love with her, it may have been because the word is often used to describe not so much a different feeling as a different set of circumstances. Where are the usual stages of crystallization as Stendhal would define them, or the seductions demanded of Baudrillard, or the projections present in Proust? Maybe love as we usually perceive it is a game based on mutual misapprehension that will allow each person to create in their minds a perfect imaginary self based on the signs of that person they choose to read, or the signs the other person chooses to reveal. But I think I've always searched out not someone's seductiveness but their tenderness: their capacity to reveal themselves to the world rather than hide all but their most appealing traits. Therein lies for me the escape from performance.
By the time Marie and I slept together we had known each other for three months, and the sex seemed an extension of a discussion more than a moment of seduction. After we had talked of the importance not always of understanding what someone says but at least empathising with their attempt at communicating, she said she wanted to hug me - as we hugged I kissed her on the lips and she reciprocated. After we made love I said it was strange that in the months we'd known each other we had never so much as touched. Why now? I asked. It wasn't only I think shyness.
I may have had my own reasons. Some years before I had travelled across Europe and through India with a fellow student after we had finished our degree. She wanted adventure after four years of books, and persuaded me to go with her, though we had only been together for a couple of months. But went I did, my desire for her that much greater than my reluctance to travel, even though the reluctance was great. Lily left me one afternoon on a beach in the north of Goa, in Arambol. It was late March, the sea was choppy and the wind blustery. I had heard the previous day two lives had been lost along the coast at Calangute. She wanted to go south, to Palolem, and then eventually into Kerala. I said I was exhausted; I wanted to lie in my room for a week and read. She stayed the night at a house next to our hotel, a place where around eight hippies were staying. The next morning I heard them leaving in a couple of vans and she was amongst them. I wanted to yell and tell her to stay, but I also knew I wanted to be alone, that I had no energy left in me to travel. The last few weeks of the trip I would read on the beach for hours, looking out on the increasingly tempestuous Arabian Sea.
Maybe, Marie said, in reply to why now, it was the idea of empathising with someone's attempt at communicating: she thought that is exactly what I did at the film all those months ago: and even more than that, also seemed to understand her. Shouldn't this be where love starts, she mused. Imagine if so many discussions were based not on insistent contradiction, but on constructive empathy. When we don't agree with someone, she said, maybe we should try to find out why we don't agree rather than immediately offer the counter-argument. Imagine if Petit had admitted that he didn't quite understand the question, that he tried to work out what she was saying, she said, and allowed her the space to reformulate the question, maybe she would have understood her position more clearly, he would have realized that a lot of his statements chimed with those of terrorists and freedom fighters, and the audience would have looked at his actions in a slightly different way.
As we lay there I said I agreed but was Petit not finally a man of extension rather than thought? Is there not so much chaos inside us - chaos in the sense of thoughts half formulated, feelings never expressed, love never exposed, hatred never released - that for many they insist on not interrogating it internally but ignoring it and quite literally acting upon it. Who knows what conflicts Petit was sublimating by his high-rise acts. In his book on tackling the Twin Towers he admitted to being terrified as he took his first step: how many cowardly moments from his past would such a step obliterate?
As Marie got up and asked whether I wanted some breakfast, I looked around her flat. It was only the third time that I'd been there - usually we would meet in cafes, a couple of times at my place - and when I first saw it I recall her saying that what she lost in space she gained in privacy. Most students in the city shared with several others in three, four of five bed-roomed flats with large rooms. She had shared with others whilst an undergraduate, but when she received funding for her PhD, she worked out that with her part-time job as a care worker, she could afford a studio apartment, and apart from the main room which had space enough for a bed, a couch, a table (which doubled up as a desk) and a couple of chairs, she also had a kitchenette and a bathroom. She said the space might be small but her thoughts were never cramped in it. In the bigger flats she had stayed in, how many of her thoughts were shrunken by going into the kitchen and getting into a conversation for the sake of sociability?
She came back through from the kitchenette and started placing bowls, cutlery, cereal, toast and butter and jam onto the table, saying the kettle was on for tea, and I reminded her of what she had said. I believed that, for me, living alone allowed me to be sociable. I only had so much social energy, and to live with others meant being almost rude much of the time. If I wasted my energy on small talk I would be left with nothing for myself in terms of words. I said I recalled talking with a friend about this some years ago: that I had only so many words in me and to use them up on chatter was the opposite of energising. In the first year at university when I was in the Halls of Residence there were twenty of us sharing a kitchen, and I knew after that I wouldn't share with anyone again. For the next three years at university I lived in a bed-sit with a tiny kitchen in the room and a bathroom in the hall. It was rundown and a number of the other tenants were alcoholics, but at least I never felt obliged to talk to anyone. I'd managed to make all my words my own, where before I felt at least half each day were being snatched from me in the Halls.
While we sat eating breakfast we wondered whether there are people for whom words are never theirs, somehow; that the language belongs to the world, and it is merely a descriptive tool or a social glue: it serves to explain past events and to make for social interaction with other human beings. Maybe even, or more especially, for someone like Petit that was the case, but that he wanted an event so immense, so impressive, that language couldn't do it justice. It was a way of going beyond language. But what if you feel you can go beyond language with language, in the sense of finding the expressive tools necessary for explaining your feelings rather than sublimating them in an action, or showing their limitations in a grand gesture?
As she asked me what I meant by a descriptive tool, I gave as an example a visit I had made to Paris a couple of years earlier. Before going I intended to visit the Eiffel Tower, Le Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, the Louvre and Luxembourg Gardens, the Pantheon, the Arc De Triomphe, but after a couple of days I felt they had no luster, believing I had nothing more to offer them than a description of their existence when I got back home. These were sights I had seen in numerous films, but seeing them in actuality they generally had far less resonance for me than they had on film.
I realised I needed to ignore these sights, and for the next week I hired a bicycle and simply travelled around the city, going up side streets that I found attractive, sat eating lunch in random gardens I found quiet and appealing, and drank tea or coffee in places that seemed to me to be hub cafes in the arrondissement that I happened to be in. Over the space of that week I saw all the great monuments, but I did so almost accidentally. I remember going down a side road near Les Invalides and seeing the Eiffel tower looming over this narrow street; getting an astonishing view of Sacre Coeur when I didn't expect it as I stood at the top of the park Buttes Chaumont, or on a street in the African district of Barbes.
Now I said what I was doing talking to her about them was not telling her about where I had been, but much more what I had discovered. I had found a way of seeing the buildings that made them relevant to my own thoughts and feelings. Marie wondered if Petit had found his singularity towards these sights himself. One of his first acts of dare-devilry was crossing the top of Notre Dame, then a suspension bridge in Sydney and then the Twin Towers. If most people are happy simply seeing or conventionally going into the sights, did Petit not conquer them, and did I not want to do the same in a rather safer and cerebral way? I obviously didn't want to compare myself on any level to Petit, whose feats were astonishing, and even aesthetic. I recall reading a piece by the fine American writer Paul Auster about Petit where he believed he wasn't merely a circus performer, but much more an artist in his own right. He created new possibilities for the human imagination in the feats that he achieved, and I remember at the time of reading Auster's comments that I was in Acapulco - a trip, as Marie knew from an earlier conversation, that I indulgently took some six months after returning from India in a successful attempt to forget Lily. I went one night to see the cliff divers famous for diving into a narrow pool of water surrounded by cliffs. But there were many such divers, and presumably all one had to do was master the dive elsewhere and the risks were minimal. Petit was improvisatory, and had no other person before him to say what he would have to do to cross high buildings without risk. To compare myself to such feats would be, punningly, the height of fatuousness.
She agreed, but also added that Petit seemed completely unable to process the question she had asked him, as though his existence couldn't quite incorporate certain types of thought, no matter the originality of his deeds. She turned to me and said that in the months she had known me, I had always seemed to know what she was trying to say, and did so even that evening when she asked her question. Is there not a degree of adventurousness in thought also - and hadn't writers like our very own, Scottish, R. D. Laing talked about explorations into inner space? If Petit was a master of outer space - of extension - aren't there people no less adventurous when it comes to introspection? And is there not a certain adventurousness in introspection that can venture into another's thoughts as well? She felt that when I asked a question that followed on from hers, it wasn't only that I understood what she was saying; I also seemed to feel an empathy with her helplessness at having asked a question that met with incomprehension. There are certain questions people ask - and maybe this was true of both of our questions - that are daring. Not as risk-inducing as a tight-rope walk at great height, but on their own micro-level maybe more healthy.
