Monographic Course - The Songlines

In this section, I'm going to try to write an essay on "The Songlines" by Bruce Chatwin, 1988 Penguin Books.
Bruce Chatwin was born at 20.30h on 13 may 1940, near Sheffield, U.K. He died on 17 january 1989, outside Nice, France. He was the author of In Patagonia, The Viceroy of Ouidah, On the Black Hill, The Songlines, andUtz . His other books are What am I doing here, Anatomy of restlessness and Far journeys, a collection of his photographs which also includes selections from his notebooks.

"Music", said Arkady,"is a memory bank for finding one's way about the world".

Among the material we had to study for this course, I chose this particular book because I read it "in situ", that is, I was right there, in Australia, riding McAfferty's buses up and down and all around the eastern part of the down-under country. Australia and all its peculiarities always fascinated me, since the first time I saw a kangaroo on a picture. The Songlines was published on 25 june 1987. It is the authors'testament, and it's dedicated to his wife Elizabeth.
Bruce Chatwin ventured into the desolated outback with a precise idea: to learn about Aboriginals' "Dreaming-tracks", a puzzling aspect of their nomadic customs. Since he started his career as a writer he had in mind to write a book about nomads. In Salman Rushdie's words, with this book Chatwin "has unloaded the burden he's been carrying all his writer's life". In his own words "the more I read, the more convinced I became that nomads are the crankhandle of history, if for no reason than the great monotheisms had, all of them, surfaced from the pastoral milieu..."

The Aboriginals thought that the earth gave life, food, culture and intelligence to a man. And the earth took him back when he died. Therefore, a man's territory, or it's "own country", is sacred like an ikon and it has to remain untouched. When visiting some of their sacred land and heritage museums, I had a peaceful feeling. Human beings perfectly integrated in their land, like all other animals, trodding lightly with full respect, for the less they would ask to the earth, the less they had to give back. I was thinking at the stark contrast between our world and theirs. They learned so much during the millennia, that they were able to control bushfire, aimed to clean the bush, or treated the desert like a supermarket, never exploiting it.

Aboriginals have a unique way to travel: they sing the land! I didn't have any idea about this amazing way of going from point A to point B. It is like if the whole of Australia is a giant dish of spaghetti, each "spaghetto" a "songline", a singed path. "A "songline" is the term popularized by Chatwin for "Tjuringa line" or "dreaming track". It's not translatable in any sense. It is at once a map, a long narrative poem, and the foundation of an Aboriginal's religious and traditional life. For an outsider, the songline's sacred truth is inaccessible, its mechanism fantastically complex." They know the language of their neighbours, to better communicate and pass through. They are able to sing a faraway land and understand its features just by listening to the song about it. There where 440 aboriginal tribes in Australia. Only forty left nowadays. I was on a bus in Jabiru, in the middle on Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, and up it comes a lean, matte black fella that sits next to me, flemishly asking if he can take the window seat. I welcome him, moving aside. A few kilometers past, on our way back toward Darwin, I hear a low melodic mumble. It was him, he was singing the territory even if he was on a bus, and dressed like a "westerner". I had goose bumps and my mouth cracked a smile, but I didn't dare disturbing him. It was one of the deepest moments of my life.

I'm going to analyze Chatwin's and the Aboriginal's way of traveling through the Eight Steps of the Hero's Journey (based on The Hero's Journey. A guide to literature and life by Susan Thompson; The Hero's Journey: Life's great adventure by Reg Harris.)

  • Separation (from the known)
    The call felt by Bruce Chatwin is what Blaise Pascal described as "our inability to remain quietly in a room". When one thinks about his poor mortal condition one becames so unhappy that there is no consolation. The only way to go ahead with life is therefore "le divertissement" the distraction. The call felt by the australian Aboriginals is of a different kind. They go on "Walkabout" one day, and for no good reason they would "up stick and vanish into the blue", for months even years and get back like nothing happened, because this is what their ancestors did in Dreaming time (something like our Genesis), when they returned on their underground dwellings, after all the earth was sung.

Go on to > Page 2