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Submitted Literature

Human Traces

By Sebastian Faulks


Faulk’s tome “Human Traces” is effectively the history of psychiatry detailed in fictional form.  Focuses on the early development of asylums, formulations of mental illness and issues such as what differentiates humans from other mammals: the ability to fall into madness.  Interesting from anthropological perspectives as well as psychiatric and historical.

Key Themes:

  • History of Psychiatry
  • Psychosis
  • Revealing Reads

Significant Quotes / Pages

5 – “Jacques  nodded. Olivier was clearly talking of a different ‘they’ and he was too frightened to contradict or to press him.  He had been a child when Olivier, four years the older, started to drift away  from his family; it began when, previously a lively and sociable youth, he took to passing evenings alone in his room studying the Bible and drawing up a chart of ‘astral influences’.  Jacques was fascinated by the diagrams, which Olivier had done in his clever draughtsman’s hand, using pens he had taken from the hotel de ville, where he worked as a clerk.”

40-1 – “After a while he closed his eyes, fold the book on his chest and gave in to the acre of his limbs.  Often at such moments he heard his voice.  It was that of a narcoleptic man who had spoken to him regularly since childhood.  It was not like hearing his own thoughts, which invariably came in fully formed sentences as though uttered by himself, silently into his mind’ ear (the sound of thoughts was similar to the sound of reading, when, however rapidly his eyes skimmed the lines, the words did form and resonate, albeit inaudibly).  His voice, by contrast, could be heard, like Edgar’s voice or Sonia’s; it was outside him, not produced by the workings of his own brain but by some other being.

Generally, it soothed him.  It offered comments of an indifferent, sometimes inconsequential nature on what he was doing or thinking or proposing.  It did not try to interfere with his life and he was not frightened of it.  The voice was always slow and dream-weighted, as though its owner had drained off a bottle of laudanum before speaking.  He heard it less and less often these days, but it had been for so long such an intimate parts of his experience of living that he had never thought to question it; nor had he ever mentioned it to anyone.”


101 – “The history of the subject was shameful and brief.  There had been in the dark ages, when wandering idiots were mocked or pilloried; there had been a superstitious centuries when people spoke of ‘possession’ and other devilish nonsense; then there had been the era of cruelty, of imprisonment and taunting, when the idle sane paid to make faces at the lunatics.  This had turned into the era of ‘restraint’, earlier in the century, when the gathering of many mentally afflicted people in one place the first time had necessitated the use of manacles, irons and straitwaistcoats.  Even before such practices have become widespread, however, they were starting also to become obsolete under the influence of enlightened thinkers, some medical men and some, like the famous Mr Tuke of the York Retreat, layman of humane and philanthropic vision.  This was, in Thomas’s view, the true beginning of his medical discipline.

It was curious, he had to admit, that the first medicine was not a herbal preparation or a surgical procedure, but simple kindness; odd, because the struggle of the pioneering mad-doctors had always been to establish that illness of the mind was organic, a physical malfunction, to be treated in the same way as an illness of the liver or the foot, the brain being just such an organ, entirely comparable to the others-if more complicated.  Yet one did not treat cirrhosis or a broken metatarsal with kindness, so here was a paradox.”


Reference: Sebastian, Faulks. 2005. Human Traces. London: Vintage, 2006


- Charley Baker
Date Review Submitted: Friday 20th March 2009