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The Human Condition, and: The Queen of Spades
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The Human Condition

"They made a mess," says our guide Tatiana as she shows us
        the room in Ekaterinburg where Czar Nicholas and his wife
    and children were murdered by drunk, maladroit softies,
men who'd been workers just days before, who'd had
        no firearms training and couldn't shoot straight; driven more
    by ideology than bloodlust, they vomited and wept as they
chased the Grand Duchesses around the cellar, the screaming

girls slipping in their parents' blood. "And then," says
        Tatiana, "they didn't want that mess," and I thought, Tell me
    about it. Who wants a mess? Let's have a show of hands!
See? I didn't think so. Yet messes are everywhere we look.
        Engels said that free wills are constantly obstructing one
    another so that, inevitably, what emerges is something
that no one willed. You hit the nail on the head with

that one, Friedrich! For example, when a man decides
        it's a good idea to stick the full ten inches of his penis
    into a woman or the full four inches of his penis into
a woman who also thinks it a good idea or at least thinks
        so for a while and then changes her mind or becomes
    pregnant or both and decides that it is, in fact, a bad idea,
and there you have it: a mess. After the Romanovs were

shot and stabbed and their bodies hacked to pieces
        and burned and dissolved in sulfuric acid and tossed
    down an abandoned mine shaft, the Orthodox Church
quickly canonized them, which makes sense, because,
        one, they were murdered by godless Bolsheviks and,
    two, they were all extremely good-looking.
Have you noticed? All martyrs—Catherine of Alexandria,

Saint Sebastian, Joan of Arc—are extremely good-looking.
        No point in having a hunchback for a martyr, I guess.
    Anyway, the Romanovs, and especially the four dishy
daughters, were all good-looking and are now dead.
        No sex for those beautiful girls. Now in the case
    of pregnancy, it's not nice to call the little
Armstrong or Penelope who emerges from your own no doubt

comely body "a mess," but there you have it. Kids are
        a mess. Adorable messes. Put the putter down,
    Armstrong! See, you broke the coffee table. Brush
your own hair, Penelope, and now the doggy's. Gently,
        though—gently! Oh, oh! See what you've done;
    you've hit the dog with the hairbrush and now he
is hiding under the bed and doesn't love you anymore,

though I do. Men, let's behave ourselves.
        And you women—well, who am I to tell you women
    what to do! When Tatiana tells Barbara her husband
thinks she's too passionate, Barbara says, "Doesn't he like it when you're
        passionate about him?" Tatiana looks at Barbara
    as though she's crazy. Time for lunch!
All over Russia, people are going to lunch—all over the world, really.

The Queen of Spades

The old lady dies of fright! But it's okay, since she dies on
        stage: I'm watching Tchaikovsky's opera at the beautiful
    Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, where the audience is

as fidgety as a roomful of third graders on a warm spring afternoon.
        Coins fall from pockets and clatter
    across the wooden floors, umbrellas topple like saplings in

a Siberian gulag, and in the boxes, the pop songs that
        Russians use as ringtones compete with the orchestra
    as phones go off and their owners charge into the vestibule,

slamming doors behind them. The character named Hermann wants
        to learn the secret to the old lady's success
    at gambling, but when he threatens her with his pistol, her heart

stops. Speaking of firearms, suddenly a red dot begins to play
        across the seat backs like a laser sight on a sniper rifle.
    The old lady appears to Hermann in a dream and tells

him which cards to play: three, seven, ace. He tries it
        once: it works. Tries it a second time: it works again.
    The third time, though, the cards come up three, seven,

queen—worse, the queen appears to wink at him. The red dot
        turns out to...

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