Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin

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Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin

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Redigerat: jan 30, 2012, 5:00pm

Redigerat: jan 30, 2012, 5:24pm

I knew Grandmaster Flash would be one of those! How about these?
Tommy Shaw, dreamy in blue eye shadow, if you wait long enough.
Peter F.

jan 30, 2012, 10:56pm

Sexy Seventies. I wonder what Satanic messages we'll find in Chatwin?

jan 31, 2012, 3:55am

My copy is likely nestled in some dank corner - I need to dig it out, but will be ready to start next week....

jan 31, 2012, 4:51am

From Wikipedia:

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.

jan 31, 2012, 5:06am

The Dreaming, or Dreamtime, is the time of creation in Aboriginal mythology. I'm not sure, but it may be offensive to call it mythology, as it's still a highly spiritual aspect of the Aboriginal culture.

jan 31, 2012, 6:58am

Thanks for the scene setting Rena.

I remember being very taken with Songlines when I first read it.....

jan 31, 2012, 10:27am

I have a library copy, as mine is trapped in shipment. So, I'll join. Will come back to look at all these links.

jan 31, 2012, 12:07pm

>5 ChocolateMuse: wow! that is dense. I have so many questions. Um, I believe that a similar geographical conception, if not the songs, was used by Polynesian people to navigate large, flat expanses of ocean--do you know if there is any connection? The idea of gods flying over the land draws me irresistibly toward a sort of reflected Western map, the people on the ground benefiting via the song from the god's vantage above.

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).

jan 31, 2012, 1:26pm

10 martini, i am not aware of any parallels between ABO and poly worldviews

jan 31, 2012, 1:39pm

>10 Macumbeira: yeah, I didn't mean any connection like they come from the same place kind of connection, ignorant nordamerikaner though I be. I meant more, what other kinds of mapping are there than the ones we're used to, and are these ones in any way connected?

jan 31, 2012, 1:43pm

11 this is important, why do you think there woud be any similarities between ABO en poly wayfaring mapping ?
You touched a nerve here

jan 31, 2012, 1:57pm

>12 Macumbeira: Im sorry, I'm trying to be clear, and certainly not meaning to cause offence or imply that I thought there was any connection between Australian Aboriginal people and Polynesian people (I'm aware that there isn't). It's very simple: The description of the songlines, which, as I mentioned above, are something I'm totally ignorant about, made me think of something half-remembered about wayfaring mapping from a class I took nigh on 15 years ago. It was a fleeting thought, based on very little but the phrase about the "location of landmarks ... and other natural phenomena." No particular implication was meant. Just cloud talk. Cool?

jan 31, 2012, 2:13pm

mmmm....sorry... I am a Polynesian Navigation freak...there it is out ! Now you know everything about me.

jan 31, 2012, 2:14pm

A copy is on its way.

jan 31, 2012, 2:16pm

I think it is Bruce last book, isn't it ? He travelled with Rushdie for some time during that trip. He also met Herzog in Australia

jan 31, 2012, 3:32pm

Yes, it was Chatwin's last book.

jan 31, 2012, 3:34pm

À last attempt to write his impossible book

jan 31, 2012, 7:20pm

I've read some about Polynesian navigation and I can see a parallel in the unwritten acknowledgment of reference points, islands and stars (and now satellites). They also apparently had a very good understanding of swells.

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.

jan 31, 2012, 8:03pm

As far as I know, Martini, most if not all Aboriginal languages are/were not tonal.

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.

jan 31, 2012, 8:22pm

Hey I found this on wikipedia:

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.

feb 1, 2012, 10:49am

#14 - mac, maybe on a different thread, where does one start on Polynesia, in books?

feb 3, 2012, 7:26pm

feb 3, 2012, 7:31pm

I'm a little nervous about this. The dialogue is retroactively composed in the worst sort of way--I don't know whether it's worse if Chatwin is ham-fistedly tidying it up or if he actually does say things like that bit where he corrects Arkady about "nomads" in real life; and all the cover blurbage on my edition that says things like "his bravest book yet" makes me worry. It seems like we're being pushed way too hard to accept him as our world-travelling raconteur uncle. But I haven't got very far yet.

feb 4, 2012, 12:35am

>24 MeditationesMartini:

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.

feb 4, 2012, 1:51am

The Songlines is Chatwin's last attempt to write a book about a subject that obsessed him; nomads and travel. He presented " The Nomadic alternative " to publishers even before "Patagonia" but it was rejected because his topic was too broad, his intentions too vague.

