September 29, 2020
I’d like to depart from our usual introductory meditation on the seasonality of the American Midwest, and meditate instead on a too-often maligned figure: the crank.
For our purposes here, I’ll define a crank as a person who absorbs themselves in the study of an academic niche. Lest we dwell too long in airy-fairy hypotheticals, I’ll give you a concrete example: Ron Pattinson, who runs the blog ‘Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.’ Mr. Pattinson is a scholar of historical brewing, and writes prodigiously about it: he’s averaged about four hundred and fifty blog posts a year since 2008, covering such topics as “Bottled Stouts in 1913” and “Cellarmanship in the 1920s.”
To be a crank is to study something for its own sake. The crank’s interest is private, separate from their job and free of financial or social considerations. Certainly Mr. Pattinson receives income and some prestige from lectures and books, but there’s only so much money in comparing the ABV of Burton Ales from 1900-1955. If there were no books, no speaking engagements, one gets the sense that Ron Pattinson would still spend his days thinking about the history of beer.
A crank’s interest must be, to some greater or lesser extent, useless. My father, whose history of the Indianapolis Greenhouse Growers Association is expected any year? Useless knowledge, certainly a crank. Our own Pinguis, who is so passionate about quantitative verse? Couldn’t be crankier. A Senior Policy Fellow who uses voting patterns to predict election outcomes? Ahh… debatably valuable, but certainly thought of as useful. That’s a wonk, not a crank.
Though useless it may be, I believe crankdom to be one of the few really noble occupations left to us. I said as much to Pinguis over the summer. Free from the taint of money or social pressure, free from the need to produce anything for society, cranks learn for the joy of learning, study merely (merely!) because the subject is interesting. In so doing, they preserve knowledge that, left to the rationalization of the market, would disappear entirely.
So if you meet a crank, Dear Reader, if someone reveals to you a deep understanding of cathedral construction or Georgian fashion, I forbid you to laugh or to ask them why. Cranks need not justify their interest to you, of all people. Rather, if they’ll let you, do anything that you can to help them in their thankless, needless, excellent work.
W. Carpus (Ed.)
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I had never read your ALEMBICK until this afternoon, and yet I cannot deny the salubrious effect that your verse has had on my personal relationships. I think it not untrue to assert, Sirs, that your poetry has saved my marriage!
My husband, Edgar, is a bore and a fool. I knew as much when I married him, yet trusted that his prospects and kind nature would render him a tolerable match. He had, even in our early days together, a rambling tendency in speech, and I can scarcely imagine that any man has shown such an aptitude for interrupting hostesses or putting his elbow in the butter dish. For several years, however, we lived in relative contentment: Edgar acted according to his nature, while I, busying myself with work and friends, turned a charitably blind eye to his failings. We were, in our way, happy.
And yet my happiness has abated in the past few months. The recent plague has meant that Edgar and I are in each other’s presence constantly: confined to the house, I cannot escape him. No sooner do we sit down to luncheon than Edgar begins lecturing me on some topic or another, mouth full of food. Does he ever inquire about my day? Does he show any sign of care? Of consideration? No, Sirs!
Today, our relationship came to the breaking point as Edgar described to me—in awful detail—the disposition of General von Kluck’s army at Mons. If I had heard him wheeze for one more minute that Kluck’s failure to properly deploy the IInd and IXth corps allowed the British to retreat in good order, I fear that I would have gone mad. How, I thought in a fury, How could you have loved this fool?
Sirs… I hesitate to ask. Do you believe in providence? That God himself sends us messages in unthought-of places? That the answers are before us, and we have but to look?
At the very moment I asked the question, the doorbell rang. It was my sister, delivering a copy of your most recent ALEMBICK. As I idled through its pages, my love for Edgar came rushing back. He may drone, Sirs, but he is never so inane as the poets that you’ve chosen to print. That poem pointing out that the sun is our closest star? That wretched fabliau? That foul poem by Marbled?
Your magazine reminded me, Sirs, of what I always knew: Edgar is a fool and a bore, but I could have done worse. Thank you, Sirs, thank you! Your magazine has made me, once again, content with my lot.
Lady Patience Brane
You muft know by now that I holde nothing butt the Higheft reegard for your literare peeriodicle, THE ALEMBICK by name. I efteem it among the Great Honorf of my lyfe, FIR, to have been publifhed in your Februer iffue.
I have refently, FIR, been unlucke in love, and, af if fitting for a fore Heartt, producedd a verfe of tragickal nature. I prefentt, FIR, for your readerf, my POEM,
O wo, o wo, o wo, faif I
a-lyeing in the Hether
the Funn is fhyning in the fky
but I do curf the whether.
The fun could fhine an hundredd yearf
but ftill I'd weap bereaftly.
Yef, I'd couldd cry a Centure'f tearf
becauf my girl haf leftt me.
If you think it not too tragick, FIR, I look Forwardd to feeing it in your Mickaelmaff iffue.
I am FIR,
Your faithful Fervant,
Today & tomorrow & yesterday too
He rhymes and sidles, away from you
He wanders like a vagrant, in a band
He holds your experience in a skeletal hand
Aspirating s's like a tea kettle's rasp
His words spin wicked, they hurt to grasp
He poses like a jester, or a ghost-faced mime
He stares at you from the depths of time
I felt hungry and crisp like a dry night
And ached in bones for your breath’s caress
And, to be nearer you, slept on sofas
And, for your touch, ran my tired heart on fumes
Did you know how I felt? Ask me — Ask me —
Did you feel that cavernous desire?
