Jamesian wisdom

September 14, 1994|By Russell Baker

THANKS TO the baseball strike, Henry James has at last gained purchase on that part of my consciousness -- I might almost call it my psyche -- which has long enabled me to endure summer's idler hours without suffering a sense of what I might once have thought of as emptiness.

Exposure to the Jamesian sensibility now makes me wince at the realization that I was ever so indifferent to the nuances of daily life as to think myself capable of experiencing a condition so blatant as emptiness, even under a condition as trying as an absence of baseball.

Prior to the vexing situation which resulted in baseball's removal from what a more blunt observer might call my psychic forefront, I had been conscious that a curious sense of vacuity had begun to shape my daily conduct, if not indeed my character.

You might have had difficulty choosing the precise word for this accumulated lack which I, for my part, chose to think of as vacuity, though how others might have thought of it I cannot say.

Calling it emptiness would have been misleading, for there was nothing in the least showy or even indelicate about it, as might have been intimated by the pompous reverberant overture and the coarsening ultimate sibilance one cannot avoid hearing in the utterance of a word like emptiness.

Yes, vacuity was what it was, though Fannie, whom I almost surely would have married if Henry James had created me, said she believed it was actually utter vacuity. Dear, dear Fannie, how readily she succumbed to the allure of adjectives and how easily they led her to err. It was fortunate we had not wed, for I could never tolerate a wife so given to imprecise English.

"My dear Fannie," I felt compelled to remonstrate, "there is absolutely nothing utter about me, not even the vacuity."

"Who's this Fannie you're talking to yourself about?" asked my wife.

"It's a baseball expression," I explained, exploiting her indifference to baseball. "When a player strikes out, he is said to fan. If he fans a lot he is called a fannee."

"Do you think all this Henry James is good for you?" she asked. "You seemed healthier when it was baseball all the time."

With her customary impetuosity of expression, heightened now by her quite touching concern for my well-being -- and I knew it was a genuine concern and not the purely polite concern that would have been natural in a connubial relationship less loving than ours -- my wife had, nevertheless, managed to miss the mark entirely when she mentioned my health.

Physical hygiene was scarcely at the heart, nor even at the foundation, nor at the root, nor at the very taproot itself, of the condition in which I found myself as a result of the absence of what I am tempted to call professional major-league baseball, though a person who delights in cliches might prefer to call, erroneously perhaps, but excusably so, the national pastime.

What I had perceived, you see, was that Henry James was the perfect substitute for baseball, or, more accurately perhaps, what Henry's brother William James might have called "the literary equivalent of baseball."

"You mean the moral equivalent -- not the literary equivalent -- the moral equivalent of baseball," said Fannie with her charming, but not always delightful gift for missing the point entirely when one had said something quite clever.

This extraordinary insight had come well after a July midnight, or as I thought of it afterward, the pitching hour, in faraway Baltimore. My companion and I had for more than four hours watched, first with delight, then with diminishing pleasure, and finally with tired despair, an encounter between teams managed by a Mr. Tony LaRussa and a Mr. Johnny Oates.

As the affair advanced into its fifth hour Mr. LaRussa and Mr. Oates brought it to a nearly absolute halt by changing pitchers so frequently that it was clear they desired the game never to end. Neither my companion nor I wished to be the first to say, "Let us admit baseball is tedious and go home."

That, however, was precisely how I felt. My companion knew I felt it, and I knew he knew I felt it. Mr. LaRussa also knew that I knew my companion knew; moreover, Mr. Oates knew that Mr. LaRussa knew, and what's more Mr. LaRussa knew that Mr. Oates knew Mr. LaRussa knew that my companion knew Mr. Oates knew that . . .

Russell Baker is a syndicated columnist.

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