Master of Tasks
"In this bleak landscape, there’s only one escape left to me. Luckily, it is perfect"
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Lately I’ve been exploring the outer limits of escapism. Faced with an onslaught of horrors from the outside world—war consuming multiple countries I’ve lived in and love, grief touching people close to me, and changing modes of thought within my community in strident and undeniable ways—I’ve attempted to stage a tactical retreat from some of the worst of it. I maintain that escapism can be useful, and also necessary. There are many people who seem to feel that exposing themselves to the worst images and videos, of burned children and exploded hospitals, is what this moment demands—that continual exposure to trauma is a moral necessity, and as a corollary, that joy, comfort, and distraction somehow minimize the gravity of others’ suffering. This is an understandable but flawed instinct: empathy and care do not require continual pain; in fact suffering is better countered from a place of stability and strength.
Or so I tell myself, and try to find some solace.
This tactic, though, has limited efficacy, in large part because the life’s work I’ve chosen involves facing and interpreting horrors for other people, even as they mass in me in a great sick uncoded jumble—a welter of gore and sorrow intermingled with history, ideology, and the weird, mercenary dance of alliances that passes for contemporary geopolitics. I’ve also been hard at work revising a book that takes a hard look at the worst angels of America’s domestic politics—Christian-right zealotry, its excesses and origins, and the many demons and prophets that people its crowded landscape. So there’s no rest at home or abroad from the world’s legion of absolute bummers.
I’ve been scrolling frantically through the greatest hits of Stuff That Comforts and Distracts Me: Terry Pratchett novels, gothic horror (I reread Frankenstein and Dracula, delighting in their absolute weirdness, checked out a fantastic Richard Armitage audiobook of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—it’s so melodramatic! Mr. Hyde is a horny dwarf who only kills one guy and otherwise basically just knocks a little girl over! So many monologues!). I’ve been delving into accounts of Victorian-era true crime, usually narrated by plummy Brits; The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream, Thunderstruck, The Wicked Boy, The Inheritor’s Powder. Talia, you may ask, why are you reading stories about monsters and murderers? Because they’re either fantasy or happened a very long time ago and everyone involved would be dead anyway, and they didn’t happen to me.