Psychoanalysis of Philippe Petit in The Walk

Article Posted in: Research Articles

Power of Thoughts: Psychoanalysis of Philippe Petit in The Walk

by – Aayushee Garg, Vol. III, Issue. XXXIII, October 2017



The paper attempts to study what goes on in the mind of the artist Philippe Petit, as he performs the historical illegal walk on a rope taut between the tops of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in the movie The Walk. This interestingly is based on a true story. The claim made by Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, talking about the Law of Attraction that says that one’s experiences in life are consciously attracted by oneself, is clearly seen operating in the life of the protagonist throughout this movie. The research shows that Philippe Petit is indeed propelled by the Law of Attraction working in his favour as he thinks positive thoughts all the time and has his dream clearly etched on his mind. There have been acknowledged various real-life interviews of the original Philippe Petit where he talks about how he defies fear, anxiety, and death itself with the help of positive emotions. Thus, the research also explores the importance of Positive Psychology as an emerging branch of Psychology, and how the high Emotional Intelligence of the protagonist helps him deliver the incredible and unimaginable.

Keywords: Philippe Petit, Positive Psychology, Law of Attraction, Psychoanalysis, Emotional Intelligence

Positive Psychology is that branch of Psychology that deals with the scientific study of positive emotions and explores a systematic method to lead a life of fulfilment and happiness. While most of the other branches of Psychology are concerned with negative emotions like fear, anger, anxiety, and guilt, thus offering therapeutic knowledge on the cure of several types of mental illness and abnormal behaviour, Positive Psychology is geared towards happiness, optimism, and general well-being. The aim of this new field of study that emerged in 1998 according to the American Psychological Association President Martin E.P. Seligman who coined the term Positive Psychology, was “to create a field focused on human well-being and the conditions, strengths and virtues that allow people to thrive” (Azar 32). In the 1930s, an experiment was conducted with nuns where they were asked to write about their experiences in life. Then it was found out that the nuns who wrote the most about positive emotions lived up to 10 years greater than those who wrote about them the least (Fredrickson 330). The research in this area is longitudinal, studies narratives, and considers externally available evidence. Thus, studying Positive Emotions involves looking at emotions like happiness, contentment, gratitude, empathy, hope, determination, and forgiveness, that lead to a joyous life.

On August 7, 1974 Philippe Petit, a 24-year-old funambulist, walked on a tight-rope fastened between the 1 World Trade Center (1,368 feet or 417 metres high) and 2 World Trade Center (1,362 feet or 415 metres high), the then tallest buildings of the world, for 45 minutes, without any harness or safety net. His presentation included walking on the high-wire eight times, along with which he danced on the wire, freely lied down on it, and also saluted the audience while kneeling on the wire. The design took six years to be brought to life. The execution of this unbelievable feat realised by nobody else either prior to or after Petit did it, was as illegal as it was apparently impossible.

Several works of art have been dedicated to the elucidation of this unimaginable yet true story: The Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire, a book by Philippe Petit himself – titled To Reach The Clouds, another children’s book by Mordicai Gerstein titled The Man Who Walked Between The Towers. But, interestingly a recent 2015 rendition of the plot in the form of an American drama film The Walk, directed by the Academy Award winner director Robert Zemeckis stands out in terms of presentation – the art of storytelling, the gorgeous photography and thrilling visual effects employed in recreation of the celebrated Twin Towers which sadly collapsed in 2001. The movie is a tribute to the victims of the Twin Towers. The speciality of The Walk is that even though the true story is already known to the viewer, the spell-binding presentation of the act forces the viewer to bite his nails and pull his hair and be excited till the very end making one feel the height of 110 stories and walking on the rope. Some movie reviews even warned the people who suffer from Vertigo against watching the movie. Telegraph calls it “breathtaking” and does not hesitate to give it a 5-star rating. The movie comes across as an as precarious a work as the act of Philippe Petit itself. Robert Zemeckis is a director renowned for creating spectacular films such as Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Flight, The Polar Express, and many more; films that make the viewer think, not only in terms of storyline, but also the art with which they are laid out before the viewer- the excellent cinematography, the exuberant photography, the acting prowess of the artists, the impeccable direction and what not.

