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The Songlines

by Bruce Chatwin

295 pages, paperback, Penguin, 1988

The Songlines is a beautiful meditation on the importance of travel to knowledge and culture. The focus of the book is on the culture of the native Australians, and the essential relationship of ecology to culture.

Praise for The Songlines

"[Chatwin's] bravest work yet. . . . No one will put it down unmoved." --The New York Times Book Review

"A mysterious and exhilarating work." New York magazine

National Bestseller

Quotes from The Songlines

"Darwin quotes the example of Audubon's goose, which, deprived of its pinion feathers, started out to walk the journey on foot. He then goes on to describe the sufferings of a bird, penned up at the season of its migration, which would flail its wings and bloody its breast against the bars of its cage."

. . .

"There were fifteen passengers crammed into the back of a canvas-hooded pick-up. All of them were Moors except for myself and a person covered in a sack. The sack moved, and the drawn and beautiful head of a young Wolof peered out. His skin and hair were coated with white dust, like the bloom on purple grapes. He was frightened and very upset.

" 'What's the matter?' I asked.

" 'It is finished. I was turned back at the frontier.'

" 'Where were you going?'

" 'To France'

" 'What for?'

" 'To continue my profession.'

" 'What is your profession?'

" 'You would not understand.'

" 'I would,' I said. 'I know most of the metiers in France.'

" 'No,' he shook his head. 'This is not a profession that you would understand.'

" 'Tell me.'

" Finally, with a sigh that was also a groan, he said, 'I am an ebeniste. I make bureaux-plats Louis Quinze and Louis Seize.'

" This he did. In Abidjan he had learned to inlay veneer at a furniture factory that catered to the taste of the new, black, francophile bourgeoisie. Although he had no passport, he had in his bag a book on French eighteenth-century furniture. His heroes were Cressent and Reisener. He had hoped to visit the Louvre, Versailles and the Musee des Arts Decoratifs. He had hoped, if possible, to apprentice himself to a Parisian 'master', assuming that such a person existed."

. . .

"She asked me to come and watch her at work on the dictionary. . . . She had never had a training in linguistics. Yet her work on the dictionary had given her an interest in the myth of Babel. Why, when Aboriginal life had been so uniform, had there been 200 languages in Australia? Could you really explain this in terms of tribalism or isolation? Surely not! She was beginning to wonder whether language itself might not relate to the distribution of the human species over the land.

" 'Sometimes,' she said, 'I'll ask Old Alex to name a plant and he'll answer 'No name', meaning 'The plant doesn't grow in my country.'

" She'd then look for an informant who had, as a child, lived where the plant grew--and find it did have a name after all.

" The dry heart of Australia, she said, was a jigsaw of microclimates, of different minerals in the soil and different plants and animals. A man raised in one part of the desert would know its flora and fauna backwards. He knew which plant attracted game. He knew his water. He knew where there were tubers underground. In other world, by naming all the 'things' in his territory, he could always count on survival.

" 'But if you took him blindfold to another country,' she said, ''he might end up lost and starving.'

" 'Because he'd lost his bearings?'

" 'Yes.'

" 'You're saying that man 'makes his territory by naming the 'things' in it?'

" 'Yes, I am!' Her face lit up.

" 'So the basis for a universal language can never have existed?'

" 'Yes. Yes.'

" Wendy said that, even today, when an Aboriginal mother notices the first stirring of speech in her child, she lets it handle the 'things' of that particular country: leaves, fruit, insects and so forth. The child at its mother's breast, will toy with the 'thing', talk to it, test its teeth on it, learn its name, repeat its name--and finally chuck it aside.

" 'We give our children guns and computer games,' Wendy said. 'They gave their children the land.' "

. . .

"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 their path-- birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterhold--and so singing the world into existence."

. . .

"What makes Aboriginal song so hard to appreciate is the endless accumulation of detail. Yet even a superficial reader can get a glimpse of a moral universe--as moral as the New Testament--in which the structures of kinship reach out to all living men, to all his fellow creatures, and to the rivers, the rocks and the trees."

. . .

"We lit a hurricane lamp and sat on a couple of camping- chairs away from the fire. What we had witnessed, he said, was not of course the real Lizard song, but a 'false front', or sketch performed for strangers. The real song would have named each waterhole the Lizard Man drank from, each tree he cut a spear from, each cave he slept in, covering the whole long distance of the way."

"Arkady and I sat mulling over this story of an antipodean Helen. The distance from here to Port Augusta, as the crow flew, was roughly 1,100 miles, about twice the distance--so we calculated--from Troy to Ithaca. We tried to imagine an Odyssey with a verse for every twist and turn of the hero's ten-year voyage.

"Most tribes, Arkady went on, spoke the language of their immediate neighbour, so the difficulties of communication across a frontier did not exist. The mystery was how a man of Tribe A, living up one end of a Songline, could hear a few bars sung by Tribe Q and, without knowing a word of Q's language, would know exactly what land was being sung.

" 'Christ' I said. 'Are you telling me that Old Alan here would know the songs for a country a thousands miles away?'

" 'Most likely.'

" 'Without ever having been there?'

" 'Supposing we found, somewhere near Port Augusta, a songman who knew the Lizard song? Suppose we got him to sing his verses into a tape-recorder and then played the tape to Alan in Kaititj country? The chances were he'd recognize the melody at once--just as we would the 'Moonlight' Sonata--but the meaning of the worlds would escape him. All the same, he'd listen very attentively to the melodic structure. He'd perhaps even ask us to replay a few bars. Then, suddenly, he'd find himself in sync and be able to sing his own worlds over the nonsense.'

" Regardless of the words, it seems the melodic contour of the song describes the nature of the land over which the song passes. So, if the Lizard Man were dragging his heels across the saltpans of Lake Eyre, you could expect a succession of long flats, like Chopin's 'Funeral March'. If he were skipping up and down the MacDonnell escarpments, you'd have a series of arpeggios and glissandos, like Liszt's 'Hungarian Rhapsodies'.

" Certain phrases, certain combinations of musical notes, are thought to describe the action of the Ancestor's feet. Once phrase would say, 'salt-pan'; another 'creek-bed', 'spinifex, sandhill, mulga scrub, rockface and so forth. An expert songman, by listening to their order of succession, would count how many times his hero crossed a river, or scaled a ridge--and be able to calculate where, and how far along a songline he was.

" 'He'd be able,' said Arkady, 'to hear a few bars and say, 'This is Middle Bore' or 'That is Oodnaddat'--where the Ancestor did X or Y or Z.'

" 'So a musical phrase,' I said, 'is a map reference?'

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

. . .

"And it struck me, from what I now knew of the Songlines, that the whole of Classical mythology might represent the relics of a gigantic 'song-map': that all the to-ing and fro-ing of gods and goddesses, the caves and sacred springs, the sphinxes and chimaeras, and all the men and women who became nightingales or ravens, echoes or narcissi, stones or stars--could all be interpreted in terms of totemic geography."

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