The twenty-fourth of February, 2011: all the huskies are eaten, and the pathology of boredom

From Albert Camus’s 1956 novella La Chute (‘The Fall’, Penguin, 2006, Robin Buss trans.):

Let us pause on these lofty peaks. You understand now what I meant when I spoke about aiming higher. I was referring to these high summits, the only place where I can live… I had no difficulty in appreciating why sermons, thunderous homilies and miracles of fire took place on inaccessible heights.

From another book I read today, John Geiger’s The Third Man Factor (Canongate, 2009), which is very interesting in spite of a rather American penchant for coining buzzwords (‘the principle of multiple triggers’; ‘the widow effect’; ‘the muse factor’):

The ‘mountain metaphor in religion’ is widely recognized, but in the journal Medical Hypotheses, Shahar Arzy and three co-authors, all neurologists from Swiss or Israeli universities, suggested  that mountains are more than simply a metaphor. They categorized “feeling of a presence, hearing of a presence” among “reports of revelation-like experiences in high altitude mountaineers” as experiences that might help explain the link between mountains and religion… In particular, Arzy and his colleagues wrote: “the revelations to the founders of the three western monotheistic religions – Moses, Jesus and Mohammad – occurred on mountains”… The neurologists suggested “prolonged stay at high altitudes, especially in social deprivation… might affect functional and neural mechanisms, thus facilitating the experience of a revelation”.

All of this is apropos of the so-called Third Man Factor: the sensation of being accompanied by a comforting ‘presence’ during times of danger or hardship. It’s been experienced most famously by the legendary climber Reinhold Messner (“The body is inventing ways to let the person survive”) and the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton (“During that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three”).

I think I’ll blog a little more on The Third Man Factor (particularly, perhaps, on Jaynesian bicameralism) at some later time.

Literary footnote: Shackleton’s recollections recall Daniel 3:24-5, and the casting of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the burning fiery furnace (“Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?… Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the son of God”). (I am not, I might add, obsessed, unhealthily or otherwise, with reading the Bible).

Shackleton’s experience, in its turn, inspired a passage in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (“The following lines were stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which, but I think one of Shackleton’s)” – Eliot’s note):

Who is the third who always walks beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Just to bring this  Clutterbuck full circle, I’ll conclude with the observation that Eliot died on the fourth of January, 1965 (“he died at start of year, in January”, as Joseph Brodsky noted in his elegy (another cross-reference: Brodsky also wrote the impossibly bleak and brilliant A Polar Explorer)) – and, the fourth of January, 1965 being a grey day for world literature, so did Albert Camus, author of The Fall.


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