“I do not know where it comes from but many people carry this legendary concept that somebody on a high wire should not and cannot look down, because then they will instantly lose balance. …As I discovered the wire and as I practiced it, I discovered that it is beautiful to look down. …by looking down, you savor the taste of the void. It gives you terror, but it also gives you strength. It gives you the knowledge that you are mastering the void you imposed on yourself by walking in thin air. Thus, plunging your eyes into the abyss, looking down, is the wire walker’s affirmation.” -Philippe Petit
Erik Satie – Gnossienne n°1
The other day I came across an article about the release of the upcoming biopic Man On Wire, documenting Philippe Petit’s incredible 1974 walk across the wire he had “illegally rigged between the Twin Towers. With only a balancing pole and no form of security he spent forty-five minutes dancing gracefully across the immense void, 1,350 feet above the earth. (Acne Paper)” I remembered then that I’d sleepily encountered a lengthy interview with the same man in Acne Paper‘s issue on elegance, and I went back to read it. “I became a theatrical wire-walker, somebody looking for elegance,” Petit says in the interview. “There is nothing more simple and elegant than a beautiful walk on a high wire.” The whole issue covers elegance in different forms, from Alber Elbaz‘s new romanticism for Lanvin to sculpture by Terence Koh. It got me to thinking about how to define elegance, discretely: while Paper picked out a good number of things I would call elegant for one reason or another, I still came away from it wondering how to tie all of them together to pinpoint what lies at the heart of elegance itself.
To help answer my question I first took my usual approach and looked up the word, finding that “elegance” originated in the late 15th century, was used to describe a person “dressing tastefully,” and has its roots in the Latin elegans, elegant-, related to eligere – choose, select (also related: “elect”). I thought this was curious because of the frequency with which we pair the word “elegance” with “innate,” to imply that it cannot be learned, but is instead so attractive for its air of deep-rooted naturalness. Next I consulted one of the most elegant people I know, my piano teacher Christophe Buren. He answered in his usual sincere way, standing very straight in the foyer of his house with his head slightly forward, eyes concentrated and with fingers pressed together at the tips that left each other only to make illustrative arcs in the air from time to time, at the level of his waist. He said that he thought elegance could not be learned, and took care to distinguish a qualitative difference between politeness and truly elegant graciousness. He concluded that it was something one knew and understood with all of one’s being; that the true meaning of elegance lay in harmony and in a unity between interior and exterior. Elegance as lack of veneer.
It seems that when one senses that one is looking at something truly elegant, it is because one is seeing a consonance between the inner and the outer – a melodiousness of being indicating that what lies within and without have tuned themselves perfectly to each other. Elegance in any form is a tunefulness of intention and realization, of impulse and action, that embodies a certain courageous honesty of the soul that cannot be learned or practiced. There is elegance of gesture, of writing, of speech, of curve and of line; of design, of hospitality, of ambition and of intent, and of execution. There is elegance in childhood and in the best of old age. In language, elegance can be a certain precision – a streamlined style in which no words are wasted and each one chosen rich with meaning and satisfying for its accuracy. With this definition, understanding elegance suddenly reminded me of gazing into the Mediterranean Sea on a calm day: even at depths of fifty feet or more, you can see straight down to the stones at the bottom, which seem to lie only a few yards below. The soul of an elegant thing is almost alarmingly close to the surface, but not two-dimensional for its honesty: one senses its great depth and, as one often does around such things, feels almost blinded by its candor.
There is elegance in anything that can view itself clearly and move deliberately towards this horizon; our pleasure in viewing it comes from being in the presence of a realized desire; of the mastery of the void between the inner and the outer.
“All the soarings of my mind begin in my blood.” -RMR