This research uses the lens of Positive Psychology to look into the psyche of the artist Philippe Petit through visual analysis of the heist movie The Walk, with close focus on how the Law of Attraction as illustrated in The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, coupled with the power of thoughts, makes him fulfil his unusual dream of walking on a cable taut between the two highest buildings in the world at that time: The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

In an interview with Psychology Today, when Petit is asked how he controlled his anxiety while crossing the towers, he replies that his education in terms of wire-walking is what helped him do it. Although he calls it “terrifying”, he also clearly claims that he does not see himself as taking risks and that he does not seek death at any point in the pursuit. In another interview, Philippe Petit tells Brain Pickings, how trial and error, and constructive feedback, which was non-verbal mostly, assisted in his learning. He also mentions that there should be a will for discovering more and more, a will for learning. He takes life in an extremely optimistic manner commenting that life is only worth living if it is dedicated to the fulfilment of a dream. When interviewed by The Guardian, Petit states firmly that he never got nervous during the act, and also that he never questioned what he was doing. He assures that he never relies on fate and prepares well in advance for his performance. Therefore, these interviews help in looking at Petit’s undaunted obsession as an aspect in analysing his psyche.

Steger’s article on Psychology Today titledThe Bad from the Good” brings under limelight the fact that if Petit had not been afraid of falling off the wire, or had used a safety-net for that matter, he would not have spent years in getting his equipment and also himself, ready for the feat. Steger describes the wire-walk in relation to life calling it similar to “experiencing the peak of life in the face of the fall”, thus suggesting how negative emotions are so much necessary for the growth of positivity. Eckstein in his article shows a clear demarcation underlined between positive and negative thought on the basis of the fact that positive theory is based on scientific observation whereas the negative one on no solid framework. On similar lines, Diener in his article advocates that happiness should compulsorily dominate a good life, but also gives out the disclaimer that it is necessary yet not sufficient. Then he responds to Lazarus’ claim that Positive Psychologists place the sorrows of the world in their blind spot, by arguing that these methods are only being derived to prevent problems, which as a matter of fact, is the responsibility of “we who live in economically developed nations” (117) to make the world a better place. The fear of falling down from the height of 110 stories helps Petit to work diligently towards making brawny efforts in realising the plan. Also, another influential character in the movie named Jeff, who is an accomplice of Petit, helps the artist till the very end, never backing out, in spite of having acrophobia, which is a fear of heights.

Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret essentially talks about the power of mind in shaping our lives. It deals with the working of the Law of Attraction which is a maxim of the New Thought Movement in Philosophy. It claims that positive thinking can change one’s life and bring about the results one wants. Byrne confidently writes, “They have the power to intentionally think and create their entire life with their mind.” (20) Thus, the research throws and then handles questions like what goes into the mind of this undaunted funambulist as he performs the coup, how the Law of Attraction makes his impossible dream possible, how the high Emotional Intelligence of the protagonist also accounts for the accomplishment of his feat, how even a negative emotion like fear is turned to his side due to his will-power and ambition, and how the study of Positive Psychology can really bring about change in people’s lives in terms of reaching their potential and making it big.

The Walk is in the form of a narration by the protagonist himself played by Joseph Gordon Levitt. In the beginning of the film, Philippe Petit is seen talking to the viewers describing his unimaginable dream of traversing the immense void between his beloved Towers. He claims that he does not in the least fear death. For him, although it is impossible and illegal, he says, “To walk on the wire – This is life.” His determination and passion are clearly evident in the way he expresses his obsessive desire. His shining eyes are resolute with purpose. This is the indication for the Universe to conjure up the methods for him to be able to do it. He is so positive about realising the dream, however big it may be.