Marie said this as I looked up at the clock and it was three in the afternoon -and yet neither of us felt the need to get up and go out and get on with our day. It was as though whatever we had to do involved further inner adventure. After she'd spoken I added that one of the things I thought very interesting about Petit's walk between the twin towers was the high he was on afterwards. He was almost immediately unfaithful to his girlfriend and, while expressing feelings of guilt in the book, nevertheless added that it seemed exactly what he needed after his amazing feat. I sometime wonder if those searching for extreme experiences were looking for ecstasy in its original sense - in an out of body experience - while those seeking internal events are looking instead to ground their being to affirm its values, to make their being more consistent. That day we didn't go out at all. The next day we did so only to pick up some groceries, and we stayed in for most of the three days after that. It was the beginning of the Christmas holidays, and so neither of us had to go to work, and during these days it rained for hours, clearing up for brief dry spells before the rain returned. Sometimes we would do no more than listen to the rain spattering against her attic window.
We remained together for three years, and then, a couple of months ago she left her flat, left the city. She wanted to travel, she insisted, and the trips we had made around the Highlands were not enough: she hadn't travelled since she had left university. Our affair was always difficult to sustain, and would often consist of spending two or three days together constantly, and then not seeing each other for a week or more. Steadily, over time, I think she wanted less inner adventure and more outer experience. I think she probably thought about inviting me to travel with her, but I am sure she knew that to travel to Istanbul, and then onto India, and then on to Thailand, she needed to be alone; or rather to be away from someone who knew her so well and who would no doubt give her too much inner reflection to deal with, and somehow dilute the experience. Apart from the trips to India and to Mexico, I have travelled little myself, and it was six years earlier when I had made the trip much like the one Marie was embarking on: when I went through Europe and into Turkey and then on to India, staying in India for a couple of months, mainly in Goa and Mumbai. I got ill several times, and told myself I would never leave Europe again, and only went to Mexico a few months later out of an impatient wish to escape myself, and of course my memories of Lily. I hadn't really travelled since. Indeed I rarely leave Edinburgh, now, except for the occasional trip north, preferring to wander the city and the surrounding area by foot or by bike, but always ready to return home in the evening for dinner, perhaps to read a book or watch a film and then sleep deeply in my own bed.
I sometimes wonder when I hear about people like Petit, or Werner Herzog, or the late Bruce Chatwin, whether they belong to a different species from me, as though man bifurcated into people who live impractically in their minds, and supra-practically in their bodies. I could admire someone like Petit but in no way envy him, for surely envy is a covetous emotion, and yet now that Marie has left me, and has been travelling for six months, pursuing a life of adventure, maybe for the first time in mine I can sense something, a feeling for all those outer space men who can nevertheless possess those - namely Marie - who have also ventured into inner space. I have a feeling that she is somewhere in Istanbul, perhaps swimming in the waters not far from the city, by an island I remember visiting, and swimming with her is a man who knows well the pleasures of the flesh not only sexual but in the broadest sense sensual, perhaps a young man like those Lily left with that early morning in Arambol. I wonder if in such moments it is possible for her to conjure up images of lying for days in an attic flat listening to the rain and talking endlessly about one's own thoughts and feelings, or whether the warm nights she may be spending with another lover have obliterated those memories. But what, I sometimes think, should I do to obliterate mine? Perhaps, in some way, I may yet be capable of envying Petit his deeds. Maybe I need to find instead of this sort of low-wiring, a gesture grand enough to escape myself and the thoughts I allow to go around in my mind. It would no doubt be an act of recklessness of such minor extension that no one need ever ask me an awkward question about it, but, if they ever did, I suspect I'd find it easier than Petit to answer it.
© Tony McKibbin