In your focus, like a tungsten needle,
I see infinity; In your voice only
Hear all truth; Gentle creature, do you know
The pain of glancing off your armor?
Or my self-consuming joy in your arms?
In our silent peace, in our love’s cavern
I see your delicate eyelashes blink
And reach to meet your warm embrace.
A Bachelor’s Complaint on the Behavior of Himself
It is and always has been a much more satisfying pursuit to criticize the behavior of other people than it is to criticize one’s own. For one thing, criticism of other people could plausibly lead to some improvement in their behavior; with oneself, happy complacency forbids any such result. Then, too, there is the fact that other people have more to do to improve; but when one is so nearly perfect as one regards oneself as being, there is hardly room for any more than the slightest move toward moral perfection. Finally, there is the simple fact that a Bachelor is a higher sort of being, as anyone in the least familiar with English literature can attest. You know, therefore, that it is serious when I, a Bachelor, think fit to censure my own behavior.
I have held myself under constant scrutiny, measured myself to the highest standard, wrapped myself entirely in a constant and loving gaze. Too constant, perhaps? And too loving? One cannot see what one does not love; one cannot love what one cannot see. The result, in any case, is this: beneath my evasions and self-evasions, digging through layers of half-expressed half-truths and uncomfortable facts about my behavior, I’ve found the root of the problem: I want too much to be liked. I am gluttonous of affection.
This surprised me just as much as now it surprises you. I wouldn’t have said I needed much affection to get by - I am by choice and settled conviction a Bachelor, as you know - and, besides, I’ve got plenty of the stuff already - if not in absolute terms, at least relative to my merits. Never, for instance, would I go around feeling that I was unrecognized or under-loved. Rather the contrary: I have often felt that at some point or another those with lingering attachments to me would suddenly see through their error, and, upon correction, I would be left with love in exactly the right measure.
How, then, does it disturb me to find that one person, out of all the multitude that people the earth, might withhold her approval? Certainly I don’t expect that everyone love me, and I can go quite happily through my days unknown and unloved with respect to the huge majority of people on the planet. But once I’ve been entangled with someone - as, just these past weeks, I have been - it becomes unbearable to think that she should somehow not love me. And this is so even if, in the first place, it was I who was tepid. An absurd posture! At a first meeting, I’m cautious - we speak - I come away with the impression of pleasantness, and nothing more. No disturbing currents of feeling; nothing ripples the calm surface of my heart. Then, a second meeting - we speak some more - I come away with the beginning of an attachment. It’s here the suffering starts.
Now, with this one person singled out from all the rest, my avidity for love has a focus - and instead of simmering away down in some well-hidden corner of my self, it takes over. I can think of nothing but whether she likes me. Work, play, idle enjoyment of the season? All gone. A week ago, I was untroubled. A week from now, I shall be again. In between, when there’s the possibility of more affection - when it has been dangled in front of me but not confirmed - proposed but not granted - raised but not decided - I am undone. I must have it.
And is this a harmless romanticism? The overactive imagination of one too ready to fall in love? Exactly the opposite. The lover extends his affection first and foremost; all nature revolves around the beloved; he hopes for her reciprocation. That’s not what happens here. Instead, I take and only take. The important thing is not that I love her but that she love me. Not at all gentlemanly, you’ll agree, and that’s why I must complain of it.
My censure is not limited to the fact that I don’t necessarily love in return those from whom I demand love. That might be bad enough, but it is not all. No, in addition I censure my own desire. I’m supposed to be a gentleman - a Bachelor! - untroubled by the passing dumb-show and all the vanity that is the world. I live a life of settled, moderate content - a second Epicurus - Spinoza reborn. Nothing troubles me - nothing ought to. But, just as no man’s a Stoic when he has a toothache, no Bachelor has philosophy when it comes to love.
Will this censure, unlike all the rest that I have offered over the years, come to any effect? I must be more composed; I must not be disturbed. Miser Caleb, desinas ineptire! And instead of hungering so for other’s love, I should work on extending my own. The Bachelor does not need his regard to be returned; it is a gift freely given. These resolutions, satisfying as they are to voice in this moment, shall surely go by the wayside as soon as I am confronted again with the same situation: before my present discomposure I would have sworn I had met them already.
Lest I seem too downtrodden, let me note that I am consoled by certain facts about my condition. Firstly, I am not alone; if I disappoint myself, so does many another. It might be good to see myself fallible, so long as it not occur too often. Secondly, the cure is time, and time will pass. I shall have no choice but to take my medicine. And, finally, there’s always poetry. Even when every other pleasure palls, and the totalizing concern with this girl’s love drives me mad, I can sit down with a notebook and compose myself. With a good theme at hand, I amuse myself with all the different ways of coming at the subject. The infinity of first lines that define the voice, the approach, and, eventually, what gets said. So, although my penance continues, don’t, pray, worry about me. As long as you are charmed, or as long as I can believe that you might be, I’ll get by.
Following are my latest compositions.