Next, Philippe takes us to his black-and-white younger days where we see him performing tricks like juggling while walking on the wire, juggling while driving a unicycle, also displaying magical tricks to hordes of viewers who surround him in the streets of Paris in 1973. The way he does not allow even a “half of a toe” inside the “perfect” circle he very carefully draws, shows his discipline and no-nonsense attitude towards his performance. Every part of his performance is sacred to him. This shows that he respects his job extravagantly and hence is dedicated till the end. In The Secret, Byrne quotes Michael Losier, “I attract to my life whatever I give my attention, energy and focus to, whether positive or negative.” So, the Law of Attraction helps him attract positivity and success.

Once while performing a magic trick, he accidentally hurts his tooth hard and has to rush to the dentist, where while waiting for his appointment, he chances upon a magazine with an illustration displaying the architecture of the unfinished World Trade Centre – the tallest building in that time. Although he was having a terrible toothache for the cure of which he was simply unable to wait some time ago, now being excited about his vision of the dream, he doesn’t even care to receive medical aid, and cleverly and furtively tearing off the page with his favourite Towers, he runs out of the office. His ruthless ambition drives him to work for his fantasy. He says “My fate was sealed.” This makes us believe he had faith in the Law of Attraction himself. He had full trust that his dream would come true. He gathers the requisite equipment and plans well in advance. Collecting his tools, he runs to meet his guide and mentor.

The Emotional Intelligence factor of Petit also forms an interesting part of this research. Cognitive functions like memory, problem-solving, and language skills are enhanced when one is emotionally intelligent. Salovey delivers a definition of Emotional Intelligence by saying that it is the way of using information full of emotion in controlling cognition. He asserts that Emotional Intelligence is a part of Positive Psychology describing how it impacts cognitive activities while also touching upon the best techniques to be followed in order to regulate emotions (190). Petit’s use of only English Language in all communication, even with his accomplices though they are all from France like himself -because he had to realise the dream in New York- an English speaking nation, the way he manages as well as leads the accomplices, and the metamorphosis of emotions showcased in the movie when he undergoes training with Papa Rudy act as factors responsible for his high Emotional Intelligence. When the narrative takes us to his childhood when he was eight years old, it is shown how he first meets his incredibly talented mentor Papa Rudy played by the Oscar-winning Ben Kingsley.  He calls him “a supreme wire-walker, acrobat, and juggler”. When he first goes to express this tremendous dream to Papa Rudy, Petit is taught the importance of the subtle art to compliment and salute the audience which denotes gratitude and respect. Petit ignorantly and arrogantly refuses to understand this at first, so much so that he is thrown out of Papa Rudy’s and his own house as well, but we can see in the end as he walks in pride on the high-wire, he does not forget to salute the whole of the city of New York while beginning the act itself, precisely as trained by Papa Rudy. Also, the admirable support and cooperation provided by his accomplices and friends lead to his high Emotional Intelligence.

A very interesting fact is that even though he is seen performing illegal acts throughout the movie in various incidents – when he tears off the page from the magazine at the dentist’s, when he himself states that he never took a permit to perform in the streets of Paris, when he performs the illegal high-wire walk at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and the celebrated Twin Tower – walk itself, it is to be noted that he is extremely honest and exhibits integrity when it comes to his performance on stage. He argues with Papa Rudy about his stubborn decision to not make use of a harness or safety-net to accomplish the risk-laden stunt. He reminds Papa Rudy how he himself had taught Petit that one could not lie on the stage. “The audience will always know what is in your heart.”

            There comes a scene where he is asked by his girlfriend if he never gives up and he answers happily that he does not, as he is very persistent. Persistence again leads to the Law of Attraction working in favour of his pursuit, as he is attracting positive emotions and thoughts by constantly thinking that he will achieve it and does not intend to leave anything mid-way. When he reaches New York, and gazes at the Towers for the first time, he is flabbergasted and slightly disappointed. But, the Law of Attraction helps him find a way up to the tip of the edge of a sledge hanging out from the terrace of the World Trade Centre. He gets there and balancing himself on one toe against the gushing wind at such a height, he blurts out, “It is impossible. But I will do it.” In another bewildering incident, although three weeks just before the feat, he accidentally steps on a standing nail as the construction was still going on at the site, the immense pain does not affect his decision so much so that he does not even think of postponing the event, gathers himself and taking help of crutches gets on to work again. Also, when Papa Rudy and a while later, his father throws him out “into the streets” it does not deter him. He tells his girlfriend also that people looked at him contemptuously and called him a delinquent, and a vandal, but nothing makes him lose his faith in himself. The Law of Attraction respects the way he is undeterred and does not lose hope come what may. He is sure of the pleasant future and the Universe doesn’t hesitate to deliver.

