John Geiger. The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible. Cannongate, 2010.
Normally we try to review books as they come along, but occasionally we overlook some. This is one such which is well worth noting. The title of the book comes from T S Elliot’s The Waste Land:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
There is always another one walking beside you
But when I look ahead up the white road
These lines were inspired by the Shackleton party’s trek across South Georgia, where the three explorers felt there was a fourth, invisible person with them. This sort of experience of a mysterious ‘other companion, has been reported by numerous mountaineers, explorers and others, such as shipwrecked mariners in extreme situations, and this book provides many examples.
These experiences range from merely a vague sense of presence through voices in the head giving instructions on how to get out of the situation, through to full blown virtual experiences, such as Joshua Slocum’s. Some of the experiencers see this as products of their own mental processes, others as encounters with paranormal or religious figures. In all cases they provide a sense of comfort, comradeship and community.
Geiger looks at a variety of ways of regarding this experience, though invoking Julian Jaynes rather racist theory of the bicameral mind is perhaps not the happiest. More interestingly is his linking them to childhood imaginary companions and the hallucinations of the widowed. He also notes briefly the various studies undertaken by Persinger.
The unifying factor seems to be that they are products of deep isolation and stress, and here, though Geiger does not mention this, there seems to be an obvious connect with deathbed visions or the presences reported by people in NDE’s (and, of course, many of the experiences related in this book come from people who have been very close to death indeed). The NDE presences, like those recounted here, serve to push the person back into life, and would make sense as last ditch emergency powers of the personality.
Geiger suggests that some people may be more prone to such experiences than others, and suggests that abilities connected with absorption and dissociation might be involved. Perhaps one way of looking at them is that in the depth of the wilderness, both physical and psychological, some people are able to import the habitat, with its warmth and companionship.
Many of the accounts here are quite old, and I wonder whether such experiences are as needed in the age of the mobile phone. Geiger suggests that perhaps they will manifest the most in the unprecedented isolation, boredom and confinement of the journey to Mars, far beyond the warmth of earth; or indeed on awesome wilderness of Mars. Who knows what experiences might come from a vision quest on Mons Olympus. If Geiger is right and experiences like this are of the foundations of primal theology, then perhaps the next great world religion will be brought back from Mars, particularly if permanent colonies are established there.
A brief reference to sleep paralysis should warn us that by no means all presences and visions are as warm and comforting as those discussed here. The wilderness is where we might meet Pan, and much of the paranormal literature concerns experiences wherein the wilderness is imported into the heart of the habitat.
Whatever your views on such topics this is both a fascinating look at a previously little discussed “Fortean” topic and an extraordinary catalogue of human fortitude in almost impossible circumstances. -- Peter Rogerson.