"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,  his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein

Are we doomed to lose our minds? After Sebastian Faulks' Human Traces.

Is madness the price we pay for consciousness? And how much has our comprehension moved on since the 19th century, when psychiatry was in its infancy and “lunatics” were locked away in prison-like asylums?

Those are the questions posed by Sebastian Faulks’ novel Human Traces, which charts how two men seek to unravel “the metaphysical enigma” of the mind over a 50-year period between the 1870s and the 1920s.

Jacques, a Frenchman of impoverished origins from a loveless family, wants to bring his brother Olivier back from the dark corners of his mind to which he retreated when he was young and locked away in a stable, supposedly safe from harm.

Thomas, an Englishman from an affluent family is fascinated by how Shakespeare and Darwin have articulated the evolution of humankind, and wants to delve inwards out of intellectual curiosity as to humanity’s make up.

Devilish nonsense

We see Thomas confront the sheer scale of the human problem as a junior doctor in an English country lunatic asylum, while Jacques studies at Paris’s famous Salpatriere psychiatric centre, witnessing the shamelessly exploitative lectures by Professor Jean-Martin Charcot and his parade of misfits.

The pair continue on parallel courses in their search for answers about the origins of insanity and the possibility of a cure, through the plains of Africa to the mountains of Austria and California where they eventually set up a sanctuary for Olivier and others like him. 

It’s a novel of ambitious philosophical, scientific and imaginative depth, taking in landmark developments in our understanding of the human mind when the history of madness was “shameful and brief”, as Thomas reflects early on the book when filling the shelf in his asylum with a handful of books that take in “the dark ages, when wandering idiots were mocked or pilloried” through “the devilish nonsense” and “the era of cruelty, of imprisonment and taunting”. 

When the book was released in 2005, Faulks was criticised for sacrificing the art of fiction for the sake of demonstrating the depth of his research.  He was accused of contriving a narrative that was clunky and emotionless, of following his thesis over literary technique.

It’s a harsh critique that ignores the value of fiction in revealing truths to which readers might not otherwise be exposed. 

There’s a stronger argument for how Faulks presents an extremely lucid and human account of the struggle to understand madness and for the insane to be understood – as vital a challenge in the 21st century as it was during the period that the novel is set.

Human Traces offers a glimpse into lives vastly different from those of most readers. 

Isn’t that the point of literature? To provide a window into other worlds, to make the strange familiar, to inspire understanding? 

In the seminal 1959 work on psychopathology, The Divided Self, R.D Laing noted how the role of psychiatry was to make madness comprehensible, to find the point at which the individual who feels cut adrift can be related to as “simply human”:

“Historical information, per se, about ancient texts or about patients, will help us to understand them better only if we can bring to bear what is often called sympathy, or more intensively, empathy.”

In one of the most striking sections of Human Traces, we are given a horrifying glimpse into Olivier’s internal chaos.  In modern parlance, he would be said to have schizophrenia, which Faulks insightfully describes as a case where a person “loses the edge of himself because he cannot see his own identity and tell stories about it in the model version of the real world that normal people have”.

Or as Laing put it, someone who is split, despairingly alone and isolated.

The edge of reason

This idea of “the edge” is commonly associated with the extremes of madness.

In The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon questions why that is the case, when few people ever fall off the edge of anything. Via an understanding of how depression has been experienced by others and himself, Solomon concludes that the point is in the metaphor; it immediately conveys a “paralyzing sense of imminence”.

Faulks uses this metaphor with compelling effect.  Attending to the voice that tells him to kill himself is the only way that Olivier can think to escape his enslavement to his self-made tormenters, as he leaps from the edge of the mountain to his death. 

Faulks poses timeless questions about the nature of the human mind and the limits of our capacity to know ourselves.  The supposed lack of an emotional narrative is arguably an apt reflection of the state of mind of the two central characters, whose intellectual fascination with cognition limits their social and emotional capabilities to connect with the experiential reality of the likes of Olivier.

Although neither Jacques nor Thomas are blind to the impact of consciousness on how we engage with life and to what degree it is responsible for blurring the edges of sanity.  On visiting Thomas's asylum, Jacques wonders:

“How seldom it was that you fully inhabited your surroundings, engaging not only your senses but your awareness. On the occasions that you did so, time had a way of slowing, or appearing even to stop. So did we hurry on with other thoughts because we were preoccupied, so well adjusted to the world that it was scarcely worth our attention? Or would committing ourselves to it more fully involve experiences of time or doubt or fear that we did not really wish to have? Had the ability to escape into abstraction, to live outside our surroundings, been favoured by natural selection? It certainly appeared to be an ability lacked by the mentally ill, who were engaged so fully with their reality that they were stuck in it.”

Thomas also contemplates whether madness is “a mistake which serves no purpose”, like an error on a printed page, but which is part of a greater whole, of a book, of a human being:

“It doesn’t mean that there is something fundamentally wrong with the process of thinking, writing, printing or reading – the sequence that comprises literature. It is a sequence so magnificent that these misprints have been perpetuated – tolerated. Because they are an organic and inseparable part of the greater good. Because you simply cannot have literature without misprints. And it is still a price worth paying. If misprints were somehow taken out of the mixture, you would risk losing the literature too.”

Simply human

Ultimately, the realisation that they will never understand nor cure madness, and their failure to save Olivier, leaves them open to the “doctrines of despair” that they spent decades fighting against. 

Articulating Jacques' thoughts when he chooses not to watch as Thomas and a colleague dissect Olivier’s brain, Faulks writes:

“He felt the absurdity of the countless living functions his own brain performed each second without his even feeling them. You could not properly value such a thing; you could only laugh at it.”

The advances of the 21st century across psychology, sociology and philosophy have undoubtedly furthered our understanding of mental health. But Human Traces is a sobering reminder that for all the insights of psychiatry and medicine, via Darwin, Shakespeare, Descartes, Freud, Laing and others, madness is still a relative mystery.   

It’s a mystery that drives both Thomas and Jacques to exhaustion and dementia respectively. They fail to save their patients from the suffering to which humanity, by its very physical and psychological nature is doomed, leading them to question whether “the serenity of not knowing” might be better for us.

Shortly before Thomas arrives at the pinnacle of his despondency, he says:

“…the truth is, we have always, from the moment of our origination, been a profoundly flawed species – mad in the basic particles of our being, radically insane – and the building of great asylums only served to show us the magnitude of our madness, as the rural lunatics were gathered up and put beneath one roof with their urban cousins for the first time. Psychosis, ladies and gentleman, is the price we pay for being human.”

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