Another way to look at courage is as the flipside of stupid. For example, a man scaling a building in Makati sans harness, and love for life, could be considered epically courageous, or heroically stupid. On the one hand, you have to admire his bravery; on the other hand, you might scratch your head at the seeming senselessness of it all. I prefer the first view because it takes an inordinate amount of bravery to scale the world’s most iconic towers and skyscrapers. It also takes an inordinate amount of bravery to submit yourself to our legal system after you’ve been arrested for illegally scaling a building. To the casual observer, it’s ballsiness sans pareil. I’ve used sans twice now. And pareil once. It’s a French thing. It’s also a French thing to climb a skyscraper without any kind of safety gear—caution to the wind and all that. Two days ago, Frenchman Alain Robert scaled the GT Tower along Ayala Avenue—a building more than forty storeys high. Why did he do it? Damned if I know.
Two years ago, one of my favorite books was The Society of Timid Souls by Polly Morland. In it, Morland interrogates the source of courage—what makes a man lunge into a dangerous wave, for example, or go into a burning building to save a life. Morland interviews surfers, ex-cons, and the families of soldiers and firefighters, among other brave souls. She also writes about French Spiderman, Alain Robert—and we’ve just seen him in action in our very own city. In him, life and death go hand in hand. “I fully feel alive when my life is at stake,” he has been quoted as saying, and who among us doesn’t want to feel fully alive?
The Society of Timid souls was a community based in New York City, sometime in the 1940s. It was established by a concert pianist named Bernard Gabriel, and it was meant to rid performers of their stage fright. They were meant to perform in front of each other, heckle and hiss at whoever was up, in the hopes that by being exposed to the worst kind of audience, they could stand up to any booing crowd. It was the highest form of tough love—it helped its constituents “screw their courage to the sticking- place” (Shakespeare, 1603, Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, 1991). Polly Morland makes the case that courage is not the absence of fear, it’s how one overcomes it—if only for a cause bigger than one’s self.
When I heard about Robert’s stunt in Makati, I didn’t know he was the man in a book I’d practically devoured in 2016. Knowing what I do now, I wonder why he picked this city, and these times—the GT Tower is an architectural achievement, but it isn’t an iconic tower; it’s a nice inclusion on a resume, but it isn’t a breathtaking one for someone who’s scaled the highest building in the world. I mean, what is it about our country that famous eccentrics are moved to scale our buildings—was there a coded message behind the strange spectacle? For context, Robert is also known as a political and environmental activist—he once hung a banner on the New York Times building that read: Global warming kills more people than 9/11 every week. He’s also spoken out about Aids and poverty. Was he making a statement coming here, or climbing a tower just for the fugitive fun of it? It’s a small-scale achievement given that he’s climbed the Burj Khalifa, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building and the Petronas Towers (among many others).
Whether or not Alain Robert is trying to tell us something about who and what we are, he’s telling us something about fear. Scale it, surmount it, get arrested for it—the consequences might be dire. But its offshoot is courage. If that’s a bit of an overreach, we know for sure that Alain Robert is at least showing us a spectacle. If nothing else, he’s telling us to look up.