I think this is the first Sebastian Faulks book I’ve actually read. I’ve known about him, of course, and Birdsong has been (and still is) on my TBR list, but I think this is the first one that I’ve actually read. And it’s so worth it. The writing isn’t as poetically beautiful as, say, Vikram Seth’s, but the character depictions are quite realistic, and the ideas in it are stunning.
Human Traces is set at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the 20th century, and basically explores the subject and history of psychiatry through the lives (and work) of two friends. They agree to work together, and start their own sanatorium in the Alps, and their lives are intertwined even while their views on mental illness diverge greatly. Mental illness is still a great mystery in many respects today, so it was really interesting to see the modernity in the ideas that both Thomas and Jacques hold. Are mental illnesses the result of brain diseases? Unexplored traumas? Genetic abnormalities? I think today many people would say that it depends on the person and the illness (I know I would) and one major problem is knowing when to discriminate between them. (A problem for Thomas and Jacques as well.)
The idea that I found most intriguing in this book was the idea that schizophrenia – hearing voices that tell you what to do – may be an evolutionary relic, connected with the development of language and writing. Thomas’s theory in the book is that ancient texts (the Bible and the Iliad are specifically mentioned) reflect reality when they describe the literal, physical or at least aural presence of the gods, but then as mankind developed writing and better forms of communication, the gods weren’t as necessary for communication and cultural organisation so the ability to hear them faded through the generations. I think this is an intriguing idea and wouldn’t mind exploring it more.
A corollary to that theory is the idea of consciousness as a sixth sense – the sense of personal, individual identity. The way I understood it was that Achilles in the Iliad, for example, didn’t really have a sense of himself as a Greek (or more generally, as a being independent from the will of the gods – that isn’t explicitly stated in the book, I don’t think, but I’m going with it for the benefit of the argument), and so could have a personal, physical/aural relationship with the gods. Odysseus in the Odyssey, on the other hand, could conceive of himself as an independent being, which is why Athena (for example) was mostly absent from his life and how he could practice deception (on both gods and men). There are massive issues with this argument, of course: the concept of “Greek” the way we understand it now didn’t really exist then, and the Iliad and the Odyssey are fairly contemporaneous, and Odysseus certainly had a personal/aural relationship with certain gods even if he did deceive them and others…. But I do like the idea at its core, even if the examples don’t quite hold up – that consciousness and the idea of individual identity is one of the things that marks us out as human.
I skimmed a couple of reviews of this book as I was reading, and one of the criticisms seems to be that it is more didactic than some of his others. Having not read any others, I can’t make a comparison, but a fair portion of this one is taken up with lectures about the various philosophical ideas involved in the burgeoning study of psychiatry and psychology. I enjoyed them, but I can see how they would seem overly formal to others.
The only quibble I had with the book is so minor that it’s not really worth mentioning (but as it’s my blog, I will mention it) – and it’s not that I think this detail is wrong as much as I’m wondering if it’s right. At a dinner party/musical evening, in a relatively remote town in Switzerland, in the early days of the 20th century (dates were never completely clear to me….maybe around 1905?) chamber music by Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler is played. I have no question that Beethoven and Brahms would be played, but would Mahler? How popular was he outside of the major metropolises during his lifetime? How popular was his chamber music? I honestly don’t know – I really only know Mahler’s symphonies (which certainly wouldn’t have been played at a musical evening in 1905 in Switzerland).