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Bruce Chatwin The Songlines 1987. NY: Penguin, 1988.

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1 Bruce Chatwin The Songlines 1987. NY: Penguin, 1988.

2 Contemporary Literary Criticism Vol 57 The critics greatly admire In Patagonia, but they go crazy over The Songlines. (Me too.) Andrew Harvey: “Part adventure-story, part novel-of-ideas, part satire on the follies of ‘progress,’ part spiritual autobiography, part passionate plea for a return to simplicity of being and behavior, The Songlines is a chaotic mix of anecdote and speculation and description, fascinating, moving, infuriating, incoherent, all at once.”

3 Songlines Songlines are paths across the land that were identified by the Creator during the Dreaming (group creation) Chatwin’s goal is to trace and understand these “lines” that make up the landscape under this animist belief system. (animist: animals, plants, rocks have spirits)

4 Central Questions Are we better off as nomads? Is Pascal right in that ‘All man’s troubles stem from a single cause -- his inability to sit quietly in a room’? The question of questions: what is the nature of human restlessness? Why can’t Chatwin himself every stay still?

5 Walter Goodman “Songlines are a labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia. It’s a lovely notion, and in this rich book, Mr. Chatwin, a British writer and traveling man who feels linked to migratory peoples, dreams up scruffy little towns of the Australian desert that sit atop age-old deposits of myth.”

6 Chatwin and Conrad Roger Clarke points out the ways Chatwin compares with Conrad from Heart of Darkness. In the Coppola film, Marlon Brando sweats over T.S. Eliot in the Vietnam jungle. Chatwin’s characters ponder Nietzche and Spinoza and Marx “Is Chatwin a latter day Kurtz, throwing in a worldly career, seeking the extreme places of the world in which to ruminate?”

7 Goodman Songlines: “It’s a trip into anthropology, religion and philosophy, as well as into the edgy coexistence of the whites and aboriginals in his imagined outback. For want of a better word, he calls the result a novel, but that’s misleading. Think of it rather as a travel book of a special, speculative sort….”

8 “Plot” A narrator named Chatwin travels with a railroad advisor who is tracking the aboriginals’ sacred footpaths, meaning the “songlines” of the ancestors. As they plotted the land by foot, they would “sing” every rock and stream into being. In the meantime Chatwin refers to his notebooks that contain info about other cultures and references to philosophers and such, turning his journal of travel into a philosophical explanation of humanity

9 . The Songlines are vital because they contain the history of the peoples that has been handed down through generations. Each tribe has its particular Songlines, and these mark the boundary of their territory Modern problem: these Songlines are getting in the way of progress. The railroad wants to continue a line through the middle of the country, but it keeps running into these sacred lines, which should not be cut.


11 Arkady Chatwin’s guide through Australia is Arkady, a Russian Australian and a teacher, who was trying to mediate between the railroad reps and the natives. Hook: “In Alice Springs – a grid of scorching streets where men in long white socks were forever getting in and out of Land Cruisers – I met a Russian who was mapping the sacred sites of the Aboriginals.” (33)

12 Arkady con’t Arkady likes the Aboriginals for their “grit and tenacity, and their artful ways of dealing with the white man.” Arkady: “He had learnt, or half-learnt, a couple of their languages and had come away astonished by their intellectual vigour, their feats of memory and their capacity and will to survive.” (2)

13 “It was during his time as a school-teacher that Arkady learned of the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as ‘Dreaming-tracks’ or ‘Songlines; to the Aboriginals as the ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Law.’” “Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed …

14 “– and so singing the world into existence. Arkady was so struck by the beauty of this concept that he began to take notes on everything he saw or heard, not for publication, but to satisfy his own curiosity. At first the Walbiri Elders mistrusted him, and their answers to his questions were evasive. With time, once he had won their confidence, they invited him to witness their most secret ceremonies and encouraged him to learn their songs.” (2) Now he was charged with finding a way to get Alice connected to the railway without destroying anything sacred

