Tag Archives: religion

Human Traces, by Sebastian Faulks

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).


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Filed under General Fiction, Historical

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman

What if the Jesus portrayed in the Bible were actually twins? That’s the basic premise behind Philip Pullman’s book. Jesus and his brother (known only as Christ in the book, although he was given a common name as well) sort of trade off being the Jesus of the Bible – Christ gets the incidents in childhood and post-Resurrection, while Jesus is the adult preacher who is crucified.

As alternate Jesus portrayals go, I prefer Lamb, by Christopher Moore, but this one’s really good too. It’s not a criticism of Christianity as a religion – in fact, in many ways it promotes the ideals of Christianity: love God, believe, and love your neighbour. It’s more an unsubtle skewering of what Christianity became: the power and corruption of the church in particular, but one that acknowledges that without the organization of the church, Christianity would never have survived, spread, and thrived.

I found the character of Christ the most interesting (not surprisingly, since he’s the main POV character). He’s always in the shadow of his more outgoing brother, to the point where people forget that Jesus even had a twin. He’s the one who argues with the priests in the temple when they are twelve, and the one who hears the voice from the dove at Jesus’s baptism. But Jesus is the one who performs miracles and goes into the wilderness and preaches to the crowds, even when he’d rather be left alone. Christ stays in the shadows, not even among the disciples, faithfully recording (and “improving” for posterity) his brother’s words and deeds.

The main theme of this book – as with many debates on Biblical scholarship and theology – is the difference between truth and history. Simply telling the bare facts of what happened may be historical, but it’s not necessarily truthful. Truth is always a subjective judgement, based on interpretation of the history/facts.  This is one thing that I’ve nearly always believed about the Bible: it may not be literally true and historically accurate, but it has a deeper truth that is essentially unconnected with its accuracy. This is also the basic message that I’ve taken from this book (whether it was Pullman’s intent or not): Christianity, at its core, has truth; the organized church may not.

I was a bit disappointed that Pullman included some of the more troubling (to me) statements of Jesus without any other explanation or interpretation (“I come not in peace but with a sword”; “You must hate your father and mother”; et c.) – I suppose it would have been too obvious to have double characters be responsible for these apparent contradictions. As it was, Christ fulfils several of the alternate roles: he is the tempter in the wilderness and Judas at the garden, to name just two, as well as being the resurrected Jesus.

It’s so interesting to me how Pullman has created a book that denies a core belief of Christianity (the resurrected Jesus) while still upholding the main tenets of the faith (worship God, love one another, etc.). That’s incredibly tricky to do, and takes incredible skill. (Lamb is funnier, though.)

This book is, apparently, one of a series of retold myths. I read The Penelopiad , another entry, shortly after it came out, and to be honest thought it was one of Atwood’s weaker books. This book doesn’t quite live up to His Dark Materials, but it’s still quite good (and a quick read, as well – I read it in just a few hours). I may have to seek out the rest of the books in the series as well; I do love good retellings.


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Filed under Historical