My recent talk of songlines reminded me of a book I read for our travel course at Centre. Songlines by Bruce Chatwin is a book that purports itself to be a profile of the meaning and history of the aboriginal Australians’ songlines. However, the book quickly deviates from this topic as Chatwin embarked on a terminal search for meaning in the Australian outback.
At the time, Chatwin, a famous travel writer by this time, was dying of AIDS. Songlines would be one of his last contributions to world literature. Fair warning: people looking for an in-depth, unbiased look at Aboriginal culture will be disappointed. While Chatwin highlights many interesting Aboriginal characters and explores several fascinating concepts (which can be difficult to completely understand for those living outside of Aboriginal culture), Chatwin begins to pull the lens away from specifics as the book evolves into a search for the great truths of human existence. The theme of the book - that songlines are as much, if not more, about faithfulness to the journey as they are a way to comprehend the journey’s end - resonates strongly in this book, and Chatwin’s inner turmoil makes for an engrossing and heartfelt read. Chatwin’s language is erudite and artful, elevating his prose into something truly remarkable (Seriously, budding writers: read this!).
One part I found particularly engrossing was the discussion of “the Devil." At the end of the last great Ice Age, an animal, most likely a feline, died off and allowed humans to thrive where once they had only survived; they were now predators instead of prey. Our predator’s death freed our species to (comparatively) safely breed, but it also made it easier for us to turn on each other: Without a common enemy, the enemy becomes ourselves. The ghost of the predator still haunts us: nightmares of dragons and devils that retain a few feline traits; the growl or scream or cracking branch that makes us freeze in our tracks. Chatwin proposes that we lost our devil to changing weather patterns and, unable to cope, created new ones for ourselves. The sounds in the night became monsters. The memories of a predator became images of evil, and, finally, we saw the devil in each other.
The whole section is much more powerfully and affectingly written than this poor summary I’ve provided; I would suggest this book to anyone interested in the art of writing, the study of language, and the psychology of human nature. Another conundrum addressed: We build houses, but what’s behind our yearning to move - are we still as restless as we were when nomadic culture was king?
Initially, the book is slow going (or at least it was to me, with my flighty college mind). Keep at it - it’s worth every page and every new revelation. It’s a book for and about all of us.