15 New Ways of Thinking Chatwin is struck by new ideas such as the Aboriginals’ Walkabout wherein men might vanish without warning and for no good reason. “They would step from their work-clothes, and leave: for weeks and months and even years, trekking half-way across the continent” (10)

16 Ostensibly, Chatwin has come to Australia to learn for himself about the Songlines, but Arkady becomes his interpreter Arkady calls the Songlines, along with Dreamtime, the equivalent of the first chapters of Genesis. Each totemic ancestor “was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints, and now these Dreaming-tracks lay over the land as ‘ways’ of communication between the most far-flung tribes.” (13) In this system, a song was like a map that could always show you the way home

17 Chatwin asks: “Would a man on ‘walkabout’ always be travelling down one of the Songlines?” “In the old days, yes. Nowadays they go by train or car.” “Suppose the man strayed from his Songline?” “He might get speared for it.” “So song is a kind of passport and meal-ticket? Again, it’s more complicated.”

18 Arkady: “In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score. There was hardly a rock or creek in the country that could not or had not been sung. One should perhaps visualise the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every ‘episode’ was readable in terms of geology.” Chatwin: “And the distance between two such sites can be measures by a stretch of song?” Arkady: “That is the cause of all my troubles with the railway people.”

19 “It was one thing to persuade a surveyor that a heap of boulders were the eggs of the Rainbow Snake, or a lump or reddish sandstone as the liver of a speared kangaroo. It was something else to convince him that a featureless stretch of gravel was the musical equivalent of Beethoven’s Opus 111.” (14) “Aboriginals could not believe the country existed until they could see and sing it – just as, in the Dreamtime, the country had not existed until the Ancestors sang it.” The above takes place in Alice. From there, Chatwin goes off with Arkady to discover Songlines.

20 Walkabout As Chatwin and Arkady travel the country, they’re on their own sort of Walkabout. Arkady has friends and acquaintances all over; they welcome Chatwin, invite him to eat, and share their stories. More about the Songlines: An unsung land= dead land. If the songs are forgotten, the land dies. The lines were interwoven: everyone wanted to have at least four ‘ways out,’ ways to travel in times of a crisis. Music= memory bank for how to get around

21 Unanswered Questions “Pascal, in one of his gloomier pense’es, gave it as his opinion that all our miseries stemmed from a single cause: our inability to remain quietly in a room.” “Why, he asked, must a man with sufficient to live on feel drawn to divert himself on long sea voyages? To dwell in another town?”

22 From the Notebooks Some of the book consists of bits and pieces from Chatwin’s “notebooks.” Starts with a quote from French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal: “Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.” (Pense’es—book in defense of Christian religion, never completed, found in fragments) 163

23 Wandering Notes that there were two kinds of pilgrimages in the early Christian church: “to wander for God” or “penitential pilgrimage” who those accused of terrible crimes. The latter were supposed to set out begging, and work out their salvation along the way (Note that Cain goes walking to atone for his brother’s murder)

24 Travel Notes that ‘travel’ comes from ‘travail,’ which means to ‘toil, esp. of a painful nature,’ ‘suffering,’ ‘a journey.’ (194) In Middle English: ‘progress’ meant ‘a journey’ (197) Rudyard Kipling: “All things considered there are only two kinds of men in the world; those who stay home and those who do not.” (198)

25 Lines While it might be Songlines in Australia, in Great Britain it was stone circles Feng-shui had dragon-lines (traditional Chinese geomancy) Finns: ‘singing stones,’ also arranged in lines Cicero had “memory palaces,” or loci; the classical orators would assign a thought to an architectural feature to remember it. Songlines are loci in reverse Others compared Songlines to the lines on the plains of Nazca

26 Fact of Fiction? Chatwin blends genres here, goes back and forth between fact and fiction, past and present, Aboriginal and ‘Australian’ The book is more of an excuse for philosophical exploration as sponsored by travel How do we – and how should we– draw the line between fact and fiction?


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