He also prepares very well in advance for his feat, leaving no stone unturned in terms of developing the best equipment, making use of the intense precision, state-of-the-art technology, and science. He spends six years learning the art from Papa Rudy and also practising on his own. He works with fishing lines, wooden blocks for the building to “breathe”, and whatever it takes to make it a wonderful one-of-a-kind act. Hence his hard work and perseverance align with the Law of Attraction working their way to his surreal achievement.

The Law of Attraction is not only seen functioning for the bold dreamer himself but also for his accomplice Jeff, who thought to have a phobia of heights, carries himself with grace when he is suspended on an I-beam for 3 straight hours. The I-beam was 400 metres, and Jeff and Petit had to be in an awkward position as they were hiding from the security guards. If at all, Jeff had thought negatively at that time, he would not have been able to accomplish this and would have fallen down or attracted the attention of the glaring security.

It is intriguing to note that the Law of Attraction that means “like attracts like” can also be seen working against his aspiration, when he intends to walk on a tight-rope hung over a lake, where Petit is shown to have lost his concentration due to the insensitive giggling of the spectators below. He falls down half-way during the performance. He himself states that losing concentration meant losing balance. He should not have let fear take the steering wheel while riding on his emotions and should have been consistent with positivity throughout in order to attract a positive outcome. This is because according to the Law of Attraction, whatever signals one throws out into the Universe are reflected in the form of results. So, if there is fear, there cannot be a glorious outcome.

Nick Vujicic, a brilliant motivational speaker, was born without limbs, but by conquering his handicaps he became an inspiration for everyone who looks for happiness. In this article, he discusses how “attitude adjustment” (91) was indispensable to his success. He quotes a Harvard University philosopher William James who said that a change in attitude could bring a change in one’s life. He talks to the common people telling them the simple way to be happy. He gives an example of a woman who had a fatal accident in which she almost lost her eyesight but her faith, gratitude, action, empathy, forgiveness, and positive attitude recovered her. Vujicic talks about the importance of hope, determination, faith, and purposefulness to convalesce from an accident, while not belittling the value of negative emotions like fear, anger, and sadness calling them stages to reach the higher point. One’s response to the problems is more important than the size and type of problems themselves. He explains how initially though positive thinking should be practised consciously, after some time it becomes natural and automatic. So, it forces us to think that if a person without limbs can do anything he simply wants, why can’t normal human beings? Petit in The Walk uses his potential to the maximum and shows the world that things can be done if one has the right attitude and hope and determination to carry it through. A huge nail penetrating his foot just three weeks before the feat even does not deter him.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev an Indian yogi and writer, has written a spiritual article on how destiny can be rewritten if one shifts the focus inside him and considers every action as his own responsibility. He claims that as one works as his own self, he becomes indivisible and destiny comes to his grasp. He explains how the scattering of identity is detrimental to changing one’s destiny, as it will just cause the karma to make way for determination of destiny. Then he writes that body and mind if separated from oneself can lead to detachment because the body is the source of all attachments. Once destiny is in one’s hands, Sadhguru says, the person will naturally choose freedom instead of bondage, because becoming free from life and death is the deepest aspiration of every being. We are bonded just because one’s destiny is predetermined. If one changes it, which one very well can, one can be free. Philippe Petit is able to shape his destiny in The Walk. He works towards his dream with full responsibility and is undeterred towards his goal even after his two accomplices ditch him at the last moment when he is about to start the walk. His closest accomplices Jeff and Jean stand by his side and still help him complete the feat and that too with flying colours.

