Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin
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Songlines, also called Dreaming tracks by Indigenous Australians within the animist indigenous belief system, are paths across the land (or, sometimes the sky) which mark the route followed by localised 'creator-beings' during the Dreaming. The paths of the songlines are recorded in traditional songs, stories, dance, and painting.
A knowledgeable person is able to navigate across the land by repeating the words of the song, which describe the location of landmarks, waterholes, and other natural phenomena. In some cases, the paths of the creator-beings are said to be evident from their marks, or petrosomatoglyphs, on the land, such as large depressions in the land which are said to be their footprints.
By singing the songs in the appropriate sequence, Indigenous people could navigate vast distances, often travelling through the deserts of Australia's interior. The continent of Australia contains an extensive system of songlines, some of which are of a few kilometres, whilst others traverse hundreds of kilometres through lands of many different Indigenous peoples — peoples who may speak markedly different languages and have different cultural traditions.
Since a songline can span the lands of several different language groups, different parts of the song are said to be in those different languages. Languages are not a barrier because the melodic contour of the song describes the nature of the land over which the song passes. The rhythm is what is crucial to understanding the song. Listening to the song of the land is the same as walking on this songline and observing the land.
In some cases, a songline has a particular direction, and walking the wrong way along a songline may be a sacrilegious act (e.g. climbing up Uluru where the correct direction is down). Traditional Aboriginal people regard all land as sacred, and the songs must be continually sung to keep the land "alive".
Molyneaux & Vitebsky (2000, p. 30) note that the Dreaming Spirits "also deposited the spirits of unborn children and determined the forms of human society," thereby establishing tribal law and totemic paradigms.
I remember being very taken with Songlines when I first read it.....
And OH all that stuff about pitch and prosody. Are Aboriginal languages ever tonal? Wikipedia doesn't seem to indicate so, and doesn't say anything about rhythmic or prosodic features. (And of course I am incapable of doing anything other than checking the Wikipedia entry on "Australian Aboriginal Languages" and then giving up after ninety seconds.) That's almost more intriguing, in a way; I'm trying to imagine what a system of communication rooted in pitch and rhythm would look like in a language that (like (all of?) ours), doesn't have those as systematic phonetic features like, say, Chinese (pitch) or Japanese (rhythm).
You touched a nerve here
Another observation I've made when great feats of Polynesian navigation are spoken of is that we have absolutely no idea how many boatloads were lost before a route was established.
As for connections between indigenous peoples of any other country, it isn't really known where the Australian Aboriginals came from, around 40,000 years ago. I remember learning something about how it's believed that the migrations happened back where the land masses of the earth were different, and that there was a land bridge between Australia and, well, somewhere else. It's a bit hazy, and nothing has been proven anyway.
A common feature of many Australian languages is that they display so-called mother-in-law languages, special speech registers used only in the presence of certain close relatives. These registers share the phonology and grammar of the standard language, but the lexicon is different and usually very restricted. There are also commonly speech taboos during extended periods of mourning or initiation that have led to a large number of Aboriginal sign languages.
I found it most useful to read the book not as a novel and not as a travelogue, but as creative non-fiction emphasizing ideas. Not to say Chatwin's not factual, it appears he is for the most part, but I don't think he's motivated primarily to present objective history so much as to engage ideas from various quarters.
My very brief background reading persuades me Chatwin came under fire for not writing either straight science or a traditional novel. The intro to the Folio edition notes that for his part, Chatwin pulled Songlines from the shortlist for a book award focused on travel writing.
I'm not actually reading along with the salon, but am following the discussion with great interest: it is a favourite read of mine from the past couple years.
Songlines according to me was another shot at the same subject. With the idea of the aboriginal songlines, he could have found a backbone for his "nomadic alternative". While in the end, it was still not his " Big book", Songlines gives an idea of what Chatwin had in mind. It feels however like a draft to me, the second part of the book looks like that much quotes and snippets of ideas.
Had he had more patience, health or time, Songlines could have become his "big book". Alas
Started reading this one today. It was my favorite book last year and I'm rereading to try to better understand the purpose of his long list of notes at the end. Second time through the beginning is less moving, but that's OK as it's not the part of the book I'm most interested, it's just set-up and I'm picking up on some of the crumbs he throws out here and there that lead to the notes.
The fictional aspect doesn't concern me too much.
I love Songlines, and I love Chatwin. He was a uniquely interesting person and writer who perhaps didn't live long enough and write enough to create the taste by which he can be judged fairly. The form of Songlines is most original. it's not really about anthropology or facts, but rather more of a meditation on those things, intellectual and artistic, above all, documentary.
The closest thing I can think of to it, in terms of the originality of its poetics, its structure and method, its sheer personality, is probably Roland Barthes, especially his travel writing, Empire of Signs, Barthes par Barthes or even a lover's discourse. As for how close it comes to 'the big book' he intended, I think it's important to judge the book -any book- by how it stands, not as a record of failed intentions, interesting though they may be.
the synesthesia of landscape/memory/song/journey in the aborigines' view of the world is extremely fascinating and wonderful to contemplate, especially for literary folk -writers and readers. I think this is what attracted Chatwin the most, naturally, as a person, as a traveller, as a writer and as an aesthete (Chatwin is perhaps the only example of the effete travel writer), and songlines, for me, is a document of his obsession with this.
"'I know', I interrupted. 'Some people traded their umbilical cords.'"
This is looking up.
Cool. Is this a mosaic of an actual songline / geography?
Elenchus, apologies for forgetting to put the name of the artist. I'll try to find it again and post some more.
I second Martin's request on the musical front!
Here's something more like what Chatwin would have found:
sound only: http://youtu.be/bQKGzOdaugk
with video: http://youtu.be/DrFVTsZtqbQ
This one's combined with some art: http://youtu.be/R9hV4zVommA
Like the painting, everything has a meaning. It's more about meaning than aesthetics. Sadly though, I don't know enough about it to elaborate.
Come to Australia, you lovely people, meet up with me on Sydney Harbour, and there we shall visit some Aboriginal buskers, who mix this kind of music with Western influences, a bit more like David Hudson above... hey! It's on You Tube! http://youtu.be/1WWeQgXqr4w
Here is Alice Springs:
But you'd have to ask an Aboriginal for the proper explanation.
Probably all Western music should have that. It'd certainly improve Mariah Carey. Or, like, the Eagles.