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

feb 4, 2012, 6:58am

Alas indeed, but there is still much worth pondering over in this book.

feb 4, 2012, 8:59am

This all looks most interesting. Murr, don't forget John Marr and the South Sea poems.

feb 4, 2012, 9:34pm

#23 - Murr, do I need to start with the white guys? (If/when I hit Polynesia for real, Melville will certainly be part of it.)

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.

Redigerat: feb 5, 2012, 6:35am

29 no of course, not, that's just what came to mind. I'm obsessed with Melville at the moment, and it seemed pertinent.

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.

feb 5, 2012, 6:48am

"Aboriginals, in general, had the idea that all 'goods' were perpetually malign and would work against their possessors unless they were forever in motion. The 'goods' did not have to be edible, or useful. People liked nothing better than to barter useless things--or things they could supply for themselves: feathers, sacred objects, belts of human hair.

"'I know', I interrupted. 'Some people traded their umbilical cords.'"

This is looking up.

Redigerat: feb 5, 2012, 6:55am

feb 6, 2012, 10:43am

>32 tomcatMurr:

Cool. Is this a mosaic of an actual songline / geography?

feb 6, 2012, 6:38pm

I don't know if it's of a songline, but it isn't a mosaic; it's a dot painting. Everything means something:

feb 6, 2012, 8:07pm

oh choco, thanks for that! that adds immeasurably to my understanding and appreciation of aborigine art, which I have always loved.

Elenchus, apologies for forgetting to put the name of the artist. I'll try to find it again and post some more.

feb 6, 2012, 8:14pm

I am liking this book a lot better, but really craving some musicology. Does anyone know any good sources discussing how the melodies evoke the land, in depth? Or a place we can hear them?

Redigerat: feb 6, 2012, 8:22pm

Very cool. Got to start this soon. Can we get that art on the front page somewhere?

I second Martin's request on the musical front!

feb 6, 2012, 8:38pm

I have several CDs by this Aboriginal Australian musician, collected originally for the unusual main instrument (didgeridoo):

David Hudson

Redigerat: feb 7, 2012, 12:29am

>38 LolaWalser: - that's pretty cool, but most of it not terribly traditional.

Here's something more like what Chatwin would have found:

sound only:
with video:
This one's combined with some art:

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!

feb 7, 2012, 12:48am

I just got the book from the library. Who's leading this read? Anyone know? Is it Martini? Or me? Someone else?

Here is Alice Springs:

feb 7, 2012, 1:01am

Not me! Horrors!

Alice looks like fun.

feb 7, 2012, 10:34am

I've never given it a thought before, but how would one know what's "traditional" in Aboriginal music?

feb 7, 2012, 6:09pm

Well I certainly have no expertise in the matter. The only way I can explain it is the traditional music is very earnest. And if the waily singing is there too, then you can be fairly sure it's traditional. It starts getting hybrid when there's a Western beat/rhythm, for example (not counting the two wooden sticks tapping the constant beat; that's traditional), or a superabundance of animal sounds at catchy moments.

But you'd have to ask an Aboriginal for the proper explanation.

feb 7, 2012, 6:52pm

a superabundance of animal sounds at catchy moments

Probably all Western music should have that. It'd certainly improve Mariah Carey. Or, like, the Eagles.

feb 7, 2012, 7:55pm

isn't Mariah Carey already all animal sounds?

feb 7, 2012, 8:22pm

Yeah, but more sounds, Like lions and bullfrogs.

Redigerat: feb 7, 2012, 8:30pm

Once I stop lquarling at you two, I should just add that the animal sounds I was talking about are produced through the didgeridoo, by the didgeridooist.

Like this:
or this:

Redigerat: feb 7, 2012, 9:32pm

Some geographical perspective:

Alice Springs

Redigerat: feb 7, 2012, 9:34pm

Zooming in a bit, but not too much

feb 7, 2012, 11:11pm

Wow! What's the elevation?

feb 7, 2012, 11:18pm

wikipedia tells me "about 545 metres (1791 feet)"

feb 8, 2012, 2:55am

When you fly over Australia you get 10 or 15 minutes of green at the edges followed by hours of yellows, browns & umbers. That tells you it is very large and that it is not very hospitable apart from its outer rim.