In a release from TEDBooks Cheating the Impossible: Wire-Walker Philippe Petit on Education, Creativity, and Patience, the real Philippe Petit explains how creativity, imagination, improvisation, education, patience, tenacity, constructive feedback, and constant struggle, are the essential ingredients to the manifestation of such an unbelievable and unimaginable dream. Maria Popova in the article on Brain Pickings quotes him as saying, “Today’s education, with its crash courses, its Cliffs Notes, its how-to videos, its Internet instant answers, and its multitude of shortcuts gives the impression of winning the race against time, but what it really does is spread insidiously the frailties of artificialness.” Even in The Walk, we can see, although he is arrogant and rigidly stubborn, Petit pays ample heed to the advice and suggestions given by Papa Rudy all the time. “I must become my own coach, my own stage director, my own critic and reviewer. My thoughts must balance my actions. I’ve turned self-correction into an art.” Thus, he speaks highly of self-improvement and the need to address and correct one’s mistakes if he intends to do any good. This is favoured by the Law of Attraction as it works due to the fact that Petit is never disheartened by the criticism he receives, instead, he works hard for the better. He also says that there should be a will for discovering more and more, a will for learning. He takes life in an extremely optimistic manner commenting that life is only worth living if it is dedicated to the fulfilment of a dream. Petit emphatically exclaims, “I make a dream come true via the dual conviction that life is not worth living if I do not dedicate it to the making of the dream and, simultaneously, that I would choose death over not working on making the dream come true!”

Tight-rope walking asks for not only physical calibre but also an unusual mental balance to stabilise oneself on the rope. Numerous people have gone out in space, others of having climbed the Mount Everest, yet others have swum the Pacific Ocean, but the only one did try this dangerous and illegal adventure. Hence, the psyche of the French aerialist comes as an interesting one indeed. The artist’s positive emotions – unparalleled optimism, fierce determination, and passion, drive him to achieve such a formidable feat rendering audiences breathless. The power of positive thoughts and emotions can be seen playing a role throughout the movie till the culmination of the illegal act. Petit considers his goals too seriously; he practises discipline, honesty and integrity ‘wildly’ when it comes to his performance. His persistence and determination, high Emotional Intelligence and rigorous preparation are matchless and these are the virtues that make the Law of Attraction work in his favour. He stresses the importance of right education and self-improvement along with self-empowerment in the Cheating the Impossible TEDBooks release where he also describes the values of creativity, tenacity, patience, and inspiration. But the lake scene in the movie shows him fall off the wire into the water below when he loses concentration and courage, and hence his balance. Thus, the Law of Attraction as discussed in the book The Secret works both ways – it can make or break both at the same time, what is essential is to utilise it to one’s own benefit by channelizing thoughts and emotions to produce positive outcomes. This research hence mainly revolves around the central theme of the Law of Attraction working in favour of the brutally courageous acrobat and shows how Positive Psychology as a science has its positives and needs to be studied. As far as the future scope of the research is concerned, and since Negative Psychology – a collective name for the other branches of Psychology, that is, the ones apart from Positive Psychology, has its own world of explorations and discoveries, it is interesting to note that a research on Philippe Petit can also be performed on the basis of how negative emotions play their role, if any, in shaping the breathtakingly beautiful crime. Thus, the scene where Petit, just before the coup, rises in the middle of the night and starts vehemently beating up a crate with a hammer, in a paranoid manner, imagining in his head that the crate was his own coffin, can account for the anxiety and fear he had. Also, just before the walk, he hallucinates that a “mysterious visitor” has come up to the terrace. These scenes can form the basis for a study conducted with respect to negative emotions and their cause and impact.

Introduction to the Author: 

Aayushee Garg was born in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India, in 1991. She is currently studying MA in English with Communication Studies at Christ University, Bengaluru. She has previously worked at Tata Consultancy Services as a Software Engineer. She has also been a teacher of Computer Science and Mathematics at a school in Lucknow. She is deeply interested in literature and philosophy. She loves reading, singing and photography. She feels grateful to be gifted with the ability to write poems. She also has a penchant for translation.


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