Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks (ISBN 978-0-099-45826-5) is a novel of ideas. Set in the late 19th, early 20th century it tells the story of two young men who become idealistic doctors, determined to work together to understand mental illnesses so that they can cure them. In addition, they hope that in understanding the interface between the body and the mind they will understand what it is to be human.
I found it really absorbing. Much of the discussion was around subjects which are very familiar to me – consciousness, the relationship between the body and the mind, the debate about whether mental illnesses have neurological bases or not, and the still young area of evolutionary biology. However, as a doctor, the book has additional relevance. After all, my experience is also one of idealism and hope; the belief that doctoring will be about curing, and the gradual erosion of that to aim at managing diseases instead of curing them (that last is a painful loss – for sure, doctors have cures for many acute diseases now, but the burden of illness is chronic disease and, sadly, we seem a long way off from finding genuine cures for those)
Sebastian Faulks floats an incredibly interesting hypothesis about the hearing of voices, having one of the characters, Thomas, propose that this was a facility that all human beings possessed but which has since been lost by most of us. He cites the literary evidence of Man’s relationship to God/gods where the earlier stories show people hearing voices which they obeyed – they experienced the daily reality of their gods; and later stories showing that people no longer reliably heard those voices and had to throw lots, examine entrails, find unusual characters (prophets) who could still hear the voices, in order to know what the gods wanted. He links this idea to the emerging concept of evolution and natural selection by proposing that the hearing of voices was linked to the development of consciousness and the loss of the voices was related to the development of self-awareness through the acquistion of language. If you are not familiar with any of these ideas this novel is a great place to introduce yourself to this area of thought.
However, this 609 page novel did not engage me emotionally……..until page 595. From page 595 to the very last word of the novel, it hit me like a sledgehammer. I didn’t just cry. I sobbed. I was totally unprepared for it. This is quite honestly one of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve read. Maybe it hit me so hard because it touched so many issues which lie in the core of my being – what is it to be a doctor? what use am I to others? how do we get a sense of self and how does it feel to lose that to an illness like dementia? what does it mean to become invisible? and, ultimately, what trace do I leave on this Earth?
There are a number of phrases and passages which have stimulated a whole lot of things for me, and I’ll return to post about some of them separately.
Thought provoking, educational, well-written, and, ultimately, powerfully emotional.
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