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

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Bruce Chatwin
The Songlines
1987. NY: Penguin, 1988.
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.”
• 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)
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?
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
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?”
• 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….”
• 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
• 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.
• 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)
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)
• “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 …
• “– 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
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
• “They would step from their
work-clothes, and leave: for
weeks and months and even
years, trekking half-way
across the continent” (10)
• 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
• 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
• Chatwin asks: “Would a man on �walkabout’
always be travelling down one of the
• “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.”
• 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.”
“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.
• 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
• 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
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?”
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
• 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)
• 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’
• 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)
• While it might be Songlines in Australia, in Great
Britain it was stone circles
• Feng-shui had dragon-lines (traditional Chinese
• 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
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
• How do we – and how should we– draw the
line between fact and fiction?
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