Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Human Traces

"Human Traces", a novel by Sebastian Faulks, tells the stories of two boys, Thomas Midwinter from England, and Jacques Rebiere from France, both born in the same year, 1860. Thomas's family are bourgeois city folk, and Jacques's are poor farmers.

Add to this that Thomas can speak only a smattering of French, and Jacques no English, and you'd think they'd have nothing in common. But, amazingly, they discover they have lots to talk about when they meet by chance while Thomas is visiting France with his family. Both boys yearn to know how the human mind works. Jacques wants to learn why his older brother, Olivier, hears voices inside his head and otherwise acts crazy, so crazy that Olivier has to be chained up in a stable, sharing his living space with the farm's animals. Thomas is an aficionado of Shakespeare's plays, being so fascinated by Shakespeare's acute insights into the psychology of people, that he wants the study of the human mind to be his life's work.

Thomas and Jacques talk excitedly together, in French, throughout an entire night, at the end of which, Thomas's rudimentary French has improved so much that he can speak it almost as well as his native English - testimony to there being no substitute for total immersion in a language you wish to become the master of.

In the nineteenth century, alienism (as psychiatry was then known as) was the neccessary path to studying the human mind. I believe this path via alienism is still the case today, despite the profession of alienism receiving many a black-eye over the past decades. But to become alienists, Thomas and Jacques had first to qualify as medical doctors, which required diligent study and sacrifice, just as it would nowadays. Despite their geographic separation, they cemented their friendship over those years through letters and visits, and vowed to set up a practice together after qualifying as alienists.

Thomas, as the son of a quite well-off father, had an easier time of it than the impoverished Jacques, who could not have afforded to study over the years, but for an abbe (priest) who befriended him, becoming his mentor, and helping pay Jacques's way through medical school. After qualifying as doctors, the two young men work as interns at institutions for the insane (then quaintly called lunatic asylums), which are dirty, smelly, and noisy places, and often dangerous.

Only when their internships have ended, are Thomas and Jacques able to scrape together the means to establish an alienist practice in Austria - in a castle (schloss). I'll talk no further about the story-line because it would detract from your enjoyment of this novel should you ever read it. Were I to continue on about what Thomas and Jacques got up to after this point, this discussion of "Human Traces" would degenerate into one of those "digested reads" of novels deemed by Guardian (UK) book-reviewers as not worth the time to read.

But I'll reveal that "Human Traces", at more than six-hundred pages, with its locales encompassing England, France, Austria, California, and the plains of Africa, and covering sixty years from 1860 to 1920, is written on an epic scale. It is the very opposite of minimalist, being written as novels were written in the nineteenth century, linearly, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

So "Human Traces" is mercifully devoid of cute literary tricks like alternating between the first and third persons, and between the present and past tenses, and messing around with time, and eschewing punctuation and quotation marks - techniques which narcissistically draw attention to the novelist, and emotionally distance the reader from the words on the page.

Should you read "Human Traces" (and you should) you'll become aware of stuff you either never knew, or had forgotten. I became aware, for instance, of how daughters in English families were regarded by their fathers as little more than property to be auctioned off to potential husbands. With Thomas's older and much beloved sister, Sonia, it was no different, since she was forcefully persuaded by her father to marry a man of promising financial prospects and good family, even though she loved him not at all. But, being a dutiful Victorian-era daughter, she did as she was told, and smilingly made the best of it.

Lest you think Sonia's and Thomas's father an insensitive brute, remember that unless a young woman of that time got married by her middle to late twenties, she would live the rest of her life as a sort of non-person, whom everyone would call, when out of earshot, a spinster or old-maid. Sonia's father didn't want this for her, and he did what he did out of fatherly love.

A quite unrelated fact I'd forgotten about, but which "Human Traces" reminded me of, is that we can re-live our memories of anything we've ever done, or had done to us, or have experienced, going back, arguably, to the moment we were yanked into the world as mewling and puking slime-covered infants. We can re-live anything vividly if an electric charge is applied to the memory area of our brain.

Sebastian Faulks has Thomas attending an operation on a mental patient, involving sawing away part of the skull so the exposed brain can be prodded with an electrical probe to cure the afflicted brain-area. Amazingly the patient is conscious throughout, since the brain is nerveless, and local anaesthetic is sufficient to deal with any pain from the skull. When the electric prod touches the memory area of the patient's brain, she re-experiences an event at the seaside, where, once again she is a child, and is so happy to be with daddy at the beach. When the prod is withdrawn, the patient's vivid experience ends abruptly, and she is angry at the surgeon for taking away such a lovely experience.

When the prod is again applied to that area, the patient doesn't again experience the beach episode because the location of the area in the brain for any particular memory area is precise, as precise as the positioning of a TV satellite dish, which, if moved even a fraction of an inch, will cause the picture on the TV to disappear.

The novel deals with the human predilection to overlook facts which don't support a pet theory. Jacques has a female patient who suffers various physical pains and discomfort, which, according to his pet theory, he diagnoses as being hysterical in origin. He treats her accordingly, but her pain continues. Jacques refers her to Thomas who immediately sees there's something physical the matter, and orders her admitted to hospital where she has an emergency operation which saves her life.

Relations between Jacques and Thomas were never again the same, for Jacques, who had based his professional reputation on hysteria being the cause of almost all female physical ailments, felt permanently humiliated.

Central to "Human Traces" is the notion that psychosis - in the form of the schizophrenia of Jacques older brother, Olivier, who, like all schizophrenics, hears voices inside his head more real than the voices of anyone else - is the price we pay (or the price one-per-cent of us pay) for being human, since we are unique in the animal kingdom in having psychoses.

Given how recently our brains evolved beyond those of the other animals, and that new technology - which is what our newly evolved human brains are, in effect - almost always contains glitches, our uniquely human brains therefore contain the glitch which causes psychosis. It is this glitch which the older and simpler brains of the other animals don't have.

An analogy is the endemic back problems of one kind or another which afflict most of us. This is because we only quite recently began walking upright. A million years hence, we may have evolved to the point that back problems will be as rare as an Eskimo on a street in Timbuktu.

"Human Traces" also speculates that we humans are evolving to a higher consciousness, so that the perennial philosophical questions which so tax us, like whether there's a god, or what the meaning of life is, or how large is the universe, won't even be asked, because the answers will be self-evident to our higher-consciousness descendants of the very distant future. Given that advances in evolution begin with relatively small numbers in any species having more advanced characteristics, perhaps it is the psychics - who we "normals" hold to ridicule, but who seem able to perceive modes of existence which we "normals" can't - who are the precursors of how we'll all be in a million years. So we'll all be as psychic as Sylvia Browne now is, but we'll have to wait a million years.

"Human Traces" as a novel does have its faults, being in many respects a history of the development of psychiatry under the guise of fiction. So it's a didactic and philosophical novel, which, to the literary aesthete, would detract from its artistry.

I, for one, am not a literary aesthete, and neither perhaps, dear reader, are you, which is why you'll savour "Human Traces", and think about it for as long after you finish it, as did I.

And Now For Something Completely Different: