Alex Beam was watching a dinner-hour “Seinfeld” rerun, as he was wont to do ever since the TNT network exiled his beloved “Law & Order” episodes to Saturday mornings. My heavens, he thought. What’s this? The “Jimmy” episode! The wheels began to turn . . .
Jimmy is the hyperactive gym rat who annoys the “Seinfeld” cast by talking about himself in the third person. Actual quote: “Jimmy’s gonna get you, Kramer! Hands off Jimmy!”
Isn’t this “illeism,” Beam mused, the odd tic of speaking about yourself as if you were a third party? Hadn’t he meant to write a column about this for several years, ever since he noticed that erstwhile Red Sox relief star Jonathan Papelbon called himself “Cinco Ocho” — Spanish for his uniform number, 58 — in post-game interviews?
This may be a sports thing; Pele and Bo Jackson often used the third person, as did the inimitable Hall of Fame base thief Rickey Henderson, e.g. “Rickey wants to play baseball.”
Why hadn’t he written this column, he asked himself? Probably because more important subjects surged to the fore, like the curse hanging over the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or the plague of persons with the same names, e.g. the sane vs. the deranged Alex Jones.
If not now, when? he thought. If not me — well, you get the point.
Indeed, Beam had been keeping a file on “illeism,” which derives from the Latin “ille,” meaning “that one.” (“Winnie the Pooh” is famously translated “Winnie Ille Pu.”) There are many famous ille-ists, for instance generational misfit Henry Adams, who narrated “The Education of Henry Adams” in the third person.
General Douglas MacArthur, no stranger to self-regard, often spoke of himself in the third person (“MacArthur will lead the mission”) which amused his subordinate and eventual superior, Dwight Eisenhower. This may be a military thing; Julius Caesar described his Gallic War triumphs third-personally. Likewise France’s General De Gaulle was a famous illeaste.
Beam spotted one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s early ille-asticisms, uttered when the writer learned that two Princeton chums had spent their graduation night with ladies of the night. “That’s one thing that Fitzgerald’s never done!” the future writer exclaimed. He was “already in the habit of referring to himself in the third person,” according to biographer Lewis Dabney.
To observe is one thing; but Beam had a penchant for analysis. Why would someone do this? The first person exudes clarity; who else could “I” be? New York novelist Paul Auster wrote a memoir in the second person (“Yes, you drink too much and smoke too much . . .”) but that’s sort of a Paul Auster thing to do.
The third person? Dangerous territory, as readers of Hilary Mantel’s novel “Wolf Hall” can attest. “There are many paragraphs where you have no idea who is speaking because the author uses the pronoun ‘he,’ ” one blogger wrote, “but with no indication of who ‘he’ is. Is it Thomas Cromwell speaking? Or perhaps the Cardinal.” Or the other guy? Beam found it perplexing, too.
When asked why he spoke of himself in the third person, Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman answered: “More often than not, he’s a strange figure for me . . . someone I’m not very closely acquainted with.” His former wife Liv Ullman reported that their shared home was like a “prison,” and that the jealous Bergman allowed her to leave only on Wednesdays. A strange figure, indeed.
Several years into his ille-alogical inquiries, Beam wondered if his original inspiration, Papelbon, was still ille-fying. Yes! Big-time. When he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2011, Papelbon insisted that $58 be added to his $50 million contract. Why?
“I don’t know,” Papelbon told reporters. “You’re going to have to ask Cinco Ocho that question. I had nothing to do with that. I can give you his phone number if you need it.”
In 2013, alas, Papelbon and the Phillies finished out of the chips. Just last month, philly.com beat writer Ryan Lawrence asked the rangy righthander what went wrong.
Lawrence: “Is your alter ego, Cinco Ocho, the problem?’’
Papelbon: “Cinco Ocho drives me crazy sometimes. I’ve tried to strangle him many times. He’s got nine lives.”
Old habits die hard, Beam thought.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org