“Mary says he’s lacking a real
sense of proportion…”
a Robert Palmer song
The story goes like this:
During his first marriage, Peter the Great (Pyotr Alekseyevich) took for his mistress a peasant woman named Marta Helena Skowrońska. When his first wife died, he married Marta in secret, she changed her name to Catherine, and would go on to bear him twelve children. Peter spent much of his reign rooting out corruption in his government, and Willem Mons, Catherine’s secretary, was accused of peddling access to the royal family through his position. Catherine supposedly knew, but chose to ignore the offense out of affection for her secretary. After Peter ordered his summary execution Catherine was furious — the couple didn’t speak for months.
The story also goes like this:
At some point during their marriage, Catherine took for herself a lover, this man Willem Mons. When Peter found out, he had Mons beheaded, and his severed head preserved in a jar of formaldehyde. Then he forced Catherine to take time each day to sit and look at it.
Andy Hull’s song tells the second version, from the alternating perspectives of Peter and Willem. It’s almost pornographically gruesome, yes. And there appears to be no evidence for any of it. And I absolutely hate when art requires extensive contextual explanation, or a background in obscure esoterics, before it makes any god damn sense. But this obtuse erotic torture fantasy somehow won me over, because despite all of that, what it really is, is a love song. And it’s just brilliant.
“Oh Catherine tell me, was it worth it for him?”
a Bad Books song
Also, it’s worth noting here that when Peter died he had no male heirs. During the succession crisis, the “new men” whom Peter had raised to prominence, for merit rather than birth, pulled off a successful coup against the return of the old aristocracy. For the face of this new government, they chose Peter’s popular widow. So this peasant woman, born Marta, now known as Catherine, would succeed Peter to the throne of Russia, and rule for two years as Empress Catherine I. As the first female to sit the throne in her own right, she would set a legal precedent for the position that would come to include her own daughter, Elizabeth, and in time her great-granddaughter-in-law, Catherine the Great.
So? How’s that for a happy ending?
Yeah, still pretty dark, I know.
“…and the man goes walking, I go walking, through the forest and I run into five hundred thousand Galicians who are walking and crying. And then I stop (a kindly giant, an interested giant for the last time) and I ask them, why they’re crying. And one of the Galicians stops and says: because we’re all alone and we’re lost.”
Joshua Clark Orkin
“Blessed are the anonymous and obscure,
for they shall be least interfered with.”
“and if I squint I can pretend…”
Joshua Clark Orkin
“A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drownded, for he shall be going out on a day when he shouldn’t. But we do be afraid of the sea, and we do only be drownded now and again.”
-John Millington Synge (1871-1909)
Joshua Clark Orkin
“His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.
All were in sorrow, or had been, or would be.
It was the nature of things.
Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true.
At the core of each lay our suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end.
We must try to see one another in this way.
As suffering, limited beings —
Perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.
His sympathy extended to all in this instant, blundering, in its strict logic, across all divides.”
–George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
a Townes Van Zandt song