Wednesday, August 29, 2018
The Third Man
I got to thinking about the third man. What third man? you might ask, and that’s the whole point. There are so many of them. A small convention of third men joined in my consciousness last week in a curious fashion.
At the time I first became seriously interested in poetry, in the 1950s, T. S. Eliot still wielded great prestige among academic intellectuals. I didn’t like Eliot, and I certainly didn’t understand him; but I knew I was supposed to, and I soldiered on. But he is not a poet for a tutorless adolescent in a hick highschool, and it was only in my fifties and sixties that I really “got” it. These days any casual rereading is likely to yield a new surprise. Last week I was dipping into “The Wasteland,” where in the final section (“What the Thunder said”) you find this:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count there are only you and I together…
These lines, Eliot says, “were stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which, but I think one of Shackleton’s): it was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted.”
I’ll return to this somewhat obscure third man in a moment, but he raised in my mind a more obvious one, Orson Welles’s The Third Man, the most famous British film ever made, and among the contenders for best made anywhere. I first saw it, probably, in 1952. No one reading this essay will need to be told about it, or its haunting musical theme. The plot involves the topos of the dead man who is not actually dead. It established important elements of the iconography of the Cold War for many of us who lived through that period. In 1951 two British diplomats, Burgess and Maclean, who happened also to be two Soviet spies, disappeared just before they could be arrested by British intelligence agents. Obviously, they had been tipped off. By whom? By a Third Man, of course. This eventually turned out to have been super-spy Kim Philby. This affair was certainly the most famous episode in the lively history of Cold War espionage, and the fact that there eventually turned out to be a fourth man, a fifth man, and for all we know a fourteenth man did nothing to dull the world’s definitive fascination with the concept of the Third Man. How else than by early and obsessive engagement with the Cold War could a medievalist come to write a book about Cold War literature?
The third man of Orson Welles was mysterious and malign; Kim Philby was mysterious and malign. What about Eliot’s? He is mysterious to be sure, perhaps even spectral; but since he is Jesus, he is definitely benign. The allusion is not even all that obscure. It is to the great but puzzling story (Luke, cap 24) of the encounter of two disciples (Cleopas and possibly Luke himself) with the risen Christ as, shortly after the Crucifixion, they were walking along the road from Jerusalem to the nearby village of Emmaus. All this vaguely coalesced in my mind in this most recent casual dip into Eliot; but why does the poet’s note talk about Antarctic exploration rather than the gospel of Luke? For elucidation I turned to my son Richard, the only Antarctic explorer of my immediate acquaintance. He didn’t know off the top of his head, but he performed a twelve second google, which did the trick—a little embarrassing, since I am the one who is supposed to be the literary scholar in the family. Rich sent me to an excellent brief essay by Sandra Lockwood, a Canadian graduate student at Simon Fraser University, entitled “Third Man Phenomenon.” ( The essay includes bibliographical notes of an illuminating nature. Of Shackleton she writes thus: “Shackleton’s story is one of the great epics of human survival and the best-known example of Third Man phenomena. However, his experience is not unique. Mountaineers, astronauts, athletes, sailors, and 9/11 ‘Twin Tower’ survivors have recorded similar encounters with a life saving presence. This presence is often described as that of a guardian angel, a helper ghost, a shadow being, a heavenly guide, and a divine companion.”
Shackleton’s is perhaps the best known example of the phenomenon as it applies to physical danger and distress, but if we expand the field to include the spiritual, surely the twenty-fourth chapter of Luke, which has attracted reams of exegetical commentary and a significant visual iconography, would claim precedence. I presume Ms. Lockwood invokes Eliot, though not the Emmaus story, because the poet himself speaks of the Shackleton episode (rather inexactly) in his notes. But the section called “What the Thunder said” begins with a medley of scriptural allusions to the Passion narrative, which the poet assumes do not need footnoting—the Agony in the Garden, the betrayal on the Mount of Olives, and the hubbub at Pilate’s palace: “He who was living is now dead /We who were living are now dying”. The narrative counterpoint is the Third Man of the Emmaus road, and the man who was dead and is now living.
A Day at the Beach, South Georgia Island
Whatever the case, my third men were dragging me back over decades to the 1950s—when I first read Eliot, when I first saw the Orson Welles film, and when I first became immersed in the dubious battles of the Cold War. And if Sterne could write a whole shaggy dog novel (Tristram Shandy) on the basis of Locke’s whimsical theory of the “association of ideas,” surely I can get by with a short blog post?